The rape of Persephone
THE RAPE OF PERSEPHONE was the tale of the abduction of the springtime goddess Persephone by Haides, king of the underworld.
This page contains ancient Greek versions of the tale, beginning with an abbridged version of the celebrated Homeric Hymn to the goddess of harvest and agriculture Demeter, followed by several minor versions–such as that of Diodorus Siculus–, other ancient synopses, and assorted references.
The oldest version of the story is located in the vicinity of Eleusis near Athens but later writers, especially the Greek colonists of southern Italy, placed the story on the island of Sicily. The Argives and Cretans, in local cult myths, also claimed the sites of the Rape and the Return.
RAPE OF PERSEPHONE (APOLLODORUS)
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 29 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
“Plouton (Pluto) [Haides] fell in love with Persephone, and with Zeus’ help secretly kidnapped her. Demeter roamed the earth over in search of her, by day and by night with torches. When she learned from the Hermionians that Plouton [Haides] had kidnapped her, enraged at the gods she left the sky, and in the likeness of a woman made her way to Eleusis . . .
When Zeus commanded Plouton to send Kore (Core) [Persephone] back up, Plouton gave her a pomegranate seed to eat, as assurance that she would not remain long with her mother. With no foreknowledge of the outcome of her act, she consumed it. Askalaphos (Ascalaphus), the son of Akheron (Acheron) and Gorgyra, bore witness against her, in punishment for which Demeter pinned him down with a heavy rock in Haides’ realm. But Persephone was obliged to spend a third of each year with Plouton, and the remainder of the year among the gods.”
RAPE OF PERSEPHONE (HOMERIC HYMN)
I. HAIDES ABDUCTS PERSEPHONE
Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter (abridged) (trans. Evelyn-White):
“[Demeter’s] trim-ankled daughter whom Aidoneus [Haides] rapt away, given to him by all-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer. Apart from Demeter, lady of the golden sword and glorious fruits, she was playing with the deep-bosomed daughters of Okeanos and gathering flowers over a soft meadow, roses and crocuses and beautiful violets, irises also and hyacinths and the narcissus, which Gaia (the Earth) made to grow at the will of Zeus and to please Polydektor (Host of Many), to be a snare for the bloom-like girl–a marvellous, radiant flower.
It was a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and it smelled most sweetly, so that all wide heaven (ouranos) above and the whole earth (gaia) and the sea’s (thalassa) salt swell laughed for joy. And the girl was amazed and reached out with both hands to take the lovely toy : but the wide-pathed earth yawned there in the plain of Nysa, and the lord, Polydegmon (Host of Many) [Haides], with his immortal horses sprang out upon her–the Son of Kronos (Cronus), Polynomos (He Who has Many Names).
He caught her up reluctant on his golden car and bare her away lamenting. Then she cried out shrilly with her voice, calling upon her father [Zeus], the Son of Kronos, who is most high and excellent. But no one, either of the deathless gods or mortal men, heard her voice, nor yet the olive-trees bearing rich fruit: only tender-hearted Hekate (Hecate), bright-coiffed, the daughter of Persaios (Persaeus), heard the girl from her cave, and the lord Helios (the Sun), Hyperion’s bright son, as she cried to her father, the Son of Kronos. But he was sitting aloof, apart from the gods, in his temple where many pray, and receiving sweet offerings from mortal men. So he [Haides], that Son of Kronos, Polynomos (Of Many Names), Polysemantor (Ruler of Many) and Polydegmon (Host of Many), was bearing her away by leave of Zeus on his immortal chariot–his brother’s child and all unwilling.
And so long as she, the goddess, yet beheld earth and starry heaven and the strong-flowing sea where fishes shoal, and the rays of the sun, and still hoped to see her dear mother and the tribes of the eternal gods, so long hope clamed her great heart for all her trouble . . . and the heights of the mountains and the depths of the sea ran with her immortal voice : and her queenly mother heard her.
II. DEMETER SEARCHES FOR PERSEPHONE
“Bitter pain seized her [Demeter’s] heart, and she rent the covering upon her divine hair with her dear hands : her dark cloak she cast down from both her shoulders and sped, like a wild-bird, over the firm land and yielding sea, seeking her child. But no one would tell her the truth, neither god nor mortal man; and of the birds of omen none came with true news for her. Then for nine days queenly Deo wandered over the earth with flaming torches in her hands, so grieved that she never tasted ambrosia and the sweet draught of nektaros, nor sprinkled her body with water. But when the tenth enlightening dawn had come, Hekate, with a torch in her hands, met her, and spoke to her and told her news : ‘Queenly Demeter, bringer of seasons and giver of good gifts, what god of heaven (theon ouranion) or what mortal man has rapt away Persephone and pierced with sorrow your dear heart? For I heard her voice, yet saw not with my eyes who it was. But I tell you truly and shortly all I know.’
