The most complete and well–known source of the myth of Demeter and Persephone available to us comes from the first Homeric Hymn to Demeter, composed around 650 B.C.E. (1) While preserving and elaborating the most coherent form of the myth, the author of the Homeric Hymn screened out many of its more archaic and most interesting elements. These are to be found in variants of the myth, which survive only in fragmentary form. In the following rendering of the mythic tale, I have used the Homeric Hymn as a baseline (drawing from the translations of Charles Boer1 and Paul Friedrich (2) in particular); the relevant variants appear in my commentary on each part of the Homeric story.
Saluting Demeter as the 'awesome' goddess and describing her daughter as the Kore whom Zeus "gave away to be seized by violence" by Hades, the Homeric author begins his tale: Kore was playing in a field one day, far from her mother, picking flowers with other maiden goddesses. Suddenly she came upon a flower never seen before—the narcissus— which Earth (the goddess Gaia) had grown as a favor to Hades and Zeus. The young woman was amazed and reached for the hundred–headed blossom in delight but as she did, the earth opened wide and up from its chasm leapt the Lord of the Underworld. He snatched the girl and carried her off in his chariot. Kore resisted and cried out, screaming for her father Zeus. But Zeus was far away receiving offerings. No one heard the Maiden except Hecate in her cave and Helios the Sun and her noble mother Demeter who immediately put on mourning clothes and began to search for her daughter. As long as the girl could see earth and sky and sea, as long as she could hope to see her mother again and the other gods, she took heart, but Hades carried her away to his kingdom under the earth.
The nature of Kore's abduction is immediately made explicit, for the Greek word for the young girl's 'seizure by violence' means 'kidnapped and raped'. (3) In some versions of the myth, Kore cries out "A rape! A rape!" as she is being carried away to the underworld. (4) Further underscoring the nature of the abduction, perhaps, is the redoubling of Kore's virginity in the description of her playmates as other 'maiden' goddesses, though virginity ('parthenos' in Greek) does not necessarily mean physical virginity. For the Greeks, the designation of virgin could also mean a woman who was one–in–herself, i.e. whole within herself, rather than someone who was sexually chaste. (5) Many commentators, however, both ancient and contemporary, assume that Kore was a physical virgin and that her abduction by Hades was her introduction to sexuality.
What is also assumed, though ambiguous in the original sources, is the age of Kore. While it is usually believed that she was at least an adolescent at the time of her abduction, one later version of the myth (as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses 6) depicts her to be so young that she cries as much over the loss of her flowers which spill to the ground when Hades grabs her as over being violently snatched. In art as well, she is depicted variously, sometimes as a young woman, other times as a child.
Zeus, Hades, and Earth collude to make the abduction possible. Hades, who was often driven by lust, desired Kore and wanted her as his wife. Zeus, knowing that Demeter would be furious, neither dissented or assented, i.e. he simply allowed the abduction to happen. In this version of the myth, Zeus is Kore's father and Hades, her uncle. This reflects the gradual assimilation of the Goddess and the Old Religion to patriarchy in actual historical events. In the Old Religion, (like Demeter even in this myth) the Goddess reigned supreme and was husbandless. She took as her lover whomever she wanted but was not bound to any male.
When myths of the sky god Zeus appeared on the scene, the goddesses increasingly became 'wives of—' or 'consorts of—' or 'daughters of—' the gods. Robert Graves adds, "(K)ore's abduction by Hades forms part of the myth in which the Hellenic trinity of gods forcibly marry the pre–Hellenic Triple goddess— Zeus, Hera; Zeus or Poseidon, Demeter; Hades, (K)ore . . . . It refers to male usurpation of the female agricultural mysteries in primitive times." (7) Part of the outrage of the abduction and rape in the myth lies in the fact that neither Demeter or Kore know initially through whom this event has taken place, viz. through Zeus. Neither mother nor daughter were approached for permission or choice. The betrayal of Kore by her patriarchal father is poignantly underscored in her ignorant appeals to him for help and his preoccupation with offerings while the abduction is taking place. Only connection with her mother and her mother's world afford her any hope; when they disappear from her sight, she is completely in the hands of the patriarchal gods.
The seductiveness of the never–seen–before narcissus is central to the drama in this part of the myth and lends itself to rich psychological interpretations. (8) It has usually been seen as an 'obvious male phallic symbol', as Friedrich puts it, yet this same author notes that it was otherwise the flower of the Goddess, again suggesting an intriguing ambiguity. (9) A variant in which the flower Kore picks is a poppy rather than a narcissus suggests another symbolic meaning. Graves comments: "An image of a goddess with a poppy–headdress was found in Crete, another goddess . . . holds poppies in her hand; and on the gold ring from the Acropolis treasures at Mycenae, a seated Demeter gives three poppy–heads to a standing (K)ore. Poppy–seeds were used as a condiment on bread and poppies are naturally associated with Demeter since they grow in cornfields but (K)ore picks or accepts poppies because of the soporific qualties and because of their scarlet colour which promises resurrection after death."(10) Red was also the color that was sacred to the dead. Here we already have some hint of both the connections and differences between Demeter and Kore–Persephone; the poppy connects to the upperworld of Demeter where it grows in her cornfields but has consciousness–altering capacities which link it to the underworld and to Persephone as ruler of a world beyond life.
*Footnotes: 1) Boer, Charles (trans.), The Homeric Hymns, Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1970. 2) Friedrich, Paul. The Meaning of Aphrodite, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978. 3) Friedrich, p. 164. 4) Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths, Vol. 1, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1955, p. 90. 5) Friedrich's discussion of the word 'parthenos', p. 168. C.f. Esther Harding's explication of the 'virgin' as 'one in herself' in her book, Women's Mysteries, Ancient and Modern, Boston and Shaftesbury: Shambhala Publications, 1990, pp. 102-104, 125. 6) "The Rape of Proserpine" in Mary M. Innes (trans.), The Metamorphoses of Ovid, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1955, pp. 125-131. 7) Graves, p. 93. 8) See, for example, Nathan Schwartz–Salant's Narcissism and Character Transformation, Toronto: Inner City Books, 1982, pp. 138-140. 9) Friedrich, p. 164. 10) Graves, p. 96.