The story of Persephone is one of the most well known in the canon of Greek myths. Taken at face value, as it usually is, it is a clever creation myth that is used to explain the changing seasons of Ancient Greece. However, I see it as much more. In it, I see an allegory for the historical powerlessness of young women and how societies continue to treat them.
While the myth is usually titled “The Myth of Persephone”, “Persephone and Hades”, or “Persephone and Demeter”, Persephone herself is actually given very little personality and virtually no power over her own life or future. The story opens with Hades, God of the Underworld, ogling and lusting after Persephone, the teenage daughter of Demeter, the Goddess of the Harvest. Although Hades is much older than Persephone, he decides that he wants her as his bride. So he hatches a nefarious plan to kidnap young Persephone. When Demeter and Persephone go out to a field of flowers one day, Hades distracts Persephone with some especially beautiful blooms, then kidnaps her and spirits her to the underworld. Persephone, not surprisingly, protests, but Hades is too strong for her. In the underworld, Hades wants to proclaim her queen. Again, she protests – she misses her mother and the earth. But, powerless, Persephone eventually relents and participates in a ritual where she eats a single (but, unbeknownst to her, very powerful) pomegranate seed. Meanwhile, back on earth Demeter is inconsolable. She searches for her daughter day and night. Because of her relentless searching, she neglects her Goddess of the Harvest duties. Crops do not grow. Leaves fall from the trees. It is the first winter.
Eventually Demeter learns what happened to her daughter from another god. She then goes to Zeus, King of the Gods, and gives him an ultimatum – have Hades return Persephone or spring will never come again. Not wanting perpetual winter, Zeus calls a meeting of sorts between Demeter and Hades. Note that Persephone is not invited even though it has been called to determine her own fate. Because Persephone ate the pomegranate seed, she must remain queen of the underworld, but Zeus compromises and lets Demeter have Persephone for half of the year. Thus, the seasons are born. [Again note that Persephone is never consulted. As it turns out, Persephone has grown to like Hades and the underworld. Older, “wiser” men and women decided her fate, but that underlying theme will be left for another essay]
Last week I was riding the train. They are doing work on one of the lines, so the train was packed. I was standing in the back of the car, crushed against everyone. There was a man behind me, much older than me. I guess he decided that I was attractive, or at least attractive to him. And that because of this, and his status as an older, bigger man, he had the right to attempt to feel me up. He grabbed me from behind and slowly moved his hands downward. Luckily for me, I know some self-defense moves and was able to elbow him in the stomach. He was no Hades. He stumbled backwards while mumbling “bitch” under his breath. How dare I fight back!
Not surprisingly, I was upset about the incident. When I told people what happened most were supportive of my indignation. However, I did get a few “that’s just what happens when you live in a city,” “there’s always gonna be creeps out there,” and “there’s nothing you can do about it.” My least favorite response was the “What were you wearing? It always happens when summer rolls around.” To me, these comments sound a lot like “because you are young and female, your body is not your own”.
As it happens, I was not even remotely wearing provocative clothing that day, unless short sleeves is now considered a sexual turn-on. However, would my assaulter have been justified if I had been wearing shorts and a low-cut tank top? I didn’t realize that by wearing spring or summer clothing I was agreeing to be assaulted. Just like Persephone, I was not consulted. She liked certain flowers and I like certain clothes. And just like Persephone, my fate seems to be left up to the gods. (Only my god was a very minor deity that was no match for three stage combat classes.)
The fact that there is a good chance this will happen to me again as I wear less clothing in the summer is pretty scary. However, the fact that a number of people seem to be okay with it is absolutely terrifying. Young women and girls are still being given the message, subtly and not so subtly, that they do not have the last word on their own bodies. Although “Boys will be boys” is no longer an acceptable excuse after a rape it is still a common utterance after more “minor” sexual assaults and gropings. We seem to have eaten the pomegranate seed simply by having a uterus. Girls are told what they can and cannot wear based on whether it will distract men. Dress codes in my own grammar school banned sleeveless shirts and shorts on girls as young as kindergarteners. Were bare arms too provacative? Did they make older boys and men uncomfortable? From a young age girls are taught that their bodies are not their own. Societal rules and mores affecting they way we view and treat our bodies are handed down to us by others. The young women most affected are never consulted.
It is exhausting constantly fighting for your autonomy, especially for young girls and women who do not yet have the tools. As you get older, it seems to get easier. The value of age and experience is not a cliché. But it is important for me not to forget what it was like to be a young girl. It is important to listen to and protect young girls and women. I was a sexual assault victim at age fourteen. My voice was never heard, but that is because I never spoke. I didn’t know how and I wasn’t sure if anyone would listen. Was it my fault? Did I do something to provoke it? Is what happened to me okay to everyone but me?
I now know that what happened to me was wrong and not my fault. And what happened to me on the train the other day was also wrong and not my fault. Young women getting felt up by an older man on a train should not be an accepted “part of city life”. But would I have known that ten years ago? Five years ago? Two years ago? How many others like me are there? Those who are younger and do not have the knowledge or experience to protect themselves? How many Persephones?
We need to question societal standards. More than that, we need to change those standards. We need to listen to teenage girls. We need to listen to young women. And we need to give them the knowledge to protect themselves – and the assurance that they have the right to protect themselves. When I finally spoke out about my sexual assault, seven years after the fact, I heard countless “me toos”. Too many. We need to fight back and one of the best ways to do so is to change the culture. Prevent assaults by changing the mindset of both the perpetrators and the victims. Bodies are off limits except by consent. We need to give those younger than us the tools to fight along side us. Let them know that it is ok to speak out. If necessary, to scream out. Maybe then, spring can be a comfortable time for everyone – even on a train.