"Like Wheat that Springeth Green":Death and Return in the Myth of Demeter and Persephone

by Kathie Carlson

The most complete and well–known source of the myth of Demeter and Persephone available to us comes from the first Homeric Hymn to Demeter, composed around 650 B.C.E. While preserving and elaborating the most coherent form of the myth, the author of the Homeric Hymn screened out many of its more archaic and most interesting elements.These are to be found in variants of the myth, which survive only in fragmentary form. In the following rendering of the mythic tale, I have used the Homeric Hymn as a baseline (drawing from the translations of Charles Boer1 and Paul Friedrich2 in particular); the relevant variants appear in my commentary on each part of the Homeric story.

Saluting Demeter as the ‘awesome’ goddess and describing her daughter as the Kore whom Zeus "gave away to be seized by violence" by Hades, the Homeric author begins his tale: Kore was playing in a field one day, far from her mother, picking flowers with other maiden goddesses. Suddenly she came upon a flower never seen before—the narcissus— which Earth(the goddess Gaia) had grown as a favor to Hades and Zeus. The young woman was amazed and reached for the hundred–headed blossom in delight but as she did, the earth opened wide and up from its chasm leapt the Lord of the Underworld. He snatched the girl and carried her off in his chariot. Kore resisted and cried out, screaming for her father Zeus. But Zeus was far away receiving offerings.No one heard the Maiden except Hecate in her cave and Helios the Sun and her noble mother Demeter who immediately put on mourning clothes and began to search for her daughter. As long as the girl could see earth and sky and sea, as long as she could hope to see her mother again and the other gods, she took heart, but Hades carried her away to his kingdom under the earth.

The nature of Kore’s abduction is immediately made explicit, for the Greek word for the young girl’s ‘seizure by violence’ means ‘kidnapped and raped’.3 In some versions of the myth, Kore cries out "A rape! A rape!" as she is being carried away to the underworld.4 Further underscoring the nature of the abduction, perhaps, is the redoubling of Kore’s virginity in the description of her playmatesas other ‘maiden’ goddesses, though virginity (‘parthenos’ in Greek) does not necessarily mean physical virginity. For the Greeks, the designation of virgin could also mean a woman who was one–in–herself, i.e. whole within herself, rather than someone who was sexually chaste.5 Many commentators, however, both ancient and contemporary, assume that Kore was a physical virgin and that her abductionby Hades was her introduction to sexuality.

What is also assumed, though ambiguous in the original sources, is the age of Kore. While it is usually believed that she was at least an adolescent at the time of her abduction, one later version of the myth (as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses6) depicts her to be so young that she cries as much over the loss of her flowers which spill to the ground when Hades grabs her as over being violently snatched.In art as well, she is depicted variously, sometimes as a young woman, other times as a child.