(Photo by Sascha Fink)
But where does autumn come from? I can give you the scientific explanation. Anyone can. I don't want to. I want to tell you the story. Most of the people I know have already heard this story. Some might have heard it in passing or read it years ago as part of a Classical Literature class. Maybe in high school. To many of my friends it is a Sacred Myth vital to their worship of the Gods and of the Agricultural Wheel of the Year. It is one of my favorite stories. If you will forgive me, I will not retell the story of the Eleusinian Mysteries that are a part of this story but a story in and of themselves.
The Coming of Autumn; The Rape of Persephone
Once upon a time, long ago when the gods ruled the world, the king of the gods Zeus had a daughter by his sister Demeter. This was not at all uncommon in the world of the gods. It was forbidden in the world of men, of course, as men were not permitted to copy the actions of the gods. It was presumptuous. It was Hubris. It was death. The King of the Gods and his sister, the Goddess of the Harvest had a beautiful daughter named Kore which meant "maiden." She was known as "White-armed," a highly honorific epithet. From the first moment of her immortal life she brought joy to all who looked upon her. She was one of the most beautiful goddesses seconded only to her Aunt-Mother Queen Hera and her Half sister Aphrodite; goddess of love and beauty. She was a delicate flower with beautiful golden petals for hair.
She was so lovely that she was wooed strongly by other Olympic Gods such as Hermes, Ares, Apollo and Hephaestus. Since she had no real place in Olympus having no permanent seat, her mother hid her away on the earth to live among the nymphs, humans and all living things away from the lustful thought and advances of her brother and nephews. She simply became a goddess of nature; anonymous like the small flower that blooms under towering trees.
But one god noticed her. Deep within the bowels of the earth in the Realm of the Dead, Hades saw her. She was a shining beam of light that managed to seep through a crack in the rocks. Her light blinded him temporarily. He knew he had to possess her. He had to bring her beauty and cheer into his world of gloom and lethargy. You see, Hades was not an evil god and his realm was not an evil place. It was simply a place. There were places to punish the wicked. There were places where the heroes and extraordinary people could be rewarded. There was a place for all the others that lived neither a extremely good nor extremely bad life.
As a ruler, Hades had no one to speak to. His isolation hardened his heart. When he ferried souls, he spoke with Hermes but there was no warmth. The Realm of Hades was cold. Kore could change that. If he brought her down to his kingdom she could bring some light. She could be someone to speak with; to share his thoughts, his secrets, his love. He was capable of love though many suspected he wasn't.
"Zeus, my brother," he said, "I am in need of a companion. Of a wife. What of your daughter Kore?" Zeus stroked his beard. There were no goddesses that he could think of that did not have husbands, companions or were Virgins. His brother was the god of the dead, therefore a human wife was impossible. She would die and become his subject. At the thought of his daughter and idea crept into his head.
"Brother," he said, "my daughter Kore spends her days picking flowers in the meadows and forests; sometimes with nymphs but often alone. If I were to draw her toward a special flower and she were to pull it, the earth would open and you could take her for your queen. But do it quickly and force her to eat; for all that eat in the Underworld are doomed to stay."
Kore spent her days on earth picking flowers. She would place them in baskets and give them to her mother. As Zeus had no role in raising his daughter other than to secretly arrange her marriage, Demeter was all she knew. The love between mother and daughter was so strong it radiated to all creatures that they were near. Kore ran to her mother every time she saw her. Demeter covered her in loving, tender kisses whenever they embraced. The earth became a place of eternal warmth, fertility and love.
One afternoon Kore found a particularly odd looking flower. She had never seen it before. It intrigued her. It hypnotized her. She was drawn to it. The moment she tugged on the stem to add it to her basket the earth erupted around her; the sound so thunderous she dropped her basket and covered her ears in terror. The earth split and out of the gaping hole rode Hades in an ebony chariot pulled by ebony steeds. He seized Kore by the waist, brought her up to his chariot and rode back down into the chasm. After the Rape she was no long Kore; the maiden. From that moment on she was known as Persephone, Queen of the Underworld.
