Persephone and Demeter

Greek Myths
A curriculum for upper elementary grades
Compiled and edited by by Dan Harper and Tessa Swartz
Copyright (c) 2014 Dan Harper and Tessa Swartz
Lesson plan and leader resources copyright (c) 2015 Dan Harper

Back to the Table of Contents | On to Session Five


Demeter still sat apart from all the blessed gods, wasting with yearning for her daughter Persephone. She caused a most dreadful and cruel year for humankind all over the earth.

The farmers and their oxen plowed the fields in vain. Farmers sowed seeds of the white barley, but the ground would not let the seed sprout. It seemed that Demeter would destroy the whole human race with cruel famine. And without humankind, the gods and goddesses who dwell on Mount Olympus would no longer receive the gifts and sacrifices that meant so much to them.

Zeus knew he must do something. First he called for golden-winged Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to bring Demeter to Mount Olympus. Iris sped with swift feet to the city of Eleusis, and found dark-cloaked Demeter in her temple.

“Demeter,” said Iris, “father Zeus, whose wisdom is everlasting, calls you to come join the tribes of the eternal gods. Come and do not ignore the command of Zeus, who rules over all the gods and goddesses.”

But Demeter’s heart was not moved, and she refused to go with Iris.

Then Zeus sent forth each of the gods and goddesses. They went to Demeter one after the other, offering many beautiful gifts, and godly rights and privileges.

But Demeter was still full of anger, and none of them could persuade her to go to Mount Olympus. Demeter said she would never set foot on fragrant Olympus, nor would she let food grow from the ground, until she saw her daughter again.

When all-seeing Zeus heard this, he called for Hermes, messenger of the gods, god of trickery and travelers and thieves. Zeus sent Hermes to the underworld, to convince Hades with soft words to allow Persephone come up from the misty gloom of the underworld, so that her mother Demeter might see her with her own eyes.

Hermes straightaway flew down to the underworld. He found Hades in his house, seated upon a couch, and his shy wife Persephone with him.

“Dark-haired Hades,” said Hermes, “you who are the ruler over the departed, Zeus bids me bring noble Persephone forth from the underworld up to the rest of the gods, so her mother may see her, and cease from her anger.

“Demeter has promised to destroy the tribes or mortal humans by letting no plants grow,” Hermes said. “But this will put an end both to humankind, and to the sacrifices and honors humans offer to us, the immortal gods.”

Hades smiled grimly and turned to obey the command of Zeus the king. “Go now, Persephone, to your dark-robed mother,” he said. “But feel kindly towards me. I could be a fitting husband for you among, I who am a brother to Zeus, the ruler of all the gods and goddesses.”

Persephone was filled with joy. She sprang up in gladness. But while she had been distracted, Hades had given her a sweet pomegranate seed to eat. For if she ate even one thing in the underworld, she would have to return there. He did not want her to remain forever with grave, dark-robed Demeter.


Above: Persephone and Hades in the underworld, as imagined by an ancient Greek artist. The painter labeled Hades with his other name, Plouton — which means “wealthy one” (Hades had control of all precious metals, etc., underground). Notice that Hades is holding a cornucopia, a symbol of wealth and plenty. (Public domain illustration from Greek Popular Religion by Martin P. Nilsson [New York: Columbia University Press, 1940], figure 25.)

Hades harnessed his deathless horses to his golden chariot. Hermes took the reins, and Persephone got in the chariot. Swiftly the horses pulled them over the long road, driving past seas and rivers, grassy plains and mountain-peaks — nothing could slow the pace of those immortal horses. At last, Hermes brought them to the fragrant temple where rich-crowned Demeter was staying.

When Demeter saw them, she rushed forth — and Persephone, when she saw her mother’s sweet eyes, leaped down from the chariot and ran to her, fell upon her neck and embraced her. But while Demeter was still holding her dear child in her arms, she began to fear that somehow they had been tricked.

