The robbery of Persephone in Greek mythology or the robbery of Proserpina in Roman mythology is the story of the abduction of Kore, the daughter of Demeter (Latin: Ceres), by Hades (Latin: Pluto), the ruler of the underworld, of the desperate search of the mother and the solution found, according to which Kore as Persephone, queen of the dead, stays only part of the year in the underworld.
This myth acts as an aition for the fact that nature bears fruit only part of the year.
The myth of the Rape of Persephone exists in several versions in different sources. It already finds a brief mention in the Theogony (verse 914), which Hesiod wrote around 700 BC. One of the earliest textual testimonies, a choral song in Euripides' Helen (412 B.C.) names the mountain mother from the Ida Mountains of Asia Minor as the mother of the stolen girl.
In the fourth century A.D. Claudius Claudianus wrote De raptu Proserpinae, an epic in three books.
Probably the oldest, almost complete narrative, namely the Homeric Hymn 2 To Demeter, will be reproduced first, followed by the version most important for the aftermath and art history of modern times, namely that of the Roman poet Ovid.
Hades, the god of the underworld and brother of Zeus, falls in love with Kore. He therefore asks Zeus for Kore as his wife. Knowing that Kore would not voluntarily go to the sunless underworld, Zeus neither agrees nor refuses. Hades interprets this as consent.
At this point the Homeric hymn begins. It draws an idyll that is abruptly interrupted:
Far from Demeter, mistress of the harvest, cutting with golden sickle, she played and picked flowers with the daughters of Okeanos, roses, crocus and beautiful violets, irises, hyacinths and daffodils. The earth brought forth the daffodil as a wonderful trap for the beautiful girl according to Zeus' plan to please Hades, who receives all.
She was a wonderful sight for all, immortal gods and mortal men, from her roots grew one hundred little heads that gave off such a sweet fragrance that all the wide sky above and all the earth laughed and the salty tide of the sea. The girl was enchanted and stretched out both hands to grasp the splendor.
But when she did, the earth opened and the ruler Hades, whom we will all meet, burst forth with his immortal horses on the plain of Nysa. The Lord Hades, son of Kronos, the one called by many names. Pleading for mercy, she was dragged into the golden chariot.
No one heard Kore's cries except Helios, the sun god, who, however, is never disturbed by events on earth, and Hecate in her cave. Finally, however, Kore's distress reached the ears of her mother, who immediately set out to look for her daughter, but could not find her.
For nine days she wandered over the earth, taking neither ambrosia nor nectar, for nine nights she searched, torch in hand, for a trace of her daughter. Finally, on the tenth day, she met Hecate, who also carried a torch and told her about the kidnapping, but could not name the kidnapper.
Thereupon Demeter and Hekate, both carrying flaming torches, ascended to the palace of Helios, who, at her insistent pleading, told Demeter that Hades had stolen the daughter. But she should not worry too much about it, because he was a god, her brother and ruler of a third of the world.
Demeter in Eleusis
Demeter, however, was horrified by the robbery and far from calming down. She wanted nothing more to do with the gods and left Olympus, changing her form into that of an old woman and thus wandering among the people who did not recognize her.
Thus she came to Eleusis to the virgin well, where she settled under an olive tree. To this well came the daughters of King Keleos of Eleusis: Callidice, Cleisidice, Demo and Callithoe.
They asked the supposed old woman where she came from and why she was so far from her home. Demeter answered that her name was Doso, that she came from Crete and that she had been robbed by pirates, but had finally escaped.
Thereupon the daughters of Keleos invited Demeter to their father's house, where she was kindly received by his wife Metaneira. But the goddess was silent and full of grief, not wanting to eat or drink anything until the servant Iambe made her smile by loose jokes.
She refused the offered wine, but demanded Kykeon as a drink instead. The goddess then took over the care of Demophoon, the late-born son of Keleos and Metaneira.
She anointed the boy with ambrosia, as a result of which he thrived wonderfully and resembled a god rather than a man, but when she held him in the fire one night in order to make him immortal, she was surprised by Metaneira, who raised a great cry, thinking that a crazy old nurse wanted to burn her son.
