The story of Demeter and Persephone, part 1

I’ve been putting together some stories for liberal religious kids, and I’m working on a version of the story of Demeter and Persephone, as told in the Homeric Hymns. I’ve taken the translation by E. G. Evelyn-White (Cambridge: Harvard, and London: William Heinemann, 1914 — now in the public domain), and simplifying it somewhat for upper elementary and middle school kids — but retaining the somewhat archaic flavor of the translation, and retaining some of the Greek epithets (“rich-haired Demeter,” etc.). Here’s the first part of the story:

Rich-haired Demeter, goddess who strikes awe in the hearts of all humankind, the goddess of the wheatfields, goddess of farming and agriculture—Demeter had a daughter named Persephone.

Once upon a time, trim-ankled Persephone was playing with the daughters of Oceanus. They roamed over a soft meadow on the plain of Nysa, gathering flowers: roses, crocuses, beautiful violets, irises and hyacinths, and also the narcissus. Gaia, mother Earth, made the narcissus grow at the will of Zeus, the ruler of all the other gods and goddesses. All-seeing Zeus, the god of loud thunder, had decided that Persephone was old enough to be married. It was his will that the narcissus should grow in the meadow, to attract the attention of Persephone. The narcissus is a marvellous, radiant flower—a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and is smelled most sweetly, so that all wide heaven above and the whole earth and the sea’s salt swell laughed for joy.

When Persephone saw the narcissus blooming, she was amazed, and reached out with both hands to take the lovely toy. But to her surprise, the wide-pathed earth yawned open there in the middle of the meadow. Out of the yawning hole rode Hades, Son of Cronos and brother of Zeus, god of the underworld, Host of the Many (he was called “Host of the Many” because he ruled over the underworld, the land of the dead, which meant he was host to all the many people who had died over the centuries).

Hades caught up the reluctant Persephone and carried her away. But before he could turn his horses to carry her back into the underworld, Persephone cried out shrilly, calling upon her father Zeus, Son of Cronos, who is the highest of all the gods and goddesses. But no one—not the deathless gods and goddesses, nor the mortal human beings—heard her voice. Not even the olive trees, bearing their rich fruit heard her cry out. Only two beings heard Persephone’s cry: tender-hearted Hecate sitting in her cave, she of the bright hair, daughter of Persaeus, goddess of witches, heard Persephone cry out to Zeus. And from high in the sky lord Helios, Hyperion’s bright son, who guides the sun across the sky each day, he also heard Persephone cry out to Zeus. But no one else heard. Hades carried Persephone away, his own brother’s child, even though she was unwilling. Zeus had given him leave to do so.

And so long as she, the goddess Persephone, still could see earth and starry heaven and the strong-flowing sea where fishes shoal, and the rays of the sun, as long as she still hoped to see her dear mother and the the eternal gods who live forever, so long hope calmed her heart. She cried out, and the heights of the mountains and the depths of the sea rang with her immortal voice. At last Demeter, her queenly mother, heard her cries.

Bitter pain seized Demeter’s heart, and she tore the covering from her divine hair; her dark cloak she threw off her shoulders; and she sped towards where she had thought she had heard Persephone cry; sped like a wild-bird, over the firm land and yielding sea, seeking her child. But when she asked where Persephone was, no one would tell her the truth, neither gods nor mortal human beings.

For nine days, queenly Demeter wandered over the earth with flaming torches in her hands. She suffered so much grief at the loss of her daughter, that she could not eat the food of the gods—she never tasted ambrosia and the sweet draught of nectar, nor sprinkled her body with water. But on the tenth day, Hecate, with a torch in her hands, met her, and spoke to her and told her news.

“Queenly Demeter,” said Hecate, “O bringer of seasons and giver of good gifts, what god of heaven or what mortal man has carried away Persephone and pierced with sorrow your dear heart? For I heard her voice, yet saw not with my eyes who it was. But I tell you truly and shortly all I know.”

Instead of answering, Demeter sped swiftly with Hecate, holding flaming torches in her hands. Together, they came to Helios, who is watchman of both immortal gods and mortal humans, and stood in front of his horses.

“Helios,” said Demeter, “listen to me, goddess as I am, if ever by word or deed of mine I have cheered your heart and spirit. Through the fruitless air I heard the cry of my daughter. Though I could see nothing, the way she cried sounded as though someone had seized her violently. But you look down from the bright upper air, and can see over all the earth and sea. Tell me truly, have you seen my dear child anywhere? Have you seen what god or mortal man has violently seized her against her will, and against my will?”

“Queen Demeter, daughter of rich-haired Rhea,” Helios said in answer. “I will tell you the truth; for I greatly reverence and pity you in your grief for your trim-ankled daughter. No other of the deathless gods is to blame, but only cloud-gathering Zeus. It was Zeus who gave her to Hades, the god of the underworld, to be his wife. And Hades seized her and took her loudly crying in his chariot down to his realm of mist and gloom.

“Yet, goddess Demeter, cease your loud lament and keep not vain anger unrelentingly,” Helios went on. “Hades, the Ruler of Many, is no unfitting husband among the deathless gods for your child, being like you born of the same stock. He holds great honor among the gods and goddesses, and he is appointed lord of all those among whom he dwells.” After Helios said this, he called to his horses, and drove his swift chariot around Demeter and Hecate, his horses moving like long-winged birds.

When Demeter heard what Helios had to say, her grief became yet more terrible and savage. She was so angered with Zeus, the dark-clouded Son of Cronos, that she stayed away from high Mount Olympus where the other gods and goddesses gathered. Instead, she disguised herself, hiding her true form, and went to wander the towns and fields of humans. And none of the men or women who saw her knew that she was the goddess Demeter.

To be continued!

4 thoughts on “The story of Demeter and Persephone, part 1”

  1. As part of RE at our church, we have also talked about how this story related to the Eleusinian mysteries, one of the central religious rites of the Greek world and later also the Roman world. A very lonstanding rite that probably persisted for almost two thousand years, until suppressed by some later Roman Emperors after the Roman Empire became Christian. Apparently the rite in some way gave a promise of the renewal of life.


  2. Thanks for the link, Tim!

    I admit I tend to be less factual when teaching this story, and tend instead to use something of a Jungian approach, looking at the archetypal nature of the story.

  3. Hi, I love your version of the myth – so sorry you haven’t written part 2. I’ve been searching for less patriarchal, violent versions of the Persephone myth to go with a UU spring flower celebration. Yours is beautiful and I really hope your write part 2. I’ve really enjoyed finding your blog and will be returning to read it regularly. Thank you.

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