Demeter and Persephone
This is a very famous Greek myth, full of characters all trying to get what they want.
Demeter was a wonderful goddess. Her special talent was caring for the health of the land, for nature and bringing in a bumper harvest. Everyone loved her. She was kind and helpful, generous and thoughtful.
Demeter had one child, Persephone. And Persephone’s father was Zeus, king of all the gods. Can you guess what kind of mother Demeter was? Well, if she was kind and generous to the earth, then - you’re right - she was a loving and thoughtful, fun and wise mother.
Persephone’s childhood was very happy. She played lots of games with her mother, and Demeter taught her all kinds of things, often without Persephone even realising she was learning! She learnt to be kind to nature, to listen to people, to care about others’ needs and to be a good friend. One of the most important things she learnt by watching her mother was how to make the best of every situation - even if it wasn’t the one you had planned.
Sometimes you could hear her remind her mother, “Art is never perfect, Mummy! If those flowers won’t grow as tall as you want, or that corn field isn’t as golden as you wished, remember: you should enjoy them as they are, because they’re different from the others!” and Demeter would laugh, because of course, Persephone was right. She was very proud of her daughter, who was now almost a grown-up and wiser and kinder every day. Everyone loved Persephone.
One day, Persephone was in the gardens of Olympus, admiring some particularly pretty daffodils. What she couldn’t know was that her Uncle Hades, king of the Underworld, was watching her from a distance.
Hades was very lonely down there in the Underworld. While Zeus had got the sky, and their brother Poseidon was in charge of the sea, Hades had all the darkness and he didn’t think it was very fair. It was very important that the underworld had a king, but Hades got tired sometimes, because he was always having to stop his guests from trying to get back up into the land of the living. What Hades wanted more than anything else was some decent company. A friend. A queen, perhaps. A kind, happy, bright, sunny, thoughtful queen.
If only he knew someone who could fit that description! And then he saw - ? Persephone. Uh-oh.
Now, in the olden days - and Greek mythology is no exception here - it was the tradition for a man to ask a woman’s father if he could marry her. And sometimes, no-one really bothered about what the woman thought at all!
And I’m afraid to say that Zeus was not the best father of all time. (As you will find out if you read a lot of Greek myths). So when Hades went to Zeus and asked if he could have Persephone as his queen of the underworld, do you think Zeus asked Persephone? Do you think he spoke with Demeter? No. He just said, “Eh? Yeah, fine, whatever.”
And with a careless shrug of Zeus’s shoulders, Persephone’s fate was sealed…
So, next time Persephone was enjoying the daffodils, up crept Hades from under the ground, and he - POOF! - vanished with her in a puff of smoke and took her down to the Underworld.
“Get off me, let go of me, don’t touch me, you stinky old god, get your hands off me!!” shouted Persephone as loudly as she could. But it was too late. Because while her shouting and kicking would work with a normal person, Hades was a god, and his kidnap was faster than the blink of an eye.
Moments after, Demeter appeared in the gardens, looking for Persephone. But - as you know - she couldn’t find her anywhere. Demeter was a very powerful god, and she would do anything for her beloved daughter. She searched the whole of Olympus and then the whole of the earth, looking for her child. She neglected the harvest and the land because only one thing mattered: finding Persephone and rescuing her from harm.
The meadows lost their green. The trees went gnarly and dry. The flowers dropped their petals and the bushes, their berries. Even the rain stopped making much of an effort. No matter where she went, no matter who she asked, nothing and no-one could tell Demeter what had happened to Persephone.
But one person - or should I say, one god - was strangely quiet throughout all this: Zeus. And after a while, Demeter became quite angry with him for not coming to help her search, and she said, “Haven’t you noticed your daughter is missing? Why aren’t you helping me look for her? Why haven’t you got everyone and everything out to help find our daughter?”
Zeus looked up from his game of chess and said, “Ah. I meant to mention it, but it just slipped my mind.”
“What slipped your mind?”
“I, er, well, I, er, - ““What did you do?” demanded Demeter.
“Well, she’s a big girl now - so, I, er - said that Hades could have her as his queen.”
“YOU DID WHAT?!” stormed Demeter. “That stinky old gloom-monger? That cave-dwelling grump-grumbler? Well, you can just bring her back!”
“They’re husband and wife now, and I won’t interfere,” said Zeus and went back to playing his chess game.
