Myths remind us that without winter, there is no spring

February 27, 2007|By Patricia Montley

Why winter? Why this prolonged period of Code Gray? Weren't our eyes made for color, our skin for warmth?

Why this cold, dreary season when birds abandon us and gardens stop producing their fruits and flowers?

Why this endless time of skyrocketing heating bills and bone-wearying shoveling? Why this sentence of home detention when, racked with cabin fever, we hunker down by the fire or get fuzzy-brained before the TV?

What have we done to deserve this? Surely someone has offended the gods.

"Poppycock!" say the scientists who propose some lame theory about the Earth going around the sun. But that can't really be it. What's the point of misery if there's no one to blame? Besides, their story lacks imagination.

Perhaps an explanation that we - having suffered through this winter from Hades - might find more appealing is one offered by the Greek poet Homer some 27 centuries ago.

In the once-upon-a-time of perpetual spring, Demeter, mother goddess of agriculture and fertility, makes all things grow. One day when her daughter Persephone is gathering flowers, the earth opens and Hades, ruler of the underworld, abducts her. The maiden's screams to her father, Zeus, go unheeded.

Distraught Demeter searches wildly for her lost daughter, and upon discovering Zeus had approved the abduction, withdraws from Olympus in grief and rage, thus causing universal famine. Faced with this ongoing catastrophe, Zeus relents.

Daughter is restored to mother, whose joy again unleashes earth's fertility. But because Persephone has been tricked into tasting the pomegranate of Hades, she must return there for part of each year. And in her absence, her mourning mother weeps the world into winter.

But it must be so. For, as Anne Baring and Jules Cashford remind us in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, "Persephone is the seed that splits off from the body of the ripened grain, the mother, when, sinking beneath the earth, she returns in the spring as the new shoot."

Like all etiological myths, this one explains why something came about. Variations on this origin of the changing seasons appear in other myths. Aphrodite retrieves her lover, the vegetation god Adonis, from the underworld, where he must spend half the year. In ancient Sumer, goddess Inanna scours the underworld for Ereshkigal, her lost sister/self. In Egypt, goddess Isis searches for her murdered-and-dismembered brother/husband Osiris. Her tears of mourning make the Nile rise, and thus the vegetation god Osiris comes alive again.

It is not coincidental that Jews celebrate their Passover - their resurrection - into a new life of freedom, and Christians the resurrection of their God near the time of spring equinox (this year, March 21).

Why winter? Because the growing season requires the fallow season.

Because without gray there is no joy in color? Because it is loss that makes us appreciate love? Because it is death that makes us value life?

The wheel of the seasons turns. Life cycles into death, which cycles into life. Let us bless the journey.

Patricia Montley is the author of "In Nature's Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth." Her e-mail is

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