Demeter And Zeus’s Standoff In The Homeric Hymn To Demeter

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, composed in the late seventh or early eighth century is one of the most well-known Homeric Hymns. “The hymn falls into three easily differentiated sections: the abduction of Persephone and its revelation to Demeter; the sojourn of the goddess of Eleusis; and the aftermath, including her subsequent withdrawal and return of Persephone, which leads to the final reconciliation” . The reconciliation which Clay refers to is found at the end of the hymn and is the conversation that results in the timed arrival and departure of Persephone to from the underworld. The hymn demonstrates what life was like for Greek women in an archaic world. Marriages were often arranged solely by the father figure and this had immense effects on the individuals involved, both emotional and psychological. This homeric hymn demonstrates misogyny and deceit as well as the upsetting separation between mother and daughter that comes with marriage. The rape and abduction of Persephone was arrogantly premeditated by certain deities, which resulted in an awful famine that plagued Earth and was mirrored in the divine realm. 

The hymn begins by introducing the mythic characters directly involved in the tale. Persephone was born unto Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of fertility of the earth. Hesiod says that Zeus “came into the bed of bountiful Demeter, who gave birth to / white-armed Persephone, whom Aidoneus abducted from her / mother, but all-wise Zeus gave (her).” Aidoneus, also widely referred to as Hades the god of the underworld, had previously spoken to Zeus and informed him of the love he felt for his daughter. The almighty Zeus did not explicitly give his blessing for the marriage, but by his suggestion, his brother abducted Persephone whilst she was carefree in a meadow with companions and took her to be his wife, and the queen of the underworld.

The reason that the arrangement is hushed between Zeus and Hades is because of both of the women who would have ceased it Demeter and Persephone; Persephone would never have chosen this destiny and Demeter would have never allowed it, had they known about it in advance. This is proven by the discontent Persephone displays in the underworld by not consuming food nor drink. Demeter also shows her sadness throughout the myth many ways, but perhaps the most grand display of emotion was though the famine she inflicted on the mortal realm. It is common place in archaic Greece for the men of the family to arrange the spouse of their daughter without consulting them beforehand. However, even with this being typical in the society at the time, a question still remains. What father would willingly give his daughter to his own brother that would bring with him a fate that neither she nor her mother would approve of? The answer is simple: a guilty and misogynistic one.

Long ago, Zeus overthrew his father Cronus. This resulted in he and his brothers, Hades and Poseidon having to determine who would receive authority the cosmic realms. Zeus received the sky, which included Mt. Olympus: the kingdom of the gods. Poseidon received the seas and that resulted in Hades being eternally fixed to the underworld, to which he was not content. Being the overall figure of authority in the cosmos, Zeus was saddled with the guilt of adhering his brother, Hades to a fate worse than death - the forever gloomy, ghastly underworld. As a form of compensation, Zeus vowed to comply with Hades’ wish and in so many words, he permit the marriage of he to Persephone. This doesn’t exactly follow the typical fatherly mold found in the Western society of the 21st century, but is rather a very different stance of action that took place - comparable to to the ideology ‘an eye for an eye’. Zeus’ decision in this matter appears to be quite removed from emotion, but it is quite bold to assume that he even had any emotions toward his daughter.

In the early times of Ancient Greece, misogyny was even further oppressive than can be seen in the western world today or in accounts of recent western history. Men were the only true citizens in archaic Greece, since women and children were not considered equal to men. The oikos refers to the household and women were in charge of it all, having to tend to the children, cook and clean. A husband’s word was final and resulted in the oppression and lack of freedom for women. Even though the women of the family had many responsibilities they ultimately answered to the men, as the domain of women is subject to the domain of power held by masculine beings. Many events are parallel in both the mortal and divine realms, and this attitude makes no exception. The divine realm was quite similar in this respect with the male deities being superior to that of the females; the women on Olympus were still seen as their husband’s possession and expected to remain by his side as he did as he pleased. This can be demonstrated in the relationship of Zeus and Hera; he had many affairs with countless women but she remained by his side throughout it all. Mount Olympus was controlled solely by egocentric male entities and many of these traits were many were mirrored in the mortal realm. Examples of this attitude can be observed in Theogony as Hesiod portrays the creation of the cosmos.

Hesiod speaks first of Gaia, and Ouranos who gave rise to the titans. Ouranos aimed to overt the birth of his children by keeping them in Gaia’s womb. Cronos, one of the titans was chosen by his mother to halt the oppression that his father forcing onto his family. He castrated his father and subsequently named himself the ruler of the gods, without taking Gaia into consideration. This was the first account of male chauvinistic behavior in the realm of ancient Greece. Hesiod proceeds to speak of the production of the Olympian gods. Cronos feared he would receive a similar fate to that of his father and in an act to evade his eminent destiny, he swallowed his children as soon as Rhea gave birth to them. Cronus was tricked into regurgitating the children he had already consumed and their mother chose Zeus to overthrow his father. Zeus won the battle and then claimed himself as the ruler of the universe, without giving any credit that was certainly owed to his mother, Rhea. This example is quite similar to the preceding - Zeus followed suit as an egocentric male chauvinist, just like his father before him.

