Homeric Values in His Work
In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the unknown author presents from both a feminine and a masculine perspective the story traditionally known as the ‘Rape of Persephone’, with emphasis on the feminine. Unlike the other Homeric stories, Demeter places the female experience at the center of the narrative by emphasizing the point of view of the godly mother and daughter on their shared catastrophe. The actions of Hades, Zeus, and Helios, although imperative to the story, are placed second in the narrative. This transition in perspectives from masculine to feminine is achieved through the recurring themes and images of rape, marriage, mortality, and their intersection. The question regarding the method in which Persephone becomes forever tied to Hades can be answered through the analysis of two perspectives, and subsequently the significance of 7th-century diction.
The male characters, witnesses or puppeteers to Persephone’s disappearance, favor the answer of “marriage.” But through Demeter, Persephone, and Hekate, the emphasis is on violence, rape, and death, illustrating that the separation of the two goddesses is the closest that a divinity can come to experiencing loss. With each group viewing the events differently according to their own gender and role, the narrator brings both stances to have equal value. This is accomplished in 3 ways: (1) through the impartiality of the narrator, detached from the events; (2) through the perspectives of Demeter and Persephone and their immortal characterizations; (3) through the perspectives of Helios, Hades, and Zeus.
When analyzed through this lens, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is then able to serve as a rare example in Greek literature of a victorious feminine perspective. The recounting of the initial events by the narrator allows for a comparison to the marriage customs of 7th Century Greece, bringing validity to the answer of “marriage”. The introduction of Hymn to Demeter begins with a summary of the inciting incident (1-5): Hades kidnaps Persephone, who turns out to have been given away by her father, Zeus, while her mother, Demeter, was away. Zeus and Hades had preemptively planned the abduction, just as ancient Greek weddings were traditionally arranged by the bride’s father and the groom. Zeus is granted an active role in this storyline, as not only does he arrange the kidnapping, but grants his “consent”, ultimately making the ‘marriage’ legal.
Demeter, far away from the events in the flower patch where Persephone is taken, does not know about nor give consent to the arrangement. This is also consistent with traditional Greek marriages, as consent was neither required nor asked for from the bride or her mother. However, the author’s description of the location where Persephone gets taken, along with her actions in the meadow, suggest a more metaphorical interpretation. The depiction of Persephone and the other young women frolicking in the meadow and picking flowers right before she gets abducted is representative of common themes in Greek painting and artwork. Vases especially illustrated a young bride who, right before her wedding is surrounded by her friends, saying goodbye to the hobbies and toys of her childhood. This metaphor for the innocence and inexperience of a young bride suggest that Persephone is playing, like a child. This scene reflects the state of mind of Persephone before the abduction, creating a dramatic contrast to the jolting speed and violence of the act. The peaceful meadow filled with flowers symbolizes the innocence and virginity of Persephone, her emotional state at the time, and her lack of concern or suspicion.
Flowers can serve as symbols for virginity, and their fragility can be analogous to vulnerability. Sappho, in one of her verses, utilizes the metaphors for girlhood through a wedding song, comparing the bride’s virginity to a flower: “like the hyacinth in the mountains that shepherd men / with their feet trample down and on the ground the purple / flower” (Sappho, 105B). Flowers were also utilized to decorate a bride in Greek custom, by crowning a wreath of blossoms on her head. An interpretation of the scene with Okeanids and Persphone picking flowers in the meadow could illustrate them decorating each other’s hair for with these blossoms. Flowers were also utilized in the Greek arts; various blossoms served as metaphors for female reproductive organs, especially the pomegranate and the rose. The meadow itself can be given sexual descriptions, representing a sexual organ.
The “ploughing” and “sowing”, associated with a meadow can serve symbolically for male actions during the act of sex. The planting of the seeds in meadows goes along quite nicely with the action of Hades giving the pomegranate seed to Persephone. Similar to how sexual intercourse relates to life, the idea of life as a flower is very prevalent in Greek mythology. The act of “withering” associated with death, is especially evident in tales regarding early deaths in Greek mythology. For example, during Homer’s description of Gorgythion, the son of Priam, in the Illiad, he writes: “…as a poppy in the garden, weighted down with fruit and rains of spring, drops its head to one side…” In the case of Persephone, flowers serve a dual purpose; they symbolize her virginity and innocence, along with her life and her death, which, in Hymn to Demeter, can also be seen as her marriage. Persephone is carried away in Hades’ famous chariot, similar to how a bride is taken by the groom from her home in a cart.
