As light and darkness come into balance, for a moment, and we (in the Northern hemisphere) begin to tip inexorably towards the dark, I am reminded of Persephone.
I met Persephone one afternoon in early autumn, and this version of her tale comes from that meeting…
Demeter had a daughter, a beautiful girl, full of life, joy and delight. Demeter, being a Goddess of Abundance, gave her daughter whatever she wished for. And so Persephone grew up surrounded by flowers, soft breezes, fresh green grass and delicate birdsong. And the years passed in happiness.
One day, when Persephone was in between girlhood and adulthood, she was sitting in a sweet-scented forest glade, humming along to the song the Naiads were singing in a nearby waterfall. And who should be happening to be walking past, but Hades, the Lord of the Underworld. Now Hades had never seen Persephone before, as he didn’t spend much time in the world of open sky and trees. I am not sure what he was doing there at that time, but let’s face it, being Lord of the Underworld sounds fancy and everything, but it does get lonely. He was probably just looking for company.
When he saw Persephone, he immediately decided that this was the company he needed. More than this, the story goes that it was love at first sight. So he put on his best young, handsome man form, and came sauntering into the grove to say hi.
When Demeter tells this story, she insists that Hades kidnapped Persephone, with the plan to rape her and take her soul for his own. I’m not saying Hades didn’t have bad intentions, but this idea of kidnap seems a little disempowering to Persephone. She is, after all, a Goddess. She almost definitely knew that the beautiful tall, pale youth who appeared in her grove was no ordinary man; she could probably see the death in his eyes. But she was a teenage girl, and she was curious. Perhaps if you have ever been a teenage girl, you may recall the feeling.
So Persephone went off with Hades, who took her into a nearby cave where they came to a deep, cool, fast-running underground stream. With a wave of his hand, Hades caused a boat to appear; a beautiful, delicate craft of deepest ebony, carved into many fantastic shapes at the bow and stern and with a single, strangely white-flamed lantern hanging at the front. Persephone was enchanted. They stepped into the boat, and it began to sail by itself down the river, beneath a glittering tunnel of crystals and jewels.
Hades tried to get Persephone to drink some of the river-water as they were sailing, but Persephone, being a well-prepared young Goddess, had her own bottle of fresh spring water with her, so she refused (Gods and Goddesses don’t actually need to drink to stay alive, but they love the taste of fresh spring water, and wine, and all other pure liquids given in offering). Actually, in secret, Hades was kind of relieved. He was not sure how the river-water would affect Persephone. He knew that it made humans forget everything, but what of Goddesses? He was, in truth, beginning to be a little nervous at this point. Persephone, sensing this, tried to engage him in light conversation, which helped a little, though Hades couldn’t help wondering if perhaps he had bitten off more than he could chew…
Meanwhile, in the world of the living, Demeter came back to the forest grove after a day of ripening fruit in the trees, only to find that Persephone was gone. The Naiads told her that Persephone had left some time ago, with a handsome young man; they couldn’t say where, or who.
Demeter was infuriated. She rose up high into the sky, casting all around her for her missing daughter. From the Naiads’ story, she immediately jumped to the worst conclusion.
“My daughter has been taken!” she raged.
Tears of anger cascaded from her eyes, falling onto the orchards and the fields. As the drops fell, the plants began withering. Where a teardrop would fall on a leaf, that leaf turned yellow and then, slowly, fell from the tree. Where the teardrops landed on grass, it would shrivel up, brown and dry.
“My daughter has been taken!” Demeter wailed again, pulling the different winds from all four directions and swirling them about her, so that she was in the centre of a whirling hurricane. The wind ripped through the land, twisting the faded leaves from their branches, and even tearing off whole branches themselves, if they were already dead.
The fruits and grains which she had previously been helping to ripen began to rot. Grapes which had been round, red and juicy started shrivelling and falling from the vines; apples, pears and figs sprouted worms and dropped from the trees. Still Demeter raged, and as she did so the wind began blowing colder and colder.
