Zeus and His Dysfunctional Family

10 Demeter and Persephone

Triptolemus, holding a staff in one hand and a bowl in the other, sits in a winged chariot. Persephone stands before him, pouring a libation into his bowl and holding a torch.
Triptolemus and Persephone, red-figure kylix, ca. 470 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)


The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

Demeter was a daughter of Cronus and Rhea and was swallowed by her father (along with the rest of her siblings) shortly after her birth. After Zeus rescued his older siblings from their father, Demeter had a sexual relationship with her brother Zeus which resulted in a daughter, Persephone.

Demeter was probably an indigenous pre-Hellenic goddess of fertility. Her name means “Mother Da,” which may or may not mean “Mother Earth”. She is closely connected with her daughter and is worshipped in the manner of chthonic (earth) deities.

Demeter and Persephone in Action

Persephone and Hades stand in a chariot drawn by four horse, while many gods surround the scene.
Abduction of Persephone (deities clockwise from top left: Eros and Aphrodite, Zeus, Hecate, Athena, Demeter), red-figure hydria, ca. 340 BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The Myth of Demeter and Persephone

Demeter was a goddess of grain, crops, and fertility. Persephone was the queen of the underworld and a goddess of death and rebirth. Persephone was also connected to seeds and flowers as she and her mother represented different aspects of the agricultural cycles. Persephone’s annual trip up from the underworld for part of the year and her descent down to Hades for the other part of the year was an etiological myth that explained the changing of the seasons. The mother/daughter pair was celebrated in mystery religions in ancient Greece. In particular, they were worshipped in the Eleusinian Mysteries that took place outside of Athens every year, as well as at the all-woman Thesmophoria festival.


“Homeric Hymn 2 To Demeter” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by T. Mulder)

Greek hymn, 7th century BCE

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault]
The largest, most well-preserved literary source for the myth of Demeter and Persephone and the establishment of the Eleusinian Mysteries, is this 7th century “Homeric Hymn 2 To Demeter.”

[1] I begin to sing of rich-haired Demeter, awesome goddess – of her and her pretty-ankled daughter whom Aidoneus snatched away, given to him by all-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer.

[4] Separate from Demeter, lady of the golden sword and glorious fruits, she [Persephone] was playing with the full-breasted daughters of Ocean and gathering flowers in a soft meadow: roses and crocuses and beautiful violets, irises also and hyacinths and the narcissus, which Earth grew at the bidding of Zeus’ and the Host of Many as a trap for the girl who was pretty as a flower – a marvelous, radiant flower. The narcissus was a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and it smelled the most sweet, so that all wide heaven above and the whole earth and the sea’s salt swell laughed for joy. And the girl was amazed and reached out with both hands to take the lovely toy; but the wide-pathed earth yawned there in the plain of Nysa, and the lord, Host of Many, with his immortal horses, sprang out upon her – the Son of Cronus, He who has many names.

[19] He dragged the reluctant girl up onto his golden chariot and bore her away as she wept. Then she cried out in a shrill voice, calling upon her father, the Son of Cronus [ Zeus ], who is most high and excellent. But no one, either of the deathless gods or of mortal men, heard her voice, not even the olive-trees bearing rich fruit: only tender-hearted Hecate, bright-haired, the daughter of Persaeus, heard the girl from her cave, and the lord Helios, Hyperion‘s bright son, as the girl cried to her father, the Son of Cronus. But he was sitting aloof, apart from the gods, in his temple where many pray, and receiving sweet offerings from mortal men. So he, that Son of Cronus, of many names, who is Ruler of Many and Host of Many, was carrying her away on his immortal chariot by permission of Zeus— his own brother’s child and she unwilling.

[33] And as long as she, the goddess, yet saw the earth and starry heaven and the strong-flowing sea where fishes cluster together, and the rays of the sun, and still hoped to see her dear mother and the tribes of the eternal gods, as long as she saw all these, hope calmed her great heart in spite of all her trouble ((lacuna)) . . . and the heights of the mountains and the depths of the sea rang with her immortal voice: and her queenly mother heard her.

[40] Bitter pain seized her [Demeter’s] heart, and she tore the covering on her divine hair with her dear hands: her dark cloak she threw down from both her shoulders and sped, like a wild-bird, over the firm land and yielding sea, seeking her child. But no one would tell her the truth, neither god nor mortal men; and of the birds of omen none came with true news for her. Then for nine days queenly Deo wandered over the earth with flaming torches in her hands, so grieved that she never tasted ambrosia and the sweet draught of nectar, nor sprinkled her body with water. But when the tenth bright dawn had come, Hecate, with a torch in her hands, met her, and spoke to her and told her news, “Queenly Demeter, bringer of seasons and giver of good gifts, what god of heaven or what mortal man has snatched way Persephone and pierced your dear heart with sorrow? For I heard her voice, yet did not see with my eyes who it was. But I tell you truly and briefly all I know.”

