The abduction of Persephone is among the most famous Greek myths. It’s ‘mysteries’ are believed to have laid the foundations for the Eleusinian Mysteries, secret rituals and imitation rites taught in ancient mystery schools.
Whilst it is known that the myth and the secret rites are closely intertwined, their true purpose is open for debate. According to historians, the rites were such a closely guarded secret that initiates were threatened with a painful death if the details were revealed.
Prior to the 5th-century BCE, the rituals were public festivals. Evidence indicates the mysteries were performed during the Mycenaean between (c.1750–1400 BCE). It was only after the invasion of the Persians that the rites went underground.
Although little is known what the secret mysteries pertain to, the rituals were considered to be essential to human survival and were performed twice a year; the Lesser Mysteries during spring and the Greater Mysteries during autumn; around the time of the equinoxes.
Scholars, of course, have come forward with several theories concerning what the ‘Mysteries’ might be. Some of the theories, such as the myth explains the changing of the seasons, how seeds grow to grain and afterlife, are clearly nonsense.
I intend to provide a full interpretation of the symbolic meaning presented in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter, one of the foremost renditions of the abduction of Persephone and her subsequent reunification with her mother.
But for now, I invite you to familiarise yourself with the story depicting the Abduction of Persephone. The version below is a retelling of the Homeric Hymn To Demeter translated by Gregory Nagy.
Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. The fair maiden, ‘the one with the delicate ankles’ is renowned for her beauty. When Hades, Lord of the Underworld first sees her, he is immediately smitten.
Hoping to take Persephone as his wife, the Lord of the Underworld approaches his brother Zeus and asks the King of the Gods for the hand of his daughter.
Zeus does not want to disappoint his brother but knows that Demeter will never consent to the marriage. Although Zeus refrains from expressing his consent to Hades, he does not outright refuse him either. Hades takes this as a sign of encouragement.
One day, whilst the young maiden is out picking flowers on the Plains of Nysa, Hades seizes his opportunity. Persephone is lured away from a party of 23 women - which includes Athena and Artemis - by an enchanting narcissus. The flower had been planted purposely to trap her.
The Homeric Hymn To Demeter tells us the narcissus flower:
“was grown as a lure for the flower-faced girl by Gaia. All according to the plans of Zeus. She [Gaia] was doing a favour for the one who receives many guests [Hades].” ~ Homeric Hymn To Demeter translated by Gregory Nagy
Hades appears from beneath the earth and bundles Persephone in his golden chariot drawn by immortal winged horses.
Persephone calls out to her father for help but Zeus does not hear her. Nobody hears her except Hecate - the moon goddess. Helios, the sun god, however, sees everything.
As Hades carries her across the Earth, Persephone weeps, but whilst ever she can see the land, sea and sky, she retains hope of seeing her mother again.
Demeter hears the echoes of her daughter’s scream resound off the peaks of the mountains and the depths of the sea. She Immediately knows something is wrong and anguish tears through her heart. She throws a dark cloak over her shoulders and speeds off like a bird soaring over land and sea.
She asks everyone she meets if they have seen her daughter - but ‘no man, god or bird told her the truth.’
The mother goddess continues to search for nine whole days and nights. During that time, she does not eat, drink or bathe. On the tenth day, Hecate the Moon goddess comes to meet her holding a light ablaze and asks:
“Which one of the gods who dwell in the sky or which one of the mortal humans seized Persephone and brought grief to your philos thûmos [emotional distress]?"
Hecate explains that she had heard the screams of Persephone but did not see what happened. Demeter does not answer, so Hecate joins the goddess and helps her search for Persephone by holding a blazing torch.
They come to Helios, “the all-seeing eye of gods of men”. Demeter, knows that Helios would have seen what happened to her daughter. She asks the god to show her respect. Helios obliges and tells Demeter that ‘the cloud-gatherer Zeus” had arranged for Persephone to become the wife of Hades.
The sun god also advises Demeter to refrain from anger and lamentation for it is all in vain. He adds that Hades is a worthy son-in-law because of his semata [the capacity for thought and imagination].
Upon hearing the news that her daughter is lost to her forever, Demeter’s grief deepens. Angry with Zeus and shunned by the other gods, she leaves Olympus and wanders the earth disguised as an old woman. Nobody recognises her.
One day, she arrives in Eleusis. Clearly expressing her sadness, Demeter sits under an olive tree by the side of the road watching the locals draw water from ‘the well called Parthenion’ [the Virgin’s Place].
The women were the four daughters of the ‘bright-minded' Keleos, King of Eleusis. When they see the stranger, they approach and ask why she has ventured away from the city.
Demeter invents a story, telling the four princesses that she was kidnapped by pirates in Crete. She asks the princesses if there is a family with children that she can take care of, adding that she wants to work as a childminder.
“I could take some newborn baby in my arms and nourish him well. I could watch over his house.”
Kallidike, the youngest and fairest of the sisters invites the old woman to the palace. Their mother Metaneira recently gave birth to a baby boy. Kallidike suggests the old woman accompanies them to the palace to ask Metanaria if she could raise the child until he comes of age.
