- by Michael Cooper
And Demeter Wept
Updated: Mar 26, 2020
In dedication to the Earth Mother Who Turns the Seasons, my earthly mother Maya,
and my sweet Persephone Zoe.
All my love,
This is a story about Demeter, the Greek Goddess of grain and abundance. Her daughter, Persephone, was taken by the Lord of the Underworld, Hades, to rule as his Queen over the lands of death. Here we see the aftermath of this transition.
The brilliant sun poured warmth over the meadow, bathing the maiden amongst the blossoms in a golden honey glow. Orange poppies nodded their petaled heads in a light wind that gently rustled the grasses and flowers at the young woman’s feet. The breeze lifted curls up around her face in a glowing halo lit by the shining eternal light of midsummer, the forever summer. Bird and insect songs wove themselves in that soft air with laughter from the twirling, dancing youth. She was vibrant, almost too colorful in that moment, with life crackling at her fingertips in sparks and flashes. The beauty of growing things was within her and around her, an incense. She perfumed the air with her dance, her bubbling joy a tangible force to those who saw.
Little by little, the dream passed and consciousness came back to Demeter as she awoke. It took a few moments before the pain gathered again in her breast. For almost a fleeting second she dwelled in that happy memory of the child, a half moment of peace, before remembering the sorrow rooted in her heart, filling her body with lead while feeling indescribably empty all at once. As sleep left the Goddess and the waking world resumed, Grief crashed over her, taking breath away in sobs. The same ache that greeted each morning. Persephone was gone, stolen, ash and bone, grave dirt and darkness. The daily realization of her daughter’s passing to the underworld was a hole in her chest, a black space that swallowed all the light and life within Demeter. She sighed tearfully and turned over in the dirt where she lay, looking up into the icy dark of the cave where she dwelled, alone in her madness. She would light no fire to comfort herself, consecrate no hearth to nourish the body she inhabited. Hair unkempt fell in forgotten knots past her waist. Nails, ragged from clawing at her own skin, rent the body that betrayed her by bringing Life into the world only to have Death take it too early. She was lost in her grief, consumed by it, incapable of the thought or belief that life should go on.
And so it was that life in fact stopped. Without her benediction, the crops would not yield, the animals would not birth, the very sun would not shine. Salt and mildew covered the fallow earth outside the cavern wherein she dwelt. The Great Earth Mother they had called her. Demeter of the Grains they had prayed to her. Life Giver, Bread Maker, Ripener of Fruits, Radiant Vessel of Life, Blessed Womb of Creation, Divine Goddess of Growth and Fertility, Holy Lady of Sustenance and Healing. “Ha!” she cackled bitterly, a joyless croak into the dank black cave. “How about the Cold One,” she whispered to nobody, “Goddess of Grief, Lady of Oblivion, Holy Mother of Sorrows, She Who Withholds Life”. Tears overtook her tirade as she sank back to the ground, exhausted and defeated by her own pain. “Let them all weep as well,” she promised to no one as sleep overtook her once more. Cold lifeless tempests blew outside her cave. The herbs and flowers of the fields had long ago withered in the curse of her grief. Trees began to crumble into dust. The wild creatures and domesticated beasts grew gaunt and brought forth no young. Humanity began to fade away as eternal winter consumed the world she had turned from.
High, high above the cavern where Demeter slept, a falcon turned in the icy, blasting winds. Hermes, the winged messenger of Olympus, spun and dove through the biting air as his animal form shivered in the bitter storm ravaging the land and choked on the foul airs that blocked the sun. His keen eyes pierced through grey fog as he searched high and low for the Goddess. Straining his divine wings, he pushed through the thickest of the inky tornado, circling closer to the very heart of darkness that had settled upon the earth. Into the eye of the storm he struggled, on towards where the grieving Mother would be found. At last, as he reached the strongest gyre that swept up from Demeter’s cave and folded slick wings against his feathered body, Hermes dove with lightning speed towards the cavern his sharp sight had finally found, here at the storm’s center. A moment before crashing into hard stone, wings flared and halted the God’s descent. Shedding the falcon form and alighting gently on earth in front of Demeter’s abode, Hermes looked about at the product of the Goddess’s wrath. The fertile meadows and deep woods were barren, bones and sulphur sat in piles near the entrance to her cave. Depression hung thick in the air like shrouds. Hopelessness like the sickly sweet smell of decay blotted out any memory of the life and joy that had danced there before. “Well this is a mess,” he muttered, stepping daintily over the bone piles and holding his nose while skirting past the fumes from reeking sulphur. “Demeter!” he called down into the hole in the rock that the once proud Goddess now called home. “Great Earth Mother, Goddess of Grain, Life Giver,” he shouted, “I summon you at the behest of Olympus. Show yourself.”