So, then, said Hekate. And [Demeter] the daughter of rich-haired Rheia answered her not, but sped swiftly with her, holding flaming torches in her hands. So they came to Helios (the Sun), who is watchman of both gods and men, and stood in front of his horses: and the bright goddess enquired of him : ‘Helios, do you at least regard me, goddess as I am, if ever by word or deed of mine I have cheered your heart and spirit. Through the fruitless air (aitheros) I heard the thrilling cry of my daughter whom I bare, sweet scion of my body and lovely in form, as of one seized violently; though with my eyes I saw nothing. But you–for with your beams you look down from the bright upper air (aitheros) over all the earth and sea–tell me truly of my dear child if you have seen her anywhere, what god or mortal man has violently seized her against her will and mine, and so made off.’
So said she. And the Son of Hyperion [Helios] answered her : ‘Queen Demeter, daughter of rich-haired Rheia, I will tell you the truth; for I greatly reverence and pity you in your grief for your trim-ankled daughter. None other of the deathless gods is to blame, but only cloud-gathering Zeus who gave her to Aides, her father’s brother, to be called his buxom wife. And Aides seized her and took her loudly crying in his chariot down to his realm of mist and gloom. Yet, goddess, cease your loud lament and keep not vain anger unrelentingly : Aidoneus Polysemantor (Ruler of Many) is no unfitting husband among the deathless gods for your child, being your own brother and born of the same stock: also, for honour, he has that third share which he received when division was made at the first, and is appointed lord of those among whom he dwells.’
So he spake, and called to his horses: and at his chiding they quickly whirled the swift chariot along, like long-winged birds. But grief yet more terrible and savage came into the heart of Demeter, and thereafter she was so angered with [Zeus] the dark-clouded Son of Kronos that she avoided the gathering of the gods and high Olympos. She [Demeter] vowed that she would never set foot on fragrant Olympos nor let fruit spring out of the ground until she beheld with her eyes her own fair-faced daughter.
III. THE RETURN OF PERSEPHONE
“Now when all-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer heard this, he sent Argeiphontes [Hermes] whose wand is of gold to Erebos, so that having won over Aides with soft words, he might lead forth chaste Persephoneia to the light from the misty gloom to join the gods, and that her mother might see her with her eyes and cease from her anger. And Hermes obeyed, and leaving the house of Olympos, straightway sprang down with speed to the hidden places of the earth. And he found the lord Aides in his house seated upon a couch, and his shy mate with him, much reluctant, because she yearned for her mother. But she was afar off, brooding on her fell design becuase of the deeds of the blessed gods. And strong Argeiphontes [Hermes] drew near and said : ‘Dark-haired Aides, ruler over the departed, father Zeus bids me bring noble Persephone forth from Erebos unot the gods, that her mother may see her with her eyes and cease from her dread anger with the immortals; for now she plans an awful deed, to destroy the weakly tribes of earth-born men by keeping seed hidden beneath the earth, and so she makes an end of the honours of the undying gods. For she keeps fearful anger and does not consort with the gods, but sits aloof in her fragrant temple, dwelling in the rocky hold of Eleusis.’
So he said. And Aidoneus, ruler over the dead, smiled grimly and obeyed the behest of Zeus the king. For he straightway urged wise Persephone, saying : ‘Go now, Persephoneia, to your dark-robed mother, go, and feel kindly in your heart towards me : be not so exceedingly cast down; for I shall be no unfitting husband for you among the deathless dods, that am own brother to father Zeus. And while you are here, you shall rule all that lives and moves and shall have the greatest rights among the deathless gods : those who defraud you and do not appease your power with offerings, reverently performing rites and paying fit gifts, shall be punished for evermore.’
When he said this, wise Persephoneia was filled with joy and hastily sprang up for gladness. But he on his part secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, taking care for himself that she might not remain continually with grave, dark-robed Demeter. Then Aidoneus Polysemantor (Ruler of Many) openly got ready his deathless horses beneath the golden chariot. And she mounted on the chariot, and strong Argeiphontes [Hermes] took reins and whip in his dear hands and drove forth from the hall, the horses speeding readily. Swiftly they traversed their long course, and neither the sea nor river-waters nor grassy glens nor mountain-peaks checked the career of the immortal horses, but they cleft the deep air above them as they went. And Hermes brought them to the place where rich-crowned Demeter was staying and checked them before her fragrant temple.
