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Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

Page: 25

Demeter, as the wife of Zeus, became the mother of Persephone (Proserpine), to whom she was so tenderly attached that her whole life was bound up in her, and she knew no happiness except in her society. One day, however, whilst Persephone was gathering flowers in a meadow, attended by the ocean-nymphs, she saw to her surprise a beautiful narcissus, from the stem of which sprang forth a hundred blossoms. Drawing near to examine this lovely flower, whose exquisite scent perfumed the air, she stooped down to gather it, suspecting no evil, when a yawning abyss opened at her feet, and Aïdes, the grim ruler of the lower world, appeared from its depths, seated in his dazzling chariot drawn by four black horses. Regardless of her tears and the shrieks of her female attendants, Aïdes seized the terrified maiden, and bore her away to the gloomy realms over which he reigned in melancholy grandeur. Helios, the all-seeing sun-god, and Hecate, a mysterious and very ancient divinity, alone heard her cries for aid, but were powerless to help her. When Demeter became conscious of her loss her grief was intense, and she refused to be comforted. She knew not where to seek for her child, but feeling that repose and inaction were impossible, she set out on her weary search, taking with her two torches which she lighted in the flames of Mount Etna to guide her on her way. For nine long days and nights she wandered on, inquiring of every one she met for tidings of her child. [53]But all was in vain! Neither gods nor men could give her the comfort which her soul so hungered for. At last, on the tenth day, the disconsolate mother met Hecate, who informed her that she had heard her daughter's cries, but knew not who it was that had borne her away. By Hecate's advice Demeter consulted Helios, whose all-seeing eye nothing escapes, and from him she learnt that it was Zeus himself who had permitted Aïdes to seize Persephone, and transport her to the lower world in order that she might become his wife. Indignant with Zeus for having given his sanction to the abduction of his daughter, and filled with the bitterest sorrow, she abandoned her home in Olympus, and refused all heavenly food. Disguising herself as an old woman, she descended upon earth, and commenced a weary pilgrimage among mankind. One evening she arrived at a place called Eleusis, in Attica, and sat down to rest herself near a well beneath the shade of an olive-tree. The youthful daughters of Celeus, the king of the country, came with their pails of brass to draw water from this well, and seeing that the tired wayfarer appeared faint and dispirited, they spoke kindly to her, asking who she was, and whence she came. Demeter replied that she had made her escape from pirates, who had captured her, and added that she would feel grateful for a home with any worthy family, whom she would be willing to serve in a menial capacity. The princesses, on hearing this, begged Demeter to have a moment's patience while they returned home and consulted their mother, Metaneira. They soon brought the joyful intelligence that she was desirous of securing her services as nurse to her infant son Demophoon, or Triptolemus. When Demeter arrived at the house a radiant light suddenly illumined her, which circumstance so overawed Metaneira that she treated the unknown stranger with the greatest respect, and hospitably offered her food and drink. But Demeter, still grief-worn and dejected, refused her friendly offers, and held herself apart from the social board. At length, however, the maid-servant Iambe succeeded, by means [54]of playful jests and merriment, in somewhat dispelling the grief of the sorrowing mother, causing her at times to smile in spite of herself, and even inducing her to partake of a mixture of barley-meal, mint, and water, which was prepared according to the directions of the goddess herself. Time passed on, and the young child throve amazingly under the care of his kind and judicious nurse, who, however, gave him no food, but anointed him daily with ambrosia, and every night laid him secretly in the fire in order to render him immortal and exempt from old age. But, unfortunately, this benevolent design on the part of Demeter was frustrated by Metaneira herself, whose curiosity, one night, impelled her to watch the proceedings of the mysterious being who nursed her child. When to her horror she beheld her son placed in the flames, she shrieked aloud. Demeter, incensed at this untimely interruption, instantly withdrew the child, and throwing him on the ground, revealed herself in her true character. The bent and aged form had vanished, and in its place there stood a bright and beauteous being, whose golden locks streamed over her shoulders in richest luxuriance, her whole aspect bespeaking dignity and majesty. She told the awe-struck Metaneira that she was the goddess Demeter, and had intended to make her son immortal, but that her fatal curiosity had rendered this impossible, adding, however, that the child, having slept in her arms, and been nursed on her lap, should ever command the respect and esteem of mankind. She then desired that a temple and altar should be erected to her on a neighbouring hill by the people of Eleusis, promising that she herself would direct them how to perform the sacred rites and ceremonies, which should be observed in her honour. With these words she took her departure never to return.


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