Notes and Questions for The Homeric Hymn to Demeter
(Sargent translation)

Main Characters:

Demeter [Latin Ceres], goddess of grain (wheat), of agriculture, who mourns her daughter Kore or Persephone, abducted by Hades. Her name means "earth mother." Demeter gave birth to Ploutos, the god of wealth, after lying with the Titan Iasius or Iason "in a thrice-ploughed field in the rich land of Crete" (Hesiod 88). Why do you suppose wealth is associated with Demeter and the earth? Symbols: torches, ears of wheat.

Hades [Latin Pluto], brother of Zeus, ruler of the underworld and husband of Persephone. The Romans confused Hades with the Greek god of wealth, Ploutos. Why do you suppose that happened?

Persephone or Kore ("the Maiden") [Latin Proserpina], daughter of Demeter and Zeus, abducted by Hades, Queen of the underworld and embodiment of the returning spring.

Notes for To Demeter

(2) gold bladed Demeter: The "gold blades" are wheat stalks; Demeter = "earth mother."
She . . . the girl = Persephone, daughter of Demeter and Zeus, sometimes called "Kore" which means "young maiden."
Hades, the many receiving: Hades receives many into the underworld, but few return.
But Zeus . . . sat apart = Zeus won't get involved after he's decided to give Persephone away to his brother.

(3) queen Deo = Demeter
Hecate, local, more minor, earth goddess, much revered by Hesiod (see Hesiod 73). Helios, ever on watch: Helios, the sun god, sees all (during the daytime). Also called "son of Hyperion."

(4) in fragrant Eleusis: town about 14 miles west of Athens, where the "Eleusinian Mysteries," or initiation rites into the mysteries Demeter, were held.

(5) Doso means "gift" or "giving." (Compare with Pandora's name.)

(7) Iambe . . . told jokes probably sexual in nature.
drank, in token of her holy rites: A drink of mint and barley water, called the kykeon, was drunk by participants in the mysteries of Demeter.

(8) Anointed the boy with ambrosia: the food of the gods, somewhat similar to honey.
Demophoon = "shining for the district" or shining for the people."
laid him down on the floor . . . other translations say "threw" or "dashed."

(10) the gold-wanded slayer of Argos = Hermes, messenger of the gods.
(14) They will send Plutos = god of wealth. Erysichthon = "strife with the earth."

Questions for To Demeter

1. What do you think the abduction (rape?) of Persephone could symbolize?

2. What do you think Hades, Persephone, and Demeter could symbolize? What do you think the the torches and nine days wandering could symbolize?

3. In what ways is Demeter's story on page five like / unlike Persephone's abduction?

4. What do you think of Callidice's advice for mortals on page five? ["what the gods send us we mortals must patiently suffer . . ." etc.] Does Metaneira's behavior on page 8 appear to be "foolishly thoughtless" to you? Why do you think Demeter is so angry?

5. Compare and contrast Demeter's visit to humans with Pandora's. In what ways are her journey, disguise, and recognition like / unlike Odyseus's? Comment on the symbolism of her pseudonym, Doso [gift].

6. Why do you think Demeter wants to make Demophoon immortal?

7. Why does Zeus give in? What does this story tell us about Zeus' powers?

8. Discuss possible meanings, symbolism of the pomegranate seed. For example, why would eating the seed (11, 12) keep Persephone in the underworld?

9. How is Persephone like a seed?

10. Even though Hades is a rather grim character, why is he still "a worthy son-in-law" (4) for Demeter and an appropriate husband for Persephone?

11. In what ways is Persephone's fate like that of every little ancient Greek girl?

12. In what ways are Persephone's and Demeter's journeys like / unlike a typical hero's journey? Do you think either undergoes an initiation? If so, what sort?

