Chapter 5: The Story of Demeter and Persephone - Persephone Rising: Awakening the Heroine Within (2023)

The Story of Demeter and Persephone

LONG AGO AND FAR there was an island with an advanced civilization where art and beauty were primary, civility and peace reigned, and men and women lived as equals. But after many ages had passed, people from the nearby mainland—where men ruled and war and violence were common—crossed the sea in their boats and invaded this island, defeating its people. Among the spoils of war they took home with them were some of the island’s gods and goddesses.

These gods and goddesses retained knowledge of where they had come from and yearned to return, yet as time passed, their memories of the island and of life as they had once known it grew fainter and fainter. Finally, their recall of the island was like the ghostly writing in a palimpsest, just traces beneath the surface of newer inscriptions, as the deities became more and more what the new mortals they served wanted and understood.

Many ages later, one of these goddesses was luxuriating in the beauty of a verdant field. Her hair was golden, like corn silk, and she moved with the grace of grain blowing in a soft, warm wind. Her eyes were the color of a clear, sky-blue lake. While her body was voluptuous, she also seemed to emerge from the land, with the feel of someone solid and trustworthy. Her very name, Demeter, came from the Greek root word meaning “the mother,” and she embodied the compassion and nurturance this name implies.

From his throne high on Mount Olympus, Zeus, the god of all the gods, saw her. Zeus was as muscular as a bull and had the courage of a warrior. Clad from his head to his feet in armor, he inspired the respect of the other gods and terror in the hearts of his people, who knew they must worship him and make sacrifices to him or suffer the consequences. In his role as a sky god, he was known—when crossed—to hurl down lightning bolts, bellow as loud as thunder, and create winds so strong that few could withstand their force.

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But on this day, everything had gone his way, and he was feeling secure in his power and happy with his lot. Then he happened to spy Demeter and, filled with lust, he descended from on high to seduce her. Flattered by his attentions, Demeter enjoyed their lovemaking. After they had rested together contentedly, he explained, with some regret, that he had to return to his duties. After all, he was responsible for maintaining the social order of gods and mortals, as well as for quieting the anger of the Titans he had conquered, and soon he would marry the Titan beauty Hera, the goddess of marriage.

Zeus reminded himself that being the chief god, and consequently the king of all, meant that his responsibilities had to supersede his personal happiness, and that Demeter would be fine. Her satisfaction came less from sex or romance than from being a mother, and likely she would gain a child from this union. And he was right in this surmise.

Their resulting daughter was known as Kore, the maiden; it was not yet clear what she would be the goddess of, hence her generic name. She had hair as dark and luminous as the night sky, but a disposition so light and joyful that it seemed as if she had stars dancing as a halo around her. Her skin was honey golden, and her nature was similarly sweet. Her eyes were sea-foam green, the color of the Mediterranean, and those looking into them often felt a subtle call to adventure that caused them to yearn for something far away and as yet unknown.

Demeter loved her daughter more than anything or anyone, cherishing her and doing everything she could to keep her safe. But one day while Kore was off picking flowers in a meadow with her friends, Demeter left to take care of some business with other goddesses. She returned after a short time, only to learn that Kore was nowhere to be found. Her playmates told Demeter that Kore had wandered off and had not been seen since. Demeter asked everyone in the vicinity if they had seen Kore or knew where she was, but no one would admit to any knowledge of what had happened. Distraught and worried, as any parent would be, Demeter feared that Kore had been killed, raped, or kidnapped. For days, Demeter did not sleep or eat or bathe as she searched frantically for Kore, following ever-widening paths that led her further and further from home.

Finally, Demeter encountered Hekate, the goddess of the crossroads, who was known for the depth of her wisdom, which was especially relevant in times of choice or when someone was at a loss for where to go or what to do. A very ancient goddess, Hekate was one of the few who (along with the Fates) appeared to other gods and to humans in the guise of an old woman. Closely associated with the moon and its phases, she saw better at night, like an owl or a cat. Her hearing, however, was always acute, even catching whispered secrets that traveled to her in the wind. When Hekate recognized the depth of Demeter’s maternal grief, her own heart was touched, and she told Demeter that she had heard Kore cry out, and she believed that Kore might have been abducted.

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Hekate suggested that she and Demeter visit Apollo, the blazing sun god, who, from his position in the sky, may have seen what transpired. Gratefully, Demeter accompanied Hekate up into the sky to see Apollo. Now, Apollo was a favored son of Zeus, and often served as his emissary. He dutifully explained to Demeter that she need not worry. Kore had become the wife of a prestigious god, Hades, who ruled one of the three major realms of the world. Of course, Demeter well knew that Zeus ruled the sky and the surface of the earth; Poseidon, the seas; and Hades, the Underworld, where the dead reside. But she listened politely, so as not to offend. Apollo went on to assure her that all was well: Hades had asked Zeus for Kore’s hand in marriage, and after all, Zeus was her father and had the right to decide whom she married.

