As often happens, I hunted and hunted for a tell-able version of this myth before writing my own for use in Sunday service. Research tells me that the details have flexed over time in true folk traditional style, so I have made my own choices about what from which versions to keep and what to leave out. Tradition says, for example, that there were 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 pomegranate seeds–I suggest you pick a number that corresponds to the length of your winter.
The original title for this is “The Rape of Persephone”. Modern retellings often take “The Abduction of Persephone” as their name instead. For audiences with very young children, like mine, I prefer simply “Persephone’s Tale”.
Please do not reprint without permission, but feel free to tell it (out loud) with attribution. Enjoy!
Once upon a time a long time ago in the land of Greece there was a god named Zeus and a goddess named Demeter. Zeus was god of thunder and the sky, and king of the gods; Demeter was goddess of the harvest, of marriage, of the sacred law, and of life and death. They knew each other and wooed each other, and after some time, Demeter bore a daughter, Cora,–the maiden. Cora led a charmed life. She played in the fields, she ran in the woods, she spoke to the trees and the flowers, and everywhere she went her mother watched over her.
As she grew, the fresh air and sunlight was good for her, and she was as beautiful as she was wise, and young men and young gods across the land sought her hand in marriage.
But Demeter would not consent. No one was good enough to take her girl from the bloom of youth to the gravity of adulthood, and so Cora played on, and Demeter guarded her.
But then Hades, god of the underworld, set his eye for her, and having seen the other suitors fail, he tried something different. He went to Zeus, and offered his hand in marriage, saying, “When we are married she will have all the luxuries she needs; she will have gold and jewels unending; she will never want for a thing, and she shall be my queen, and rule the underworld with me.”
Zeus was persuaded, and so they agreed that Cora was to be his bride.
Hades knew that Demeter would never agree, so instead he bided his time, and one day, when Cora was picking flowers, he opened the ground before her and whisked her away in his chariot, to his palace.
When Demeter discovered that Cora was missing, she was stricken with grief. Nothing could comfort her, nothing could console her, she tore her clothes and unpinned her hair and dressed in mourning, seeking her child.
Everywhere she went she asked, and everywhere she went she came up empty—no one had seen, no one had heard, no one knew what had happened. At last, in desperation, she went to Helios, the sun, and begged him,
“If I have ever done anything to make you happy, to bring you joy or pleasure, please tell me; you see everything. What has become of my daughter?”
And he replied, “I have indeed seen, and I do indeed know. She was taken by Hades to the underworld, to be his bride.”
Demeter was furious. “Until she is restored to me,” she said, “Nothing may grow. No plant from the earth, no fruit of the vine. The skies shall be darkened but no rain shall fall. Let all the people know suffering, as I suffer.” So saying she wiped from the ground all living things and retreated to her home where she would see no one and speak to no one, and the world fell into a long famine.
Zeus, watching, thought she would realize her error. But as days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, he began to think that something must be done. People were dying of hunger and thirst; crops were failing; there was no food, no harvest, no store of grain. Finally he went to Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and said, “Bring her back. I gave my permission, but bring Cora back. The world cannot survive her mother’s grief.”
In the underworld, Cora had wedded Hades and taken the name Persephone; she ruled beside him but refused to eat, saying, “I did not know and did not choose this. I will rule fairly as I must, but I will not break bread here. What of my mother, and my days in the sun? Am I to be forever in this dark place?” And she was heartsick, and kind as he was, Hades could not persuade her. He offered her every kind of meat and bread and fruit, but she would have none.
Hermes travelled long and far to find the entrance to the underworld, and as he descended he could hear them once again: Hades, pleading, Persephone, resisting. Just as he crossed the river Styx he heard, “Just a handful, dear one, just a few, for you are pale and wasting.”
As Hermes and Persephone travelled back to the surface together, Hermes asked, “Did you eat anything?”
And she said, “Not until today, not until now, for he begged and pleaded and I was finally too weak to resist.” And Hermes said nothing, but his heart was heavy.
When they reached Demeter she cried with joy, and the earth at last sprung to life. Plants and flowers covered the land, trees bore fruit, and the people sang praises. But Hades had come too, and was petitioning Zeus, saying, “She ate the fruit; now the Fates will say she must stay with me.” Zeus asked Persephone, “Is this true?” And she said, “At the end, father, I was too weak to refuse his seeds; six seeds of the pomegranate I tasted and six I swallowed. I waited as long as I could.” And Zeus asked, “And was he kind? And was he good to you?” She said, “Yes, he was kind, and he was good to me, but Hades is dark and a place of the dead. I am also my mother’s daughter, and light runs in my veins.”
Zeus thought a while and then said, “You were fairly given in marriage, and fairly did you eat. But the world cannot bear your mother’s mourning, and I cannot bear yours. My decision is this: you shall spend six months with your husband, who is good to you and has made you a queen; and you shall spend six months with your mother, whose love and grief are so deeply entwined.”
And so it came to be that six months are dark and cold when Persephone brings her light to the underworld, and in the other six months Demeter rejoices, and the earth is full and plentiful, and spring and summer come again.