Heralding the Coming God: Schelling’s Philosophy of the Persephone Myth

From its root there grew
a hundred blooms which had a scent so sweet that all
the wide heaven above and all the earth and all
the salt swelling of the sea laughed aloud.
And then the girl too wondered at it, she reached out
her hands to take this thing of such delight,
but the earth with wide paths gaped in the plain of Nysia,
and He Who Accepts So Many, the lord, sprang upon her
with his immortal horses, that son of Chronos with many names.
– From “Hymn to Demeter”[1]

For Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, the truth of God could be found in the mythologies of antiquity. Schelling’s philosophy of mythology explores the presence of God in the world as revealed through cultural myths and religious revelation. He primarily focused on Greek mythology, with a particular concentration on the Cabiri gods of the island of Samothrace, which he felt empirically confirmed an early image of the nature of God which he had worked out in his own metaphysical ontology.[2] The Cabiri myth, and the mystery initiation rituals associated with it have widespread connections throughout the ancient world, both within the Mediterranean and beyond. The most prevalent correlation to the Cabiri, as Schelling discusses in his essay The Deities of Samothrace, is the myth of Persephone’s abduction to the underworld and subsequent return, which mirrors both the succession of the seasons throughout the year and the cyclical development of a plant. Persephone’s story is both a metaphor and a symbol for Schelling’s God, a God who is also in an eternal, dynamic process that leads to the creation of the world in his own image.[3]

The ontology of Schelling’s God was based initially on the writings of Jakob Böhme in combination with earlier works of his own.[4] God exists as two poles, one of absolute free will and the other of necessity, and each pole can be understood through Schelling’s positive and negative philosophies respectively.[5] Schelling paints “a portrait of a God who constitutes himself as a duality-in-unity” and it is the continuous tension and harmonization of this polarity that gives God a dynamic, living, and even evolving existence.[6] Of these two poles, the pole of necessity has within it its own polarized structure, which also is in a process of tension and harmonization. First, there is the initial force that is the dark ground of all being, a centripetal potency of “pure subjectivity” that draws all things eternally into itself. The second force is one of “pure objectivity,” a centrifugal potency eternally radiating forth. The opposing tensions of these two forces are in continual struggle with each other, and can only be reconciled by a third potency, one that would not be present without the other two. This third uniting potency is love, which harmonizes and brings an unstable balance between the first two, before the third potency is overcome and the cycle begins anew.[7]

While Schelling writes that this interaction of the three potencies is in God’s “past” he also calls it an “eternal process,” indicating that it is atemporal and not subject to linear time.[8] However, God’s pole of necessity is ultimately subordinate to the pole of freedom, or pure will, which brings true balance to the tension between the centripetal and centrifugal forces within the necessity pole. The third potency of the necessity pole, love, mediates between freedom and necessity, allowing for harmony in God’s being.[9] It is through this highest principle of freedom that God is able to freely create the world in the image of God’s own being. Thus the world has the same polar structure as God, and the repeating process of tension, imbalance, and harmony echoes throughout every layer of creation’s existence.[10] The forces of centration and expansion exist in the world as the polarities of the real and the ideal, the corporeal and the spiritual. They too are brought into balance through love, which acts as the mediator between the world and the transcendent aspect of God. The pole of freedom exists in creation as human creativity and free will, in a parallel image of God’s own freedom.[11] Upon coming into relationship with creation, God’s freely created mirror, God is able to become conscious of Godself.[12] “Since nothing is outside of God, the very knowledge of God is simply the nonfinite knowledge which God has of himself in the eternal self-affirmation, that is, it is itself the being of God and is in this being.”[13] Yet not only is the world a reflection of God’s image, but God also enters into creation and is revealed historically in the mythologies and religious revelations of human culture.[14]

By investigating the mythologies of antiquity Schelling was able to perceive an intimation of the structure of God that he had worked out in his philosophy. The island of Samothrace in the Aegean Sea was home to the initiation rites of the Cabiri, which reveal a sequence of gods nearly identical to those in the myth of Persephone, central to the comparable mystery rites of Eleusis.[15] While Schelling indicated there were seven, or even possibly eight, Cabiri gods, he names the first four in The Deities of Samothrace: Axieros, Axiokersa, Axiokersos, and Kasmilos. These four gods are understood to be the Hellenic gods Demeter, Persephone, Hades, and Hermes.[16]