The goddess was greatly angered by this and snatched the boy out of the fire, leaving him to die. Then she showed herself in her true form and demanded that a temple be built to her in Eleusis, which was done. When Demeter finally endowed the Mysteries of Eleusis, Keleos became the first of the high priests.
Before that, however, she gave free rein to her anger and despair: she ordered the plants to stop sprouting, and soon all the land was desolate, so that there was a danger that all the people would die of hunger and the gods would be left alone in Olympus, without the clouds of sacrificial smoke that had been so pleasant to them until then.
Zeus therefore sent Hermes to Hades to release Kore for the sake of the general welfare of the gods.
Hades seemed to bend reluctantly to the will of Zeus, but forced Persephone, before she mounted the chariot of Hermes, some pomegranate seeds as food. Now when Kore had returned to Demeter, her mother asked her if she had not eaten anything in the underworld either, whereupon Kore confessed that she had been forced by Hades to eat some pomegranate seeds.
Since this happened, and since no one who has tasted of the food of the dead can remain permanently in the upper world, Persephone had to live in the underworld with Hades for four months, and was allowed to spend the remaining eight months on earth with her mother.
Demeter finally came to terms with this arrangement and agreed to restore the fertility of the earth. She descended to earth, where she sprouted the first grain in the field of Rharos near Eleusis and endowed the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The four months in the underworld represent the barren time on earth, Demeter is sad, and therefore no plant blossoms, but when her daughter is with her, everything blossoms and flourishes.
Metamorphoses of Ovid
By Ovid the subject of the robbery of Proserpina was treated twice, namely in his most famous work, the Metamorphoses, and in the Fasti.
The Metamorphoses begins with a slightly different account: in the Gigantomachy, the giant Typhon was buried under Sicily, where he still restlessly fights his gang and makes the earth tremble.
Pluto in the underworld fears for himself and his kingdom, and especially that the earth might burst and the sun shine into his shadow realm. The fearful Hades has tradition.
In the Theogony of Hesiod it is said that Hades remained trembling in the underworld while his brother Zeus bravely fought a battle with Typhon and finally defeated him. To calm himself, Pluto mounts his chariot drawn by four black steeds to inspect the foundations of Sicily.
On this journey, Venus notices him, enthroned high on the mountains in the company of Cupid. She thinks that, since no part of the world should be spared from Cupid's arrows, the underworld should now also feel its share of the power of love.
And besides, the still virginal Proserpina is already a thorn in her side. Minerva and Diana had already conspired to virginity and withdrawn from her power, she could not accept it further if this spread. Cupid should immediately hit Pluto, who is frowning and examining the island foundations, with his arrow.
The abduction takes place with Ovid at the lake Pergusa in the proximity of Enna on Sicily:
With low tide lies near the walls of Henna, called Pergus, a lake. More songs of swans than this Hear not even in the stream of slipping waves Caystros. All around the shore, the waters are wreathed by forest and ward off Phoebus' glowing sting with the foliage, as with protective curtain. The branches are cooling, and the floodplain nourishes the tyrian flowers. Constant spring reigns.
Pluto, struck by Cupid's arrow, sees Proserpina playing there with her companions and picking flowers, bursts into love, seizes her and races away - "such is the haste of sudden love" - over hill, dale and the Palicorum Lacus seething in fumes of sulfur. The nymph Cyane had been the nymphet of the meadows.
The nymph Cyane had the courage to stand in the way of Hades, but he allowed the earth to open up and descended into the underworld with the chariot and the struggling bride. Cyane was so heartbroken over her failure that she literally dissolved into tears and was transformed into Ciane Spring.
Search of Ceres
Also with Ovid Ceres now set out to look for the lost daughter. She also carries torches in her nocturnal search, but now it is whole spruce trunks that she lights on Etna.
When she becomes thirsty during her restless search and is kindly received by Misme, an old woman, who gives her Kykeon to drink, which she drinks in one go, she is mocked by Ascalabos, who makes fun of her greedy drinking. As punishment, Ceres transforms him into a star lizard.
