It is unclear if Octavia E. Butler purposefully embedded the Eleusinian myth—or the myth of Demeter and Persephone—into Parable of the Talents, yet I find it almost impossible that she did not consider it consciously. Far too many coincidences point towards the myth in Talents, and it fits too perfectly with the seed/sower themes of the two Parable novels.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were an oral tradition that were part of the initiation rites into the cult of Demeter, which began in the ancient city of Eleusis (Trckova-Flamee). These hidden rites—or Mysteries—were in existence long before the ancient Athenians arrived on the historical scene (Veronese). No one knows exactly what was said, but we do know that the story of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, known then as Kore (the maiden), was recited. Yet Kore is more than just a young girl, she is an innocent.
In this myth, which is recalled in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone is out with her friends one day when she notices a narcissus—a daffodil—and plucks it. That is when the earth opens up and Hades, the god of the Underworld, pulls her down into the land of shades (Hom. Hymn, 6-19). There is no help for her, even though there are witnesses to the abduction (26-27). Demeter, Persephone’s mother and goddess of grain, begins to search for her missing daughter. She disguises herself, uses a false name, and finds work among mortals as she continues her search (118-144). She even physically ages in her grief as she hopelessly looks for her missing child (100-102) .
This myth is often thought of as a metaphor for the catastrophic event known as rape, and rightly so. Persephone is taken. The world opens up and she is swallowed into a darkness that she cannot escape. But this is not the end of the story, only the beginning.
Persephone wallows in the land of shades. From her perspective, no one seems to know or care about the situation she has found herself in due to no fault of her own. Then, to her surprise and joy, Hermes the messenger god is dispatched to remove her from the hands of Hades (340-350). When she can finally leave and come into the light, Hades slyly gives her some pomegranate seeds (371-374). She eats them, and thus accepts some of the darkness into herself, ensuring her return to the Underworld (387-400). She actually lies to her mother, telling her that Hades forced her to eat the pomegranate seeds, when clearly he only gave them to her (406-413).
Thus, for part of each year, Persephone returns to the Underworld. This is the season of winter, when the world is cold because Demeter will not allow anything to grow until her child returns home in the spring (445-472). After Persephone leaves Demeter and returns to Hades, she reigns as queen by his side. In this way, the Eleusinian Mysteries can be interpreted as a struggle of a daughter to escape a dominant mother so that she can discover her true self. Persephone experiences power. It may be a dark power, but it is a power that is her own.
Of the few works I have examined about the Eleusinian myth, from the classical to the modern, most seems to focus on the point of view of Demeter—her angst, her struggle, and her unjust treatment. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Ovid’s The Games of Ceres from the Fasti, Ovid’s The Rape of Proserpina, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Demeter And Persephone, and Rita Dove’s Mother Love all spend very few moments on Persephone and her reactions to her life-altering event. Persephone, when she is mentioned, is usually depicted as a temptress girl-woman and not the victim of a crime. In Talents, Butler gives Persephone voice and when Butler’s Persephone speaks, we find—not surprisingly—that she is furious, but not at the actual perpetrators of the crime. She is furious at her mother. In an interview with Butler, she said:
As I tried to write Talents, as I wrote those 150 pages over and over again, I was trying to write only Olamina’s story. Then, in late 1996, my mother had a stroke. After three weeks, she died.
This was a difficult time. My mother was widowed shortly after I was born, and I was an only child. We had always been close. Not surprisingly, I did no novel writing all the while she was dying and for some time afterwards. I didn’t get back to the novel until around January 1997. By then, somehow, the novel had changed.
Olamina’s story had become also her daughter’s story, and it wasn’t a happy mother-daughter story. My mother and I had had a quite good relationship. I don’t know why her passing somehow inspired the situation between Olamina and her daughter. Whatever was going on with me, the story began to live more and move. In a sense, it was my mother’s last gift to me. (Conversation, 413)
Butler may well have been exorcising her anger, even fury, at the passing of her mother. This is a typical Demeter-Persephone theme: their parting causes deep trauma in both mother and daughter. But it is also their parting that causes the release of great power, like the splitting of a bond in an atom.
