Maiden and the Mother

Maiden and the Mother
Out of the Broomcloset Maiden and the Mother photo by Leon Calafiore

Out of the Broomcloset

With so many taking such a passionate interest in the potential fertility of others, it does seem a perfect opportunity to chat a bit about a high point in the Classical Athenian calendar, that being the performance/enactment of the Great Mysteries, involving Demeter and Persephone, the Mother and the Maiden, which would have been celebrated the second week of our September this year, excepting the Sanctuary being destroyed in 395 CE.

The particulars of what went on are lost; those things that could be written down were prohibited from being written; the actual transformative experience, being beyond words, simply defied being written down.

The surrounding mythos, in a very skeletal form (for those of you who did not attend class), are: Demeter, who oversaw the cycles of growth, and who helped provide the arts of civilization, had a daughter, Persephone, who was carried off to the underworld by Hades as a bride. Persephone, not being pleased with the situation, refused to eat or drink. Demeter, being a good mother, went on strike; crops withered, end of the world scenario.

Zeus was finally compelled to undo what he had set in motion, tacitly, and dispatched Hermes to retrieve her; unfortunately, she had finally broken down and eaten some pomegranate seeds, which attached her firmly to the underworld. The compromise was that, for part of the year, she could live in the sunlight, and the third part of the year do her duty as queen of the Underworld.

One can tease many possible interpretations from the source material; navigating the polarities of abundance/scarcity, childhood/adulthood, civilized life disrupted/restoration of normalcy, for starters.

While later authors eventually came up with offspring to be added to the tale, in the main, it’s also a story of moving from innocence to having agency, treading the impossible path between innocence and responsibility, and managing fertility.

You see, she ate the pomegranate; while one thinks of it as a symbol of fertility and abundance, and it certainly is recommended to those who are expecting, the classical world used it as part of the pharmacopeia for preventing conception; and some modern animal clinical studies show a contraceptive effect.

The initiates into the Mysteries would fast, then drink kykeon, a mixture of barley, water, and pennyroyal, as Demeter did. Modern pharmacology shows that pulegone (a constituent of many members of the mint family) can act as an a abortifacient, and is extremely toxic in high doses, causing liver destruction. It should definitely be avoided during pregnancy.

To the inquiring mind, however, it is peculiar that two principal plants involved in the story seem more concerned with regulating fertility rather than promoting it. Of course, in these more civilized times, we know to avoid them, the same way as hair dye and nail polish are contraindicated during pregnancy.

Even the “morning-after pill” had its classical antecedents. Strangely enough, one should be cautious around carrots, or especially their wild ancestor, commonly known as Queen Anne’s lace. Like so many plants growing by the wayside, they grow now as escapees from the gardens of white settlers. Modern science has shown that the old wives’ tale of drinking a tea made from their seeds having a contraceptive effect was based in fact, being full of estrogen precursors. Of course, the basis for modern birth control pills was an estrogen precursor in wild yams, a totally different genera, tamed to a well-modulated dosage.

Of course, in a modern, enlightened age, these are merely an exploration of curious folklore, as we wander through the cunning woman’s garden; she might give you a cuppa to refresh a weary body, if you wish. It’s just common decency.