Hymn to Demeter
|Hymn to Demeter
The Hymn to Demeter is one of the ancient Greek hymns which serves as a just-so story for the origin of the seasons. This particular hymn became famous in Ancient Greece as the basis for the Eleusinian Mysteries ritual. This story has become one of the more popular stories in the Ancient Greek religion and has been depicted by countless artists, mostly focusing on the violent abduction of Persephone. The story is in the public domain.
|Nagy translation / Evelyn-White translation.
|2022-08-09 / 2022-08-27.
Although I'm fairly sure I heard parts of this story when I was younger, it all seemed fresh to me when I read about the story in Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold in 2020. Then, in 2022, a friend of mine asked me if I knew anything about the Eleusinian Mysteries, so I read about them, and discovered they were directly related to this.
Authorship and Dating
The concept of Persephone being kidnapped by Hades is first mentioned in Theogony, c. 730-700 BCE, but the earliest written account of the Homeric Hymns was by Thucydides writing around 425 BCE who attributed them to Homer, possibly because they use the same writing meter and style as the Iliad and Odyssey, but modern scholars no longer accept this belief and believe they were written by several anonymous authors across many centuries with the oldest after 650 BCE to the youngest as late as 300 BCE. The Hymn to Dionysus and Hymn to Demeter were not included in most Byzantine manuscripts, but were found mostly complete in a 5th century manuscript in Moscow.
In the hymn, Zeus has given his brother Hades permission to marry his daughter, Persephone, against the will of her mother, Demeter. Persephone is kept busy picking wild flowers in a meadow when Hades rides up from earth, kidnaps her, and drags her down to the underworld while she screams for her father to rescue her. Demeter, goddess of agriculture, sets off looking for her daughter, but can't find her anywhere. She asks Helios, god of the sun, if he has seen her, and he says that he saw her taken into the underworld by Hades with permission from Zeus. Upon learning this, Demeter is struck with grief and refuses to return to Olympus and masquerades on the earth as an old nursemaid. In the town of Eleusis she meets the daughters of the king and tells them she was abducted by pirates and escaped with nothing, but hopes she can work for them. The young women tell Demeter that their mother might hire her to raise her weak son. They ask their mother, and she offers to hire the nursemaid at any price if she can make her son grow strong. Demeter uses her divine powers to make the son grow strong very quickly, but the mother catches Demeter performing a supernatural ritual on him and attacks her. Demeter is angry and curses the people of Eleusis to forever war with one another and orders them to build her a temple teaches them how to properly worship her as penance. The people build her temple, and she remains there, refusing to return to Olympus, and, in her depression causes a terrible famine preventing crops from growing. Everyone on earth is nearly starved to death, until the other gods realized they can't receive sacrifices if there isn't any food, so Zeus sends messengers to Demeter demanding she return, but Demeter refuses them all saying she will never allow another plant to grow until she sees her daughter again. Zeus finally sends Hermes to the underworld to demand Persephone's return. Hades says Persephone's free to go, but tricks her into eating pomegranate seeds (the Fates declared anyone who eats the food of the underworld must stay there forever). Hermes takes Persephone back to the surface to be with Demeter. Demeter demands to know if Persephone ate anything while in Hades, and Persephone tells her mother the entire story of how Hades kidnapped her and how she was tricked into eating pomegranate seeds. Zeus then decided Persephone must spend a third of the year with Hades in the underworld, but the rest of the time she could say with her mother. Demeter, happy to have her daughter back, then made the crops grow once more, taught the kings of Eleusis her divine mysteries, and mother and daughter returned to Olympus. But, each time Persephone make her annual return to Hades, Demeter becomes depressed once more and prevents the crops from growing.
- By acting so barbaric, it reminds us the gods are the creations of barbaric people and certainly not worthy of worship or sacrifice.
- The text is all over the place and very little is straight-forward. Everything has multiple names, or is mentioned in reference to something else. For example, rather than write "Persephone," the author writes, "the one with the delicate ankles." Rather than write "Zeus," the author writes, "the loud-thunderer who sees far and wide." While this is certainly good for helping cement the symbolism and adjacent concepts to those already familiar with the Greek religion, it's very confusing for anyone else.
- The parts about Demeter giving her divine mysteries to the Kings of Elusis seems tacked on. Not just because it's right at the end, but even the part in the middle, where Demeter masquerades as a nursemaid and asks for a potion of barley rather than wine. The story works fine without this section, which, to me, makes it seem like a later addition.
- When Persephone tells the story of her kidnapping to her mother, she lists a number of women and goddesses that were present with her in the meadow that are not listed at the beginning of the story. But, if all these divine women were with her, surely one of them would have told Demeter about her daughter's abduction?
- The gods are all monstrously self-centered and greedy. Hades is a rapist who kidnaps young women. Zeus gives his brother permission to abduct and forcibly marry (i.e., rape) his daughter. Demeter is willing to let every innocent mortal die of starvation unless she gets her daughter back. None of the other gods care about Persephone being kidnapped, Helios even sees it happening, but doesn't tell her mother. The gods don't care if all the mortals starve to death, it's only after they realize there isn't enough food for them to receive sacrifices that they intervene, and then, not because it's the right thing to do, but because they want sacrifices once more.
- chs.harvard.edu/primary-source/homeric-hymn-to-demeter-sb - English translation by Gregory Nagy.
- sacred-texts.com/cla/demeter.htm - English translation by Hugh G.Evelyn-White.
- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeric_Hymns - Wikipedia - Homeric Hymns.
- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_of_Persephone - Wikipedia - The abduction in art.