Just as we saw with our examination of Plato, and the ancient law codes, which described the social classes, occupations, and roles that human cultures continue to foster today; there is also wisdom to be gleaned from the ancient myths, and more understanding of the social forces that were shaping their cultures than may at first appear on the surface.
Consider the tale of Hades (Pluto) and Persephone; it recalls a state of paradise when human beings lived in the care of Demeter, goddess of grain and the harvest. That time was a time of endless summer, idyllic, perfect; there was a super-abundance of food. There was no want.
Now, Persephone was Demeter’s daughter, and one day she was walking alone in the fields when Pluto, lord of the underworld, saw her. Upon seeing her he was filled with desire. He harnessed his team of horses and rode his chariot from his kingdom in the underworld to the fields wherein Persephone wandered. There he took her. He carried her away with him, back beneath the ground.
When Demeter realized that her daughter was missing she searched for her, looking over the face of the whole earth. When she could not find Persephone, she mourned for her as if she were dead. Indeed Death had taken Persephone.
Through the sorrow of Demeter, winter entered the world. The harvest came to an end. Fields that were once full of grain; froze, and the human race, which had never known want, and had never prepared for a time of need; grew hungry and starved. The hand of Death, which had seized Persephone, now spread its shadow over the face of the earth.
Zeus, king of the gods, saw what was transpiring, and he grieved for the fate of the human race. He called Demeter to court, and he ordered her to restore the harvest, Demeter was inconsolable, and she refused on account of her grief. For she loved her daughter. Zeus therefore, sent Hermes, his herald, to search for Persephone. Hermes found her enthroned, as queen of the underworld; the bride of Pluto.
When Hermes reported his discovery to Zeus; Zeus called Pluto and Persephone to court, where, in the presence of Demeter, Zeus ordered that Persephone be restored to her mother. Pluto refused, and Zeus, as great as he was, was powerless to compel what he had ordered; for Persephone had dined with Pluto, and the meal she shared with him, consummated their marriage, it bound her to him as at a wedding feast.
It seemed to Zeus that there was no hope. Demeter was mad with despair, and the human race would starving for it.
Zeus sought a compromise.
The king of the god’s asked Pluto to relent, to allow Persephone to spend half of the year with her mother, and return to the underworld to spend the other half of the year with him. Demeter’s heart would warm in the presence of her daughter, in that warming life would return to world. In that time Human beings would work hard to grow, harvest, and store grain, for the winter months; when Demeter’s heart would turn cold in her loneliness, and the fruit of the field would wither and die.
Demeter begged Pluto to agree, and though he acted as if he was being put upon, and that his rights were being circumscribed, in fact he was only too happy to make the deal; this is because Pluto is more than lord of the underworld, he is also god of the Earth’s fertility. Pluto had no desire to leave the fields sterile, that would infringe on his fecundity, though more important than this may be that Pluto is also the god of wealth. By limiting the harvest, by forcing human beings to work for their food, he took possession of the entire growing cycle, and with it the cycles of human labor. Through the principle of scarcity, Pluto commodified food, and monetized work; transforming sweat into silver and grain into gold.[i]
The human race, human culture has come a long way since Noah sentenced his son to slavery, since Hammurabi and Manu wrote their law codes, and since Plato offered his reflections on justice, in the Republic. In our day; “We have warehouses of butter, and oceans of wine; we have famine when we need it, and designer crime.”[ii] The commodification of grain, its over-production, has allowed for the birth of more human beings, generated more ergs of labor, and produced more wealth than the original authors of the myth of Pluto and Persephone could have possibly imagines. But the warnings that were embedded in their myth, through their archetypes, holds true. The warning is for the seven billion people now living in the world, which our means of industrial food production has provided for; The myth warns that we should be concerned with how much sway the lord of the underworld has gained over the real world, cycles of labor, cycles of harvest, cycles of life and death. The laws of scarcity, and the laws of supply and demand ensure that the more mouths there are to feed the more valuable food resources become; while at the same time guaranteeing that there are more sales to be made, and so creating an incentive to push the population beyond sustainable limits. The earth itself is threatened by the numbers of people living on it, all the more so if we have the desire to distribute the good things of modern life in such a way that everyone has, heat, electricity, clean water and the other things…like time and leisure, which make of life something more than a state of drudgery.
[i] My rendition of the myth.
[ii] Roger Waters, Amused to Death, 1991.