[59] So spoke Hecate. And the daughter of rich-haired Rhea did not reply, but sped swiftly with her, holding flaming torches in her hands. So they came to Helios, who is watchman of both gods and men, and stood in front of his horses: and the bright goddess enquired of him, “Helios, acknowledge me, goddess as I am, if I have ever cheered your heart and spirit by my word or deed. Through the fruitless air, I heard the piercing cry of my daughter whom I birthed, sweet child of my body and lovely in form, a cry as though she were seized violently; though with my eyes I saw nothing. But you — for with your beams you look down from the bright upper air over all the earth and sea — tell me truly of my dear child, if you have seen her anywhere, what god or mortal man has violently seized her against her will and mine, and so made off.”

[74] So she spoke. And the Son of Hyperion answered her, “Queen Demeter, daughter of rich-haired Rhea, I will tell you the truth; for I greatly reverence and pity you in your grief for your slender-ankled daughter. None other of the deathless gods is to blame, but only cloud-gathering Zeus who gave her to Hades, her father’s brother, to be called his ravishing wife. And Hades seized her and took her as she cried loudly in his chariot down to his realm of mist and gloom. Yet, goddess, stop your loud lament and do not be eternally angry– it is useless. Aidoneus, the Ruler of Many, is a fine husband among the deathless gods for your child, being your own brother and born of the same stock: also, for honour, he has that third share of the world which he received when it was first divided, and is appointed lord of those among whom he dwells.” So he spoke, and called to his horses: and at his urging they quickly whirled the swift sun chariot along, like long-winged birds.

[90] But grief even more terrible and savage came into the heart of Demeter, and thereafter she was so angered with the dark-clouded Son of Cronus that she avoided the gathering of the gods and high Olympus, and went to the towns and rich fields of men, disfiguring herself for a long time. And no one of men or full-breasted women knew her when they saw her, until she came to the house of wise Celeus, who was lord of fragrant Eleusis at that time. Vexed in her dear heart, she sat near the wayside by the Maiden Well, from which the women of the place were used to draw water, in a shady place over which grew an olive shrub. And she was like an old woman who is cut off from childbearing and the gifts of garland-loving Aphrodite, like the nurses of king’s children who deal justice, or like the house-keepers in their echoing halls. There the daughters of Celeus, son of Eleusis, saw her, as they were coming for easy-drawn water, to carry it in pitchers of bronze to their dear father’s house: four were they and like goddesses in the flower of their girlhood, Callidice and Cleisidice and lovely Demo and Callithoe who was the eldest of them all. They did not recognize her, – for the gods are not easily recognized by mortals – but standing near by her they spoke winged words:

[113] “Old mother, where do you come from and who are your people? Why have you left the city and not draw near the houses? For there in the shady halls are women of just such age as you, and others younger; and they would welcome you both by word and by deed.”

[118] Thus they spoke. And she, that queen among goddesses answered them saying, “Hail, dear children, whoever you are. I will tell you my story; for it is appropriate that I should tell you truly what you ask. Doso is my name, for my stately mother gave it to me. And now I come from Crete over the sea’s wide back, – not willingly; but pirates brought me from there by force of strength against my wishes. Afterwards they sailed with their swift ship to Thoricus, and there the women landed on the shore in a large crowd and the men likewise, and they began to make a meal by the stern-cables of the ship. But my heart did not crave pleasant food, and I fled secretly across the dark country and escaped the pirate, so that they could not take me unpurchased across the sea, there to sell me for a price. And so I wandered and arrived here: and I have no idea what land this is or what people are in it. But may all the gods who dwell on Olympus give you husbands and admirable children, if you take pity on me, maidens, and guide me, dear children, to a house where I may work cheerfully at such tasks as belong to a woman of my age. I could easily be the nurse to a new born child, holding him in my arms, or keep house, or make my masters’ bed in a recess of the well-built chamber, or teach the women their work.”

[145] So said the goddess. And right away the unwed maiden Callidice, most goddess-like in body of the daughters of Celeus, answered her and said, “Mother, what the gods send us, we mortals bear by necessity, although we suffer; for they are much stronger than we. But now I will guide you clearly, telling you the names of men who have great power and honour here and are chief among the people, guarding our city’s collection of towers by their wisdom and true judgements: there is wise Triptolemus and Dioclus and Polyxeinus and blameless Eumolpus and Dolichus and our own brave father. All these have wives who manage their houses, and no one of them, as soon as she has seen you, would dishonour you and turn you from the house, but they will welcome you; for indeed you are godlike. But if you will, stay here; and we will go to our father’s house and tell Metaneira, our full-breasted mother, all about you, so that she can invite you into our home, rather than send you to the houses of others. She has one and only son, just recently born, who is being nursed in our well-built house, a welcome child, the answer of many prayers: if you could bring him up until he reached the full measure of youth, any one of womankind who should see you would immediately envy you, such gifts would our mother give for his upbringing.”

[169] So she spoke: and the goddess bowed her head in agreement. And they filled their shining vessels with water and carried them off rejoicing. Quickly they came to their father’s great house and immediately told their mother what they had seen and heard. Then she directed them to go with all speed and invite the stranger to come and work. As hinds or heifers in spring time, when sated with pasture, bound about a meadow, so they, holding up the folds of their lovely garments, darted down the hollow path, and their hair like a crocus flower streamed about their shoulders. And they found the good goddess near the wayside where they had left her before, and led her to the house of their dear father. And she walked behind, distressed in her dear heart, with her head veiled and wearing a dark cloak which waved about the slender feet of the goddess.

