Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art
Page: 87Ceres’ search.
In the mean while the sun had sunk below the Sicilian horizon; and Ceres, returning from the fields of fast-ripening grain to her own dwelling, sought for the missing Proserpina, of whom no trace could be found except the scattered flowers. Hither and thither the mother wandered, calling her daughter, and wondering where she could be, and why she did not come bounding to meet her. As time passed, and still Proserpina did not appear, Ceres’ heart beat fast with apprehension, and the tears coursed down her cheeks as she rushed about from place to place, calling her daughter.
Night came, and Ceres, kindling a torch at the volcanic fires of Mount Ætna, continued her search. Day dawned, and still the mother called, awakening the morning echoes with her longing cries for her child. Her daily duties were all neglected. The rain no longer refreshed the drooping flowers, the grain was parched by the ardent rays of the sun, and the grass all perished, while Ceres roamed over hill and dale in search of Proserpina.
A lovely scent was scattered, and afar
Shone light emitted from her skin divine,
And yellow locks upon her shoulders waved;
White as from lightning, all the house was filled
With a gentle reproof to the queen for her untimely interference, Ceres explained what she fain would have done, and vanished, to continue her wanderings in other lands. She finally returned to Italy; and, while wandering along the river banks one day, the waters suddenly cast a glittering object at her feet. Stooping hastily to ascertain what it might be, she recognized the girdle her daughter had worn when she had parted from her in Sicily.
Joyfully she embraced the token, and, thinking she must now be upon Proserpina’s track, hastened on until she came to a crystal fountain, by whose side she sat down to rest. Her eyes were heavy with the combined effect of tears, fatigue, and oppressive heat, and she was about to lose all consciousness of her trouble in sleep, when the murmur of the fountain increased, until she fancied it was talking; not as mortals do, but in its own silvery accents.
The goddess was not mistaken; for a few minutes later she could distinguish words, and heard the fountain entreat her to listen, if she would hear what had befallen her child. The fountain then went on to tell how she had not always been a mere stream, but was once a nymph, called Arethusa, in Diana’s train, and how, overcome by the heat, she had once sought a cool stream wherein she might bathe her heated limbs.
She soon found one, the Alpheus River, and selected a spot where the trees hung over the limpid waters, where the sand on the bottom was fine and even, and where no mortal eyes could see her as she threw aside her sandals and outer garments. She was enjoying the refreshing sensation of the water rippling [Pg 192] around her hot limbs, and was reveling in the complete solitude, when suddenly the river, until now as smooth as a mirror, was ruffled by waves, which crept nearer and nearer to the startled nymph, until in affright she sprang out of the water.
Then a voice—the voice of the river god Alpheus—was heard, calling to her in pleading accents to stay her flight and lend an ear to his wooing; but when the impetuous god, instead of waiting for an answer to his suit, rose up out of the water and rushed to clasp her in his arms, she turned and fled in great terror. She fled, but he pursued. Over hill and dale, through forest and field, Arethusa ran, still closely followed by her too ardent lover, until, exhausted, she paused for breath, crying aloud to Diana to come to her rescue.
Her prayer was answered. A moment later she was enveloped in a thick mist and transformed into a fountain. Alpheus could no longer see her, but wandered about, bewailing her disappearance, and calling her in passionate accents.
Such tenderness as mine? Great Dian, why,
Why didst thou hear her prayer? Oh that I
Were rippling round her dainty fairness now,
Circling about her waist, and striving how
To entice her to a dive! then stealing in
Between her luscious lips and eyelids thin.’”
The misty cloud in which Arethusa had been enveloped by Diana’s protecting care was soon blown away by a mischievous breath from Zephyrus; and Alpheus, who was still hovering near there, suddenly beholding a fountain where none had ever existed before, surmised what had happened. Changing himself into an impetuous torrent, he rushed to join his beloved, who sprang out of her mossy bed, and hurried on over sticks and stones, until Diana, seeing her new plight, opened a crevice, through which she glided away from the bright sunlight she loved so well into the depths of Pluto’s realm.
[Pg 193] While gliding there in the gloom, Arethusa had caught a glimpse of Proserpina on her sable throne, beside the stern-browed Pluto. She could not, however, pause to inquire how she came there, but hurried on breathlessly, until another crevice offered her the means of returning to the upper world, and seeing once more the blue sky and sun on the Sicilian plains.