13. Compare / contrast the ways the gods are portrayed in the Hymn vs. Homer.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were secret rites of initiation held at Eleusis, the town near Athens in which Demeter took refuge after searching fruitlessly for Persephone. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter tells how Demeter came to establish her temple and ritual in this town. The mysteries of Demeter were held once a year in the autumn "shortly before the fall plowing" (Foley 66-67) and were open to all adults who could speak Greek, including slaves. Most people were probably initiated only once or twice in their lives, and, like most mystery initiations, the Eleusinian Mysteries held out the promise to the mystes, or initiate, that "death will lose its terror, that he gains the guarantee of a blessed life in another world" (Burkert 277--see Sargent 14). By historical times, the ceremony at Eleusis had grown quite elaborate, involving several days of public preparation for one night of secret initiation. Some sources are sketchy and unreliable, but the preparatory rituals probably included:

· bathing in the sea and washing and sacrifice of a pig, who acted as a substitute in death for the initiate;
· a day of fasting;
· a procession from Athens to Eleusis, in which priestesses carried sealed chests containing sacred objects;
· "On a bridge over the Kephisos River at the boundary between Eleusis and Athens, veiled or masked figures, a man or men and / or prostitute . . . offered insults and obscene gestures to the mystai [initiates]" (Foley 67);
· another ritual bath in salt springs on the other side of the river;
· arrival at Eleusis, breaking of the fast, and for women, "a night of song and dance that included aischrologia ('obscene' language)" (Foley 67);
· purification much as Demeter is purified in the Hymn: initiates sat without speaking on a ram's fleece, veiled (blindfolded) their heads, and were fanned by a winnowing fan while a torch was passed in front of them. (See Sargent 6-7.)
After gathering in the initiation hall (capacity 1000-2000), the mystes engaged in certain ritual actions and watched others. Apparently, some rituals took place in darkness, while others were accompanied by a blaze of light. This is a typical pattern in initiation ceremonies: the terror of darkness followed by what Walter Burkert calls "the assurance of blessing" (288). Some of the rituals possibly performed were: · drinking a mixture of barley-water and mint (see Sargent 7) called the kykeon;
· taking some thing(s) (perhaps sexual in nature, perhaps a mortar and pestle for mixing the kykeon drink) out of a sacred chest, "working" it or them, putting it in a basket, then putting it back in the chest;
· seeing the chief priest, called the Hierophant, appear in a blaze of light;
· the priest would then present Persephone in some way--perhaps introducing a short drama of the abduction of Persephone, or perhaps he would "call her up" from the underworld by the strokes of a gong--but such "dramas" could not have been elaborate, since the hall had no room for stage machinery;
· then perhaps the Hierophant announced the birth of a divine child (Ploutos?);
· and most probably, the climax of the ceremony occurred when the priest displayed in silence a single ear of wheat (compare / contrast the elevation and consecration of the host in the Catholic mass).
After the initiation, there was dancing and a bull sacrifice; then two special vessels of water were poured out while the people shouted hye! ("rain!") towards the sky and kye! ("conceive!) towards the earth (Burkert 289). Though rituals may often seem bizarre or ridiculous to an outsider, to a believer they can be profoundly moving. Many highly intelligent and cultivated Greeks and Romans took them quite seriously. The Roman orator Cicero said that they were "Athens' greatest gift to humanity" (Foley 71), while the tragic poet Sophocles wrote: "Thrice-blessed are those mortals who have seen these rites and enter into Hades: for them alone there is life, for all others is misery" (quoted in Foley 70). Helene Foley writes, "Aristotle emphasized that the initiate does not learn (mathein) something but is made to experience (pathein) the Mysteries and change his or her state of mind." Clearly, the mysteries were an experience of great power, a chance to feel (pathein can mean "to suffer") a myth in real life. The connections between agricultural and human fertility must have been strongly reinforced. As Helene Foley points out, "The growth of both human child and the seed occur out of sight; women are thus associated with the hidden sources of the fertility they produce" (74).

There were other rituals associated with Demeter for women only which involved fasting, sacrifice (usually of pigs, associated with the earth and fertility), telling ribald jokes, and feasting. (At one festival, the seeds of the pomegranate were eaten, while at another they were forbidden.) Of one of these women's rituals, Helene Foley writes, "The ritual seems to compensate women for marriage. Just as Demeter used her powers over agriculture to bring back her daughter from marriage and the world below, Greek women celebrating the divine mother and daughter were permitted to reunite and ignore for the moment the marriages that had divided them from each other, and to exercise authority and control civic spaces in an unusual fashion" (75).

Works Cited

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