In Talents, we learn of Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist, long after she has died. We see her through her daughter’s eyes and through her journals. Both women speak at the same time. Both voices carry weight. Her daughter wastes no time in telling the reader how she feels about her mother. It’s right there in the prologue:
I have wanted to love her and to believe that what happened between her and me wasn’t her fault. I’ve wanted that. But instead, I’ve hated her, feared her, needed her. I’ve never trusted her, though, never understood how she could be the way she was—so focused, and yet so misguided, there for all the world, but never there for me. (Butler, 2)
The book begins with the mother-daughter struggle and this is the tension that ultimately drives the novel. Much happens in the world of Talents: disease, crime, murder, slavery, rape… Butler delivers to us every horror that human beings are capable of producing. Yet the center thrust of her novel is a very ancient drama, the need for a mother and daughter to love and understand each other, to see each other.
Olamina is the quintessential Demeter archetype. She represents the maternal instinct fulfilled through pregnancy or through providing physical, psychological, or spiritual nourishment to others (Bolen, 171). She is fierce, determined, and far-seeing. She is the Great Sower, a goddess of seed. From cactus plants to her Acorn community, she plants things and helps them to grow.
Olamina also plants the idea of Earthseed and fosters its birth. Her daughter fundamentally does not understand this. If my mother had created only Acorn, the refuge for the homeless and the orphaned. … If she had created Acorn, but not Earthseed, then I think she would have been a wholly admirable person (Butler, 63-4). But the nature of a sower is to plant a seed and cultivate its growth into something more. As the title Parable of the Talents suggests, to bury a talent (a gift) and produce no profit from it, in Olamina’s mind is a great sin (Butler, 15). Olamina knows, or rather, has the deepest belief that the Acorn community that she has planted must grow into something greater and that Earthseed will one day go to the stars.
Earthseed is Olamina’s contribution to what she feels should be a species-wide effort to evade, or at least to lengthen the specialize-grow-die evolutionary cycle that humanity faces, that every species faces.
We can be a long-term success and the parents, ourselves, of a vast array of new peoples, new species, she says, or we can be just one more abortion. We can, we must, scatter the Earth’s living essence—human, plant, and animal—to extrasolar worlds: ‘The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.’ (Butler, 46)
Larkin is born into the loving home of Olamina and Bankole and is welcomed into a peaceful community. Her birth brings great joy to her parents and plans for the future. Her father is a man many years older than her mother and could easily be confused with being Olamina’s father himself.
For Larkin, like Persephone, peace is not to be hers. She is destined for catastrophe. Her catastrophe is the appearance of seven maggots riding down a hill on a warm September afternoon.
These maggots—armored, all-terrain, all wheel-drive vehicles that are something less than a tank, and something more than a truck (Butler, 186)—roll into the community of Acorn and destroy everything bright, peaceful, and hopeful that are meant to be a part of baby Larkin’s life. She is stolen away from Olamina’s arms. It is as if the world has opened up and swallowed her into darkness.
Olamina has had a chance to escape this fate for herself and her daughter. Her husband has all but begged her to move to Halstead, a local town that is long established, yet modern, familiar, and isolated (Butler, 139). Bankole had been offered the position of doctor there and would have been given a nice house with an ocean view. But Olamina refuses to leave Acorn. Her dreams for Earthseed are far too important to her. This causes her daughter to believe that her mother loves her work more than she loves her.
Should she have left Acorn and gone to live in Halstead as my father asked? Of course she should have! And if she had, would she, my father, and I have managed to have normal, comfortable lives through Jarret’s upheavals? I believe we would have. My father called her immature, unrealistic, selfish, and shortsighted. Shortsighted, of all things! If there are sins in Earthseed, shortsightedness, lack of forethought, is the worst of them. And yet shortsighted is exactly what she was. She sacrificed us for an idea. (Butler, 137-8)
Could Olamina have seen the catastrophe coming? I believe so. More than enough warnings were given: from the regular news reports on the declining political atmosphere, to the calamity that befalls the nearby settlement of Dovetree (Butler, 16-18). But can a mother be held responsible for the evil acts of another? No, that I do not believe. Though, one could argue that Olamina’s responsibility is to keep her child as safe as possible at all costs which Olamina does not do and her child suffers greatly because of this. Olamina (Demeter) has a choice: tend to Earthseed (her fields), care for them and watch them grow into maturity, or care for the welfare of her child (Persephone). Olamina chooses Earthseed.
