Greek Goddess Demeter and the Abduction of Persephone

The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini, Galleria Borghese Rome, Italy
The baroque marble sculpture 'The Rape of Proserpina' by Lorenzo Bernini represents the moment of the abduction of Demeter's daughter.

Sonse/CC BY 2.0/Flickr

The story of the abduction of Persephone is more a story about Demeter than it is about her daughter Persephone, so we're starting this re-telling of the rape of Persephone beginning with her mother Demeter's relationship with one of her brothers, her daughter's father, the king of the gods, who refused to step in to help—at least in a timely manner.

Demeter, goddess of the earth and grain, was sister to Zeus, as well as Poseidon and Hades. Because Zeus betrayed her by his involvement in the rape of Persephone, Demeter left Mt.Olympus to wander among men. Hence, although a throne on Olympus was her birthright, Demeter is sometimes not counted among the Olympians. This "secondary" status did nothing to lessen her importance for the Greeks and Romans. The worship associated with Demeter, the Eleusinian Mysteries, endured until it was suppressed in the Christian era.

Demeter and Zeus Are Parents of Persephone

Demeter's relationship with Zeus had not always been so strained: He was the father of her much-loved, white-armed daughter, Persephone.

Persephone grew up to be a beautiful young woman who enjoyed playing with the other goddesses on Mt. Aetna, in Sicily. There they gathered and smelled the beautiful flowers. One day, a narcissus caught Persephone's eye, so she plucked it to get a better look, but as she pulled it from the ground, a rift formed...

Demeter had not been watching too carefully. After all, her daughter was grown. Besides, Aphrodite, Artemis, and Athena were there to watch—or so Demeter assumed. When Demeter's attention returned to her daughter, the young maiden (called Kore, which is Greek for 'maiden') had vanished.

Where Was Persephone?

Aphrodite, Artemis, and Athena didn't know what had happened, it had been so sudden. One moment Persephone was there, and the next she wasn't.

Demeter was beside herself with grief. Was her daughter dead? Abducted? What had happened? No one seemed to know. So Demeter roamed the countryside looking for answers.

Zeus Goes Along With Persephone's Abduction

After Demeter had wandered for 9 days and nights, searching for her daughter as well as taking out her frustrations by randomly torching the earth, the 3-faced goddess Hekate told the anguished mother that while she had heard Persephone's cries, she had not been able to see what had happened. So Demeter asked Helios, the sun god—he had to know since he sees all that happens above the ground during the day. Helios told Demeter that Zeus had given their daughter to "The Invisible" (Hades) for his bride and that Hades, acting on that promise, had taken Persephone home to the Underworld.

The imperious king of the gods Zeus had dared to give Demeter's daughter Persephone away to Hades, the dark lord of the Underworld, without asking! Imagine Demeter's outrage at this revelation. When the sun god Helios insinuated that Hades was a good match, it added insult to injury.

Demeter and Pelops

Rage soon reverted to great sorrow. It was during this period that Demeter absentmindedly ate a piece of Pelops' shoulder at a banquet for the gods. Then came depression, which meant Demeter couldn't even think about doing her work. Since the goddess wasn't providing food, soon no one would eat. Not even Demeter. Famine would strike mankind.

Demeter and Poseidon

It didn't help when Demeter's third brother, the lord of the sea, Poseidon, turned against her as she wandered in Arcadia. There he tried to rape her. Demeter saved herself by turning into a mare grazing along with the other horses. Unfortunately, horse-god Poseidon easily spotted his sister, even in mare's form, and so, in stallion form, Poseidon raped the horse-Demeter. If ever she had given a thought to returning to live on Mt. Olympus, this was the clincher.

Demeter Wanders the Earth

Now, Demeter was not a heartless goddess. Depressed, yes. Vengeful? Not particularly, but she did expect to be treated well—at least by mortals—even in the guise of an old Cretan woman.

Gecko Killing Pleases Demeter

By the time Demeter reached Attica, she was more than parched. Given water to drink, she took the time to sate her thirst. By the time she had stopped, an on-looker, Ascalabus, was laughing at the gluttonous old woman. He said she didn't need a cup, but a tub to drink out of. Demeter was insulted, so throwing water at Ascalabus, she turned him into a gecko.
Then Demeter continued on her way about another fifteen miles.

Demeter Gets a Job

Upon arriving at Eleusis, Demeter sat down by an old well where she began to cry. Four daughters of Celeus, the local chieftain, invited her to meet their mother, Metaneira. The latter was impressed with the old woman and offered her the position of nurse to her infant son. Demeter accepted.

Demeter Tries to Make an Immortal

In exchange for the hospitality she'd been extended, Demeter wanted to do a service for the family, so she set about to make the baby immortal by the usual immersion in fire and ambrosia technique. It would have worked, too, if Metaneira hadn't spied on the old "nurse" one night as she suspended the ambrosia-anointed infant over the fire.

The mother screamed.

Demeter, indignant, put the child down, never to resume the treatment, then revealed herself in all her divine glory, and demanded that a temple is built in her honor where she would teach her worshipers her special rites.

Demeter Refuses to Do Her Work

After the temple was built Demeter continued to reside at Eleusis, pining for her daughter and refusing to feed the earth by growing grain. No one else could do the work since Demeter had never taught anyone else the secrets of agriculture.

Persephone and Demeter Reunited

Zeus—ever mindful of the gods' need for worshipers—decided he had to do something to placate his raging sister Demeter. When soothing words wouldn't work, as a last resort Zeus sent Hermes to Hades to bring the daughter of Demeter back up to the light. Hades agreed to let his wife Persephone go back, but first, Hades offered Persephone a farewell meal.

Persephone knew she couldn't eat in the Underworld if she ever hoped to return to the land of the living, and so she had diligently observed a fast, but Hades, her would-be husband, was so kind now that she was about to return to her mother Demeter, that Persephone lost her head for a second—long enough to eat a pomegranate seed or six. Perhaps Persephone didn't lose her head. Perhaps she had already grown fond of her implacable husband. At any rate, according to a covenant among the gods, the consumption of food guaranteed that Persephone would be allowed (or forced) to return to the Underworld and Hades.

And so it was arranged that Persephone could be with her mother Demeter for two-thirds of the year, but would spend the remaining months with her husband. Accepting this compromise, Demeter agreed to let seeds sprout from the earth for all but three months a year—the time known as winter—when Demeter's daughter Persephone was with Hades.

Spring returned to the earth and would again every year when Persephone returned to her mother Demeter.

To further show her goodwill to man, Demeter gave another of Celeus' sons, Triptolemus, the first grain of corn and lessons in ploughing and harvesting. With this knowledge, Triptolemus traveled the world, spreading Demeter's gift of agriculture.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Greek Goddess Demeter and the Abduction of Persephone." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 28). Greek Goddess Demeter and the Abduction of Persephone. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Greek Goddess Demeter and the Abduction of Persephone." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).