“It’s a bit cold here,” said Persephone, trying to be polite.
Her golden skin had in fact turned pale as bone, so long had they been in Hades’ underground kingdom. After the boat ride, he had taken her for a walk through his palaces; a palace of jade, a palace of turquoise, a palace of amethyst. Now they were in his palace of gold. Marvellous it was; every surface shining; pillars of exquisite filigree rising into domed ceilings; riches beyond imagination. And yet Persephone was beginning to miss the sound of birdsong, the scent of the fresh breeze, the sight of flowers.
Hades hastily plucked a robe from the air, deep purple velvet with a silver trim, and draped it gently around Persephone’s shoulders.
“Is that better, my dear?” he asked.
She looked at him. Over the time they had been wandering together, his desire for her had been growing, so much that he was finding it difficult to control his young man form. Now the man whom Persephone saw standing before her was decidedly older, with a hungry smile and bright, glinting eyes. For a moment, Persephone felt a tinge of fear. Who, in fact, was this strange man who commanded so much majesty? But as she looked at him, she saw what his smile meant. He wanted her. The thrill of this realisation was irresistibly attractive to Persephone, but also very confusing.
“Yes,” she said eventually, but then sighed.
“Don’t you have any gardens in your palaces?” she asked.
This was a tricky one for Hades, who could make illusions as sublime or terrifying as he wished to show to human eyes, but who had to be careful with Persephone not to play too many tricks. So he took her to what he thought may be the most pleasing of his gardens, a great, dark cavern made entirely out of the interlocking tendrils of gigantic tree roots, so ancient and sturdy that they appeared to be carved of stone. Entirely filling this cavern and illuminating it with a dim, green-blue glow, were brightly-coloured mushrooms of all shapes and sizes; some big enough to sit upon as a stool, and others so small and delicate that they could fit on one’s fingernail. Persephone was immediately delighted. Throwing off the cape (which, although she did not notice, vanished as soon as she discarded it), she begin skipping merrily among the mushrooms, singing softly to herself. All suspicions and fears faded from her.
As Demeter continued to tear around the countryside in her desolate rage, the humans began to be scared. Then they all came; the farmers and the shepherds; the hermits and the forest-folk, and gathered below Demeter to ask her what was happening. Only the medicine men and women stayed in their forest groves, for they already knew.
“Oh Demeter, we thought you were the bringer of abundance,” the people said; “we saw you bringing warm sunshine to ripen the fruits on the trees, and swelling the crops to great size. Why now do we see you destroying them?”
Demeter looked down on them, these people who walked around as fragments of a multifaceted tapestry believing that they were actually the whole thing. She looked at them, and suddenly all her rage turned to laughter. She even forgot all about Persephone, she was having so much fun.
“Ha!” she cried, swirling the winds about her even more fiercely, “Did you not know that those who have power to grow also have power to stop growth? What did you think, that your fruit would just keep ripening forever? When it’s ripe, you must harvest it, mortal fools, or you are not participating in the abundance of the world at all! What is given, you shall take! I am the bringer of life, did you not think that I can also bring death?” –
At that final word, she stopped. She suddenly recalled her lost daughter, and she knew where she had gone.
In the centre of the root-garden, Hades had seen to it that there appeared a great, round, silver table. On the table were platters of all kinds of fruits – fruits so fresh you could almost feel their juice in your mouth just by looking at them. Plump, dark cherries overflowed from one bowl; peaches seemed to glow with the light of the forgotten sun in another; and in another, pomegranates were split open, spilling out their crimson seeds like jewels.
Hades invited Persephone to sit upon a mushroom-stool.
“Would you like some fruit?” he asked.
Persephone turned to him, eyes shining, still enchanted with the beautiful subterranean garden. She looked ready to follow him anywhere, and it is perhaps at this point that Hades became a little over-confident. He thought he had her in his grasp, you see.