In the most prevalent version of this myth, Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the grain, and Zeus, king of the Olympian gods. While playing in the meadows, Persephone is drawn to an exquisite flower grown as a temptation by Gaia, at the bidding of Zeus. As Persephone plucks the flower, the earth gapes open and she is abducted against her will by Hades, Lord of the Underworld. In grief, Demeter flies about the earth searching for her daughter, and when she discovers that the abduction of her daughter was sanctioned by Zeus she desolates the landscape in her fury. In fear of her wrath, and to save the fertile earth from destruction, Zeus sends his messenger Hermes to the Underworld to retrieve Persephone. Yet, while she was in the realm of shades, Persephone ate six seeds of the pomegranate fruit, thus tying her forever to that domain; for whoever eats the food of the dead must remain in the Underworld. As a compromise, Zeus decrees that Persephone must spend six months in the Underworld, one for each seed, and six months with her mother in the light of the sun. So it is that mother and daughter are reunited, but only for a time, and each year the cycle continues, causing the wheel of the seasons to turn as Persephone the maiden of the upper world descends to become Queen of the Underworld each winter.[17]

While the structure of the story remains relatively similar, innumerable versions of this myth exist in which the cultural lineage of the gods is revealed through their many names and relationships to each other. The grain goddess Demeter was initially a goddess of Crete where her lover was the god Plautos, a name strikingly similar to Pluto, the Roman name of Hades.[18] Although in this myth Persephone, who was born on Crete, is the daughter of Demeter and Zeus, there is another myth in which Zeus seduces Persephone and she gives birth to Dionysos.[19] Schelling writes that according to Heraclitus, Hades and Dionysos were really the same god, and in other understandings of the Greek pantheon Zeus and Hades are interchangeable as well, as both are called the “son of Chronos with many names.”[20]

In the myth of the Cabiri, Hades and Dionysos are both associated with the name Axiokersos, the third god in the sequence of Samothrace.[21] Additionally, Persephone’s Cabiri name is Axiokersa, which contains the root “Kersa,” derived from the Hebrew hrs, or Ceres, the Roman name of Demeter.[22] Thus Schelling and other sources conclude that Demeter and Persephone are really one and the same, two parts of a continuous cyclical being.[23] Demeter’s Cabiri name, Axieros, Schelling has translated as “hunger,” “poverty,” “yearning,” “seeking,” and “longing.”[24] She is the first god of the Cabiri sequence, in a continuous state of seeking and drawing all things in toward her.[25] Culturally, Demeter is an older goddess figure than her Olympian brothers, and can in many ways be considered first, the fertile ground of being out of which the harvest grows.[26]

The fourth god of the Cabiri is Kasmilos, also called Kadmilos or Camillus, and is best known as Hermes, the messenger god.[27] The name Kasmilos has roots in the word “Kadmiel” which Schelling translates as “he who goes before the god.” Hermes is the messenger and servant of Zeus, highest of the gods, and acts as a mediator between Zeus and the first three gods of the Cabiri. It is from this ranking that Schelling infers that the Cabiri must be in a sequence, from lowest to highest, all heralding the coming of a higher god, which may be equated with Zeus, or ultimately Schelling’s Christian God.[28]

The Cabiri simultaneously herald the coming of the highest God, and also constitute a symbol of the structure of Schelling’s God. On Samothrace the first three Cabiri were collectively called Hephaestos, and Schelling writes that “The creation of Hephaestos is the world of necessity.”[29] Thus the first Cabiri comprise the pole of necessity in Schelling’s God: Axieros and Axiokersa symbolize the primary ground of being and the force of centration, and Axiokersos is the force of expansion.[30]

Schelling writes “Ceres is the moving power through whose ceaseless attraction everything, as if by magic, is brought from the primal indeterminateness to actuality or formation.”[31] With Demeter and Persephone as two sides of the same goddess Ceres, Demeter represents the formless “primal indeterminateness” and Persephone, who is born from Demeter, is that same power but actualized into form.