“My child, tell me,” said Demeter. “Did you taste any food while you were in the underworld? If you did not taste any food in the underworld, you shall come back from loathly Hades and live with me on Mount Olympus and be honored by all the deathless gods. But if you tasted any food in the underworld, you must go back there again every year.

“If you ate any food in the underworld, you may only stay with me for two thirds of the year,” Demeter went on. “Each year when the winter returns, you must return to Hades. And when the earth blooms with fragrant flowers in the springtime, then you may return from the realm of darkness and gloom back up to this world.”

“When luck-bringing Hermes came, swift messenger from my father Zeus and the other immortal gods and goddesses,” Persephone said, “When he bid me come back from Hades so you could see me with your eyes and so cease from your anger against the gods, I sprang up at once for joy. But Hades had secretly put in my mouth sweet food, a pomegranate seed, and forced me to taste it.”

Then Demeter asked how Hades had found her, and Persephone told her about the narcissus flower in the meadow. And they embraced each other, their hearts at one. And Hecate came to them, and she too embraced the daughter of holy Demeter. From that time onwards, the lady Hecate was minister and companion to Persephone.

All-seeing Zeus called for the goddess Rhea, mother of Demeter, to be his messenger to Demeter. Rhea rushed swiftly down from the peaks of Olympus and came to the plain of Rharus — once rich, fertile farm-land, but now lying barren and leafless because Demeter had hidden the seeds.

“Come, my daughter,” said Rhea to Demeter. “Far-seeing Zeus, the loud-thunderer, calls you to join the families of the gods and goddesses. He has promised to give you what right you please among the deathless gods. He has agreed that for a third of each year, your daughter shall go down to dark and gloomy Hades. He has also said that for the rest of the year, she shall be with you and the other deathless gods and goddesses. So Zeus has declared it shall be. So he has bowed his head in token. But come, Demeter my child, obey, and leave your anger behind, and make the earth grow the fruit and food that gives mortal human beings life.”

So Demeter made fruit spring up from the rich lands, so that the whole wide earth was laden with leaves and flowers. Soon the earth was covered with waving corn, and out of the rich furrows of the fields grew grain and other crops.


Taken from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Our version of this story was adapted by Dan from a public domain translation of the Hymn from Hesiod: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914), pp. 288-325. We also referred to a more recent translation, The Homeric Hymns: A Translation with Introduction and Notes by Diane J. Rayor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), pp. 17-34.


Session Four

I/ Opening

Take attendance.

Light chalice with these words and the associated hand motions: “We light this chalice to celebrate Unitarian Universalism: the church of the open mind, the helping hands, and the loving heart.”

Check-in: Go around circle. Each child and adult says his or her name, and then may say one good thing and one bad thing that has happened in the past week (anyone may pass).

II/ Read the story “Persephone and Demeter.”

Before you read this week’s story, briefly review the story from last week: Demeter, in disguise as a human woman named Doso, had gotten a job taking care of a baby named Demophoon, who was the son of Metaneira. Demeter liked the baby, and decided she would make him immortal, so he would never die. To do this, at night she held him in the fire — since she was a goddess, the baby did not get burned in the fire, but instead he started to become immortal. But one night Metaneira surprised Demeter holding her baby in the fire, and cried out. This angered Demeter. She stopped trying to make the baby immortal, and told Metaneira that the city of Eleusis (where Metaneira was queen) now had to build a temple for Demeter, and everyone in the city had to worship Demeter.

Now read the story above.

III/ Act out the story.

Many of the children will have become familiar with the idea of acting out a story in previous Sunday school classes. This is a great story to act out!

Ask the children who are the characters in the story, and perhaps have someone (you or one of the children) write them down. Ask who wants to act out the different parts (and note that you don’t have to be the same gender as the part you’d like to act out).