[184] Soon they came to the house of heaven-nurtured Celeus and went through the portico to where their queenly mother sat by a pillar of the close-fitted roof, holding her son, a tender child, in her bosom. And the girls ran to her. But the goddess walked to the threshold: and her head reached the roof and she filled the doorway with a heavenly radiance. Then awe and reverence and pale fear took hold of Metaneira, and she rose up from her couch before Demeter, and asked her to be seated. But Demeter, bringer of seasons and giver of perfect gifts, would not sit upon the bright couch, but stayed silent with lovely eyes cast down until careful Iambe placed a simple chair for her and threw over it a silvery fleece. Then she sat down and held her veil in her hands before her face. A long time she sat upon the chair without speaking because of her sorrow, and greeted no one by word or by sign, but rested, never smiling, and tasting neither food nor drink, because she pined with longing for her full-breasted daughter, until careful Iambe – who also brightened her moods in later times – moved the holy lady with many a quip and jest to smile and laugh and cheer her heart. Then Metaneira filled a cup with sweet wine and offered it to her; but she refused it, for she said it was not lawful for her to drink red wine, but asked them to mix grain meal and water with soft mint and give her to drink. And Metaneira mixed the draught and gave it to the goddess as she asked. So the great queen Deo received it to observe the ritual((lacuna)) . . .

[212] And of them all, well-girded Metaneira first began to speak, “Hail, lady! For I think you are not lowly but nobly born; truly dignity and grace are apparent upon your eyes as in the eyes of kings that deal justice. Yet we mortals bear by necessity what the gods send us, though we be grieved; for a yoke is set upon our necks. But now, since you have come here, you shall have what I can bestow: act as a nurse for this child whom the gods gave me in my old age and beyond my hope, a son much prayed for. If you should bring him up until he reaches the full measure of youth, any one of womankind that sees you will immediately envy you, so great a reward would I give for his upbringing.”

[224] Then rich-haired Demeter answered her, “And you, also, lady, all hail, and may the gods be good to you! Gladly will I take the boy to my breast, as you bid me, and will nurse him. Never, I expect, due to any carelessness of his nurse, will witchcraft hurt him or even the Undercutter: for I know a charm far stronger than the Woodcutter, and I know an excellent safeguard against dreadful witchcraft.[1]

[231] When she had so spoken, she took the child in her fragrant bosom with her divine hands: and his mother was glad in her heart. So, in the palace, the goddess nursed Demophoon, wise Celeus‘ goodly son whom well-girded Metaneira bore. And the child grew like some immortal being, not fed with food nor nourished at the breast: for by day rich-crowned Demeter would anoint him with ambrosia as if he were the offspring of a god and breathe sweetly upon him as she held him in her bosom. But at night she would hide him like a log in the flames of the fire, unknown to his dear parents. And they marveled that he grew beyond his age; for he was like the gods face to face. And she would have made him deathless and unageing, had not well-girded Metaneira in her carelessness kept watch by night from her sweet-smelling chamber and spied. But she cried out and struck her two hips, because she feared for her son and was greatly distraught in her heart; so she lamented and uttered winged words, “Demophoon, my son, the strange woman buries you deep in fire and makes grief and bitter sorrow for me.”

[250] Thus she spoke, mourning. And the bright goddess, lovely-crowned Demeter, heard her, and was angry with her. So with her divine hands she snatched from the fire the dear son whom Metaneira had born unhoped-for in the palace, and cast him from her to the ground; for she was terribly angry in her heart. Then she said to well-girded Metaneira, “Foolish are you mortals and unable to foresee the fate, whether of good or evil, that comes upon you. For now in your carelessness you have made an irreparable mistake– I swear by the relentless water of the river Styx, the oath of the gods– I would have made your dear son deathless and unaging all his days and would have bestowed on him everlasting honour. But now he cannot escape death and the fates in any way. Yet, unfailing honour will always be upon him, because he lay upon my knees and slept in my arms. But, as the years move round and when he is in his prime, the sons of the Eleusinians will always be at war with one another. Lo! I am that Demeter who has share of honour and is the greatest help and cause of joy to the undying gods and mortal men. But now, let all the people build me a great temple and an altar below it and beneath the city and its sheer wall upon a rising hill above Callichorus. And I myself will teach my rites, that hereafter you may reverently perform them and so win the favour of my heart.”

[275] When she spoken thus, the goddess changed her stature and her looks, thrusting old age away from her: beauty spread around her and a lovely fragrance wafted from her sweet-smelling robes, and from the divine body of the goddess a strong light shone, while golden curls spread down over her shoulders, so that the strong house was filled with brightness as with lightning. And like this she went out from the palace.

[281] And immediately Metaneira‘s knees buckled and she remained speechless for a long while and did not remember to take up her young son from the ground. But his sisters heard his pitiful wailing and sprang down from their well-spread beds: one of them took up the child in her arms and laid him in her bosom, while another revived the fire, and a third rushed with soft feet to bring their mother from her fragrant chamber. And they gathered about the struggling child and washed him, embracing him lovingly; but he was not comforted, because nurses and handmaids much less skilful were holding him now.

