Demeter and Persephone

Demeter and Persephone


What Is the Demeter and Persephone Story Summarized?

Plutus and Demeter, Apulian red-figure loutrophoros C4th B.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum

In ancient Greek mythology, the Demeter and Persephone story tells of the deep connection a mother shares with her daughter. It also tells the story of a young girl who comes of age and falls in love with the dark god of the underworld.

It represents the fading of innocence as a young woman charts her way into maturity to forge her destiny to the dismay of her fiercely protective mother. You can draw inspiration from this story and use it as a guide to how you deal with the different seasons in your life.

It’s a story about love, relationships, family bonds, grief, loss, and a renewal of hope. Read on.


PERSEPHONE & DEMETER

Zeus, the king of all the gods, had two brothers and three sisters. All the gods had jobs, but his sister Demeter had one of the most important jobs - she was in charge of the harvest. There were many temples in ancient Greece dedicated to Demeter. Nearly everyone, gods and mortals, did their best to keep Demeter happy. If Demeter did not do her job, the crops would die and everyone would starve. The gods did not want the ancient Greek people to starve. They were having too much fun interfering in their lives.

As the story goes .

Demeter loved her little daughter, Persephone. They played together in the fields almost every day. As Persephone smiled up at her mother, Demeter's heart swelled with happiness, and the crops grew high and healthy. Flowers tumbled everywhere. As time passed, Persephone grew into a lovely goddess. That's when the trouble started.

Hades, the king of the underworld, was a gloomy fellow. He normally hung out in the Underworld.

One day, Hades felt restless. He decided to take his three-headed dog out for a chariot ride. Cerberus, his dog, usually stood guard at the gate to Underworld. But Hades gave his pup a break now and then. He scooped up Cerberus, and left a couple of spirits in charge instead.

Hades flew his chariot up to earth. Cerberus leaped out of the chariot and ran around, sniffing flowers with all three of his heads. The dog ran up to a lovely young woman, the goddess Persephone. Some people might have been startled if a three-headed dog came tearing up. But Persephone only laughed and scratched his heads.

Hades loved that old dog. He watched his dog playing happily with Persephone. He heard Persephone's delighted laugh. Hades fell deeply in love. Before anyone could stop him, he grabbed his niece, his dog, and his chariot and dove deep into the darkest depths of the Underworld.

Hades locked Persephone in a beautifully decorated room in the Hall of Hades. He brought her all kinds of delicious food. Persephone refused to eat. She had heard if you ate anything in Hades, you could never leave. She had every intention of leaving as soon as she could figure out how to do so.

Over a week went by. Finally, in desperate hunger, Persephone ate six pomegranate seeds. She promptly burst into tears.

She was not the only one crying. Demeter, her mother, missed her daughter terribly. She did not care if the crops died. She did not care about anything except finding her daughter. No one knows who told Zeus about it, but it was clear this could not go on. Zeus sent his son Hermes to work a deal with Hades.

This was the deal Hermes worked out: If Persephone would marry Hades, she would live as queen of the Underworld for six months each winter. In the spring, Persephone would return to earth and live there for six months. No one especially liked the deal, but everyone finally agreed.

Every spring, Demeter makes sure flowers are blooming and crops are growing and the fields are green with welcome. Every fall, when Persephone returns to the underworld, Demeter ignores the crops and flowers and lets them die. Each spring, Demeter brings everything to life again, ready to welcome her daughter's return.

To the ancient Greeks, that was the reason for seasons - winter, spring, summer, fall.

The story of Demeter and Persephone told by other authors:


Demeter Mourns and Takes Control

Inconsolable at the loss of her daughter, Demeter roams the earth in search of Persephone. No one, god nor mortal, has the courage to tell her what happened. Finally, through information gleaned by the pre-Olympian goddess Hecate, Demeter is informed of Persephone’s rape.

Upon discovering that Zeus made the perfidious bargain with Hades, Demeter withdraws from her residence on Mount Olympus, and instead makes her home in an agrarian community populated by mortals. A grand temple is built in Demeter’s honor with attendant rites to conciliate her spirit, but nothing appeases the grieving goddess.

