Vol. 36 No 3-4
Greek Poetry: New Voices and Ancient Echoes
(lines 1-20, 38-50, 74, 305-413)
Holy goddess with the gorgeous hair,
Earthmother Demeter, I'll make you my songtheme —
You, and your daughter of the dainty ankles,
Whom Hades, death's king, kidnapped, but with Zeus
The loudmouth agreeing the gift with a thunderclap.
Demeter earthmother was absent — she
Of the gleaming fruit and golden sword.
Persephone was playing with the sumptuously breasted
Daughters of Ocean, her arms full of flowers:
Bunches of roses, crocuses, violets —
What a honeysweet meadow — there was hyacinth, iris,
And narcissus, the trap set by Earth —
Though the plan was Zeus' to please Hades,
The king whose entrance is always open —
For the girl with the face of a flower. Bud-bursting
Narcissus — a mystery, shining. Awe
Grips everyone, gods or mortals,
When they see it. A hundred heads of blossom
Sprout from one root. The perfume — such sweetness —
All the earth laughs, even ocean's salt waves,
And the whole expanse of heaven above.
Persephone, astonished, stretched out her hands
For that jewel of a flower. A crack in the earth's
Wideness. The Nysian watermeadow splits.
The immortal horses! Many-named Cronos-son,
The Lord of Hades. How he leaps on her.
He snatches her, weeping, and struggling, on to his golden
Chariot, while she... screams shrilly...
The voice of the girl- goddess echoed
On the summits of mountains, in the sea's depths.
The mother recognised the cry of her daughter.
Searing pain stabs at her heart.
She mauls the veil on her immortal hair,
Flings her dark blue cloak from her shoulders,
And darts like a bird over dry land and ocean,
Seeking news of Persephone. No one was willing —
No human — to tell her the truth — and no god.
Not even the birds brought her any message.
For nine days over the earth she rambled,
Lady Demeter, with blazing torches
In her hands. Her grief was so great, she refused
To wash her body with water, or taste
One drop of nectar or ambrosia. No sweetness.
Then the scion of Hyperion, the Sun-god, told her.
So fair-haired Demeter moped far from the gods,
Away from them all. She wasted and pined
For her full-breasted daughter. But the feeder of everyone,
Earth, she blasted with a blight of a year.
The soil sprouted no seed. For Demeter
Of the fair garlands hid it. Fields full of oxen,
Much shoving of curved ploughshares — in vain.
Pale barley-seed, scattered in abundance, falls uselessly.
Now the whole chattering human race
She had almost finished through famine — not to mention
Robbing those whose domicile's a dwelling on Olympus
Of their pan-precious privileges of perquisite and sacrifice.
Nearly. But Zeus noticed, and acted.
First, orders to Iris: 'Fly golden-winged
And invite Demeter of the voluptuous body
And gorgeous hair .. here.' Obeying
The frown of Zeus, she raced through middle-earth,
And alighted in the fragrance of Eleusis' incense.
Demeter was squatting in the shrine, dark-cloaked.
Iris gave wings to her words, and said:
`Father Zeus, whose mind can measure the eternal,
Invites you, Demeter, to visit the family
Of the everliving gods. Please answer 'Yes.'
Come with me, that Zeus may accomplish his mission.'
Iris pleads. Relentless Demeter.
Father Zeus sends all of the everliving gods,
One after the other. One after the other,
They call on Demeter, offer many, beautiful,
Presents, and whatever honours she wants —
Anything at all. Her anger's implacable.
She spurns their stories with contempt, and vows
She'll take no step towards scented Olympus,
And she'll let no soil sprout into harvest,
Till her own eyes rest on her radiant-eyed daughter.
When loudthunder Zeus, the longsighted, heard this,
It was 'down to the underworld, at the double,' for Hermes,
Golden wand-waver, and 'whisper to Hades
With such charm, that Persephone the holy —
Permission being given — from the mist and darkness
Can be guided to the light, and the gods' company,
While mother's anger ceases at sight of her daughter.'
Hermes obeys. Down holes in the earth
He plunges and leaps — after leaving Olympus.
He finds lord Hades at home, in bed
With his wife being tender unwillingly, while longing
For her mother far above who was brooding on the gods'
Hermes Argos-slayer stood by them, and said:
'Dark-haired Hades, dead men's king,
Father Zeus' decree for Princess Persephone:
I'm to lead her out of the Underworld, back
To the gods, and her mother's gaze, who'll then
Relax her wrath and rage against us.
For now she's plotting the complete destruction
Of that miserable species — mud-crawling humans —
By hiding all seed in the soil, and thus
Putting to an end the privileges of the immortals.
Her fury is awesome. She refuses our company.
Far away, in her incense- odorous temple,
She squats. Eleusis — her city of rock!'
At this the lord of the below-folk smiled...
With his eyebrows. He didn't disobey Zeus'
Royal command. He muttered hurriedly:
'Do go, Persephone, to your dark-cloaked mother.
But retain in your body the tenderness of your passion,
Don't let it turn sour — that's excessive. I won't be —
Out of all the immortals — an unfitting husband,
Being full brother to father Zeus.
Over all wriggling life you'll reign — while you're here —
And you'll have the most potent privileges of anyone.
Punishment will last as long as time does
For any who insult you, or cease to appease you
With holy actions and honourable gifts.'
That speech made thoughtful Persephone glad —
Running-glad — she jumped for joy. Then he
Popped into her mouth some pomegranate seed —
Sweet as honey it was — taking
Her aside secretly. He was setting it up
That she wouldn't remain with her mother for ever —
Dark-robed Demeter, the merciful. Lord Hades —
Lordship of multiple meanings — took his chariot
Of gold, and harnessed his horses, the undying ones.
She climbed on the car. With loving hands,
Hermes, the strong slayer of Argos,
Took reins and whip. Away from the underworld
He drove them, and the horses happily galloped.
Long journey quickly completed. No oceans,
No river currents, no grass-rich glens,
No mountain peaks, could make the immortal
Horses' speed slacken. They sliced the air.
He reins them in at the front of the temple
Where Demeter, garlanded, is moping in the incense-smoke.
She sees them, then like frenzied rush down a mountain
Forest by a maenad — the mother runs to her
Daughter, who's jumping down from the chariot
And racing — having seen her sweet mother's eyes —
To pour embraces round her neck.
But Demeter, her hands still holding her child,
Has a sudden foreboding. She's afraid of a trick.
Terribly afraid. She stops her kissing —
'Child, you didn't .. did you... while you ..
Were down there, have a taste .. please tell me you didn't...
Have a nibble of any food. We must know, both of us.
Tell me everything. For if you ate nothing,
It's no more horrible Hades. You'll stay here
With Zeus who is robed in rainclouds, and with me,
Receiving honour from all the immortals.
If you did have a taste, then it's down again,
Through the holes of the earth, and that's home during one
Third of the year for you, though the other
Two seasons you may spend here with the rest of us.
The moment of the first spring flowers bursting
In their infinite diversity over the earth —
Will be time for you to return from the hell-murk,
In a glory to astonish both gods and humans.
But tell me, did Snatch-all trick you... ? and how?'
Persephone — her beauty is outstanding — answered:
`Mother, I will tell you the entire truth.
When Hermes luck-bringer, the light-footed messenger,
Arrived from Zeus-father and the rest of the Heavenly Ones,
To fetch me from the underworld, that your eyes, meeting mine,
Would cease glaring at the gods in anger,
Immediately I jumped for joy. But he
Popped into my mouth some pomegranate seed.
Sweet as honey it was. He took
Me aside; he forced the food on me violently...'
Translated by Leo Aylen
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