Gateway to the Classics: Gods and Heroes by R. E. Francillon
Gods and Heroes by  R. E. Francillon

The King and Queen of the Dead

"Not far from Enna's walls there lies a lake,

Pergus by name: than which not Cayster's stream

Is fuller of the songs of gliding swans.

A woodland girds it with a veil of leaves

To shelter from the heat; where the fresh soil

Bears purple flowers, and keeps perpetual spring."

S O the poet Ovid describes the pleasant place where the nymph Proserpine, the beautiful daughter of Ceres, goddess of the fruits of the earth, was one day with her companions, gathering violets and lilies. All were trying who should gather the most, and were very happy and merry. In her search for flowers, Proserpine wandered out of sight of her companions, who went on gathering and singing and laughing: till suddenly their merriment was stopped by a piercing scream for help; and then by another and another; till the cries grew fainter and fainter, and were at last heard no more.

Where was Proserpine? They were sure it was her cries they had heard: and, though they searched through the whole wood, they could not find her anywhere. All they could do was to go to Ceres, and tell her that her daughter had disappeared, and could not be found for all their seeking.

Ceres, who is the best and kindest of all the goddesses, loved her daughter dearly, and was disconsolate at the news. Though always so busy with seed-time and harvest, fields and orchards, she set out to seek for her lost Proserpine; or at least to find out what had become of her. "Mother!" had been Proserpine's last cry. Ceres wandered, in her search, over the whole world,—nay, she explored the very depths of the sea,—but all in vain. She questioned gods, goddesses, nymphs, fauns, and satyrs, men and women; but none could give her any news of Proserpine. She never slept, but set fire to the pine-trees on the top of Mount Ætna to serve as torches, so that she might see to search by night as well as by day. She forgot to eat and drink, and, though the goddess of Corn and Plenty, she would have perished of hunger and thirst had not an old woman named Baubo, though ignorant who she was, taken pity on her, and given her some hot porridge, which Ceres drank eagerly—so eagerly that a boy who saw her drinking jeered at her for a glutton. This was too much for the goddess, in her despair, to bear. She for once lost her temper, and threw the rest of the hot porridge over the grinning boy, whom it turned into a spotted lizard for laughing at a stranger's needs and an old woman's charity.

At length, worn out and desperate, the poor mother wandered back to Sicily, so changed that nobody knew her. Nor could she say who she was, for grief had made her dumb. In this state she arrived at a place called Cyăne, near to where Proserpine had been lost. And here one day, while looking at a pool (for she never ceased to look everywhere) she saw her daughter's girdle lying at the bottom of the water. Then, giving up her last spark of hope, she found her voice again, and mourned aloud. Her grief was terrible to hear and see. She cursed the earth, so that it no longer brought forth corn: she broke the ploughs: the seeds perished in the fields, and the cattle in their stalls.

But one day Ceres, roaming along the banks of the river Alpheus, plainly heard its waters say:—

"We have seen Proserpine! She is unhappy; but she is a great queen: she is the wife of Pluto, the King of the Underworld."

Then Ceres knew that Proserpine had been carried off by the great and dreadful god Pluto, to whom, when Jupiter divided the world, had been given Hades—the underground kingdom of ghosts and of the souls of the dead: the greatest kingdom of all. It was true:—Pluto had seen Proserpine while she was gathering flowers in the wood, had snatched her up into his chariot with black horses, and, in spite of her struggles and cries for help, had driven off with her to his underground palace through a cavern which he opened with a touch of his two-pronged scepter: the cavern then filled up with water, and became the lake of Cyane, at the bottom of which Ceres had found the girdle. As soon as she could recover her senses, Ceres flew up to heaven, threw herself before Jupiter, and passionately demanded that her daughter should be given back to her.

It was a difficult question for Jupiter to settle. He pitied Ceres with all his heart, and wished to help her. But high reasons of state made him unwilling to offend Pluto: and then, who had ever heard of anybody coming back from Hades? That would be against all the laws of gods and men.

But there were three mysterious beings, of whom I have not yet told you, called the Fates—three sisters who rule over life and death, and whose will even the gods of heaven, even Jupiter himself, must obey. Somewhere or other they sit and spin with their distaffs the histories of nations and the lives and deaths of men. Nothing can happen without their leave; and nobody can prevent them from coming to pass whatever the Fates decree. So Jupiter inquired of the Fates if it was their will that Proserpine should return from the kingdom of the grave.

"She may return," they said. "But not if she has eaten or drunk in the kingdom of Pluto. If she has tasted the food of death, then she may not return."

When Pluto received this message he was greatly troubled; for, though he had carried off Proserpine in that cruel way, he very deeply loved her, and hoped that, if he could keep her with him, he should at last conquer her sorrow and get her to love him in return. He had made her his wife and queen, and could not bear the thought of losing her. He anxiously inquired of every ghost and spirit in Hades if Queen Proserpine had tasted food, if ever so little; but not one had seen her touch even bread or water since she had been brought below. It was Pluto's turn to lose Proserpine. Ceres was already rejoicing in the thought of seeing her long-lost daughter. Proserpine was just about to return to earth, when there stepped forth one of Pluto's courtiers, named Asculaphus, and accused Proserpine of having tasted the juice of seven pomegranate seeds. And the Fates knew that it was true.

And Proserpine also knew it, and cried aloud for sorrow that she should never see her mother again; and her cry turned the treacherous, tale-bearing Asculaphus into a hooting owl. But this did not undo the work of those seven fatal pomegranate seeds. Even the Fates were filled with pity; even the heart of Pluto was touched by the mother's and the daughter's despair. The Fates could not change their decree. But it was settled that, though Proserpine must continue to be the wife of Pluto and the Queen of Hades, she should be allowed to spend six months out of every year on earth with Ceres. And that is the reason of summer and winter. It is summer when Ceres is happy with her daughter, and makes the earth rejoice with flowers and fruit and corn. It is winter when she is left alone, and Proserpine goes back to Pluto until next spring. Proserpine is the beauty and joy of the earth, which seems to die in winter, but only to come to life again. And she is the beauty of death besides. You will remember what you read in the story of Psyche about the beauty of Proserpine.

It was Ceres who taught men to plow, harrow, sow, and reap; and they were very grateful to her everywhere. The worship of Ceres, under many names, was the chief part of the religion of ancient times. You will know her, from pictures and statues, as a noble and stately goddess, crowned with a garland of corn, holding a lighted torch, sometimes standing in a chariot drawn by flying dragons. I have said she had many names, one of the most famous being Dēmētēr, which means "Mother Earth"; and "Bona Dea," that is to say "the Good Goddess," was another.

Proserpine, as Queen of Hades, became a very strange and mysterious goddess indeed. One of her names is Hĕcătē, and under that name she rules over magic. She often wears a veil, and a crown of stars; and, like Pluto, carries the scepter with two prongs, differing from Neptune's trident, which has three.

Pluto was a dark and gloomy god. No temples were ever built to him, and only black animals were sacrificed upon his altars. But he was just, although pitiless and stern. He sits upon a throne of sulphur in his underground palace, from which flow the four rivers of Hades—Cocytus, the river of Lamentation; Achĕron, the river of Sorrow; Lēthē, the river of Forgetfulness; and Phlegĕthon, the river of Fire. On his left hand sits Proserpine, near to whom stand the Furies, three fiends with snakes instead of hair; on his right stand the Fates spinning; at his feet lies the three-headed dog, Cerberus; and the Harpies hover over him, waiting for orders.

On the whole, it is not strange that Proserpine should be glad when the time for her six months' visit to her mother comes round.

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