Gateway to the Classics: Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding
Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by  Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding

Demeter, the Earth-Goddess

D EMETER was the sister of Zeus, and was the goddess who watched over the fertile earth and the plants that grew out of it. She taught men how to sow grain, and how to cultivate it; so the Greeks worshiped her as the goddess of agriculture. When they made pictures or statues of her, they represented her as carrying bunches of grain and poppies in her hands.

Demeter had a beautiful young daughter named Persephone, whom she loved very much, and who helped her in caring for the grain that men planted. When the seed was dropped into the ground, Persephone watched over it, and guarded it until the tiny green leaves pushed out of the dark earth. Then Demeter cared for it until the plant was grown and the grain was ripened.

One day the young goddess was playing with a number of nymphs in a beautiful meadow. Beds of violets and crocuses and other flowers were growing there, and Persephone was gathering some of the prettiest of the blossoms. Suddenly a great opening appeared in the earth at her feet, and out of this a chariot came rushing. The poor girl was seized, and placed in it, and carried swiftly away in spite of her cries.

When Demeter found that Persephone had been stolen from her, she was almost wild with grief. She lighted a torch, and mounted her chariot drawn by winged snakes, and for nine days and nine nights she searched for her daughter without stopping to eat or to drink. On the tenth day the Sun told her that Zeus had given Persephone to Hades to be his queen, and that he had taken her to the under-world. Then Demeter was very angry. She went far away from the homes of the gods, and hid herself on earth, where she mourned a long time for her daughter.

One day the goddess was sitting by the side of a well, dressed all in black, and looking like some wrinkled old woman, when four young girls came to the well to draw water They were sorry for the old woman, because she seemed so sad and lonely; and they took her home with them to their mother. They did not know, of course, that this old woman was a goddess; but they were all very kind to her, and the mother kept her to nurse her baby son. The little boy reminded the goddess so much of her own child that she grew very fond of him. She wished to make him immortal like the gods, so that he might never grow old or die; and at night, when every one else was asleep, she would lay the child in the fire to burn away the mortal part. But one night the baby's mother was watching, and screamed aloud when she saw him in the flames. That broke the charm. But though Demeter could not make the boy immortal after that, she did cause him to grow up to be a great and good man.

While Demeter was thus searching for her daughter, there was no one to look after the grain. The seed which was planted in the ground failed to come up; and though men plowed and plowed, nothing would grow. By and by Zeus saw that unless the gods could get Demeter to care for the grain again, the race of men would all die. So he sent the gods one after another to beg her to come back to Mount Olympus. But she refused to do so unless they would give her back her daughter.

Then Zeus sent Hermes down into the underworld to get Persephone. But when he had returned with her they found that she had eaten part of a pomegranate, or love-apple, while she was with Hades; and so she could only be given back to her mother for part of each year.

After that, for two-thirds of the year Persephone was allowed to live with her mother in the light and air of the upper world, but the remainder of the time she was obliged to stay with Hades as queen of the under-world. The Greeks thought that when the bright springtime came it was Persephone returning to her mother, and making all the earth glad by her presence. But when the winter winds blew, and the plants and flowers died, then, they said, she had returned underground, and the earth was left dark and dreary.

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