LLR Books

CERES AND PROSERPINA.



[Sidenote: Ceres and Proserpina.]

Ceres (Demeter), daughter of Cronus and Rhea, and one of Jupiter's
numerous consorts, was goddess of agriculture and civilization. Her
manifold cares were shared by her daughter, Proserpina (Cora,
Pherephatta, Persephone), the goddess of vegetation. Whenever her
duties permitted, this fair young goddess hastened off to the Island
of Sicily, her favorite place of resort, where she wandered about all
day long, attended by a merry girlish train, gathering flowers, on the
green slopes of Mount Ætna, and danced with the nymphs in the
beautiful plain of Enna.

One day, weary of labor, Proserpina called these fair playmates to
join her and spend a merry day gathering flowers.

                      "And one fair morn--
    Not all the ages blot it--on the side
    Of Ætna we were straying. There was then
    Summer nor winter, springtide nor the time
    Of harvest, but the soft unfailing sun
    Shone always, and the sowing time was one
    With reaping."

                               Lewis Morris.

[Sidenote: Pluto kidnaps Proserpina.]

The maidens sang merry lays as they wound their long garlands; and
their joyous voices and ripples of silvery laughter attracted the
attention of Pluto, just then driving past in his dark chariot drawn
by four fiery coal-black steeds. To ascertain whence these sounds
proceeded, the god stepped out of his car, and cautiously peeped
through the thick foliage.

He saw Proserpina sitting on a mossy bank, almost buried in many-hued
blossoms, her laughing companions picturesquely grouped around her.
One glance sufficed to convince Pluto of her loveliness and grace, and
to make him feel that his happiness depended on the possession of this
bright young creature.

Long ere this, he had tried to persuade one after another of the
goddesses to share his gloomy throne; but one and all had refused the
honor, and declined to accompany him to a land where the sun never
shone, the birds never sang, and the flowers never bloomed. Hurt and
disappointed by these rebuffs, Pluto had finally registered a solemn
vow never to go wooing again; and so, instead of gently inviting
Proserpina to become his queen, he resolved to kidnap her.

Straight through the bushes he strode, direct to the spot where she
was seated. The noise of crackling branches and hasty footsteps made
the assembled maidens swiftly turn. One glance sufficed to identify
the intruder, for none but he could boast of such a dark, lowering
countenance; and all exclaimed in mingled wonder and terror at his
unwonted presence in those sunlit regions.

    "'Tis he, 'tis he: he comes to us
    From the depths of Tartarus.
    For what of evil doth he roam
    From his red and gloomy home,
    In the center of the world,
    Where the sinful dead are hurled?
    Mark him as he moves along,
    Drawn by horses black and strong,
    Such as may belong to Night
    Ere she takes her morning flight.
    Now the chariot stops: the god
    On our grassy world hath trod:
    Like a Titan steppeth he,
    Yet full of his divinity.
    On his mighty shoulders lie
    Raven locks, and in his eye
    A cruel beauty, such as none
    Of us may wisely look upon."

                             Barry Cornwall.

Frightened by his impetuous approach, the trembling nymphs first
crowded around Proserpina, who, in her astonishment and trepidation,
dropped all her pretty flowers and stood motionless among them. Her
uncertainty as to his purpose was only momentary, for, catching her in
his brawny arms ere she could make an attempt to escape, he bore her
off to his chariot, in spite of prayers and struggles, and drove away
as fast as his fleet steeds could carry him.

He was soon out of hearing of the wild cries and lamentations of the
nymphs, who vainly pursued him, and tried to overtake their beloved
mistress. Afraid lest Ceres should come and force him to relinquish
his new-won treasure, Pluto drove faster and faster, nor paused for an
instant until he reached the banks of the Cyane River, whose waters,
at his approach, began to seethe and roar in a menacing fashion, and
spread themselves as much as possible, to check him in his flight.

