11.Demeter And Persephone
Once when Demeter was going through the world, giving men grain to be sown in their fields, she heard a cry that came to her from across high mountains. Demeter’s heart stopped when she heard that cry, for she knew that it came to her from her daughter, from her only child, young Persephone.
She did not stay to bless the fields in which the grain was being sown, but hurried away, to Sicily to the fields of Enna, where she had left Persephone. All over Enna she searched, and all over Sicily, but she found no trace of Persephone, nor of the maidens whom Persephone had been playing with. From all whom she met she begged for news, but although some had seen maidens gathering flowers and playing together, no one could tell Demeter why her child had cried out nor where she had gone.
There were some who could have told her. One was Cyane, a water nymph. But Cyane, before Demeter came to her, had been changed into a spring of water. Now, she was not able to speak and tell Demeter where her child had gone and who had carried her away, so she showed in the water Persephone’s belt that she had caught in her hands. Demeter, finding the belt of her child in the spring, knew that she had been carried off by violence. She lit a torch at Etna’s burning mountain, and for nine days and nine nights she went searching for her through the darkened places of the earth.
Then, upon a high dark hill, the Goddess Demeter came face to face with Hecate, the Moon. Hecate, too, had heard the cry of Persephone.She had sympathy for Demeter’s sorrow.She spoke to her as the two stood upon that dark, high hill, and told her that she should go to Helios for news—to bright Helios, the watcher for the gods, and beg Helios to tell her who it was who had carried off by violence her child Persephone.
Demeter came to Helios. He was standing before his shining horses, before the impatient horses that draw the sun through the heavens. Demeter stood in the way of those impatient horses. She begged of Helios, who sees everything on the Earth, to tell her who it was who had carried off by violence, Persephone, her child.
Helios, who may conceal nothing, said, “Queen Demeter, know that the king of the Underworld, dark Aidoneus, has carried off Persephone to make her his queen in the realm that I never shine upon.” He spoke, and as he did, his horses shook their manes and breathed out fire, impatient to be gone. Helios sprang into his chariot and went flashing away.
Demeter, knowing that one of the gods had carried off Persephone against her will, and knowing that what was done had been done by the will of Zeus, would go no more into the assemblies of the gods. She put out the torch that she had held in her hands for nine days and nine nights. She took off her robe of goddess, and she went wandering over the Earth, uncomforted for the loss of her child. No longer did she appear as a gracious goddess to men; no longer did she give them grain; no longer did she bless their fields. None of the things that it had pleased her to do once would Demeter do any longer.
Persephone had been playing with the nymphs who are the daughters of Ocean—Phaeno, Ianthe, Melita, Ianeira, Acast—in the lovely fields of Enna. They went to gather flowers—irises and crocuses, lilies, narcissus, hyacinths and roseblooms—that grow in those fields. As they went, gathering flowers in their baskets, they saw Pergus, the pool that the white swans come to sing in.
Beside a deep chasm that had been made in the earth a wonderful flower was growing—in color it was like the crocus, but it sent forth a perfume that was like the perfume of a hundred flowers. Persephone thought as she went toward it that having gathered that flower she would have something much more wonderful than her companions had.
She did not know that Aidoneus, the lord of the Underworld, had caused that flower to grow there so that she might be drawn by it to the chasm that he had made.
As Persephone stooped to pluck the wonderful flower, Aidoneus, in his chariot of iron, dashed up through the chasm, and grasping the maiden by the waist, set her beside him. Only Cyane, the nymph, tried to save Persephone, and it was then that she caught the belt in her hands.
The maiden cried out, first because her flowers had been spilled, and then because she was being carried away. She cried out to her mother, and her cry went over high mountains. The daughters of Ocean, became frightened, fled and sank down into the depths of the sea.
In his great chariot of iron that was drawn by black horses Aidoneus rushed down through the chasm he had made. Into the Underworld he went, and he dashed across the River Styx, and he brought his chariot up beside his throne. He seated the fainting daughter of Demeter, Persephone, on his dark throne
The Goddess Demeter no longer gave grain to men or bless their fields. Weeds grew where grain had been growing, and men feared that in a while they would starve for lack of bread.
She wandered through the world, her thought all upon her child, Persephone, who had been taken from her. Once she sat by a well by a path, thinking about the child that she might never see again.
She saw four maidens approach. Their grace and their youth reminded her of her child. They stepped lightly along, carrying bronze pitchers in their hands, for they were coming to the Well of the Maiden which Demeter sat beside.
