This was a minor write up and analysis of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter that I wrote for a book club, recently.
So that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet (ho, ho), I’ll follow Hugo’s suggestion and use the Frazer translation from Perseus, together with line numbers. It’s not the best and is quite misleading in some ways, so I’ll draw on Cruddup as well where necessary for clarification. I’m going to be quite literal, since who knows when the gods want things to be literal or metaphorical – or where they’ve granted poetic licence – and I’d rather look at it in those terms, myself.
> I begin to sing of rich-haired Demeter, awful goddess — of her and her trim-ankled daughter whom Aidoneus rapt away, given to him by all-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer. Apart from Demeter, lady of the golden sword and glorious fruits,
As usual with most of the Hymns, the subject of the Hymn is one of the first words – here, in the Greek at least, the very first word – accompanied by complimentary epithets such as ‘rich-haired’. The idea here was both to let the audience know what the Hymn was going to be about, as well as to invoke the subject and placate and flatter him or her with compliments. We get a slight synopsis of the Hymn to familiarise the audience as well with the story that’s coming, as well as the usual familial references to glorify the deity further (the ‘trim-ankled daughter’ here being Persephone, trim-ankled generally being a compliment of beauty). Aidoneus is another form for Hades (best to think of it as ‘Haidoneus’ because of the aspiration to see where it comes from). Rapt in this context means to abduct, rather than rape. More on that later.
> she was playing with the deep-bosomed daughters of Oceanus and gathering flowers over a soft meadow, roses and crocuses and beautiful violets, irises also and hyacinths and the narcissus, which Earth made to grow at the will of Zeus and to please the Host of Many, to be a snare for the bloom-like girl —
> a marvellous, radiant flower. It was a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and it smelled most sweetly, so that all wide heaven above and the whole earth and the sea’s salt swell laughed for joy.
> And the girl was amazed and reached out with both hands to take the lovely toy; but the wide-pathed earth yawned there in the plain of Nysa, and the lord, Host of Many, with his immortal horses sprang out upon her —the Son of Cronos, He who has many names. He caught her up reluctant on his golden car and bare her away
Persephone here is with the Nereids in a meadow, picking flowers. In the abduction/seduction stories of myth, such as that of Europa, generally the abduction happens in a meadow or similarly pleasant place. At one level, that’s because to abduct the girl, woman or man/boy (in Ganymede’s case, for example) from the house would be a grave violation of the laws of hospitality – as bad as rape, in fact, at least as far as the patriarch of the family was concerned – and Zeus, being the god of hospitality, wouldn’t countenance that. Here, of course, he is the patriarch, the father of Persephone, so there’s no such conflict for him – instead, it’s Hades who has to obey the forms. Zeus has already given Persephone to him as a wife. We’ll get onto how Persephone (and her mother Demeter) feel about the abduction and marriage, later.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that others are on board with the marriage, including Persephone’s grandmother, Gê/Gaia, who has grown a flower to pacify Persephone for the abduction at Zeus and Hades’ (‘the Host of Many’, ‘the Son of Cronos. He who has many names’) request. In most abduction stories, this isn’t part of the usual form, but presumably as a goddess, Persephone has far greater ability to fight back than a mortal would.
> lamenting. Then she cried out shrilly with her voice, calling upon her father, the Son of Cronos, who is most high and excellent. But no one, either of the deathless gods or of mortal men, heard her voice, nor yet the olive-trees bearing rich fruit:
Persephone here cries out, but no one comes to her aid, because no one (bar Hecate and Helios) hears her. This is despite the fact Artemis and Athena are present in the field (they’re not mentioned here, but they are mentioned later in the Hymn) as well as the Nereids. I’m not sure about the references to the olive-trees – I’m assuming the nymphs of the olive trees are the implied potential observers.
The question raised here, of course, is why an abduction is necessary, why Zeus would consent to the abduction and why he hasn’t talked with Demeter, but has talked with Gaia. Is it even possible he’s talked with Persephone’s companions, the Nereids, as well as Athena and Artemis and maybe the olive tree nymphs? Do they not respond not because they haven’t heard, but because they’re in on the plan or approve or at least been told not to interfere? Or because they’re scared of Hades?
Since there’s no suggestion of Persephone being raped by Hades in the Hymn, this is presumably a marriage not of love but of power – to give Hades a wife and, again, as is typical with godly abductions and seductions, to give the woman either a child (as far as I’m aware Persephone and Hades never have children so again, given the fecundity of the gods, that would again suggest no physical relations between the two) and/or power. Here, presumably Persephone will gain the great kudos of being the wife of the king of the underworld – indeed, in The Odyssey it’s clear Persephone has later achieved considerable power, since Hades isn’t present in that poem, even for Odysseus’ journey to the underworld, where virtually everything that happens in at Persephone’s instigation and Odysseus looks to placate and get on Persephone’s good side when he’s in the underworld.