Hades was a dark and handsome god, rich beyond measure, with a mischievous turn of his lips that women adored. He had loved Kore since he first saw her, but had repressed his growing desire until she was pubescent, and thus of age. When Hades appeared before Zeus, he was lit with passion and trembling with eagerness to hold his beloved. Zeus thought it better to have Hades marry Kore than ravish her unwed, as he feared might happen given what he was seeing. If that were not enough, Zeus knew that Hades had always resented how he, Hades’s younger brother, had become chief of the gods, supplanting his older sibling. Zeus had to manage Hades carefully so that he would not stage a rebellion. So all in all, Apollo continued, it was a wise decision for Zeus to bless the marriage then and there.

“So when was this marriage ceremony?” Hekate asked, a bit provocatively, since all the gods should have been invited. Ignoring that question, Apollo explained that Hades had convinced Aphrodite of the depth of his love for Kore and asked her to help him woo her. Aphrodite placed the most beautiful flower anyone had ever seen near the meadow where Kore was playing with her friends. Kore saw this flower in the distance and became so entranced by it that she wandered away from them. She bent over to pick it but found that she had to pull it hard, and when she did so, the earth opened up, and Hades, on his chariot, bounded out of the depths, swept her up in his arms, and carried her back to his underworld kingdom.

Learning this, Demeter feared that, though Kore was alive, she would be scared, upset, even traumatized. Certainly, she was unprepared for sex, especially with someone she did not yet know and who had violated her sovereignty by roughly carrying her off against her will. Kore was a young girl, after all, still really a child, although her body was becoming more womanly. As Demeter ruminated further about this, her worry was matched by her anger at Hades, but even more so at Zeus, who should have protected his innocent young daughter. She did not mind that he had been no help in raising Kore, but for Zeus simply to dispose of her for political expediency and personal advantage was beyond what she could accept.

Demeter was an Olympian goddess and had to stay in her own realm, just as most other gods were confined to theirs. She could not go to the Underworld to rescue her daughter, and defying Zeus’s orders was unthinkable. However much Hekate tried to comfort her, there was no comfort to be had. Realizing that the other gods must have known what had happened to Kore but did not tell her out of fear of Zeus, she could not bear to be around them another moment.

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Feeling trapped and powerless, Demeter disguised herself as an old peasant woman and set off on a journey with no destination, wandering aimlessly as she fasted and pondered what to do but coming up with no answers. Tired and discouraged, she finally sat down to rest by the sea, in a little town called Eleusis, about fourteen miles from Athens. Kindly daughters of the local royal family saw her and asked her why she was there alone, without family or friends to care for her. She explained that she was from an island paradise but had been captured by pirates who brought her to this place. The young women sympathized with her plight and invited her to their palace, where she was welcomed warmly by the queen, Metaneira, and her attendants. At first, she declined their offers of wine or solid food, but then broke her fast with barley water flavored with mint. For Demeter, the goddess of grain, ingesting the essence of barley worked to remind her who she truly was. Experiencing such kindness from these friendly and welcoming mortals warmed her heart and further restored her hope. Demeter’s good spirits were raised enough that she even was able to laugh at the antics of an elderly female servant, Iambe, who did an obscene dance, lifting her skirt to reveal her private parts.

In appreciation for this hospitality, Demeter offered to become a nanny for Queen Metaneira’s precious new son, Demophon, a proposal that was accepted enthusiastically, as the queen intuited that there was something remarkable about this visitor, however poor and worn down she might seem. Still disguised, Demeter formulated a secret plan to repay all this kindness by making the son immortal, feeding him ambrosia (the nectar of the gods) and purifying his nature over the fire when he slept. All of which she did for a time, until his mother, the queen, came in at night and saw him in the fire. Of course, she screamed in alarm, yelling that Demeter was killing her son. Outraged that a mortal was chastising her and interfering in a sacred ritual, Demeter erupted. She grabbed the infant prince, threw him down (though he was unharmed), and showed herself in her full goddess glory, demanding that, in order to appease her, the Eleusinians build a temple in her honor.

The ancient stories do not reveal how long it took to create such a temple, but we can imagine that the terrified mortals worked as hard and as long as they could, since gods and goddesses of that time were known for cruelly making mortals pay for any lapses in homage or obedience to their decrees, or even to their whims. What we can surmise is that while wandering, Demeter had no energy to infuse her life force into the crops and other vegetation, which withered as a result of her inattention. Even after she had reclaimed her full identity as a deity, she refused to make things grow. Gradually, a terrible famine that could not be ignored took over the land. Masses of gaunt and starving people appealed to Zeus for help.

