Demeter, the goddess of the earth, was often to be seen in the fields in springtime. As the Greek peasants sowed their seed they caught glimpses of her long yellow hair while she moved now here, now there, among them. It almost seemed to these simple folk as though already the bare fields were golden with the glory of harvest, so bright shone the yellow hair of the goddess. Then they smiled hopefully one to the other, knowing well that Demeter would give them a bounteous reaping-time.
In the autumn she was in the fields again, the peasants even dreamed that they saw her stoop to bind the sheaves. Certainly she had been known to visit their barns when the harvest was safely gathered. And stranger still, it was whispered among the womenfolk that the great Earth-Mother had entered their homes, had stood close beside them as they baked bread to feed their hungry households.
It was in the beautiful island of Sicily, which lies in the Mediterranean Sea, that the goddess had her home. Here she dwelt with her daughter Persephone, whom she loved more dearly than words can tell.
Persephone was young and fair, so fair that she seemed as one of the spring flowers that leaped into life when her mother touched the earth with her gracious hands.
Early as the dawn the maiden was in the fields with Demeter, to gather violets while the dew still lay upon them, to dance and sing with her playmates. At other times she would move gravely by the side of her mother to help her in her quiet labours.
All this time, Pluto, King of Hades, was living in his gloomy kingdom underground, longing for some fair maiden to share his throne. But there was not one who was willing to leave the glad light of the sun, no, not though Pluto offered her the most brilliant gems in his kingdom.
One day the dark king came up out of the shadows, riding in his chariot of gold, drawn by immortal horses. Swifter was their pace than that of any mortal steeds.
Persephone was in a meadow with her playfellows when the king drew near. The maiden stood knee-deep amid the meadow-grass, and, stooping, plucked the fragrant sweet flowers all around her—hyacinth, lilies, roses, and pale violets.
Pluto saw the group of happy maidens, beautiful each one as a day in spring, but it was Persephone who charmed him more than any other.
"She shall be my queen and share my throne," muttered the gloomy king to himself. Then, for he knew that to woo the maiden would be in vain, Pluto seized Persephone in his arms, and bore her weeping to his chariot.
Swift as an arrow the immortal steeds sped from the meadow, where Persephone's playmates were left terror-stricken and dismayed.
On and on flew the chariot. Pluto was in haste to reach Hades ere Demeter should miss her daughter.
A river lay across his path, but of this the king recked naught, for his steeds would bear him across without so much as lessening their speed.
But as the chariot drew near, the waters began to rise as though driven by a tempest. Soon they were lashed to such fury that Pluto saw that it was vain to hope to cross to the other side. So he seized his sceptre, and in a passion he struck three times upon the ground. At once a great chasm opened in the earth, and down into the darkness plunged the horses. A moment more and Pluto was in his own kingdom, Persephone by his side.
When the king seized the maiden in the meadow, and bore her to his chariot, she had cried aloud to Zeus, her father, to save her. But Zeus had made no sign, nor had any heard save Hecate, a mysterious goddess, whose face was half hidden by a veil.
None other heard, yet her piteous cry echoed through the hills and woods, until at length the faint echo reached the ear of Demeter.
A great pain plucked at the heart of the mother as she heard, and throwing the blue hood from off her shoulders, and loosening her long yellow hair, Demeter set forth, swift as a bird, to seek for Persephone until she found her.
To her own home first she hastened, for there, she thought, she might find some trace of the child she loved so well. But the rooms were desolate as "an empty bird's nest or an empty fold."
The mother's eyes searched eagerly in every corner, but nothing met her gaze save the embroidery Persephone had been working, "a gift against the return of her mother, with labour all to be in vain." It lay as she had flung it down in careless mood, and over it crept a spider, spinning his delicate web across the maiden's unfinished work.
For nine days Demeter wandered up and down the earth, carrying blazing torches in her hands. Her sorrow was so great that she would neither eat nor drink, no, not even ambrosia, or a cup of sweet nectar, which are the meat and drink of the gods. Nor would she wash her face. On the tenth day Hecate came towards her, but she had only heard the voice of the maiden, and could not tell Demeter who had carried her away.
Onward sped the unhappy mother, sick at heart for hope unfulfilled, onward until she reached the sun. Here she learned that it was Pluto who had stolen her daughter, and carried her away to his gloomy kingdom.
Then in her despair Demeter left all her duties undone, and a terrible famine came upon the earth. "The dry seed remained hidden in the soil; in vain the oxen drew the ploughshare through the furrows."
As the days passed the misery of the people grew greater and greater, until faint and starving they came to Demeter, and besought her once again to bless the earth.
But sorrow had made the heart of the goddess hard, and she listened unmoved to the entreaties of the hungry folk, saying only that until her daughter was found she could not care for their griefs.
Long, weary days Demeter journeyed over land and sea to seek for Persephone, but at length she came back to Sicily.
One day as she walked along the bank of a river, the water gurgled gladly, and a little wave carried a girdle almost to her feet.
Demeter stooped to pick it up, and lo! it was the girdle that Persephone had worn on the day that she had been carried away. The maiden had flung it into the river as the chariot had plunged into the abyss, hoping that it might reach her mother. The girdle could not help Demeter to recover her daughter, yet how glad she was to have it, how safe she treasured it!
At length, broken-hearted indeed, Demeter went to Zeus to beg him to give her back her daughter. "If she returns the people shall again have food and plenteous harvests," she cried. And the god, touched with the grief of the mother and the sore distress of the people, promised that Persephone should come back to earth, if she had eaten no food while she had lived in the gloomy kingdom of Hades.
No words can tell the joy with which Demeter hastened to Hades. Here she found her daughter with no smile upon her sweet face, but only tears of desire for her mother and the dear light of the sun. But alas! that very day Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds. For every seed that she had eaten she was doomed to spend a month each year with Pluto. But for the other six months, year after year, mother and daughter would dwell together, and as they clung to one another they were joyous and content.
So for six glad months each year Demeter rejoiced, for her daughter was by her side, and ever it was spring and summer while Persephone dwelt on earth. But when the time came for her to return to Hades, Demeter grew ever cold and sad, and the earth too became weary and grey. It was autumn and winter in the world until Persephone returned once more.
Demeter rejoiced, for her daughter was by her side