What Hades gets in return, beyond a marriage and a companion, isn’t clear. He does have rights over the earth, shared with Poseidon and Zeus. He was, however, invoked in prayer by farmers when looking for good harvests so is it possible that this stems, in part, from his marriage to Persephone, rather than the deal with Poseidon and Zeus? While Persephone gets to share the power on the kingdom of the dark underworld, does Hades get a share of the light world and creation above thanks to his marriage to Persephone?
But presumably, this only happens once Persephone has gotten used to the idea of being in the underworld. There appears to be a clear division between the gods of the underworld and the gods of Olympus, and rarely do the twain meet – Hermes as psychopomp descends to the underworld regularly, but almost none of the other gods don’t, while some of the other gods, including Thanatos, Himera and so on, ascend to the world above but return to the underworld afterwards. There’s no real constant exchange between Olympus and the ‘House of the Dead’ (whether that’s ‘Hades’, Erebus or Tartarus). Persephone, who presumably a virgin and young at this stage, is not willing to descend to become one of the underworld gods and leave the light above and her mother so that she can rule over the underworld. Once she gets used to the idea, which presumably is what Zeus in his wisdom knows she will do eventually, it won’t be so unpleasant to her.
> only tender-hearted Hecate, bright-coiffed, the daughter of Persaeus, heard the girl from her cave, and the lord Helios, Hyperion’s bright son, as she cried to her father, the Son of Cronos. But he was sitting aloof, apart from the gods, in his temple where many pray, and receiving sweet offerings from mortal men. So he, that son of Cronos, of many names, who is Ruler of Many and Host of Many,
Zeus here can’t help Persephone because he’s in his temple. But he doesn’t hear her, again confirming he knows what’s going to happen.
> was bearing her away by leave of Zeus on his immortal chariot —his own brother’s child and all unwilling.
And so long as she, the goddess, yet beheld earth and starry heaven and the strong-flowing sea where fishes shoal,
> and the rays of the sun, and still hoped to see her dear mother and the tribes of the eternal gods, so long hope calmed her great heart for all her trouble … and the heights of the mountains and the depths of the sea rang with her immortal voice: and her queenly mother heard her.
Clearly, Persephone is frightened, for various reasons. Yet it’s only now that anyone can hear her crying out for help. Presumably, then, this was why Gaia’s flower was needed, its effects now having worn off.
> Bitter pain seized her heart, and she rent the covering upon her divine hair with her dear hands: her dark cloak she cast down from both her shoulders and sped, like a wild-bird, over the firm land and yielding sea, seeking her child.
As with any worried parent, Demeter drops everything and searches for her daughter, without concern for herself.
> But no one would tell her the truth, neither god nor mortal man; and of the birds of omen none came with true news for her. Then for nine days queenly Deo
> wandered over the earth with flaming torches in her hands, so grieved that she never tasted ambrosia and the sweet draught of nectar,
Here there’s the implication that some of the people she asks may know the truth but for some reason don’t tell her. Whether that’s because they don’t know it or because they’ve been told not to, I suspect will vary on the god and mortal concerned.
We also have the interesting point that Demeter looks for ‘birds of omen’ to help her. Divination, at least according to Apollo in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, is to ‘know the mind of Zeus’, and since he’s sworn an oath not to let others know that without Zeus’s permission, he refuses to teach Hermes the art (although he enlists some nymphs to help him). But here Demeter has skills with birds of omen, which suggests that Zeus trusts her to know the future and his plans for the world as much he does Apollo.
Why though does Demeter look to the birds to help her? If the birds know where Persephone is, then Zeus must know, too, so why isn’t he helping their daughter? Does she perhaps suspect that Persephone has left of her own will and that Zeus knows this and she wants to confirm it for herself? Or perhaps at this stage divination works differently – maybe this is before Apollo is born – or that these are birds of a different kind: I read somewhere that Aphrodite suggests that birds weren’t actually created by the gods but came into being themselves, so maybe these birds of omen know things even Zeus doesn’t.
There is the question of why Demeter needs torches and can’t find Persephone by looking from the vantage point of Olympus. But Rhea and Zeus have to hide in a cave for years in order to avoid being spotted by Cronus from above after Zeus is delivered as a baby, so I guess, having learnt from their experience, she assumes that Persephone is being hidden in a cave by whoever’s taken her – hence the need for torches.
> nor sprinkled her body with water. But when the tenth enlightening dawn had come, Hecate, with a torch in her hands, met her, and spoke to her and told her news: “Queenly Demeter, bringer of seasons and giver of good gifts,
Hekate, here, is seen positively, in common with the Hesiodic descriptions of her. However, she doesn’t appear to have been confided in by Zeus. Yet she also didn’t go straight to Demeter when she heard Persephone being abducted, and has waited nine days to tell her. This suggests that either she’s been told not to actively help Demeter and is perhaps trying to put a spanner in the works of Zeus’ and Hades’ plan, or she isn’t entitled to go to Olympus for some reason – or she has other things to do. She might even be part of a larger plan – that Zeus knows Demeter will find out and is breaking it to her gently, without having to involve himself at this stage.
