Calendars in ancient Greece differed from ours. As far as we can tell, the Greater Mysteries took place at the autumn equinox. They were celebrated for four lusty and pious days at Eleusia in honor of Demeter, Goddess of the Grain, and her daughter, Persephone, Goddess of the Underworld, also called Kore. No one really knows what went on during the Greater Mysteries — to reveal the secret rituals meant death. But it’s said that on the first day, the tale of Demeter and Kore was told:
The Gentle Soul seethes with wrath. She who causes grain to grow, flowers to bloom, fruit to ripen.
Mortals sacrifice to the Barley Mother. They pray and offer what little is left since her outrage began. Handfuls of corn. Bouquets of wilted narcissus and withered ivy. A few hardened olives. They light fires. They proffer the bodies of pigs. The goddess enjoys the smell of roasting flesh, though she cannot abide the taste. The people fear sparks from the sacred fires will incinerate the bare, dry fields, ignite their homes and shelters. They mutter incantations while they eat the meat. Soon there will be no more. Soon they will sacrifice their children.
Demeter is unmoved.
“Let Hades make the sacrifice!” she says. “Let him return my child! Give me back my daughter, my Kore. Nothing less will do.”
Demeter waits, swathed head to toe in grief and anger. She who tumbled in mud and gardens and fields with many lovers. She whose pleasures fertilized and fed the earth. She who had joyfully labored, then nursed her newborn daughter with such exuberance the good milk gushed forth to bless the world.
The rivers dwindle. Cooling breezes still. Helios scorches the ground. Bounty turns to famine.
Zeus gazes from his throne at the suffering Earth. He had loved his sister in her youthful gaiety. He fathered this disappeared daughter she adores. He took for granted Demeter’s verdant laughter, her generosity and patience. Now he is flaccid with fright.
Should mortals be extinguished, so, too, will Olympus.
Zeus hurls thunderbolts to awaken the rain. The thunder ricochets against Demeter’s impenetrable rage and turns back to Olympus. Rain falls on the gods’ palace in choking sheets. Marble floors are flooded. Satin couches are soaked. Wine and nectar drenched and diluted.
“Do something, husband!” Hera complains, when at last the golden apples that were her wedding gift from Demeter begin to rot on their silver branches.
Zeus dispatches Iris to charm the goddess. Iris slides down her rainbow and lands on her toes, sparkling, twirling, giggling, glittering. Demeter, once so easy to please, does not look up.
Zeus sends Poseidon of the Sea, then Hestia of the Hearth, then Hera the Protector.
“Keep your paltry tributes,” Demeter says. “I want my daughter.”
Zeus sends birds to pluck at Demeter’s blue-green cloak and spread the fertilizing threads across desiccated fields. The threads sizzle on parched ground. The vivid cloak turns black around Demeter’s shoulders.
As Demeter weeps and mourns, Baubo appears with her harp. She tells Demeter dirty jokes, bawdy tales, and for a little while, Demeter laughs.
Kore, the Maiden. Delicate, tender, temporary. She is a mist enveloped in childhood. Enclosed in Demeter’s love. Nameless, called simply Kore, Maiden.
She is demure as violets. Willowy and compliant. She is uncertain as gypsophilia. Tall as the althaea. Fragrant as heliotrope. Vibrant as cyclamen, flower of love.
Never alone, tethered close to her mother, she basked in the company of other maidens. She was the radiant centerpiece in a bevy of pretty blooms.
Demeter and Kore. Hand in hand, constant chatter between them. Demeter combed Kore’s long hair, blue-black as monkshood. Kore brushed Demeter’s grain-gold plaits that tumbled in waves down her strong back. Sleeping, they wrapped their ankles together. Then the seasonless world thrived with Demeter’s happiness, always fecund. The nurture she lavished on Kore was mirrored on the Earth.
Zeus met Hades in a cave by the sea. The handsome, somber god, whose face is masked with implacable endings, is forbidden to set foot in Olympus, where no death is permitted.
“I have fallen in love with your daughter,” Hades said.
Zeus stared straight ahead. He did not answer, made no expression under his curled beard. His sister would not forgive him if he gave Kore to the darkness, to live in murky Tartarus among ghosts.
“I must have her,” Hades insisted. “Give her to me.”
Nor did Zeus wish to offend his brother, Lord of the Underworld.
“Say something, Zeus?” Hades paced and wrung his hands. “Why so silent?”
Zeus sighed but still did not reply. Zeus knows love and he knows lust. He imagined Kore, naked, unguarded. He imagined himself as a bee collecting Kore’s pollen. He shivered, buzzed a bit, bits of his skin turned to yellow and black stripes, he felt his body shrink, then quickly caught hold of himself before he transformed.
“Thank you, brother!” Hades clapped Zeus on the back. That silence must mean yes. Hades receded into the cave and back underground. Zeus dreamed on.
