Demeter in the Mortal Realm

In many re-tellings of the story of Persephone and Demeter, the focus often becomes Persephone. Brutally abducted by her uncle and swept into the Underworld where she was forced to be his bride, the story of Persephone is a tragic tale of lost innocence. Demeter had her own journey in this story too though, one in which she flirted with discarding her Goddess title as she searched in agony for her lost daughter.

Poor Persephone, an innocent maiden who was playing joyfully with her friends in a field full of flowers one moment, and in the next she mysteriously vanished, wrenched from the world without a trace:

He seized her against her will, put her on his golden chariot,
And drove away as she wept. She cried with a piercing voice,
calling upon her father [Zeus], the son of Kronos, the highest and the best.
But not one of the immortal ones, or of human mortals, heard her voice.
– Homeric Hymn To Demeter

Demeter was understandably distraught; her beloved daughter had completely disappeared. All that was left was the sounds of her screams resounding around the world that only Demeter seemed able to hear. Demeter searched for her daughter for nine long days to no avail, crushed by the agony of not knowing her daughter’s fate

Thereafter, for nine days did the Lady Demeter
wander all over the earth, holding torches ablaze in her hands.
Not once did she take of ambrosia and nectar, sweet to drink,
in her grief, nor did she bathe her skin in water.
– Homeric Hymn To Demeter

Finally Hecate revealed that Helios the sun god had seen Persephone’s abduction, and Demeter soon learnt that it was Hades that had stolen her, with the blessings of her brother/consort Zeus. Her crippling loss, coupled with a sense of betrayal, led Demeter to shun the other Gods. She left their realm and reinvented herself as a mortal. She wandered among them disguised as Dôsô, an old woman who hailed from Crete, herself abducted by pirates who had carried her off to the mainland. An angry Goddess trying to pass herself  among the humans… what could possibly go wrong…

One day as she sat beside the Maiden Well in the city of Eleusis, the four daughters of the  king came to draw from the waters. They struck a conversation with Demeter/Dôsô who told them she was looking for work and would provide the gift of good health upon any child she nurtured. The daughters returned to the palace and begged their mother, Metaneira, to hire the old lady to look after their sickly baby brother, and so Demeter/Dôsô became part of the palace household, employed to nurse the royal son, Dêmophôn.

Hiring a God to do mortal work is never a good idea, and of course things quickly went awry. Demeter loved the child Dêmophôn; she fed him with ambrosia and the child quickly flourished, but that was not enough for Demeter. She decided to enhance him with a special boon, the gift of immortality. We will preface the *how* with a *do not try this at home* disclaimer – because each night Demeter placed the sleeping child directly into the flames of the hearth fires:

Dêmophôn, who was born to well-girded Metaneira,
was nourished in the palace, and he grew up like a daimôn,
not eating grain, not sucking from the breast. But Demeter
used to anoint him with ambrosia, as if he had been born of the goddess,
and she would breathe down her sweet breath on him as she held him to her bosom.
At nights she would conceal him within the menos of fire, as if he were a smoldering log,
and his philoi parents were kept unaware. But they marveled
at how full in bloom he came to be, and to look at him was like looking at the gods
– Homeric Hymn To Demeter

Intrigued by her son’s sudden good health, Metaneira decided to spy on the nursemaid one night, and understandably revealed herself when she cried out in horror as she saw Demeter/Dôsô place the child into the flames. Demeter, angered by this intrusion revealed herself in full goddess glory and raged at Metaneira:

Ignorant humans! Heedless, unable to recognize in advance
the difference between future good fortune and future bad.
In your heedlessness, you have made a big mistake, a mistake without remedy.
I swear by the Styx, the witness of oaths that gods make, as I say this:
immortal and ageless for all days would I have made your little boy,
and I would have given him tîme that is unwilting
But now there is no way for him to avoid death and doom.
– Homeric Hymn To Demeter

Before she left Demeter demanded a temple built for her at Kallikhoron, threatening the destruction of the city if she was not obeyed, and flounced off now equally angry at the mortals as she was with her divine kin. Demeter turned her back on all, sitting in her temple she neglected all her duties and the earth began to wither and die. Nothing grew, and people starved as the crops failed… just like Demeter’s experimental sojourn to pass in the human realm.

700px-Eleusinian_hydria_Antikensammlung_Berlin_1984.46_n2
Demeter, enthroned and extending her hand in a benediction toward the kneeling Metaneira, who offers the triune wheat.                                                                                                                        Detail of the belly of an Apulian red-figure hydria, ca. 340 BC. Varrese Painter

 

**This version is based on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter Translated by Gregory Nagy**

 

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