Persephone and Demeter Meet Again

The fourth and final installment of the story of Demeter and Persephone.

Rich-haired Demeter still sat apart from all the blessed gods, wasting with yearning for her daughter Persephone. She caused a most dreadful and cruel year for humankind all over the earth.

The farmers and their oxen plowed the fields in vain. Farmers sowed seeds of the white barley, but the ground would not let the seed sprout. It seemed that Demeter would destroy the whole human race with cruel famine. And without humankind, the gods and goddesses who dwell on Mount Olympus would no longer receive the gifts and sacrifices that meant so much to them.

Zeus knew he must do something. First he called for golden-winged Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to bring Demeter to Mount Olympus. Iris sped with swift feet to Eleusis, and found dark-cloaked Demeter in her temple.

“Demeter,” said Iris, “father Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, calls you to come join the tribes of the eternal gods. Come and do not ignore the command of Zeus, who rules over all the gods and goddesses.”

But Demeter’s heart was not moved, and she refused to go with Iris.

Then Zeus sent forth each of the gods and goddesses. They went to Demeter one after the other, offering many beautiful gifts, and godly rights and privileges.

But Demeter was still full of anger, and none of them could persuade her to go to Mount Olympus. Demeter said she would never set foot on fragrant Olympus, nor would she let food grow from the ground, until she saw her daughter again.

When all-seeing Zeus heard this, he called for Hermes, messenger of the gods, god of trickery and travelers and thieves. Zeus sent Hermes to the underworld, to convince Hades with soft words to allow Persephone come up from the misty gloom of the underworld, so that her mother Demeter might see her with her own eyes.

Hermes straightaway flew down to the underworld. He found Hades in his house, seated upon a couch, and his shy wife Persephone with him.

“Dark-haired Hades,” said Hermes, “you who are the ruler over the departed, Zeus bids me bring noble Persephone forth from the underworld up to the rest of the gods, so her mother may see her, and cease from her anger.

“Demeter has promised to destroy the tribes or mortal humans by letting no plants grow,” Hermes said. “But this will put an end both to humankind, and to the sacrifices and honors humans offer to us, the immortal gods.”

Hades smiled grimly and turned to obey the command of Zeus the king. “Go now, Persephone, to your dark-robed mother,” he said. “But feel kindly towards me. I could be a fitting husband for you among, I who am a brother to Zeus, the ruler of all the gods and goddesses.”

Persephone was filled with joy. She sprang up in gladness. But while she had been distracted, Hades had given her a sweet pomegranate seed to eat. For if she ate even one thing in the underworld, she would have to return there. He did not want her to remain forever with grave, dark-robed Demeter.

Hades harnessed his deathless horses to his golden chariot. Hermes took the reins, and Persephone got in the chariot. Swiftly the horses pulled them over the long road, driving past seas and rivers, grassy glens and mountain-peaks — nothing could slow the pace of those immortal horses. At last, Hermes brought them to the fragrant temple where rich-crowned Demeter was staying.

When Demeter saw them, she rushed forth — and Persephone, when she saw her mother’s sweet eyes, leaped down from the chariot and ran to her, fell upon her neck and embraced her. But while Demeter was still holding her dear child in her arms, she began to fear that somehow they had been tricked.

“My child, tell me,” said Demeter. “Did you taste any food while you were in the underworld? If you did not taste any food in the underworld, you shall come back from loathly Hades and live with me on Mount Olympus and be honored by all the deathless gods. But if you tasted any food in the underworld, you must go back there again every year.

“If you ate any food in the underworld, you may only stay with me for two thirds of the year,” Demeter went on. “Each year when the winter returns, you must return to Hades. And when the earth blooms with fragrant flowers in the springtime, then you may return from the realm of darkness and gloom back up to this world.”

“When luck-bringing Hermes came, swift messenger from my father Zeus and the other immortal gods and goddesses,” Persephone said, “When he bid me come back from Hades so you could see me with your eyes and so cease from your anger against the gods, I sprang up at once for joy. But Hades had secretly put in my mouth sweet food, a pomegranate seed, and forced me to taste it.”

Hades giving Persephone a pomegranate seed

Above: Hades giving Persephone a pomegranate seed (from an ancient Greek red figure vase). Was she really unaware that he was giving her something to eat? Or was she looking for a way to escape a mother who never let her grow up?

Then Demeter asked how Hades had found her, and Persephone told her about the narcissus flower in the meadow. And they embraced each other, their hearts at one. And Hecate came to them, and she too embraced the daughter of holy Demeter. From that time onwards, the lady Hecate was minister and companion to Persephone.

All-seeing Zeus called for the goddess Rhea, mother of Demeter, to be his messenger to Demeter. Rhea rushed swiftly down from the peaks of Olympus and came to the plain of Rharus — once rich, fertile farm-land, but now lying barren and leafless because Demeter had hidden the seeds.

“Come, my daughter,” said Rhea to Demeter. “Far-seeing Zeus, the loud-thunderer, calls you to join the families of the gods and goddesses. He has promised to give you what right you please among the deathless gods. He has agreed that for a third of each year, your daughter shall go down to dark and gloomy Hades. He has also said that for the rest of the year, she shall be with you and the other deathless gods and goddesses. So Zeus has declared it shall be. So he has bowed his head in token. But come, Demeter my child, obey, and leave your anger behind, and make the earth grow the fruit and food that gives mortal human beings life.”

