In ancient times, the world of the Greeks was ruled by three great brothers: Zeus, the Thundering god of the sky; Poseidon, the god of the oceans; and Hades, the lord of the underworld. It was Zeus who commanded and led the gods, but the jealous desires of each of them would have a powerful influence on the creatures of the Earth.
In the lands below Mount Olympus, the goddess Demeter was the mistress of planting and harvesting. It was she who led the corn stalks to rise from the ground and the plains to grow green with nourishing plants and beautiful shrubs.
Zeus was very fond of Demeter. He always obliged her with rain when her fields were thirsty. And in time, Zeus gave Demeter a daughter, who was named Persephone.
If you saw Persephone, you might think you had seen a beautiful flower - for it was Persephone who gave the flowers their beauty. She had skin as soft as petals, and eyes as deep and lustrous as roses. And wherever she went, she carried her paintpot, which she used to color the flowers to her liking. From her mother she took the task of creating new flowers and decorating the fields with them.
Little did Persephone know, however, that her dances in the greenery were being watched from far beneath the land of the living.
One day, as Persephone went about painting stripes onto the lilies, she wandered farther than usual - across a stream, through a grove of trees, to a little glade. As she drew her brush against one of the lilies' soft faces, she noticed a shrub she hadn't noticed before. It was very strange, with thick green leaves and large red berries that trembled on their stems like drops of blood. Uncertain at first, Persephone finally decided she did not like the bush - and with an unexpectedly violent tug, she pulled it up from the ground.
What happened next terrified her. For the hole that opened beneath the bush produced a deafening sound that rumbled and howled as the hole grew bigger and bigger, opening like a giant mouth and swallowing into darkness all that surrounded it.
All at once, from the hole leapt six enormous black horses, dragging behind them a golden chariot. In the chariot stood a tall figure wearing a dark crown and a flowing black cape. Before Persephone could scream, the figure reached out his long arm, snatched the girl into his chariot, and lashed his horses. The team turned in the air and plunged back into the gaping hole, which closed behind them with a rumbling clap.
Now plummeting through darkness, Persephone could hear only the charging horses and the awful scream of the air rushing past. She knew she had been taken into the land of the dead.
Demeter became frantic when the girl didn't come home, and she rushed out to search for her. Speeding through the fields in her own chariot, she cried out her daughter's name, but she heard no answer. After searching through the day and the night, Demeter arrived at the glade where the Earth had been so violently upturned and trampled. And nearby, beside the uprooted bush, lay Persephone's paintpot.
Demeter howled in rage and despair as dawn lit the horizon. As the sun rose, the birds answered with their own morning calls, and soon Demeter understood from these mysterious songs exactly what had happened and where her daughter had been taken.
Falling to her knees, Demeter put her face in her hands and wept for her daughter. She looked up again when she heard the sound of small footsteps. A young boy had run into the field to pick some flowers. He had never seen a grownup crying before, and he laughed at the strange sight. Once her bitter gaze fell upon him, however, he stopped laughing, for he had been transformed into a lizard, and the lizard snatched by a hawk that swooped down and carried him away.
Demeter climbed into her chariot and sped back to Olympus. She charged into the throne room where Zeus sat.
"I demand justice!" she cried. "Your brother Hades has stolen my daughter - our daughter!"
"Peace, good sister," said Zeus. "Hades' wooing was abrupt, perhaps - but after all, he is my brother - our brother - and can be considered a good husband for your daughter."
"Anyone but Hades!" cried Demeter. "No ray of light pierces his dank kingdom. The girl will wither and die."
Demeter then noticed that Zeus was holding a radiant new thunderbolt lance, wrought from the deep stores of gold and silver found in Hades' realm. Zeus had received a special gift from his brother, and justice, Demeter knew, would not be served.
Demeter returned, heartbroken, to her home.
Weeks passed. One morning, Zeus found his sleep disturbed by the sounds of lamentation. He looked down upon the Earth and saw the people weeping, for nothing would grow. The fields were parched and windswept, the soil hard and cracked, and trees were stripped of their leaves. All the creatures of the Earth were starving.
Zeus realized he must compromise, and he sent for Demeter. "Do you still wish for your daughter's return?" he asked.
"Yes," said Demeter. "While she is gone, I am in mourning, and no crops will grow. The Earth will grow as dry and shriveled as my heart until she returns to me."
"Very well," said Zeus. "Here is my judgment. Your daughter may return to you. However, if any food has passed through her lips during her time in my brother's kingdom, they she must remain there. This is ancient law, older than our decrees, and I am powerless to revoke it."
And with that, Zeus called upon Hermes, the messenger god, to take his message to Hades and return with Persephone.
Meanwhile, deep below the Earth, Persephone sat reluctantly upon a queen's throne in the palace of Hades. What a strange and terrible place it was, she thought - yet its opulence and magesty amazed her. Treasures mined from the depths of the underworld covered the walls and floor, and she was offered jewels and riches beyond description. Secretly Persephone gloated on the power she felt as the fearsome king of this dark land strove to please her.
Eager to keep Persephone as his wife, Hades presented her with bountiful meals. Yet Persephone recognized this as the food of the dead - delicious offerings left by the living to be carried into the underworld by the departed. Terrified to accept this gift even as her hunger grew torturous, Persephone refused to eat even a single bite.
Desperate to please Persephone, Hades set aside a corner of the palace grounds for a dark garden, and he gave her seeds that could germinate without sunlight. He also gave her a little boy to help in the garden - a spirit newly arrived in the land of the dead. Persephone did not know this boy was the same one turned into a lizard by her resentful mother, but the boy knew who she was.
Persephone passed her days in the fields of the underworld. From her daily walk she could see Sisyphus, who was cursed to spend eternity pushing a large rock uphill, only to have it roll back down before he reached the top. Once she came upon Tantalus, cursed to stand in water that would retreat from his hands when he reached down for a drink. In his sad face she saw the torment of her own incessant hunger - a hunger that could not kill her in this land beyond death, but could only make her pain and loneliness worse.
Walking through the garden one day, half-hidden in a clump of nightshade, Persephone saw the little boy devouring something greedily, red juice dripping from his fingers. The boy, she saw, had found a pomegranate.
"We're alone," the boy said. "No one will see you. Quickly now - eat!"
Persephone looked about. Indeed, nobody could see them. Her hands seemed to act by themselves as she tore open the pomegranate and plucked out the seeds. She thought she had never tasted anything so delicious as she slipped the seeds into her mouth: one...two...three...
As Persephone swallowed the seeds, a piercing cry split the air and she dropped the pomegranate to the ground, for she knew the sound. It was the herald shout of the messenger god, Hermes. She raced to the palace, where Hermes had already delivered to Hades the news of Zeus' decree.
Quickly, Hermes took Persephone's hand and the two rose into the air. As they flew past the doors of Hades' palace, Persephone saw the boy rushing inside, her half-eaten pomegranate in his hand.
By the time Persephone had returned home to her mother, Hades had made his case on Mount Olympus, and Zeus had delivered his decree. Because Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds, she must spend six months of the year in Hades' kingdom, living as the queen of the underworld.
"Don't cry, mother," said Persephone. "We must be glad for the time I will spend here."
"But I will suffer, and I will mourn" said Demeter. "And while I mourn, no flowers will bloom, no grass will grow, no trees will bear. There will be desolation everywhere, until you return to me."
And that is why we have Summer and Winter. That is why there is a time for planting and harvesting, and a time that the Earth must sleep under snow and frost.
NOTE ABOUT VERSIONS: Slight variations abound in different versions of this story.
If you want to use a detail not mentioned in this version of the story, contact me and we'll work something out.
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