The daughters of the ‘sky-nurtured’ Keleos take Demeter back to the palace with them. When Metaneira sees the old woman, she recognises the divine light of wisdom. The queen is seized by a sense of awe and invites their guest to take her seat. Demeter refuses. She also turns down the offer of food and wine.
Demeter instead covers a stool with fleece, and holding her veil up to her face, sits in silence for a long time, wallowing in her sadness. She is only stirred from her lament when Iambê, the goddess of humour ‘who knows what is dear and what is not’ starts making fun.
Seeing Demeter in good cheer, Metaneira offers her honey-sweet wine. The goddess refuses and explains she is divinely ordained not to drink red wine. Demeter instead asks Metaneira to mix some barley and water with delicate pennyroyal for her.
Metaneira recognises the wise woman has noble traits and invites her to raise her son, Demophon. The boy develops rapidly in the care of Demeter, so much so, that Metaneira is curious to know how the nursemaid is caring for him.
The queen hides from view and watches as Demeter anoints her child with ambrosia [food of the gods] and ‘breathes down her sweet breath on him as she held him to her bosom.’
But Demeter also conceals Demophon within the menos of fire which would make the boy immortal. Seeing this act, Metaneira is alarmed. Unable to contain herself, the queen shrieks and blows her cover.
Angry, Demeter rebukes the boy’s mother and calls her ignorant for she is ‘unable to recognise in advance the difference between future good fortune and future bad.’
Demeter tells her she has made a ‘mistake with remedy’ and swears by the river Styx that she would have made her son immortal if she had been given the time. ‘But now there is no way for him to avoid death and doom’.
The goddess orders Metaneira to arrange for all the citizen’s of Eleusis to build a temple on a prominent hill in her honour. By building the temple, Demeter promises to instruct the Eleusians in the sacred rites. Upon declaring this promise, Demeter transforms herself into her divine image.
Once the temple is built, Demeter reneges on her promise. Instead she sits in the temple brooding. She yearns for Persephone, and in her misery refuses to provide the mortals of the earth with food. She keeps the seeds ‘covered underground’ and the land becomes barren.
Seeing the world threatened with famine and starvation, Zeus sends Iris, ‘with the golden wings’ to bring Demeter back to Olympus. But Demeter refuses. One by the one, the immortals of Olympus visit with offerings of beautiful gifts but no one can persuade her to change her mind.
Demeter tells them all that she will not return to Olympus nor send harvest to the earth until her daughter is returned. Recognising he has no other option, Zeus sends Hermes to bring Persephone back.
When Hermes reaches Hades, he finds Persephone in a state of depression, unhappy at being dragged to the Underworld against her will. She is overjoyed with the news Hermes brings to her.
Before his bride leaves, Hades slips a pomegranate seed into her hand and forces her to eat it. Persephone obeys despite knowing that eating food from the underworld means she would have to return.
Hermes immediately escorts Persephone to the temple at Eleusis where her mother is wallowing in sadness. When Demeter sees them, she rushes down the hill like a madwoman. Immediately, flowers of every sort begin to blossom.
Zeus arranges for Persephone to remain on the surface for two-thirds of the year and spend the remaining third of the year with her husband in the Underworld.
Rhea is then called for to go to the Rarian Fields and make the land fertile again. Rhea persuades Demeter to return to her duty as Goddess of the Grain and send harvest all over the world. Demeter agrees and the earth becomes abundant.
To further show her goodwill, Demeter teaches the mortal Triptolemus the art of ploughing and harvesting. With this knowledge, Triptolemus travels the world spreading the gift of agriculture.
Back in Olympus, Demeter and Persephone rejoice with joy and good fortune. So too the mortals of the earth - because the goddesses send to mankind that 'reside at his hearth, in his great palace, Ploutos [Wealth], who gives riches to mortal humans.’
After her abduction, Persephone becomes Goddess of the Underworld and divides her time between Hades and Olympus.
It is said that during the three months Persephone spends with her husband, the land is not fertile, but when she returns in spring, flowers blossom and seeds grow.
Consequently, Persephone is regarded as a goddess of fertility, as well as of birth, death and resurrection.
Scholars postulate that the storytelling of Persephone’s abduction and return to her mother explains the changing of the seasons. However, the symbolism reveals much more than that.
Life, death and rebirth relate to the potential for transformation in your life.
Other scholars suggest the Hymn to Demeter are initiation rites for women. But men can learn from this timeless wisdom also.
The story of the abduction of Persephone is about developing the caregiver archetype; the urge towards self-care and self-respect. When you look after yourself - psychologically and emotionally as well as physically - you develop a sense of self-worth.
If you’re interested to learn about the deeper meaning behind the Abduction of Persephone, head over to the article, The Symbolism in the Hades Rape of Persephone. In this article, I explain the symbolic meaning in the first part of Homer's Hymn to Demeter described above.
For the fully decoded version of the poem, purchase one of our full symbolism courses (not the Beginner’s Guide) to get access to our VIP Members Area where you will find loads of supplementary content that helps you build your knowledge and understanding of esoteric symbolism.