> what god of heaven or what mortal man has rapt away Persephone and pierced with sorrow your dear heart? For I heard her voice, yet saw not with my eyes who it was. But I tell you truly and shortly all I know.” So, then, said Hecate.
> And the daughter of rich-haired Rhea answered her not, but sped swiftly with her, holding flaming torches in her hands. So they came to Helios, who is watchman of both gods and men, and stood in front of his horses: and the bright goddess enquired of him: “Helios, do you at least regard me, goddess as I am,
> if ever by word or deed of mine I have cheered your heart and spirit. Through the fruitless air I heard the thrilling cry of my daughter whom I bare, sweet scion of my body and lovely in form, as of one seized violently; though with my eyes I saw nothing. But you —for with your beams you look down
> from the bright upper air over all the earth and sea —tell me truly of my dear child, if you have seen her anywhere, what god or mortal man has violently seized her against her will and mine, and so made off.” So said she. And the Son of Hyperion answered her:
> “Queen Demeter, daughter of rich-haired Rhea, I will tell you the truth; for I greatly reverence and pity you in your grief for your trim-ankled daughter. None other of the deathless gods is to blame, but only cloud-gathering Zeus who gave her to Hades, her father’s brother, to be called his buxom wife.
> And Hades seized her and took her loudly crying in his chariot down to his realm of mist and gloom. Yet, goddess, cease your loud lament and keep not vain anger unrelentingly: Aidoneus, the Ruler of Many, is no unfitting husband among the deathless gods for your child,
> being your own brother and born of the same stock: also, for honor, he has that third share which he received when division was made at the first, and is appointed lord of those among whom he dwells.” So he spake, and called to his horses: and at his chiding they quickly whirled the swift chariot along, like long-winged birds.
Here again we have the fact that one of the other gods knew about the abduction – and indeed knew who was responsible and that Zeus had authorised – but did nothing to stop it. Was Helios already aware of what was going to happen, or did he tell Zeus what he saw and got let into the plan? Indeed, he appears here to be trying to persuade Demeter that Hades is a good god to be abducted by and to be a husband of.
Perhaps the issue here is that Demeter is an over-protective mother – that she wants to keep Persephone an eternal maiden and that Zeus and the other gods know that it’s time that she needs to escape Demeter’s smothering protection and acquire a realm of power of her own.
> But grief yet more terrible and savage came into the heart of Demeter, and thereafter she was so angered with the dark-clouded Son of Cronos that she avoided the gathering of the gods and high Olympus, and went to the towns and rich fields of men, disfiguring her form a long while. And no one of men
> or deep-bosomed women knew her when they saw her, until she came to the house of wise Celeus who then was lord of fragrant Eleusis. Vexed in her dear heart, she sat near the wayside by the Maiden Well, from which the women of the place were used to draw water,
Again, we have here the idea that the Olympian gods don’t like to go to the underworld. Even though Demeter now knows where Persephone is, rather than go down to the underworld to retrieve Persephone – perhaps with the help of other gods or goddesses – she stays on Earth and goes to Eleusis. This seems odd after spending nine days looking for Persephone. Does perhaps Persephone know there’s no point facing Hades and the rest of the underworld head on and that she has no leverage with him? Does she already have in mind a plan to get Zeus and the others to do what she can’t? Why though does she she do what she does in Eleusis?
In fact, to me at least, everything from about line 94 through to 304 – the whole of Demeter’s time in Eleusis – arguably feels like a completely different story inserted into the Hymn, perhaps by members of the Elusinic mysteries. The counter-argument, apart from how well integrated into the rest of the Hymn Eleusis is is that potentially Demeter needs a temple built rapidly to live in before she brings about her own plan to get the gods to return Persephone to her. She comes to Eleusis to find worthy mortals and to test them and to demonstrate her own powers and worthiness for a temple.
> in a shady place over which grew an olive shrub. And she was like an ancient woman who is cut off from childbearing and the gifts of garland-loving Aphrodite, like the nurses of kings’ children who deal justice, or like the house-keepers in their echoing halls.
> There the daughters of Celeus, son of Eleusis, saw her, as they were coming for easy-drawn water, to carry it in pitchers of bronze to their dear father’s house: four were they and like goddesses in the flower of their girlhood, Callidice and Cleisidice and lovely Demo
> and Callithoe+ who was the eldest of them all. They knew her not, —for the gods are not easily discerned by mortals —, but standing near by her spoke winged words:
“Old mother, whence and who are you of folk born long ago? Why are you gone away from the city and do not draw near the houses?
> For there in the shady halls are women of just such age as you, and others younger; and they would welcome you both by word and by deed.”
Thus they said. And she, that queen among goddesses answered them saying: “Hail, dear children, whosoever you are of woman-kind.