“You can quit the racket and quit those titles while you’re at it,” Demeter’s dry voice erupted from the darkness. “I am none of those things. Zeus with all the rest can sit on a spike for all I care.” Slowly the Goddess Herself hobbled to the cave’s entry. Hermes felt his heart break upon seeing her form: the painful sadness was written plainly across the divine face and body. Both had twisted and become ugly. “Such beauty succumbed to such sorrow,” he thought as tears pricked his eyes. Biting the corner of his tongue to fight back shaky grief, he knew that no demands of heaven would bring the grieving Mother back. No mandates from Zeus or petitions by all the gods on Olympus would move her. Pain alone moved the Goddess now, like a marionette strung up in sadness and awkwardly animated by the loss of what she had loved. She was a pale image in comparison to the lust and glory of her former Holy being. Tragedy had changed the woman within and without. She turned her thin back to him and shuffled towards the cave’s interior.
“Demeter, wait! Everything is dying, your sadness has stripped the earth bare. It has sucked the joy of life and threatens to undo the whole fabric of this great wide world. You can’t let it all go,” he begged, imploring to any mercy that might still dwell in the angry Mother’s heart.
“And you, blind God who sees nothing, think I care?” she shrieked, whirling around and pouncing upon the messenger, her bleary red eyes piercing, ragged nails clutching at his throat, feeling the fragile fluttering pulse beneath godly skin. Sharp fangs, in place of teeth and stained red, sputtered in rage a hair’s width from his face, breath like death threatening to overwhelm him. Suddenly she released the shaken God and shrank back into herself, small with the weight of sadness again. “Just leave me here in my misery,” she pleaded. “Let me be alone.”
Hermes knew he could not convince the Great Mother Who Now Chose Death any differently, he could not save her from the consuming pain. He knew that he could not lessen the sorrow nor ease her burden of grieving. And so he sat with the fallen Goddess instead. He let her weep herself to sleep in his lap. He laid cool soothing hands on her burning brow when fevered nightmares overtook her. He sang her the songs the wind had taught him, the winds that bring change and movement to the world. Mostly she would not speak to him, mostly she ignored him. Occasionally, though, he would catch her unaware and engage in a few moments of chit-chat. He’d tell her about the fungus on the cave wall that looked like a bear or a dragon or a pony and she’d deny it and call him a fool, stating that clearly the fungus looked like a sparrow or angelica blossoms or the crescent moon. After a long while had passed, during one occasion when he was describing a particularly interesting puddle of mud nearby, she interrupted suddenly pointing out a stalactite, stating that it looked just like a carrot. “Remember carrots?” she asked.
“Not really,” he lied. “It’s hard to recall anything but ice and snow and winter out there now. But I suppose they were nice. Quite honestly, though, it has been dead and dark for so long I doubt anyone remembers carrots.”
“But I used to grow the very best carrots,” she exclaimed. “How could they forget? And cabbages, wheat, melon, parsley, garlic ... . I grew the best of all of it. Surely the people remember.”
“Demeter, dear,” Hermes whispered, feeling a breakthrough was close, “The earth has been barren and lifeless for so long, I don’t think anyone can remember any of those things. The people have gotten used to everything being dark and dead. Nothing has grown for ages.”
“Oh,” she sighed, her gaze looking far off into the distance of her memories. “My Persephone could grow wonderful things as well. Her speciality was flowers.”
Hermes froze; the grieving Goddess had been unwilling to speak her lost daughter’s name the entire time he had dwelt there in the cave. Now he watched as the fond light of recollection and remembrance graced her eyes, making them shine a bit. “And what were those flowers like?” he asked carefully. “I can’t quite recall the look and feel of flowers, it’s been so very long.”
