In the Cave of Black Demeter with Laura Larson’s “Hidden Mother”

In the 8th book of his Description of Greece, the 2nd century CE Greek writer Pausanias describes a curious cave in Phigalia, Arcadia, dedicated to Black Demeter (Demeter Melainai). It was here, Pausanias tells us, that the goddess went after being raped by the god Poseidon and when her daughter Persephone had been abducted by Hades.

Afterwards, they say, angry with Poseidon and grieved at the rape of Persephone, she put on black apparel and shut herself up in this cave for a long time. But when all the fruits of the earth were perishing, and the human race dying yet more through famine, no god, it seemed, knew where Demeter was in hiding until Pan, they say, visited Arcadia. Roaming from mountain to mountain as he hunted, he came at last to Mount Elaius and spied Demeter, the state she was in and the clothes she wore. So Zeus learnt this from Pan, and sent the Fates to Demeter, who listened to the Fates and laid aside her wrath, moderating her grief as well. For these reasons, the Phigalians say, they concluded that this cavern was sacred to Demeter and set up in it a wooden image.

On learning about Black Demeter in her cave, I started to wonder about the contents of the thoughts of this raging and grieving goddess-mother as she awaited the return of her stolen daughter. Such musings brought me to Laura Larson’s powerful and moving book Hidden Mother. In Hidden Mother Larson weaves together the narrative of her waiting for the completion of the adoption process for her daughter Gadisse from Layla House, a transition home for orphans in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with the phenomenon of the ‘hidden mother’ in 19th century photography whereby a mother or other female figure had to hold a child still so that a photographer could have the exposure time needed to take a photograph. In spite of describing the photographs of Gadisse sent to her during the adoption process, with one or two exceptions, the book is only illustrated with these ‘hidden mother’ photographs, with the mother figures undergoing various stages of erasure and effacement.

The first aspect of Pausanias’ description of the cave of Black Demeter that reminded me of Larson’s project was the presence of the black veil. In Pausanias, Demeter sits in the cave, veiled in black, while for Larson the veil is one way in which the ‘hidden mother’ is hidden:

Often she is swathed in fabric, her concealed lap acting as a pedestal for her infant.

Alternatively, Larson goes on to note, when the mother cannot be hidden during the posing of the photograph, she is retroactively removed:

her face is scratched away..[or]…a thin layer of black paint is used to mask her presence.

Disturbed by this violence to the mother’s image, Larson digs into the photographic process to recover a more tangible presence for the ‘hidden mother’ that digital photography fails to produce.

All wet and wait, the tin-type is the antithesis of contemporary digital currency, and the hidden mother a resonant embodiment of its latent character, her image emerging from the dark.

This retroactive effacement amid temporal and material emergence of the ‘hidden mother’ made me think of the difference between Demeter’s own act of hiding, veiled in black, and the story that Pausanias tells of her wooden statue, veiled in black that the Phigalians failed to replace until a famine forced them to seek the wisdom of the Delphic Oracle. As a result, the sculptor Onatas of Aegina made them a new bronze statue of Demeter ‘guided partly by a picture or copy of the ancient wooden image which he discovered, but mostly (so goes the story) by a vision that he saw in dreams.’ The forgetting of the mother-goddess is transformed into a more lasting copy. At the same time, the precariousness of the transmission of image (via a prophetic dream) acts as a tenuous thread between the myth and its ritual manifestation.

Following Larson’s narrative thread, her discussion of the patience and stillness exemplified by the ‘hidden mother’ photographs turns into an account of her own period of waiting for news from Ethiopia. In one entry in her ‘waiting-diary’, Larson tries writing to Gadisse, but in doing so she starts to imagine the baby at later stages in her life:

I address her as the child I will bring home, then as an adult, a young woman I’ve raised. She keeps appearing to me as a teenager. In this rehearsal of attachments, I’m already anticipating other, future stages of separation.

Back to the cave of Black Demeter, such projection of the future onto present periods of expectation is part of how the myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, will act as an origin-story (aetiology) for the yearly seasons, with the repetition of Demeter’s wintry grief on her daughter’s regular separation from her in Hades. This repetition and projection is also part of Pausanias’ narrative, not only because it is the famine caused by the failure to replace the wooden statue that literally reactivates the original myth, but the very act of writing about the statue and preserving the story enacts the cyclical nature of the dynamic between myth and ritual for Pausanias’ present audience.

