The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Hymn to Demeter.

Translated by the late Thomas Godolphin Rooper.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 81-92


The pathetic tale of Demeter grieving for her lost daughter Persephone is one of those old myths which have touched the hearts of the whole civilized world for more than two thousand years, and mankind will be distinctly poorer when the study of it ceases to be an enjoyment.

The Hymn of Persephone is closely connected with the every-day religion of Hellas, and the reader is brought into touch with the heart and sentiments of the Greeks, and is able to live over again their lives, and sympathize with their sorrows and sufferings, which despite the long interval are common to us and them, "for one touch of nature makes the whole world akin." The past lives again in sympathy. Who does not perceive in this poem, the eternal motherhood grieving for a maiden child snatched away by early death--"Rachel weeping for her children, because they are not, and will not be comforted?" Who does not delight in the conversations between the aged and stricken mother, and the lively and kindly damsels who tend her with such affectionate and winning kindness and delicacy?

If in Demeter we have the type of divine sorrow and loving motherhood, we have in the daughter of Celeus the type of all that is most sweet and attractive in maidenhood. Who does not perceive the graces of courtesy and hospitality, and innocent enjoyment and serviceableness and reverence for age, all writ large in this Hymn that he who runs may read? But along with much that is distinctly human and natural, there is inwoven in the tissue of the story a thread of mysticism. Gods are present among men, and men cannot discern their presence, for according to the fine saying in the poem, gods are hard for men to recognize. The Goddess of the Golden Crown humbles herself to sit on a stool and tend a mortal babe, the child of her host king Celeus. And on this babe she bestows some of the love she has to sacrifice for her lost daughter and she will nurse him faithfully. Nay more, she will bestow on him the privilege of immortality and everlasting youth.

This is a type of one of the higher forms of unselfishness where the love which was intended for the nearest and dearest is given to the stranger. But in the episode of the Burning Babe it is seen that that by which the Immortals enable Mortals to put on Immortality is too full of terror to ordinary parents, and therefore remains incomplete, yet even as the child of man who has been nursed by the gods partakes in some degree of the Divine Nature, whatever fire is in our frame will burn in our heart and work. But, after all, it is not so much the glimpses of the higher and better world which enchant us in this poem as the background of pure family life and the beautiful scenery of the earth in spring, and the meadows teeming with wild flowers, and fountains of clear water, and dark woods climbing the hillsides, and the maidens' dancing place where happiness is rife as in the golden age.

Demeter and her daughter Persephone and their attributes remind us that once upon a time before the discoveries of proud Philosophy, mankind was content to express his wonder at the course of nature in very simple and unaffected language. In those days the changes of the seasons were not explained by astronomical calculations. It was the Corn Goddess, or the Earth Mother, Demeter, who kept the seed hidden in the depths of the earth, the seed was buried in sorrow, it lay dormant in hope, it rose again when the Earth Mother raised it to life and sent forth the tender herbage.

In another aspect, the seed that died to live again was the lost daughter of Mother Earth who must spend a part of the year in darkness, beneath the ground, and the rest in the clear light of Heaven with the sun and the other gods, gladdening the heart of men. How easily these simple notions of seed-time and harvest lend themselves to express the destiny of man, who, it may be in the promise of youth or it may be in the maturity of years, sinks beneath the ground not without hope of resurrection. The quick-witted Greeks were swift to perceive the poetry of the fact that narcissus, or daffodil, while it is one of the earliest and loveliest flowers of spring, is also, as its name implies, narcotic, and productive of sleep and death. Even the renovation of nature suggests decay.

So too Persephone in the gloom of the underworld eats unwarily of the fruit of the dead, the pomegranate, and whoever, according to the time-honoured story, partakes of the fruit of death never can live the whole year, in the light of the sun among the gods above. And lastly, in the Greek view what is sleep but the death of each day's life? The sun now stoops and hastes his beams to hide under the dark and melancholy earth. All preludes the end. Thou art the man whose rise, height, and descent is but a span.

The myths of the ancient Greeks suggest deep meanings.

These stories are fictions of the mind, but they are often richer in meaning and more to be believed in than mere historic truth. For they present in easily comprehended figures verities which are eternal, and without such effort of the imagination, difficult to comprehend.

