Over the years, my Samhain rituals have morphed and evolved over time. Usually I have celebrated with some witchy friends and we’ve done activities like make and share harvest-based foods and make ritual brooms. COVID has put a damper on those activities for us, but it has allowed me to become a lot clearer about what this holiday means to me and how I want to celebrate it.
Last year I felt Persephone calling to me. It really didn’t happen until closer to Yule though, probably because Samhain was less about contemplating the underworld and more about sharing time with friends. This year I am focusing more on Persephone and a couple of other Goddesses during my rituals.
The Story of Persephone
Persephone is part of the Greek pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, although she has counterparts in other cultures. She is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Hades, the God of the underworld, decided that he wanted to get married, and asked Zeus for suggestions on who would make a suitable bride. Zeus suggested that Hades wed Persephone, but also knew that Demeter would never agree. So (in some tellings) Zeus suggested that Hades abduct Persephone. Hades followed the suggestion, abducting her from the forest as she was picking flowers and carrying her off to the underworld.
Once Demeter found out what had happened, she was heartbroken. She searched everywhere on earth for her daughter, aided by Hecate and her torches. Some stories say that she was so consumed by her search that she neglected her duties as queen of agriculture. Others say that she was so enraged at Zeus’ role in her daughter’s abduction that she refused to do her job, leaving the world barren and causing the first winter. Zeus finally relented and ordered Hades to release Persephone. Before he did, he offered her a pomegranate, knowing that if she ate anything from the underworld, she would be obligated to stay with him. Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds. Rather than saying that Persephone had to stay in the underworld forever, Zeus compromised with Hades and said that she only had to stay for half of the year (some stories say one third or one forth of the year). When she returned from the underworld, the land became fertile again and she became the queen of springtime. And when it was time for her to return to the underworld the world became barren again.
Looking Deeper into the Persephone Story
I became fascinated with this story once it hit my radar. I’ve had some weird abduction fantasy since I was a kid (Scorpio rising, remember?) and so I had no trouble imagining the scenario. But I had a hard time with some of the elements of the story. In this version of the story, Persephone is a very passive character in her own story. The active characters are her abductor and her mother, which is hard to come to terms with in a story about the Queen of the Underworld who holds the power of the seasons of earth in her hands. And the more I looked into the story, the more information I found about a movement to rethink the story of Persephone and to give her some agency in her own life.
According to this website (which is chock full of pop culture tie-ins that make me want to do further research) there is a movement to re-examine the Persephone story, in part because of the roots of Persephone’s name. According to the article, Persephone’s name was only Persephone after her abduction. Before that, her name was Kore, which means “maiden.” Demeter was obsessed with keeping Kore’s purity intact, as that was what her name implied. She had even rejected Hermès and Apollo as suitors before the abduction, which puts her in the category as an overprotective mother who does not give Kore a voice. But once Kore is in the underworld, her name becomes Persephone, which means “bringer of destruction” according to the article. She becomes Queen of the Underworld and has power that she never had before when she was being sheltered by her mother. Perhaps she ate the seeds of her own free will rather than being tricked or forced to as some stories tell it. She needs that time away from her overbearing mother. And she comes into her own as Queen of the Underworld, doing what she is meant to do with her life.
Persephone and Samhain
For me, Samhain is a time for contemplating the earth’s place on the Wheel of the Year. There is less daylight in each day that passes, and the earth is turning inward with the approach of cold weather. The leaves are falling off of the trees and life on earth looks as if it is dying. It is a time to contemplate the life/death cycle that all things go through.
But it is also more than that. It is a time to reflect on the cycle of the last year and what had been sown during the year. Agriculturally, it is the time of the last harvest, before the plant life dies with the coming winter. Life is very different now than it was when agriculture and harvest were such a huge piece of everyone’s lives and livelihoods (although a conversation about how this change has affected our connection with the earth could be had, but is not in the scope of this blog post).
Instead of contemplating what we are harvesting agriculturally, we can look at what we are harvesting in our careers or our creative lives. What did we plant during the prior year that is now coming to fruition? What is being harvested now that was sown the year before? What will you prepare to sow in the year to come? This is why Samhain is considered the beginning of the New Year to some witches.
Honoring Persephone and the Wheel of the Year
This year I have made my Samhain ritual all about Persephone and honoring the processes that I have been through this year.
I always make a Samhain candle. It’s herbs and stones correspond to dying, transformation, and introspection.
This year I made a candle honoring Persephone’s journey into the underworld. It’s herbs and stones correspond to purity, transformation, wisdom, and shadow work.
I also made a raven candle, which is symbolic of the journey to the underworld, as well as wisdom and rebirth and renewal.
I also made a goddess candle to honor the cycle that the earth is going through, and to respect Persephone’s place as the Goddess that symbolizes the death and rebirth cycle of the earth.
I hope that everyone has a Happy Samhain.