(The Rape of Persephone by Bernini)
At the end of the day Demeter called to her daughter. Hyperion was nearly at the nighttime stables and Kore needed to eat and rest for another beautiful day. No matter how loudly she called, Kore did not appear. Frantic, Demeter raced to her favorite flower spots in the meadows and in the forests. When she came upon her daughter's overturned basket she panicked. She called out to all living things.
"Who has seen my precious daughter!? Who has seen what has happened!? Who knows where she is!?" she cried. No one save one responded to her.
"Good sister," called Hekate, "I do not know where your daughter is, but let my torches light your way in the darkness as we look for her." They searched all night long. When Hyperion began his daily ride across the sky he saw the goddesses. Demeter weak from crying.
"Good Demeter," he called from above, "I have seen what happened to your daughter. Your brother Hades took her down into the earth." Hearing this Demeter was enraged. She stormed the doors of Mt. Olympus.
"Brother!" she called to Zeus, "Our daughter has been taken by our brother! She is to be returned to me at once!" she cried. Zeus shook his head and put his hand on her arm.
"No, sister. She is to remain in the Underworld as Hades' queen. I have seen to it."
"YOU have seen to it? YOU gave my daughter away? YOU extinguished her light by snuffing her out in darkness? HOW DARE YOU!" And with that, she disappeared from Mt. Olympus.
She wandered the earth crying for her lost daughter. In her state she refused to let anything on the earth grow. The crops withered. The leaves fell from the trees. The flowers died. The grass turned brown.
Soon the humans of the earth began to starve. Zeus heard their cries. He feared that they would all die from starvation. Without humans on the earth there would be no one to worship the gods. They would never recieve accolades and sacrifices again. Zeus became distressed. He called his sister back to Mt. Olympus. He knew he had to attempt to fix what he had done.
"I will send Hermes to bring her home," he said to Demeter, "but you must allow the crops to grow when you are reunited. The humans are dying."
In Hades, Persephone had remained stubborn her entire stay. She refused to eat. She refused to speak. She refused all attention. Hades made her an exquisite crown made of ebony. It was decorated with the precious gems that were found within his realm. She would not accept it. The only words she said was, "I want to go home." Persephone found life in the Underworld sad. Not because of the darkness but because of the lethargy. The dead had no personalities. They wandered lonely and forgotten. She wanted to make their lives better and softer but she was unable to move them in any way.
While alone, Hermes came to her. He was the only one who could move from the world above to the world below and back again. He was the farrier of souls. He brought them to Charon the ferryman to cross the River Styx. He whispered to her, "Little sister, you are to go back to your mother." Persephone was elated. "But little Persephone, you seem so thin and so hungry. You should eat before you go. I cannot take you to your mother looking so gaunt." He handed her a pomegranate. She could smell the juice within it. Her lips smacked together as he ripped it open. Blood red juice dripped down his fingers. "Quickly," he said. Persephone plucked and ate six seeds. Hermes took the pomegranate away from her and took her hand. "Let us go," he said and those rose.
On the surface Demeter waited. When her daughter rose she embraced her tightly. She looked at her face and realized she was no longer Kore. She had changed. Moments later Hades appeared and demanded his wife to be returned.
"You will never have her," Demeter cried.
"Then we will get a ruling from our brother," he said calmly. Zeus appeared to rule.
"Let me ask Persephone one question" he said, "Did you eat anything while in the Underworld my daughter?" She nodded.
"Yes father, I ate six pomegranate seeds."
"Then the matter is settled," he said. "She ate food in the Underworld so by our laws she should stay there permanently. However..." he said holding back Demeter's protest, "we shall make a compromise. For six months of the year Persephone shall reign as queen of the Underworld because she ate six seeds. For the remaining six months of the year she will live with her mother. She must spend a portion of her time in Hades' Realm. I have no discretion in this matter."
And that is how the seasons were created. The spring is the return of Persephone to the upper world. The summer is the pure love of reunited mother and daughter. In the beginning of autumn Persephone prepares and returns to her husband. Demeter begins the cycle of death in mourning for her daughter. The earth dies and grows cold as she waits to be reunited with her beloved child again.