XIV Temperance: Persephone, oh Gentle Spring
Persephone (Roman Proserpina) is at once painfully vulnerable and intensely powerful. She is both a force of nature and controlled by elemental powers. In her myth, she was a virgin goddess gathering flowers with her maidens when Hades, god of the Underworld, abducted her.
Hades brought Persephone to the Land of the Dead to be his wife. Her mother, Demeter, searched desperately for her. Despairing, Demeter ceased her duties as an agrarian goddess, and a terrible drought befell the land. People starved for food and gods for offerings.
Zeus relented and demanded Hades return Persephone, but she had already eaten several pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, tethering her forever to the Land of the Dead and its ruler, her abductor. So, every year Persephone descends to the Underworld, and the earth becomes barren. And every year she ascends, and the earth is lush again.
In this card, Persephone looks directly at us with a strange, expressionless gaze. The artist Frederick Sandys gave her the look of a Greek statue come to life. Her skin is marble white, perhaps from lack of sunlight, and her cheeks are flush in the fresh spring air.
Persephone’s eyes seem sad or as if she is not fully occupying herself yet. She has stepped out of the shadowy world of the dead, reborn and seeing anew this curious and wonderful world of the living.
The goddess promises more than the renewal of the earth. Persephone also represents the belief that the soul continues in the afterlife.
Persephone and her mother Demeter are the goddesses of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Mysteries were sacred religious rites far more ancient than scholars are able to trace. While the carefully guarded secrets were only revealed to initiates in Ancient Greece, we do know the Mysteries promised an afterlife.
The Eleusinian Mysteries revolved around agrarian traditions and rhythms. In nature, we see life after death, dormancy and rebirth, dying and resurrection, descending into and ascending from the Underworld. This is an old story told by many people in many places.
Persephone is eternal life. She is the hope of life beyond death. More immediately, and as a metaphor for atheists, she symbolizes reconciliation for wrongs and healing after trauma.
As Temperance, Persephone reconciles the Death card before her with the continued, cyclical journey, balancing the seasons and harmonizing paradoxes. She is the gentler aspect of life’s ups and downs, offering comfort after crises and soothing us after pain.
Temperance is one of the four virtues identified by Greek philosophers. They believed the virtues were the foundational qualities for being a good and moral person. The others were justice; fortitude, also called strength or courage; and prudence, the one virtue mysteriously excluded from the tarot. Christian theologians adopted the four as the cardinal virtues.
In the Waite-Smith Tarot, heavy with mystic Christian symbolism, Temperance is represented by an archangel, adorned with esoteric emblems and pouring water from one cup into another. In the background, a narrow path leads to the mountaintops, literally crowned by a golden sun.
The mythological figure in the Tarot of Delphi’s Temperance is Persephone. In both decks, the Temperance is a white-robed figure of harmony and succor, glowing with light and surrounded by signs of regeneration. Smith’s archangel has one foot on the earth, the other in water. Here, Persephone has just set foot out of the Underworld to take her first steps back into the world of life and growth.
Earth, Body and Soul
In the Victorian language of flowers, the poppies to Persephone’s right symbolize dreams, sleep and death, allusions to her role as Queen of the Dead. Countering the darkness is the rainbow, signifying harmony, optimism and renewal. The rainbow crowns the mountains as light begins to brighten the landscape. Butterflies, symbols of the eternal soul, flit around her.
Behind her on the left is a pale pink rosebush, alluding to grace and joy. The flowering olive trees reinforce themes of renewal and eternal life. At her feet the lily-of-the-valley means, variously, tears of the Virgin Mary, humility and the return of joy. The puffs of dandelion seeds symbolize happiness and faithfulness. The blue violet in her dress also represents faithfulness.
The jumble of flowers at her feet include more carnal, less lofty expressions of Persephone’s lofty gifts, the ones we can enjoy with our flesh and emotions. Primrose means earthly love and deep romantic attachment. Daffodils speak of intense and even obsessive attraction.
As Temperance, Persephone brings union and harmony to the earth, our bodies and our souls.
KeywordsEquilibrium. Harmony. Renewal. Regeneration. Patience. Healing. Succor. Solace. Moderation. Temperance. Self-Knowledge. Healthy-mindedness. Self-control. Soundness.
Tarot Meditation: Sophrosyne (Temperance)
Socrates and his students struggled to define sophrosyne, meaning temperance or self-restraint. While the English word temperance is easily defined as moderation, sophrosyne is a more complex concept. The Greek word alludes to how we live virtuously.
Unlike our post-modern notion of “to each her own,” Socrates and his associates believed in absolute truths. This was a dilemma in defining sophrosyne. Exactly how does one define a virtuous life for everyone, absolutely?
To solve this, one of Socrates’s students suggested sophrosyne is self-knowledge. After all, he reasoned, we can’t possibly live in temperance, exercising moderation and self-control, if we don’t understand ourselves.
If we’re lost in the throes of our impulses, we have no chance at moderation. Should I have the apple pie or the pumpkin? I’ll have both! I can always take up jogging tomorrow; today, I really just want to watch this tv show. Just one more drink, just one more serving, just one more episode…
“Nothing in excess” is one of the most famous statements of the Pythia at Delphi. Although it is often forgotten in favor of the more narcissistic quote, “Know thyself,” Socrates et al. claimed the latter leads to the former. We must know ourselves, our tendencies, desires, vices and patterns before we can control our baser natures to live virtuous, temperate lives.
Thankfully, sophrosyne also means healthy-minded. To translate it simply as temperance or self-restraint takes out all the reward and leaves in all the work. A healthy-minded life is balanced, full of vitality and relaxation, laughter and silence, friends and peaceful solitude. Healthy-mindedness is the recompense Temperance gives us for doing the hard work of self-knowing and making difficult choices.
Frederick Sandys’s painting is imbued with Victorian symbolism from the language of flowers to Christian metaphors. Blending Christian themes with the polytheistic Classics is very Victorian, an act of cultural appropriation on the one hand and a sign of hope on the other. The hope lies in the Victorian’s reverence for a culture so different that it was not only not Christian, it was polytheistic. And yet, the Victorians viewed Ancient Greece as a source for wisdom, learning and enrichment.
A poem by Algernon Swinborne accompanied Gentle Spring when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1865:
O Virgin Mother! of gentle days and nights
Spring of fresh buds and Spring of soft delights,
Come, with lips kissed of many an amorous hour
Come, with hands heavy from the fervent flower
The fleet first flower that feels the wind and sighs
The tenderer leaf that draws the sun and dies! (artmagick.com)
Interestingly, of all the images in the Tarot of Delphi deck, Gentle Spring is one that people often choose as their least favorite. Something about it seems to make some people uncomfortable, perhaps the blatant sexuality of her full breasts juxtaposed with her vulnerable demeanor. The figure is also less realistic than others throughout the deck, as Sandys gave her the posture and look, right down to the marble skin, of a Greek statue.
From a modern perspective, the painting challenges us to hold simultaneously in our minds the power and the vulnerability that Persephone embodies. She is the Life Giver and the Queen of the Dead. She soothes us in death and grants rebirth and eternal life. At the same time, she was kidnapped, assaulted and forced into marriage, an ugly story that is not foreign to women in the 21st century, especially in places that have turned violent and lost civil discourse.
Persephone reminds us that women give life, and while they are powerful, they can also be vulnerable to abduction and violence. Like Persephone, women are the Gentle Spring, the crucial element needed to turn revolutionary “springs” into stability and prosperity futures.