> I will tell you my story; for it is not unseemly that I should tell you truly what you ask. Doso is my name, for my stately mother gave it me. And now I am come from Crete over the sea’s wide back, —not willingly; but against my liking, by force of strength,
Crete is generally the go-to place for gods and mortals to claim they’re from when they want to have an unverifiable background (cf The Odyssey in which Odysseus claims he’s from Crete or has just come from Crete to just about everyone he ever meets).
> pirates brought me thence. Afterwards they put in with their swift craft to Thoricus, and there the women landed on the shore in full throng and the men likewise, and they began to make ready a meal by the stern-cables of the ship. But my heart craved not pleasant food,
> and I fled secretly across the dark country and escaped my masters, that they should not take me unpurchased across the sea, there to win a price for me. And so I wandered and am come here: and I know not at all what land this is or what people are in it.
Demeter appears to know enough about the ways of mortals and the strife that mortals endure for her to come up with this story. Clearly not a disinterested goddess.
> But may all those who dwell on Olympus give you husbands and birth of children as parents desire, so you take pity on me, maidens,
>[137a] and show me this clearly that I may learn, dear children, to the house of what man and woman I may go,
> to work for them cheerfully at such tasks as belong to a woman of my age. Well could I nurse a new born child, holding him in my arms, or keep house, or spread my masters’ bed in a recess of the well-built chamber, or teach the women their work.”
> So said the goddess. And straightway the unwed maiden Callidice, goodliest in form of the daughters of Celeus, answered her and said:
“Mother, what the gods send us, we mortals bear perforce, although we suffer; for they are much stronger than we. But now I will teach you clearly,
> telling you the names of men who have great power and honor here and are chief among the people, guarding our city’s coif of towers by their wisdom and true judgements: there is wise Triptolemus and Dioclus and Polyxeinus and blameless Eumolpus
> and Dolichus and our own brave father. All these have wives who manage in the house, and no one of them, so soon as she had seen you, would dishonor you and turn you from the house, but they will welcome you; for indeed you are godlike.
Despite having spent nine days without food, water or a bath and having ‘disfigured’ her appearance to appear as an ‘Old Mother’, Demeter is still goddess-like. Yet, the mortals appear to act inconsistently with her goddess-like appearance.
> But if you will, stay here; and we will go to our father’s house and tell Metaneira, our deep-bosomed mother, all this matter fully, that she may bid you rather come to our home than search after the houses of others. She has an only son,
> late-born, who is being nursed in our well-built house, a child of many prayers and welcome: if you could bring him up until he reached the full measure of youth, any one of womankind who should see you would straightway envy you, such gifts would our mother give for his upbringing.”
So she spake: and the goddess bowed her head in assent. And they filled their shining vessels
> with water and carried them off rejoicing. Quickly they came to their father’s great house and straightway told their mother according as they had heard and seen. Then she bade them go with all speed and invite the stranger to come for a measureless hire. As hinds or heifers in spring time,
> when sated with pasture, bound about a meadow, so they, holding up the folds of their lovely garments, darted down the hollow path, and their hair like a crocus flower streamed about their shoulders. And they found the good goddess near the wayside where they had left her before,
> and led her to the house of their dear father. And she walked behind, distressed in her dear heart, with her head veiled and wearing a dark cloak which waved about the slender feet of the goddess. Soon they came to the house of heaven-nurtured Celeus
> and went through the portico to where their queenly mother sat by a pillar of the close-fitted roof, holding her son, a tender scion, in her bosom. And the girls ran to her. But the goddess walked to the threshold: and her head reached the roof and she filled the doorway with a heavenly radiance.
As with the Hymn to Aphrodite, even in disguise, goddesses tend to give themselves away in the presence of mortals, radiating light and being tall enough for their heads to reach the roofs of wherever they are.
> Then awe and reverence and pale fear took hold of Metaneira, and she rose up from her couch before Demeter, and bade her be seated. But Demeter, bringer of seasons and giver of perfect gifts, would not sit upon the bright couch, but stayed silent with lovely eyes cast down
> until careful Iambe placed a jointed seat for her and threw over it a silvery fleece. Then she sat down and held her veil in her hands before her face. A long time she sat upon the stool without speaking because of her sorrow, and greeted no one by word or by sign, but rested,
> never smiling, and tasting neither food nor drink, because she pined with longing for her deep-bosomed daughter, until careful Iambe —who pleased her moods in aftertime also —moved the holy lady with many a quip and jest to smile and laugh and cheer her heart.
> Then Metaneira filled a cup with sweet wine and offered it to her; but she refused it, for she said it was not lawful for her to drink red wine, but bade them mix meal and water with soft mint and give her to drink.
Demeter oddly refuses wine, saying it’s not lawful. Clearly the women of the house think it is lawful, otherwise they wouldn’t have offered it to her, so this isn’t a cultural issue that Demeter is trying to abide by. This suggests either she doesn’t want to drink red wine for some reason (it’s not nectar or because it’s wine and Dionysus might somehow have influence or sway over her) or she wants to teach mortals something. Since this is, at a less literal level, instructions for the Mysteries, Demeter could be laying down instructions for mortals and subsequent generations of mortals who join her cult.