[292] All night long they sought to appease the glorious goddess, quaking with fear. But, as soon as dawn began to show, they told powerful Celeus all things without fail, as the lovely-crowned goddess Demeter charged them. So Celeus called the countless people to an assembly and ordered them to make a large temple for rich-haired Demeter and an altar upon the rising hill. And they obeyed him quickly, doing as he commanded. As for the child, he grew like an immortal being.

[301] Now when they had finished building and had drawn back from their toil, each man went to his house. But golden-haired Demeter sat there apart from all the blessed gods and stayed, wasting away with yearning for her full-breasted daughter. Then she caused a very dreadful and cruel year for mankind over the all-nourishing earth: the ground would not make any seed sprout, for rich-crowned Demeter kept it hidden. In the fields the oxen drew many a curved plough in vain, and much white barley was uselessly cast upon the land. So she would have destroyed the whole race of man with cruel famine and have robbed them who dwell on Olympus of their glorious right of gifts and sacrifices, if Zeus had not seen and understood in his heart what was happening. First he sent golden-winged Iris to call rich-haired Demeter, lovely in form. So he commanded. And she obeyed the dark-clouded Son of Cronus, and sped with swift feet across the space between. She came to the stronghold of fragrant Eleusis, and there finding dark-cloaked Demeter in her temple, spoke to her and uttered winged words, “Demeter, father Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, calls you to come join the tribes of the eternal gods: therefore, come! And do not let disobey the message I bring from Zeus.”

[324] Thus said Iris imploring her. But Demeter’s heart was not moved. Then again the father sent forth all the rest of the blessed and eternal gods: and they came, one after the other, and kept calling her and offering many very beautiful gifts and whatever power she might be pleased to choose among the deathless gods. Yet no one was able to persuade her mind and will, so angry was she in her heart; but she stubbornly rejected all their words: for she vowed that she would never set foot on fragrant Olympus nor let fruit spring out of the ground, until she saw with her eyes her own fair-faced daughter.

[334] Now when all-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer heard this, he sent the Slayer of Argus with the golden wand to Erebus, so that having won over Hades with soft words, he might lead forth chaste Persephone to the light from the misty gloom to join the gods, and that her mother might see her with her eyes and cease from her anger. And Hermes obeyed, and leaving the house of Olympus, immediately sprang down with speed to the hidden places of the earth. And he found the lord Hades in his house seated upon a couch, and his shy bride with him, very reluctant, because she yearned for her mother. But she was far off in her mind, stewing over her dreadful circumstances, brought on by the deeds of the blessed gods. And the strong Slayer of Argus drew near and said:

[347] “Dark-haired Hades, ruler over the departed, father Zeus orders me to bring noble Persephone up from Erebus to the gods, so that her mother may see her with her eyes and cease from her dread anger with the immortals; for now she plans an awful deed, to destroy the weak tribes of earthborn men by keeping the seeds hidden beneath the earth. And so she brings an end to the honours of the undying gods. For she hold onto her fearful anger and does not associate with the gods, but sits aloof in her fragrant temple, dwelling in the rocky hold of Eleusis.”

[357] So he spoke. And Aidoneus, ruler over the dead, smiled grimly and obeyed the command of Zeus the king. For he immediately urged wise Persephone, saying, “Go now, Persephone, to your dark-robed mother, go, and have good feelings for me in your heart: do not be so dejected; for I will be a fine husband for you among the deathless gods, since I am the brother of father Zeus himself. And while you are here, you shall rule all that lives and moves and shall have the greatest rights among the deathless gods: those who cheat you and do not appease you with offerings, reverently performing rites and giving appropriate gifts, will be punished for eternity.”

[370] When he said this, wise Persephone was filled with joy and quickly sprang up in happiness. But he on his part secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, seeing to it that she did not always stay with grave, dark-robed Demeter. Then Aidoneus the Ruler of Many openly readied his deathless horses and golden chariot. And she mounted the chariot, and the strong Slayer of Argus took the reins and whip in his dear hands and drove forth from the hall, the horses eagerly speeding up. Swiftly they traveled the long journey, and neither the sea nor river-waters nor grassy glens nor mountain-peaks impeded the immortal horses, but they clawed the high air above them as they went. And Hermes brought them to the place where rich-crowned Demeter was staying and stopped them before her fragrant temple.

[384] And when Demeter saw them, she rushed out like a Maenad down some thick-wooded mountain, while Persephone on the other side, when she saw her mother’s sweet eyes, left the chariot and horses, and leaped down to run to her, and falling upon her neck, embraced her. But while Demeter was still holding her dear child in her arms, her heart suddenly suspected some trick, so that she was very afraid and stopped embracing her daughter and asked her at once, “My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know. For if you have not, you will come back from loathsome Hades and live with me and your father, the dark-clouded Son of Cronus and be honoured by all the deathless gods; but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell for one third of every year: but for the other two parts you will be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth blooms with every kind of fragrant flowers of spring, then from the realm of darkness and gloom you will come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men. And now tell me how he snatched you away to the realm of darkness and gloom, and by what trick did the strong Host of Many beguile you?”

