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Demeter and Persephone
ISBN: 0786413433

By Tamara Agha-Jaffar
Review by: M. Ara Choudhury

12/01/04

Calling this work invaluable for scholars as well as a “wonderful read” for those interested in mythology would not do it justice. Agha-Jaffar is the director and founder of the Women’s Studies program at the Kansas City Kansas Community College and her book encapsulates the purpose of a Women’s Studies education; even though women-centered stories and women’s experiences are undervalued, they are important and relevant to understanding our culture today. In Demeter and Persephone, Agha-Jaffar extends the Demeter-Persephone myth beyond the elementary-school explanation of the cycle of seasons, to its significant insights on “female mentoring,” rape and women’s sexuality, trauma and grief, and the role of mother-daughter relationships which undermine patriarchal forces.

The story we know is of the victimized Kore, who was stolen from her mother, and taken to the underworld by Hades. Demeter’s all-consuming grief results in her wandering the earth and mourning her lost daughter, accompanied by a seasonal death. Zeus finally sends his messenger to force Hades to release Kore, now Persephone because of her lost virginity, but the girl is tricked into eating four pomegranate seeds. Persephone is doomed to return to the underworld for four months out of the year, during which her mother mourns her loss, wandering and bringing destruction to crops. Agha-Jaffar describes the story as transformative as well as empowering because it is a metaphor for the patriarchal abuse of women through rape, victimization, as well as a devaluing of a woman-centered power structure and relationship. Agha-Jaffar finds Zeus’s callous indifference to Demeter’s initial pleas and the sun-god Helios’ offer to help interesting, because they both value reason over emotion – Zeus continually engages in rape, and finds Hades’ behavior justifiable on those grounds while Helios views the abduction as a marriage. Helios tells Demeter she “must accept what she cannot undo” (109), instead of suggesting to Zeus that he take responsibility for the rape that he has sanctioned. Demeter’s revenge – winter and the resultant famine, as well as the subsequent lack of offerings to the male gods – become a subversive attack on male hegemony.

Agha-Jaffar does write that the Demeter-Persephone myth teaches us that there must be balance in grief and our dealing with trauma. Demeter’s initial “helter-skelter” grief affects innocent people (150), but I would argue the Demeter’s model of grieving is empowering. Her wandering, her crying out, her irrationality, and finally her attempts to “organize” her grieving reminds me of powerful women centered groups such as M.A.D.D. and Mothers of the Disappeared who value emotion over “reason” and have channeled their anger and mourning at the patriarchal culture which has stolen their children. Both Demeter and these modern women-centered protest groups have in common the ability to undermine masculine authority by channeling their emotions as into power to affect change.

Agha-Jaffar also introduces the potential of the myth through a reading of Hades as a positive figure, one who cuts the ties between mother and daughter to allow for the daughter to leave behind her innocence and dependency on her mother, and create a new, whole-self. Her writing points to a balance in her understanding of the myth similar to how she expects her students and the readers of this book to understand and be empowered by Demeter’s and Persephone’s story.

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