Demeter and Persephone

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is an excerpt from an Orphic Hymn to Persephone:

“…Persephone divine,
come, blessed queen, and to these rites incline:
only-begotten, Hades’s honoured wife,
O venerable Goddess, source of life:….
O vernal queen, whom grassy plains delight,
sweet to the smell, and pleasing to the sight:
whose holy form in budding fruits we view,
earth’s vigorous offspring of a various hue:
espoused in autumn, life and death alone
to wretched mortals from thy power is known:
for thine the task, according to thy will,
life to produce, and all that lives to kill.
Hear, blessed Goddess, send a rich increase
of various fruits from earth, with lovely peace:
send health with gentle hand, and crown my life
with blest abundance, free from noisy strife;
last in extreme old age the prey of death,
dismiss me willing to the realms beneath,
to thy fair palace and the blissful plains
where happy spirits dwell, and Hades reigns.”

[#29, The Hymns of Orpheus. Translated by Thomas Taylor (1792). Modern edition: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.]

The second reading is from the mythographer Apollodorus, and it tells the best-known version of the story of Persephone’s abduction:

[1.5.1] Plouton [or Hades] fell in love with Persephone, and with Zeus’s help secretly kidnapped her. Demeter [her mother] roamed the earth over in search of her, by day and by night with torches. When she learned from the Hermionians that Plouton had kidnapped her, enraged at the gods she left the sky, and in the likeness of a woman made her way to Eleusis….
[1.5.3] When Zeus commanded Plouton to send Kore [or Persephone] back up, Plouton gave her a pomegranate seed to eat, as assurance that she would not remain long with her mother. With no foreknowledge of the outcome of her act, she consumed it. Askalaphos, the son of Akheron and Gorgyra, bore witness against her; in punishment for which Demeter pinned him down with a heavy rock in Hades’s realm. But Persephone was obliged to spend a third of each year with Plouton, and the remainder of the year among the gods.

[Pseudo-Appollodorus, Bibliotheca. Trans. Keith Aldrich as The Library of Greek Mythology by Apollodorus. Lawrence: Coronado Press, 1975).]


This is the third in a series of sermons on Greek goddesses. This morning I would like to speak about Demeter and Persephone: Demeter was the goddess of the seasons, of farming and husbandry, of marriage, and of the cycle of life and death; while Persephone, her daughter, was the goddess of the underworld, goddess of the dead, and also the goddess of springtime.

But before I begin talking about the myths relating to Demeter and Persephone, I’d like to remind you — as if you need reminding — that myths are slippery things. The ancient mythographers, who collected and wrote down the ancient Greek myths (and who, by the way, were all men), offer many different versions of any given myth; and because myths come from oral tradition we might suspect that there were as many different versions of a myth as there were persons who retold that myth.

After centuries of Christian dominance in Western culture, we are accustomed to think of religion as being based on written texts;– we are accustomed to think that religion is the same no matter where you are on the world;– and we are still influenced by the Christian idea of orthodoxy: that there is one and only one true interpretation of religion, an interpretation which is overseen by a central religious authority. But Greek myths were not based on written texts, they were based on oral poetry and more importantly on rituals that were acted out in various sacred places. Greek myths varied from place to place, so that the story of Demeter and Persephone varied from Athens to Sicily. And there was no central authority to interpret the myths or Greek religion; the myths were interpreted variously by the priests and priestesses in the various sacred places, and interpreted variously by each mythographer, each poet, each philosopher.

As a result, the ancient Greeks could not pretend that there was any one true and final interpretation of their religion; nor did they think there was any one true and final answer to their religious questions. Different points of view led to different understandings of the gods and goddesses, their children, and their liaisons.

In this sense, Greek myths are much like family stories. The stories we tell about our families are notoriously slippery. One child in a family has a wonderful childhood, filled with love and magic and wonder; another child in the same family has a miserable childhood; and when these siblings grow up, and tell their stories to one another, they are astonished at how different their stories are; it can seem as if they grew up in two different families. Similarly, a child may have a lovely childhood, completely unaware that one parent lives a gloomy, depressed life; or vice versa.

Myths are slippery things, and families are slippery things. And this morning I’m going to talk about the mythical family of Demeter and Persephone.

1. In the second reading this morning, we heard one of the more familiar mythical stories about how Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, and that familiar story goes something like this:

Once upon a time, Hades, the god of the underworld, was looking for a queen to rule along with him. Somehow, he happened to see Persephone, who was also known as Kore. Something about her captivated him. He went to Zeus, the ruler of all the Olympian gods, and he asked Zeus’s permission to marry Persephone. Now probably Hades asked Zeus’s permission simply because Zeus was the ruler of the other Olympian gods. But others say that Zeus lay with Persephone first, and they had a child together. And still others say Zeus was Persephone’s father. Well, whatever the family relationships might have been, Hades asked to marry Persephone and have her become the queen of the underworld. Zeus would neither grant his permission nor deny his permission. Hades took this as tacit consent from the ruler of the gods.

