Letting Persephone go

Funerary Vessel with an Underworld Scene (detail, pre-conservation), South Italian, made in Apulia, 360–340 BC; found in Altamura, Italy, in 1847, terracotta. Red-figure volute kraterattributed to the Circle of the Lycurgus Painter

“Can’t fathom where August went.”
“Where did it go?”
“That was quick!”

So goes the small talk as summer wanes. We speak about time as if it’s hiding, which is not so far off the mark. August actually does go somewhere. Like Persephone, the eighth month of the year is abducted only to return the next. If we’re going to be specific, on the 335th day of 2020. 

Futile, but nonetheless felt, the sighs that accompany August’s departure will soon give way full-throated protests at the prospect of the colder months to come. Winter marks our seasonal reunion with Hades. For some, it’s literally and figuratively a hellish prospect. For bears, box turtles, hedgehogs, and their kindred humans, it’s a welcome invitation to hibernate.  

A tondo from a red-figure kylix depicting Persephone and HadesVulci, c. 440-430 BCE.

Counter-intuitively, Persephone’s story makes the case for winter: While Demeter is in the throes of loss at the disappearance of her daughter, said-daughter doesn’t seem to be suffering, at least to go by the Greeks who invented her. As Queen of the demimonde, Persephone doesn’t waste her time grieving or counting the days. She makes the most of her confinement, supping and dining with Hades in full royal regalia. Admittedly, in lighter garb than New York winters demand. Moreover, during her hiatus she’s fattening up before spring – just like the rest of us. 

Cronus and the Omphalos stone, Athenian red-figure pelike c. 5th B.C.

Today, we lesser mortals are told that seasonal rhythms governed Persephone’s existence have become all but obsolete. Historians of modernity are quick to point out that we’ve designed time away. The predictable cycles of agrarian life have long since been supplanted. They were uprooted not just by the shorter production schedules of the now-decrepit industrial revolution, but also by the digital flows that continue to do their best to murder Chronos, who not coincidentally is Persephone’s grandfather.  We seem to have gone from circular time, to linear time, to no time at all.

Perhaps that’s the reason why I look forward to my reunion with Hades. It’s a protest against the negation of time. Winter slows things down, or so I choose to think. Snow brings quiet. That’s a fact. Cold stokes the firing of synapses and more, not less, gets done before the vernal equinox. Or seems to. 

Climate-watchers will (rightly) take issue with such romanticism. They will point out that we have also designed away the weather. What were buildings and clothing for in the first place? Only the residents of Mount Olympus could have survived without them.  Persephone escaped the winter by going underground; today we go inside and pay a hefty a toll to enter. The energy we expend to compensate for limited sunlight is undeniabley out of proportion to what we give back.

So why welcome winter? Because keeping warm isn’t just a physiological process. It’s psychological. We stay warm by drawing things closer and rediscovering their distinctions – even and especially the seasons, given that their own are under threat. We can only hope that, like Persephone, they’ll continue to come back every year.

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