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Demeter and Persephone

The Oxford Companion to World Mythology

David Leeming

Demeter and Persephone 

A daughter of the early Greek gods Kronos and Rhea, Demeter (Ceres in Rome) was the goddess of crops and the fertile earth. By her brother and chief Olympian, Zeus, she gave birth to the beautiful Persephone, or Kore (“the maiden,” Roman Proserpina). Demeter did not know that Zeus had promised their daughter to their brother Hades (Aidoneus, Roman Pluto), the ruler of the underworld. This terrifying god took by force what he had been promised. The girl was innocently picking flowers one spring when the earth opened and Hades sprang up from below and carried her off. The poet of the Homeric Hymns tells it this way:

  • I sing now of the great Demeter
  • Of the beautiful hair,
  • And of her daughter Persephone
  • Of the lovely feet,
  • Whom Zeus let Hades tear away
  • From her mother's harvests
  • And friends and flowers—
  • Especially the Narcissus,
  • Grown by Gaia to entice the girl
  • As a favor to Hades, the gloomy one.
  • This was the flower that
  • Left all amazed,
  • Whose hundred buds made
  • The sky itself smile.
  • When the maiden reached out
  • To pluck such beauty,
  • The earth opened up
  • And out burst Hades …
  • The son of Kronos,
  • Who took her by force
  • On his chariot of gold,
  • To the place where so many
  • Long not to go.
  • Persephone screamed,
  • She called to her father,
  • All-powerful and high, …
  • But Zeus had allowed this.
  • He sat in a temple
  • Hearing nothing at all,
  • Receiving the sacrifices of
  • Supplicating men.
Only Hecate in her cave and the sun heard her cries. So it was that Persephone was taken by Hades down to his home to reign there as his queen.

Persephone's mother searched the earth frantically for her daughter, until the sun told her who had carried off the girl. Demeter was, understandably, not willing to accept the rape of her daughter or the collusion of her brothers in the act. In anger and despair, she left Olympus to live on earth and to continue the search for Persephone. Wherever she went she conferred blessing or punishments, depending on how she was treated. In a place called Eleusis, not far from Athens, the king, Celeus, took in the goddess and she took care of his children. She wanted to make the king's son Demophon immortal by dipping him in fire, but the child's mother came upon the ritual and screamed, and the ritual was broken, leaving the child mortal. Demeter turned her attention to another son, Triptolemos, conferring favors on him. It was Triptolemos who, under the goddess's inspiration, invented the plough and, thus, agriculture and civilization itself. In his chariot given to him by Demeter, he traveled the earth teaching the art of agriculture. Back in Eleusis he established the worship of Demeter in the famous Eleusinian Mysteries.

But unable to find her daughter, Demeter neglected the earth to such an extent that it became barren. Things became so bad that Zeus sent Hermes to retrieve Persephone. Before allowing her to leave, however, Hades gave her pomegranate, food of the underworld, to eat, and this symbolic act, connoting a certain loss of innocence, made it necessary for Persephone to return to her husband for one- third of each year. The rest of the time she could spend with Demeter.

When Persephone left her mother each year to return to her husband and her dark palace under the earth, Demeter became sad, and the warm, fertile seasons gave way to winter. But like the seed planted in the dark earth, Persephone burst forth annually from her underground place, representing the springing forth of Demeter's bounty in the spring. It is appropriate that Demeter is often depicted wearing a garland of corn.

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