Explainer: The Story of Demeter and Persephone
The student of Greek mythology is often struck by the fact that some gods and goddesses have extensive roles in the mythical narratives, and others have very limited parts to play. The goddess Demeter is an interesting case of this. As an Olympian goddess and fertility figure, she was very important in ancient Greek religion and life, but she had a rather small role in its literature and mythology.
She was mentioned a little bit in Homeric epic, especially the Iliad, but had no actual part to play either in the Iliad or the Odyssey. Nor was she featured at all as a character in extant Greek drama.
There is, however, a rather beautiful poem called the Homeric Hymn to Demeter in which Demeter and her daughter Persephone are the central focus of attention. It probably dates to the first half of the 6th century BC. It is 495 lines long and composed in hexameters, the same poetic meter as the Iliad and Odyssey. Despite its connections to epic poetry, however, and the title “Homeric”, the hymn is of uncertain authorship.
Demeter and Persephone - A Mother’s Love
The focus of the poem is one of the most renowned narratives from Greek mythology - the rape of Persephone by Hades, the god of the underworld, and the response of Demeter to her loss. It is a remarkable narrative, built fundamentally on the power of a mother’s love for her only child.
Demeter mourning Persephone. (Shuishouyue / Public Domain )
The ancient Greek word for “mother” (meter) is actually embedded in Demeter’s name. The hymn describes the primordial maternal power brought to bear upon the male sky-god Zeus, who had secretly (i.e. without Demeter’s knowledge) given over his daughter Persephone to a marriage with his brother Hades.
Demeter was one of the “older” generation of Olympian gods. Her siblings were Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades on the male side, and Hera and Hestia on the female side. Zeus, the sky god, had sexual relations with two of his sisters - Hera, who was a kind of long-suffering queen of heaven; and Demeter, who was more earth-focused. In a famous passage in Iliad 14, Zeus recounted to Hera herself some of his sexual exploits, and he named Demeter in his long list of amours.
Persephone was not mentioned in the passage as the product of this particular sexual encounter, but that was definitely the idea. Demeter and Persephone are often thought of together as “The Two Goddesses”. This name helps to emphasize the power of their bond, and the gravity of Zeus’s action in violently separating them.
The hymn tells the story of Persephone and other young girls gathering flowers in a meadow. As she bent down to pick a beautiful flower, the earth opened up and Hades emerged on his horse-drawn chariot. She gave out a scream, but he carried her off into the depths of the earth.
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Fresco of Hades abducting Persephone. (Yann / Public Domain )
A Blight on the Land
Her mother heard her cry and began to search for her throughout the whole world. While Persephone was missing Demeter created a blight on the land in which nothing germinated and nothing grew. She would have destroyed humanity altogether if Zeus hadn’t taken notice and acted accordingly.
A human genocide was clearly not in the gods’ interest. It would deprive them of the honors that they received from mortals. Their existence without honors from humans would be intolerable, and Zeus, as ruler of the world, couldn’t allow that to happen.
But Demeter would not let go of her fury at the loss of her daughter. She wouldn’t go to Olympus, the home of the gods, and she wouldn’t let fruit grow on the earth until she saw Persephone again.
Zeus was forced to relent and sent the messenger Hermes to the underworld to get the girl back. But, just as she was leaving, Hades prevailed on her to eat the seed of a pomegranate to prevent her from staying with her mother above the earth all her days. Persephone was therefore forced to spend one-third of each year under the earth with Hades, and two-thirds with her mother and the community of gods on Mount Olympus .
The return of Persephone to Demeter. (Shuishouyue / Public Domain )
Persephone’s transition from the feminized world of a flowery meadow to the unrelenting male world of Hades could scarcely be more fundamental.
The male gods who perpetrated the deed, Zeus and Hades, had no redeeming features whatever in the hymn, and they were really undone by the sheer force of Demeter’s love for her daughter. The main narrative of the hymn has some similarities to Achilles’ response to the loss of Patroclus in the Iliad, but Demeter’s wrath was universal with a kind of cosmic maternal power to it.
A New Cycle of Life and Death
Persephone’s eating of the pomegranate seed meant that a compromise was set up, in which the world changed forever. Whereas she might have expected an immortal existence with her mother on Olympus, Persephone becomes the central figure in a new cycle of life and death.
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Hades tricked Persephone into eating in the underworld so she would have to stay. (Jastrow / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
She was both queen of the underworld, as wife of Hades, and associated with the new life that rises with the spring. Death and life were no longer mutually exclusive but co-existed in both the upper and lower worlds. There was life in death, and death in life.
The Demeter hymn contains the foundation myth of the Eleusinian Mysteries - renowned religious rites which took place at Eleusis, near Athens. Initiation into the mysteries held out the prospect of making death less threatening.
The establishment of Persephone as a feminine presence in the underworld, as described in the hymn, corresponded to the notion that death was not as terrifying as it could have been had Hades been the lone ruler in the world of the dead .
Like many Greek myths the story of Persephone’s descent into the realm of Hades, and her emergence from it, has resonances in contemporary arts, most especially the notion of death and rebirth.
One parallel worth noting is the Phantom of the Opera in the version by Andrew Lloyd-Webber (et al.) in which Erik leads Christine down into the cellar of the opera house on to a boat and across a subterranean lake.
Erik then sang to Christine of the attractions of his isolated world of darkness and night:
Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
Turn your face away from the garish light of day
Turn your thoughts away from cold, unfeeling light
And listen to the music of the night
Phantom of the Opera. (SUPERADRIANME / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The plea of Hades to Persephone was quite different in the hymn, but the desperate loneliness of the two males in their dark realms was something that they have in common.
It is worth noting, finally, that phrases like being “carried off by Hades” or “marrying Hades” were used as metaphors more broadly to describe the deaths of young girls. This again shows how significant the myth of Demeter and Persephone was in the lives of women and girls in Greek antiquity .
Top image: The rape of Persephone. Source: Mattes / Public Domain