Myth & Movie: Don’t Rescue the Maiden: Persephone, Joseph Campbell, and Embracing Darkness
A lot of fairy tales I was raised on were centered around the hero’s mission to rescue the maiden as pretty much the entire plot structure. Or at least the whole point of the story.
On an archetypal level, sometimes it’s appropriate, and even important, for the hero to rescue the maiden. It can represent a liberation (either of himself, of herself, or of love) that could not happen without the rescue. It can represent a unification of masculine and feminine, and overall psychic integration.
Most of us were raised on myths and fairy tales like this. They seem wholesome and moral. They’re supposed to teach us about how love conquers all, and how true heroes stand up for ladies, and how true ladies . . . well, I guess true ladies just kind of wait around or go to sleep and hope to be rescued.
But in the case of Persephone, rescuing the maiden would be the exact wrong thing to do.
I’ve written a lot about Persephone’s story. Here’s an excerpt from another piece I did, so you don’t have to go hunting around. It compares Persephone’s story to Twilight:
When Persephone was a girl, her name was Kora. That’s important because this story is about transformation.
Kora is a maiden with no sexual experience. She’s a mama’s girl. She has no sense of personal power and doesn’t know how to set healthy boundaries. She’s not sexual herself, but every man wants her. Kind of like when Bella went to Forks and was suddenly The Girl Everyone Wanted to Take to Prom.
Hades shuns daylight is the god of the Underworld, and he’s rich. Very rich. This is symbolic of the personal treasures you can find if you have the courage to journey to your unconscious. [The Underworld symbolizes the unconscious mind in myths and archetypes.]
But Hades is kind of a recluse and he’s lonely. Nobody wants to go to the Underworld on vacation, right? And he’s a real bitch about getting his way all the time.
He stalks Kora for a little while, because the God of the Underworld can’t help but be creepy, before abducting her and dragging her to his kingdom. She screams, “No!” She struggles. But Hades doesn’t let her go, and he doesn’t stop when she uses the safeword. He abuses and assaults her.
Hades actively wants to hurt Kora. He makes no bones about this.
(In some versions of the story, Kora is traumatized and powerless. In other versions, she’s into this.)
Hades almost kills her.
He feeds her vampire blood a pomegranate seed. And it’s just enough nourishment for Kora, lying near-dead and broken on Dr. Cullen’s table in a pit in the Underworld, to begin to revive. And as she revives, she is not the same girl who was abducted.
Hades sees that the woman rising is not the same person as the girl who went down, and he literally can’t abuse her anymore. It’s not possible. She is no longer the powerless creature that he could dominate. She has changed, grown, and there is no possible way to put her back the way she was.
This is when she changes her name to Persephone.
It doesn’t take long for Hades to realize that he LIKES HER MORE NOW.
Once Kora changes into Persephone, Hades is no longer interested in hurting her. Not that he could, anyway. She is his equal. He thought he wouldn’t like her this way . . . but he does.
Once Bella is a vampire, Edward’s no longer interested in hurting her. (Not that he could.) He thought he didn’t want her to be a vampire . . . but he likes her more this way.
So Persephone is now every bit as badass as Hades. She sees that just as she has transformed, so has he, and they develop a mutual respect and love for each other. They can now rule side by side as King and Queen of the Underworld.
Kora’s descent into the Underworld, where she transforms into Persephone, is symbolic of the powerless feminine being transformed by the masculine into a powerful goddess who can call herself Queen of the Underworld—and who can master all the monsters in that place—and rule as the god’s equal.
So that’s the recap.
In our culture’s stories, maidens like Persephone who are abducted by the forces of darkness are usually in need of rescuing. Either that, or we romanticize the monster that abducts her, so he’s not really a force of darkness.
Edward Cullen, Christian Grey, and the Beast (in Beauty in the Beast) are all romanticized versions of Hades.
So we don’t see Bella Swan, Ana Steele, or Beauty, all versions of Persephone, as in need of rescue, because those are stories about love and we know the girl is in for a reward if she can tough out the scary parts.
When we tell stories about maidens who are really, truly abducted by evil bad guys of the darkness, we want them to be rescued.