Get ready to act out the story. Determine where the stage area will be. If there are any children who really don’t want to act, they can be part of the audience with you; you will sit facing the stage. Before acting out the story, talk with the actors (and the other children) about a couple of things:

(1) Demeter was angry at Zeus because he was so arrogant, and because he never thought much about other people’s feelings. How can the person acting out Zeus show that he is arrogant, and that he doesn’t care about other people’s feelings?
(2) When Demeter sees Persephone, she feels happy. When she learns that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds, she must feel sad, and angry at Zeus (again). Then Rhea tells her to stop being angry, and she does — she stops being angry. That’s a lot of different feelings in a short time! How will the actor playing Demeter show all these feelings?
(3) What do you think Persephone is feeling? —happy and excited when she hears that she can get out of the underworld? glad to see Demeter again? —sad and maybe a little scared when she realizes that she has to go back to the underworld? —do you think maybe she also is angry at Zeus? How will the actor playing Persephone show all these feelings?

Once you’ve talked these things over, try acting out the story.

III/ Think-pair-share: discussing the story

Tell the children the following:

“We usually think that this myth explains why there is winter. But the climate in Greece is like the climate in California — winter is the rainy season, the land turns green and comes to life again, and farmers can grow crops all through the winter.

“So maybe this myth is NOT trying to explain why there is winter. Instead, maybe this myth is trying to show us the cycle of life — that if nothing died then pretty soon there would be no room on earth for any new life, and on the other hand if there were never any new life that would be just as bad. So perhaps this myth is telling us that life and death are related to each other, that you cannot have life without death, and you cannot have death without life.

“What do you think about this explanation for the myth of Persephone?”

Now ask the children to THINK for a few moments (maybe ten to fifteen seconds) about how they would answer this question.

Then quickly PAIR up each child with the person next to them (if you have an odd number, there will be a group of three). Tell them to talk about their answers with their partners for a few moments (maybe fifteen to thirty seconds).

Now ask everyone to SHARE their own answer with the whole group. Repeat the question, and go around the circle, asking each child to give their answer.

IV/ Review the entire story

Act out a speed version of the story:

“Zeus, ruler of the gods and goddesses, decided to marry off Persephone. Without telling Persephone’s mother, Demeter, Zeus got his brother Hades, god of the underworld, to carry her off to the underworld. Demeter searched everywhere for her daughter, and at last learned from Helios, god of the sun, that Hades had taken Persephone to the underworld. Upon learning this, Demeter put on a disguise, and went to wander the towns and fields where humans lived.

“After her daughter Persephone disappeared, the goddess Demeter disguised herself as a mortal human being, an old woman named Doso. She went to the city of Eleusis, and there she was welcomed by the daughters of Metaneira, queen of Eleusis. Demeter, disguised as Doso, told Metaneira a tale about being abducted by pirates. Feeling sorry for her, Metaneira gave Doso a job taking care of her baby boy, Demophoon.

“Demeter, in disguise as a human woman named Doso, had gotten a job taking care of a baby named Demophoon, who was the son of Metaneira. Demeter liked the baby, and decided she would make him immortal, so he would never die. To do this, at night she held him in the fire — since she was a goddess, the baby did not get burned in the fire, but instead he started to become immortal. But one night Metaneira surprised Demeter holding her baby in the fire, and cried out. This angered Demeter. She stopped trying to make the baby immortal, and told Metaneira that the city of Eleusis (where Metaneira was queen) now had to build a temple for Demeter, and everyone in the city had to worship Demeter.

“Demeter was still mad at Zeus, and so she refused to let anything grow on earth. The humans started dying off. Zeus knew he had to do something, so he told all the gods and goddesses to go offer presents to Demeter. But she wouldn’t listen. At last, Zeus told Hermes to persuade Hades to let Persephone go back to the upper world. Hades let her go, but before she left she ate some pomegranate seeds. Demeter was overjoyed to see her daughter again, but then she learned that Persephone had eaten those seeds, and therefore she would have to go back to the underworld for a part of every year. Zeus had to send Demeter’s mother down to keep her from being angry again. At last, Demeter let things start growing on earth once again.”