It is at this point in the story that Demeter realizes her full strength. As a means of regaining her daughter from Hades, she exploits her power of fertility and stops the seasons. This turns the earth into a barren wasteland. Reluctant to see the planet he shepherds wither away, Zeus pleads with Demeter to make the earth abundant once again. But Demeter will not relent until Persephone is released.

‘Demeter Mourning for Persephone’ (circa 1906) by Evelyn De Morgan. ( Public Domain )

Finally, Zeus intercedes on Demeter’s behalf and orders Hades to return Persephone to her mother’s earthly domain. Ever obedient to Zeus, Hades adheres to his instruction but not until he lures Persephone into consuming a pomegranate seed. The mere act of eating in the underworld binds Persephone to Hades as his wife for a few months out of every year.


Modern Spring Celebrations Have Roots in Persephone’s Tale

Stories of death and rebirth are common among countless cultures to this day, and it’s typical for many of us around the globe to celebrate the period of renewal in particular. Each spring, Christians worldwide celebrate Easter, which is meant to signify the resurrection of Jesus after his death on the cross. Easter is traditionally observed on the first Sunday following the Paschal full moon, usually on or just after the spring equinox. Thus, the celebration of Jesus’ revival coordinates with the earth's agricultural resurgence as spring arrives in the northern hemisphere and drives out the dark days of winter.

Each spring, Wiccans, Druids and other pagans celebrate Ostara or Eostre, a holiday from which the name "Easter" is believed to have originated. The holiday marks the annual spring equinox and celebrates the return of fertility, light and abundance to the earth.

In India, the return of spring is marked by the Holi celebration, which is sometimes referred to as the "festival of love" or the "festival of colors." During Holi, which takes place just before the beginning of spring, communities gather to light bonfires, dance and shower each other with water balloons and brightly colored powders. The holiday, which dates back to the fourth century, celebrates the return of spring after winter and symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.

Meanwhile, Central Asian communities usher in spring with an elaborate celebration called Nowruz, an ancient custom that's believed to have originated in the sixth century BCE. This holiday marks the beginning of the new year on the Iranian calendar. Now celebrated by people from various religions and countries, Nowruz memorializes the triumph of good over evil and joy over sorrow similarly to Holi.

The holiday, which can last from two weeks to an entire month, involves plenty of dancing, feasting and various rituals involving water and fire. The festivities are meant to drive out the evil energies of misfortune and ensure healthy life and abundance in the coming year.


The End.

My name is Tasha Guenther. I currently live in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, while I finish my Ph.D. in Cultural Studies with a concentration in digital cultures at McMaster University. I am an avid academic essay/book chapter writer, but I also enjoy writing short stories and non-fiction pieces. You can read more of my DLTKsCrafts work here!

Alongside my learning, studying, and thinking about digital platforms and critical theory, I appreciate long conversations with close friends, reading poetry, and taking photos of my cat. Learn more about me here or connect with me on my Instagram, Twitter, VSCO, and Facebook accounts.


5 Facts About Persephone, Queen of the Underworld

A quick and dirty rundown on some of your favorite characters from Greek mythology: Zeus is the powerful Father of the Gods who had a complicated relationship with Aphrodite and doted on his daughter Athena, who assisted Hercules (the Roman version of the Greek hero Herakles) in one of his 12 labors.

Confused yet? Take it all in and prepare to add more Greek mythology know-how to your growing knowledge bank because we asked Richard P. Martin, Antony and Isabelle Raubitschek professor in classics at Stanford University, to help us get to know the wife of Hades herself, Persephone.

1. Some Call Her Queen of the Dead

So, who was Persephone, exactly? Otherwise known as Kore (signifying "daughter" and "maiden"), Persephone captured the heart of Hades, who abducted her in his chariot. "She is the wife of Hades, who is the king of the Underworld, and so she can be called Queen of that realm, or even Queen of the Dead," Martin says via email. "But she's not some sort of scary witch figure — she is a beautiful young woman who became the king's bride — exactly how is another, longer and stranger story."