And when Demeter saw them, she rushed forth as does a Mainas (Maenad) down some thick-wooded mountain, while Persephone on the other side, when she saw her mother’s sweet eyes, left the chariot and horses, and leaped down to run to her, and falling upon her neck, embraced her. But while Demeter was still holding her dear child in her arms, her heart suddenly misgave her for some snare, so that she feared greatly and ceased fondling her daughter and asked of her at once : ‘My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know. For if you have not, you shall come back from loathly Aidao and live with me and your father [Zeus], the dark-clouded Son of Kronos and be honoured by all the deathless gods; but if you have tasted food, you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, there to dwell a third part of the seasons every year: yet for the tow parts you shall be with me and the other deathless gods. But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of spring in every kind, then from the realm of darkness and gloom thou shalt come up once more to be a wonder for gods and mortal men. And now tell me how he rapt you away to therealm of darkness and gloom, and by what trick did strong Polydegmon (Host of Many) [Haides] beguile you?’
Then beautiful Persephone answered her thus : ‘Mother, I will tell you all without error. When luck-bringing Hermes came, swift messenger from my father the Son of Kronos and the other Sons of Ouranos, bidding me come back from Erebos that you might see me with your eyes and so cease from your anger and fearful wrath against the gods, I sprang up at once for joy; but he secretly put in my mouth sweet food, a pomegranate seed, and forced me to taste it against my will. Also, I will tell how he rapt me away by the deep plan of my father [Zeus] the Son of Kronos and carried me off beneath the depths of the earth, and will relate the whole matter as you ask. We all were playing in a lovely meadow; Leukippe and Phaino and Elektra and Ianthe, Melite also and Iakhe with Rhodea and Kallirhoe and Melobosis and Tykhe and Okyrhoe, fair as a flower, Khryseis, Ianeira, Akaste and Admete and Rhodope and Plouto and charming Kalypso; Styx too was there and Ourania and lovely Galaxaure with Pallas who rouses battles and Artemis delighting in arrows: we were playing and gathering sweet flowers in our hands, soft crocuses mingled with irises and hyacinths, and rose-blooms and lilies, marvellous to see, and the narcissus which the wide earth caused to grow yellow as a crocus. That I plucked in my joy; but the earth parted beneath, and there the strong lord, Polydegmon (Host of Many) [Haides] sprang forth and in his golden chariot he bore me away, all unwilling, beneath the earth : then I cried with a shrill cry. All this is true, sore though it grieves me to tell this tale.’
So did they then, with hearts at one, greatly cheer each the other’s soul and spirit with many an embrace: their hearts had relief from their griefs while each took and gave back joyousness. Then bright-coiffed Hekate came near to them, and often did she embrace the daughter of holy Demeter: and from that time the lady Hekate was minister and companion to Persephone.
IV. GIFT OF AGRICULTURE & THE ELEUSINIAN MYSTERIES
“And all-seeing Zeus sent a messenger to them, rich-haired Rheia, to bring dark-cloaked Demeter to join the families of the gods (phyla theon) : and he promised to give her what rights she should choose among the deathless gods and agreed that her daughter should go down for the third part of the circling year to darkness and gloom, but for the two parts should live with her mother and the other deathless gods. Thus he commanded. And the goddess did not disobey the message of Zeus; swiftly she rushed down from the peaks of Olympos and came to the plain of Rharos, rich, fertile corn-land once, but then in nowise fruitful, for it lay idle and utterly leafless, because the white grain was hidden by design of trim-ankled Demeter. But afterwards, as spring-time waxed, it was soon to be waving with long ears of corn, and its rich furrows to be loaded with grain upon the ground, while others would already be bound in sheaves. There first she landed from the fruitless upper air (aitheros) : and glad were the goddesses to see each other and cheered in heart. Then bright-coiffed Rheia said to Demeter : ‘Come, my daughter; for far-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer calls you to join the families of the gods, and has promised to give you what rights you please among the deathless gods, and has agreed that for a third part of the circling year your daughter shall go down to darkness and gloom, but for the two parts shall be with you and the other deathless gods: so has he declared it shall be and has bowed his head in token. But come, my child, obey, and be not too angry unrelentingly with the dark-clouded Son of Kronos; but rather increase forthwith for men the fruit that gives them life.’
So spake Rheia. And rich-crowned Demeter did not refuse but straightway made fruit to spring up from the rich lands, so that the whole wide earth was laden with leaves and flowers.
Then she [Demeter] went to [the leaders of Eleusis] . . . she showed them the conduct of her rites and taught them all her mysteries . . . awful mysteries which no one may in any way transgress or pry into or utter, for deep awe of the gods checks the voice. Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom. But when the bright goddess had taught them all, they went to Olympos to the gathering of the other gods. And there they dwell beside Zeus who delights in thunder, awful and reverend goddesses. Right blessed is he among men on earth whom they freely love: soon they do send Ploutos (Plutus, Wealth) as guest to his great house, Ploutos who gives wealth to mortal men.
And now . . . queen Deo, be gracious, you and your daughter all beauteous Persephoneia, and for my song grant me heart-cheering substance.”