> And Metaneira mixed the draught and gave it to the goddess as she bade. So the great queen Deo received it to observe the sacrament …
And of them all, well-girded Metaneira first began to speak: “Hail, lady! For I think you are not meanly but nobly born; truly dignity and
> grace are conspicuous upon your eyes as in the eyes of kings that deal justice. Yet we mortals bear perforce what the gods send us, though we be grieved; for a yoke is set upon our necks. But now, since you are come here, you shall have what I can bestow: and nurse me this child whom the gods gave me in my old age and beyond my hope,
> a son much prayed for. If you should bring him up until he reach the full measure of youth, any one of woman-kind that sees you will straightway envy you, so great reward would I give for his upbringing.”
Then rich-haired Demeter answered her:
How much of what Metaneira is saying is because she appreciates she’s in the company of a goddess is an intriguing question. Certainly, later on, she regards her merely as a ‘strange woman’, yet she’s aware that this woman is goddess-like. No wonder Demeter thinks mortals are stupid later on!
> “And to you, also, lady, all hail, and may the gods give you good! Gladly will I take the boy to my breast, as you bid me, and will nurse him. Never, I ween, through any heedlessness of his nurse shall witchcraft hurt him nor yet the Undercutter: for I know a charm far stronger than the Woodcutter,
> and I know an excellent safeguard against woeful witchcraft.”
When she had so spoken, she took the child in her fragrant bosom with her divine hands: and his mother was glad in her heart. So the goddess nursed in the palace Demophoon, wise Celeus’ goodly son whom well-girded Metaneira bare.
> And the child grew like some immortal being, not fed with food nor nourished at the breast: for by day
>[236a] rich-crowned Demeter would anoint him with ambrosia as if he were the offspring of a god and breathe sweetly upon him as she held him in her bosom. But at night she would hide him like a brand in the heart of the fire,
> unknown to his dear parents. And it wrought great wonder in these that he grew beyond his age; for he was like the gods face to face. And she would have made him deathless and unageing, had not well-girded Metaneira in her heedlessness kept watch by night from her sweet-smelling chamber and
Demeter appears almost to be creating a new child for herself, an immortal being, using ambrosia, which is also mentioned in other stories as a way for the gods to bestow immortality and youth on mortals.
> spied. But she wailed and smote her two hips, because she feared for her son and was greatly distraught in her heart; so she lamented and uttered winged words:
“Demophoon, my son, the strange woman buries you deep in fire and works grief and bitter sorrow for me.”
> Thus she spoke, mourning. And the bright goddess, lovely-crowned Demeter, heard her, and was wroth with her. So with her divine hands she snatched from the fire the dear son whom Metaneira had born unhoped-for in the palace, and cast him from her to the ground; for she was terribly angry in her heart.
Metaneira fears for her son. Has she changed her mind about Demeter’s goddesshood? Has fear over-ridden faith?
> Forthwith she said to well-girded Metaneira: “Witless are you mortals and dull to foresee your lot, whether of good or evil, that comes upon you. For now in your heedlessness you have wrought folly past healing; for —be witness the oath of the gods, the relentless water of Styx —
> I would have made your dear son deathless and unaging all his days and would have bestowed on him everlasting honor, but now he can in no way escape death and the fates. Yet shall unfailing honor always rest upon him, because he lay upon my knees and slept in my arms.
> But, as the years move round and when he is in his prime, the sons of the Eleusinians shall ever wage war and dread strife with one another continually. Lo! I am that Demeter who has share of honor and is the greatest help and cause of joy to the undying gods and mortal men.
The penalty for failing Demeter’s apparent test of faith is high…
> But now, let all the people build me a great temple and an altar below it and beneath the city and its sheer wall upon a rising hillock above Callichorus. And I myself will teach my rites, that hereafter you may reverently perform them and so win the favour of my heart.”
…But she gives the Eleusinians a chance to redeem themselves through her Mysteries. They also build her a temple
> When she had so said, the goddess changed her stature and her looks, thrusting old age away from her: beauty spread round about her and a lovely fragrance was wafted from her sweet-smelling robes, and from the divine body of the goddess a light shone afar, while golden tresses spread down over her shoulders,
> so that the strong house was filled with brightness as with lightning. And so she went out from the palace.
And straightway Metaneira’s knees were loosed and she remained speechless for a long while and did not remember to take up her late-born son from the ground. But his sisters heard his pitiful wailing and sprang down from their well-spread beds:
> one of them took up the child in her arms and laid him in her bosom, while another revived the fire, and a third rushed with soft feet to bring their mother from her fragrant chamber. And they gathered about the struggling child and washed him,
> embracing him lovingly; but he was not comforted, because nurses and handmaids much less skilful were holding him now.
