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Rape of Persephone homeric hymn to demeter

There is, in myth, a recurring structure that, once deconstructed, indicates how myth is generated. Myth hides the truth about its “missing link” to reality: namely, the real and innocent victims of a sacrificial crisis.[1]

In the myth of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, one key element of this recurring structure is the role that “cruel famine” plays in the story of Kore, the khoiros who becomes Persephone, queen of the underworld.[2]

René Girard, writing on “the sacrificial crisis” in myth,[3] observed how the crisis is preserved in mythical symbols for undifferentiated violence. The most common symbols representing a sacrificial crisis are themes of plague, pestilence, and famine.[4]

For example, we have the “cruel famine,” the “harsh hunger,” which Demeter inflicts on mortals, in order to pressure Zeus into granting a return of Kore from Hades:[5]

305: She made that year the most terrible one for mortals, all over the Earth, the nurturer of many.
It was so terrible, it makes you think of the Hound of Hadês. The Earth did not send up
any seed. Demeter, she with the beautiful garlands in her hair, kept them [the seeds] covered underground.
Many a curved plough was dragged along the fields by many an ox—all in vain.
Many a bright grain of wheat fell into the earth—all for naught.
310: At this moment, she [Demeter] could have destroyed the entire race of meropes humans
with harsh hunger, thus depriving of their tîmê
the dwellers of the Olympian abodes—[the tîmê of] sacrificial portions of meat for eating or for burning,
if Zeus had not noticed with his noos, taking note in his thûmos.
First, he sent Iris, with the golden wings, to summon
315: Demeter with the splendid hair, with a beauty that is much loved.
That is what he told her to do. And she obeyed Zeus, the one with the dark clouds, the son of Kronos,
and she ran the space between sky and earth quickly with her feet.
She arrived at the city of Eleusis, fragrant with incense,
and she found in the temple Demeter, the one with the dark robe.
320: Addressing her, she spoke winged words:
“Demeter! Zeus, the one who has unwilting [a-phthi-ta] knowledge, summons you
to come to that special group, the company of the immortal gods.
So then, come! May what my words say, which come from Zeus, not fail to be turned into action that is completed.”
So she spoke, making an entreaty. But her [Demeter’s] thûmos was not persuaded.
325: After that, the Father sent out all the other blessed and immortal gods.
They came one by one,
they kept calling out to her, offering many beautiful gifts,
all sorts of tîmai that she could choose for herself if she joined the company of the immortal gods.
But no one could persuade her in her thinking or in her intention [noêma],
330: angry as she was in her thûmos, and she harshly said no to their words.
She said that she would never go to fragrant Olympus,
that she would never send up the harvest of the earth,
until she saw with her own eyes her daughter, the one with the beautiful looks.

But the goddess Demeter is no champion of the innocent victim. For her daughter Kore, she will slaughter myriads. Her pretext is a lame slander against the mortal woman Metaneira:[6]

“Ignorant humans! Heedless, unable to recognize in advance
the difference between future good fortune [aisa] and future bad.
In your heedlessness, you have made a big mistake, a mistake without remedy.
I swear by the Styx, the witness of oaths that gods make, as I say this:
260: immortal and ageless for all days
would I have made your philos little boy, and I would have given him tîmê that is unwilting [a-phthi-tos].

I read Demeter implicitly perjuring herself here and at the same time accusing Metaneira of the subornation. The unanswerable accusation is reminiscent of a victim’s experience at a totalitarian trial.

In return for one alleged evil eye, all mortals get famine:[7]

Now Demeter would have made him ageless and immortal
if it had not been for the heedlessness of well-girded Metaneira,
who went spying one night, leaving her own fragrant bedchamber,
245: and caught sight of it [what Demeter was doing]. She let out a shriek and struck her two thighs

All night they prayed to the illustrious goddess,
trembling with fear. And when the bright dawn came,
they told Keleos, who rules far and wide, exactly what happened,
295: and what the goddess Demeter, the one with the beautiful garlands in the hair, instructed them to do.
Then he [Keleos] assembled the masses of the people, from this end of the public place to the other,
and he gave out the order to build, for Demeter with the beautiful hair, a splendid temple,
and an altar too, on top of the prominent hill.
And they obeyed straightaway, hearing his voice.
300: They built it as he ordered. And the temple grew bigger and bigger, taking shape through the dispensation of the daimôn.
When the people had finished their work and paused from their labor,
they all went home. But blond-haired Demeter
sat down and stayed there [in the temple], shunning the company of all the blessed ones [the gods].
She was wasting away with yearning for her daughter with the low-slung girdle.
305: She made that year the most terrible one for mortals, all over the Earth, the nurturer of many.

demeter1-1024x661What does this famine really represent? On Girard’s reading, it is a “sacrificial crisis.” It is when good violence turns into bad violence. Good violence can get out of control and become bad violence. Violence becomes, not contained, but rather contagious, and then it spreads like a plague or famine.

