Of Hamsters, Wisdom, and Persephone

Persephone the Innocent

The protagonist of Karyn’s Magic, the young adult novel I’m writing, is a teenager who lets something evil into the world.  Not only must she scramble for damage control, but she is forced to see the same evil as a potential within herself.  I usually think of “loss of naiveté” as theme of adolescence, but remembering hamsters brought to mind a personal experience that happened earlier than that.

My fifth grade teacher had a pair of hamsters, favorite classroom pets.  At one point she could no longer keep them, and asked if anyone could provide them a good home.  I spend my Saturdays at a small museum in Alum Rock Park, in San Jose, that had a small zoo and classes and field trips for young people.  We had day trips to ocean tide pools, a weekend camping trip to the Mojave, plus at the museum we got to play with some of the critters.  One of my favorite stunts was to wrap a boa constrictor around my neck and explain to startled visitors that these snakes never squeezed anything they didn’t regard as food.

I told the teacher I had a home for her hamsters and took them to the museum.  “Great, we can use these,” the director said.  At the end of the day, after the museum closed to visitors, I learned what he had in mind.  Before I quite realized what was happening, he dropped one of the hamsters into a glass case with a huge rattlesnake.

The ensuing drama seemed to go on forever:  the hamster sniffing, scooting around, knowing something was wrong but not quite knowing what.  I wanted to look away but couldn’t.  The snake coiled in slow motion, almost lazily, with hard, unblinking eyes.  It’s strike was a blur, you couldn’t see it;  you could only hear, not see, the hamster slammed into the top of the cage by the force.  It was over in less than a second.  The animal did not even twitch.

I asked about the other hamster and learned that a snake that big cost several hundred 1960’s dollars, and live food was expensive.  I didn’t demand the other hamster back.  There were older kids there, some in jr. high, and I wasn’t about to wimp out. And scientists sometimes have to suck it up, right?

On Monday, the teacher asked how the hamsters were doing.  I told her and the class that they were fine.  I never put another boa constrictor around my neck.  I was at the edge of adolescence, and the world was poised at the edge of “the sixties;” there would be more and bigger occasions for guilt soon enough, but most of those are long forgotten.  This is the event I come back to when I think or write about the loss of innocence.


What does she hear on the wind?

James Hillman, the prolific author who coined the phrase, “archetypal psychology,” for his own brand of post-Jungian thought, borrows a phrase from Keats and calls our world, “the vale of soul-making.”  For Hillman, the natural movement of soul is down, into the depths, where a darker kind of wisdom lies.

(to understand Hillman it is critical to know that he uses the world “soul” as the ancients did:  not as the “eternal soul” of western religion, but more as we use the phrase, “psyche.”  He places “soul,” the source of imagination and fantasy, between the “eternal spirit,” and the body – a three-part image of personality you seem to see in biblical references, as well as in eastern religion even now).

The story that illustrates Hillman’s perspective on “innocence,” is the myth of Persephone.  As a beautiful young girl, she is playing one afternoon with her friends, when she bends to pluck a narcissus flower.  The ground opens up, and Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, scoops her into his chariot and carries her into the depths.  Hillman writes:

“Each of us enacts Persephone in soul, a maiden in a field of narcissi or poppies, lulled drowsy with innocence and pretty comforts until we are dragged off and pulled down by Hades, our intact natural consciousness violated and opened to the perspective of death.”  Revisioning Psychology

By the time the Olympian gods put enough pressure on Hades to cause him to relent, Hermes, messenger of the gods is stunned to see Persephone transformed. No longer the naive maiden, she is the darkly radiant Queen of the Underworld. She has eaten the food of the underworld – six pomegranate seeds, and must spend that six months of every year under the earth.

Supposedly that explains why there is winter, but in a far more interesting sense, it gives us an image of why, despite our wishes, wisdom doesn’t lie in the sunny, flower dotted fields of youth, but in the depths of a soul that knows both light and darkness.

Persephone and Hades

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