(a Greek tale)
Demeter, goddess of grain and Earth, cares for the harvest. When Demeter is sad, crops do not thrive. When crops wither and die, people starve. And so it is important — no, more than that, it is vital — that Demeter remain happy.
Long, long ago, nothing made Demeter happier than her daughter, Persephone. Mother and daughter played in the fields of flowers on Mount Aetna in Sicily. Whenever Persephone smiled, Demeter’s heart swelled with joy. When Demeter’s heart was full and glad, everything on Earth blossomed.
As the years passed, Persephone grew more and more lovely. One early spring day, a narcissus caught the young goddess’s eye. Without thinking, she plucked it from the dirt. Alas, as she did, she created a rift in the Earth.
Now, ordinarily, the goddesses Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena watched over Persephone. But that day the goddesses were distracted, and so there was no one watching over her as Persephone took that flower.
It so happened that Hades, the gloomy, dark god who took care of the underworld, had gone out early that morning in his chariot with his three-headed dog, Cerberus. When Hades spotted the rift in the Earth, he rode his chariot to see what he could find. And what he found took his breath away: There was the beautiful young goddess staring at the narcissus.
Hades fell instantly in love.
With no one watching over Persephone, Hades was free to grab the goddess. She must have screamed, but no one came to rescue her, and so she was swept away to the underworld, where Hades begged her to be his bride. The poor goddess wept and wept, so Hades locked her away.
Back on Earth, Demeter may have heard her daughter’s cries — no one knows for sure. But when she turned around, Persephone was gone. One moment she had been right there; the next she had vanished into thin air.
Demeter cried out, but no one answered. Torn by grief, she began to wander the countryside searching for sweet Persephone. She asked everyone she met if they had seen her, but no one seemed to know where she had gone. For nine days and nights Demeter roamed. Once in a while, she touched the ground, and her fury was so hot that her very touch scorched the crops.
At last Demeter asked Helios, god of the sun, where Persephone had gone. After all, he watches over all.
Helios knew where Persephone had gone.
“She is a good match for Hades,” he told Demeter.
With this, Demeter’s rage grew still hotter. So furious was she that when she attended a banquet held in honor of the gods, she ate a piece of Pelops’ shoulder.
But after a while, her fury turned to depression. She wandered all the way to Eleusis, and there, wrapped in sorrow, she resided and pined for her daughter. As she mourned, she refused to feed the Earth.
As time passed, the gods began to realize that if nothing were done to bring Persephone back, there would be a famine. People would begin to die by the thousands.
Zeus knew he must do something to right matters.
At first he merely spoke to his sister, trying to soothe her wounded feelings. But very soon he saw that words would mend nothing. He knew he would have to send someone to speak to Hades and bring Persephone back to Earth.
Zeus selected Hermes to travel to the underworld to do his bidding.
“Bring her daughter back to the light,” Zeus instructed the messenger god.
When he reached the underworld, Hermes told Hades what Zeus wished.
“There will be no rest until she has returned,” Hermes explained. “Zeus demands her return, and I must take her back with me.”
“Very well,” Hades said, “but first we shall have a farewell meal.”
He sent for Persephone and presented a banquet of ambrosia, nectar and fruit. Persephone was terribly hungry, but she knew the rules of the underworld: If she ate a single bite of anything, she would never be permitted to leave.
She was determined to return to her mother.
“You must eat something before you leave,” Hades insisted, and for the first time his voice seemed kind. “I’ll let you go as soon as you have shared a meal with me.”
He sounded as sweet and smooth as the delicious ambrosia he offered.
But Persephone refused, and a whole week passed. At last, one day, as she looked at the banquet before her, hunger overtook her. She tasted one pomegranate seed. Then she tasted another and another. She ate just six seeds, but even these small things guaranteed that she would have to stay in the underworld.
Hermes knew he must do something, and so he used all his persuasive powers to convince Hades and Persephone to come to an agreement: If the goddess would marry Hades and live as queen of the underworld for six months every year, in the spring she would be permitted to return to Earth to live there for six months.
At long last, everyone agreed.
When Demeter heard the news, to show her goodwill, she rejoiced with a family she had met in Eleusis. She chose one of their sons, Triptolemus, to become her student and she taught him how to harvest and how to plough, giving him the knowledge she possessed of the Earth’s bounty. After that, Triptolemus traveled the world, spreading the gift of agriculture.
Ever since the day the gods reached an agreement, Persephone has lived in both worlds. Every fall, as her daughter prepares to go back to the underworld, Demeter neglects the flowers and the crops. In winter, those crops and flowers wither and die.
But every spring, Demeter makes certain that the flowers are abloom, every crop is flourishing and that the fields are green — all to welcome her daughter’s arrival.