The monotonous murmur of the fountain now subsided again into its usual undertone; and Ceres, knowing where to seek her daughter, was about to depart, when she heard the sudden rush and roar of a large body of water. She immediately turned, and beheld the torrent Alpheus, who, after a disconsolate search underground for the lost Arethusa, had found a crevice, through which he passed to join his beloved on the Sicilian plains.
Beneath the seas here found his way,
And now his waters interfuse
With thine, O fountain Arethuse,
Beneath Sicilian skies.”
Virgil (Conington’s tr.).
In spite of her previous efforts to escape him, Arethusa must still have been very glad to see him once more, for Ceres heard her murmur contentedly as she sank into his arms and listened to his louder tones of rapturous love.
Maidens in Greece were wont to throw fresh garlands into the Alpheus River; and it was said the selfsame flowers, carried away by his current, soon reappeared in the Sicilian fountain, carried there as love offerings by the enamored river.
Is the pure joy when kindred spirits meet!
Like him, the river god, whose waters flow,
With love their only light, through caves below,
Wafting in triumph all the flowery braids
And festal rings, with which Olympic maids
Have decked his current, an offering meet
To lay at Arethusa’s shining feet.
[Pg 194] Think when at last he meets his fountain bride
What perfect love must thrill the blended tide!
And lost in each, till mingling into one,
Their lot the same for shadow or for sun,
A type of true love, to the deep they run.”
Now, although poor Ceres had ascertained where to find her missing daughter, her grief was not at all diminished, for she felt convinced that Pluto would never willingly relinquish her. She therefore withdrew into a dark cave to mourn unseen, and still further neglected her wonted duties.
Famine threatened to visit the people, and they prayed and clamored for her aid; but, absorbed in grief, she paid no heed to their distress, and vowed that nothing on earth should grow, with her permission, as long as her daughter was detained in Hades. In despair at this frightful state of affairs, the people then besought Jupiter to pity the sufferings they endured, and to allow Proserpina to revisit the upper world once more.
Why should the world such sorrow dree
By reason of Persephone?”
As soon as she became aware of this petition, Ceres hastened to Olympus, to join her supplications to the cries which rose from all parts of the earth; until Jupiter, wearied by these importunities, consented to Proserpina’s return, upon condition, however, that she had not touched any food during the whole time of her sojourn in the Infernal Regions.
Pitying the evil that was done, sent forth
His messenger beyond the western rim
To fetch me back to earth.”
[Pg 195] Ceres in person hastened to her daughter’s new abode, and was about to lead her away in spite of Pluto, when a spirit, Ascalaphus, suddenly declared that the queen had partaken of some pomegranate seeds that very day. Proserpina could not refute the charge, and Jupiter decreed that for every seed she had eaten she should spend one month of every year in her husband’s gloomy kingdom.
Thus it came about that Proserpina was condemned to spend one half the year in Hades, and could linger on the bright earth only for six months at a time.
Mercury was chosen to lead her to and from Hades; and, whenever he brought her out of her gloomy prison, the skies became blue and sunny, the grass sprang fresh and green beneath her elastic tread, the flowers bloomed along her way, the birds trilled forth their merry lays, and all was joy and brightness.
Of various kinds the earth doth bloom, thou’lt come
From gloomy darkness back—a mighty joy
To gods and mortal men.”
Ceres, happy once more in the possession of her beloved daughter, cheerfully and diligently attended to all her duties, and blessed the earth with plenty; but when the six months were over, and the skies wept and all nature mourned Proserpina’s departure, she again returned to her cave, whence no entreaties could draw her.
As for the merry, happy-natured Proserpina, the moment Hades’ portals closed behind her, she became pale and melancholy; and none would have dreamed the playful, flower-crowned Goddess of Vegetation was identical with the sad-faced, sable-vested Queen of Hades (now called Hecate), who held a pomegranate in one hand, and a torch in the other. Proserpina, like Adonis, was the personification of vegetation, visibly prosperous during the six favorable months of the year, and lurking hidden under the cold ground during the remainder of the time.