Well, Demeter was furious, but there was nothing she could do. And nothing is exactly what she did. She didn’t help the crops. She didn’t bring the rain. She didn’t feed the soil. She didn’t grow the flowers. The land grew dry, the rivers stopped flowing, and everything was dying.
Reluctantly, Zeus gave in. “Alright, I suppose you have a point,” he said. And he called the messenger of the gods, Hermes, and told him to bring Persephone back home. “I don’t think Hades is going to be very happy with me,” he said.
“You should have thought of Persephone’s happiness first,” said Demeter, who was relieved this nightmare was almost over.
Now, down in the Underworld, what do you think had been happening? Yes, it was dark. Yes, the Underworld guests could be a bit tricky at times. But something very, very positive had been happening, and it wasn’t at all what Demeter had feared.
Remember I told you that Persephone had learnt to be kind and thoughtful of others and was generous and loving and could always see the good in things when they didn’t go as planned? Well, all these skills that she had learnt from her mother meant that she wasn’t having a terrible time at all. And do you remember I told you that Hades had been very lonely, and needed a friend? Well, can you guess what had been happening while Demeter had been searching?
Hades and Persephone had been getting on really well. He was learning from her kindness and it was making him a better king! The souls in the Underworld were much happier as a result, because he wasn’t grumpy any more, and there was so much more laughter in the Kingdom, that if it hadn’t been so “underworldy” and dark and well - dark - you’d have thought you were at a very pleasant picnic in the gardens of Olympus. But, it was still the Underworld and Persephone really missed her mother.
What Persephone didn’t know was that there was a possibility of escape. As long as you don’t eat or drink anything in the Underworld, you can leave. And she hadn’t yet eaten or drunk a single thing (being a god, she didn’t need to to live, you see).
Hermes, the messenger of the gods, arrived in the Underworld and when Hades saw him, his face dropped. His laughter and his smile slipped to the floor. He guessed why Hermes had come and he knew all his wonderful happiness with Persephone was about to end.
“Persephone,” said Hermes, “I’ve come to take you back to your mother.”
Persephone looked at Hades with a little sadness and gave him a hug. “I love you, Hades, and I have had a wonderful time, but this is not my home, and I miss my mum.”
Hades nodded. And then he did a selfish thing. “Here,” he said, “take this pomegranate, to remind you of me,” he said. Persephone smiled. She sliced the pomegranate open and before Hermes could stop her, she ate six seeds.
“No!” shouted Hermes. “Yes!” yelled Hades. “Now you are my queen forever!”
When Hermes returned to Olympus without Persephone, Demeter knew she must have eaten something and was furious with Zeus. Zeus knew he’d got it badly wrong and the earth was starving now that Demeter was focusing all of her energy on getting Persephone home safely.
So down to the Underworld went Zeus.
“Brother,” he said, “I got it wrong. I’m sorry.”
“Dad!” said Persephone. “Why didn’t you ask me what I wanted?”
Zeus went bright red and mumbled an apology.
“It’s just not good enough,” said Persephone. “I’m going to do you a deal.”
The two powerful gods looked at her, both surprised but both proud and loving. She was a very smart woman and they respected her very much. So they did something they didn’t usually do, and they listened.
“In all the time I’ve been here, Hades has treated me extremely well and we love each other. BUT - BUT! Zeus, you gave me away without asking me, and Hades, you tricked me into eating, to keep me here against my will.”
“Sorry,” said the gods.
“No-one is going to get everything they want. It just can’t be done. So this is my deal. Because I ate just six pomegranate seeds, I will spend only six months a year in the Underworld. And I will spend the other six back home with my mother. Deal?”
“Deal!” agreed the gods very quickly.
So from that day to this, while Persephone is living with her mother, we have six months of sunshine and warmth and good harvests. The fields are green and the rivers bubble merrily. And for the other six months, when Persephone is queen of the underworld, Demeter is sad and doesn’t look after the land so well, but that gives us balance: a time for the seeds to rest underground, for animals to hibernate and for the trees to prepare themselves for the springtime and then joyful summer that will always come.
Was Demeter right to go searching for Persephone, even if Persephone might have been happy with Hades?
Who rescued Persephone?
Who was a bad friend (s)?
Should we ever say someone else is going to do something just because we want it?
What was Persephone’s solution to the tricky problem of pleasing everyone?