This December I began a new project, along with this Coastline Journal, along with Mein Kat, along with Public Art Private Views, I am now producing an audio podcast series on courage, and I invite you to listen. It can be streamed or downloaded from iTunes (free to subscribe) or from Podbean, the host site of the podcast.
If you know of a person who has exhibited courage: whether in the face of illness or old age or corporate malfeasance or schoolyard bullying–any kind of courage–please let me know, send them the links to the podcast, get them to get in touch with me or maybe just send me the story idea and I’ll get in contact with them. These are big, world-famous acts of courage I’m interested in, but the more everyday courage it takes to make it through life. That’s what I’m after, that’s the kind of courage I want to share on this series, Conversations With Courage.
If you’re going to read Lynn Coady‘s Hellgoing, a collection of short stories which just won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is, actually, a pretty Big Deal up here in Canada, with the attendant and expected boost in sales concomittant with the drop in the price of the book (at least, online), if you’re going to read Coady’s book, I say, it is recommended to do it with a drink.
A drink of something alcoholic. I don’t say this AS an alcoholic: far from it, I’m rarely with a drink, and can only take a glass or two of white wine, or a few ounces of Scotch, and I’m good. I mean, I’m not good, I’m all right, but if I took more, or, let’s say, I made the mistake, made so many many times in the past, of accepting a glass of red wine, I will enjoy it, yes, but will wake the next day with not a hangover, per se, technically it is not a hangover but a monstrosity of a fucking migraine which will incapacitate me until precisely 1500 hrs at which point I will arise from my bed, or couch, return the icepack to the freezer, splash cold water on my face, and resume the day. So no: I don’t count myself among the drinking establishment. I don’t count myself a drinker at all, but if, as I began here, if you are going to read Hellgoing, I think it a fine idea to have yourself a drink at hand.
The first story is about a drunk meeting a drunk. (Is it all right to call someone who drinks too much (by whose standards?) a drunk even when they are not drunk? Or do you call this person an alcoholic with all the socio-economic implications of that appellation? Or, well, never mind, the protagonist of the first story drinks, and the man she meets, a Newfie, a man from Newfoundland, drinks–which, presumably, is the norm on The Rock.) She is a freelance writer, this protagonist, and she has arranged to write for a magazine found in the seat-back pocket behind the evacuation instructions card on your regional or long-haul carrier of choice, an article about Newfoundland. Which means, she’s got a problem. Problem being: how do you write about the colourful Newfoundlander and his/her charming way of talking and icebergs and the colourful (I know: color/colour, but this is Canada, ducks, where a neighbor is a neighbour) buildings in Saint John’s without writing what everyone else has written. Or, perhaps, to at least pass the cliché off in an ironic, post-cliché kind of way.
Her problem is that this bearded man who she will bed, she had to bed him, will lead her on, lead her to believe one thing when his brother will tell her something else, and I don’t know if she gets the story or not, but she’s been got by Newfoundland.
And that, I think, is the charm, the skill, the under-my-skin way of Coady’s writing, to play me for the story on the surface, but really, she’s got me in a wholly unexpected way. This isn’t a review of the whole collection of nine stories in Hellgoing, because I’ve just put it down, and my glass of wine down, after No.1, “Wireless,” to write this. I also don’t want to rush through the book; if the other eight are anywhere near as good as the first, I want to savour/savor it for several days.
Get yourself a drink, no, first, pop into your local independent bookshop, before it disappears (the shop) (and the book) and pick up a copy of Hellgoing, and then sit yourself down with a beer or wine or whats-your-poison and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a boozy sort of book.
By Mary Naples, MA Humanites (Women’s Studies) Dominican University of California.
download the essay: The Rape of a Goddess
Who were Demeter and Persephone and why did their myth resonate so strongly with women of ancient Greece? There are twenty-two variations of the story of Demeter, goddess of the harvest and her daughter Persephone, queen of the underworld. Thought to have been composed between 650-550 BCE, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (hereafter called the Hymn) is believed to be one of the oldest.[i] The episode that leads up to the narrative found in the Hymn is as important as their story itself. Zeus, lord of the gods, rapes his sister Demeter; the product of that rape is Persephone. They never married; indeed Zeus would have been the husband to hundreds if he married everyone he raped. The Hymn begins with the reciting of Zeus’ agreement with Hades. To be sure, his being an absentee father did not stop Zeus from arranging the marriage of his daughter Persephone—unbeknownst to either mother or daughter—to his brother—Hades, the lord of the underworld. One day while Persephone was out picking flowers with her friends, the earth cleaved open and Hades, on a horse drawn chariot, charged out violently snatching Persephone to be his wife for all eternity in the underworld. Persephone shrieks at the violence of the attack, alerting Demeter to her peril.