Whereas the first of the Cabiri can be equated with the first power… in its pure, unstructured aspect in the necessity pole in God, the second Cabiri goddess symbolizes that power as transformed into the first potency, which is the foundation of a dimension, or a region, of actual being.[32]

Axiokersos, who is both Hades and Dionysos, is the Lord of the Underworld, ruler of spirits and the realm of the dead, and thus symbolizes the second potency of Schelling’s God.[33] The second potency is the realm of spirit in the creation, but as Schelling’s translator Robert Brown writes, “…the spirit world is to be fully actualized only in an afterlife which souls enter upon death.”[34]

The third uniting potency, which Schelling emphasized does not have its own constitution, is symbolized by Kasmilos, or Hermes, who mediates not only between the first two potencies but between the pole of necessity and the pole of freedom, or between the triangle of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades, and Zeus.[35] The pole of freedom in Schelling’s God is pure will and balances the pole of necessity, just as finally Zeus intervenes and creates a cyclical harmony between Demeter, Persephone, and Hades.[36]

This myth, in its many forms, served as the basis of the various Greek mystery rites, from the initiations of Samothrace, the rituals of Thesmophoria or the “Festival of Sorrow,” to the Eleusinian mystery rites.[37] While some scholars believed the secret of all the ancient mystery rites was “the doctrine of the unity of god,” Schelling disagreed with this notion in part, deeming that it would be impossible for a secret monotheism to exist in deceit of a public polytheism.[38] Rather, it seems that the unity experienced in the mysteries was both an understanding of the necessary unity of the gods within the sequence of the Cabiri myth, and also the union of the initiates with the divine.[39]

Because it was forbidden to reveal what occurred during the rites, we do not have a full picture of the initiatory rite of passage. We do know that participants consumed a grain drink called kykeon, a mixture of barley, water, and mint, which was said the be the drink Demeter requested after her fast during which she desolated the earth in her rage against Zeus and Hades.[40] Also included in this drink was the psychedelic rye fungus ergot, also called Mutterkorn, or “mother grain,” in German.[41] It is likely that the mind-expanding quality of this drink, as well as the ceremonies enacted during the rites, allowed the initiates to understand the ultimate unity and contingency of the gods within the sequence of the Cabiri myth, as they herald the higher God into manifestation.[42] Even the name Cabiri seems to be descended from the Hebrew term Chabir, “which expresses simultaneously inseparable connection and magical union.”[43]

The holy, revered teaching of the Cabiri, in its profoundest significance, was the representation of the insoluble life itself as it progresses in a sequence of levels from the lowest to the highest, a representation of the universal magic and of the theurgy ever abiding in the whole universe, through which the invisible, indeed the super-actual, incessantly is brought to revelation and actuality.[44]

Like Elohim, the plural name of the Godhead in the Old Testament, the Cabiri are one, not differentiated but still distinct; so too are the potencies of Schelling’s God, each distinct with their own qualities, yet ultimately constituting a whole.[45]

The sequence of the mystery rites paralleled the sequence of the Cabiri myth, and it seems that initiates each underwent the journey of Persephone to the Underworld. Plutarch wrote that “to die is to be initiated” and even the word “to die” in Greek, teleutan, is related to the word for initiation, teleisthai.[46] Yet, like Persephone, the initiates returned to the light of day and were reunited with Demeter, an ultimate rebalancing and reconciliation.[47]

Just as the story of Persephone mirrors the cycle of the seasons, it also mirrors the growth of a plant from a seed embedded in the earth to a shoot flowering and finally fruiting. Another name for Persephone was Kore, from koros meaning “sprout;” Persephone also translates as “she who shines in the dark,” symbolizing the dormant life of the seed underground, as well as her shining presence as Queen of the Underworld.[48] Persephone’s descent is a necessary process, a cycle of death and regeneration vital for life to continue. It is as though the flower Gaia grew to tempt Persephone to the brink of Hades’ realm was grown in service of the greater need of earth’s fertility.[49] Even the symbol of this single beautiful flower carries the dynamic of the entire myth within it.

Demeter and Persephone both symbolize the first potency of Schelling’s God, but Demeter is the first potency before creation and Persephone the first potency after, just as the seed and the shoot are one plant, before and after the germination process. The world is created in the image of God, and as such has the same ontological structure as God.[50] Thus the poles of necessity and freedom, and within the pole of necessity the force of centration and physicality, and the force of expansion and spirituality, all unified by love, ripple out and can be found within every structure of the created universe. As Brown writes, “Because the potencies of being are not exhausted in whatever severally exemplifies or symbolizes them, they can recur at various levels within an extended hierarchy.”[51] The polarities can be found in the growth of plants, the cycles of the seasons, and the polytheistic pantheons of antiquity. They overlap and combine, the mythological gods intertwined with earth’s natural processes.[52]