All night long they sought to appease the glorious goddess, quaking with fear. But, as soon as dawn began to show, they told powerful Celeus all things without fail,
> as the lovely-crowned goddess Demeter charged them. So Celeus called the countless people to an assembly and bade them make a goodly temple for rich-haired Demeter and an altar upon the rising hillock. And they obeyed him right speedily and harkened to his voice,
> doing as he commanded. As for the child, he grew like an immortal being.
Now when they had finished building and had drawn back from their toil, they went every man to his house. But golden-haired Demeter sat there apart from all the blessed gods and stayed, wasting with yearning for her deep-bosomed daughter.
> Then she caused a most dreadful and cruel year for mankind over the all-nourishing earth: the ground would not make the seed sprout, for rich-crowned Demeter kept it hid. In the fields the oxen drew many a curved plough in vain, and much white barley was cast upon the land without avail.
Here we return to the story of Persephone. Demeter is now putting into action her plan to get the other gods to do her work for her, if indeed that is her plan.
> So she would have destroyed the whole race of man with cruel famine and have robbed them who dwell on Olympus of their glorious right of gifts and sacrifices, had not Zeus perceived and marked this in his heart. First he sent golden-winged Iris to call
Demeter really ups the ante here, threatening to destroy through inaction the entire human race. Zeus realises this. Why he therefore tries to change her mind, is a good question. Is it to save mortals? What is the nature of the gods’ needs for gifts and sacrifices? Do the gods actually need the sacrifices or is it the intent behind the gifts that they’d miss – the ‘companionship’ that mortals offer?
> rich-haired Demeter, lovely in form. So he commanded. And she obeyed the dark-clouded Son of Cronos, and sped with swift feet across the space between. She came to the stronghold of fragrant Eleusis, and there finding dark-cloaked Demeter in her temple,
> spake to her and uttered winged words: “Demeter, father Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, calls you to come join the tribes of the eternal gods: come therefore, and let not the message I bring from Zeus pass unobeyed.” Thus said Iris imploring her. But Demeter’s heart was not moved.
> Then again the father sent forth all the blessed and eternal gods besides: and they came, one after the other, and kept calling her and offering many very beautiful gifts and whatever rights she might be pleased to choose among the deathless gods. Yet no one was able to persuade her mind and will,
> so wroth was she in her heart; but she stubbornly rejected all their words: for she vowed that she would never set foot on fragrant Olympus nor let fruit spring out of the ground, until she beheld with her eyes her own fair-faced daughter.
>Now when all-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer heard this,
Demeter is clearly powerful enough and loved enough that the gods will do anything to get her back and won’t use force.
> he sent the Slayer of Argus whose wand is of gold to Erebus, so that having won over Hades with soft words, he might lead forth chaste Persephone to the light from the misty gloom to join the gods, and that her mother might see her with her eyes and cease from her anger.
Here Hermes, as in The Odyssey, carries a golden wand, rather than the kerykeion that he gains later. Notably, despite having spent a year with Hades, Persephone is still described as chaste. ‘Slayer of Argus’ (the giant) is the usual translation of argeiphontes, one of Hermes’ epithets, although the Greek isn’t quite right for it to mean that, something the Greeks themselves were later aware of.
> And Hermes obeyed, and leaving the house of Olympus, straightway sprang down with speed to the hidden places of the earth. And he found the lord Hades in his house seated upon a couch, and his shy mate with him, much reluctant, because she yearned for her mother. But she was afar off,
Persephone here is ‘reluctant’ before she yearns for her mother (and presumably the world above and her pre-married status), not because Hades doesn’t appeal any more.
> brooding on her fell design because of the deeds of the blessed gods. And the strong Slayer of Argus drew near and said:
“Dark-haired Hades, ruler over the departed, father Zeus bids me bring noble Persephone forth from Erebus unto the gods,
> that her mother may see her with her eyes and cease from her dread anger with the immortals; for now she plans an awful deed, to destroy the weakly tribes of earth-born men by keeping seed hidden beneath the earth, and so she makes an end of the honors of the undying gods. For she keeps fearful anger and does not consort with the gods,
> but sits aloof in her fragrant temple, dwelling in the rocky hold of Eleusis.” So he said. And Aidoneus, ruler over the dead, smiled grimly and obeyed the behest of Zeus the king. For he straightway urged wise Persephone, saying:
> “Go now, Persephone, to your dark-robed mother, go, and feel kindly in your heart towards me: be not so exceedingly cast down; for I shall be no unfitting husband for you among the deathless gods, that am own brother to father Zeus. And while you are here,
> you shall rule all that lives and moves and shall have the greatest rights among the deathless gods: those who defraud you and do not appease your power with offerings, reverently performing rites and paying fit gifts, shall be punished for evermore.”
Here, Hades realises that Demeter is playing hardball and despite the fact a whole lot more dead people would be a good thing for his kingdom, he doesn’t want to upset the other gods. But he knows he hasn’t managed to convince Persephone to stay, despite his best attempts over the past year. So he comes up with a plan.
