Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, who is said to be one of seven wives of Zeus before he married Hera. Like the other daughters of Zeus she lived happily among the nymphs and thought little of marriage. According to one version one day Persephone was in a lush meadow picking flowers when she came upon the hundred-blossomed narcissus that had been planted by the earth mother Gaia to please the god of death, Hades, who by others was Persephone’s uncle. As she bent to pluck it with both hands, a chasm opened in the ground and Hades, who had instantly fell in love with Persephone, emerged to abduct her down into his realm of the underworld.
Soon Demeter, her mother, missed her daughter, realizing the young girl had disappeared. After calling for her many times, Demeter searched the whole world for her. For nine days and nights Demeter wandered the earth in search of her daughter without eating, washing, or sleeping. The torches she carried in each hand guided her way. On the tenth day, she met Hecate, who had heard Persephone’s cries as she had been carried away, but had not seen her abductor, for his head was shrouded in darkness. Only the Sun, being “the eye of the world,” could tell the grieving mother what she wished to know. When hearing of what befell her daughter, Demeter, in anger, decided to refrain from all activity; she no longer blessed the harvest, and the whole earth became sterile. She was determined to do this until her daughter was returned to her. Demeter, disguising herself as an old woman, went to Eleusis where she sat upon a stone, which from that day forth bore the name of “Stone without joy.” When arriving at the king’s palace she found old women, which usually were near palaces, talking. One of them, Baubo (or Iambe), offered her some soup, which Demeter refused. Then Baubo in anger, or perhaps to amuse the other women, mockingly raised her skirts. This caused Demeter to smile and accept the soup.
Then the goddess entered the house of the queen, Metaneria, to nurse either her son Demophoon, or his elder brother, Triptolemus, according to some versions of this story. Afterwards, one night, the queen witnessed a strange spectacle, when she saw the old woman holding the child by one leg and letting him touch the fire. Metaneria became frightened and let out a cry. Demeter dropped the child and revealed her true identity. She said she wanted to make the child immortal by burning away the mortal elements of his body, but the mother, by her interruption had made this operation impossible. Leaving Demophoon, who survived, she returned to the shy. Previously she had given Triptolemus the task of making corn known throughout the world. In order to do this, she gave him a chariot drawn by winged dragons, commanding him to fly over fields scattering seeds. Later Triptolemus was to become the judge of the underworld, and he was sometimes depicted as Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanthys.
However, Demeter’s voluntary exile had horrifically upset the world order so much that Zeus, who had secretly given his consent to the abduction of Persephone, ordered Hades to give the girl back to her mother. Hades answered that was no longer possible. Anyone who had crossed the threshold of Tartarus could only returned if he or she had observed certain rules, particularly if he or she had abstained from the consumption of food during their stay in the underworld. It seemed that Persephone, while walking in the garden of Hades, had eaten a pomegranate seed; she had been seen by Ascalaphus, a son of the nymph Styx; Ascalaphus had recounted the incident, and Persephone therefore had to remain in the underworld. Upon hearing this Demeter’s first reaction was to change Ascalaphus into an owl. Meanwhile she continued demanding the return of her daughter. All knew some compromise had to be reached. One was: if Demeter would go back to her occupation of a nurse, then Persephone would only have to stay a half of the year in the underworld, the other half she could spend with her mother. This is the reason for winter, the earth is sterile when Persephone is in the underworld away from Demeter, but her return is accompanied by spring.
Zeus, taking the form of a serpent, enjoyed his daughter Persephone, and from this union Dionysus was born. A.G.H.
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 120-121 Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, pp. 152-153