The Passion of the Kore

The Passion of the Kore

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.

  1. 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.
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  1. i had never thought about it this way.
    and i think about the Kore’s Ordeal, and the Mysteries ALL THE TIME.
    i need another lifetime just to chew on this.

  2. In response to a query on Facebook, I’d like to flesh out a bit more what I mean in the piece by the terms “the Idea” and “the Image”, and how they relate to the sovereignties of Zeus and of Pluton.

    The three sons of Kronos, who divide the Kronian sovereignty three ways, are understood by Proclus as each being the *total* sovereign of the cosmos, but in three different fashions. Each of them is considered by him a demiurge (craftsman) of the cosmos. Zeus is the demiurge of Ideas (eidē), Poseidon the demiurge of Souls, and Pluton the demiurge of Images (eidōla, eikones). So basically, Zeus is the craftsman of the cosmos insofar as the cosmos just *is* ideal, Poseidon is the craftsman of the cosmos insofar as it just *is* alive, ensouled, and Pluton is the craftsman of the cosmos insofar as it is all just images. Each one is a total perspective on the cosmos, not just a specific category of objects; in fact, each one includes the other two in a certain respect.

    Thus, Zeus’s sovereignty includes Poseidon’s and Pluton’s because there is an Idea of the Soul and there is an ideality of the Image as well, though it is precisely this, arguably, that requires Persephone’s activity. Poseidon’s sovereignty includes Zeus’s and Pluton’s insofar as the Idea and the Image alike can be grasped as psychological processes. Pluton’s sovereignty includes Zeus’s and Poseidon’s because ideality and psychical processes alike reducible to images in somewhat the fashion we see in Hume’s empiricism (see, e.g., Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Hume in Empiricism and Subjectivity).

  3. This question may seem contentious, but I’ve liked a lot of your other writings, and it’s a sincere question. This argument seems to follow from a well-established premise (you’re drawing on classical authority and what some might term the auctoritas of the western classically-derived philosophical tradition) that myths point to the truth/reality/nous/whathaveyou of the gods and their transcendent beyond-being beingness. This premise seems to include the notion that all (at least classical?) myths reflect these sundry realities drawn from the nous and into this world. However, how does this premise account for patriarchal and misogynistic narrativizing of the daimonic worlds/otherworlds/whatever without falling into kyriarchical apologetics for male-dominated cultures narrativizing male gods raping female gods in what can arguably result in a normalization and justification for those cultures’ kyriarchal bases?

    • It’s not contentious at all, or rather, if it is, it’s in a good way. I really should have dealt with this issue more in the body of the piece, but I kind of figured there might be some discussion in the comments. I’d approach this in three ways.

      First, I’d want to underscore that refusing to acknowledge a given myth, or a given version of a myth, is very much a live option in a particular tradition. It’s important, however, to have hermeneutical strategies available for interpreting myths whose content is difficult in some way, if for whatever reasons one doesn’t want to discard it. This is especially important inasmuch as the content of a myth will most likely be difficult on a literal interpretation of its contents, and so the more noetic interpretation provides, if nothing else, further information to enter into one’s decision about whether and how a given myth belongs in one’s devotion. No tradition, I would venture, accepts all myths or mythic variants associated with the Gods of that tradition. (Also, in this regard, and to respond to an issue you raised in passing, I would not only take “classical” myths as valid in any tradition. Since the method of interpretation I advocate accommodates conflicting versions of myths about the same Gods, there is no reason to exclude any myths from hermeneutical consideration. In this respect, it takes a similar approach to that of structuralists, who consider all extant versions of a myth, even modern ones, in delineating the myth’s structural characteristics.)

      Second, I’d say that insofar as the kind of interpretation I’m doing uncovers certain intelligible or noetic contents within the myth, which are as it were eternal activities of the Gods involved, that these contents could, in principle, have been presented in different ways, and that the fact that they were presented in the form of myths embodying certain human evils such as misogyny is evidence in support of one of the basic ontological presuppositions of the method, which is that the persons of the Gods are ontologically superior to even the eternal activities underlying the myths, and therefore all the more superior to the mythic texts themselves, which are the product of contingent historical circumstances informed by theophany, but also influenced by many other factors. As I indicated (briefly) in the piece, the analysis of these historical factors needs to be carried out to its ultimate conclusion, and nothing about the ontological status of myth can be understood as interfering with this analysis, for the simple reason that these ontological levels—that of myth as expressing eternal noetic activities of the Gods, and that of texts as expressing human historical forces and dispositions of power—are irreducible to one another.

      This leads me to the third point, which is that the fact that the evils that humans do to one another and suffer from one another are found in the myths as well, does not simply reflect, and therefore justify or normalize, these evils, as would be the case if myths merely reflected the conditions of the souls and societies that create them, from the textual perspective. Rather, we can discover, through hermeneutical reflection, a critical perspective embodied in the myth. Indeed, the possibility of such a critical perspective is guaranteed by the ontological autonomy of the Gods Themselves above and beyond any configuration of mythic narrative. Nor is this critical perspective constrained by time and circumstance, whereas a merely historically-based critique would unavoidably be open to charges of anachronism or implausibility insofar as it was not seen to express the plausible intentions of the *human* author(s) of the mythic text or the human society’s self-understanding.

