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“I Named Her Ariadna…”: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Tsvetaeva's Poems for Her Daughter

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


Early in March 1914 Marina Tsvetaeva wrote to her new acquaintance Vasilii Rozanov

Several features of this passage stamp it as characteristically Tsvetaevan: the emotional excess, the hero worship of her husband, the preoccupation with familial blood lines. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the quasi-mythical quality with which she imbues the figures of husband and child. Whereas Tsvetaeva's powers as a maker of myths are commonly acknowledged, the extent to which her mythmaking shaped her most intimate relationships has yet to be explored. In the case of her daughter, the mythic relationship assumed the dimensions of a Greek tragedy.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 1990

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1. Marina, Tsvetaeva, Neizdannye Pis'ma (Paris : YMCA, 1972), 23 Google Scholar. The term acquaintance here is somewhat misleading, as the correspondents had not yet met in person. In her memoirs Anastasiia Tsvetaeva gives a detailed description of the two sisters’ “infatuation” with Rozanov after reading his Uedinennoe. See Anastasiia, Tsvetaeva, Vospominaniia, 3rd ed. (Moscow : Sovetskii Pisatel', 1983), 514515 Google Scholar. Given the sisters’ intense emotional involvement with their idols (Ellis [Lev Kobylynskii], Vladimir Nilender, and Napoleon, among others), one is tempted to refer to Rozanov as their new “acquisition.” The intimate tone and wealth of detail in this letter, written by the twenty-one year old Tsvetaeva to a man she has not yet met, is revealing and foreshadows her future epistolary attachments.

2. Erenburg, I'lia, Liudi. Gody. Zhizn’ (Moscow : Sovetskii Pisatel', 1961), 370371 Google Scholar. It is revealing to consider the obvious bias in Erenburg's comments. His memory of the small, very thin little girl does not agree with what the child herself remembered of that meeting : “Pervogo poiavleniia Erenburga u nas v Borisoglebskom pereulke (godu v 1917-1918-m, sudia po napisannomu im) ia ne pomniu; znaiu lish', chto v piatiletnem vozraste ia, estestvenno, ne byla eshche znakoma s liubovnoi lirikoi Bloka i chto v bol'shoi, neskladnoi, no uiutnoi kvartire nashei eshche ne nabliudalas’ togo korablekrushitel'nogo besporiadka, kotorym ona porazhala vsekh, v nee vkhodivshikh, v nachale 20-kh godov.” (Efron, Ariadna, Stranitsy vospominanii [Paris : Lev, 1979], 84.Google Scholar) His comments about Tsvetaeva's housekeeping are beyond the pale (had she been a man, everyone would naturally have assumed she was too busy creating immortal verse to be bothered with mortal dust); moreover, they do not agree with the testimony of Tsvetaeva herself in her letters to Anna Teskova or that of her friend Elena Izvol'skaia, which portray Tsvetaeva as incesssssantly darning, sweeping, frying, knitting, running to the market, and in general torn between byt and byt'e.

3. Aleksandr Bakhrakh, “Marina Tsvetaeva i ee doch', ” Russkaia MysV, no. 3263, 5 July 1979.

4. Konstantin Bal'mont, “Marina Tsvetaeva, ” Sovremennye Zapiski 1 (1921).

5. Efron, Stranitsy vospominanii, 30.

6. “She's like an enormous stove that in order to function needs wood, wood, wood. The useless ashes are thrown away, the quality of the wood is not so very important. So long as there's a good draft, everything turns to flame, ” from a letter by Sergei Efron to Max Voloshin dated January 1924, and cited in Irma, Kudrova, “Dom na gore : Marina Tsvetaeva 1923 god, ” Neva 8 (1987) : 172.Google Scholar

7. The continuity of her lyric output is a recognized feature of Tsvetaeva's creative process. She herself wrote in a letter to Teskova dated 24 November 1933, “ia ne mogu ogranichit'sia odnim stikhom—oni u menia sem'iami, tsiklami, vrode voronki i dazhe vodovorota, v kotoryi ia popadaiu” ( Marina, Tsvetaeva, Pis'ma k Teskovoi [Jerusalem : Versty, 1982], 105 Google Scholar). In a similar vein, Saakiants describes Tsvetaeva's poems for her dying brother-in-law as a “single lyrical waterfall.” (Anna Saakiants, Marina Tsvetaeva. Stranitsy zhizni i tvorchestva [Moscow : Sovetskii Pisatel', 1986], 71.) See also Olga Peters-Hasty, “Poema vs. Cycle in Cvetaeva's Definition of Verse, Lyric, ” Slavic and East European Journal 32, no. 3 (1988) : 390398.Google Scholar