[405] Then beautiful Persephone answered her thus, “Mother, I will tell you everything, just as it happened. When luck-bringing Hermes came, swift messenger from my father the Son of Cronus and the other Sons of Heaven, bidding me come back from Erebus that you might see me with your eyes and so cease from your anger and fearful wrath against the gods, I sprang up at once for joy; but he secretly put in my mouth sweet food, a pomegranate seed, and forced me to taste against my will. Also I will tell how he snatched me away according to the elaborate plan of my father the Son of Cronus and carried me off under the depths of the earth, and will tell the whole matter as you ask. We were all playing in a lovely meadow, Leucippe and Phaeno and Electra and Ianthe, Melita also and Iache with Rhodea and Callirhoe and Melobosis and Tyche and Ocyrhoe, fair as a flower, Chryseis, Ianeira, Acaste and Admete and Rhodope and Pluto and charming Calypso; Styx too was there and Urania and lovely Galaxaura with Pallas who rouses battles and Artemis delighting in arrows: we were playing and gathering sweet flowers in our hands, soft crocuses mingled with irises and hyacinths, and rose-blooms and lilies, marvelous to see, and the narcissus which the wide earth caused to grow yellow as a crocus. That flower I plucked in my joy; but the earth opened under me and there the strong lord, the Host of Many, sprang forth and in his golden chariot he bore me away, all unwilling, beneath the earth: then I cried with a shrill cry. All this is true, as difficult as it is for me tell.”

[434] So then they turned, their hearts reunited in joy, and embraced many times, cheering each other’s soul and spirit. Their hearts were relieved from their sufferings and they delighted in their mutual happiness.

[438] Then bright-coiffed Hecate came near to them, and embraced the daughter of holy Demeter many times: and from that time the lady Hecate was minister and companion to Persephone.

[441] And all-seeing Zeus sent a messenger to them, rich-haired Rhea, to bring dark-cloaked Demeter to join the families of the gods: and he promised to give her what right she should choose among the deathless gods and agreed that her daughter would go down for the third part of the circling year to darkness and gloom, but for the two parts would live with her mother and the other deathless gods. Thus he commanded. And the goddess did not disobey the message of Zeus; swiftly she rushed down from the peaks of Olympus and came to the plain of Rharus, rich, fertile corn-land once, but at that time not at all fruitful, for it lay idle and utterly leafless, because the white grains were hidden by design of trim-ankled Demeter. But afterwards, as springtime waxed, it would soon be waving with long ears of corn, and its rich furrows would be loaded with grain upon the ground, while others would already be bound in sheaves. There first she landed from the empty upper air: and the goddesses were glad to see each other and cheered in heart.

[459] Then bright-coiffed Rhea said to Demeter, “Come, my daughter; for far-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer calls you to join the families of the gods, and has promised to give you what rights you please among the deathless gods, and has agreed that for a third part of the circling year your daughter will go down to darkness and gloom, but for the two parts will be with you and the other deathless gods: so has he declared it will be and has bowed his head in token. But come, my child, obey, and do not be angry unrelentingly with the dark-clouded Son of Cronus; but rather immediately increase for men the fruit that gives them life.”

[470] So spoke Rhea. And rich-crowned Demeter did not refuse but right away caused fruit to spring up from the rich lands, so that the whole wide earth was laden with leaves and flowers. Then she went, and to the kings who deal justice, Triptolemus and Diocles, the horse-driver, and to doughty Eumolpus and Celeus, leader of the people, she showed the conduct of her rites and taught them all her mysteries, to Triptolemus and Polyxeinus and Diocles also, –powerful mysteries which no one may in any way transgress or pry into or utter, for deep awe of the gods checks the voice. He who, among men on earth, has seen these mysteries is happy, is happy; but he who is uninitiated and who has no part in them, gets no part of good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom.

[483] But when the bright goddess had taught them all, they went to Olympus to the gathering of the other gods. And there they dwell beside Zeus who delights in thunder, powerful and revered goddesses. Right blessed is he among men on earth whom they freely love: soon they send Plutus as guest to his great house, Plutus who gives wealth to mortal men.

[490] And now, queen of the land of sweet Eleusis and sea-girt Paros and rocky Antron, lady, giver of good gifts, bringer of seasons, queen Deo, be gracious, you and your daughter all beauteous Persephone, and for my song grant me heart-cheering substance. And now I will remember you and another song also.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/HomericHymns1.html


Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, Book 1 (trans. J. G. Frazer, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek mythography, 2nd century CE

In this passage, Pseudo-Apollodorus summarizes the story of Hades’ rape of Persephone. Here Hades is called, “Pluto,” another one of his many names.


[1.5.1] Pluto fell in love with Persephone, and with the help of Zeus he carried her off secretly. But Demeter went about seeking her all over the earth with torches by night and day, and learning from the people of Hermion that Pluto had carried her off, she was angry with the gods and left the heavens, and came in the disguise of a woman to Eleusis. And first she sat down on the rock which has been named Laughless after her, beside what is called the Well of the Fair Dances [ Callichorus ]; then she made her way to Celeus, who at that time reigned over the Eleusinians. Some women were in the house, and when they asked her to sit down beside them, a certain old crone, Iambe, joked to the goddess and made her smile. For that reason they say that the women make jokes at the Thesmophoria.

