Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse, 1912
Click here to view a larger version of the image.

"(Human beings) don't use the knowledge the spirit has put into every one of them; … and so they stumble along blindly on the road to nowhere — a paved highway which they themselves bulldoze and make smooth so that they can get faster to the big empty hole which they'll find at the end."
— Lame Deer, Lakota Shaman


Persephone's Learning

Persephone was a legendary Greek maiden who picked an enchanted Narsissus flower from the fields of Nysia, whereupon the earth split open and from it emerged the Lord of the Underworld, riding a chariot drawn by four black horses. Hades then took Persephone, willingly or otherwise, on a tour of the world and a journey to find her destiny, which included her becoming his queen, among other things.

The character of Persephone is one of three archtypes that appear in this myth, and which together represent the cycle of human development. She is the youth who is compelled, by curiosity and divine force, to begin a journey of completion. The other two archtypes are The Giver of Life, represented by her mother Demeter, and The Seer of Wisdom, represented by the crone Hecate.

The ancient Greek ceremony and cult built around Persephone played a central, spiritual role in Greek society. Greeks of any social rank could be initiated into these mysteries, but it required a year or more of preparation and an oath of secrecy. Divulging the Greater Secrets of Persephone — the Rites of Transformation as it were — was punishable by death. Socrates revealed the Secrets to some extent, though nothing was recorded, and as a result the authorities compelled Socrates to kill himself. The Secrets were ultimately lost with the coming of Christianity in 400 AD, and remain unknown to this day.

This myth is debased in its modern telling partly because it was distorted by Homer, when it was chronicled around 700 BC. Homer, who was basically The Walt Disney Company of his day, did not convey the central teaching of the myth, which came from the story of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess who preceded the Greeks by 4,000 years.

"Inanna … epitomized the essence of contradiction, of the unimaginable variety and possibility in the created world… she introduced the possibility of the individual who thinks for herself/himself… Through the choices we make, we build the unique individuality of ourselves.

"As the goddess of paradox, she is the model of unity in multiplicity. Each of us reflects a bit of her discordance in ourselves. Each of us is burdened with the chore of gathering our many conflicting pieces togehter into a semblance of order and congruence."

— Betty De Shong Meador, from "Inanna, Lady of the Largest Heart"

Persephone's story is an icon for The Learning Project because it represents the most mysterious of the three processes of learning. These three processes are acquisition, reconstruction, and transformation. Acquisition means the growth of knowledge through learning new things, such as facts or skills. Reconstruction — which could also be called "discovery" — means the appreciation and remediation of flawed knowledge through insight and reconception. Transformation refers to accomplishing a change in oneself that admits new levels of perception and understanding. Transformation gives a person a new understanding, not of things, but of knowledge itself.

"Risk brings its own rewards: the exhilaration of breaking through, of getting to the other side, the relief of a conflict healed, the clarity when a paradox dissolves. Whoever teaches us this is the agent of our liberation. Eventually we know deeply that the other side of every fear is a freedom. Finally, we must take charge of the journey, urging ourselves past our own reluctance and misgivings and confusion to new freedom. Once that happens, however many setback or detours we may encounter, we are on a different life journey. Somewhere is that clear memory of the process of transformation: dark to light, lost to found, broken to seamless, chaos to clarity, fear to transcendence."

— Marilyn Ferguson, from "The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980's"

The interviews in The Learning Project reflect all three forms of learning to varying degrees. A useful oversimplification is that the young people, like Persephone, face transformation; middle-aged people, like Demeter, are busy acquiring; and old people, like Hecate, seek to discover meaning. But don't take my word for it, read the interviews yourself.

"Blessed is he among mortals who witnesses these things, but whoever is not initiated into them or dies without them descends unblessed into the gloomy darkness…"
— from "The Hymn to Demeter"


"Persephone Unveiled: Seeing the Goddess and Freeing Your Soul,"
by Charles Stein. North Atlantic Books, 2006.

"The Body of the Goddess,"
by Rachel Pollock. Vega, 2003.

"The Goddess Within: A Guide to the Eternal Myths That Shape Women's Lives,"
by Jennifer Barker Woolger and Roger J Woolger. Fawcett Columbine, New York, 1989.

"Inanna, Lady of the Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna,"
by Betty De Shong Meador. Univ. of Texas, 2000.

"Descent to the Goddess, A Way of Initiation for Women,"
by Sylvia Brinton Perera. Inner City Books, 1981.


Persphone: Wikipedia
Inanna, Lady of the Largest Heart. ACLS Humanities E-Book (by subscription)

Copyright © 2016, Lincoln Stoller

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