> When he said this, wise Persephone was filled with joy and hastily sprang up for gladness. But he on his part secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, taking care for himself that she might not remain continually with grave, dark-robed Demeter. Then Aidoneus the Ruler of Many openly got ready his deathless
> horses beneath the golden chariot. And she mounted on the chariot, and the strong Slayer of Argus took reins and whip in his dear hands and drove forth from the hall, the horses speeding readily.
As with The Iliad, the gods appear to need chariots to travel between Olympus, the Earth and the underworld. In The Odyssey, Athena needs golden sandals to fly, so presumably Persephone doesn’t have any of her own and Hermes doesn’t want to carry her.
> Swiftly they traversed their long course, and neither the sea nor river-waters nor grassy glens nor mountain-peaks checked the career of the immortal horses, but they clave the deep air above them as they went. And Hermes brought them to the place where rich-crowned Demeter was staying and checked them
> before her fragrant temple.
And when Demeter saw them, she rushed forth as does a Maenad down some thick-wooded mountain, while Persephone on the other side, when she saw her mother’s sweet eyes, left the chariot and horses, and leaped down to run to her, and falling upon her neck, embraced her.
> But while Demeter was still holding her dear child in her arms, her heart suddenly misgave her for some snare, so that she feared greatly and ceased fondling her daughter and asked of her at once: “My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know.
> For if you have not, you shall come back from loathly Hades and live with me and your father, the dark-clouded Son of Cronos and be honored by all the deathless gods; but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year:
> yet for the two parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men.
This part raises a lot of questions.
How was the year divided before this? Demeter speaks of “a third part of the seasons” so clearly there were variances in the weather before this point – spring is clearly when flowers bloom, so was there simply a warmer, earlier version of winter before spring?
Why does eating food in Erebus mean she has to spend some time there each year? Is there some kind of magic involved here, or is it some kind of tacit agreement between the gods? Persephone know about the rule?
Why does Hades offer Persephone a pomegranate rather than ambrosia or nectar? Has Persephone not been eating or drinking either of these before then? Does that mean that the gods can survive without food and drink indefinitely? Why hasn’t she asked for either during her time in Hades?
My thinking on this revolves around the use of the word ‘secretly’. In Cruddup, the translation is “but, secretly, glancing round, he gave her to eat a pomegranate’s honey-sweet seed.” This to me suggests that Hades needs to give Persephone something small that Hermes won’t see being passed. Persephone knows the rule and this is in a sense a proposal to her and she eats the seed of her volition – she wants to spend at least some of her time with Hades now and since Demeter would almost certainly stop that happening again, Persephone eats the seed secretly.
>[403a] And now tell me how he rapt you away to the realm of darkness and gloom, and by what trick did the strong Host of Many beguile you?”
> Then beautiful Persephone answered her thus: “Mother, I will tell you all without error. When luck-bringing Hermes came, swift messenger from my father the Son of Cronos and the other Sons of Heaven, bidding me come back from Erebus that you might see me with your eyes
> and so cease from your anger and fearful wrath against the gods, I sprang up at once for joy; but he secretly put in my mouth sweet food, a pomegranate seed, and forced me to taste against my will. Also I will tell how he rapt me away by the deep plan
Noticeably, Persephone’s version of events is different from the version recounted earlier. Here he forces her to eat the seed against her will. Does Persephone feel stupid for having been tricked into eating the food and so fabricates deception on Hades’ part or does she now warming to the idea of being with Hades but doesn’t want to admit it to either herself or her mother? Again, I think Persephone wanted to remain with Hades and this is the version she tells her mother so she won’t get into trouble.
> of my father the Son of Cronos and carried me off beneath the depths of the earth, and will relate the whole matter as you ask. All we were playing in a lovely meadow, Leucippe5 and Phaeno and Electra and Ianthe, Melita also and Iache with Rhodea and Callirhoe
> and Melobosis and Tyche and Ocyrhoe, fair as a flower, Chryseis, Ianeira, Acaste and Admete and Rhodope and Pluto and charming Calypso; Styx too was there and Urania and lovely Galaxaura with Pallas who rouses battles and Artemis delighting in arrows:
Here, Athena and Artemis are mentioned as being present when previously she wasn’t. Noticeably, Styx, who is of the underworld, is here as well – at least in Persephone’s version. Why the two versions differ is a good question. Is Persephone trying to suggest the abduction was worse than it was to make Demeter feel even more sorry for her.
> we were playing and gathering sweet flowers in our hands, soft crocuses mingled with irises and hyacinths, and rose-blooms and lilies, marvellous to see, and the narcissus which the wide earth caused to grow yellow as a crocus. That I plucked in my joy; but the earth
> parted beneath, and there the strong lord, the Host of Many, sprang forth and in his golden chariot he bore me away, all unwilling, beneath the earth: then I cried with a shrill cry. All this is true, sore though it grieves me to tell the tale.” So did they then, with hearts at one,
> greatly cheer each the other’s soul and spirit with many an embrace: their hearts had relief from their griefs while each took and gave back joyousness.