The complete male dominance comes from an act that Zeus preformed. Once he married Metis and she became pregnant he swallowed her whole. This allowed Zeus to gain the female powers of reproduction. He then produced Athena from his head. This act of reproduction is what truly symbolizes male dominance throughout the archaic universe. Zeus demonstrates this gendered dominant mindset throughout his life and is eminent in the decision to give Persephone to Hades. He felt as though it was solely his place to decide his daughter’s fate; her mother Demeter had no say in the matter, let alone Persephone herself. That, truly embodies the male-chauvinistic way of thinking that was eminent in archaic Greece.

Hades preformed “an action of Zeus” when he burst out of the ground and abducted Persephone, who screamed when she was grabbed. Demeter heard her cry for help and began her search to find her. The goddess asked Hecate, the sun god, for she knew that if anyone had seen what had occurred, it would be he, who spent his days high in the sky above all Earth. He replied to Demeter, “There is none other responsible of the immortals but Zeus himself, the gatherer of the clouds, who gave your daughter to Hades, his own brother, to be called his lovely wife. The most infuriating element of the incident for Demeter was not that it was her own brother that abducted her beloved daughter for his own, but that it was Persephone’s own father, Zeus that allowed it. The goddess was so infuriated that, “Then most dread and terrible of years did the goddess bring for mortals upon the fruitful earth, nor did the earth send up the seed, for Demeter of the fine garland concealed it.” To express her discontent, she vowed to neither return to Mount Olympus nor allow anything to grow on Earth until she and her daughter were reunited. Recall that Demeter was the goddess of many things but most importantly, in regards to this hymn, she was the goddess of fertility on Earth. She used her gift as leverage and inflicted a drought on Earth. It was so intense that the Earth became completely infertile and it caused a year-long famine.

The results of the rape and abduction of Persephone were mirrored throughout both the divine and human realms. The famine that was inflicted on the Earth was intended to punish Zeus, not the mortal beings. The famine resulted in the livelihood of agriculture coming to a halt, in regards to livestock and crops alike. This caused the mortals to suffer and tirelessly scour the lands for food to feed themselves and their own families, let alone sacrifices to the gods. The famine was detrimental to the human population in ancient Greece, and thus had an immense effect on human worship. Since the earth had become infertile, there was an immense decline in sacrificial burnings for the gods and thus resulted in a spiritual famine for the gods on Olympus. It was this decline that actually brought the Olympian’s attention to the problem at hand - the missing daughter of Demeter. Typically, Zeus has the final word in every situation and does not allow anyone to have a say in that, most certainly not a woman. The famine that Demeter inflicted on the Earth caused enough of an uproar in both the divine and mortal realms that it had an effect on Zeus, as is mentioned in the hymn on lines 313 and 314, “Now the whole race of mortal men would have perished utterly from the stress of the famine, and the gods who hold mansions in Olympos would have lost the share and renown gift of sacrifice, if Zeus had not taken note and conceived a counsel within his heart.” It was the decline in human sacrifice that brought the Olympian attention to Hades’ horrid act and eventually caused Zeus to rethink his original action of giving away Persephone to Hades. It was decided that because of the immense power that Demeter holds, Persephone would only be required to spend part of the year with her uncle-husband and the remaining time, she will return to her mother. It is this - the scheduled arrival and departure of Persephone to and from the underworld that has resulted in the change of seasons. Demeter is happiest when her daughter is in the living realm with her, and displays that happiness through bestowing her gift of fertility and thus a fruitful harvest. Contrarily however, when Persephone must reunite with Hades, Demeter is mournful, and thus withholds her her gift from the Earth, until her daughter returns again.

The homeric hymn to Demeter demonstrates the relationship of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and human worship, as well as embodying the overall themes present throughout the narrative, such as misogyny, deceit and revenge. Demeter’s immense power is shown through her punishment to Zeus for his hand in the male chauvinistic act of the abduction and rape of Persephone. It is not widely seen that one of the other Olympians has the power to convince Zeus to go back on his decisions, but the famine proved to have an effect that was large enough on the amount of human sacrifice to change Zeus’ mind and ultimately get what she wants, her daughter, Persephone returning to her.

Works Cited

  • Manson, and Cecily. “Who Would Have Ruled Over Immortal Gods and Men: The Preservation of Cosmic Order in Hesiod's Theogony.” EScholarship, University of California, UC Berkley, 8 Dec. 2015,
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  • Verdenius, W. J. “Notes on the Proem of Hesiod's ‘Theogony.’” Mnemosyne, vol. 25, no. 3, 1972, pp. 225–260. JSTOR,
  • Clay, Jenny Strauss. The Politics of Olympus: Form and Meaning in the Major Homeric Hymns. Bristol Classical Press, 2006.
  • Omēros , and Helene P. Foley. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, Commentary and Interpretive Essays. Princeton University Press, 1994.
  • Trzaskoma, Stephen M., et al. Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation. Hackett, 2016.
16 August 2021
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