But Metaneira, wife of Celeus, had a child and Demeter received it to nurse, and wishing to make it immortal she set the babe on the fire at night and stripped off its mortal flesh. But as Demophon – for that was the child’s name – grew marvelously by day, Praxithea watched, and discovering him buried in the fire she cried out; then the babe was consumed by the fire and the goddess revealed herself.

[1.5.2] But for Triptolemus, the elder of Metaneira’s children, she made a chariot of winged dragons, and gave him wheat, with which, floating through the sky, he sowed the whole inhabited earth. But Panyasis affirms that Triptolemus was a son of Eleusis, for he says that Demeter came to him. Pherecydes, however, says that he was a son of Ocean and Earth.

[1.5.3] But when Zeus ordered Pluto to send up the Maiden, Pluto gave her a seed of a pomegranate to eat, so that she might not remain with her mother for long. Not foreseeing the consequence, she swallowed it; and because Ascalaphus, son of Acheron and Gorgyra, bore witness against her, Demeter laid a heavy rock on him in Hades. But Persephone was compelled to remain a third of every year with Pluto and the rest of the time with the gods.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/Apollodorus1.html#5

Demeter and Persephone in Ritual

Callimachus, Hymn 6, “To Demeter” (trans. A. W. Mair, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek hymn, 3rd century BCE

In his Hymn to Demeter, written in Greek in the 3rd Century BCE, Callimachus writes about events that took place while Demeter was traveling the world looking for Persephone, including a run-in with a mortal man named Erysichthon. The Hymn opens and closes with invocations to the goddess, such as would be sung during the Thesmophoria. At the end of the hymn we get a portrait of who would have been participating in the worship of Demeter and Persephone at the festival, “Sing, you maidens, and you mothers…” The Hymn asks for specific benefits from the goddess to be bestowed upon the worshippers for their piety.


[1] As the basket comes, meet it, women, saying “Demeter, many greetings, much nourishing one, who has many measures of grain.” As the basket comes, you will watch from the ground, you who are uninitiated, and not from the roof or from above– no child or wife or maid who has shed her hair shall do so – neither then, nor when we spit from our parched mouths during the fast.[2] Hesperus from the clouds marks the time of it [the basket’s] coming: Hesperus, who alone persuaded Demeter to drink, when she pursued the unknown tracks of her stolen daughter [Persephone].

[9] Revered goddess, how were your feet able to carry you to the West, to those who are dark skinned and where the golden apples are? You did not drink or eat during that time, nor did you wash. Three times you crossed Achelous with his silver eddies, and as often you passed over each of the ever-flowing rivers, and three times you sat on the ground beside the fountain Callichorus, parched and without drinking, and you did not eat or wash.

[17] No, no, let us not speak of that which brought the tear to Deo [Demeter]! Better to tell how she gave cities pleasing decrees; better to tell how she was the first to cut straw and holy sheaves of grain and put in oxen to thresh them, when Triptolemus was taught the good craft [of agriculture]; better to tell how she made the son of Triopas [ Erysichthon ] hateful and pitiful to look at – a warning to men so that they avoid transgression.

[24] The Pelasgians did not yet live in the land of Cnidus, but still in holy Dotium, and for you [Demeter] they made a lovely grove with many trees; hardly could an arrow have passed through them [they were so thick]. In the grove there were pines, and mighty elms, and pear trees, and fair sweet apples; and from the ditches water gushed up as if it were amber. And the goddess loved the place madly, even as much as she loved Eleusis, and Triopum, and Enna.

[31] But when their favouring fortune became angry with the Triopidae [the people of Triopas], then a terrible idea seized Erysichthon. He hastened with twenty attendants, all in their prime, all men-giants [androgigantes] able to lift a whole city, arming them with double axes and with hatchets, and they rushed shamelessly into the grove of Demeter. Now there was a poplar, a great tree reaching to the sky, and there the nymphs liked to play at noon. This poplar was struck first, and it cried a woeful cry to the others. Demeter noticed that her holy tree was in pain, and she was angered and said: “Who cuts down my beautiful tree?” Then she took on the appearance of Nicippe, whom the city had appointed to be her public priestess, and in her hand she grasped her garlands and her poppy, and from her shoulder hung her key. And she spoke to soothe the wicked and shameless man and said: “My child who cuts down the trees that are dedicated to the gods, stop, my child, child of your parents’ many prayers, stop and turn back your attendants, in case the lady Demeter is angered, whose holy place you are desolating.”

[50] But with a look more fierce than that with which a lioness looks on the hunter on the hills of Tmarus – a lioness with new-born cubs, whose eye they say the most terribly of all – he said: “Stay back, or I will fix my great axe in your flesh! These trees will make my tightly built home, in which I will forever hold pleasing banquets for my companions.” So the young man spoke and Nemesis took note of his evil speech. And Demeter was angered beyond words and put on her goddess form. Her steps touched the earth, but her head reached to Olympus. And they, half-dead when they saw the revered goddess, rushed suddenly away, leaving the bronze axes in the trees. And she left the others alone – because they were forced to follow their master’s orders – but she answered their angry king: “Yes, yes, build your house, dog, dog, that you are, in which you shall have festivals; for frequent banquets shall be yours from now on.” So much she said and devised evil things for Erysichthon.