Inconsolable at the loss of her daughter, Demeter roams the earth in search of Persephone. No one, god nor mortal, has the courage to tell her what had become of her daughter. Finally, through information gleaned by the pre-Olympian goddess Hecate, Demeter is informed of Persephone’s rape. Upon discovering that Zeus made the perfidious bargain with Hades, Demeter withdraws from her home on Mount Olympus instead making her home in an agrarian community populated by mortals. After many trials and tribulations there, a grand temple is built in Demeter’s honor with attendant rites to conciliate her spirit. But these honors are not enough to appease the grieving goddess.
It was at this point in the story that Demeter realizes her full strength. As a means of regaining her daughter from Hades, she exploits her power of fertility and stops the seasons, turning the earth into a barren wasteland. Reluctant to see the planet he shepherds whither away, Zeus pleads with Demeter to make the earth abundant once again. But Demeter will not relent until Persephone is released. Finally, Zeus intercedes on Demeter’s behalf and orders Hades to return Persephone to her mother’s earthly domain. Ever obedient to Zeus, Hades adheres to his instruction but not until he lures Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed. The mere act of eating in the underworld binds Persephone to Hades as his wife for a few months out of every year.
How did the parable of the kidnapped bride ring true for women living in ancient Greece? Living under their husbands’ patriarchal thumbs, women had become accustomed to being kept out of the loop regarding the matrimony of their daughters. As such it was not unusual for a father to bargain with his future son-in-law about the fate of his daughter without the knowledge or consent of either his wife or daughter.[ii] Torn from her natal home and forced to marry an unknown man who was—on average—twice or three times her senior, abduction can be seen as the equivalent of rape. After all, men were taking young girls to be their wives—that is to say the begetters of their sons. Indeed, some military campaigns were undertaken for the express purpose of rape; many Ionians and Pelasgians (early Greeks) were said to have gotten their wives in that manner.[iii]
Further, in patriarchal ancient Greece, marriage was virilocal [another word for patrilocal-ed.]. In other words, the young girls—most of whom were sixteen years of age or younger—were forced to reside in their new husband’s family home, which could be a great distance from their natal home. Hence having contact with their family members was a rare occurrence. Consequently, Demeter’s sense of powerlessness against the abduction, and the suffering that ensued at the loss of her daughter could resonate for most women of ancient Greece.
Although males are present in the account, it is a woman’s story.
Females play all the major roles and the areas of concern such as marriage, agriculture and sacrifice are indubitably in the feminine domain. To be sure, the dark bargain made by the male deities is a misbegotten one, as the union produces no child and nearly brings an end to the life of the planet. Indeed, although their actions drive the events, Zeus and Hades are remote shadows, whose dark force propels the dissonance felt by mother and daughter.[iv]
At its most fundamental level the Hymn is a story about a mother’s grief at the loss of her beloved daughter. Told from the perspective of the mother; it is more Demeter’s story than Persephone’s. At once powerless and inconsolable, Demeter appears more mortal than divine. Suffering profoundly due to the actions of males, Demeter is initially powerless to set things right. It is this sense of helplessness that sets off her sorrow at the loss of Persephone, mirroring the anguish that must have been felt by mortal mothers who lost their daughters to marriage each day. Although both are parents to Persephone, Demeter’s anguish at the loss of her daughter is in marked contrast to that of Zeus who initiated her abduction. Bargaining with the lord of the underworld, who most would view as an agent of death; Zeus is indifferent to his daughter’s banishment into the land of the dead. In other words, he is disinterested in his daughter’s symbolic death. Though immortal, Persephone is spirited away from the living cosmos and is compelled to live in the realm of the underworld for eternity due to her marriage with Hades. Is her marriage not a sort of death? Seen as a transition, the marriage of a maiden was also viewed by many as a symbolic form of death.[v]
Daring to defy the will of Zeus, Demeter does something never seen before in Greek mythology. Moreover, not only does she live to tell the tale but very nearly wins the battle as well. After all, for the majority of the year Persephone lives with her mother in the light of her mother’s earthly domain. Though life can never return to the way it was before the abduction, most mortal women could envy Demeter’s achievement. Supplanting the mother-daughter dyad in favor of matrimony, patriarchy sets off the basic conflict. Ultimately, the bond between mother and daughter is seen to be more powerful than the one between husband and wife. Yoked to marriages over which they had no control, the Hymn was liberating for ancient women because a female archetype subverted the dominant patriarchal paradigm for which marriage played a key role.
[Editor's note: two contemporary poets explore this myth: Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Demeter to Persephone; Louise Glück, Persephone the Wanderer. See also the Poets.org article, Poems about the underworld. Derek Nagy's translation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is online.]
[i] Helene P. Foley, ed., The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Princeton, New Jersey, 1994), 28-31.
[ii] Sue Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), 42.
[iv] Carl Jung, Essays on a Science of Mythology quoted in Carl Kerenyi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967) xxxii.
[v] Marguerite Rigoglioso, Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 12.