Some Thoughts on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter

Leighton's Return of Persephone

[Gregory Nagy translation]

Leighton's Return of Persephone
  1. The first line of "Homeric Hymn to Demeter" and the first line of the old Stephen Foster Song "(I Dream Of) Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" are essentially identical
  2. The entire narrative of the old Stephen Foster song "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" stays pretty close to the entire Homeric Hymn to Demeter, as it happens
  3. Compare "Now the nodding wild flowers may wither on the shore/While her gentle fingers will cull them no more" with "She was picking flowers: rose, crocus, and beautiful violets/...And the earth, full of roads leading every which way, opened up under her"
  4. Persephone is equally divided between her mother Demeter, who is food, and her husband Hades, who is a graveyard
  5. Put slightly differently: if Demeter is associated with grains, the harvest, and agriculture, and Hades with the underworld, the dead, and subterranean wealth (sometimes due to confusion between Pluto and Plutus and for other reasons), then Persephone is equally divided between "being underground a little bit" and "being underground a very long way"
  6. Both Hades and Demeter are associated with the cornucopia, or the horn of plenty, in Western art
  7. Persephone's mother is "the top part of dirt" and her husband is "the beginning of dirt" or even "the most dirt"
  8. If it were possible to look at a single graveyard over a very long period of time, say tens of thousands of years, it would look like a single wave breaking over the ocean
  9. From such a vantage point, every burial that has ever taken place has barely scratched the surface of the soil; death is a light and momentary interruption from the business of deep earth
  10. Persephone's mother Demeter and Persephone's husband Hades not only share the same mother and father, they have both lived within each parent's body
  11. First in their mother Rhea, the traditional way, before they were born, and second in Cronus, their father, who ate them after they were born
  12. Whether inside their mother, their father, or the earth, Hades and Demeter are always divided interior spaces between themselves
  13. As first born, Hades would have been last-disgorged by Cronus in a sort of reverse last-hired, first-fired policy
  14. Cronus can un-eat his children but Persephone cannot un-eat the pomegranate seeds Hades gives her
  15. A few pomegranate seeds is the precise amount of food you get when you say "I'm not really hungry, but I could eat"
  16. In Demeter's rage, "She made that year the most terrible one for mortals, all over the Earth...It was so terrible, it makes you think of the Hound of Hades. The Earth did not send up any seed,"
  17. So Demeter becomes more like Hades
  18. Halfway between lunch and your boyfriend is your mother
  19. And whichever one Persephone is with, at any given time, she thinks – six of each is worth a half-dozen of the other.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]