      • Very good! I was wondering a bit along these same lines, and wrote a piece on this problem in the Persephone anthology that is far less satisfying or philosophically rigorous than your multi-pronged approach!

      • I think we’re operating from within different discursive frames, so let me reframe for myself (and I expect others) and please tell me if I’m accurate or not. I’m also probably going to add in a bit more to this discussion as I do so. In working with whatever myths we consider “valid” for our traditions and our personal experiences of divinity, we have to acknowledge the cultural, historical layers of myth from synchronic and diachronic perspectives: synchronic in the sense of what those myths reflected in the cultures in the time they originate from and diachronic in the sense of understanding the associations of those myths in culture across a span of time (up to and including our own). Even as we account for the often problematic cultural contexts for many of our myths, we want to recognize that the gods transcend the world even as the daimons negotiate/bridge our experiences and the noetic reality of the gods. This bridging can mean that even myths with well-attested cultural contexts can have distinct (and/or divergent) metaphysical, spiritual, magical, etc. significances distinct from the historical context. As a culture engages in myth-making and does so while inspired by the gods (and thus via the daimons), the noetic level inflects the significances of the myths. For example, myths that reflect misogyny in ancient (or modern!) cultures can point to non-misogynistic realities even as the misogynistic reading is still there and still valid (and must be accounted for). The mythic authors may resort to or filter through those kinds of cultural lenses or filters, but they do so as they glimpse at and try to make conventional, non-noetic sense of the noetic.

        It occurs to me that we want a robust and ethical system of rhetoric for discussing these coexisting levels (modes?) of interpretation to avoid leveling and flattening those levels when we want to find the “kernels” of truth/reality/revelation that empower and augment our faiths and practices. Of course, such a system of rhetoric gets at what you and others have argued the pagan community needs: a system and framework of theology that allows us to have those kinds of conversations. (I would also argue that such a conversation should be as accessible as possible to avoid the elitist pitfalls some have pointed to within the classical tradition of theological practice.) I can’t help but think of Christian exegetical practices that appropriated and adapted classical pagan models to interpret the Bible on various levels, especially within the medieval period (but that’s where my training points me). Pagans should likewise work to reclaim, adapt, devise, and revise these kinds of theological practices and rhetorics to deepen and to augment our own faiths and practices.

        Okay, that wasn’t as accessible to others as I would want, but–

        • I’m not certain that I understand you fully, but on the subject of ethics and a theological framework supporting it, I have a few more thoughts that might further clarify where I’m coming from. Part of the reason why myths in which Gods overcome, deceive, or injure one another are particularly important to investigate hermeneutically is because if there were among the Gods and between the Gods and ourselves merely relations of force, in which the more powerful simply exert their control over the weaker, then it would follow that only a rather weak ethics can be grounded ontologically, in the nature of being. In turn, if we relinquish an ontological ground for ethics, then our ethics will either be grounded in something inferior to the Gods, such as psychology, social convention, or mere calculation, or it will be grounded in something superior to the Gods, in which case the Gods are no longer Gods in the sense Proclus articulates when he states that “all those who have occupied themselves with theology, term ‘Gods’ those things which are primary by nature” (Plat. Theol. I 3, p. 12 Saffrey & Westerink).

          It is precisely because such myths pose a danger either to our religious life or to our ethical life if taken in this fashion, that Plato advises in the Republic that the guardians of the “fevered” city not be exposed to such myths as children, when they will be incapable of grasping their “underlying meaning” (hyponoia, Rep. 378d). From another point of view, the “guardians” spoken of in the Republic are also daimons of the intellective city, and as such are in no danger, for they are in a position to see directly the Gods’ true nature, by which “each God is the finest and the best thing possible” (381c). The problem of grasping such myths’ “underlying meaning” is precisely, and constitutively, our own.

          There is value in the struggle to arrive at an understanding of such myths, rather than dismissing them, precisely because it is our own being that is at stake, and not that of the Gods: to hear such myths, Plato says, one ought to have to sacrifice “not a pig, but some victim great and difficult to obtain” (378a)—referring, of course, to the sacrifice of piglets at Eleusis. What Plato means, I would argue, is that the price of hearing such myths is the recognition that they apply to oneself; *we* are the victim great and difficult to obtain. My project with respect to such myths in general is to determine the ultimate existential cost of holding them true, a cost which involves recognizing in them the social evils that they may embody, but also the broader existential conditions to which the myth links these social evils. Hence, Persephone’s myth depends, for its plausibility in ancient Hellenic society, on a condition in which certain kinds of violence against women are normalized; far from skirting this fact, I would argue that the myth recognizes in this phenomenon the privileged site for expressing the most fundamental conditions of mortal being, and we ought to see this, not as “naturalizing” violence against women, but as providing a powerful site of resistance to this violence in the person of Persephone Herself.

          • Aha! I’m sorry my last reply wasn’t clear to you–that’s what I get for coming at it from my training in cultural materialism. However, *thank you* for your lucid comment here that helps put quite a bit into a clearer context for me.

  4. Thank you for this perspective. The mystery of Eleusis is the grain, but it’s never quite explicitly stated (that I know of) that the grain is reaped against its will. Persephone is hardly an agent in the myth. We lose sight of those details, or we actively resist them. I wonder, in this case, if there’s something to be learned from the Christians, who owe so much to Eleusis, and who have struggled just as much with the agency of Jesus in his own passion.

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