Schelling believed that because God had entered creation, God was being revealed in a historical evolution from the ancient stories of mythology to the revelations of the religions, disclosing each potency in sequence, leading ultimately to knowledge of God as a whole.[53] The Cabiri are at the evolutionary stage of the full revelation of God’s pole of necessity, but intimations of the next stages are also present in that mythology. Kasmilos, or Hermes, is the herald of the coming God, who is both the Olympian Zeus and a God higher than Zeus. Schelling mentioned that there were either seven or eight Cabiri, and it seems that Zeus was both the seventh, as a link in the sequence, and also the eighth, as the final God who is manifested by the relationships of the first seven.[54] Each participant of the sequence is divine, as Schelling writes in one of his aphorisms: “Yet not only the whole as whole is divine. For so is also the part and the particular by itself.”[55]

As a Christian, Schelling believed that God was revealed fully in the revelation of Christ. The fallen state of the world is a manifestation of the first potency, but God acted through the spirituality of the second potency to bring new harmony and balance to creation. This manifestation of the second potency is the incarnation of Christ. The teaching of Christ is that of love, which is the third unifying principle, which leads ultimately to a full union with the divine.[56]

The polarized structure of God and the world has been in an eternal cyclical process that has also been evolving linearly through time. The Godhead is both revealed in the course of time and outside of it altogether. In the mythology of Samothrace, time is located above all of the gods, which can also be seen in the family tree of the Cabiri: Chronos, who represents time, is either the father or the grandfather of all the gods in that story.[57] Schelling also wrote, “Because the gods come forth in succession, they themselves are only the offspring of almighty time;” time is the true creator and permeates all things.[58] Yet Schelling’s God existed before time and is caught in an “eternal process,” therefore his God is also outside of time.[59] It seems that ultimately Schelling’s God is both subject to time yet also free of it, just as God has one pole of necessity and one pole of freedom.

The final question remains then, what will happen when the creation ultimately unites with God through the mediation of love? Through this process God has become fully conscious of Godself and the poles are completely balanced. As both subject to and free of time will the cycle end in harmonious balance or, like a seed planted in the earth, will a new creation germinate and sprout to a truly new florescence?

Appendix

Just as the structure of God’s being can be found throughout the creation of nature, it is also mirrored in the realm of archetypal astrology, especially as it pertains to Schelling’s own birth chart. Schelling was born January 27, 1775, at 3:00 am in Ragaz Switzerland, Germany. The most prevalent aspect in his chart is a stellium of four planets: Sun, Mercury, Venus, and Pluto. The configuration of these four planets correlates perfectly with the Cabiri myth, and thus corresponds to his ontology of God as well. Venus represents the first potency, and like the Cabiri myth relates simultaneously to both Demeter and Persephone. Venus is the archetype of beauty, as portrayed by the young maiden Persephone, and also of flowers and that which grows upon the earth. As the archetype of love, Venus also relates to the loving bond between mother and daughter in this myth. Pluto correlates directly to Hades and Dionysos, both of whom are represented by this archetype. Pluto rules the Underworld and the entire death-rebirth process, which is the primary theme of both this myth and the mystery rites associated with it. Mercury correlates to its namesake Hermes, and acts as mediating messenger, but also a bringer of love, represented by the Mercury-Venus combination. Finally, the Sun represents the Godhead, which the first four gods are heralding, the ultimate shining principle in its singularity and perfection, bringing all the other archetypes into a single conception of God.

An additional aspect of note is that Schelling’s birth chart has Saturn in a trine with the Sun-Pluto stellium, which can be seen as both the inherent structure of the Godhead, but also the prevalence of time as the true creator and that which drives the evolution of God’s creation.

Works Cited

Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London, England: Viking Arkana, 1991.

Metzner, Ralph. Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999.

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von. “Schelling’s Aphorisms of 1805.” Translated by Fritz Marti. Idealistic Studies 14.3 (1984): 237-258.

Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von. Schelling’s Treatise on “The Deities of Samothrace.” Translated by Robert F. Brown. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977.


[1] Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London, England: Viking Arkana, 1991), 370.

[2] Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Schelling’s Treatise on “The Deities of Samothrace,” trans. Robert F. Brown (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977), 45.

[3] Schelling, Samothrace, 47.

[4] Ibid, 45.

[5] Ibid, 48, 46.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Ibid, 48.

[8] Schelling, Samothrace, 48.

[9] Ibid, 49.

[10] Ibid, 47.

[11] Ibid, 50.

[12] Ibid, 49-50

[13] Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, “Schelling’s Aphorisms of 1805,” trans. Fritz Marti, Idealistic Studies 14.3 (1984): 250.

