by Philip Duchild
When I first read the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, I was particularly struck by the importance of the natural world throughout the narrative. In an especially impactful excerpt, Persephone is kidnapped by Gaea while gathering flowers:
“she played with the deep-breasted daughters of Ocean,
plucking flowers in the lush meadow– roses, crocuses,
and lovely violets, irises and hyacinth and the narcissus,
which Earth grew as a snare for the flower-faced maiden
in order to gratify by Zeus’s design the Host-to-Many,”
I was so shocked to read that Gaea had played a large role in the abduction of Persephone! In many adaptations of this hymn, I believe that this detail is usually omitted, which is a shame– I believe that this plot point makes the narrative even more rich.
In my experience, the land where I was raised is connected to feelings of warmth and comfort. Seeing wildflowers reminds me of past birthdays and other celebrations that took place in the spring. The plants, animals, and seasonal cycles of birth and death are factors that seem consistent and reliable to me. When reading the hymn, I imagined that Persephone would have felt the same way about the area in which she was gathering flowers, which means that she would not only have been abducted, but that she would have also experienced feelings of betrayal when the trust that she had with the actual Earth was shattered.
This idea of being betrayed by nature is echoed once more in the symbolic tasting of the pomegranate seed. Although the pomegranate seed has value as a sexual symbol, I believe that it also gains symbolic value through its connection to nature. The pomegranate, much like the narcissus in the beginning of the hymn, is a product of seasons. It was created by a cycle of reproduction that seems to turn unceasingly. Both the narcissus and pomegranate seed, as products of the mortal world, can be viewed as elements from Persephone’s home and childhood that ultimately lead to her separation from her mother. In this way, I believe that looking at the hymn with a focus on land helps emphasize the fact that the narrative is not only about abduction and rape, but that it also hinges on Persephone being betrayed by a system (in this case, nature) that previously served as means of stability and safety for her. Reflecting on the hymn through this perspective helped me realize just how relevant it is.