The maidens thought when they looked at her that the goddess was some elderly woman who had a great sadness in her heart. Seeing that she was so noble and so sorrowful-looking, the maidens, as they drew the clear water into their pitchers, spoke kindly to her.
“Why do you stay away from the town, old mother?” one of the maidens said. “Why don’t you come to the houses? We think that you look as if you are homeless and alone, and we should like to tell you that there are many houses in the town where you would be welcomed.”
Demeter’s heart went out to the maidens, because they looked so young and fair and simple and spoke with such kind hearts. She said to them: “Where can I go, dear children? My people are far away, and there are none in all the world who would care to be near me.”
One of the maidens said, “There are princes who would welcome you in their houses if you would agree to nurse one of their young children. But why do I speak of other princes beside Celeus, our father? You would indeed have a welcome in his house. Recently our mother, Metaneira, has had a baby and she would be very pleased to have one as wise as you mind little Demophoon.”
All the time she watched them and listened to their voices .The grace and youth of the maidens reminded her of Persephone. She thought that it would ease her heart to be in the house where these maidens were, and she was willing to have them go and ask their mother to have her come to nurse the infant child.
They ran back to their home swiftly, their hair streaming behind them like crocus flowers; kind and lovely girls whose names are well remembered—Callidice and Cleisidice, Demo and Callithoe. They went to their mother and they told her of the strange woman whose name was Doso. She would make a wise and a kind nurse for little Demophoon, they said. Their mother, Metaneira, rose up from the couch she was sitting on to welcome the stranger. But when she saw her at the doorway, she was awestruck at Demeters majesty.
Metaneira offered her seat on the couch but the goddess took the lowliest stool, saying in greeting, “May the gods give you all good, lady.”
“Sorrow has sent you wandering from your good home,” said Metaneira to the goddess, “but now that you have come to this place you shall have all that this house can offer if you will help bring up the infant Demophoon, child of many hopes and prayers.”
The child was put into the arms of Demeter and she held him tight. Little Demophoon looked up into her face and smiled. Then Demeter’s heart went out to the child and to all who were in the household.
Under her care he grew in strength and beauty. Little Demophoon was not fed as other children are fed, but as the gods in their childhood were nourished. Demeter fed him on ambrosia, breathing on him with her divine breath all the time. At night she laid him on the hearth, amongst the embers, with the fire all around him. This she did so that she might make him immortal like the gods.
But one night Metaneira looked out from the room where she lay, and she saw the nurse take little Demophoön and lay him in a place on the hearth with the burning embers all around him. Then Metaneira leaped up, and sprang to the hearth, snatching the child from beside the burning brands. “Demophoön, my son,” she cried, “what has this strange woman done to you, making me regret that ever I let her take you in her arms?”
Then said Demeter, “You mortals are indeed foolish, and not able to foresee what comes to you, whether good or evil.”
“You are indeed foolish, Metaneira, for in your haste you have cut off this child from an immortality of the gods themselves. For he had become dear to me and I would have given him the greatest gift that the Divine Ones can give, for I would have made him immortal. All this, now, has gone. He shall indeed have honour, but Demophoon will know age and death.”
Demeter’s aged appearance disappeared and a beautiful figure stood before them. There came such light from her body that the chamber shone. Metaneira remained trembling and speechless, forgetting even to pick up the child that had been laid upon the ground.
It was then that his sisters heard Demophoon wail. One ran from her room and took the child in her arms while another kindled the fire, and the others bathed and cared for the infant. All night they cared for him, holding him in their arms, but the child would not be comforted, becauses the nurses who handled him now were less skillful than the goddess-nurse.
As for Demeter, she left the house of Celeus and went upon her way, lonely in her heart. In the world that she wandered through, plants would not grow, and men saw themselves near death for lack of bread.
But again Demeter came near the Well of the Maiden. She thought of the daughters of Celeus as they came toward the well that day, the bronze pitchers in their hands, and with kind looks for the stranger—she thought of them as she sat by the well again. Then she thought of little Demophoon, the child she had held. No stir of living was in the land near their home, and only weeds grew in their fields. As she sat there and looked around her there came into Demeter’s heart a pity for the people in whose house she had lived.
She rose up and went to the house of Celeus. She found him beside his house measuring out a little grain. The goddess went to him and she told him that because of the love she had for his household she would bless his fields so that the seed he had sown in them would come to growth. Celeus rejoiced, and he called all the people together, and they built a temple to Demeter. She went through the fields and blessed them, and the seed that they had sown began to grow. The goddess for a while lived amongst that people, in her temple at Eleusis.
