Tuesday's Tales - Ancient Greece

Demeter and Persephone

High among the mountains on the island of Sicily, there was a beautiful valley called the valley of Enna.  People seldom ventured that high, but the area was well known to the goats and sheep that climbed in search of the soft, sweet grass that grew there.  Apart from the fragrant grass, flowers bloomed, and there were shady groves on every side, with many fountains of clean water.

The valley of Enna was home to Demeter, the grain-goddess, daughter of Cronus and Rhea, and sister to Zeus.  She was the goddess of all that grows out of the earth, and watched over the flowers, and young children.  Her presence was the reason why Enna was so beautiful.

One day, Demeter’s own daughter, Persephone, was playing in the meadows.  With her gold-yellow hair, and cheeks as delicately pink as apple blossoms, she seemed like a flower among the other flowers of the valley.  Taking off her sandals to run barefoot on the grass, she stopped to gather flowers.  Once she’d filled her basket, she then twined long sprays of wildflowers about her shoulders and twisted them in her hair.

As she danced around, she caught sight of a flower that she had never seen before.  More fragrant and larger than the other flowers, its one flower-stalk held at least a hundred blossoms.  Running forward, she tried to pluck it.  But, try as she might, she could not break the stalk.  Determined to have the beautiful flower, she made a great effort to pull the whole plant up by the roots.

Then a rumbling sounded from deep underground, and the black soil around the plant loosened.  The earth suddenly opened, and out sprang four magnificent black horses, drawing a golden chariot.  In the chariot sat a crowned man, clothed all in black.

Too frightened to run, all Persephone could do was stand, wide-eyed.  Staring directly at her, the grim-looking man checked his horses, bent forward and snatched her up.  Turning his horses, he plunged back into the earth.

Clutching her flowers, Persephone screamed for her mother but Demeter was elsewhere, and heard only the echo of her daughter’s voice.  However, the maiden’s cries of anguish were also heard by Helios, the sun god, and by Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft and the night.

Demeter called and called for Persephone, but there was no answer.  There was no sign of the strange flower.  A few roses lay scattered on the grass, and near them, slender footprints.  Demeter knew them to be traces of Persephone’s dainty feet, but she could not follow them for they stopped abruptly.

Demeter wandered for nine days and nine nights in search of her daughter.  On the tenth night, she met Hecate, who told Demeter that she had heard Persephone’s cries, and had heard the sound of chariot wheels, but had seen nothing.  They both then hurried to Helios, for the sun-god travels the world and must surely see everything.

Helios was already in his chariot, ready to drive his horses across the sky, when Demeter and Hecate approached.  He held the fiery creatures in check while he told the goddess that Hades, the king of the underworld, had stolen her daughter and carried her down to his dark palace.  He then revealed that Hades had done so with the consent of Zeus, Persephone’s father.  Unknown to Demeter, he had promised Persephone to Hades, and had arranged for his daughter’s abduction for he knew Demeter would never have agreed.

Angered beyond words, Demeter vowed to avoid Olympus, and chose to remain on earth, conferring blessings where she was received kindly, and punishing those who treated her harshly.  In her anger and grief, she neglected the fields and the harvests, and famine spread across the earth.  Anxious for the future of the race of mortals, Zeus sent Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, the messenger of the gods and Hera’s personal messenger, to treat with Demeter and persuade her to return to Olympus.  But Demeter refused.

By now, Demeter had taken the form of an old woman.  One day, she sat down by the side of the road, near a well, in the shade of an olive tree.  After a while, four daughters of Celeus, the king of Eleusis in Attica, came to draw water to fill the golden pitchers each one carried.  Intrigued by the sad old woman sitting by the well, they spoke to her kindly.  Not wishing them to know that she was a goddess, Demeter told them that she had no home and so wandered the land.

“I may be old but I can work for my bread.  I can keep house, or take care of a young child.”

The four sisters quickly went back to the palace and asked if they could bring the strange woman home with them.  Their mother agreed, saying they might engage her as nurse for their little brother, Demophon.  And so Demeter entered the household of Celeus, and little Demophon flourished under her care.