As in the movie Legend (1985) with Tom Cruise and Tim Curry.
In this movie, the sweet maiden Lili is abducted by Darkness (I think that’s actually the character’s name) and dragged to the Underworld, there to be his Queen. It’s Jack’s job (Tom Cruise) to rescue her. (You totally have to watch this movie, if only to see baby Tom Cruise in hilarious Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy gear. It’s pretty epic.)
This movie seems to have a lot of similarities to Persephone’s story . . . at first. The overall theme is very different. I would even say diametrically opposed.
Because in Legend, Lili is not intended to embrace Darkness and become a more powerful version of herself.
Instead, Lili’s sweetness and innocence are values that must be saved from corruption.
Let’s check out a few clips.
In this one, Lili is seduced by the treasures in the Underworld, and by her own darker half. Just like Kora would be seduced by the Persephone version of herself in the Underworld. (This is Black Swan style stuff—all about facing and embracing the darkness within.)
And this is a fun one where we see Darkness (Tim Curry) trying to seduce Lili.
So those clips are fun and they illustrate parts of the myth really well. But in this version, Kora refuses to eat the pomegranate and she is rescued by Jack. She never actually becomes Persephone.
I do not like this moralistic myth.
I do not like that the girl’s innocence is valued over her power.
“But,” I can hear my mother asking, “why does her power have to come from the darkness? Why can’t her power be her innocence?”
Well, the movie is trying to tell us that’s exactly what’s going on. It’s trying to tell us that innocence and sweetness is power. But innocence and sweetness is not strength for a full-grown woman. Some of the maiden Kora’s defining characteristics are that she can’t set personal boundaries, she has no sense of her own power, she can’t make decisions for herself—this kind of innocence is not power, it’s naiveté.
And the “darkness” is the source of the girl’s power because it represents the shadow: the unconscious mind, facing fears, overcoming danger, and finding one’s strength.
So that’s why, mom.
And I do not like that this is ignored or discounted in many of our modern fairy tales. We don’t tell stories of transformation as much as we tell stories of redemption.
In Legend, Lili makes the decision to turn against Darkness, but ultimately Jack is the hero who rescues her. I do not like this. The moral of the movie would say it’s because she’s choosing to be a good person, and that her goodness blesses the land and makes it a beautiful, good place with unicorns and fairies. (Literally. There are freaking unicorns and fairies.) But I do not like that in turning against Darkness and being rescued, she sacrifices her personal power in order to live in a fairy tale land where nothing bad ever happens.
I do not like that the story demonizes darkness, and makes it something to be defeated, instead of an intrinsic part of the Universe, and of ourselves, that can offer us great personal understanding and strength if we have the courage to face it.
Joseph Campbell wrote in several places (such as his book Myths to Live By) about how the myths of the Christian world (and the other Abrahamic religions) differ from the myths of the Eastern religions. Our different myths reveal different ways of thinking, approaching the world, and understanding ourselves and our place in the world.
Christianity and Western religions have a dualistic view of the Universe. There is God and there is the Devil. There is good and there is bad. There is right and there is wrong. If we are to be close to God, we must choose all that is good—we must shun darkness and sin and be good little girls and boys.
We must value innocence and purity and goodness above knowledge (as we see in the story of the Garden of Eden), and certainly above our experience of ourselves as fully integrated beings with light and dark aspects.
In this worldview, when we face the darkness, it is only to have courage and overcome it. Everything unpleasant and dark is not meant to be understood, but only overcome. It is not a source of understanding, but only of danger.
Even death, which must be avoided and feared in this worldview, will eventually be overcome as we are born to eternal life.
God and the Devil, good and bad, are constantly at odds in the world, and in an individual soul. The war is neverending.
In Eastern religions and ways of thinking, such as Buddhism and Taoism, there’s the idea that light and dark are not at odds. They are instead complementary opposites.
Campbell points out that this is a much healthier, life-affirming way to approach the world. Why? Because it doesn’t demonize an entire half of the universe. It doesn’t demonize the black side of the yin-yang, and it doesn’t demonize the Underworld—the unconscious mind, or the shadow.