8. M arina, Tsvetaeva, “O liubvi, ” in Izbrannaia proza v dvux tomax, 2 vols. (New York : Russica, 1979) 1 : 98.Google Scholar

9. Time and space do not permit a detailed discussion of these questions, which could easily be the subject of a full study. Even a cursory look, using the archetypal approach, at the differences in Tsvetaeva's relationship to her daughter and son opens some interesting avenues of thought. In establishing a mythical framework for her poems for her son, Tsvetaeva would have had several archetypes available to her. The most obvious would have been that of Mary and Jesus, which has shades of an older archetype (Attis-Cybele). The problems with this approach, however, are equally obvious. First, it would have been impossible to reconcile Mary's humility with Tsvetaeva's proud, rebellious persona. Second, the archetype is dependent on the relationship between a mother and her first-born son, while George was Tsvetaeva's third child. That Tsvetaeva was highly conscious of the archetypal significance of the first-born son is attested by her constant references to Alia as her pervenets, and her statement in the cycle Stikhi k docheri, “ia liubliu tebia kak syn'ia.” Borrowing from the Russian folk tradition, Tsvetaeva might have modeled the mother-son relationship on those found in the bylini (cf. Dobrynia Nikitich and his mother). The mother figures in the bylini, however, are not always positive figures, and as Adele Barker has demonstrated in The Mother Syndrome in the Russian Folk Imagination (Columbus, Ohio : Slavica, 1982), the archetype underlying many of the bylini is the hero's quest for liberation from the all-devouring mother-figure (hardly a role Tsvetaeva would have cared to cast herself in). In sum, it is possible that the deficiency some have felt in Tsvetaeva's poems for her son is really the lack of a successful underlying archetype.

10. Rose LaFoy, Ariane. Tragidie de Marina Cvetaeva traduite et commentee. La Resurrection d'un mythe grec dans la poe'sie dramatique russe au XXe siecle (Clermont-Ferrand : Faculte des Lettres et Sciences humains de l'Universite’ de Clermont-Ferrand II, 1981), 206.

11. Jung, Carl G. and Kerenyi, C., Introduction to a Science of Mythology, trans. R. F. C. Hull (London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951), 151.Google Scholar

12. See, for example, Willetts, R. F., Cretan Cults and Festivals (London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), 194195.Google Scholar

13. Jung and Kerenyi, 168, 171.

14. Jung and Kerenyi, 151, 172. The first quotation is from John Milton.

15. C., Kerenyi, Eleusis. Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, trans. Ralph Mannheim (London : Pantheon, 1967), 3334.Google Scholar

16. Jung and Kerenyi, 211.

17. Ibid., 225.

18. Ibid., 153.

19. The spectacle of public suffering, in particular the image of death on a scaffold, seems to have appealed to Tsvetaeva at an early age and it remained an obsession with her throughout most of her creative life. One of the innumerable examples of this obsession from her early poetry is “V tiazheloi mantii torzhestvennykh obriadov” containing the exclamation “Na ploshchadi, pod tysiachami vzgliadov, / Pozvol’ mne mne umeret'.” It is also significant that her first suicide attempt took place at a crowded theater performance.

20. The Efrons’ courtship is included in Anastasiia Ivanovna's description of her first visit to Voloshin's dacha in Koktebel. See Anastasiia Tsvetaeva, Vospominaniia, 432-433.

21. Jung and Kerenyi, 150. Note that in the poem the archetype of the maiden abandoned and alone is just beneath the surface. The initial reference in the epigraph to Ariadne, who was abandoned while sleeping, is paralleled by the closing reference to the Sleeping Beauty, abandoned while sleeping for 100 years (granted, the two figures wake to very different fates).

22. This poem is taken from Marina Tsvetaeva, Neizdannoe (Paris : YMCA, 1976), 43, where it is included in the collection Iunosheskie stikhi. Its inclusion in the collection seems to be problematical : In the Russica five-volume edition of Tsvetaeva's poetry, it is not included, but a variant of it appears in the supplement “poems not included in any collection.” The poem “Ty budesh’ nevinnoi, tonkoi, ” which is included, is numbered “2.” In Neizdannoe it appears in what is doubtless its correct order, as the first of a three-poem cycle “To Alia.” All further excerpts are from the Russica five-volume edition (New York : Russica, 1980-1983).

23. The Indonesian goddess Wainulele is born of the coconut tree in one legend, in another is seen “sinking into the earth by the roots of a tree, ” and in yet another, she is referred to as the “youngest fruit of the banana tree.” The common denominator here seems to be the association of the young girl with nourishing, fruit-bearing trees. See Jung and Kerenyi, 182-187.