Demeter slept, dreaming of wheat grass, light rain and crocii. Kore sensed the dawn, sprang from bed and gathered her companions. Moist grasses tickled the maidens’ feet. The girls skipped into a meadow. Laughing, weaving a dance through Helios’ gentle morning rays.
Laden with cornflowers and daisies, a bouquet with which to awaken her mother, Kore turned from the field toward the palace. But as she turned, her eye caught something bright and orange waving at her. She stopped. Hushed her companions. The single flower seemed to call her. Pull her. Never had Kore seen such a splendid bloom. Silky and flamboyant, not a maiden’s but a queen’s flower.
She thrust her bouquet into a companion’s arms. She teetered toward the poppy, growing sleepy the closer she got. She yawned. She reached to pluck it. Eyelids heavy. Trembling. She did not feel the ground shake. She did not hear the ground split or see the four, silent black horses, the golden chariot, the gloomy figure that grabbed her waist and wrenched her to him.
The maidens screamed, “A rape! A rape!” The chariot descended into the widening crack in the Earth, horses at full gallop. The ground closed and swallowed them all.
Old Hekate heard the cries. She lumbered toward the sound. Too late. The six eyes of her lion, her dog and her mare had seen nothing.
Demeter woke. The bed was empty. She called for Kore through the house and gardens, the orchards and vineyards. No trace of the maiden or her companions. Demeter searched the fields. At last, she found scattered daisies and crushed cornflowers. And the fading, chiffon petals of a poppy. The Barley Mother gathered each orange scrap, pressed them together, smelled them. She picked up a green pod, squeezed it, tasted the bubble of yellow-white lactose. Whatever had happened, wherever Demeter’s daughter had gone, this was the soporific that seduced her.
The goddess dressed in her blue-green cloak. She disguised herself as a sorrowful and aged woman. She wandered. Wandered and called, “Kore! Kore! Kore!” “Maiden! Maiden!” “Daughter!”
Hades clutched Kore. Her head lolled, her body was limp with fright. Down, down they flew into the Underworld. Through a stand of black poplars beside the ocean stream. Across the river Styx and past Charon the Boatman. Past Cerberus, the fifty-headed dog. Into the cheerless Asphodel Field, where the souls of heroes meander without purpose. Toward the Pool of Lethe, where thirsty specters sip water hunched under the white cypress. They veered and rode across the Pool of Memory and into Hades’ musty, lurid palace.
Hades removed his helmet of invisibility. His face materialized, but Kore’s vision was blurred and she swooned. He carried her into his grim chambers.
He flung her on his couch. He pried open her long, thin legs. Skin like vapor and growing cold. The girl awoke. Stared at the ceiling made of thick, hard roots from upperworld trees. His member like a tuber that penetrated up and up to her throat. The roots above her tangled into a barrier against light, anchored her, so that she could not picture her mother’s face.
When he was done, she smiled vaguely at him. Hazy. Pliant as willow. And he grinned triumphantly.
“All this is yours, my queen,” he said. “Let us feast and celebrate the marriage.”
Now his flinty face came clear to her. A handsome face, bewitching as roses, cruel as thorns. Annihilation and peace balanced on the same branch. She burst into tears and would not stop weeping for her mother. He led her to the banquet chamber, but she would not eat or drink.
Nine days. Nine nights. Demeter wandered. “Kore! Kore! Maiden! Daughter!” she cried and no one answered.
On the ninth day, aged, grey, run down, she reached Eleusis. The king entertained Demeter. The queen fed her barley water.
“How strange that this thirsty old woman is full of milk,” the queen said to the king.
“Do your gorged breasts not ache?” she asked Demeter. She gave the goddess her youngest son to suckle and rooms in which to rest.
On the tenth day, the eldest son of Eleusis visited her rooms. Triptolemus, who herded his father’s cattle. He stood a moment in the doorway. To his eyes, there was no old woman here nursing his infant brother, but a dazzling, ageless creature, all gold and green.
“Are you not Demeter of the Grain?” he asked.
She fixed him with her amber eyes. Triptolemus moved closer.
“I saw the abduction of your daughter, the Kore,” he said. She tensed and hissed.
“Ten days ago,” Triptolemus said, “my brothers and I went into the fields to feed the beasts. The morning was warm and pleasant, the sun was shining. We heard the heavy thud of horses’ hooves. Suddenly, the Earth shrieked and shook and tore open. We jumped and were barely saved from falling into the crack, but our swine were engulfed before our eyes.
“We saw a golden chariot drawn by black horses. It dashed down the chasm. The driver’s face was invisible, but he held a maiden limp and drooping.”
Demeter fled the palace of Eleusis. She ran to her sister Hekate, whose home is at the edge of Tartarus.
The gift the goddess left Triptolemus was wrapped in thin, fine flax. Barley seed, a wooden plough, a beehive, a chariot drawn by serpents. He travels the world on his chariot and teaches mortals the honeyed art of agriculture.
The sisters hurried to the palace of Helios the Sun. Demeter’s grain-gold hair streamed behind her. A blinding storm slapped her blue-green cloak. Hekate trotted beside her, three watchful heads of dog, lion, and mare glanced left and right, forward and back.