The gist of that story goes like this: Hades became taken with the lovely young Persephone when he saw her picking flowers one day and kidnapped her back to the Underworld. Her mother, the goddess of agriculture, Demeter, then scoured the Earth for her lost daughter. Persephone's dad is Zeus, a figure who fathered more than a few iconic Greek characters, and in some versions of the tale, is responsible for handing over his daughter to Hades. Because of Demeter's distress, she neglected the harvest, and widespread famine ensued.

Zeus then demanded his daughter be returned, but there was a catch: Persephone had eaten a few pomegranate seeds during her time in the Underworld, thanks to Hades' trickery. Because anyone who tasted the food of the Underworld was condemned to remain there (a convenient rule, no?), Hades struck a deal with Persephone's parents: She'd spend four months a year with him, and eight on Earth. Now known as the goddess of spring, Persephone is said to be spending time with her hubby down in the Underworld during the barren months of the year and back above ground when the land comes alive.

"Because Hades has tricked Persephone into eating a pomegranate, the daughter has to return to his realm for one-third of the year — good to know that Greeks in archaic times thought of there being three, not four, seasons," Martin says. "Later versions say she is gone half the year to Hades, and half the year lives above Earth with Demeter."

2. Ancient Artists Usually Portrayed Her in One of Two Ways

"In ancient art, there are two main motifs where we see Persephone," Martin says. "First, the moment when she is abducted by Hades. He emerges from under the Earth in a chariot and carries her away, while her playmates — nymphs and mortal maidens — try to grab at her to prevent this. An amazing 4th century B.C.E. wall-painting showing this event was found in the 20th century in Vergina, part of the Macedonian region of Greece. Bernini and others have given versions of that scene."

The second main motif, according to Martin, is Persephone-in-the-Underworld. "She is often shown sitting beside her royal husband, overseeing the various famous dead heroes or sinners, or, for example, granting Orpheus the favor of retrieving his dead wife. In modern art, there are some great paintings of her reunion with her mother, but this is rare in ancient art."

3. There are Some Slight Variations in Her Story

"The variations usually have to do with the time of her abduction by Hades," Martin says. "In our oldest evidence the so-called Hymn to Demeter, from around 600 B.C.E., she clearly is carried off in springtime. She's attracted by a blooming narcissus flower in a meadow full of other sorts of blossoms, and it then acts like a trigger on a trap door — she goes to pluck it and Hades flies up on his chariot."

But Martin says audiences had trouble with that tale from the start. "Already in ancient times, however, people were wrestling with this whole story both because it is so touching and because it was tightly connected with the all-important Mysteries of Eleusis outside Athens, that promised some sort of eternal happiness after life for everyone," he says. "They tried to explain the details in various ways."

One of those ways involves manipulating the often confusing, usually disturbing overlaps in Greek mythology family trees. "It is weird and disturbing that Zeus, first of all, who is the father of Persephone by his own sister Demeter, basically allows his brother, Hades, to abduct (or even rape) her," Martin says. "In ancient times, allegory was the main tool used to interpret unpleasant or opaque stories. So Persephone was allegorized as spring or the growth of crops her mother was goddess of grain (called in Latin ceres, hence 'cereal'), making the equation easier. And her disappearance was taken to equal the dead of winter when crops do not grow. So some versions have her disappear in autumn, to make the facts fit the story."

There are other variations too, particularly around the relationship between Persephone and her mom. "In the Hymn to Demeter, Persephone does come back to see her mother, after a spectacular sort of hunger strike by Demeter, who causes crops to wither because she finds out her daughter has been abducted and gets Zeus to tell Hades to let the girl return to Earth," Martin says. "Demeter has the power because without her grain, there can be no sacrifices to the gods, so they get starved out, as it were." Martin is careful to point out that in this particular version, it's not the disappearance of Persephone that causes the lack of crops, but the anger of Demeter. "And again, it's not winter but late spring/summer," he says.