24. Demeter taught Triptolemus, son of Celeus, the use of the plough. According to legend, Triptolemus was the first to celebrate the Eleusinian mysteries and thus became the founder of the Demeter-Persephone cult.

25. Jung and Kerenyi, 245.

26. Ibid., 169.

27. Some idea of the growing tension between Tsvetaeva and her daughter is conveyed in Veronique, Lossky, “Marina Tsvetaeva. Souvenirs de contemporains, ” Wiener Slawistischer Almanack 3 (1981) : 213262.Google Scholar

28. Bakhrakh, A, “Pis'ma Mariny Tsvetaevoi, ” Mosty 6 (1961) : 325 Google Scholar. Note the use of the word echo, once again implying that Alia had no existence independent of her mother.

29. To Marina's great and utter disgust : “Esli by mne bol'shoi pisatel’ skazal : —'Milaia baryshnia’ … ia by i v 15 let otvetila : otmetila : —Menia zovut—Marina—(i podumav : )—Ivanovna. (Bin weder Fraiilein, weder schon—kann ungeleitet nach Hause gehn!) Potomu menia ne liubili” (Tsvetaeva, Pis'ma k Teskovoi, 132).

30. Marina, Tsvetaeva, “Istoriia odnogo posviashcheniia, ” in hbrannaia Proza v dvukh tomakh, 2 vols. (New York : Russica, 1979) 1 : 344.Google Scholar

31. Donald, Gillis, “The Persephone Myth in Mandelstam's Tristia, ” California Slavic Studies 9 (1976) : 156 Google Scholar.

32. According to Przybylski, Persephone reigns here in her capacity as “bringer of destruction.” See Ryszard, Przybylski, “The Dying of Cities, ” in An Essay on the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam : God's Grateful Guest, trans. Madeline G. Levine (Ann Arbor, Mich. : Ardis, 1987), esp. 140–141.Google Scholar

33. Ivanov's research on the Greek mystery cults was published in Novyi Put', nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9 (1904). I would like to thank my colleague Carol Ueland for her observations on Ivanov's vision of the Demeter-Persephone myth.

34. In comparing Tsvetaeva's and Ivanov's classical tragedies, Tomas Venclova concludes, “recreating the ancient element of ritual and myth, repeating the archaic laws of mythic logic, Cvetaeva still does not investigate myth in a scientific or para-scientific manner as does Vjaceslav Ivanov. In her tragedies the lament of myth reveals itself not only on the level of semantics; to a much greater degree than Ivanov it is embodied in the lower levels of the text.” Tomas, Venclova, “On Russian Mythological Tragedy : Vjaceslav Ivanov and Marina Cvetaeva, ” in Myth in Literature, ed. Kodjak, Pomorska and Rudy (Columbus, Ohio : Slavica, 1985), 106.Google Scholar

35. See LaFoy, Ariane, 194. With regard to the twentieth century sources, LaFoy is assuming Tsvetaeva was familiar with the work of her contemporaries, such as Ivanov's study of the cult of Dionysios. It seems a fair assumption.

36. Ibid., 194. LaFoy presents a strong argument demonstrating Tsvetaeva's adherence to the spirit of Greek tragedy. While not slavishly imitating the forms of Greek tragedy, she observes some of the fundamental principles, such as the bringing on of the corpse at the end, the suspense of the “wait” outside the locus of the action, the hostility and even indifference of the gods. She even preserves many of the Greek formulae through Russian caiques. It is especially significant that her portrait of Ariadne differs in many respects from that of Schwab, long considered to be her only source of classical mythology.

37. Cited in Anna Saakiants, Marina Tsvetaeva, 44-45.

38. Nilsson, Martin P., The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion (Lund, 1927) 455Google Scholar. In the context of the myth as set forth in this paper, it should not surprise the reader to learn that the figure of Ariadne invariably split into two related figures—the one an older, more mature woman, the other a young maiden seduced and abandoned. In some variants, the older woman is represented by Ariadne's nurse Korkyne, in others Ariadne herself plays both roles : “two Ariadne's were postulated : an older Ariadne, the wife of Dionysos, and a younger Ariadne whom Theseus had won and abandoned” (Nilsson, 453). Thus, the figure of Ariadne acquires attributes of the anima, whom Jung describes as “both old and young, mother and daughter, childlike, and yet endowed with a naive cunning that is extremely disarming to men” ( Jung, C. G., The Development of Personality, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 1954), 199)Google Scholar.

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