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The Myth Of Demeter And Persephone
by [?]


No chapter in the history of human imagination is more curious than the myth of Demeter, and Kore or Persephone. Alien in some respects from the genuine traditions of Greek mythology, a relic of the earlier inhabitants of Greece, and having but a subordinate place in the religion of Homer, it yet asserted its interest, little by little, and took a complex hold on the minds of the Greeks, becoming finally the central and most popular subject of their national worship. Following its changes, we come across various phases of Greek culture, which are not without their likenesses in the modern mind. We trace it in the dim first period of instinctive popular conception; we see it connecting itself with many impressive elements of art, and poetry, and religious custom, with the picturesque superstitions of the many, and with the finer intuitions of the few; and besides this, it is in itself full of interest and suggestion, to all for whom the ideas of the Greek religion have any real meaning in the modern world. And the fortune of the myth has not deserted it in later times. In the year 1780, the long-lost text of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter was discovered among the manuscripts of the imperial library at Moscow; and, in our own generation, the tact of an eminent student of Greek art, Sir Charles Newton, has restored to the world the buried treasures of the little temple and precinct of Demeter, at Cnidus, which have many claims to rank in the central order of Greek sculpture. The present essay is an attempt to select and weave together, for those who are now approaching the deeper study of Greek thought, whatever details in the development of this myth, arranged with a view rather to a total impression than to the debate of particular points, may seem likely to increase their stock of poetical impressions, and to add to this some criticisms on the expression which it has left of itself in extant art and poetry.

The central expression, then, of the story of Demeter and Persephone is the Homeric hymn, to which Grote has assigned a date at least as early as six hundred years before Christ. The one survivor of a whole family of hymns on this subject, it was written, perhaps, for one of those contests which took place on the seventh day of the Eleusinian festival, and in which a bunch of ears of corn was the prize; perhaps, for actual use in the mysteries themselves, by the Hierophantes, or Interpreter, who showed to the worshippers at Eleusis those sacred places to which the poem contains so many references. About the composition itself there are many difficult questions, with various surmises as to why it has remained only in this unique manuscript of the end of the fourteenth century. Portions of the text are missing, and there are probably some additions by later hands; yet most scholars have admitted that it possesses some of the true characteristics of the Homeric style, some genuine echoes of the age immediately succeeding that which produced the Iliad and the Odyssey. Listen now to a somewhat abbreviated version of it.

“I begin the song of Demeter”–says the prize-poet, or the Interpreter, the Sacristan of the holy places–“the song of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, whom Aidoneus carried away by the consent of Zeus, as she played, apart from her mother, with the deep- bosomed daughters of the Ocean, gathering flowers in a meadow of soft grass–roses and the crocus and fair violets and flags, and hyacinths, and, above all, the strange flower of the narcissus, which the Earth, favouring the desire of Aidoneus, brought forth for the first time, to snare the footsteps of the flower-like girl. A hundred heads of blossom grew up from the roots of it, and the sky and the earth and the salt wave of the sea were glad at the scent thereof. She stretched forth her hands to take the flower; thereupon the earth opened, and the king of the great nation of the dead sprang out with his immortal horses. He seized the unwilling girl, and bore her away weeping, on his golden chariot. She uttered a shrill cry, calling upon her father Zeus; but neither man nor god heard her voice, nor even the nymphs of the meadow where she played; except Hecate only, the daughter of Persaeus, sitting, as ever, in her cave, half veiled with a shining veil, thinking delicate thoughts; she, and the Sun also, heard her.