A shaft of light from the world above falls on the wall beyond Persephone, brooding in the gloom. It doesn’t quite catch her attention, does not quite coax her out of her melancholy reverie.
Persephone is a goddess called by many names, including Proserpine or Proserpina, meaning “first serpent,” suggesting she is far more primitive than ancient Greece. First Serpent. First Woman. Earth Mother. She is the personification and deification of the cycle of life. In her hand she holds a pomegranate, the fruit linked to her confinement as well as her ability to make the earth fertile. Goddess of Growing Things. Producer and Eater of Fruit. The Fruit. Juicy. Sticky.
But here in the Nine of Wands, she represents the other side of that equation. She represents the confinement of this primal source of creative, fertile power, when little grows and much seems dead. Here, Persephone is a captive. She was abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, ruler of the dead, to be his bride. She did not choose Hades for a husband, but was relinquished like chattel by her father Zeus.
With a bite of the pomegranate, she becomes a queen, Queen of the Dead, forever bound to the underworld and to her kidnapper-husband. Some interpretations of this myth link the eating of the fruit to copulation, the pomegranate with semen, and both with the consummation of marriage. The myth is certainly from a time and culture where women had little say in their marriages and had to cope with difficult social and psychological realities.
Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries
After her abduction, Persephone’s mother, the agricultural goddess Demeter, in her sorrow befriended the royal daughters of the city-state Eleusis and became nursemaid to their infant brother. After revealing herself as a goddess, the Eleusinians build her a temple.
Sitting alone in this great temple, Demeter decided to force the issue with a ransom of her own. She stunted the growth of plants, imposing a dry, fruitless season, allowing the sun to scorch the earth. Other deities intervened, fearing the famine was reducing sacrifices and largesse offered to them. Negotiations took place. In the end, Persephone, having eaten pomegranate seeds in hell, was required to remain in the realm underground for part of the year.
But this is not the end of Persephone’s story. She grows into her power as the Queen of Hell. Poets and writers of the ancient world described her as severe, sad, and formidable. She grants clemency and enforces the fate of the dead. She is moved by the music of our Fool Orpheus and releases his beloved Eurydice – with conditions – an ordeal she understands from experience.
Demeter’s temple in at Eleusis was the actual center of the Eleusinian Mysteries, religious rites with sacred knowledge shared only with initiates. Persephone’s mysteries (scholars can really only speculate) revealed beliefs about the renewal of both the life-sustaining earth and the soul.
Persephone is new to her role in the Nine of Wands, still mourning the loss of the upper world. She’s not yet a natural death queen. She longs for life and vibrancy. Instead, she is the beleaguered queen of the underworld. She longs for lightness and airiness, but knows she is restricted. At this point in her journey, she cannot imagine how her demise will become her power. For now, before resurrection, she must face defeat.
The ivy on the wall symbolized, in the Victorian language of flowers, marriage, fidelity, and endurance. Anyone who’s been married for a length of time knows some level of endurance is necessary. Love does not actually spring eternal. It’s an ebb and flow, a cycle like the seasons, like life, like anything in the natural world.
Persephone as the newly crowned Queen of the Dead in the Nine of Wands symbolizes the down side of life. The winter. The arid land. The discontent. The need for rest and reflection. She reminds us that meaningful experiences and relationships don’t leave us unscathed, even when they’re lifelong and healthy.
Whatever we do, at some point we’re all going to take a metaphorical beating from life as well as physical wounds and afflictions. In the best circumstances, bumps and bruises heal with time. Persephone is the time it takes.
This process cannot be rushed. We need time to reflect. Difficult experiences also provide us with invaluable information about who we are, how the world responds to us, what’s out there, and how we respond to obstacles.
Successful people talk about failure as a consummate source of inspiration and learning. The honest ones also talk about doubt and anxiety. It’s great to ask successful people in hindsight what they learned from failure, but ask them in the moment and they’ll tell you how nerve-racking it is to bet the farm, and how much worse it is to bet and lose.
Experiences that bruise us are also a source of humility. We not invulnerable. Humbling experiences make us more compassionate and less arrogant. It’s necessary for maturity. Persephone symbolizes this maturing process.