For it is not only the gods themselves, but divine ideas as well, that in the words of the Hymn are hard for mortal men to discern. Such are some, among the many thoughts that come crowding into the mind of the reader who ponders over the charming Hymn to Demeter.

How Persephone, gathering flowers in the meadows, was stolen by Hades.

Hades, Lord of the nether world, stole Persephone from her mother by permission of Zeus, who rules in the sky. Persephone was at play in the meadows with the ocean nymphs, gathering flowers. Roses they plucked, and crocuses and violets, and lilies, and hyacinths, and in the soft grass the narcissus also, which Mother Earth, by the counsel of Zeus, and for the pleasure of Hades, brought forth as a snare for the maiden. A wonder of freshness was the flower, a miracle for gods and men to behold. From its root grew a hundred flower heads, and with its sweetness all the earth laughed in the hearing of the briny sea. Then, Persephone in delight stretched forth her hands to grasp the lovely toy, but the earth gaped wide on the Nysian plain, and up rushed Hades, Lord of the last home of many, the son of Chronos, called by varied names, with his immortal horses and caught up the maiden into his golden chariot, sore against her will and loudly lamenting.

Loudly the maiden called on Zeus, the son of Chronos, highest and best of the gods, but no one heard her cry, neither of the gods, nor of the sons of men. Only Hecate, daughter of Perseus, sitting alone in her cave, heard it, the tender-hearted, and the sun god Helios, they heard the maiden call upon Zeus the Father, son of Chronos. But he sat alone in his much frequented temple, apart from the other gods, receiving good sacrifices from mortal men. So Hades by his brother's design carried her away in his chariot. Now Persephone, so long as she saw the earth, and the starry sky, and the teeming stream of ocean, and the light of the sun, yet hoped to behold once more her mother's face, and the other gods. So long she cherished a great hope, though in her sorrow she cried aloud, and the top of the mountains echoed with her cry, and the depths of the sea, and the ear of her mother Demeter caught the sound. Then a sharp pain pierced the mother's heart, and she tore the braid from her hair, and cast a dark blue veil around her shoulders and sped swift as a bird over moist and dry, yearning after her child. But from none could she learn the truth, neither from men, nor gods, nor did any bird of the air bring her the true story.

Demeter, attended by Hecate, asks the Sun for tidings of her lost daughter.

Nine days long she wandered, Demeter, holding in either hand a burning torch, and in her sorrow she tasted not ambrosia, nor nectar, nor washed away the stain of travel, but when the dawn of the tenth day came, Hecate met her, a light as of a moonbeam in her hand and addressed her: "Queen Demeter, thou that bringest the seasons and givest good gifts to mankind, who of the gods or men hath stolen thy Persephone, and grieved thy soul? for I heard her cry, but I saw not who it was."

Thus Hecate; and Demeter made no reply, but swiftly hurried onwards along with her, still holding a torch in either hand; and they came to the Sun, the watcher for gods, and men, and they stood in front of his horses, and Demeter asked him, "Oh Sun, if ever I gladdened thy heart by word or deed tell me of my maiden, my offspring, my sweet bud so fair to look upon, for her piercing cry was borne to my ears through the barren air as if someone were stealing her from me by force, but no one could I see. But you who with your rays survey from your high seat all earth and sea, tell me truly the fate of my child if you have seen who of gods or men has vanished, taking her from me."

She ended, and the Sun made answer, "Queen Demeter, Rhea's daughter, thou shalt know, so full am I of reverence for thee, and of pity for thy grief. Zeus alone, and no other is to blame, for he has given the maiden to his brother Hades, to be his blooming bride, and in spite of her loud cries he has carried her beneath to the dark realms of gloom. But, goddess, cease thy wailing; Hades is no unworthy son-in-law for thee, thy own brother, and son of our father and mother whose honour was allotted to him what time the threefold division of Heaven, and Earth, and Hades, was first made."

Thus spoke the Sun, and called to his horses, and they at his call lightly bore onwards his car, for they were long-winged steeds.

Demeter, sitting by the wayside well, converses with the daughter of Celeus.