So Demeter made fruit spring up from the rich lands, so that the whole wide earth was laden with leaves and flowers. Soon the earth was covered with waving corn, and out of the rich furrows of the fields grew grain and other crops.

Demeter also went to the human kings who were most just. She showed them how to conduct religious rites for her, and she taught them all her mysteries. Happy are those among mortals upon earth who have seen these mysteries. But those mortals who have not seen these religious rites, and who have not taken part in these mysteries, will not have good things after death, down in the darkness and gloom of the underworld.

When the bright goddess Demeter had taught those kings all they needed to know, she and Persephone went to Olympus to the gathering of the other gods and goddesses. There they lived, awful and reverend goddesses, next to Zeus who delights in thunder.


Part one: click here.
Part two: click here.
Part three: click here.
Part four: click here.
Epilogue: click here.


Notes and source for parts 1-4:

Source for all four parts: The Homeric hymn to Demeter (c. 700-600 B.C.E., adapted from the translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 1914).

Notes on the Eleusinian mysteries:

I/ “The Mysteries were open to all, women and men, slave and free, Athenians and other Greeks. That is, unlike normal festivals, at which men and women had different roles, or which were limited to just one gender, the Eleusinian Mysteries did not discriminate by gender, freedom, or nationality: the only formal rule was that the candidates for initiation should be pure and not of unintelligible speech. Women seem to have been initiated on the same basis as men, though we cannot tell in what numbers. …

“The ritual that occurred inside the building [i.e., the temple at Eleusis] is largely concealed from us by the fact that the initiates did not break their vow of secrecy. …

“The significance of the ritual is complex and elusive. The sanctuary itself was at the place where Persephone had been seized by Hades; a cave of Hades just inside the entrance symbolised the entrance to the underworld, and at its mouth was the Mirthless Rock on which Demeter sat weeping when she was searching for Persephone. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter set both the seizure and Demeter’s subsequent mourning at Eleusis, but the hymn is a Panhellenic document, not a sacred text of the Mysteries themselves, and should not be pressed too hard for answers to the Mysteries….”

Religions of the Ancient Greeks, Simon Price (Cambridge University, 1999), pp. 102 ff.

II/ “The Eleusinian mysteries were celebrated annually in the sanctuary of Demeter and her daughter Kore/Persephone on a hill which was situated outside Eleusis, one of the many demes of Athens; the autumn festival lasted more than a week and know two degrees of initiation.

“After a procession from Athens to Eleusis along the (still existing) Sacred Way and more individual rites of fasting and purification, the climax of the ritual took place collectively in the main building, the telesterion. Here, at night, the hierophant showed a ‘single harvested ear of grain’ and called out at the top of his voice: ‘the Mistress has given birth to a hold child, Brimo to Brimos’. The mention of the corn [i.e., wheat] ear seem to confirm Isocrates’ words that Demeter was well-disposed towards Attica ‘because of the benefits which only the initiated may hear.’ (Panegyr. 28). It also suggests that the mysteries did not conceal an esoteric wisdom. In fact, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the oldest source (late seventh century B.C. [sic]) to relate the institution of the mysteries of Demeter during her search for her kidnapped daughter, explains the secrecy from the ‘awesomeness’ of the rites and states that ‘a great reverence of the gods restrains utterance’ (478f).

“The Homeric Hymn to Demeter singles out two gains for initiates: prosperity in this life and a blessed state in the life hereafter (480-9)….”

Greek Religion, Jan Bremmer (Classical Association/Cambridge University Press, 1999/2006), pp. 84-85

III/ “It is difficult to say anything useful about mysteries in short compass (or indeed in long). The central point about Eleusis seems to be the combination of an ‘extraordinary experience’ … with an extraordinary claim: the extraordinary claim — extraordinary in terms of Greek religion, with its emphasis on this world — is that initiation in the cult will bring the initiate a better lot in the afterlife. The two things go together: it is the departure from normality in experience that makes the ambitious claim about the afterlife seem credible. (But it should be noted that, though the cult makes a confident claim, the initiate goes away with, at best, ‘good hope’ — the tentative ‘if’ accompanied almost all propositions about the afterlife even in Attica, where more people had probably been initiated.) The extraordinary experience is closed to us: the best that can be done is to quote, once again, a famous fragment of Plutarch in which he compares the experience of death to that of mystic initiation. The soul at death, he writes,

“‘has an experience like those who are being initiated in great rites… at first wandering and exhausting goings around and uneasy journeys in the dark with no fulfillment, then before the consummation every kind of horror, trembling and terror and sweat and shock. But after this an extraordinary light meets them and open territory and meadows receive them, full of voices and dancing and the dignity of sacred sounds and august visions. Amid which the one who is no perfect and initiated, free and unconstrained, goes around and revels, a crown on his head, and mixes with pure and holy persons.’

But the special character of the Eleusinin experience did not just lie in the intense, multisensual, disorienting final nighttime revelation in the middle of a large and excited crowd. There was also the division of the process into several stages — lesser mysteries, pre-initiation, initiation, final revelation — which had to be undergone on different occasions….”

On Greek Religion, Robert Parker (Ithaca: Cornell University, 2011), pp. 251-253.

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