Gods frequently thwart one another’s will in Hellenic theology, and in some cases even suffer violence from one another, perhaps most significantly near the very beginning of the theogony, when Ouranos is castrated. But no such incident in the Hellenic theology is perhaps of quite so much significance for the sort of beings that we are as that suffered by Persephone, except perhaps the dismemberment of Dionysos at the hands of the Titans, which is, of course, far from unrelated.
I speak in the title of a passion in the sense of an experience in which the subject is rendered passive. Passion presents a problem for us in thinking about the Gods, if we wish to free a space in our understanding for the infinite agency of each God, the position of ‘radical’ or polycentric polytheism. One may hold to a particular theology in which the Gods are absolutely limited by fixed relations that are prior to them, or by some force superior to divinity itself, but my effort is to explore the possibilities of a polytheism without such constraint.
As such, a God wills even the abrogation of Her will. But the sense of this willing cannot be to undo the reality of the abrogation, because the very intention of the divine will in this case is to suffer breach. Every act of the Gods, who are beyond Being, opens a space of being, a way to be. What does Persephone’s passion open? If Persephone’s work, as has long been understood, is the katabasis or descent of the Soul from the realm of Zeus, the demiurge of Ideas, into that of Pluton, the demiurge of Images, bringing life and truth, what does it mean that this occurs through a will breached in its essence? For could not the same be accomplished through a normative marriage, in which Demeter would be fully involved? Why should it occur through the seeming reduction of Persephone to an object exchanged between the Kronian brothers? It is perfectly legitimate for an historicizing treatment to discuss the myth’s social determinants, or for variant theologies to substitute at this point a different account, but an inquiry such as mine rules out approaches that cannot recover the myth as itself the trace of a pure divine agency.
It must be, therefore, that the very essence of Persephone’s work is that the infinite power and agency of a God invert itself. Everything else that occurs in the myth, the chain of events leading to the establishment of the Mysteries, Eleusinian and Orphic alike, and indeed the very work of Dionysos as thwarted sovereign and savior, is contained in this moment, which is the seed of the mode of being of the mortal soul as such, its formative unknowing, unconsciousness, unwillingness. Our souls express their absolute freedom in the power of rejection only truly present in its failure to have its way, because otherwise that rejection is indistinguishable from merely choosing otherwise, that is, from the latency of what is merely not chosen, the potentiality not actualized. The latter, in the widest sense, we may see as grounded in the passion of Ouranos, in whom plays out the entire space of theogony itself. Ouranos is forced to allow what has come forth to distinguish itself, and hence can generate no more. The bond between Persephone and Ouranos in this work, moreover, is another expression of an Ouranian sovereignty which operates before, beyond, and throughout Olympian sovereignty.1
The link between the sovereignties of the Idea and of the Image, therefore, two of the divisions of the sovereignty of Kronos, does not pass through Demeter, for it is not ‘natural’. Hence Mysteries are established. Nor does it found a new sovereignty which would succeed Zeus’s as His succeeds Kronos’s: Dionysos reigns in and through his own destruction. For were a sovereignty, a regime of truth, to be founded in its own name, in the name of the Image Itself, how then could the Image not thereby simply become the Idea, and undo the work of cosmogenesis? The Hellenic theology, at least in its dominant expressions, resists the cyclical generation and regeneration of sovereignties, as we see in Indian theology, in which the cosmos is produced and destroyed and produced again in the reciprocal exchange of divine powers.
Persephone does not consent, and therefore the bond between the Idea and the Image is as much a separation, and the reality of our being is expressed as much in our works of ignorance as in the light of our understanding. The will of every God is a source of truth and true knowledge to beings; this is no less true of tricksters than of hierophants. The negative will of the Kore is thus a source of our unknowing and the truth within it. This is not something which could have been different, as though insight was arbitrarily denied us. Nor does it merely express necessity, because necessity follows upon the Gods’ actions, it does not dictate them. Removing Persephone’s agency, or denying her refusal, can only distort the significance of her act.
- On the issue of Ouranian sovereignty, see “Sea of Dissimilitude: Poseidon and Platonism,” in From the Roaring Deep: A Devotional in Honor of Poseidon and the Spirits of the Sea, ed. Rebecca Buchanan (Asheville, NC: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2015). Note in this respect that, as Proclus underscores (Platonic Theology VI 11, 50-51), Poseidon is the only one of the sons of Kronos who is not joined sexually to Persephone. ↩