Now ask the children some open-ended questions:

(1) The ancient Greek gods and goddesses were not all good. In this story, Zeus is arrogant and uncaring. Then to get back at him, Demeter causes a lot of humans to die. What do you think of this? Should gods and goddesses always be perfectly good? Why, or why not?

(2) In this story, one male god, Zeus, has the most power — and he does some pretty stupid things, which anger other gods and goddesses. So it seems like it is not such a good idea to have one male god who is in charge of everything. Do you think things would work better if a female goddess Demeter were in charge? (Remember that her actions cause a lot of humans to die!) What if the gods and goddesses had rules and laws that they had to obey — would that work better?

V/ Free play

If you need to fill more time, you could play a game of some kind, or some other fun activity. Just make sure you have everyone come together for a closing circle before you’re done.

VI/ Closing circle

Before leaving, have the children stand in a circle. Rather than hold hands, try having the children gently touch toes with their neighbors on either side.

When the children are in a circle, ask them what they did today, and prompt them with questions and answers, e.g.: “What happened in the story we heard today? What did Demeter do, and why? etc.” You’re not trying to put any one child on the spot, but rather drawing on the wisdom of the group as a whole. If any parents have come to pick up their children, invite them to join the circle (so they can know what it is their children learned about this week).

End by saying together some closing words. At the UU Church of Palo Alto, we like to say the same closing words each week (we post these words in the classroom so everyone can see them):

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

Then before you all go, tell the children how you enjoyed seeing them (assuming that’s true), and that you look forward to seeing them again next week.



Persephone and the myth of winter

Usually, the myth of Persephone spending one third of the year in the underworld is supposed to explain why we have winter. But the climate in Greece is very like the climate in parts of California — winter is the rainy season, when the earth is green, and plants are growing. Martin Nilsson makes this point in his book Greek Popular Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), p. 51:

“For people who live in a northerly country, where the soil is frozen and covered by snow and ice during the winter and where the season during which everything sprouts and is green comprises about two thirds of the year, it is only natural to think that the Corn Maiden [Persephone] is absent during the four winter months and dwells in the upper world during the eight months of vegetation. And, in fact, this is what most people do think. But it is an ill-considered opinion, for it does not take into account the climatic conditions of Greece. In that country the corn [i.e., grain: barley or wheat] is sown in October. The crops sprout immediately, and they grow and thrive during our winter except for the two or three coldest weeks in January, when they come to a standstill for a short time. Snow is extremely rare and soon melts away. The crops ripen and are reaped in May and threshed in June. This description refers to Attica. The climate is of course different in the mountains, but Eleusis is situated in Attica. The cornfields are green and the crops grow and thrive during our winter, and yet we are asked to believe that the Corn Maiden is absent during this period. There is a period of about four months from the threshing in June to the autumn sowing in October during which the fields are barren and desolate; they are burned by the sun, and not a green stalk is seen on them. Yet we are asked to believe that during these four months the Corn Maiden is present. Obviously she is absent….”

Nilsson’s book is a bit dated now. Nevertheless, he reminds us that when the ancient Greeks thought of winter, they were not thinking of the stereotypical North American idea of winter, a time of snow and ice and cold.

But if this is not a myth about why it snows in winter, then what is it about?

Dr. Mara Lynn Keller, currently professor of women’s spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies, offers a feminist interpretation of the myth. Dr. Keller asserts that the myth of Demeter and Persephone focusses on “three interrelated dimensions of life: (1) fertility and birth; (2) sexuality and marriage; and (3) death and rebirth” (“The Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone: Fertility, Sexuality, and Rebirth,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, spring, 1988, vol. 4, no. 1, p. 31). Keller states that there is evidence to show this myth is an allegory of the role of women in developing agriculture:

“Some archaeologists and anthropologists conclude that plant domestication and thus the gift of agriculture came through women. This theory is corroborated by the mythic core of the Eleusinian Mysteries, where Demeter is said to give the gift of grain to the people and instruct them in the rites to be continued in her name.” (ibid., p. 31)