[14] Schelling, Samothrace, 47.

[15] Schelling, Samothrace, 15.

Ralph Metzner, Green Psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1999), 128.

[16] Schelling, Samothrace, 16-17, 56.

[17] Metzner, Green Psychology, 128-129.

Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 364-372.

[18] Ibid, 366.

[19] Ibid, 367.

[20] Schelling, Samothrace, 21.

Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 370, 383.

[21] Schelling, Samothrace, 21.

[22] Ibid, 20, 52.

[23] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 364.

[24] Schelling, Samothrace, 18, 20.

[25] Ibid, 18.

[26] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 367.

[27] Schelling, Samothrace, 21.

[28] Ibid, 22.

[29] Ibid, 24.

[30] Schelling, Samothrace, 49, 52.

[31] Ibid, 20.

[32] Ibid, 52.

[33] Ibid, 52.

[34] Ibid, 53.

[35] Schelling, Samothrace, 49, 53.

[36] Ibid, 49.

Metzner, Green Psychology, 128.

[37] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 374.

Metzner, Green Psychology, 128.

[38] Schelling, Samothrace, 24-25.

[39] Ibid, 28.

Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 382.

[40] Ibid, 377, 380.

[41] Metzner, Green Psychology, 144.

[42] Schelling, Samothrace, 28.

[43] Ibid, 39-40, note 113.

[44] Ibid, 29.

[45] Ibid, 40, note 118.

[46] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 381.

[47] Ibid, 377.

Metzner, Green Psychology, 144.

[48] Baring and Cashford, Goddess, 368-369.

[49] Ibid, 383.

[50] Schelling, Samothrace, 50.

[51] Ibid, 56.

[52] Schelling, Samothrace, 58.

[53] Ibid, 55, 59.

[54] Ibid, 56.

[55] Schelling, “Aphorisms,” 246.

[56] Schelling, Samothrace, 58-59.

[57] Schelling, Samothrace, 19.

[58] Ibid, 33, note 44.

[59] Ibid, 61, note 8, 48.

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6 Comments

  1. wendy

     /  April 13, 2012

    so well written, becca!! this paper reminds me of schelling’s equation of ontology (if i can call it that). i found myself attempting to plug in the archetypal powers… i keep getting an image of the yin-yang as a composite glyph/symbol for the ‘demeter|persephone’ mediated by ‘love’ element, but i wonder if the new dwarf planet ceres fits the bill for ‘demeter|persephone’ before love comes into the picture; a=ceres? curious to know what you think… =)

    Reply
    • Thank you, Wendy! The subject of this paper is of course a picture of that equation of Schelling’s God. And as you probably saw in the appendix I did draw on the planetary archetypes as well, at least as it relates to Schelling’s chart.

      In many ways the yin-yang symbol does fit the conception of Schelling’s God, or the relationship between Demeter/Persephone (as one being representing the centripetal force) and Hades (representing the centrifugal force). Hermes is the unifying mediator, or love in Schelling’s God.

      I do not know much about the archetypal nature of the asteroid Ceres, but it does seem thus far to be aptly named (Ceres is just the Roman name for Demeter) from what I have heard so far. If you learn more about Ceres in astrology please let me know!

      Reply
      • Josh

         /  August 8, 2017

        Ceres is Demeter, who is Isis-Demeter who is the moon goddess, or Robert Graves’ White Goddess.

        Isis represents the Moon and Osiris (Dionysus) the Sun.

        Hermes is Thoth, the crescent moon, representing auxo and hegemone, increase.

        Also, Hekate, or Trivia.

        Also Danu in Celtic mythology, Rhea in Baltic mythology, Diana in Greek Mythology, and Freyja, The Lady, in Norse mythology. the Lady/Mistress/Despoina.

        Demeter, “poppy field” is also like the Sumerian goddess Inanna, and the Dea Syria, Venus-Astarte, the morning and evening star.

        Eleusis by Carl Kerenyi, and The Myth and Mystery of Kore by Giorgio Agamben. 🙂

  2. Dear Becca,

    Thank you for this great article ! Do you know where I could possibly find Schelling’s book ? Unfortunately it is not edited anymore…

    Reply
    • It seems this particular text of Schelling’s is very hard to find. I would recommend checking out a university library since it doesn’t seem to be available online or for a reasonable price through any booksellers that I can find.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the essay!

      Reply
  1. Philosophy of Mythology and Revelation (h/t Schelling) | Footnotes2Plato

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