"Sacred Goddess, Mother Earth,
Thou from whose immortal bosom,
Gods, and men, and beasts have birth,
Leaf and blade, and bud and blossom,
Breathe thine influence most divine
On thine own child, Proserpine.
If with mists of evening dew
Thou dost nourish those young flowers
Till they grow, in scent and hue,
Fairest children of the hours,
Breathe thine influence most divine
On thine own child, Proserpine."
The story of Persephone—of Proserpine—is a story of spring. When the sun is warming the bare brown earth, and the pale primroses look up through the snowy blackthorns at a kind, blue sky, almost can we hear the soft wind murmur a name as it gently sways the daffodils and breathes through the honey sweetness of the gold-powdered catkins on the grey willows by the river—"Persephone! Persephone!"
Now once there was a time when there was no spring, neither summer nor autumn, nor chilly winter with its black frosts and cruel gales and brief, dark days. Always was there sunshine and warmth, ever were there flowers and corn and fruit, and nowhere did the flowers grow with more dazzling colours and more fragrant perfume than in the fair garden of Sicily.
To Demeter, the Earth Mother, was born a daughter more fair than any flower that grew, and ever more dear to her became her child, the lovely Proserpine. By the blue sea, in the Sicilian meadows, Proserpine and the fair nymphs who were her companions spent their happy days. Too short were the days for all their joy, and Demeter made the earth yet fairer than it was that she might bring more gladness to her daughter Proserpine. Each day the blossoms that the nymphs twined into garlands grew more perfect in form and in hue, but from the anemones of royal purple and crimson, and the riotous red of geraniums, Proserpine turned one morning with a cry of gladness, for there stood before her beside a little stream, on one erect, slim stem, a wonderful narcissus, with a hundred blossoms. Her eager hand was stretched out to pluck it, when a sudden black cloud overshadowed the land, and the nymphs, with shrieks of fear, fled swiftly away. And as the cloud descended, there was heard a terrible sound, as of the rushing of many waters or the roll of the heavy wheels of the chariot of one who comes to slay. Then was the earth cleft open, and from it there arose the four coal-black horses of Pluto, neighing aloud in their eagerness, while the dark-browed god urged them on, standing erect in his car of gold.
"'The coal-black horses rise—they rise,
O mother, mother!' low she cries—
'O light, light, light!' she cries, 'farewell;
The coal-black horses wait for me.
O shade of shades, where I must dwell,
Demeter, mother, far from thee!'"
In cold, strong arms Pluto seized her—in that mighty grasp that will not be denied, and Proserpine wept childish tears as she shivered at his icy touch, and sobbed because she had dropped the flowers she had picked, and had never picked the flower she most desired. While still she saw the fair light of day, the little oddly-shaped rocky hills, the vineyards and olive groves and flowery meadows of Sicily, she did not lose hope. Surely the King of Terrors could not steal one so young, so happy, and so fair. She had only tasted the joy of living, and fain she would drink deeper in the coming years. Her mother must surely save her—her mother who had never yet failed her—her mother, and the gods.
But ruthless as the mower whose scythe cuts down the seeded grass and the half-opened flower and lays them in swathes on the meadow, Pluto drove on. His iron-coloured reins were loose on the black manes of his horses, and he urged them forward by name till the froth flew from their mouths like the foam that the furious surf of the sea drives before it in a storm. Across the bay and along the bank of the river Anapus they galloped, until, at the river head, they came to the pool of Cyane. He smote the water with his trident, and downward into the blackness of darkness his horses passed, and Proserpine knew no more the pleasant light of day.
"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 nought,' she cries, 'for want of thee,
So, to the great Earth Mother came the pangs that have drawn tears of blood from many a mortal mother's heart for a child borne off to the Shades.
"'My life is nought for want of thee,—
Persephone! Persephone!'" . . .
The cry is borne down through the ages, to echo and re-echo so long as mothers love and Death is still unchained.
Over land and sea, from where Dawn, the rosy-fingered, rises in the East, to where Apollo cools the fiery wheels of his chariot in the waters of far western seas, the goddess sought her daughter. With a black robe over her head and carrying a flaming torch in either hand, for nine dreary days she sought her loved one. And yet, for nine more weary days and nine sleepless nights the goddess, racked by human sorrow, sat in hopeless misery. The hot sun beat upon her by day. By night the silver rays from Diana's car smote her more gently, and the dew drenched her hair and her black garments and mingled with the saltness of her bitter tears. At the grey dawning of the tenth day her elder daughter, Hecate, stood beside her. Queen of ghosts and shades was she, and to her all dark places of the earth were known.
