|Peter Paul Rubens - L’enlèvement de Proserpine (The Rape of Proserpina, 1638)
Proserpina is the Latin name for the Greek goddess Persephone.
Recently, I listened to the NY Times Book Review podcast with Stephen Fry on Reimagining the Greek Myths. Fry's latest book is a second about the Greek myths. In Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined , a sequel to his Mythos, Stephen Fry moves from the exploits of the Olympian gods to the deeds of mortal heroes.
What interested me in Fry's sequel is that these are not the stories of the gods but of the mortal humans who sometimes live in the favor of the gods and goddesses, and sometimes are punished by them. Some of their names are also well known: Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, Theseus, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Oedipus, Theseus and Heracles.
When I first encountered the myths as a young student, I took a liking to Prometheus who stole fire and gave it to the mortals on Earth. That really pissed off Zeus who saw this as the beginning of the end for the gods.
"...Prometheus himself – the Titan who made us, : befriended us and championed us – continues to endure his terrible punishment: shackled to the side of a mountain he is visited each day by a bird of prey that soars down out of the sun to tear open his side, pull out his liver and eat it before his very eyes. Since he is immortal the liver regenerates overnight, only for the torment to repeat the next day. And the next.Prometheus, whose name means Forethought, has prophesied that now fire is in the world of man, the days of the gods are numbered. Zeus’s rage at his friend’s disobedience derives as much from a deep-buried but persistent fear that man will outgrow the gods as from his deep sense of hurt and betrayal.Prometheus has also seen that the time will come when he will be released. A mortal human hero will arrive at the mountain, shatter his manacles and set the Titan free."
Who saves Prometheus from this torment? The Greek hero, Heracles, frees him (though with Zeus's permission). Saved by a mortal.
The podcast and book got me thinking about how myths are used in poetry.
One poem I thought of is by Alicia Ostriker:
There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling
—Robert Graves, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice”
That one story worth your telling
Is the ancient tale of the encounter
With the goddess
Declares the poet Robert Graves
You can come and see
A sublime bronze avatar of the goddess
Standing in the harbor holding a book and lifting a torch
Among us her name is Liberty
She has many names and she is everywhere
You can also find her easily
Don’t be afraid—
Just do whatever she tells you to do
In that poem, the goddess seems to come to Earth as the Statue of Liberty. In "Selfie with Pomona: The Goddess of Abundance" by Alexandra Teague, we also encounter a goddess as a statue at the Pulitzer Fountain in New York City.
She has all the advantage. Two sculptors
for her single body. Bronze prepossession. Bare arms
muscled as if she plucked each apple in her basket,
then scythed the reeds to weave the basket—heaping on peaches
and pearls of snow. What seasons?
What death? She’s seamless as light...
Where’s the best light to look human?
Where’s the best light to look human?
But the book of poetry I thought of is Mother Love by Rita Dove who takes Demeter and Persephone out of the Greek myths and sets them into Arizona, Mexico, and a bistro in Paris. She retells this mother-daughter story in our world.
Rita Dove has said that she thinks of her verse-cycle as a "homage and as counterpoint to Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.” You could choose almost any one of the poems from the book as a model for this month's prompt, such as "Persephone, Falling."
I chose "Hades' Pitch", in which the god of the dead and the king of the underworld that bears his name makes a pitch to Persephone.
If I could just touch your ankle, he whispers, there
on the inside, above the bone—leans closer,
breath of lime and pepper—I know I could
make love to you. She considers
this, secretly thrilled, though she wasn’t quite
sure what he meant...
Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, goddess of the earth. Hades abducts the young goddess one day as she is gathering flowers by a stream. Demeter goes in search of her daughter but is unable to find her. Demeter’s grief causes the earth to die — crops fail, and famine comes upon the land. Zeus intervenes and commands Hades to return Persephone. Reluctant to release her, Hades forces Persephone to eat a pomegranate seed, food of the dead. As a result, she can spend only six months out of the year with her mother, and the other six months she is destined to spend in the realm of Hades. To the Greeks, the return of Persephone from the underworld symbolized the return of life in the spring.
Here, I have focused on Greek and Roman myths but you can look to myths from other cultures. And though I do like tales of the poor mortals mixed up with the immortals, the choice is yours. Include in your poem's title a clear reference to the character or myth you are reimagining.
Visit our website at poetsonline.org