01.10.2008

Demeter's Dance

Celebrity births, TV cooking shows, child friendly workplaces...Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd finds motherhood is making a comeback.

Celebrity births, TV cooking shows, child friendly workplaces...Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd finds motherhood is making a comeback.

Look around you. She's everywhere. Some women have simply surrendered. They've returned to the chaise longue, thumbing cookbooks instead of going to the gym. They've crumbled and made cookies. For some, it's more a mood, an attitude, a desire, the covert purchase of an apron. For others, it's more unpleasant, like a close encounter with a body snatcher.

However it's experienced, there's been a feminine archetype shift. There's certainly something afoot. The goddess is dancing.

But which goddess? In ancient Greek and Roman mythology there were many gods and goddesses with different human qualities and characteristics. According to Jean Shinola Bolen, author of Goddesses in Everywoman, the diverse characteristics of goddesses can be seen in changes in women's lives over the last 50 years.

Bolen says that mid 20th century Western culture provided enormous support for Hera, the goddess of marriage, and the archetype of wife. This was the era of Doris Day movies and post war pairing. But during the heyday of feminism's second wave, from the 1960s to the 1980s, Artemis, known by the Romans as Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon, personified the independent, achievement-oriented feminine spirit. Feminist leader Gloria Steinem refers to Artemis as the "big sister" embodied by the sisterhood of the second wave.

The influence of Hera and Artemis, of wife and independent warrior-woman, seems to have waned in the last decade. If there is a goddess in action today, it is the domestic goddess Demeter, the Greek goddess of plenty, and a powerful maternal archetype.

Demeter, known to the Romans as Ceres, presided over the harvest. She was portrayed as a beautiful matronly woman with hair as golden as wheat. Demeter represents the maternal instinct, which can be fulfilled through pregnancy or providing physical, psychological or spiritual nourishment. Demeter is warm and generous, providing food and bounty.

We're in the throes of maternal Demeter madness. If you look at today's fashions, with shift dresses and tunics, we might as well all be pregnant. Fertility and food, and the "yummy mummy" are in. A UK special issue of The Times magazine announced that: "Motherhood is hot...And don't we know it. Celebrity births, adoption scandals, nanny pay, maternity pay, baby whisperers, fertility science, pregnancy fashion, single mothers, wannabe mothers, young mothers, old mothers, working mothers, babies on catwalks and in Downing Street ... the list of daily news stories goes on and on."

Even that archetypal bad girl of the 20th century, Madonna, has changed her tune in the 21st. The Material Girl is now the Maternal Girl, the ultimate MILF, married and mother of daughter Lourdes and son Rocco.

Another popular personification of Demeter is the UK celebrity cook and author, Nigella Lawson. In her book, How to be A Domestic Goddess, she wrote, "At times we don't want to feel like a post-modern post-feminist overstretched woman, but a domestic goddess trailing nutmeggy fumes in our wake". While Nigella claimed she was being ironic, women rushed to buy her books in droves.

There are many more contemporary manifestations of Demeter. The huge popularity of cookery books and TV cooking programmes is testimony to an increasing interest in home, hearth and gastronomy. Australia has her own share of domestic goddesses - blessed matrons of the kitchen, like Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer. And even Jamie Oliver has put down his culinary success to his mum.

Does all this maternity and domesticity mean women have given up the feminist fight? Certainly not. The return of Demeter does not mean an end to feminist battles. It would be easy to dismiss a return to domesticity as retrograde, a defeated retreat to kinder and kuchen. But that would be misleading. Feminism is not forsaken: it is merely wearing another face.

The famous Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone is a reminder of the power of the maternal goddess. When Persephone was abducted by Hades, King of the Underworld, and taken to his nether Kingdom, Demeter's search for her daughter, and her grief and rage when discovering her whereabouts, quite simply stopped the world. Winter descended. As the goddess of fertility, nothing could be born or grow without Demeter's blessing. It was not until Persephone was restored to her that Spring and growth returned to the earth.

The daughters of the second wave have grown up to be mothers who are not afraid to make their needs known. Maternal networking and lobby groups continue to develop around the country. Many currently debated social and political issues are "motherhood" issues. In an oddly mythic parallel, there is consternation over falling birth rates. There is continued lobbying for maternity pay, childcare and flexible, child-friendly working practices. The concerns of mothers have political clout. The major political parties know they ignore mums at their peril.

Don't be misled. Cookery books are only a mild manifestation of Demeter. It is the myth of Demeter's search for Persephone, and her rage that changed the seasons, that is best remembered. Demeter, the powerful goddess of fertility and growth, is not to be ignored. There is a moral to the tale of the yummy mummy. Don't make her mad.

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