4. Persephone Still Represents Important Themes Today

"In ancient Greece, the myth had multiple simultaneous meanings," Martin says. Here's how he breaks them down:

  1. "A mother and daughter must separate because the latter grows up and marries — which in traditional cultures meant moving, often far away, to a husband's home and family. It was a 'social death' for her original family — so this mythic story channels some of the everyday experience of Greek women," he says.
  2. "The story was clearly plugged into cycles of seasons and agriculture," Martin says. "In the Hymn, there is a major subplot about how Demeter in mourning shows up at Eleusis, now a suburb of Athens, becomes a nanny for a royal family, nearly immortalizes their baby (by sticking him in the fire every night), is discovered, and then commands that local people worship her to calm her wrath. Part of the deal is that the family spreads throughout the world the new knowledge of grain-growing."
  3. "Because Eleusis was where Demeter settled down to mourn her lost daughter, the shrine there controlled Mysteries — which are still secret to this day — in which hundreds of Greeks and foreigners each year would be initiated into some sort of secret knowledge and sworn to keep it secret," Martin says. "It seems that whoever participated in the elaborate ceremony was promised a happy existence in the Underworld after death — the model for this was Persephone, who basically overcomes death (at least partially) by being enabled to keep coming back."

"For the modern world, the first and third stories have resonance," Martin says. "We still seek stories about what it will be like after death (and methods to ensure our happiness), and we still deal with the pain and confusion of the formation of new families by partially breaking bonds of the old — as when daughters marry and move far away."

5. She and Her Mother Were Known as The Two Goddesses

"She was such a familiar figure to Greek women, in particular, that she was often just called kore ('the daughter'), and together with her mother, the two were referred to as The Two Goddesses — in fact, women could swear oaths 'by The Two.' Women had a number of female-only rituals in honor of The Two." One ancient celebration, in particular, known as the Thesmophoria, was a religious festival dedicated to Demeter and Persephone."

"In Athens, in particular, her name was often 'Pherephatta,'" Martin says. "Neither that word or 'Persephone' have a good Greek etymology, although already Plato (in the Cratylus) and others were indulging in speculation about what it meant. Probably it was a pre-Greek word that made its way into Greek at an early stage."


Demeter and Persephone - History

Persephone was Demeter's daughter. One day while Persephone was gathering flowers, Hades, god of the underworld, captured her. No one had any idea where she had gone to or what had happened to her.

Demeter was sick with worry and grief. She asked Helios the sun god what had happened. When she learned that Hades had captured her daughter she became very angry. For a year she caused crops and plants to wither and die. A terrible famine gripped the earth.

Zeus commanded that Hades release Persephone. Persephone was overjoyed. However he tricked her into eating some pomegranate seeds before she left the underworld. He knew that if she ate anything from the land of the dead, she would have to return to him for a part of each year.

This figure may represent Demeter's daughter Persephone. She holds a pomegranate. This is the fruit that Hades tricked her into eating. This meant that she could not return permanently to her mother.

Demeter was delighted that her daughter had returned to her. However every time Persephone had to return to Hades, Demeter mourned terribly again. This is why for a part of each year the plants and crops stop growing. When Persephone returns to earth, the land once again bursts with life.


Personality

As the Goddess of Death, Persephone is just as fair and just as her husband, however, she is known to take the role as Queen of the Underworld even more seriously than Hades himself. Persephone held an ancient role as the Dread Queen and had a reputation so fearsome that the mortals were far too afraid to even dare utter her name.

Regardless, Persephone is portrayed as being very kind, loving, and nurturing as well, especially towards her children. It was those very characteristics that she was able to get past Hades' cold and stern heart as well and expose a more soft and gentle side in him. Persephone has been shown to enter into a sullen and morose state whenever she is required to return to the surface to fulfill her duties as the Goddess of Spring. And while she does love her mother dearly she is unable to tolerate her controlling and overbearing nature. It is for that reason that Persephone much prefers to remain in the Underworld with Hades to the point where she even delights in the company of the shades that wander about the kingdom.

