I’ve recently signed up to take a seminar called Personal Mythology: Mapping the Divine to Discover One’s Own Truth. The reading list for the seminar includes “Cinderella” by Anne Sexton (which is really a fairy tale, not a myth), “Hymn to Aphrodite” by Sappho, and “Eurydice” by H.D. To prepare for the seminar, I’m expected to think of a myth that resonates with my personal experience in some way. So I’ve been mulling it over for a couple of days now, thinking of my favorite myths and fairy tales, ones that have somehow stuck with me for one reason or another. Of the fairy tales: “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” hands-down. Of the myths: “The Kidnapping of Persephone” is at the top, then “Orpheus and Eurydice” and “Cupid and Psyche.” I’ve had some trouble pinpointing how these stories resonate with my personal experience, since their plots have very little to do with the course my own life has taken, but I think I’ve managed to identify the primary aspects that reach me in a personal way.
For those who don’t know, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is about twelve princesses who are locked into their rooms every night by their father, who is baffled to find their slippers worn to shreds every morning in spite of his efforts to control them. He offers the eldest daughter in marriage to any man who can figure out where his daughters go at night. A soldier returning from war finds out about the offer and takes the challenge. The princesses try to trick him into drinking a sleeping potion, but he only pretends to swallow it and follows them through a trap door under one of the sisters’ beds to an underground kingdom, where they dance with twelve princes every night. For three nights, the soldier follows them in secret, stealing small objects as proof (a gold leaf, a silver leaf, a jeweled cup) and then presents these to the king along with his explanation. As a reward, he marries the eldest princess, but at the wedding, none of the underground princes come to dance.
Since I’ve never been locked into my room for sneaking out to party every night, there’s not a lot on the surface that I can relate to. I think what resonates most with me in the story is the underground realm, filled with trees bearing silver and gold leaves, an underground lake that requires traveling by gondola to reach a fairy castle where the princesses drink and dance all night with princes that never emerge in mundane life. That’s what compels me to read the story over and again: it’s the allure of a secret, enchanted otherworld that I find so captivating. It’s the world of dreams, of fantasy and imagination, that reality (the king, the soldier) tries to stamp out or control. Maybe it resonates with me because, like most people, there came a time in my life when reality took hold and fantasy lost its power, and I’ve been struggling to get the latter back ever since.
“The Kidnapping of Persephone” is the story of how Persephone, the maiden goddess of spring and Demeter’s daughter, becomes the Queen of the Underworld. She was gathering flowers on a hill when the earth opened up beneath her and Hades, on his chariot, snatched her into the chasm and brought her to the Underworld as his queen. Her mother hears her cries and searches for her, but is unable to reach her. Despondent over losing her daughter, she goes into mourning, refusing to allow vegetation to grow, and the world knows winter for the first time. Zeus, knowing where Persephone is (but not bothering to tell Demeter), sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone so all of humanity doesn’t die of starvation. Hades allows Persephone to return to her mother, but tricks her into eating a few pomegranate seeds (the fruit of the Underworld) so that she will have to return to him for 3 months of the year. (In some stories, Persephone eats the seeds willingly, knowing full well what it means, having fallen in love with Hades during her stay with him.) This story was the ancient Greeks’ explanation for the changing of the seasons — while Persephone is with her mother during the spring and summer months, vegetation grows; while she is in Hades, Demeter goes into mourning and the crops die. While I’ve never been kidnapped, much less suffered Stockholm Syndrome, I can relate to that loss of innocence that Persephone experiences by going to the Underworld and leaving her mother’s side. Mostly, though, I connect with Persephone’s dual nature: she is simultaneously the flower-gathering spring maiden and the dark, wintry Queen of the Dead. She contains both Yin and Yang. Likewise, I have a light side, but there is also a darkness in me. Both of those aspects are part of who I am, as they are of Persephone.
The other myths, I’ve noticed, involve a descent into the Underworld and interaction with Persephone. I guess I just find that genre of myths — death and rebirth — compelling, largely because of the interplay between opposites and the treatment of those opposites as mutable states. By going into the Underworld, the point is made that life is temporary, but by leaving the Underworld, the point is also made that death is temporary as well. Everything changes; nothing stays the same.
I think I’ll end up going with Persephone and her story, since “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” isn’t a myth, but a fairy tale (two different genres, diverging in purpose), and my explanation of the latter might be more apt and compelling for the purposes of the seminar.
But I’m interested in hearing what your favorite myths and/or fairy tales are. Why do they resonate with you?