Ceres and Proserpine
The Myth of Ceres and Proserpine
The mythical story of Ceres and Proserpine
by Lilian Stoughton Hyde
The Mourning of the Earth-Mother
In the island of Sicily, high up among the mountains, there was once a beautiful valley, called the valley of Enna. It was seldom that a human being, even a shepherd, climbed so high; but the goats, being able to climb by the steepest and most slippery paths, over the roughest rocks, knew well what soft, sweet grass grew there. Sheep, too, and sometimes wild swine, found their way to this spot.
Not another mountain valley anywhere was quite like this one. It was never visited by any of the winds except Zephyrus, who was always mild and gentle. The grass was always green and the flowers were always in bloom. There were shady groves on every side, and numberless fountains of sparkling water. It would have been hard to find a pleasanter spot.
This valley of Enna was the home of Ceres, the Earth-mother, one of the wisest of the goddesses. In fact, the valley owed its beauty to the presence of Ceres, and the wonderful vegetation which covered the whole island of Sicily was due to her influence; for she was the goddess of all that grows out of the earth, and knew the secret of the spring ing wheat and the ripening fruits. She watched over the flowers, the lambs in the fields, and the young children. The springs of water, too, which came from hidden places of the earth, were hers.
One day Proserpine, the little daughter of Ceres, was playing in the meadows of Enna. Her hair was as yellow as gold, and her cheeks had the delicate pink of an apple blossom. She seemed like a flower among the other flowers of the valley.
She, and the daughters of the valley-nymphs, who were children of about her own age, had taken off their sandals and were running about on the soft grass in their bare feet. They were as light-hearted as the little lambs and kids. Soon they began to gather the flowers that grew so thick on every side - violets, hyacinths, lilies, and big purple irises. They filled their baskets, and then their dresses, and twisted long sprays of wild roses around their shoulders.
Suddenly, Proserpine saw a flower which made her forget everything else. This flower seemed to be a strange, new kind of narcissus. It was of gigantic size, and its one flower-stalk held at least a hundred blossoms. Its fragrance was so powerful that it filled the entire island, and might be noticed even out at sea.
Proserpine called to her playmates to come and see this wonderful flower, and then she noticed, for the first time, that she was alone; for she had wandered from one flower to another till she had left the other children far behind. Running quickly forward to pick this strange blossom, she saw that its stalk was spotted like a snake, and feared that it might be poisonous. Still, it was far too beautiful a flower to be left by itself in the meadow, and she therefore tried to pluck it. When she found that she could not break the stalk, she made a great effort to pull the whole plant up by the roots.
All at once, the black soil around the plant loosened, and Proserpine heard a rumbling underneath the ground. Then the earth suddenly opened, a great black cavern appeared, and out from its depths sprang four magnificent black horses, drawing a golden chariot. In the chariot sat a king with a crown on his head, but under the crown was the gloomiest face ever seen.
When this strange king saw Proserpine standing there by the flower, too frightened to run away, he checked his horses for an instant and, bending forward, snatched the poor child from the ground and placed her on the seat by his side. Then he whipped up his horses and drove away at a furious rate.
Proserpine, still holding fast to her flowers, screamed for her mother.
Helios, the sun-god, saw how the gloomy-faced king had stolen Proserpine away, and Hecate, who sat near by in her cave, heard the scream and the sound of wheels. No one else had any suspicion of what had happened.
Ceres was far away across the seas in another country, overlooking the gathering in of the harvests. She heard Proserpine's scream, and like a sea-bird when it hears the distressed cry of its young, came rushing home across the water.
She filled the valley with the sound of her calling, but no one answered to the name of Proserpine. The strange flower had disappeared. A few roses lay scattered on the grass, and near them were a child's footprints. Ceres felt sure that these were the traces of Proserpine's little bare feet, but she could not follow them far, because a herd of swine had wandered that way and left a confusion of hoofprints behind them.
Ceres could learn nothing about her daughter from the nymphs. She sent out her own messenger, the big white crane that brings the rain; but although he could fly very swiftly and very far on his strong wings, he brought back no news of Proserpine.
When it grew dark, the goddess lighted two torches at the flaming summit of Mount aetna, and continued her search. She wandered up and down for nine days and nine nights. On the tenth night, when it was nearly morning, she met Hecate, who was carrying a light in her hand, as if she, too, were looking for something. Hecate told Ceres how she had heard Proserpine scream, and had heard the sound of wheels, but had seen nothing. Then she went with the goddess to ask Helios, the sun-god, whether he had not seen what happened that day, for the sun-god travels around the whole world, and must see everything.