However, her kindness is not to be mistaken for weakness for as it was stated before Persephone can be extremely wrathful and intimidating when provoked especially if it concerns her husband and children. Her wrathful side has shown to even unnerve deities from other pantheons, most notably the trickster god, Loki. It is said that at one point Loki desired to borrow the great hound Cerberus and Persephone gave him a term-limit for when he should return Cerberus. However, Loki was past the deadline and was fearful of returning Cerberus as a result but not because he was afraid of incurring Hades' wrath but more-so Persephone's.


The Story of Hades and Persephone

According to Greek mythology, Persephone was the beautiful young daughter of Demeter, the goddess of grain. One of the most popular versions of the story claimed that Zeus was her father, although others did not name him.

Demeter was extremely devoted to her daughter and the two were constant companions. Persephone was known for her beauty and grace.

Zeus, however, decided that Persephone’s time as a young maiden who spent all her time with her mother would come to an end. As the king of the gods, and possibly her father, he had the right to arrange her marriage to the man he chose.

Zeus chose for her to marry Hades. His brother was the lord of his own realm and a powerful god, so he felt that it was a good match that would benefit both.

He knew, however, that Demeter would object. She would not want to be separated from her beloved daughter, who would be taken to the Underworld as the bride of Hades.

The two gods decided, therefore, not to tell Demeter what they had planned for her daughter.

They waited for one of the rare moments when Persephone and her mother were not together. One day when the younger goddess was collecting flowers with some nymphs, Hades burst out of the Underworld in his chariot and grabbed her, pulling her to the land of the dead and closing the entrance before anyone could react.

Some versions of the story claimed that the nymphs who were with her that day fled in terror. Others said that they were so frightened that they could not speak.

Either way, Demeter could receive no information from them when she realized that her daughter was missing. With no other witnesses, she had no idea where Persephone had gone.

According to some sources, Persephone had only had time to let out a single scream before she was taken into the Underworld. Hearing this, Demeter was certain that something terrible had happened to her.

Demeter began searching the world over for her missing daughter. She wandered from place to place looking for information, neglecting her duties to make grain grow as she did.

After several days of searching, Demeter was bedraggled and half-starved but still did not know where Persephone had gone or who had taken her. Eventually, according to many sources, she came across Hecate.

Hecate had no information either, but told Demeter to ask Helios what had happened. From his place high in the sky, the god of the sun bore witness to everything that happened on earth.

Helios had, indeed, seen the entire abduction. When Demeter learned that Hades had taken her daughter, she knew that Zeus was involved as well.

She returned to Olympus and demanded answers from her brother. Not only had he allowed Hades to take Persephone, but he had also lied to her and let her continue her fruitless search when he knew where the young goddess was.

The goddess of grain demanded that her daughter be returned. If she was not, Demeter swore that she would stop crops from growing entirely.

If she did that, Zeus knew, the human population would soon starve. This would also mean that the gods would not receive the sacrifices they relied on from the people of earth.

He commanded Hades to bring Persephone back to the surface. Hades put Persephone in his chariot and began the journey out of the Underworld.

As they traveled, however, he offered her a pomegranate. Some sources claimed that she ate some of it willingly, being hungry after days in the Underworld, while others said that the god of the dead tricked her into eating a few seeds.

When they came to the surface, Demeter was overjoyed at her daughter’s return. This happiness would be short-lived, though.

Because she had eaten food from the Underworld, Persephone was forever bound to that place. It would be impossible for her to return to the world of the living for good.

A compromise was reached to pacify Demeter and maintain the marriage between Hades and Persephone. The young goddess would live with her mother most of the time but return to her husband and his realm for one-third of the year.

When Persephone was with her mother, Demeter was happy. Grains and other plants grew and flourished.

When she returned to the Underworld, however, Demeter fell into mourning. For three months of the year, the winter, nothing would grow and the land would become barren.

My Modern Interpretation

The story of Hades and Persephone is one of the most well-known, and most widely-discussed, tales of Greek mythology.

At its surface, it is an explanation for the cycle of the seasons. The yearly disappearance of the grain goddess’s daughter justified why crops did not grow during the winter months.

Historians, and Greek sources themselves, offer much deeper interpretations of this tale, however.