It doesn’t demonize the dark impulses within ourselves, or say we have to deny them. Really—does denial ever make something go away? No. Because your shadow is a part of you and you cannot carve it out. The only way to transform it is to face it, stop running from it, and understand it. Shed light on it. Doing this can often feel like “inviting the shadow in,” or embracing it.
It can be scary, because it can feel like you’re denying goodness, and who wants to do that? Who wants to be a bad person? So does embracing your shadow mean you let the darkness in you run wild and send the world into anarchy?
It means that we embrace our shadow, and we own it—and by owning it, we’re able to make decisions as whole beings (instead of as beings who are determined to only be one-sided).
If you don’t own your shadow, you say it’s not a part of you . . . but instead of going away, your shadow will take on a life of its own. If your shadow takes on a life of its own, no wonder you think it’s the Devil! No wonder you think you have to fight it!
Much better, I think, to face that shadow and embrace it to become a stronger person.
So these are two ways of approaching life, and they are reflected in the stories we tell.
Persephone is a goddess archetype who embraces this unified world where life and death are opposites, but also one and the same. She is both the Goddess of Spring and New Life, and the Queen of Death and the Underworld. The two are not incompatible for her.
And she is not at war with herself.
She has not only faced her darkness and overcome it, she has embraced it. She has not only eaten the forbidden fruit (a pomegranate), she has savored it. She has not only descended into “Hell,” she loves Hades (who we may see as the Devil, though he is not the Devil).
She is not a figure the Christian world could easily embrace because she does not align herself solely with the forces of light.
When we rescue the maiden Kora, we’re denying her the opportunity (which is really her right) to transform into the mighty goddess Persephone. We’re denying her the right to face her shadow, and we’re trying to keep her small and one-sided.
We’re valuing spring more than winter. Life more than death or transformation. Consciousness more than unconsciousness. Being good over being strong. Girlish innocence more than feminine strength.
Rescuing Kora means we would rather make choices based on fear of the darkness, than based on understanding it.
A culture that values fear of its own darkness will always be at war with itself, and with anything it sees as different.
As an archetype, Persephone exists within us all.
And we should not rescue this particular maiden from the darkness. We should not try to protect the sweet innocent feminine and keep it safe from the world. To do so is to keep the feminine small and weak.
Let her drive late at night. Let her travel alone all over the world. Let her get lost in strange neighborhoods. Let her talk to strangers, and even get hurt. Let this little girl face her shadows and devils, let her feel the very real pain and fear that it brings, and let her transform those forces within herself to become a dark and radiant queen.
If we rescue this maiden, then she won’t connect with her own power.
Then the creatures of the darkness will always feel like monsters to her. (That is, aspects of our own shadows will always feel like monsters to us.)
We’ll always be at war with ourselves.
I want to end with a few other movie clips that show aspects of Persephone’s story. But these get her ending closer to right.
One is Pan’s Labyrinth.
In this movie, we have an actual little girl to represent Kora. She confronts her own shadows and demons, and she descends to her own Underworld.
Compare this clip, of the little girl eating fruit from a banquet in the Underworld, to the one from Legend, where Lili refused to eat or drink.
In this movie, it is the girl’s very innocence that leads her to eat the fruit in the first place. She doesn’t recognize the danger (even though it’s apparent) and she eats the food because it’s pretty and tempting.
In this movie, the girl is not rescued. Her innocence is her downfall—but also her salvation. Because she dies and goes to the Underworld . . . where everyone has been waiting for her. She’s been the princess of the Underworld all along.
This clip is in Spanish.
The other movie is Twilight. (Yes, Twilight!)
There were a lot of characters in this series (Jacob, ahem) who tried to rescue Bella from the darkness, but good for her for not letting them. Edward may have been a sanitized version of Hades, but he was still her path to personal transformation.
Just watch Bella’s transformation into a vampire and tell me it’s not a Kora-becomes-Persephone and marries the God of the Underworld moment.
Once more, everyone is waiting for her. This has been her true place all along, and the people responsible for her “death” (her transformation) have been her allies all along.
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