Demeter soon learned to love the human baby.  As a gift to Celeus for his hospitality, she planned to make the baby immortal by burning his mortal spirit away in the family hearth every night.  This she did without saying a word to anyone.  As the days passed, Demophon began to grow god-like until the night his mother remained awake until late in the night.  Hearing movement, she drew the bed curtains aside.  Standing by the great fire burning in the fireplace was the nurse, with Demophon in her arms.  The mother did not say a word, only watched in silence.  Until Demeter placed the child in the fire, whereupon she screamed.

The scream broke the spell.  Demeter took Demophon from the fire and placed him on the floor.  Then she told the trembling mother that she had meant to make the child immortal, but that now this could not be.  She threw off her blue hood and lost her aged form, appearing very imposing yet beautiful, with her yellow hair falling over her shoulders, like ripe grain in the fields.  Demophon’s mother realised then that the nurse was the goddess Demeter, but she saw her no more, for the goddess left the house.

Because of Demeter’s neglect, there was no grain to be ground into flour for bread; the grass turned brown and withered; olive trees dropped their leaves … even the sheep grew thin.  Again, Zeus sent Iris down to the dark cave where Demeter now hid herself.

Iris found Demeter sitting in a shadowy corner of her cave in Eleusis.  The coming of the rainbow goddess lit up every part of the cave, causing beautiful colours to dance everywhere, but it did not dispel the shadows in Demeter’s heart, nor soften it for her to relent.

Zeus instructed the gods of Olympus to entreat her to return.  But Demeter refused to set foot on Olympus, nor restore the earth’s fertility, until her daughter was returned to her.

Zeus then sent his personal agent and herald, Hermes, down to the Underworld, to Hades’ kingdom, to try and persuade the grim king to let Persephone return to her mother.

Sat on her throne beside Hades, Persephone was as a beacon in her grim husband’s kingdom.  When she heard Hermes ask that she be allowed to return to her mother, the young woman leapt to her feet, all eagerness to see her mother again.

Stern he might have been, yet Hades could not withhold his consent for her happiness softened his heart.  So he ordered the black horses and golden chariot be readied to take her back.  But he did not wish to lose her forever, and so he offered her one of the pomegranates that grew in his garden, for she had yet to eat anything from his kingdom.

In her happiness, Persephone agreed, taking just four seeds.  Then the black horses carried her and Hermes swiftly to the upper world, and on to Demeter’s cave.

The unparalleled gladness on hearing her daughter call “Mother” … Demeter rushed out of the cave and embraced Persephone, her heart filled with delight.  As Persephone told her everything, the goddess almost laughed out loud at the sound of her precious one’s voice.

Then Demeter asked, “Tell me, child, you did not eat anything while you were in the underworld, did you?”

Persephone realised then what she had done and confessed that she had only now eaten four pomegranate seeds.

Her happiness short-lived, Demeter beat her breast in despair, and appealed to Zeus.  He decreed that Persephone would spend eight months of every year with Demeter, but for the other four – one for each pomegranate seed – she would have to return to Hades.

Knowing that what was done could not be undone, Demeter agreed.  And she would return to her duties in the fields.  But before she left Eleusis, she chose to teach Triptolemus, another of Celeus’ sons, the art of agriculture, so he could then instruct the rest of Greece how to plant and reap crops.

When Demeter and Persephone left, Hecate joined them, and eventually became Persephone’s companion in Hades.

During the eight months that Persephone was with her, Demeter again went among the people, watching over the men as they threshed the grain, as the women baked their bread, and having a care over everything that went on.  When the time came for Persephone to return to her husband in the Underworld, Demeter withdrew from the world, to sit, once more, among the shadows in the cave.

All nature slept then but the peasants no longer feared their goddess’ absence, for they knew when Persephone returned to her mother, so would their Grain-mother return to them.


I remember reading about Demeter and Persephone when I was little, horrified at the thought that Hades could appear out of the earth, and take the child of another goddess away, just like that.  But most of the versions I’ve read never mentioned that Zeus was Persephone’s father, and that he had arranged the abduction.  Also, many versions split the time that Persephone spends with her mother and with Hades as six months with each.  Actually, if Hades is Zeus’ brother, then Demeter is also his sister, which means that Persephone is his niece … a bit ‘icky’ really … then again, there’s immortals for you!