Feeling harried and tired from bearing the brunt of all the beseeching and complaining, Zeus called together the Olympian gods, asking each in turn to go to Demeter and beg her to stop the famine and provide the verdant crops she always had before. She was, after all, the goddess who taught humankind the secrets of agriculture. She is softhearted, Zeus explained. She will not want mortals to starve, and she knows, too, that if they stop sending us their sacrifices, we will begin to fade out and disappear. The gods did as they were told, but Demeter remained firm, saying that she would end the famine only when she could see her daughter and know that she was safe and happy.

For the first time in his long reign, Zeus had to come face-to-face with the limits of his power. He was the god of the gods and the chief god for mortals, but he could not make the grain grow. Only Demeter could do that. Relenting, he sent his son Hermes, the god of communication and one of the few gods able to move between realms, to escort Kore back to her mother. The moment Kore’s feet touched the earth, flowers sprung up around her, and in the distance she glimpsed crops beginning to grow again. Anyone viewing her would see that she was striding back to the surface of the earth with a new self-assurance, looking less like a child and more like a young and confident woman.

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Kore and Demeter’s reunion was warm and sweet, the lovely meadow that surrounded them growing more beautiful and lush every moment they were together, flowers and foliage springing up around them. They embraced, shared their joy, and after a time were joined by the grandmotherly Hekate, leading to more hugs, kisses, and intimate womanly confidences that went on into the evening, and some say continued for days, as women’s visits can. Demeter and Kore shared their stories in turn. Demeter described her alienation from the Olympian gods, her wanderings, and how she had been taken in by a kindly royal family. There, she recognized that mortals are not bad, just ignorant, primarily because the gods had failed to educate them. To rectify this, Demeter had decided to create a Mystery tradition to help mortals understand the laws of life and death so they could learn to be happy, prosperous, and free of fear. She would name the rites the Eleusinian Mysteries, after the town of Eleusis, where mortals had come to her aid and built her a temple, and where, Demeter hoped, her daughter would join her in this great work.

Kore shared that, initially, she had been fearful and disoriented after being abducted but drew strength from her mother’s teachings about trusting herself and remaining connected to the whole of life so that she would feel at home wherever she might be. And she added that she knew Demeter would be doing everything in her power to find her and ensure her safety. Kore described arriving in the Underworld and how her heart had gone out to the newly dead who did not understand their state. She knew that Demeter would want her to help them. As she did so, their panic abated, and they asked her to become their queen. As queen of the Underworld, Kore explained, she took the ancient name of that far-off goddess, so lately forgotten, who used to occupy that role. She was Persephone now.

Demeter and Hekate committed to calling her Persephone thereafter. Then, with a little laugh, Persephone rather hesitantly told them that Hades had tricked her into eating some pomegranate seeds and then, more proudly, added that she was pregnant, she thought with a god whose gift would be to bring joy to mortals and gods alike. As everyone used to know, powers more ancient than Zeus or Hades decreed that if you eat anything in the Underworld, you have to return there. Demeter and Hekate looked immediately downcast as they realized Persephone’s fate, though Persephone continued to show her usual lighthearted spirit, reassuring them that all would be fine. When she was in the Upperworld, she would initiate mortals into her mother’s Mysteries, and when in the Underworld, she would initiate the dead into the deeper mysteries that only those who have sloughed off their material forms can know. Hekate, recognizing a need, volunteered to take Persephone’s place in the Underworld during the period when Persephone was in the Upperworld. In this way, the dead would not be left bereft. When Persephone descended again, Hekate would return to her role as a seer of the crossroads, helping mortals with difficult life decisions and transitions.

The next part of the story—all that could and can be told to the uninitiated—came from Zeus. Out of gratitude that crops were flourishing once again and sacrifices were wafting up to the Olympian gods, he declared that all should recognize that the seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter were not accidental but a product of Demeter’s will. The seasons remind us of all the cycles in our own lives and that the earth is our mother, and like any mother, she loves her children, her people. From then on, he announced, during the period of winter, when crops are fallow, gods and people alike would take time to honor Demeter’s grief over her daughter’s sojourn in the Underworld, as well as to honor how this motherly deity will grieve whenever any of her children experience suffering.