“Here, try a cherry,” said the Lord of the Underworld, taking one himself and putting it between his lips. Persephone looked at the cherry-bowl longingly, and Hades took the opportunity while her attention was not on him to turn his face away, so she did not see the fruit wither and rot in his mouth.
“I’m not sure…” said Persephone. She remembered, being a sensible young Goddess, all the stories her mother had told her about travellers who end up in the land of the fairies, and who, once they eat the food of that land, are doomed to stay there forever.
But this did not seem like a fairyland…
“How about a pomegranate?” asked Hades, holding out the bowl to her.
Now, pomegranates were Persephone’s absolute favourite fruit. As she looked at the pomegranates in the silver bowl, she felt so hungry that she could not take her eyes from them. She did not even register the sound of distant crashing from far above.
“Well…” she said, slowly reaching out her hand – but then hesitated.
“You don’t need to eat the whole fruit, how about just a few seeds?” suggested Hades; “look how juicy they are. I only got the best for you.”
“Well…OK…” she replied, taking some seeds in her hand.
She brought them to her mouth. She put them to her lips. She chewed, she swallowed.
At that moment Demeter came thundering into the garden, and pointed a terrible finger at Hades.
“Give me back my daughter!” she cried.
“Hey, she came here of her own free will!” protested Hades.
Persephone, looking up, frowned at her mother. Why was she so angry?
“I’m not a child, you know, mother,” she pointed out.
Demeter looked from Hades to Persephone, trying to figure out what was going on. Persephone seemed safe and under no great threat – but there was something suspiciously confident about Hades that she did not like at all.
“I know, my daughter,” she said, “but wouldn’t like to come home now to the land of the trees and the sky?”
“Yes!” said Persephone, leaping up from the table and rushing to her mother.
She tried to take Demeter’s hand, but something stopped her – there seemed to be some kind of invisible barrier separating them.
“What’s happening?” she asked, afraid again.
Hades glided up to her, attempting a sweet and soothing smile which looked to Persephone quite sickly.
“It’s just that you already ate the fruit,” he pointed out.
“You what?!” cried Demeter.
Hades threw up his hands as if it had nothing at all to do with him.
“Hey, you know the rules,” he said. “I didn’t make them, but there they are. She ate the fruit, so now she has to stay here…with me,” he added, grinning more wolfishly than ever at Persephone.
But she turned away, tears splashing from her eyes.
“Forever?” she asked, not looking at Hades but at Demeter; “forever, mother?”
Demeter was also crying and glaring at Hades. As the Goddesses’ tears fell onto the black ground, there sprouted tiny flowers, which then faded and died.
“But it was just a few pomegranate seeds!” wailed Persephone.
“A few?” asked Demeter, seizing on this piece of information.
“Oh no,” Hades interjected, “just because she only ate six seeds, doesn’t make any difference – you know the rules…”
He trailed off, realising he had, in fact, lost.
Demeter waved her hand through the air in a complicated sigil. There was a bright flash, and then she took Persephone’s hand.
“Come, daughter,” she said.
“But – hey, wait!” objected Hades, “I mean, she ate the fruit!”
“She did eat the fruit,” agreed Demeter, “so she shall come here for the dark part of every year; one month for each seed. And you,” she added, glaring down at Hades, “have six months to convince her that she wants to join you down here.”
“I’m sure it won’t be that bad,” said Persephone, who had brightened up knowing she could return home now, and was secretly trying to think of a way out once they had escaped the Underworld.
And still holding her mother’s hand, she went back up to world, where spring was just beginning.
Hades sulked for some time after this, but eventually realised that the compromise was a pretty good one, for him.
Persephone didn’t tell me how she changed her mind but when autumn came, she went happily down with her new King to his domain. And she continues to do so still. Some say you can catch a glimpse of her, if you go to the right grove at the right time, when the balance of light and darkness is just reaching its tipping point…