Pluto quickly perceived that to attempt to cross the river in his
chariot would be madness, while by retracing his footsteps he ran the
risk of meeting Ceres, and being forced to relinquish his prize. He
therefore decided to have recourse to other means, and, seizing his
terrible two-pronged fork, struck the earth such a mighty blow, that a
great crevice opened under his feet, through which horses and chariot
plunged down into the darkness of the Lower World.

Proserpina turned her weeping eyes to catch a parting glimpse of the
fair earth she was leaving, and then, with a fond thought of her
anxious mother, who, when evening came, would vainly seek her child in
all her favorite haunts, she quickly flung her girdle into the Cyane,
and called to the water nymph to carry it to Ceres.

Elated by the complete success of his bold venture, and no longer
fearful of immediate pursuit, the happy god strained his fair captive
to his breast, pressed kisses on her fresh young cheeks, and tried to
calm her terrors, as the black steeds rushed faster and faster along
the dark passage, nor paused until they reached the foot of their
master's throne.

    "Pleased as he grasps her in his iron arms,
    Frights with soft sighs, with tender words alarms."

                                     Darwin.

[Sidenote: Ceres' 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.

    "What ails her that she comes not home?
      Demeter seeks her far and wide,
    And gloomy-browed doth ceaseless roam
      From many a morn till eventide.
    'My life, immortal though it be,
    Is naught!' she cries, 'for want of thee,
    Persephone--Persephone!'"

                                    Ingelow.

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.

Weary at last of her hopeless quest, the goddess seated herself by
the wayside, near the city of Eleusis, and gave way to her
overwhelming grief.

    "Long was thine anxious search
    For lovely Proserpine, nor didst thou break
    Thy mournful fast, till the far-fam'd Eleusis
    Received thee wandering."

                                Orphic Hymn.

[Sidenote: Ceres and Triptolemus.]

To avoid recognition, she had assumed the appearance of an aged crone;
and as she sat there by the wayside, in tears, she attracted the
compassionate inquiries of the daughters of Celeus, king of the
country. Having heard her bewail the loss of her child, they entreated
her to come to the palace, and, knowing nothing could so well soothe a
breaking heart, offered her the charge of their infant brother
Triptolemus.

Ceres, touched by their ready sympathy, accepted the offer; and when
she arrived at the palace, the royal heir was intrusted to her care.
Tenderly the goddess kissed the puny child's little pinched face; and
at her touch the child became rosy and well, to the unbounded
astonishment of the royal family and all the court.

In the night, while Ceres sat alone with her charge, it occurred to
her that she might confer a still greater blessing upon him, that of
immortality: so she anointed his limbs with nectar, murmured a
powerful charm, and placed him upon the red-hot coals, to consume all
the perishable elements left in his body.

The queen, Metaneira, who had thought it somewhat imprudent to leave
the child thus alone with a stranger, now stole noiselessly into the
apartment, and with a wild shriek rushed to the fire and snatched her
child out of the flames, pressed him anxiously to her breast, and,
after ascertaining that he was quite unharmed, turned to vent her
indignation upon the careless nurse; but the aged beggar woman had
vanished, and in her stead she confronted the radiant Goddess of
Agriculture.


              "From her fragrant robes
    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 splendor."

                               Homeric Hymn.

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.

[Sidenote: Arethusa and Alpheus.]

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.

  [Illustration: A NYMPH.--Kray.]

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 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.

      "'O Arethusa, peerless nymph! why fear
    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.'"

                                      Keats.

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.

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.

    "Alpheus, Elis' stream, they say,
    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.

    "O my beloved, how divinely sweet
    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.
    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."

                                      Moore.

[Sidenote: Ceres' mourning.]

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.

    "Arise, and set the maiden free;
    Why should the world such sorrow dree
    By reason of Persephone?"

                                    Ingelow.

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.

                      "Last, Zeus himself,
    Pitying the evil that was done, sent forth
    His messenger beyond the western rim
    To fetch me back to earth."

                               Lewis Morris.

[Sidenote: The pomegranate seeds.]

