By Edith Hamilton

From the book

"Mythology"

Demeter

Queen of fragrant Eleusis,
Giver of earth's good gifts,
Give me your grace, 0 Demeter.
You, too, Persephone, fairest,
Maiden all lovely, I offer
Song for your favor.

from the book

Mythology

By: Edith Hamilton


This story is told only in a very early poem, one of the earliest
of the Homeric Hymns, dating from the eighth or the
beginning of the seventh century. The original has the marks
of early Greek poetry, great simplicity and directness and
delight in the beautiful world.
Demeter had an only daughter, Persephone ( in Latin Proserpine )

the maiden of the spring. She lost her and in her
terrible grief she withheld her gifts from the earth, which
turned into a frozen desert. The green and flowering land
was icebound and lifeless because Persephone had disappeared.
The lord of the dark underworld, the king of the multitudinous dead, carried her off when, enticed by the wondrous bloom of the narcissus, she strayed too far from her companions. In his chariot drawn by coal-black steeds he rose
up through a chasm in the earth, and grasping the maiden
by the wrist set her beside him. He bore her away, weeping, down to the underworld. The high hills echoed her cry
and the depths of the sea, and her mother heard it. She sped
like a bird over sea and land seeking her daughter. But no
one would tell her the truth, "no man nor god, nor any sure
messenger from the birds." Nine days Demeter wandered,
and all that time she would not taste of ambrosia or put
sweet nectar to her lips. At last she came to the Sun and
he told her all the story: Persephone was down in the world
beneath the earth, among the shadowy dead.
Then a still greater grief entered Demeter's heart. She
left Olympus; she dwelt on earth, but so disguised that none
knew her, and, indeed, the gods are not easily discerned
by mortal men.

 

In her desolate wanderings she came to
Eleusis and sat by the wayside near a wall. She seemed an
aged woman, such as in great houses care for the children
or guard the storerooms. Four lovely maidens, sisters,

coming to draw water from the well, saw her and asked her
pityingly what she did there. She answered that she had
fled from pirates who had meant to sell her as a slave, and
that she knew no one in this strange land to go to for help.
They told her that any house in the town would welcome
her, but that they would like best to bring her to their own
if she would wait there while they went to ask their mother.
The goddess bent her head in assent, and the girls, filling
their shining pitchers with water, hurried home. Their
mother, Metaneira, bade them return at once and invite the
stranger to come, and speeding back they found

the glorious goddess still sitting there, deeply veiled and covered
to her slender feet by her dark robe. She followed them, and
as she crossed the threshold to the hall where the mother sat
holding her young son, a divine radiance filled the doorway
and awe fell upon Metaneira.
She bade Demeter be seated and herself offered her

honeysweet wine, but the goddess would not taste it. She asked
instead for barley-water flavored with mint, the cooling
draught of the reaper at harvest time and also the sacred cup
given the worshipers at Eleusis. Thus refreshed she took the
child and held him to her fragrant bosom and his mother's
heart was glad. So Demeter nursed Demophoon, the son that
Metaneira had borne to wise Celeus. And the child grew like
a young god, for daily Demeter anointed him with ambrosia
and at night she would place him in the red heart of the fire.
Her purpose was to give him immortal youth.
Something, however, made the mother uneasy, so that
one night she kept watch and screamed in terror when she

saw the child laid in the fire. The goddess was angered; she
seized the boy and cast him on the ground. She had meant
to set him free from old age and from death, but that was
not to be. Still, he had lain upon her knees and slept in her
arms and therefore he should have honor throughout his life.
Then she showed herself the goddess manifest. Beauty
breathed about her and a lovely fragrance; light shone from
her so that the great house was filled with brightness. She
was Demeter, she told the awestruck women. They must
build her a great temple near the town and so win back the
favor of her heart.
Thus she left them, and Metaneira fell speechless to the
] earth and all there trembled with fear. In the morning they
told Celeus what had happened and he called the people
together and revealed to them the command of the goddess.

They worked willingly to build her a temple, and when
it was finished Demeter came to it and sat there — apart
from the gods in Olympus, alone, wasting away with longing

for her daughter.
That year was most dreadful and cruel for mankind over
all the earth. Nothing grew; no seed sprang up; in vain the
oxen drew the plowshare through the furrows. It seemed
the whole race of men would die of famine. At last Zeus saw
that he must take the matter in hand. He sent the gods
to Demeter, one after another, to try to turn her from her
anger, but she listened to none of them. Never would she
let the earth bear fruit until she had seen her daughter. Then
Zeus realized that his brother must give way. He told Hermes
to go down to the underworld and to bid the lord of it let
his bride go back to Demeter.
Hermes found the two sitting side by side, Persephone
shrinking away, reluctant because she longed for her mother.


At Hermes' words she sprang up Joyfully, eager to go. Her
husband knew that he must obey the word of Zeus and send
her up to earth away from him, but he prayed her as she
.left him to have land thoughts of him and not be so sorrowful

that she was the wife of one who was great among the
immortals. And he made her eat a pomegranate seed,

knowing in his heart that if she did so she must return to him.
He got ready his golden car and Hermes took the reins and
drove the black horses straight to the temple where Demeter
was. She ran out to meet her daughter as swiftly as a Maenad
runs down the mountainside. Persephone sprang into her
arms and was held fast there. All day they talked of what
had happened to them both, and Demeter grieved when she
heard of the pomegranate seed, fearing that she could not
keep her daughter with her.


Then Zeus sent another messenger to her,

a great personage, none other than his revered mother Rhea, the oldest
of the gods. Swiftly she hastened down from the heights of
Olympus to the barren, leafless earth, and standing at the
door of the temple she spoke to Demeter.
Come, my daughter, for Zeus, far-seeing, loud-thundering, bids
you.
Come once again to the halls of the gods where you shall have
honor,
Where you will have your desire, your daughter, to comfort your
sorrow
As each year is accomplished and bitter winter is ended.
For a third part only the kingdom of darkness shall hold her.
For the rest you will keep her, you and the happy immortals.
Peace now



In the stories of both goddesses. Demeter and Persephone,
the idea of sorrow was foremost. Demeter, goddess of the
harvest wealth, was still more the divine sorrowing mother
who saw her daughter die each year. Persephone was the
radiant maiden of the spring and the summertime, whose
light step upon the dry, brown hillside was enough to make
it fresh and blooming, as Sappho writes,
I heard the footfall of the flower spring . . .
— Persephone's footfall. But all the while Persephone knew
how brief that beauty was; fruits, flowers, leaves, all the fair
growth of earth, must end with the coming of the cold and pass like herself into the power of death. After the lord of
the dark world below carried her away she was never again
the gay young creature who had played in the flowery
meadow without a thought of care or trouble. She did indeed
rise from the dead every spring, but she brought with her
the memory of where she had come from; with all her bright
beauty there was something strange and awesome about her.
She was often said to be "the maiden whose name may not
be spoken."
The Olympians were "the happy gods," "the deathless
gods," far removed from suffering mortals destined to die.
But in their grief and at the hour of death, men could turn
for compassion to the goddess who sorrowed and the goddess who died.

The End

 

~~~READING PARLOR>>> INDEX~~~

 

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