Then bright-coiffed Hecate came near to them, and often did she embrace the daughter of holy Demeter:
> and from that time the lady Hecate was minister and companion to Persephone.
And this is how Hecate becomes a goddess of the underworld.
>And all-seeing Zeus sent a messenger to them, rich-haired Rhea, to bring dark-cloaked Demeter to join the families of the gods: and he promised to give her what rights she should choose among the deathless gods
> and agreed that her daughter should go down for the third part of the circling year to darkness and gloom, but for the two parts should live with her mother and the other deathless gods. Thus he commanded. And the goddess did not disobey the message of Zeus; swiftly she rushed down from the peaks of Olympus
Here it appears that the pomegranate seed is an arrangement rather than absolute law, since Zeus could apparently in theory have rejected the arrangement.
> and came to the plain of Rharus, rich, fertile corn-land once, but then in nowise fruitful, for it lay idle and utterly leafless, because the white grain was hidden by design of trim-ankled Demeter. But afterwards,
> as spring-time waxed, it was soon to be waving with long ears of corn, and its rich furrows to be loaded with grain upon the ground, while others would already be bound in sheaves. There first she landed from the fruitless upper air: and glad were the goddesses to see each other and cheered in heart. Then bright-coiffed Rhea said to Demeter:
> “Come, my daughter; for far-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer calls you to join the families of the gods, and has promised to give you what rights you please among the deathless gods, and has agreed that for a third part of the circling year your daughter shall go down to darkness and gloom,
> but for the two parts shall be with you and the other deathless gods: so has he declared it shall be and has bowed his head in token. But come, my child, obey, and be not too angry unrelentingly with the dark-clouded Son of Cronos; but rather increase forthwith for men the fruit that gives them life.”
> So spake Rhea. And rich-crowned Demeter did not refuse but straightway made fruit to spring up from the rich lands, so that the whole wide earth was laden with leaves and flowers. Then she went, and to the kings who deal justice, Triptolemus and Diocles, the horse-driver,
> and to doughty Eumolpus and Celeus, leader of the people, she showed the conduct of her rites and taught them all her mysteries, to Triptolemus and Polyxeinus and Diocles also, —awful mysteries which no one may in any way transgress or pry into or utter, for deep awe of the gods checks the voice.
> Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom.
But when the bright goddess had taught them all, they went to Olympus to the gathering of the other gods.
The Eleusinic Mysteries are thus established, although it’s unclear exactly why Demeter wants to establish them. Demeter apparently, having been given whatever rights she wants, though, chooses to offer to mortals a better potential fate in the afterlife – assuming they obey her mysteries – than they otherwise would have. Is this some kind of way to revenge herself on Hades and undermining him by granting mortals a way to avoid Erebus when they die?
> And there they dwell beside Zeus who delights in thunder, awful and reverend goddesses. Right blessed is he among men on earth whom they freely love: soon they do send Plutus as guest to his great house, Plutus who gives wealth to mortal men.
> And now, queen of the land of sweet Eleusis and sea-girt Paros and rocky Antron, lady, giver of good gifts, bringer of seasons, queen Deo, be gracious, you and your daughter all beauteous Persephone, and for my song grant me heart-cheering substance.
> And now I will remember you and another song also.
The traditional sign-off for a Homeric Hymn – a thanks again to the god or goddess in question, a request for something in return for having sung the god or goddess’ praises, followed by the introduction of the next hymn.
Thus I read the Hymn as this series of events: Zeus (with the possible assistance of other gods) realises it’s time for his daughter to marry and to have her own realm of power; he knows Hades is the best choice of husband and Persephone the best choice of wife for Hades; Hades, however, can’t come to Olympus to woo Persephone because never the twain shall meet, and Demeter is perhaps over-protective towards her daughter and wouldn’t want to lose her to Hades anyway. Persephone is also perhaps a little sheltered.
Together with the other gods, including Gaia, he helps Hades to abduct Persephone to give him time to woo her. Demeter goes looking for her when she finds out. When she finds out Zeus is responsible, she comes up with her own plan to get Hades to return her, but first she needs a temple and to test mortals; she potentially also needs an immortal child for some reason or perhaps out of pure kindness and maternal instinct tries to make Metaneira’s child immortal.
Once she has her temple, she blights the world. The other gods then offer her virtually everything to stop mortals from being destroyed. Meanwhile, Hades is wooing Persephone and she’s growing to like the prospect of either being married to him or having her own realm to rule, but doesn’t want to spend forever there. When eventually Demeter’s plan works, Persephone gets returned by Hermes, but she’s eaten a seed so she can return to be with Hades. Demeter, in turn, develops her mysteries to deprive Hades of some of his potential subjects and perhaps to give herself more powers.
Anyway, that’s my theory!