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.

    "And when, in springtime, with sweet-smelling flowers
    Of various kinds the earth doth bloom, thou'lt come
    From gloomy darkness back--a mighty joy
    To gods and mortal men."

                               Homeric Hymn.

[Sidenote: Proserpina's return.]

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.

[Sidenote: Worship of Ceres.]

Many beautiful temples were dedicated to Ceres and Proserpina in
Greece and Italy, where yearly festivals, the Thesmophoria and the
Cerealia, were celebrated with great pomp.

    "To Ceres chief her annual rites be paid,
    On the green turf, beneath a fragrant shade,
    When winter ends, and spring serenely shines,
    Then fat the lambs, then mellow are the wines,
    Then sweet are slumbers on the flowery ground,
    Then with thick shades are lofty mountains crown'd.
    Let all the hinds bend low at Ceres' shrine;
    Mix honey sweet, for her, with milk and mellow wine;
    Thrice lead the victim the new fruits around,
    And Ceres call, and choral hymns resound:
    Presume not, swains, the ripen'd grain to reap,
    Till crown'd with oak in antic dance ye leap,
    Invoking Ceres, and in solemn lays,
    Exalt your rural queen's immortal praise."

                     Virgil (C. Pitt's tr.).

To commemorate her long search for her daughter, Ceres returned to
Eleusis, taught her former nursling, Triptolemus, the various secrets
of agriculture, and gave him her chariot, bidding him travel
everywhere, and teach the people how to plow, sow, and reap; and then
she instituted the Eleusinia, festivals held in honor of her daughter
and herself at Eleusis.

Triptolemus did not fail to carry out the goddess's instructions, and
journeyed far and wide, until he finally reached the court of Lyncus,
King of Scythia, where the false monarch would have treacherously
slain him had not Ceres by timely interference prevented the execution
of his base purpose by changing the traitor into a lynx, the emblem of
perfidy.

Ceres was generally represented as a fair, matronly woman, clad in
flowing draperies, sometimes crowned with wheat ears, and bearing a
sheaf of grain and a sickle, or with a plow and a horn of plenty
disgorging its wealth of fruit and flowers at her feet. Groves were
frequently dedicated to her; and any mortal rash enough to lay the ax
on one of these sacred trees was sure to incur the goddess's wrath, as
is proved by the story of Erisichthon.

[Sidenote: Story of Erisichthon.]

This man was evidently a freethinker, and, to show his contempt for
the superstitious veneration paid to Ceres' trees, took his ax and cut
down one of her sacred oaks. At his first blow, blood began to flow
from the tree; but, undeterred by the phenomenon or the entreaties of
the bystanders, Erisichthon continued. Finally, annoyed by the
importunities of the spectators, he turned and slew one or two, and
then completed his sacrilege.

Ceres, incensed by his insolence and cruelty, devised a terrible
chastisement for the unfortunate man, and sent Famine to gnaw his
vitals, and torment him night and day. The wretch, tortured by a
hunger which no amount of food could allay, disposed of all his
property to obtain the means of procuring nourishment; but his
monstrous appetite continued, and, as he had but one daughter left, he
sold her as a slave to obtain food.

The girl's master left her alone for a moment upon the seashore, and,
in answer to her prayer, Neptune delivered her from servitude by
changing her into a fisherman. When the master returned and found his
slave gone, he questioned the fisherman, and, not obtaining any
satisfactory information, departed. Neptune then restored the maiden
to her own form, and let her return home; but, as her father sold her
again, the god was obliged to interfere once more in her behalf, until
at last Erisichthon, deprived of means to procure food, devoured
himself.

[Sidenote: Ceres and Stellio.]

Another anecdote illustrating Ceres' power is told about a lad,
Stellio, who made fun of the goddess when she was journeying, on
account of the haste with which she disposed of a bowl of gruel
offered by some charitable person. To punish the boy for his rudeness,
Ceres flung the remainder of her gruel into his face, and changed him
into a lizard.