But Demeter only felt pangs of grief more dread and crushing than before, and was wrath with Zeus, and separated herself from the company of the gods and the spacious crests of Olympus, and long she sojourned among the towns of men, and amongst their harvest fields, concealing her shape; and none, neither man, nor woman, recognized the goddess when they saw her. At last she came to the home of good Celeus, who was prince of fragrant Eleusis, and there by the wayside, near the Maidens' Well, where the maidens come to draw water, she sat in sorrow under the shade of a tree, for above the well grew a leafy olive. In form she resembled an aged crone, a grandam, such as are the nurses to the children of kings, and keep house for them in their resounding halls.

And the daughters of Celeus saw her when they came to draw the clear water and bear it in vessels of bronze to their father's house. Four were they in number, fresh as flowers, like goddesses, Callidice and Cleisidice and lovely Demo and Callitheroe, the eldest of the four. But they recognized not the goddess. Gods are hard for mortal men to discern. So they stood beside her, and said, "Who, and whence art thou, lady, burthened with many years, and why goest thou so alone away from the town, nor visitest the houses where live women of thine age, and younger also, who might cherish thee with kind word and deed?"

They spoke, and Demeter answered, "Dear children, whosoever you be, Hail. I will tell you all. Dis is my name, for so my royal mother called me. But now I am come over the sea from Crete by force, and not of mine own free will, for pirates dragged me from my home, and sailed with me to Thoricos where they and all the women went on shore, and prepared a feast by the mooring of the ships. But my soul had no desire for food, and I crept away in secret, and I escaped from my fierce masters that they might not sell me whom they had stolen, and make a profit of the price. Thus I have arrived here in my wanderings, and I know not what country it is nor who live in it. But to you, may all the gods who dwell in Olympus grant good husbands, and children as parents desire, so you pity me, and in your kindness lead me to the house of man or woman, that I may work for them and do all that befits a woman of my years. Kindly could I nurse a new-born babe in my arms, and guard the house, and prepare the couch of my master in the recess of his well-built hall, and teach the maids their work."

Then answer made Callidice, fairest of Celeus' daughters, "Mother, we mortals needs must bear what the gods send us, however grieved we may be, for they are stronger than we. Now I will tell you the names of men who are held in honour here, and who are exalted among the people, who are guardians of the state through their counsel, and their upright judgments. I will name Triptolemus, and Diocles, and Polyxeus and Eunolphus, and Dolichus, and our noble sire himself. All of them have wives who manage their houses, and none of these would spurn you from their door, dishonouring your aged form at first sight, but would receive you, for you look like a goddess. But do you, if you will, stay here while we go back to the house of our sire, and to our mother Metaneira and tell her all your story; if haply she may bid you come to us, and seek not further for a home. For a child is being nursed in our house, born to my mother in her later years, a child to us all. Shouldest thou nurse him and bring him to the stature of youth, much to be envied will thou be among women, so great will be the reward of they nursing."

How Demeter is received into the house of Celeus.

Thus spake Callidice, and Demeter assented, and so the maidens filled their polished vessels full of water and lightly they ran to their father's house, and quietly told their mother what they had seen and heard. But Metaneira bade her daughters return, and invite the aged nurse to come to her at a goodly wage, and as roedeer or heifers in the springtide leap in the meadows, well pleased with the tender herbage, on, these naiads, lifting the skirts of their flowing robes, ran, along the hollow chariot way, while their golden hair danced round their shoulders, and they found the goddess where they left her, and they led her back to their father's house. But she walked behind them, heavy in her heart, and veiled her head and wrapped all her form down to her feet in her dark blue robe.

How Demeter nursed the Infant Son of Metaneira.

And soon they came to the house of Celeus, and passed through the corridor where the lady of the house was sitting by the roof-tree, holding her babe in her bosom, a tender bud. And the maidens ran to their mother, but when the goddess set foot on the threshold, lo! her head struck the crossbeam of the doorway, and filled the entrance with divine life. And awe, and dread of her majesty fell on all. Then Metaneira made room on her couch, and bade the goddess be seated. But Demeter, who brings the seasons and gives good gifts to men, would not take her seat on the costly couch; instead she remained standing in silence, drooping her eyelids to the ground. At last Iambe bethought to herself, and placed a stool for her, throwing over it a fleece of dazzling white.

On this the goddess sat, and veiled her face. Long she sat speechless in deep grief nor did she address anyone in word or deed, nor smiled, nor tasted food, nor drink, but she sat consumed with grief for her lost daughter. At last wise Iambe by many a jest and joke won over the holy mother to smile, and laugh, and possess her soul in cheerfulness.