When Ceres had searched the entire globe in search of her daughter, she returned to Sicily and finally to the source of Cyane. She could have told her what had happened to Proserpina, but in her transformed state she had neither tongue nor lips.
So she let the lost belt of Persephone float on the surface of the water. When Ceres saw the belt, she realized what had happened. A woman's girdle is generally considered a symbol of virginity, and for the Romans it was especially so.
At the Roman wedding, the belt was tied with a special knot, the nodus herculaneus, which the groom had to untie on the wedding night before the bride and groom could be united for the first time.
Ceres was now completely distraught. She cursed the surroundings and the whole world, deprived the earth of fertility, spoiled all seed, and killed livestock and farmers all in one. In the face of this unrestrained will to destroy, the nymph Arethusa rises from her spring, knowing of Proserpina's whereabouts through her far-reaching subterranean connections.
She begged Ceres to spare the innocent earth, and opened to her that her daughter was now queen among the dead. Ceres, now not only distraught but also extremely indignant, then came before Jupiter and demanded that he return her daughter. He agreed, under the condition that Proserpina had not yet eaten any food down in Hades.
Ceres sets out to get the daughter, but it was not to be. Proserpina had seen a pomegranate tree wandering lustily in a garden of the underworld and had tasted of its fruit, only seven seeds.
No one had seen it except Ascalaphus, a creature of the underworld, who as punishment was transformed by Proserpina into an eagle owl by splashing him with the water of Phlegeton.
But also the companions of Proserpina are transformed: After they had searched all the lands of the world for her, they finally wanted to carry their longing calls for the stolen playmate also over the seas and were therefore transformed by the gods into the feathered sirens, which only the human head distinguishes from the birds of the sea.
Eventually, everyone comes to terms with this: for six months Proserpina must remain in the underworld, and for six months she is with her mother.
This is followed in Ovid's narrative by the transformation of Arethusa and then by the myth of Triptolemos, also related to the mysteries of Eleusis.
Fasti of Ovid
Ceres in Sicily
Ovid treats the robbery of Proserpina one more time in the Fasti (4.417-620), a Roman festival calendar in poem form, and there under the date of April 12, the day on which the Ludi Cereris begin in the Roman festival calendar, the games in honor of Ceres.
Ovid reins in his poetic imagination here, so his narrative is somewhat more conventional:
Arethusa has invited the matrons to Sicily for the sacred celebration, and Ceres also arrives, accompanied by Proserpina, who meanwhile is enjoying herself picking flowers in a meadow.
Then her uncle Pluto sees her and steals her away. When her companions notice that Proserpina has disappeared, they break out in loud lamentation. Ceres hears this when she comes to Enna, and immediately sets out to find her daughter, following her trail but then losing her. Ovid enumerates the stages of the search:
Leontini, on the east coast 50 km north of Syracuse, according to tradition home of the man-eating Laistrygons,
the river Amenanus, later Amenas, a small river that once flowed from Leontini to Catania,
the river Akis, flowing near the present Acireale, the springs of Ciane, about 7 km southwest of the center of Syracuse, and the source of the Anapus, into which flows Ciane, which rises on Monte Lauro near Palazzolo Acreide,
Gelas, a river that flows at Gela on the south coast, Ortygia, a small island off Syracuse and its historical center, Megara Hyblaea, an ancient city 10 km south of Augusta (Sicily), Pantagias, which flows into the bay of Megara Hyblaea, the mouth of the Symaethus, a river near Hybla Major,
the caves of the Cyclopes, possibly caves by the sea at the foot of Mount Etna, the place named after the curved crescent-either Messina, formerly called Zancle (from Greek ζάγκλη, "vintner's knife," "crescent") or Drepanum (from Greek δρέπανον, "crescent"),
Himera, an ancient city on the north coast between Panormus (today Palermo) and Cephaloedium (modern Cefalù),
Dydime, modern Salina, one of the Lipari Islands, the ancient Akragas, south of today's Agrigento, Tauromenium, today's Taormina, Mylae, today Milazzo,
Camerina, 16 km southwest of Vittoria on the south coast, Thapsus, on the Magnisi peninsula near Priolo Gargallo, 18 km northeast of Syracuse,
the gorge-like upper course of the Helorus, today's Tellaro, and the Eryx, a mountain near the northwest cape of Sicily. Lastly, it is said that she searched the whole of Sicily, from all three ends, naming as the three headlands of Sicily, beginning with the one nearest to her last stop
Pelorias, today Punta del Faro, the cape in the northeast of Sicily - here Strabon located the Sirens,
Lilybaeum, today Marsala, the cape in the northwest, and Pachynum, today Capo Passero, the cape at the southeastern tip of Sicily.