But still she kept away from the assemblies of the gods. Zeus sent Iris with the golden wings, asking her to come to Olympus. Demeter would not join the Olympians. Then, one after the other, the gods and goddesses of Olympus came to her. However none were able to make her cease grieving for Persephone, or return to Olympus.
Therefore Zeus was forced to send a messenger down to the Underworld to bring Persephone back to the mother who grieved so much for the loss of her. Hermes was the messenger Zeus sent. Hermes went through the dark places of the earth, and he came to that dark throne where the lord Aidoneus sat, with Persephone beside him. Then Hermes spoke to the lord of the Underworld, saying that Zeus commanded that Persephone should come out of the Underworld so that her mother could see her.
Then Persephone, hearing the words of Zeus that must be obeyed, uttered the only cry that had left her lips since she had sent out that cry that had reached her mother’s heart. When Aidoneus, heard the command of Zeus, he bowed his dark, majestic head.
She could go to the Upperworld and rest herself in the arms of her mother, he said. Then he cried out,”Ah, Persephone, try to feel kindness in your heart toward me. I can give to you one of the great kingdoms that the Olympians rule over. I, who am brother to Zeus, am a suitable husband for you.”
After Aidoneus, the dark lord of the Underworld had said this, he prepared the iron chariot with its deathless horses so that Persephone could go up from his kingdom.
Aidoneus put the chariot beside the only tree in his kingdom. A single fruit grew on that tree, a bright pomegranate fruit. Persephone stood up in the chariot and plucked the fruit from the tree. Then Aidoneus asked her to divide the fruit, and, having divided it, Persephone ate seven of the pomegranate seeds.
It was Hermes who took the whip and the reins of the chariot. He drove on, and neither the sea nor the rivers, nor the mountain peaks slowed the deathless horses of Aidoneus, and soon the chariot was near to where Demeter awaited her daughter.
When, Demeter saw the chariot approaching, she flew like a wild bird to hug her child. Persephone, when she saw her mother’s eyes, sprang out of the chariot and embraced her. For a long time Demeter held her dear child in her arms, gazing at her. Suddenly she looked worried. With great fear in her heart she cried out, “Dearest, has any food passed your lips in all the time you have been in the Underworld?”
She had not tasted food in all the time she was there, Persephone said. Then, suddenly, she remembered the pomegranate that Aidoneus had asked her to divide. When she said that she had eaten seven seeds from it Demeter wept, and her tears fell on Persephone’s face.
“Ah, my dearest,” she cried, “if you had not eaten the pomegranate seeds you could have stayed with me, and we should always been together. But now that you have eaten food in it, the Underworld has a claim upon you. You may not stay with me here. you will have to go back again and live in the dark places under the earth and sit upon Aidoneus’s throne. But you will not always be there. When the flowers bloom on the earth you shall come up from the realm of darkness, and joyfully we shall go through the world together, Demeter and Persephone.”
So it has been since Persephone came back to her mother after having eaten the pomegranate seeds. For two seasons of the year she stays with Demeter, and for one season she stays in the Underworld with her dark lord. While she is with her mother there is springtime on the earth. Demeter blesses the fields, her heart being glad because her daughter is with her once more. The fields become full of grain, and soon the whole wide earth has grain and fruit, leaves and flowers. When the crops are harvested, when the grain has been gathered and when the dark season comes, Persephone goes from her mother and going down into the dark places, she sits beside her mighty lord Aidoneus and upon his throne. She is not sorrowful there. She sits with head held high, for she knows she is a mighty queen. She has joy, too, knowing of the seasons when she may walk with Demeter, her mother, on the wide places of the earth, through fields of flowers and fruit and ripening grain.
This was the story that Orpheus told—Orpheus who knew the histories of the gods.
A day came when the heroes, on their way back from a journey they had made with the Lemnian maidens, called out to Heracles on the Argo. Then Heracles, standing on the prow of the ship, shouted angrily to them. He seemed terrible to the Lemnian maidens, and they ran off, taking the heroes with them. Heracles shouted to his comrades again, saying that if they did not come aboard the Argo and make ready for the voyage to Colchis, he would go ashore and carry them to the ship, and force them again to take the oars in their hands.
That evening the men were silent in Hypsipyle’s hall, and it was Atalanta, the maiden, who told the evening’s story.