The marriage of Hades and Persephone symbolized the relationship between life and death. In the ancient view of the world, the two were inseparable.

New growth, which Persephone became the goddess of, came from the ground. Seeds, which appeared to be dead, were placed into the earth just as the bodies of the deceased were. From them came new life.

Dead matter nurtured this life, providing necessary nutrients in the soil to make plants larger and stronger. To the ancients, life and death existed in a cycle in which each relied on the other.

The myth of Hades and Persephone symbolized this cycle. She returned to the living each spring just as the plants did.

This idea was especially embraced by Greece’s mystery cults, who left numerous writings and works of art devoted to Persephone. Their focus was on learning the secrets of death and its central place in the world, so Persephone was an important link between this world and the afterlife for them.

In fact, most Greek myths and legends show Persephone in her role as the queen of the Underworld rather than the goddess of new life. When heroes such as Heracles or Orpheus went to Hades’ realm, they saw Persephone regardless of the season.

Often, Persephone was a figure of mercy and kindness in these stories. The queen of the dead represented a more loving, maternal aspect of the Underworld than her more stern husband.

Many historians believe that the story of Hades and Persephone also represents a mythologized view of how marriage worked in much of the ancient world.

Like Persephone, the majority of young women in the ancient world were given into arranged marriages by their fathers. Both the bride and her mother would typically have little to no say in these unions and, as in the myth, sometimes did not even know a marriage had been arranged in advance.

Beyond that, however, there is evidence that the story of Hades and Persephone reflects a ritual that had been carried into Greek culture from even more ancient traditions.

A brutal but common aspect of ancient warfare was the forcible kidnapping of young women. They would be married to their kidnappers and often never see their own families again.

Stories of such marriages by kidnapping can be found from around the world. The Old Testament of the Bible has many such stories, Ghengis Khan’s mother was taken in this way, and many Native American cultures practiced the custom.

In ancient Greece, a more settled culture with a stronger legal system meant that raids against one’s neighbor were less common than negotiations and trade. The custom of stealing a bride, however, remained.

Ancient sources often recount night-time raids as a tradition in ancient Greek marriages in which a groom would sneak into his new bride’s family home and take her back to his own. Like the bride being given away in a modern wedding this was a tradition rather than a literal kidnapping.

Some historians believe that the story of Hades and Persephone can be interpreted as a version of this real-world tradition, which was likely a continuation of a more brutal and ancient custom. While Persephone and her mother had no say in the marriage, her abduction was lawful because it was part of a marriage that had been arranged by her father.

In Summary

According to Greek legends, Hades abducted Persephone to marry her.

The marriage had been arranged by Zeus, the king of the gods and in some versions Persephone’s father. Because her mother, Demeter, would object, however, Zeus hid his plans from her.

Instead, Hades kidnapped the young goddess and took her to the Underworld. Demeter searched in vain before learning of her brothers’ plans.

Demeter threatened to use her power as the goddess of grains and crops to cause devastating famines if her daughter was not returned. Because Persephone had eaten food from the Underworld, however, she was eternally tied to that place.

As a compromise, Persephone was permitted to spend much of the year with her mother. When they were together, Demeter rejoiced and crops grew well.

For three months of the year, however, Persephone returned to her husband’s realm. Demeter mourned and nothing would grow.

The most common and basic interpretation of this story is that it explained the cycle of the seasons. When Demeter went into mourning over her daughter’s absence, it was winter and crops would not grow, but when Persephone returned life rebounded in the spring.

The Greeks also believed the story represented the cycle of life and death. New growth came from beneath the ground from seemingly dead seeds, linking the land of the dead and the return of life in the spring.

While the story of Persephone’s kidnapping is infamous to modern readers, some historians also believe it represented Greek marriage customs. While abductions were a common way to bring new women into a community in many ancient cultures, the Greeks ritualized this practice as part of the marriage ceremony.

The story of Hades and Persephone thus shows many aspects of ancient Greek culture and belief. From the local traditions of arranged marriages to the cycles of life and death, the king and queen of the Underworld were central figures in the Greek worldview.


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