He then granted Persephone the right to become one of the alchemical deities who could move at will between the Upperworld and the Underworld. With pride, he also announced that he had invited Demeter and Persephone to rejoin the Olympian gods, and they had accepted. A massive and joyous celebration immediately commenced on Olympus, with mortals below dancing to express their relief and gratitude that the standoff between Demeter and Zeus and the resulting famine finally were over.

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Legend has it that after this time, Zeus became a much better ruler—more respectful of the gifts of all the goddesses, less dictatorial and more democratic, less likely to dole out punishments, and more supportive of efforts, like the Mysteries, to help people learn and grow into their better selves, declaring that this story should be told and retold in every generation.

Yet life being as it is, the Olympian gods eventually were overthrown, and Demeter’s temple was demolished. Nonetheless, these gods and goddesses still are with us, for those who know how to recognize them. We see their traces in literature, popular film, and human behaviors even today. And discovering how to recognize them in and around you can help you be happier, feel more prosperous, and act with less fear and greater courage—realizing the promise of the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries, the rites that grew up around the narrative you have just read, or, perhaps, truly were created by Demeter and Persephone.


What is the summary of the story of Demeter and Persephone? ›

Many believe that the Demeter and Persephone story explains the seasons of the year. During the time that Persephone spends away from her mother, Demeter causes the earth to wither and die. This time of year became autumn and winter. Persephone's arrival to be reunited with her mother signals a renewal of hope.

What does the story of Demeter and Persephone symbolize? ›

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.

What is the moral to the Demeter story? ›

A mother's love

The focus of the poem is one of the most renowned narratives from Greek mythology - the rape of Persephone by Hades, the god of the Underworld, and the response of Demeter to her loss. It is a remarkable narrative, built fundamentally on the power of a mother's love for her only child.

What is the moral of the story of Persephone? ›

The more we use our challenges to grow, the more we have to offer. The story of Persephone similarly teaches us that there is an abundant source of energy and strength amidst the integration of shadows.

What is the summary of Demeter poem? ›

Though based on a Greek myth, "Demeter" explores a deeply human and relatable theme: the bond between mother and daughter. A heartbroken Demeter (the goddess of agriculture and the harvest) laments the abduction of Persephone, her daughter, by Hades, the god of the underworld.

How did Demeter react to losing Persephone? ›

Demeter, goddess of the harvest and fertility searched for her daughter when Persephone went missing. Once she realized Persephone was taken to the underworld, she protested the abduction by stopping her work with the crops.

What message or lesson about motherhood have you learned from the story of Demeter and Persephone? ›

It effectively shows how enduring a mother's love can be and how far she is willing to sacrifice for her daughter. Even if it seemed like a hopeless case, Demeter did everything she could to compel Zeus to intervene and finally get her daughter back, even for just a limited period.

What does Persephone story symbolize? ›

Goddess of spring and nature

Plutarch writes that Persephone was identified with the spring season, and Cicero calls her the seed of the fruits of the fields. In the Eleusinian Mysteries, her return from the underworld each spring is a symbol of immortality, and she was frequently represented on sarcophagi.

What is the purpose of the myth of Demeter? ›

A Mother's Loss: Demeter and Persephone

The myth is an allegory for the experience of mothers in ancient Greece who had to give up their daughters to marriages, over which they had no control.

What is the summary of the myth of Persephone Greek goddess of the underworld? ›

Persephone is the Greek goddess of the seasons and vegetation. She is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, and was kidnapped by Hades who made her his wife and tricked her to spend half of the year with him in the Underworld - which is how the ancient Greeks explained the seasons of the year.

Is Demeter In love With Persephone? ›

She loved her daughter, Persephone, the goddess of grain and fertility, so much that when she was carried off by Hades to dwell unwillingly as queen of the underworld, Demeter mourned, and at that time no grain grew and no flowers blossomed.

Why did Demeter not want her daughter to marry Hades? ›

Persephone's abduction

Hades consulted Zeus and asked him if he could marry Persephone. Zeus explained that the goddess, Demeter, would be unhappy with the marriage because it would mean that Persephone would be taken away to live in the Underworld, as the Underworld is where Hades lived and ruled.

What does the story of Hades and Persephone teach us? ›

The story of Persephone is used to explain the cycle of the seasons. Fall and winter each year is understood to be the time when Persephone descends into the underworld, and the emergence of spring and summer signals her return to her mother and the world of the living.


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2. Why We Keep Retelling Persephone's Story
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3. How To Find Your Hero Within with Carol Pearson
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4. Hera, Hestia, and Demeter: Feminine Archetypes of Marriage, the Hearth, and Motherhood [Video Essay]
(Minimum Effort Media)
5. The myth of Cupid and Psyche - Brendan Pelsue
6. Maureen Murdock On Memoir
(Pacifica Graduate Institute)


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