Then Metaneira filled a cup with honeysweet wine, and offered it to Demeter, but the goddess refused, for she said it was not Demeter's custom to partake of ruby red wine, but she bade them prepare for her a cup of barley meal and dainty mint, mingled with water; they did so and gave her to drink, and the goddess drank of it. Then said Metaneira, "Hail lady, for of no mean parents art thou, but gentle, since grace and gentleness look forth from thine eyes, as from the eyes of kings who administer justice. Needs must we poor men endure what the gods give us, for their yoke is on our necks. But as thou art come to my house, all that is mine shall be thine. Nurse this babe for me, whom the gods have blessed me with in my later years beyond my hopes. He is a child of many prayers. Shouldst thou rear him that he reach the stature of youth, much to be envied amongst women wilt thou be, I will give thee such great reward for thy nursing."

Then made answer Demeter, "And to you too, mother, hail, all hail and may the gods grant you all happiness. Gladly will I receive your babe to rear, and never, be sure, shall he be harmed through the folly of his nurse by charm or witchery, for I know the best safeguard against the sorcerer's wiles." Thus said the goddess, and received the child into her immortal hands and laid it on her fragrant bosom, and his mother rejoiced in her heart.

Demeter quits the house of Metaneira.

And thus it came to pass that Demeter nursed Demophoon the fair son of the wise Celeus, and his wife Metaneira, and the boy increased in stature like a god, feeding not on mortal food, for Demeter anointed him with ambrosia as a true-born child of the gods, sweetly breathing upon him as he lay in her bosom, and by night, unknown to his parents, she secretly plunged him in the red fire like a brand, and so much the child throve with his nursing, his parents were amazed, for he throve more than a mortal child. And so Demeter had made her nursling like a god that he should not see death, nor old age, only Metaneira in her folly watched her from her chamber in the night, and saw all that took place, whereat she screamed aloud and beat her hands, fearing for her child, and great anguish of soul came upon her, and she cried out in her grief, "Oh my son Demophoon, the stranger is plunging thee in the burning fire, and fills my soul with mourning and woe." So said she, lamenting, but the goddess heard, Demeter of the beauteous crown, and was wrath, and laid the little child born beyond hope down on the ground, removing him from the fire, and she called in dreaded wrath on Metaneira.

"Ah senseless sons of men, unskilled to read the future, whether good or ill is about to befall ye. And you too, Metaneira, have wrought upon yourself irreparable harm by your ignorance. For know by the oath of gods, by the unchanging water of Styx, I would have made thy son that he should never die nor know old age, and I had vouchsafed him imperishable glory, but now it cannot be that he should escape death, and the fate of mortal man. Nevertheless because he has lain upon my knees, and slept in my arms, he shall be imperishable glory while he lives. For venerable Demeter am I, the greatest boon and charm to gods and man. But come now, let all thy people build me a great temple and raise an altar within it, on the high hill below the town, and its steep wall overlooking Callichorus, the fount of the dancing place, and I myself will prescribe the holy rites that henceforth you may perform them purely, and appease my spirit."

So spake the goddess and changed in size and form, divesting herself of age; and beauty breathed around her and sweet perfume was shed abroad from her fragrant robes, and light shone forth from her immortal frame, and her golden hair fell down from her shoulders, and all the house was filled with a dazzling brightness as of lightning. And she crossed the hall and stepped out, but the mother trembled and long remained speechless, and forgot the child and bethought not herself to lift him from the ground, but his sisters heard his piteous cry, and leaped from their couches, and ran to him. And one took the child, and laid him in her bosom, and another kindled a fire, and a third hasted with tender feet to convey her mother from the chamber. And the sisters gathered about the struggling child, and tended him lovingly, but his soul would not be comforted, because he now had nurses and attendants not so good. So all night and day they appeased the angry goddess, in fear and trembling, but at dawn of day they told great Celeus all that had happened, and the commands of Demeter of the beauteous crown, and he summoned his people to the market-place, and bade them build a rich temple to Demeter and raise an altar within it. And they were quick to obey, nor did they disregard his order, but built as he bade them, and the building made good progress by the will of the goddess. But when they had finished it, and rested from their labours, each of them returned to his house, and golden Demeter took up her abode in the temple, sitting there apart, and remained there, pining away with yearning after her lost daughter. And she sent upon earth the worst year that ever was known, and the land put forth no increase, for Demeter hid it beneath the soil, and many a white ear of barley dropped fruitless to the ground.