The depiction of this act is suggestive in nature, however, the author utilizes language to emphasize this quality. Two instances of the verb “to lead” are utilized in order to illustrate the actions of Hades; he led her (20), to the chariot…he took his bride, (30). This carefully utilized diction is not specific to this Homeric work. In the Odyssey, the narrator utilizes the verb “took”, when describing what Aegisthus did with Clytemnestra upon getting married. In Greek paintings and vase sculptures, the bride is depicted as being “lead” by her husband, who is normally pulling her hand. This domineering presence of the male figure suggests an unequal relationship between the two in matrimony and is utilized in illustrations of rape as well. The equivocal nature of Persephone’s interactions with Hades suggests an ambiguous interpretation of the rape that occurred.
From the perspective of Zeus-him handing off his daughter to Hades, and his relationship with Hades-promotes the idea that from his point of view, the kidnapping is a planned, customed marriage. Upon closer analysis, one can pinpoint various indicators of Persephone’s objections to the kidnapping. On lines 19 and 30 in Hymn to Demeter, she is portrayed as unwilling, and on line 20, she calls and wails for help. The description that Hades “rushed violently on” on line 17, is not in accordance with usual pre-arranged marriage, however.
In the Illiad and the Odyssey, these forceful actions are quite similar to those suggested in the Hymn to Demeter. In the Illiad, Paris, when talking to Helen, references “carrying her off from Lacedaemonia” (3, 440). Apollo “took” Alcyone in the Illiad (9.564), and Kleitos was “carried off” in the Odessey (15. 200). In the Illiad, the motif of the violent capturing of prey is utilized repeatedly: while in battle, Sarpedon is described as a lion who seizes a sheep (12, 302); Hektor is described as an eagle descending to seize a lamb (22, 304). The diction in these works are parallel to that used in the Homeric Hymn: Eumaeus, when talking to the disguised Odysseus, describes how Taphian pirates captured and forcibly kidnapped his nurse. “Abduction”, is similarly not limited to one Homeric Hymn.
In the Hymn to Aphrodite, Aphrodite recounts the story of how Hermes lead her from the dance of Artemis (116), to be chained in matrimony with Anchises. This verb-to lead-appears in various variations again during the abduction of Ganymede and of Tithonos. Thus, before the Hymn to Demeter, the word appears to be utilized to illustrate violent kidnapping and carrying off victims-most notably women, or creatures, but sometimes men-by men or by predators. When the word “rape”, is utilized to illustrate this kidnapping or carrying off of victims for a sexual reason, it does not give weight to Hades’ definition of the abduction being a marriage. In addition to the diction utilized to describe the abduction of Persephone as a rape, the nonappearance of Demeter during the ‘ceremonal’ act, can also rebut the argument of the kidnapping serving as a wedding. Traditionally, the mother would be present during the ceremony, despite the fact that she was not necessarily giving advice or speaking her mind about the event.
During the absence of Demeter, Death is allowed to be present in the form of Hades. As “death” leads her into the underworld, the author writes on line 35 “as also the rays of the sun, she still had hope that she would yet see, her dear mother and that special group, the immortal gods.” These “rays of the sun”, are found in various example of Greek mythology as symbols for life, without death. A recurring line in the Illiad is “darkness covered his eyes” (4, 477). In the Odyssey, when Telemachus states that when he found out that his brother Agamemnon had died, he wanted to die: “no longer now did my heart wish to live and see the light of the sun.” The allowance of the presence of death, realized by the absence of Demeter, is a carefully chosen literary device, replicated in these works. The ‘fair’ author’s description of “leading” of Persephone utilizes both the imagery and vocabulary associated with marriage and rape.
Through this balanced representation, an ambiguous, impartial explication of Persephone’s experiences are told. During the descriptions of Demeter’s reaction to hearing her daughter’s wails, a narrative shift occurs, transitioning to death and mourning. Demeter is said to have a “sharp pain seize her heart” (39), and “with her own hands, she ripped the head-dress from around her ambrosial hair” (40). Demeter, at more than 6 different instances in the poem, is dressed in black, including on line 41 where she puts a “dark veil around both shoulders”. Like a lost soul searching for happiness, she “wandered over the earth holding blazing torches in her hands.” This personal perspective highlights the grief which Demeter is in, as she fasts, and does not clean herself (49).
The actions by Demeter refute the argument that she is celebrating a marriage: she is fully illustrating that the separation of the two goddesses is the closest that a divinity can come to experiencing loss. Demeter’s interaction with Hekate, who witnessed the abduction and also has a torch, serves a dual purpose. During Greek nuptial ceremonies, mothers would have a torch in hand and follow the ceremony from the house of the bride’s father to the house of her new husband. Hekate serves this role in this particular case, as Demeter is not part of this happening. Demeter, by attempting to search for her daughter, depressingly is serving the role of the bride’s mother.
February 2, 2023
February 2, 2023