Larson, waiting for her daughter’s ‘return’, proceeds to muse on the nature of photography and her own family history, specifically her relationship with her mother who had recently died, leading somewhat inevitably to Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and the maternal element of presence and loss in the photographic image. This moment in Larson’s book also brought me back to Black Demeter, but via an episode towards the end of E. M Forster’s 1907 novel The Longest Journey,  specifically the moment at which the protagonist Rickie longs to relive a failed, past interaction with his half-brother Stephen:

He longed to be back riding over those windy fields, to be back in those mystic circles, beneath pure sky. Then they could have watched and helped and taught each other, until the word was a reality and the past, not a torn photograph, but Demeter the goddess, rejoicing in the Spring. Ah, if had seized these high opportunities!

The ‘torn photograph’ referred to here is that which Rickie gave to Stephen after being reunited on discovering that they shared the same mother and not, as they had thought, the same father. Rickie gives Stephen a treasured photograph of their mother, but Stephen rips it up. He does so to startle Rickie out of his obsession with the past and for not looking his half-brother standing before him in the eyes, which are focused on the photograph of their dead mother. It is this lust for life that Rickie is reflecting on with his evocation of Demeter at the moment of spring, that is, the moment of being reunited with Persephone, who has returned from Hades. For the Arcadians in Pausanias’ narrative, their ‘torn photograph’ is the presence and loss of the wooden statue, reconstructed as a bronze copy.

As Larson’s testimony continues, she begins to acknowledge the mythic qualities of her narrative, first in terms of Gadisse’s tale as an orphan who finds a home:

Gadisse’s story posses the hallmarks of a fairytale: a child abandoned, found, and rescued by a kindly soul. The cyclical themes of loss, search, and reunion reverberate in adoption narratives because they tame the horrific experience into recognizable form, providing the redemption of closure.

But then another mythic frame enters the equation with a subject that Larson admits ‘terrifies’ her: the claims of Gadisse’s birth-mother. As a way of resisting this terror, Larson rehearses ‘the authority of [her] own claim’:

I am her mother. Not hidden, legible. Because I am white, it’s a sentence I will have to declare over and over again. That’s the public, and here’s what I reserve. The fact of our difference, that our bodies do not match, will be a remainder of future separations.

At the same time, Larson resists this prospect of future separation by forging her own mythic narrative of her and Gadisse’s union:

Our differences aren’t a fault line but a seam slowly stitched together. My impulse is to intellectualize, to distance, skirts the heat of my longing. If I claim ours as a story of invention, I cast Gadisse as Athena, emerging fully rendered from my head, a triumph of mind over body. Who am I kidding here? I fantasize her body in my arms and feel her frame press into me. I can’t breathe: racking sobs, mucus caught in my throat. No blood, no viscera. My body cleaved all the same. It took an axe to free Athena from Zeus’ skull, her birth rendered an act of violent creation. But it was her hidden mother Metis who forged her helmet and shield.

These myths of difference and the violence of split bodies, direct me back, one final time, to the cave of Black Demeter. In addition to the grief the goddess was suffering at this time, Pausanias also tells us that she was nursing her rage against her brother, the god Poseidon. In an attempt to escape the sexual violence of Poseidon, Demeter turned herself into a mare, only for the god to transform into a stallion. Pausanias offers a version of the story that Demeter gave birth to Poseidon’s child Despoina, honored by the Arcadians, as well as the story into the nature of the statue that they worshiped that also shows a trace of this violent act:

The image, they say, was made after this fashion. It was seated on a rock, like to a woman in all respects save the head. She had the head and hair of a horse, and there grew out of her head images of serpents and other beasts. Her tunic reached right to her feet; on one of her hands was a dolphin, on the other a dove. Now why they had the image made after this fashion is plain to any intelligent man who is learned in traditions. They say that they named her Black because the goddess had black apparel.

The memorial of Black Demeter as a horse-headed goddess transfigures the two causes of her rage (the rape) and grief (the loss of Persephone) and the hybridity of this image could offer a less intellectualized myth for Larson’s project. Rather than casting herself as Zeus, with ‘Gadisse as Athena, emerging fully rendered from my head, a triumph of mind over body’, or dwelling on the figure of Metis as the ‘hidden mother’ in the picture, Hidden Mother, like the statue of Black Demeter in the cave, acts as a hybrid memorial, caught between photography and writing, loss and return, pain and joy. This is Larson’s testimony of a period of anxiety and waiting, framed by the present excitement at watching Gadisse grow. At the same time it is a meditation on the hybridity of motherhood as a constant experience of joy and dread. Just as Pausanias’ narrative ends with the bronze remake of the Black Demeter horse-headed sculpture, Hidden Mother ends with the following transfiguration of her maternal experience:

Our life together is filled with joy, but the little losses prick and wound every day: when I leave her at school; when she runs towards her friends; when she strays just out of my sight; when I watch her sleep; when I forget about her and when I remember again. I dread the prospect of letting Gadisse go into the world. But she’s already there.

For more information on Laura Larson’s work, visit her website here. You can also buy copies of Hidden Mother here.

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