"Let us go to the Sun God," said Hecate. "Surely he hath seen the god who stole away the little Proserpine. Soon his chariot will drive across the heavens. Come, let us ask him to guide us to the place where she is hidden."
Thus did they come to the chariot of the glorious Apollo, and standing by the heads of his horses like two grey clouds that bar the passage of the sun, they begged him to tell them the name of him who had stolen fair Proserpine.
"No less a thief was he," said Apollo, "than Pluto, King of Darkness and robber of Life itself. Mourn not, Demeter. Thy daughter is safe in his keeping. The little nymph who played in the meadows is now Queen of the Shades. Nor does Pluto love her vainly. She is now in love with Death."
No comfort did the words of the Sun God bring to the longing soul of Demeter. And her wounded heart grew bitter. Because she suffered, others must suffer as well. Because she mourned, all the world must mourn. The fragrant flowers spoke to her only of Persephone, the purple grapes reminded her of a vintage when the white fingers of her child had plucked the fruit. The waving golden grain told her that Persephone was as an ear of wheat that is reaped before its time.
Then upon the earth did there come dearth and drought and barrenness.
Was blighted in the ear, the purple grapes
Blushed no more on the vines, and all the gods
Were sorrowful . . ."
Gods and men alike suffered from the sorrow of Demeter. To her, in pity for the barren earth, Zeus sent an embassy, but in vain it came. Merciless was the great Earth Mother, who had been robbed of what she held most dear.
"Give me back my child!" she said. "Gladly I watch the sufferings of men, for no sorrow is as my sorrow. Give me back my child, and the earth shall grow fertile once more."
Unwillingly Zeus granted the request of Demeter.
"She shall come back," he said at last, "and with thee dwell on earth forever. Yet only on one condition do I grant thy fond request. Persephone must eat no food through all the time of her sojourn in the realm of Pluto, else must thy beseeching be all in vain."
Then did Demeter gladly leave Olympus and hasten down to the darkness of the shadowy land that once again she might hold, in her strong mother's arms, her who had once been her little clinging child.
But in the dark kingdom of Pluto a strange thing had happened. No longer had the pale-faced god, with dark locks, and eyes like the sunless pools of a mountain stream, any terrors for Proserpine. He was strong, and cruel had she thought him, yet now she knew that the touch of his strong, cold hands was a touch of infinite tenderness. When, knowing the fiat of the ruler of Olympus, Pluto gave to his stolen bride a pomegranate, red in heart as the heart of a man, she had taken it from his hand, and, because he willed it, had eaten of the sweet seeds. Then, in truth, it was too late for Demeter to save her child. She "had eaten of Love's seed" and "changed into another."
"He takes the cleft pomegranate seeds:
'Love, eat with me this parting day;'
Then bids them fetch the coal-black steeds—
'Demeter's daughter, wouldst away?'
The gates of Hades set her free;
'She will return full soon,' saith he—
'My wife, my wife Persephone.'"
Dark, dark was the kingdom of Pluto. Its rivers never mirrored a sunbeam, and ever moaned low as an earthly river moans before a coming flood, and the feet that trod the gloomy Cocytus valley were the feet of those who never again would tread on the soft grass and flowers of an earthly meadow. Yet when Demeter had braved all the shadows of Hades, only in part was her end accomplished. In part only was Proserpine now her child, for while half her heart was in the sunshine, rejoicing in the beauties of earth, the other half was with the god who had taken her down to the Land of Darkness and there had won her for his own. Back to the flowery island of Sicily her mother brought her, and the peach trees and the almonds blossomed snowily as she passed. The olives decked themselves with their soft grey leaves, the corn sprang up, green and lush and strong. The lemon and orange groves grew golden with luscious fruit, and all the land was carpeted with flowers. For six months of the year she stayed, and gods and men rejoiced at the bringing back of Proserpine. For six months she left her green and pleasant land for the dark kingdom of him whom she loved, and through those months the trees were bare, and the earth chill and brown, and under the earth the flowers hid themselves in fear and awaited the return of the fair daughter of Demeter.
And evermore has she come and gone, and seedtime and harvest have never failed, and the cold, sleeping world has awaked and rejoiced, and heralded with the song of birds, and the bursting of green buds and the blooming of flowers, the resurrection from the dead—the coming of spring.
"Time calls, and Change
Commands both men and gods, and speeds us on
We know not whither; but the old earth smiles
Spring after spring, and the seed bursts again
Out of its prison mould, and the dead lives
Renew themselves, and rise aloft and soar
And are transformed, clothing themselves with change,
Till the last change be done."