Sarah has a PhD in classical civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write on the ancient world and other topics.
Heart of Ancient Greek Religion
The myth of Demeter and Persephone was of central importance in ancient Greek religion. The narrative lay at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the secret religious initiatory rites held each year, which offered the participants hope of rebirth to a better afterlife.
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, composed about the eighth century BCE, recounts the story in vivid detail, which seem to reflect some of the ritual actions carried out in the performance of the Mysteries.
Who was Demeter?
Demeter was a sister of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the Olympian gods, and one of the first generation of Olympian deities who had been swallowed by their father Kronos and then disgorged and freed by Zeus. Unlike the other major Olympian goddesses, Demeter was neither a dedicated virgin like Artemis, Athena or Hestia, nor married like Aphrodite or Hera.
As goddess of fertility and the fruitfulness of the Earth, and the flourishing of the cereal crops on which mortals depended for their food, Demeter was a goddess of immense power and importance. The root of her name—meter—is the Greek word for mother.
Despite being married to his sister Hera, Zeus was always interested in erotic dalliance with others, whether mortal or divine. His attention accordingly turned to his other sister Demeter, and they came together. The result of their union was a daughter named Persephone, who is sometimes also called Kore, the maiden.
Hades and the Abduction of Persephone
Persephone grew up into a beautiful young girl, and in time came to the attention of her Uncle Hades, King of the Underworld. Desiring her as his bride, he approached his brother and Persephone's father, Zeus, to ask for her hand in marriage. Zeus discreetly gave permission without consulting with Persephone's mother Demeter.
The girl herself, meanwhile, was happily playing with her friends in a grassy meadow, picking the beautiful flowers that grew there. Suddenly, the ground gaped open before Persephone, and from that yawning chasm rushed Hades, king of the dead, in his chariot. Seizing the terrified girl, he plunged back with her under the earth and into darkness.
Persephone cried out desperately for help, calling on her father, the king of the gods, to save her. Zeus, however, had placed himself out of the way and was at one of his temples, receiving offerings from mortals. The only deities to witness her abduction were Helios, the sun god, who sees all, and the kindly goddess Hekate who heard her cry out.
Demeter Goes in Search of Persephone
As Persephone was drawn down into the darkness, Demeter caught the tail-end of her despairing cry. Realising that someone had taken her, Demeter tore the veil that covered her head, flung off her dark cloak, and went flying like a bird over land and sea in search of her beloved daughter.
For nine days Demeter wandered over the earth bearing a torch in each hand, searching and asking everyone she met whether god or mortal if they had seen her daughter. All those she asked were either unable to tell her what had happened, or else unwilling for fear of the wrath of Hades. In all that time, Demeter did not refresh herself with ambrosia or nectar or wash her body with water.
On the morning of the tenth day, Demeter was met by the goddess Hekate. Hekate confirmed that she had heard Persephone being abducted but had not been able to see who it was who took her. Together the two goddesses approached Helios, the sun god, and stood before the horses of his chariot.
Demeter asked Helios, if he had any regard for her, to tell her truthfully what he had witnessed, for he sees all things that happen on earth, below his soaring chariot.
Helios responded to Demeter's request and told her what he had seen. He then counselled Demeter to come to terms with what had happened. Hades was not a bad match for her daughter, being ruler over all the dead and Demeter and Zeus' own brother. With that, Helios called to his horses, and they resumed their course across the sky.
So far from taking Helios' advice, Demeter was overcome by grief at the loss of her daughter and by fury at Zeus for having connived at her abduction behind her back. Shunning the company of the gods, Demeter changed her form and entered the world of mortals.
Demeter Arrives at Eleusis, Disguised as an Old Woman
Taking on the form of an old woman, Demeter came to Eleusis, near Athens. Reaching a shady spot by a well, she sat down and rested out of the sun. Presently, the four young daughters of King Celeus; Callidice, Cleisidice, Demo and Callithoe came to the well to draw water. Seeing an old woman sitting there alone, they addressed her kindly and asked her who she was and why she sat by herself and did not enter the town where she would be welcomed.
Demeter told the girls that her name was Doso, and that she came from Crete, having been captured by pirates who brought her to the mainland, where she had succeeded in escaping them and had been wandering ever since. She asked the girls if they knew of any house where she could earn her living as a nurse, servant or housekeeper.
In response, Callidice told the old woman that her mother had just given birth to her only son, a late child, and she was sure she would be very thankful to have a competent nurse to rear him. At Demeter's nod of assent, the four girls filled their pitchers and hurried home to ask their mother if she would receive the old woman.
Hearing their account, Queen Metanaira asked her daughters to hurry back and tell the old woman she was hired. The girls ran back to find her and escorted her back to their home. While the girls raced ahead, Demeter trudged behind, gloomy in her dark cloak, her face veiled.