Yet this seems like a false choice—a dilemma faced by so many women. This did not need to be an either/or situation, but a decision about balance. With some creative thinking it might have been possible for Olamina to ensure the safety of her child and help to make Earthseed grow. Maybe she should have allowed her husband to live in Halstead with the baby with him while she commuted back and forth? Maybe they could have offered a deal with Halstead to protect Acorn in exchange for Bankole’s medical services? Instead Olamina does nothing but hope that everything will be okay which is reckless and irresponsible.
In the hands of her captors, Larkin is renamed Asha Vere and is adopted by good Christian American parents. The Christian Americans in Talents are a sect of the Christian church led by the President of the United States, a man named Jarret who has promised to fix the country through religion (Butler, 243).
Thus Persephone descends into hell. Hades (the place, not the god) is the land of shades, and Asha (Persephone) is its powerless captive. Life doesn’t happen in Hades. Death doesn’t happen there either. Hades is a place where nothing happens. Only a dreary existence passes in the land of despair. Asha’s hell is to live like a shadow in a perverse, unfeeling, cold world.
Quiet was good. Questioning was bad. Children should be seen and not heard. They should believe what their elders told them, and be content that it was all they needed to know. If there were any brutality in the way I was raised, that was it. Stupid faith was good. Thinking and questioning were bad. I was to be like a sheep in Christ’s flock—or Jarret’s flock. I was to be quiet and meek. Once I learned that my childhood was at least physically comfortable. (Butler, 265)
And if she is raped, it is more of a silent molestation, a nasty non-event that is more creepy than brutal. While Hades is the traditional villain of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Hades of Talents, Asha’s adopted father, though he is a molester with nasty, moist little hands (Butler, 349), is a relatively minor villain.
My strongest memory of him, when I was four or five, was of his picking me up, putting me in his lap and feeling me. I didn’t know why I didn’t like this. I just learned early to stay out of his way as much as I could. (Butler, 245)
It is the nature of Persephone to withdraw from life during her time in the Underworld. Some Persephones withdraw into a shadowy world of inner images, musings, and imagined life—a world to which only they have access (Bolen, 219). And so little Asha enters her fantasy world to escape.
I began creating secret Dreamask scenarios when I was 12. By then, I was very much the timid, careful daughter of Kayce and Madison Alexander. … I wrote about having different parents—parents who cared about me and didn’t wish always that I were another person … Instead of living in shabby, patched-together old Seattle with its missile-strike scars, we lived in a big corporate town. We were important and had plenty of money. We spent our time speeding around in fast cars or making flashy scientific discoveries in laboratories or catching gangs of spies, embezzlers, and saboteurs. (Butler, 325-327)
While Asha wallows in her version of Hades, Olamina like Demeter searches for her missing daughter in disguise (as a man) and calls herself by another name (Butler, 297). She is so driven in her anger and grief that she physically ages (Butler, 332). But here is the twist. Butler’s Persephone doesn’t get rescued from the land of Hades. She rescues herself.
I had left home. Even though a girl who left home unmarried was seen by church members as almost a prostitute. I left as soon as I was 18. … There was no love in the Alexander house. There was only the habit of being together, and, I suppose, the fear of even greater loneliness … Because of my singing, I tried to stay with the church after I moved out of Kayse and Madison’s house. I did try. But I couldn’t do it. … I couldn’t take it. A few months after I left home, I left the church. (Butler, 349-350)
And the man who could have (and should have) rescued Asha from her Hades, her uncle Marc, does nothing. Marc Duran, Olamina’s good-looking half brother, is without a doubt Hermes. He is a preacher, the ultimate message carrier, and also a teller of partial truths, a trickster. When he finally meets his niece, he lies to her and tells her that both her parents are dead.