“You can’t remember flowers either?” she gasped in shock. “Why they came in all colors and smells and shapes. Delicate white apple blossoms, dry sturdy yellow yarrow, peonies in heaps of pink. My daughter would dance and sing and blossoms would just fall forth from her lips, spring up at her feet. It was beautiful.” While she spoke the kind words of remembrance, a few brilliant spears of sunlight broke through the black clouds outside, shining weakly on the soil at the cave’s entrance, activating long dormant seeds buried deep in the dirt beneath the muck Demeter’s storms had created. Bright green shoots shot up where no growth had broken through in a long time.
“How did these flowers smell?” Hermes gently questioned her.
“Ah, silly, you really don’t recall?” Demeter laughed as the air outside the cave warmed almost imperceptibly, causing the new seedling that had just appeared to quicken, winding upward to form the beginnings of the first tree that had grown since the Mother’s winter began. “Apple blossoms smell like angels wafting by on a warm evening, yarrow smells just like freshly ground cornmeal, peonies are spicy and sweet like cloves with honey.” The fledgling tree outside the cave put forth branch and root as she spoke the memories. “Carnations like nutmeg, marigolds like green grass and soap, orchids like sweet dust,” she rattled off floral scents. “My Persephone loved her roses the most. Roses smell like dew, love, and summer sun,” she described. All the while the young tree was growing as Demeter spoke. The scarlet, vase-like blossoms of the pomegranate tree surged forth from bare wood just as emerald leaves poked out on brown twigs. Blood red flowers began to swell at their bases, maturing before Hermes’ eyes. The new fruit ripened just as Demeter was finishing her story of the first rose Persephone ever encountered. “... and her big golden eyes lit up when she saw the flower and she reached her chubby tiny baby hands towards it ... .” Demeter chattered on.
“Look, dear Goddess, a tree!” Hermes interrupted, sensing the time was right.
Indeed the pomegranate that had begun its growth as Demeter recounted her fond memories of Persephone soon reached full maturity outside the cave. The Goddess looked upon its fruit and drew her breath in quickly. Outside had changed, the winter of her grief was melting and spring had begun as the Mother thought more and more of the love she bore for her daughter who was now deep in the land of the dead where Persephone had become Queen. The Goddess Demeter shook the dirt from her hair and strode forth out of her cavern to touch the green tree. She gently traced the lines of bark. She tickled the ants and bees climbing into the pomegranate blossoms, encouraging them on their hard pollination work. Her hands that still bore scars of sorrow reached and plucked a ripe fruit form the tree, ragged nails digging into the red leathery skin to expose the jewels inside. The Goddess burst into tears as she saw the sunlight reflecting off the ruby droplets. She breathed in the aroma of wine and heat from the broken fruit. After marveling for some time, Dear Demeter finally chose three gleaming seeds and ate them. She chewed through the thin skin to let the tang of juice sparkle on her tongue and crunched the pits, swallowing it all.
Her Heart opened. She heard her daughter whisper in the warm gentle breeze that was sweeping across the lands laid out beyond the cave, bringing with it life and new spring growth. She saw her sweet Persephone’s face in the geese that flew overhead, returning to the now warmed earth. She smelled her little girl’s hair in the marshes and valleys and warm forests that sprang back green and abundant. She cried tears in the impossible combination of grief and joy and relief that can only come to the mother who has seen death but still chooses life. And those tears melted the last vestiges of winter. The shocked and awed Demeter watched as the winds and the waves, the grains, the geese, the flowers, all of life before her formed the face and body of the daughter she had known. Light returned to the grieved Mother and life galloped forth with ferocity, making up for its long dormancy in the winter of her sorrows. Hermes crowed with glee, laughing and soaring in his falcon form all the while, dancing on the joyous gusts that cleansed the planet.
And so it was that Demeter moved through grief to rebirth. Though the dark of her pain was devastating and would never be forgotten, life came forth anew from dead fields. Persephone, the Great Earth Goddess realized, was still all around her in flowers and spring and summer ripeness. Her daughter had moved into the soil, the blossoms, the roots and vines, wherein her mother could see her and be with her even in absence of the physical form. To honor the memory of grief, each year Demeter chose to let the earth grow dark and barren for those three months of winter, three months in memory of the three seeds that woke her from sorrow, seeds that softened her heart and let life come rushing back in. Just as it promises to do each and every springtime.
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