Further, Keller identifies Hecate as a grandmother figure, so the myth also is about cross-generational bonds: “The story of Persephone, Demeter and Hecate lets us see the loving bonds of daughter, mother, and grandmother. During the epoch of the Goddess religions, women were honored at all stages of life.” (ibid., p. 39) It is a story that started out as an allegory of the cycle of life. Later on, as patriarchal cultures moved in and conquered the older Goddess-worshiping matriarchal cultures, women were relegated to a secondary role. That would imply that this myth comes from that later patriarchal era, when a male god can force a female goddess into marriage — violating in the process those cross-generational bonds — without her consent or even prior knowledge.

This feminist interpretation of the myth has been hotly debated, and some scholars argue that the archaeological evidence does not fully support such an interpretation. Whether or not that is the case, this myth offers plenty of fodder for examining gender roles and the ways women may be dominated by men.

There are, of course, plenty of other interpretations. Dr. Eric Huntsman, professor of ancient scripture, classics and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Brigham Young University, summarizes some of the better-known interpretations of this myth in his lecture notes to Classical Civilization 241 (accessed 13 August 2014). Dr. Huntsman says this myth could be interpreted as:

— a myth related to the establishment of the Eleusinian Mysteries
— a nature myth about seed growth, and rebirth: Demeter allows no seeds to sprout on earth, when Persephone eats a seed she must return beneath the earth
— a myth about gender roles: females must struggle to define themselves in a world run by males
— a psychological myth about a young woman and her mother adjusting to the young woman’s marriage
— a psychological myth about a young woman growing up and figuring out her sexual identity

In short, this myth is not some pre-scientific attempt to explain why there are seasons!

I would like to suggest that there is at least some truth in several of these interpretations. Like a good poem, this myth contains multiple layers of truth and meaning, and these layers do not reveal themselves right away. Perhaps it is best that the layers of meaning reveal themselves slowly, over time. Emily Dickson could have been talking about the myth of Demeter and Persephone when she wrote:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

[poem #1263]

More about feminist interpretations of ancient Greek myths

Some thinkers, most notably archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, have theorized that the earliest European cultures were peaceful matriarchal societies. Then waves of Indo-European invaders swept in and imposed a hierarchical, male-dominated culture on top of the older, peaceful, woman-centered civilizations. This is a widely-held theory in Unitarian Universalism, popularized in part by the 1986 adult curriculum “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven.”

According to this theory, at one time it was the Greek goddesses who were most powerful. Then, when patriarchal human invaders conquered the peaceful matristic Greek cultures, the religions reflected this new human reality by making Zeus and the other gods more powerful than the goddesses.

It is important for teachers of this course to remember that many archaeologists and historians do not find sufficient evidence to state that the earliest European civilizations were peaceful, woman-centered cultures. Some scholars, like Cathy Gere in her book Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), argue that such reconstructions of ancient cultures may instead serve as a kind of modernist myth:

“That the ‘first Europeans’ were unwarlike quickly became a cherished myth. As the twentieth century launched conflicts of ever greater reach and ferocity, the Minoan epoch came increasingly to be celebrated as the pacifist precursor to Homer’s militaristic age of heros, a luminous, feminine, fairy-tale exception to an otherwise lamentable human record of violence and hatred.” (p. 12)

One of the central values of Unitarian Universalists is the value of skepticism: we value skepticism because it keeps us from descending into dogma and orthodoxy. As Unitarian Universalists, we should remain skeptical of the notion that ancient Greece, and ancient Europe more generally, was a placid, woman-centered land where everyone worshipped the Great Goddess in peace and harmony. And we should remain equally skeptical of the notion that gods are always more powerful than goddesses, that men have always been more powerful than women, and that all this represents the normal state of being for humans.