[66] Then she sent on him a cruel and evil hunger – a burning hunger and a strong one – and he was tormented by a terrible disease. Wretched man, no matter how much he ate, he always wanted more. Twenty prepared the banquet for him, and twelve drew wine. For anything that bothers Demeter, bothers also Dionysus; for Dionysus shares the anger of Demeter. His [Erysichthon’s] parents, out of shame, did not send him to common feasts or banquets, and they made all manner of excuses. The sons of Ormenus came to ask him to attend the games of Itonian Athena. His mother refused the request: “He is not at home: for yesterday he went to Crannon to demand a debt of a hundred oxen.” Polyxo came, mother of Actorion – for she was preparing a marriage for her child – inviting both Triopas and his son. But the lady, heavy-hearted, answered with tears: “Triopas will come, but Erysichthon was wounded by a boar at Pindus of the fair glens, and he has been bed-ridden for nine days.” Poor child-loving mother, what lie did you not tell? One was giving a feast: “Erysichthon is abroad.” One was bringing home a bride: “A discus has struck Erysichthon,” or “he has had a fall from his chariot,” or “he is counting his flocks of sheep on Othrys.” Then within the house, he, an all-day banqueter, ate more things than can be counted. But his evil belly churned more, the more he ate, and all the food flowed down, in vain and thanklessly, as if it was flowing into the depths of the sea. And like the snow on Mimas, like a wax doll in the sun, yes, even more than these, he melted down to sinews: the wretched man only had tendons and bones left. His mother wept, and his two sisters groaned deeply, and the breast that suckled him and the ten handmaidens over and over.

[96] And Triopas himself laid his hands on his grey hair, calling on Poseidon, who did not listen, with words like these: “False father, behold this the third generation of your sons – if I am a son of you and of Canace, daughter of Aeolus, and this unlucky child is mine. I wish that he had been struck by Apollo and that my hands had buried him! But now he sits before my eyes, an accursed glutton. Either remove his cruel disease from him, or take and feed him yourself; for my tables are already exhausted. My sheep folds are desolate and my cowsheds empty of four-footed beasts; for already the cooks have said to me ‘no.’”

[107] They even took the mules from the great wagons, and he ate the heifer that his mother was feeding for Hestia, and the racing horse and the war charger, and the cat that scared off the little vermin.

[111] So long as there were food stores in the house of Triopas, only the chambers of the house were aware of the evil thing; but when his teeth dried up the rich house, then the king’s son sat at the crossroads, begging for crusts and for the cast out leftovers of the feast. O Demeter, may that man who is hateful to you never be my friend, nor may he ever share an apartment wall with me; I hate bad neighbours.

[118] Sing, you maidens, and you mothers, say with them: “Demeter, many greetings, much nourishing one, who has many measures of grain.” And as the four white horses carry the basket, so to us will the great goddess of wide dominion come, bringing white spring and white harvest and winter and autumn, and keep us to another year. And as we walk the city unsandalled and with hair unbound, so will we have foot and head unharmed forever. And as the basket-bearers bear baskets full of gold, so may we get gold in abundance. Though the city officials let the uninitiated follow them far, the initiated may follow all the way to the very shrine of the goddess – those who are under sixty years old. But she that is heavy [pregnant], and she that stretches her hand to Eileithyia and she that is in pain – it is sufficient for them to go as far as their knees are able. And to them Deo [Demeter] shall give all things in abundance, like if they had come all the way to her temple.

[134] Greetings, goddess, and preserve these people in harmony and in prosperity, and in the fields bring us all pleasant things! Feed our cattle, bring us flocks, bring us the wheat, bring us harvest! And nurse peace, that he who sows may also reap. Be gracious, O thrice-prayed for, great queen of goddesses!


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/CallimachusHymns2.html#6

Demeter and Persephone as Allegory

Fulgentius, Mythologies, Book 1 (trans. L. G. Whitbread, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin mythography, ca. 500 CE

In these passages, written in Latin in the 6th century CE, Fulgentius takes an allegorical approach to the myth of Demeter and Persephone:


[1.10: The Fable of Proserpine]

They also choose to have Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres, married to Pluto; for Ceres is the Greek for joy, and they also chose her to be the goddess of grain, because where there is plentiful increase of crops, there must be much joy. They intended Proserpina for crops, that is, creeping forward (proserpentem) through the earth with roots, and so she is also called Hecate in Greek,[3] because hecaton is the Greek for hundred; and they also explain this name for her in the sense that crops yield fruit one hundredfold.

[1.11: The Fable of Ceres]

It is also said that her mother searched for her, when she was stolen away, with torches, and so the day of Ceres is celebrated with torches, clearly for the reason that at that time crops are joyfully reaped with torches, that is, in the sun’s heat.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/FulgentiusMythologies1.html#10

Art and Symbolism

In Greek art, Demeter was usually represented as a mature woman wearing a long robe and a veil over her head. Occasionally she could also be portrayed wearing a diadem or holding a scepter.