One spring day, Persephone was out wandering in a field, far from her mother Demeter. She was not alone, however; some say that she was with friends of hers who were nymphs, the daughters of Oceanus; but others say she was with the great goddesses Artemis and Athena. Whomever she was with on that spring day, the fields were filled with flowers: crocuses, irises, hyacinths, roses. One flower in particular captivated Persephone, and that was the narcissus. She wandered away from her friends to seek out this particularly beautiful flower.

Persephone reached down to pluck one particularly fine blossom, when suddenly the ground opened up. Hades came up out of the ground, riding in a gold chariot drawn by magnificent immortal horses. He caught her up, and took her in the chariot, wheeled the horses around, and sped back into the ground.

Oddly enough, almost no one seems to have heard Persephone cry out. Her friends did not hear her; Zeus, up on Mount Olympus, didn’t hear her (although perhaps he didn’t want to); none of the other Olympian gods or goddesses heard her, though they are all usually so good at hearing things like that. Later, when Demeter began her search for her daughter, the goddess Hecate, who had been sitting inside her cave, said she had heard Persephone’s cries; and Helios, the Sun, way up in the sky, far above Mount Olympos, said he heard her cries. But that was later.

When Demeter missed Persephone, she became absolutely frantic. Where had her daughter gone? She went all over the land and all over the sea looking for Persephone. No one, neither god nor mortal, would tell her the truth of where Persephone had gone. At last, after ten days, Hecate came forward and told this story: she said she did not know who had stolen Persephone away, but that she had heard Persephone’s voice. Then Demeter stormed up to see Helios, the Sun. Helios said he thought Zeus had given Persephone to Hades, for he had seen Hades had come up out of the earth and steal her away. But Zeus denied any role in this, and said Persephone should stay with Hades.

I said Demeter was frantic, and soon she was prostrated with grief, and would no longer allow food to grow on the wide earth; nor would she let the seasons progress in their usual way. Famine spread across the earth, and human beingss began to die. At last, in order to prevent all life on earth from being destroyed, Zeus told Demeter that she could have Persephone back — that is, as long as Persephone had not eaten anything at all during her time with Hades in the underworld.

When Persephone came back to the upper world, her mother greeted her joyously, and springtime came again on the earth. But when Demeter asked her if she had eaten anything in the underworld, Persephone said she had eaten several pomegranate seeds. Some say she ate four seeds, others say she ate six, or seven; some say that Persephone was tricked into eating the seeds, others say she ate them unknowingly, and still others say she ate them by choice.

For whatever reason Persephone ate the seeds, the end result was the same: she had to spend part of every year in the underworld. Each year, Persephone descends to the underworld to spend so many months there; and while she is away, her mother Demeter grieves, it is wintertime, and nothing can grow upon the earth. When Persephone returns to the upper world, Demeter becomes glad again, and springtime returns.

That’s the story. But I want to know why Persephone ate those seeds. Was it because Hades tricked her into it? Did she eat the seeds without thinking? (such a scenario seems unlikely). Did she choose to eat them? We don’t get a definite answer; yet such an answer would tell us whether Persephone decided on her own to stay in the underworld, or whether she was forced into staying.

Now there’s another story that says when Persephone had grown up, all the Olympian gods fell in love with her. Now Persephone could have followed the example of Artemis and Athena, and demanded that she never have to marry; but she did not. Well, all these gods were pursuing her, and her mother got worried:– what if old lame Hephaistos became her husband? So Demeter took Persephone away, and hid her in a deep dark cave behind stalactites and stalagmites that should have kept all the gods away from her. But Zeus found a way to sneak in, and he and Persephone had a child together, much to Demeter’s dismay. This story raises an interesting question:– Did Persephone want to get married to someone, but Demeter kept interfering?

What is missing in all these myths is Persephone’s point of view. We hear an awful lot about what Demeter went through. But what was Persephone thinking and feeling?

2. I said that both myths and family histories are slippery things. It is nearly impossible to catch hold of either one; they slip away from any final understanding. Yet if we try to adopt Persephone’s point of view, perhaps we could find new perspectives on this old story. The problem is that we don’t quite know what Persephone’s point of view might have been. So we have to speculate instead. For example:

   a) What if Persephone felt that Demeter was an over-protective, controlling mother? Persephone could have seen that other goddesses were able to get away from their parent’s protection. Athena, for example, was born to her mother inside Zeus’s head. When she came of age, Athena started forging armor for herself, and the pounding of her hammer on the anvil gave Zeus such headaches that the other gods had to cut open Zeus’s head. Out sprang Athena, fully grown, fully armored, and not to be messed with. There was no question about Athena’s father or mother controlling her life. As for Artemis, who was also a daughter of Zeus:– while she was still a child, she asked for, and got, privileges from Zeus including weaponry, attendants, and the right to never marry. Once again, there was no question about Artemis’s father or mother controlling her life.