On the Web site for the new revised edition of the Cakes for the Queen of Heaven curriculum, Nancy Irons writes: “While we can never know for sure what beliefs and values were held by ancient people, there can be more than one interpretation of the facts that we do know…. It is necessary for original material to be revisited and re-evaluated from new perspectives to see if old interpretations still hold true or if new interpretations are more appropriate.” ( accessed 20 August 2014).

We would add one other observation: The more we learned about ancient Greek myths and ancient Greek religions, the more we had to re-assess our assumptions. Certainly it is worth studying Demeter if for no other reason than to see how a powerful goddess thwarts the supposedly all-powerful Zeus. But it may be more important to study ancient Greek myths to challenge some of our unexamined assumptions about what it means to be human.


Demeter and Triptolemus

There is yet another part of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. If you have time, you may want to present this to the children — or you may be interested in this story yourself.


When Persephone returned to her mother from the underworld, and Demeter grew happy once more, she came back to Eleusis.

First Demeter showed Triptolemus and others how to conduct religious rites in her honor, and she taught them her mysteries. These mysteries filled mortal humans with awe when they were initiated into the cult of Demeter. And no one who was initiated into the Mysteries at Eleusis ever told about them, for deep awe of Demeter and the other gods and goddesses stopped them from speaking. Happy is the mortal among all humans on earth who has seen these mysteries; and those who are initiated into the religion may hope for better things when they finally die and go the underworld with Hades. As for those who were never initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis — once they die, they could count on having nothing good down in the darkness and gloom of the underworld.

Then Demeter had Triptolemus bring wheat to all humankind. She went to the stable where she kept her pair of dragons, also known as the Sacred Serpents. She harnessed them to her chariot, and drove from the stable back to Triptolemus. Demeter gave him seed to scatter all over the world, telling him to sow the seed partly in land that had never been farmed before, and partly in farm fields that had been lying fallow since the beginning of the famine.

Triptolemus rode high in the sky, driving the chariot through all of Europe in into the realms of Asia. At last he came to the land of Scythia, where King Lynchus ruled. He landed the chariot, and entered the king’s palace.

“What is your name and where are you from?” said King Lynchus. “How did you get here, and what brings you to Scythia?”

“I am from Athens, that famous country,” said Triptolemus. “My name is Triptolemus. No boat brought me by sea, nor did I come on foot by land. I came via the sky, which lay wide to give me way. I bring the gifts of the goddess Demeter.” Triptolemus held out seeds of wheat to show to King Lynchus. “If you sow these wide over your farm lands, they will give you back bountiful harvests, gentle nourishment.”

When he heard this story, the uncivilized King Lynchus was jealous of Triptolemus. The King wanted to gain the glory of bringing the gift of wheat. He offered Triptolemus great quantities of food and drink, and soon his guest had eaten and drunk so much that he fell fast asleep.
When King Lynchus was certain that Triptolemus was fast asleep, he went to get a dagger. He attacked his guest with the dagger, intending to kill him on the spot. But as he tried to stab Triptolemus, Demeter transformed the king into a lynx.

When he was done with his task, Triptolemus flew home again to Eleusis. And there he lived, gaining a reputation as a fair and just man. When at last he died, he became one of the judges in the underworld, along with three others who were just and wise in their lifetimes, Minos and Rhadymanthys and Aeacus. In his lifetime, Triptolemus brought the life-giving gift of agriculture to humankind, which allowed them to become something more than animals. In his death, as a judge in the underworld, he provides sweeter hopes to the dead, regarding the end of life and all eternity.

And when the bright goddess Demeter had taught Triptolemus and the other mortal kings all they needed to know, she went to Mount Olympus to live with the other immortal gods and goddesses. As for Persephone, she lived for one third of the year in the underworld, and for the rest of the year joined her mother on Mount Olympus. There they lived, the two awe-inspiring goddesses, next to Zeus who delights in thunder.


Above: How one artist imagined Triptolemus. Public domain illustration from Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus, 1897).