The Story of Persephone
T HERE was once a wonderful fairy called Ceres, who took care of all the harvests upon the earth. Not a kernel of corn nor a grain of wheat could ripen unless she touched it with her fingers. Not an orchard could blossom and bear fruit, not a flower could bloom in the fields, not a single, tiny blade of grass could sprout until Ceres rode by in her chariot and bade them grow. She wore a wreath of poppies upon her head, and she carried a torch in her hand to light the autumn fires; and, oh, she was very busy from morning till night, taking care of the crops.
Now Ceres had one little daughter, Persephone. Ceres was obliged to leave Persephone alone a great deal, and she always told her that she must not stray far from home. In those days, when fairies were in the world, there were also other strange creatures: the dryads who lived in the oak trees; the naiads who lifted their dripping bodies from the streams; the fauns with feet like a goat and little horns upon their heads, who gamboled about the woods, and the ugly old satyrs with horses' tails and monkey faces—so it was not safe for a little fairy child to be far from home.
Usually Persephone remembered, but one day she forgot. She had been sitting for a long time upon the door-sill, making daisy chains, but she had picked all the daisies in the garden, and she thought she would just go a little way outside for more. On and on through the fields she went, until she saw—gleaming away off, at the end of a meadow—a great bush quite covered with bright red flowers.
"I must pick just one!" cried Persephone, running over to the bush and tugging with all her might at one of the blossoms. It was very hard to pick it, and, all at once, as Persephone tugged and pulled, there came a great crack in the earth at the roots of the strange bush. Wider and wider it grew, and there came a sound of horse's hoofs and the rumbling of wheels up through the ground. Persephone gave one last tug, but, just as the flower came off in her hand, the hole in the earth grew larger and deeper and deeper. The sound of the wheels became louder, and up through the ground came a team of coal-black horses drawing a chariot of gold.
There was a man in the chariot, wearing rich garments and a crown of diamonds upon his head. Before Persephone could run away he had seized her and drawn her into the chariot, and was driving away with her, down through the bottomless hole in the earth and away from the fields and the daylight.
"Mother Ceres! Mother Ceres!" cried Persephone, and she struggled to pull herself away, but she could not succeed.
"Mother Ceres, come!" she called, but Ceres was a long way off and could not hear her.
"I am King Pluto," said the man in the chariot. "The gold, and the silver, and the diamonds, and all the precious things of the earth are mine. You shall have them all, Persephone, if you will only live with me in my palace. I am lonely, and I have wished for a little girl like you."
But Persephone only cried the louder, as she said: "Oh, no, no! I want my mother, and the flowers, and the sunshine!"
It grew very dark where they rode. They passed a still, black river, and King Pluto said: "Let us drink, Persephone. The waters will make you so happy that you will forget your mother and the flowers." But Persephone would not drink.
They reached King Pluto's palace, at last, which was really very beautiful, lighted with diamond lamps, and having the long halls encrusted with every sort of precious gem. King Pluto ordered a great feast to be spread—all sorts of sweets and preserves, and a golden goblet of the wonderful magic water—but Persephone would not eat or drink. From morning till night she wandered about the great palace—a lonely little girl who wanted her mother.
Now, some way or other, Mother Ceres had imagined that something was wrong. She hastened to finish her tasks, and she came home—to find the house empty, and Persephone gone! No one knew where the child was. Poor Ceres! She lighted her torch freshly and started out to look up and down the world for Persephone.
Ceres never stopped to rest. Her garments were wet with the night dews, and her wreath of poppies withered and faded. At every cottage she stopped to ask of the peasants, and at every forest to inquire of the fairy folk if they had seen Persephone. One had heard a child crying, another had heard the sound of chariot wheels, but no one had seen Persephone. On and on traveled Ceres, and the earth was in a most terrible way, for she neglected all the crops.
The farmers ploughed and planted, but no grain came up. The flower beds were empty. The cows and sheep starved, because there was no grass for them to eat. And Ceres cried: "There shall nothing grow upon the earth until my little girl comes home again!"
At last King Pluto heard of the terrible blight upon the earth. He was not such a wicked old king, after all, so he called Persephone to him, and he said: "Should you like to go to your mother, child? You may go, if you wish, but you must eat with me, first. Here is a fresh pomegranate. Eat, Persephone!"
Persephone, although she had been with King Pluto for six long months, had not eaten a mouthful of anything, but she was so happy at the thought of seeing her mother that she took the pomegranate from King Pluto and ate a part of it. Then she rode with King Pluto up to the earth again and started over the fields to Ceres. And, as she went, all along the path where she stepped the brown fields that had seen no verdure for so many months blossomed into violets, and the waving grain arose, and the orchards bent low with fruit.
Poor Ceres was sitting on her doorstep holding her torch when, all at once, it flickered, and then went out altogether.
"What is this?" she cried. "My torch must not go out until I find Persephone!"
But just then Persephone ran straight into Mother Ceres' arms.
"My child, did you eat with King Pluto?" asked Ceres, after she had held Persephone close for a long time.
"Only just six pomegranate seeds, mother," said Persephone.
"Ah, Persephone," cried Ceres, "then, for each seed, you must spend one month of every year at King Pluto's palace, and I may have you only for the other six."
So, half the year, Persephone lived with her mother, and Ceres drove over the earth and bade the crops grow and flourish. For the other half, Persephone went to King Pluto's palace to make him happy; but Ceres mourned at home for her little girl, and the flowers died, and the fields lay brown and sere.
And that is how the first winter came upon the earth, because Persephone went away, and Ceres bade the earth sleep and mourn. But that is, too, how the first springtime came—because Persephone came home, and the violets blossomed wherever she stepped.