Demeter at the Palace of Celeus and Metaneira
Metaneira was sitting by a pillar in her great hall with her son in her arms. When Demeter crossed the threshold, it seemed for a moment that her head reached the lintel and the doorway shimmered with a strange radiance. Filled with sudden awe, Metaneira got to her feet and asked the old woman to sit on a brightly draped couch. Demeter, however, refused the luxurious seat and remained standing silently until a servant woman Iambe set out a simple jointed stool and placed a sheepskin over it. There Demeter consented to sit, wrapped in grief for her abducted daughter, keeping her face veiled, not taking any food or drink. Resourceful Iambe was having none of this, however. With a volley of obscene jokes and gestures, she finally provoked the distraught goddess into smiling and laughing. Demeter then accepted a drink of mint and barley, refusing wine.
As a nurse to Demophoon, Metaneira's little boy, Demeter anointed him with ambrosia, the food of the gods, and breathed upon him with her divine breath, causing him to grow rapidly and seem more like a divine being himself than an ordinary baby. Curious as to the secret of Demeter's remarkable effect on her little boy, Metaneira decided to spy on her one night.
From her hidden vantage point, Metaneira observed the nurse dangling her beloved son into the fire. Naturally, Metaneira cried out in fear and horror.
Her eyes blazing with anger, Demeter turned upon her, casting the unfortunate infant to the floor in disgust as she did so.
“Stupid mortals! You never understand whether anything is for your own good! If you had let me finish, I would have burned away the mortal part of your son and made him a god, but now he will be mortal and subject to death.”
Demeter then cast off her disguise as the old woman Doso, and appeared before Metaneira in all her glory and beauty as a goddess so that a wonderful fragrance wafted from her robes while a bright light filled the house. She then demanded that a temple be built for her at Eleusis, outside the palace. This was done the next day.
The Homeric "Hymn to Demeter"
- HOMERIC HYMN TO DEMETER
An online translation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, written down around the 7th century BCE and reflecting the Mystery Cult of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis in Attica.
Demeter Goes on Strike and the World Starves
Sitting in her new temple, Demeter continued to brood with grief and rage on her stolen daughter Persephone. That year, none of the seeds sown in the plowed fields would germinate, and no crops grew. Humankind was in danger of starvation and, consequently, the gods were in danger of losing the worship and offerings that humans provided. This caught Zeus' attention. Hastily, he sent Iris, the messenger of the gods, to tell Demeter to come to Olympus and cease her disastrous withdrawal from the world. Demeter did not respond to Iris' entreaty.
In turn, Zeus sent one god after another to intercede with Demeter, offering her all manner of gifts, but she was obdurate, swearing she would not return to Olympus or allow the crops to grow until she was reunited with her daughter.
Eventually, Zeus gave in; he called to Hermes, telling him to descend to the Underworld and get Hades to give Persephone back.
The Return of Persephone to the Light
Descending to the Underworld, Hermes delivered the unwelcome message to the king of the dead, whom he found with his unwilling Queen sitting beside him. Concealing his feelings, Hades expressed his acceptance of Zeus' command and told Persephone she could go home to her mother. Secretly, however, Hades forced her to swallow a few pomegranate seeds, the only food she had taken into his house.
Making ready his chariot, Hades conveyed Persephone and Hermes back up through the earth until they arrived at Demeter's temple. When Demeter and her daughter saw each other, they ran to embrace joyously. However, as she held her daughter, Demeter sensed something was wrong. She asked Persephone if she had taken any food in the House of the Dead. Persephone confessed that she had been forced to swallow the pomegranate seeds. Regretfully, Demeter told her that this meant Hades still had some claim upon her, and Persephone would have to spend part of the year with Hades and the rest of the year above ground reunited with her mother.
Demeter and her daughter then returned to Olympus and feasted with the rest of the gods, and fertility was restored to the Earth.
Later, Demeter taught her sacred Mysteries to Attica's local kings: Celeus, Triptolemus, Diokles, Eumolpus and Polyxeinos.
© 2015 SarahLMaguire
SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on September 03, 2018:
Thanks, Mav, that sounds really interesting, I'll look out for it.
MAV on September 03, 2018:
Do you know Rachel Zucker's book of poems Eating in the Underworld? I think you would enjoy it a lot. It retells the Demeter and Persephone myth through letters and diary entries, mostly from Persephone's point of view.
yogahealer on May 31, 2018:
I"d love to have you on my podcast to have you unravel this myth.
SarahLMaguire (author) from UK on September 28, 2015:
Thanks for your kind comment, R J Schwartz. It is an important myth for any understanding of Greek religion and mythology and the Homeric hymn is a vivid piece of writing so the research is well repaid.
Ralph Schwartz from Idaho Falls, Idaho on September 28, 2015:
Thorough and very detailed work - I admire your commitment to the real history of this story - The details make all the difference. Well organized, flows very well, and solid writing across the piece. Congratulations.