(SW Essay) Persephone’s Descent: Perception, Truth, Reality? by Sara Wright

Persephone, perception, truth and reality may be related. In the best known version of the Greek myth, Persephone, daughter of Demeter is raped, split away from her body (the earth), and whisked into the underworld against her will by Hades. Without a body does Persephone lose access to perception, her truth, reality?

One definition of perception is that it is the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something like the elements of air, water, fire, earth, by using one’s senses. Perception is the way someone understands something – different people have different perceptions of the same thing. It is the process by which people translate sensory impressions into a coherent and unified view of the world around them. Although sometimes based on unverified information perception is equated with reality or truth for most practical purposes, and it guides human behavior in general.

Perception is directly related to individual attitudes, belief systems, and knowledge where “reality” exists by itself according to most dictionary definitions. Reality then is equated with the Platonic idea that mind is separate from body and exists somewhere outside time. (The mind body split is so revered in our culture that women are seen primarily as sexual objects by men, and consequently objectify themselves/their bodies. The result? Women’s endemic hatred of themselves/other women, and female bodies).

Reality is supposed to be truth – the actual existence of something. Perception may be controlled by internal/external factors but according to most sources reality cannot be controlled by anyone or anything.

The general definition of truth is that it is a fact or belief that is accepted as true. Acceptance is key here. Truth is almost always consensual by nature. An excellent example of this conundrum is the way many of us view the origin of the universe. According to the current mechanistic paradigm the universe exploded into being out of nothing. If one has the audacity to question this unlikely theory (if you can believe this story you can believe anything) we are told that it’s just a matter of time before conventional science and technology will iron out the confusion. I note that Niels Bohr, Quantum Mechanics, and the Uncertainty Principle have been around for the last hundred years without making much of a dent in the current scientific belief system. Inculcated “scientific truths” carry an amazing amount of weight with westerners. The “Big Bang” theory (not very imaginatively named) is just that – a theory – it is not reality or truth – it is our current western belief or story. Other cultures tell different tales that are certainly more imaginative but westerners dismiss these as primitive myths.

But to return to the original issue, this problem of defining perception, truth, reality, is a very thorny subject for many including myself. As a not quite white (I have Indigenous roots) mythologist and eco-feminist I reject the dominant culture’s belief in absolute truths (in an evolving universe I think truths are more like habits built up over time as scientist Rupert Sheldrake suggests) and I lean into the stories of other peoples to teach me other ways of perceiving, understanding and making sense of the world.

What I have learned from this scholarship is that truth is often equated with belief those who usually do not question their personal or cultural biases or the paradigm in which they live. Unfortunately, as a former college instructor I am painfully aware of how we inculcate students into this “either or” way of perceiving the world.

There is a multi-valent quality associated with truth. For example, it is true that today, the fall equinox, is the day that ushers in the darker months of the year, not just because science tells me it is so, or that various mythologies support it, but also because I can experience this shift by paying attention to the declination of the sun, the drifting of fall leaves, the times of sunrise and sunset. For me, truth is associated with what I experience through my senses, my relationship to Nature, mythology, a background in the New Sciences, and through dreaming. Perception, truth, reality are then not separate entities but are related (both in and outside of space/time).

This is not to say that all my perceptions constitute truth because many, if not all, have been colored by my experiences – and I might add – this is true for all people.

I have found it useful to acknowledge that all of us have a particular bias or lens through which we experience the world and that “truth” is often relative and based on consensual agreement. I think it is up to each individual to question what s/he perceives to be real and true, especially in a world culture that has lost touch with the planet (body) on which it depends upon for survival. We are moving into a “winter” the likes of which we have never experienced before.

Postscript:

What sparked this little essay was an experience that I had yesterday. I was scheduled to have an ultra sound and was told by my doctor that “it might involve a vaginal probe.” I was rushed through the appointment so fast last week that I did not have the chance to ask the doctor what this latter procedure, if it occurred, might involve.

The first part of the ultrasound went well, but when it came to the second procedure that had been ordered by my doctor, I learned from the radiologist, (why didn’t my doctor take responsibility for making this decision in front of me?) the kindly man asked me if I was sure I wanted this second procedure to be done. I was a bit confused, even alarmed when he asked me this question because even he seemed unsure. I consented because I believed the test wouldn’t have been ordered without good reason (stupid on my part and a good example of how logic can betray us). When he called in a woman as a witness, he noted that I seemed very nervous which by then I was.

Putting my feet in the stirrups as requested I lay down and began to breathe deeply, something I learned to do many years ago to alleviate anxiety and relax into my body.

The pain ripped through my vagina – the probe was huge, the size of an engorged penis – and I screamed as it ripped delicate vaginal tissue. The procedure ended abruptly, and of course, the test was unsuccessful.

Numb, I put on my clothes and left the office, driving home in a daze. After greeting my beloved dogs we all crawled into bed and I fell into a dead sleep for about two hours.

When I awakened I was nauseous and couldn’t urinate without waste stinging torn tissue. I was still bleeding internally. Too late I learned that I might be susceptible to an infection as a result of this assault.

The dream that I had had that very morning had warned me that I was going to experience excruciating pain from the test that would be done later in the day. In the dream I was powerless and had lost all autonomy. My body knew. As a dreamer who has been recording her dreams for 40 years I hoped that somehow this one was some kind of metaphor. How wrong I was.

I awoke this morning profoundly depressed and angry. When I was finally able to put words on the invasive procedure, I realized that yesterday I had experienced another rape.

As a woman who has survived sexual assault first as a child within her own family, and later as an adult (because I didn’t know how to protect myself), I once again found myself in a situation beyond my control – this time at the hands of the medical profession.

Was I intentionally raped? No. However, my experience as a sexual abuse survivor carried over into this process that left my mind/body re-experiencing rape. Had I been told what the second procedure “might” entail by my doctor I would have refused to go through with it.

This dreadful little homily is an example of how critical it is for us as women to make absolutely sure we know what is going to happen during various internal procedures, especially if sexual assault is part of our history.

Persephone’s descent marks the beginning of fall. It also tells a tale of a brutal split between a goddess’s mind and body and the consequent loss of perception, the ability to “know” or perceive a truth through her senses. Persephone remains captive to her underworld husband for a time, but in the spring is released to the upper world (Earth) with help from her mother. During this incarceration Persephone matures, eventually making the choice to return to Hades for part of each year. She becomes Queen of the Underworld, suggesting to me that she learns how to move through both cycles of abundance and attrition, adapting to both.

Although I have unwittingly re-enacted Persephone’s abduction into the underworld through living my life I take comfort in the belief that like Persephone, I can endure this latest betrayal and rape, and move beyond it over time.