I’ve been trying to write up the story of Demeter and Persephone for a Sunday school class. It has a very dark side to it, as do so many religious stories; the dark side is one of the things children like best about these stories. They are like Grimm’s fairy tales, filled with all the horrible things that children know exist in the real world but can’t talk about: Hansel and Gretel’s parents deliberately lose them in the woods; Siddartha Gautama abandons his wife and young child; Lot throws his daughters out to the crowd to be ravaged; Jesus is sentenced to a bloody death on trumped-up political charges; Persephone is abducted by the god of death, and in retribution her mother makes innocent human beings die in a massive famine. Sometimes I think that even though we adults try to put some kind of moral gloss on them, what children learn from these stories is that life is essentially amoral.
In any case, as I sat here today sorting through the details of the Persephone story, as presented in the Homeric hymns and in Ovid’s Metapmorphoses, I realized that many of the main characters in the story are closely related. Persephone is the child of Zeus and Demeter; Hades, Demeter, and Zeus are all children of Cronos and Rhea, and grandchildren of Gaia, mother earth. Not only that, but the Homeric hymn makes it clear that Zeus and Gaia (Persephone’s father and grandmother) set up the situation where Hades can abduct Persephone. Talk about a dysfunctional family!
I don’t want to emphasize this aspect of the story in the version for children, and the only way I can get it out of my head is to inflict it on you. So below you will find the dysfunctional family version of the Persephone story….
A Family Story
Persephone was growing up.
Grain goddess Demeter, her mother,
Wouldn’t let her go.
Farseeing Zeus, Thunder God,
Conspired with Mother Earth
To give the daughter away.
Persephone was with her friends,
The buxom daughters of Ocean,
Picking sweet flowers in the fields.
Persephone was drawn to one,
The Narcissus, lured by beauty.
She went to it, and stooped,–
Below the earth, Hades,
Brother of Zeus, grandson
Of Earth, brother of Demeter,
Toured his underworld realm.
The dead fluttered past him.
He looked up, saw Persephone stoop;–
Hades rushed up and grabbed
Persephone, who screamed, and called
To Zeus, her father. Zeus, it seems,
Heard nothing. Hades took her down
To Tartaros, his dark dreary realm.
And there she sat, his bride;
Bored, with nothing to do.
Demeter was distraught.
Her daughter, gone! At last,
She learned that Hades had her.
Helios, the sun, said to her,
“And why not Hades? He’s rich.
She has to get married sometime.”
Demeter in her anger prevented
Anything at all from growing.
Famine came. The dead went to Hades.
Zeus grew alarmed. This
He had not foreseen. He offered
To promote her to Olympos.
“No,” said Demeter. “I want
My daughter.” And Hades smiled.
Persephone went back to her mother,
Carrying a seed inside her:
Bored, she’d been curious, and eaten
A bit of underworld pomegranate.
Persephone still lives with her mother
Eight months of the year. For four months,
She lives in Tartaros with Hades.
They had a baby together,
Plutos, god of wealth,
His mother’s favored child.