Postred 02 August 2011, by Dale Sargent, Southwest Virginia Today (Media General Communications Holdings LLC), swvatoday.com
I suppose I should explain how we came to call our land Demeter. It was a slip-up on my part. The idea that we should choose a Greek goddess as the namesake for our property always appealed to Joneen and me. We’ve long been interested in the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. When most folks use the term myth, they describe a quaint but false tale, made up by primitive and ignorant people. Alternatively, some view the myths as the example of pagan cultures worshiping false gods.
Campbell, however, felt that myths aren’t falsehoods but instead are very accurate symbolic representations of fundamental natural and human truths that are difficult to express in objective language. Jung called these great truths archetypes. The Greeks were neither naive nor primitive. The stories of the gods, with their heroism, hubris, jealousies and betrayals are meant as mirrors that help us understand the human condition and the world around us. They serve as a way cultures can instruct their members about how they should live.
We bought our land as a place to hunt and enjoy the outdoors. I thought it would be cool to name the land after the goddess of the hunt. I chose the name Demeter and we had signs made. One problem. Artemis is the goddess of the hunt, not Demeter. And what’s more, the mistake, Demeter, soon showed up in my dreams.
The dream came on a frosty October night spent in a pop-up camper, long before our cabin was built:
I hear a noise in the field above the camper. I get up and walk to the field. An old horse-drawn wagon with two horses comes into the field. The wagon is driven by an old man. Walking behind the wagon is a tall, beautiful woman in a long gown. She carries herself with an air of authority. I know immediately that she is Demeter and that she considers this place hers. I feel a sense of awe and deep attraction to this woman.
The dream prompted me to look deeper into the myths. It turns out that Artemis is a reclusive and cruel goddess who dislikes man. When the hunter Achteon is foolish enough to disturb the goddess while she bathes, she turns him into a stag who is then devoured by his own hounds. This is certainly a cautionary tale for those who approach the hunt with contempt for nature.
Demeter is a benevolent goddess and a friend of man. But there is a catch. Her daughter is forced to marry the king of the underworld and can only spend half of each year with her mother. When Persephone returns each spring, Demeter is joyous and the world blooms with abundant new life. When Persephone must leave in the fall, Demeter is heartbroken and the world becomes barren and cold. Thus Demeter is responsible for the seasons and the bounty of the harvest and hearth.
Jung felt that there are no “Freudian slips.” Such “slips’ represent precisions that force us to do or say exactly what we mean in spite of ourselves. Perhaps my mistake wasn’t a mistake. Demeter is a better name for a deciduous forest with four distinct seasons. But on a deeper level, I have an idea that the Greek stories are reminding us that our mindset and approach as we interact with the natural world determines if we experience Artemis or Demeter.
We aren’t shy about taking what our land offers. We sell timber. We kill and eat deer. We pick mushrooms, fruit and berries. But we do so with an eye toward sustainability for next year or the next generation. We plant after we cut. We kill less than the next spring will replace. We try not to get greedy. Perhaps it is this spirit of participation while maintaining balance; of accepting and being thankful for the abundance without taking too much that the Demeter myth intends to teach.
We named a creek for Artemis to remind us that nature treated disrespectfully can be a vengeful thing. But we stuck with the name Demeter and the ethic it represents. In a culture obsessed with productivity and power, maybe these ancient stories still have wisdom to impart. And hopefully the name will be a clue to those that follow us to search for that wisdom.
Dale and Joneen Sargent are stewards of a tract of mountain land, Demeter, in Bland County. Dale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.