Errand of Hermes from Zeus to Persephone, and Hades' gift of the Pomegranate seed.

And now had all the race of mankind wholly perished in the terrible famine, and had bereft the Olympian gods of the honour of gifts and sacrifices, had not Zeus bethought himself and devised a plan. First he sent forth golden-winged Iris to summon to him Demeter--fair-haired, invested with loveliness. And Iris obeyed his will, and quickly crossed the interspace twixt sky and earth, and she found Demeter with her robe of dark blue sitting in her temple, and she addressed her: "Demeter, Zeus, the father whose knowledge is eternal, summons you to the assembly of the gods who live for ever. Come, and let not my message from Zeus be delivered in vain." So Iris beseeching, but Demeter heeded not; and then the Father sent forth all the blessed gods one after the other, and all in turn went to call Demeter, and offered her many beautiful gifts and honours, such as she might choose among the immortal gods, but none of them could prevail upon her, for she nursed her wrath, and obstinately resisted their offers. For never, she said, would she set foot on fragrant Olympus, never would she make earth put forth her increase, till her eyes beheld her own fair child. But when Zeus heard this, he sent forth Hermes with his golden wand, to persuade Hades by gentle entreaty, and crave permission to convey holy Persephone from the realms of gloom to light, and the immortal gods; that so her mother might behold her with her eyes and cease from her wrath. So Hermes obeyed, and left Olympus and sped swiftly beneath the depths of the earth. And he found the king of the nether world seated on a couch by his spouse, who was grieving with desire for her mother. And Hermes drew near, and said, "Dark-haired Hades, lord of the dead, Zeus the Father, bade me bring dread Persephone forth from Erebus to the gods above, that her mother may behold her with her eyes, and cease from her wrath against the immortals, for she thinks to work a terrible deed--to destroy the poor dwellers upon earth by hiding their seed in the ground--and so she will deprive the immortals of their due honour of sacrifices. Terrible is the wrath she cherishes, and she mingles no more with the other gods, but sits apart from them, within her increase-breathing temple, Malsus."

He spake, and the brows of Hades smiled assent, nor did he resist what Zeus had enjoined, but eagerly gave command to wise Persephone. "Go, Persephone, to thy dark-robed mother, and approach her with meekness, and gentleness, and be no more down-hearted beyond others, for I shall be no unworthy husband for thee among the gods, being own brother to Zeus the Father, and while thou art here thou shalt be queen of all that lives and moves, and thou shalt be held in the highest honour among the gods; and for men that wrong thee, vengeance shall be upon them all their days, unless they propitiate thy might with sacrifices and pious deeds, and the gifts which are thy due." He ended and Persephone swiftly leaped upon the chariot, but Hades gave her to eat of the sweet seed of the pomegranate; even without her knowing it he conveyed the seeds to her, that she might not bide all her days again with Demeter of the purple robe.

The return of Persephone to Demeter.

Then Hermes yoked the immortal horses to the golden shafts, and Persephone mounted the chariot, and beside her strong Hermes, took whip and reins, and drove forth from the palace of Hades. And the horses sped with good will, and lightly accomplished the long road, for neither did the sea, nor the waters of the rivers, nor the grassy valleys, nor the mountain tops stay the course of the immortal steeds, but they cleft the deep air in their passage above them. And he halted the car in front of the incense-breathing temple where fair-crowned Demeter abode, but when she saw them she darted towards them like a Moenad speeding adown a mountainside shaded with dark forest.


Then all the live-long day did these two, one in soul, kiss and comfort each other with deep love, and the spirit of sorrow departed from them, and each received happiness from the other and returned it. And then Hecate came to them, and she and Demeter's maiden kissed and comforted each other with much love, and thus Hecate became minister, and attendant to Hades' queen.

Then did all-seeing Zeus send fair-haired Rhea, as a messenger, to bring dark-robed Demeter to the assembly of the gods, and promised her the honour of much sacrifice such as she might choose among the immortals. And he decreed that the third part of the revolving year her maiden should pass with Hades in the realms of gloom, but the other two with her mother and the other immortals.

Typed by LovieWie, August, 2023; Proofread by LNL, August, 2023