They charged uninvited into the palace. They stood on either side of Helios. Demeter’s scowl, Hekate’s growl brought a cloud to pass across the Sun’s face.
“Tell us now, with no lies and no delays, what and who you saw ten days ago,” they demanded. The lion bared her teeth. The mare whinnied.
And Helios, who sees all, told them that Hades had planted the poppy and Kore had been called by it. That the Underworld King stole the maiden.
Helios plays tricks with light and shadow. “No doubt,” he said, “our brother Zeus connived with Hades to let him have the Kore.”
Zeus cannot refuse Hekate, but this time her request went unheeded. Zeus is afraid of Hades, terrified of Death. Hekate returned to Demeter with no promises. The Barley Mother’s rage increased. Her wrath spread like a plague across the land.
“Take swift revenge, as we do,” her sister goddesses advised.
The Gentle Soul seethes. Unhurried. Hectare by hectare, the Earth hardens, until nothing, not even sharp weeds can knife through its packed crust.
“And so it will be, until my daughter returns.”
All sacrifices scorned, all tributes, bargains, pleas ignored.
Hekate visits Zeus a second time. She finds him gazing at the Earth. Depressed. Confused.
“These starving mortals love me no longer,” he says by way of greeting.
“You are right, great Zeus,” Hekate replies. “They do not. And why should they? See their children with swollen, painful bellies? See the hungry, thirsty souls entering Tartarus in droves?”
A third time, Hekate makes her petition. “Return the Kore to Demeter,” she says.
Zeus pulls his beard, annoyed, and waves Hekate away. He must appeal to Hades. His pride bristles. He calls Hermes and sends him with two messages.
Hermes rushes to Eleusis on winged feet. He recites Zeus’ message to Demeter: “You may have your daughter back, on condition that she has not tasted the food of the dead.”
Demeter sighs. A small, improbable breeze floats across the Earth and hope is briefly rekindled.
At Tartarus, Hermes tells Hades: “If you do not restore the Kore to her mother, we are all undone.”
Hades clamps his helmet of invisibility over his face to conceal his anger.
A gold and granite throne for Kore. A gift from Hades. She sits beside him, cheeks sunken from lack of food, eyes red from weeping. Hades places his hand gently on her knee. He addresses her with fatherly concern.
“My child, my love, my queen,” he says. She smiles wanly at him, yielding as cloudgrass.
“You are unhappy here,” Hades says, “and your mother mourns for you so lamentably that I have decided to send you home.”
Kore gasps. She leaps to her feet and clasps Hades. His strong back. She presses against the penetrating tuber, which night after night forges a path through her and which, vaguely, she has come to desire. She holds him longer than either expects. Then she breaks away and mounts the golden chariot now navigated by Hermes.
Hades holds five pomegranate seeds in his hand. He offers them to Kore. “To give you strength for the journey,” he says.
She opens her mouth, shuts it, opens it. Quickly, he places the seeds on her tongue.
Demeter rejoices. Embraces Kore tight against her moist and heavy breasts.
Kore cringes. Surprised by the soft supple body of her mother after the nights with Hades. Surprised to be swaddled again in maidenhood after the days of sovereignty on her gold and granite throne.
Demeter whispers. “Have you eaten the food of the dead?”
“No, Mother,” Kore lies.
Demeter pulls away. Holds Kore at arm’s length. “I ask again. Have you eaten the food of the dead?”
“No, Mother.” But Demeter sees some new hardness, the blossom maturing to berry.
“And again, daughter. Have you eaten the food of the dead?”
Kore lowers her head. “Just five seeds of the pomegranate, Mother. Only five to give me strength for the journey back to you.”
Demeter moans. “All is lost,” she sobs. She clutches Kore. “All is lost and you are no longer mine.”
Her rage returns. Her milk curdles. She points a threatening finger at Hermes. “Tell Zeus I will neither return to Olympus nor remove my curse from the land!”
Rhea the Titan brings about the compromise. Demeter’s own mother. Mother of Zeus and Hades, Hera and Hestia. Back and forth Rhea travels between her children.
Kore awaits the verdict that will seal her fate. She has no thought, no one asks her desires and if they did, she would not know how to answer. Her petals have folded, like a morning glory awaiting sunrise.
At last Demeter agrees to let Hades have Kore five months of every year. Five months for five seeds. She will be Queen of Tartarus. Persephone: Bringer of Destruction.
In September, Persephone begins her return to the underworld and the arms of Hades. She sits beside him on her throne of gold and granite. She is noble and matronly as hesperis. Decisive as the acanthus. She guides the dead and speaks to them, soothing and implacable as monkshood. She is reserved as hellebores. Wise as heliotrope. Clever as lunaria. Strong as stock. Unbending as mullein.
By November, Demeter will have retired to her chambers. She will sleep. She will not dream. Her sleep is the sleep of sorrow and the world dies.