Not until he began to talk about Acorn did he begin to lie. Acorn, he said, was a small mountain community—a real community, not a squatter settlement. But he said nothing about Earthseed, Acorn’s religion. Acorn was destroyed like Robledo, he continued. My parents met there, married there, and were killed there. I was found crying in the ruins of the community. (Butler, 353)
In yet another twist, Butler makes Hermes (Uncle Marc) the one that returns Persephone (Asha) in the Underworld (the Church of Christian America) instead of the traditional villain of Hades. Asha even comes back to the religion that caused herself and her family so much pain, not because she is slipped something slyly (like Hades’ pomegranate seeds), but because of the lies of her Uncle Marc!
I don’t know that Uncle Marc would ever have told me the truth about my mother. I don’t believe that he intended to. He never wavered from his story that she was dead, and I never suspected that he was lying. I loved him, believed him, trusted him completely. … I even went back to the church because of Uncle Marc. I went back to the Church of Christian America, physically, at least. (Butler, 377)
Asha, once she learns the truth of her parentage, fails to blame the perpetrators of the crimes against her or even her uncle for failing to return her to her mother. Instead she blames her mother for giving her attention to her other child, her older and best beloved child, Earthseed (Butler, 379). Maybe she is wrong to feel this way … or maybe she is right.
In an interview with Locus Magazine, Butler said—
In the Parable books, we have one person who decides this is what religion should be doing, and she uses religion to get us into interstellar space. Sower and Talents were the fictional autobiography of Lauren Olamina, though Talents turned out to be a mother/daughter story. There are no more books about her, but I am working on a book (which may or may not come off, and may be called Parable of the Trickster) about people who go, who do fulfill that destiny and go to this other world.
Given that Marc Durham is so clearly the trickster god Hermes, one could speculate that the next book in the Parable series might have had something to do with him, his descendants, and/or his followers. But alas, we probably will never know what that book would have been about since Butler, at least to my knowledge, never completed it and passed away in 2006.
Asha and Olamina finally meet after many, many years apart. Uncomfortable truths are spoken, old unhealed wounds long covered by scabs are scratched open. As their conversation winds down, it becomes clear that a joyous reunion for them is never to be. In the end, Olamina reaches out for her daughter, calling her Larkin. Her daughter responds:
I stopped and looked back at her, realizing that she had called me by the name that she had given to her baby daughter so long ago. Asha, I said, looking back at her. My name is Asha Vere. (Butler, 403)
Thus the abducted daughter of the goddess of the seed asserts her identity at last, and chooses who and where she will be. This is her power. It may be a dark power, but it is a power that is her own.
Butler deftly uses an ancient myth as a guide to speak of the future. What she has done here is to weave a new myth out of an old one. So the past speaks of the future and the future tells us of the past in an endless loop of human experience. This is the beauty of myths. They are not just stories. They are teaching tools. They tell us who we are. They warn us. Our mythical stories live and breathe as long as we live and breathe. Every culture has them and they are the stories of us. And when a story is true—in the deepest sense of truth—multiple layers of understanding can grow out of that single tale, as we see here with the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The mother-daughter struggle in Talents is about priorities and responsibilities. Butler casts Olamina as Demeter, the goddess of the working single mother. Her work is not simply about putting food on the table. She knows that unless she does her job, the whole world will starve. But Demeter is also a mother, and her child needs her. Without her protection, her child is vulnerable. It’s a balancing act that Demeter has to get right. And sometimes she doesn’t. She makes mistakes—painful, stupid mistakes—that Persephone ends up paying for.
In Parable of the Talents, Butler tells us a story with lessons we should all heed. Even as we build a new future, we cannot simply escape what has been. We must acknowledge our past and learn from it lest we repeat our own mistakes.
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Jennifer Marie Brissett has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine. Her stories can be found in Morpheus Tales, Warrior Wisewoman 2, The Future Fire, and Halfway Down the Stairs. Her first novel Elysium is currently being shopped to publishers and she is working on her second novel, Eleusis. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her website can be found at www.jennbrissett.com.
Copyright © 2012 Jennifer Marie Brissett. All Rights Reserved.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Original Posting: October 22, 2012