Persephone could have seen all this, and yet there she was, another daughter of Zeus, and Demeter her mother rarely let her out of sight. Perhaps she saw Athena and Artemis as powerful, actualized women, and she might have asked herself: Why not me?

   b) So what if we retold the story of Persephone like this: Persephone goes out into that field alone, and up out of the ground comes Hades. Hades grabs her, which surprises the heck out of her, and so she screams. But then she thinks: Hades is a very powerful god, and maybe this is a way to get away from her mother — not only that, but she will get to be a queen of the underworld. The gold chariot confirms what she had heard, that Hades is fantastically rich — after all, he has access to all the riches that lie underground, which includes gold, silver, gems, and the like. And if you can get past the idea that he is the god of the dead, maybe he’s an OK guy after all.

She grabs at her chance, stops screaming, and goes off with Hades into the underworld. It’s not the best marriage in the world. And the underworld can get a little grim, filled as it is with dead people. She’s not sure she wants to stay in Hades. But when she hears that her mother is crying and threatening that there won’t be any springtime until she gets her Persephone back — how familiar that all sounds — well, when Persephone hears that her mother has gotten permission to come down to the underworld and fetch her back, Persephone quickly eats some pomegranate seeds, knowing this will mean she won’t be able to stay with Demeter.

That’s one way we could retell the story of Persephone. In this version of the story, Persephone goes from one bad family situation into another bad family situation. And then in the end, she has to split her time between these two unhappy families.

   c. So here’s another way to retell this story. Let’s assume that Persephone is a much more powerful goddess than we have thus far given her credit for being. Remember, all these myths were written down by men who had a vested interest in maintaining that male gods were more powerful than female goddesses). In fact, there is an ancient myth that it was Persephone who first created human beings:– one day, she was crossing a river, saw some clay, and fashioned the clay into a human shape; she got Zeus to breathe life into the figure; and thus Zeus had power over human beings while they were alive, but Persephone had power over them after they died. And in another story, it is said that Persephone was not the daughter of Zeus at all, nor of Demeter. So Persephone seems to be very powerful, and in control of her life. What if we retold her story like this:

Persephone is happy to be the goddess of springtime, and to work with Demeter. But Persephone feels that Demeter is trying to take too much power from her; trying to control her, the goddess who created humankind, who takes charge of human beings once they die! So Persephone arranges to meet up with Hades, while Athena and Artemis, two other powerful goddesses, provide cover for her. Zip! — she and Hades disappear below the ground. It’s a great strategic alliance: Persephone is the goddess who rules over dead human beings, while Hades is the god of the underworld where the dead go.

At the same time, Persephone knows that she will have to return to the upper world once a year, to fulfill her other role as the goddess of the springtime. Demeter messes up the plan a little bit by freaking out and running all over the place. To calm her down, Persephone gets Hecate and Helios to say that Persephone is safe in the underworld; but Demeter isn’t satisfied, so Persephone carefully eats half a dozen pomegranate seeds, and goes to the upper world to calm Demeter down.

Let’s remember that Demeter may or may not be Persephone’s mother. When Demeter sees Persephone, she is ecstatic — she once more has the goddess of springtime working with her. “Not so fast,” says Persephone; “I may be the goddess of springtime, but I’m also goddess of the dead — and by the way, the two are closely related, in case you hadn’t noticed, Demeter. And I’ve eaten half a dozen pomegranate seeds to symbolize my commitment to the entire cycle of life, from birth through death.”

And that’s yet another retelling of the story of Persephone, one which may hang together better than the old story told by the ancient mythographers.

3. I began by saying that mythical stories are slippery things; just as the stories we tell about our families are slippery things. We have seen this in the mythical family story of Demeter and Persephone. A great deal depends on who tells the story. This story was told from Demeter’s point of view, but if we try to imagine how Persephone would tell it, we might come up with a very different way of understanding the story.

And as we grow older, we retell our own stories over and over — to our selves, and to the people we love. Sometimes, someone else tells our own story for us, and we accept their telling of the story — as when sometimes our parents tell us what kind of person they expect us to be, and we blindly accept what they say, and live out their expectations. Persephone could just accept the stories that others tell about her: Hades abducted her, someone made her eat pomegranate seeds, Demeter came and returned her to the upper world, then Zeus ruled she had to split her time between the two worlds. Or Persephone could retell her story so that she claims her own power as both the goddess of springtime, and the goddess of the dead.

There’s another religious way of summing all this up: We are alive, and so we fear death, and try to avoid it. But Persephone knows that death and life are intertwined; she knows both the giving of life in springtime, and she knows the ultimate ending of death. Persephone recognizes the power life in Demeter, and the power of death in Hades, and she manages to give them both their due. We ask ourselves: Can we reach that true integration of valuing life while honoring death? And we ask ourselves another question that Persephone raises: Can we claim our individual power in the face of death, which renders us ultimately powerless?

One last very short myth about Persephone before I end: It is said that when Persephone goes into the ground accompanying Hades, that is really an even older myth about planting seeds in the cold ground in springtime; we plant seeds is what appears to be dead earth, only to have it grow, and thrive, and come to harvest, and so feed us and make us grow.