Autumn…my favourite season…waning daylight, red and golden trees, cold sunshine….a time of rest and inner contemplation as Nature prepares to hibernate for Winter; Gaia ushers her creatures to prepare for their hibernation and spurs the winged ones into migration; the land has given its last harvest for the season as the stars shine in the night sky that creeps upon the chilling, darkening land as Samhain approaches.
Within the themes of letting go personally as Gaia readies the lands for closure, so do I consider the ancient Greek myths and deities for this season. Demeter, the Goddess of Fertility & Agriculture, is honoured in mediations with gratitude for what I am lucky to have and experience. She is the Lady of the Grain, the Bountiful Mother, with energies of growth and generosity.
The Ancient Greeks tell a legend of how Persephone (the only daughter of Demeter) was kidnapped by Hades, God of the Dead and Lord of the Underworld. Unbeknownst to Demeter, Zeus (King of the Gods, Ruler of the Skies, Commander of Lightening and Thunder) had made a secret promise to Hades that Persephone would be the bride for the lonely Ruler of the Underworld. One day, while Persephone was picking flowers with her friends in a meadow, Hades appeared suddenly, dragging the terrified Persephone onto his chariot before disappearing back to the depths of his Underworld kingdom with the poor, captured maiden. Persephone’s friends had no idea what happened to her, and had to explain to Demeter that the Goddess’s daughter had vanished. Demeter reacted like any parent would have at the news of the disappearance of a child- the Goddess of the Harvest exploded with rage and worry for her precious daughter, and immediately the rest of the gods and goddesses of Olympus began to search for Persephone.
In her grief, Demeter neglected her duties as the Goddess of the Grain, and so the fertility of the lands was badly affected- crops withered and died, animals produce was poor, and the humans of the land grew hungry. No one knew what had become of Persephone, and Demeter refused to make anything on Earth grow until her daughter was found. Desperate to locate Persephone, Demeter visited the wise crone Hecate (Goddess of the Crossroads and Witchcraft) who took in the grief-stricken Goddess and agreed to help with the search. Hecate suggested that there was sure to be someone who had seen what had happened to Persephone- Helios, the God who pulled the Sun across the horizon each day in his flaming, golden chariot. And so, Demeter and Hecate paid a visit to Helios at his dwelling within the clouds to ask what he had witnessed. Helios knew he would be a fool to lie to two powerful, influential goddesses demanding to know the truth at his door and so he told them that Hades was responsible for the whereabouts of Persephone.
Demeter stormed into Mount Olympus, demanding that Hades release Persephone. She pleaded with Zeus to help retrieve her daughter from the Underworld, and noticed Zeus being suspiciously quiet. Demeter threatened to leave the lands on Earth barren unless her daughter was returned to her. Zeus could not allow this to happen- if nothing on Earth grew, then the sacrifices made to the gods of Olympus would be pitiful and the humans would stop worshipping the gods which would diminish their power. Zeus had no choice but to confess of his secret arrangement with Hades to Demeter, who raged and scorned making Mount Olympus quake with her anger. The only god that could travel freely between the Underworld, the Earthly realms and Mount Olympus was Hermes, the God of Travellers and Thieves.
Hermes was sent to retrieve Persephone from Hades. The Lord of the Underworld had been a gracious host to his new companion, and Persephone had taken to her role as Queen of the Underworld. Although Persephone missed her mother and the realms above, she was enjoying her independence away from Mount Olympus and had taken a shine to her captor. Hermes told Hades and Persephone about the chaos and grief on Earth. Hades did not want to give up his bride, and Persephone did not want to choose loyalties over her groom or mother. Hermes, being a sly and observant god, suggested that Persephone eat some food from the Underworld before returning to her mother on Olympus. Hades gave Persephone a pomegranate, and she ate six seeds of the fruit before leaving with Hermes.
Demeter was overjoyed to be reunited with her daughter, and held Persephone close as the goddesses wept tears of joy. Demeter was hugely relieved that her daughter was safe, and wanted to ensure that Persephone could remain with her on Olympus. She asked her daughter if she had consumed any food from the Underworld, as eating food from the realm of the dead meant that that person was bound to Hades’ court. Persephone confessed that she had eaten six seeds from the pomegranate fruit; Hermes explained that because of this every year Persephone had to spend six months with Hades in the Underworld but would be allowed six months with Demeter on Earth and Olympus. Clever Hermes had managed to arrange a compromise to suit everyone- Hades and Demeter would both get to spend time with Persephone, and Persephone would not have to choose loyalties over her mother or husband.
Now that her daughter had been returned to her, Demeter restored the fertility of the Earth and humankind rejoiced. Zeus and the rest of the gods were relived that balance and faith had been restored. When Persephone is with Demeter, the lands are blessed by the Goddess of the Grain and in her happiness the fields are flourishing and ripe; but when Persephone is with Hades in the Underworld, Demeter misses her daughter, and so the lands remain barren until her daughter is returned to her.
For me, this legend serves as much more than an explanation for the changing seasons in the times of Ancient Greece, or a cautionary tale of a goddess scorned. Samhain is a time for many to honour their ancestors, remembering those who have gone before us, and I believe this Greek myth touches upon grief; Demeter grieves for Persephone when she is in the Underworld and by refusing to let anything on Earth grow, that this may be how grief feels to some, that with a person passed on nothing good will happen again and for a while life looks bleak. Certainly many guardians can imagine the frantic, anxiousness and rage and gut wrenching worry that Demeter exhibits when she learns of her daughter’s disappearance, and the utter relief joy in being reunited with our young ones safely- a caution to safeguard our children.
This myth also tells me of the relationship between guardian and child, about how letting go of our children and giving them some independence is not a bad thing, and in fact, if we hold on too tightly, we risk pushing our children away as they struggle against apron strings; who’s to say that Persephone did not enjoy her new role as Queen of the Underworld, or if Persephone didn’t actually fall in love with Hades (classic theme of hostage falling for their kidnapper)…Persephone may have even eaten the Pomegranate seeds because she wanted to keep her connection to the underworld? In this ancient tale we see how Persephone changes from Demeter’s daughter to Hade’s bride- what if she enjoyed both roles and so couldn’t choose between her mother or husband? Persephone compromised with the help of Hermes as the God of Thieves knows you can not please all the people all of the time, and avoided an ultimatum with a compromise. As we grow up, find our callings and our loves, let us not forget our family roots, our parents and guardians for they are our past and present, to support us in the present and future.