Head of Demeter, veiled and crowned with ears of corn.
Veiled Demeter, Delphi coin, ca. 336 BCE

The most common mediums in which the goddess is represented are vase painting and large sculpture. Her image could also be found on coins and frescoes. Many small terracotta statuettes depicting women wearing long dresses and carrying offerings (such as piglets and fruit) found in sanctuaries dedicated to Demeter have been interpreted as images of the goddess. However, these objects may also represent female worshippers rather than the divinity herself.

Demeter, holding a scepter and sheaves of wheat, and dressed in a peplos. She is walking in procession between other gods and goddesses.
Demeter (center) in procession, marble relief, ca. 1st century BCE (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

Some of the most common attributes of Demeter in art are the scepter and sheaves. As goddess of the earth and crops, she could be represented holding sheaves in her hand, or wearing a grain wreath.


Persephone holds a torch and pours a libation. Demeter stands in front of her wearing a crown and holding sheaves of wheat.
Persephone and Demeter, tracing from red-figure lekythos from the 5th century BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)


Side one: the veiled head of Demeter. Side two: two ears of corn in a ring.
Demeter and ears of corn, two sides of a coin, ca. 200 BCE

Another object commonly associated with Demeter in art is the torch – especially relevant in relation to the myth of the kidnapping of her daughter, Persephone, who traveled between the world of the living and that of the dead by night, accompanied by torch-bearing companions such as Hecate. The latter was another underworld-related goddess who was often portrayed in the company of Demeter and Persephone.


Demeter stands holding a scepter. Hermes and Hecate approach leading Persephone, who is rising out of the ground.
Hermes and Hecate guiding Persephone (left) out of the underworld to meet Demeter, red-figure krater, ca. 440 BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)


Demeter was often represented alongside her daughter, with whom she shared several visual features: the sheaves, the robe and veil, and the torches. However, Persephone was also often portrayed with her husband, Hades. They were generally represented enthroned, sometimes receiving offerings, or during her abduction.


Hades and Persephone seated together. Persephone holds a stalk of grain and a chicken.
Relief of Hades and Persephone, Locri votive tablet (Museo Nazionale Archeologico, Reggio di Calabria)
Persephone seated and Hades lounging holding a dish.
Persephone and Hades, red-figure kylix, ca. 430 BCE British Museum, London)













Hades in a chariot driving at full speed, holding a struggling Persephone.
Hades abducting Persephone, Macedonian fresco, ca. 340 BCE


Another myth involving Demeter often represented in art was the episode where she sent the hero Triptolemus around the earth on a flying chariot to teach humankind the art of agriculture.


Triptolemos seated in a winged chariot holding sheaves of wheat and a bowl. Persephone, holding a torch, pours from an oinochoe jug into the bowl. Demeter stands behind Triptolemos holding a torch and sheaves of wheat. Eleusis stands behind Demeter.
Triptolemus with Demeter (left), Persephone, and Eleusis (right), red-figure skyphos, ca. 500 BCE (British Museum, London)


Triptolemos seated in a winged chariot and holding a scepter. Behind him stands Persephone, and in front of him stands Demeter with sheaves of wheat.
Triptolemos with Persephone (left) and Demeter (right), red-figure stamnos, ca. 480 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)

Ceres and Proserpina

The iconography of Ceres borrowed many elements from that of her Greek counterpart Demeter from the Hellenistic Period onwards. The goddess was often represented enthroned holding wheat sheaves or a scepter, and wearing a crown of wheat.


Side 1: the bearded head of Romulus. Side 2: Ceres on a throne, holding a scepter
Romulus and Ceres, Roman coin, ca. 56 BCE

A symbol associated with Ceres that was particularly popular in Roman art was the cornucopia, a hollow animal horn filled with fruits and wheat representing abundance and fertility. Other iconographic elements relating to the goddess were garlands, snakes, and torches (referring to her search for her daughter).


Side 1: emperor's head with a crown of laurels. Side 2: Annona stands holding a cornucopia, beside seated Ceres who holds a torch and grain.
Laureate head, and Annona (left) and Ceres (right), Roman coin, ca. 68 CE


Various empresses ere also depicted as Ceres both in sculpture and on coins during the first and second century CE.


Side 1: the head of Faustina. Side 2: Ceres throned.
Faustina (mother of emperor Commodus) and Demeter, Roman coin, 2nd century CE (accessed via Ancient Roman Coin)


Head and torso of Livia Drusilla. She is veiled and robed, and holding a cornucopia.
Livia Drusilla as Ceres, Roman statue, ca. 1st century BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Madrid)

Media Attributions and Footnotes

Media Attributions

  1. "Undercutter" and "Woodcutter" are likely the names of some sort of demon. Evelyn-White suggests that they refer to the mythological worm thought to cause teething
  2. This passage refers to the Thesmophoria, a festival for Demeter. One of the stages of this ritual event was a fast.
  3. Though Hecate is a Greek goddess often associated with Demeter and Persephone, Fulgentius' claim that Persephone is Hecate is not entirely accurate as Hecate is a distinct goddess.


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