At last Ceres is again at Etna and lights two spruces as torches at its fire mouth, the mouth of Typhon, whereby Ovid expressly points out that therefore the initiands of the Mysteries of Eleusis carry torches at the initiation.
There is a cave, a rough crevice, strange to men and an abomination to animals, there Ceres takes two snakes, harnesses them to her chariot and drives through the air to Attica.
Ceres in Eleusis: Triptolemos
There she settles down, sits on a stone, the saddest stone - or the stone of sorrow, there she remains, sitting for days, unmoved by rain nor moon, but the land on which the stone lies is the property of an old man, Celeus.
He has gathered forest fruits, acorns and blackberries, and brushwood for the fire, and on his way home passes the place where Ceres sits sadly on her stone in the form of an old woman, her hair hidden under a hood.
The daughter of the old man, who is driving two goats home, asks Ceres what is wrong with her, and the old man asks her to rest under his roof, but Ceres refuses and wishes the old man to enjoy his children forever, but she is inconsolable, because she has been robbed of her daughter.
Gods cannot cry, but their pain is so great that a crystal drop is squeezed from their eye. The old man and his daughter, moved by pity, now shed tears, and the old man again begs Ceres not to despise his humble hut.
Ceres agrees and rises. On the way, the old man tells her that his little son Triptolemos is very ill and cannot sleep because the pain is too much for him. Demeter then picks some opium poppy, tastes it and thus breaks her fast, which is why the initiation seekers in Eleusis also break their fast in the same way.
When they arrive at the hut of Celeus, everyone is in mourning, since no one believes in the boy's salvation anymore. But when the goddess kisses him compassionately, he returns to life and visibly recovers.
They sit down to eat: There is curd in whey with apples and honey, but Ceres does not want to eat anything and only gives the boy poppy seeds in warm milk to drink.
Later, in the middle of the night, she takes him on her lap, says three secret spells over him, and then covers him with embers from the hearth to burn away everything mortal from him and thus make him immortal. Then Metaneira awakes, raises a cry and snatches the child from the embers. Thereupon the goddess speaks:
Unawares thou hast sinned: mother-fear turns away the gift, and the child remains doomed to death, but first he shall plow and sow and reap.
Thereupon she mounts the dragon chariot, rises into the air, and flies over Greece and along the borders of the circle of the earth, which at that time ran along the Rhine and Rhone, among others, continuing to search for her daughter, but always in vain.
She ascends to the circumpolar stars and is referred by them to the all-seeing Sun. From Helios she then receives the known information. Again, Jupiter finally allows her to return, provided Proserpina has not eaten anything in the underworld, but Mercurius, who is then sent out, reports that she has eaten three pomegranate seeds.
Ceres then falls into mourning and would herself have descended forever to the underworld to join her daughter had not Jupiter admitted that Proserpina spends half the year in the upper world.
Place of the abduction
The place of the kidnapping changes with the version of the myth, but not only casually. In part, special importance is attached to the place of the event, namely the place of the robbery.
In the Homeric hymn it is the plain of Nysa, an otherwise unlocated place. There is indeed Mount Nysa as the birthplace of Dionysus, or the Nysian nymphs as caretakers of the child of Dionysus, or Nysa as the nurse of Dionysus; but where the plain of Nysa would be located is uncertain.
Cicero names the Sicilian Henna; he is followed by Diodorus and Ovid. Hyginus names Sicily.
One of the most famous pictorial representations is the marble group "Rape of Proserpina" by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the Villa Borghese in Rome.