“Homeric” Hymn #2: The Story of Demeter and Persephone

The first hymn, one which praises Dionysos [non-traditional spelling], is fragmentary and nothing in it jumped out at me particularly. The second, though, is a very long hymn that tells the story of Demeter and Persephone. It is here that one very notable similarity struck me to the biblical psalms: a very strongly-implied communal function for the hymn. The scholarly term for this is sitz im leben, or, setting in life. How was the hymn used, or, more accurately, performed by the community that produced and treasured it? It seems that this particular hymn was connected with the Eleusian mysteries, which were held to grant the initiated a greater status in the afterlife.

While reading this hymn, I found a few points in common with Hesiod, for example, the use of the term ‘Aidoneus for Hades in the context of his kidnapping of Persephone, the prominent role given to Hekate within the hymn (though not the story).

The depiction of Persephone’s final call before Hades took her underground was interesting: the text clearly says that most of the immortals did not hear her calls, and that’s meant literally.

Some lines were repeated verbatim in the poem, reminding me of the kind of oral poetry found very much in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.

Somewhat amusingly, Demeter is described as having a “beautiful” “form”; perhaps in today’s parlance she would be called–well, never mind. This is a family blog.

The most fascinating feature of the hymn for me, though was the episode in which Hades gives Persephone the five pomegranate seeds. The narrator of the story says that Hades did this “secretly.” However, when Persephone recounts to her mother at their reunion her side of the story, she says that “using violence [Hades] forced me to taste it against my will.” I couldn’t help thinking of the subtle, but important differences in quotations in Genesis 3, where Eve recounts God saying that even to touch the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would lead to instant death; the narrator, of course, had not put those words into God’s mouth at all. Crudden comments on this as follows:

Commentators suggest that Persephone “protests too much”. Perhaps she is unwilling to admit to foolishness in having accepted voluntarily the pomegranate’s seed; or perhaps she accepted the seed because she had become reconciled to being Hades bride, but cannot now bring herself to confess this to her mother; or perhaps the poet, feeling that an emphasis on violence would make implausible the element of secrecy . . . postpones the reference to violence until it can be more safely introduced.

It’s precisely the multiple possible readings of this passage that I find it so intriguing.

From a more personal standpoint, I am starting to wonder whether I may become a seasonal Persephone.