Ceres found Helios sitting in his chariot, ready to drive his horses across the sky. He held the fiery creatures in for a moment, while he told Ceres that Pluto, the king of the Underworld, had stolen her daughter and had carried her away to live with him in his dark palace.
When Ceres heard this, she knew that Proserpine was lost to her, and she kept away from the other gods and hid herself in the dark places of the earth. She liked to keep away from the earth's people as well as from the gods, for wherever she went, she was sure to see some happy mother with her children around her, and the sight made her feel very lonely. She sometimes envied the poorest peasants, or even the little bird-mothers in the trees.
One day she sat down by the side of the road, near a well, in the shade of an olive tree. While she was sitting there, the four daughters of Celeus, carrying golden pitchers on their shoulders, came down from their father's palace to draw water. Seeing a sad old woman sitting by the well, they spoke to her in a kindly way. Not wishing them to know that she was a goddess, Ceres told the four young princesses that she had been carried away from her home by pirates, and had escaped from being sold for a slave by running away the instant that the pirate's ship reached the shore.
Picture of Ceres and Proserpine
"I am old, and a stranger to every one here," she said, "but I am not too old to work for my bread. I could keep house, or take care of a young child."
Hearing this, the four sisters ran eagerly back to the palace, and asked permission to bring the strange woman home with them. Their mother told them that they might engage her as nurse for their little brother, Demophoon.
Therefore Ceres became an inmate of the house of Celeus, and the little Demophoon flourished wonderfully under her care.
Ceres soon learned to love the human baby who was her charge, and she wished to make him immortal. She knew only one way of doing this, and that was to bathe him with ambrosia, and then, one night after another, place him in the fire until his mortal parts should be burned away. Every night she did this, without saying a word to any one. Under this treatment Demophoon was growing wonderfully godlike; but one night, his mother being awake very late, and hearing some one moving about, drew the curtains aside a very little, and peeped out. There, before the fire-place, where a great fire was burning, stood the strange nurse, with Demophoon in her arms. The mother watched in silence until she saw Ceres place the child in the fire, then she gave a shriek of alarm.
The shriek broke the spell. Ceres took Demophoon from the fire and laid him on the floor. Then she told the trembling mother that she had meant to make her child immortal, but that now this could not be. He would have to grow old and die like other mortals. Then, throwing off her blue hood, she suddenly lost her aged appearance, and all at once looked very grand and beautiful. Her hair, which fell down over her shoulders, was yellow, like the ripe grain in the fields. Demophoon's mother knew by these signs that her child's nurse must be the great Ceres, but she saw her no more, for the goddess went out into the dark night.
After this Ceres continued her lonely wandering, not caring where she went. One day, as she stooped to drink from a spring, Abas, a freckled boy who stood near, mocked her because she looked sad and old. Suddenly he saw Ceres stand up very straight, with a look that frightened him. Then he felt himself growing smaller and smaller, until he shrunk into a little speckled water-newt, when he made haste to hide himself away under a stone.
Unlike Abas, most of the people whom Ceres met with felt sorry for her. One day, while she was sitting on a stone by the side of a mountain road in Greece, feeling very sorrowful, she heard a childish voice say, "Mother, are you not afraid to stay all alone here on the mountain?"
Ceres looked up, pleased to hear the word "mother," and saw a little peasant girl, standing near two goats that she had driven down from the mountain-pastures.
"No, my child," said she, "I am not afraid."
Just then, out from among the trees came the little girl's father, carrying a bundle of firewood on his shoulder. He invited Ceres to come to his cottage for the night. Ceres at first refused, but finally accepted the invitation.
"You are happier than I," said Ceres, as the three walked toward the cottage. "You have your little daughter with you, but I have lost mine."
"Alas! I have sorrow enough," said the peasant. "I fear that my only son, little Triptolemus, lies dying at home."
"Let us hope that he may yet be cured," said Ceres, and stooping, she gathered a handful of poppies.
Soon they came into the little cottage, where they found the mother beside herself with grief for her boy.
Ceres bent over the child and kissed him softly on both cheeks. As she did so, the poppies in her hands brushed lightly against his face. Then his groans ceased, and the child fell into a quiet sleep.
In the morning Triptolemus woke strong and well; and when Ceres called her winged dragons and drove away through the clouds, she left a happy and grateful family behind her.