“Sacrifice” is good violence. It is violence that works. It preserves social order. A “crisis” arises when the sacrificial system of good violence breaks down for some reason, and the contagion spirals into a war of all against all. This is bad violence; its disorder threatens to engulf the community like a famine.

Only a god can save humanity from such contagion. Bad violence must become good violence again, and the time-honored way of doing this is divine action against a scapegoat. That is, people kill a scapegoat and then commemorate the return of order by remembering the salutary event in religious ritual.[8]

The beginning, middle, and end of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter chronicles the cycle from good to bad violence, and back again to good violence. In the beginning, there is the good violence against Kore: a rape justified by a narcissus. Historically, this corresponds to the acquisition of a wife by raping a virgin. From the beginning, the hymn is about a crisis from good violence gone bad. The rape goes wrong; the virgin dies.

Kore’s death brings on the sacrificial crisis. In the middle of the hymn, the bad violence spirals out of control, pitting god against god, and god against mortals. Demeter’s grief and anger precipitates a series of events leading to cosmic famine. Mortals are starved of food, and gods starved of sacrifice:[9]

310: At this moment, she [Demeter] could have destroyed the entire race of meropes humans
with harsh hunger, thus depriving of their tîmê
the dwellers of the Olympian abodes—[the tîmê of] sacrificial portions of meat for eating or for burning

In the end, there is the transfiguring return to good violence: the eternal murder of Kore, mythically justified by a pomegranate, and made eternally salutary through religious ritual:[10]

And I will myself instruct you in the sacred rites so that, in the future,
you may perform the rituals in the proper way and thus be pleasing to my noos.”

This ritual commemorates the etiological events of the middle part of the hymn, details of a sacrificial crisis and its resolution by a god.[11] Historically, it corresponds to the bad violence of a rape gone bad now made good.

Let me suggest a possible historical scenario: Dead bodies from the sacrificial crisis are buried, and the burial rites somehow incorporate scattered seeds; the seeds cause food to magically grow from the raped and murdered virgins’ grave sites; the original virgin who set the crisis in motion (Kore) is credited with this wonder and thus transfigured into a fertility goddess (Demeter/Persephone); the myth and ritual follow as the community makes a transition to an agricultural society. This hypothesis follows a suggestion by Johnston:[12]

“The problem that anthropology has had to explain the emergence of agriculture arises because these modernists assume that there must be a strictly material explanation for its emergence. I propose a religious explanation, that agriculture originally emerges approximately like this:

An isolated population struggles to maintain peace among themselves through sacrificial religion; but being a small and isolated group, they find that the supply of sacrificial victims is insufficient for their needs. They must find a way to extend the effectiveness of their altar or they will perish. They create rituals to enrich the sacrifice, particularly burial rites where they bury gifts with the corpse: fetishes, riches, and food. They place food on top of the grave as an offering to the spirit of the victim. On the disturbed soil of the grave, they scatter seeds which they are accustomed to gathering for food. The following autumn, they discover that the seeds have given rise to a harvest of food right over the place where the victim was buried. They are certain that this is a gift from the god, and they know that eating this sacred grain, they will partake again in the sacrifice. The next sacrifice, they scatter more grain, perhaps disturbing the soil widely around the grave to give a greater opportunity for the spirit to flourish. Eventually they are turning whole fields of soil, and planting as a part of the sacrificial ritual. When they harvest the sacred grain, it is proof that the god is blessing them and that they will have peace. As they partake of the grain, they are experiencing again the death of the victim and the peace and life which the sacrifice affords. After several generations of this religious practice, it is discovered that a great surplus of food can be generated by means of it. The surplus makes possible the elaboration of culture. Civilization emerges.

When modern archeologists see the shrines to the fertility gods, they assume that the sacrifice is a superstition to extend the harvest. The reality is the opposite: the harvest existed (originally) to extend the sacrifice.”

demeter_demorganThis may or may not be the precise historical scenario, but it indicates the anthropological direction in which one might take the inquiry. Its potential validity may be shown from reading of the sacrificial crisis and its resolution in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and trying to connect its deepest literary significance with a possible real-world origin.

In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a rape gone wrong is transfigured by myth into an allegory for the marriage of a girl and for female fertility. Despite the charm of this myth, we should not forget its concomitant ritual.

In this ritual, its most common element, and its recurring act of violence, is the massive pig-sacrifice, which is related to the beginning and end of the hymn. The eternal cycle of Kore, her perpetual rape and murder, is re-enacted by thousands of Eleusinian initiates. Thousands at the Thesmophoria re-enact the solving of the bad violence of the sacrificial crisis by a reenactment of good sacrificial violence. They slaughter pigs, and then cast these pigs into a pit.[13]

On this ritual, the scholiast on Lucian relates:[14]

“The piglets are thrown into the chasms of Demeter and of Kore. The decayed remains of things thrown in, women known as Bailers fetch up; they have maintained a state of purity for three days and they descend into the forbidden rooms, bring up the remains and place them on the altars. It is believed that whoever takes of this and scatters it with seed on the ground will have a good harvest. It is said that there are snakes down below in the chasm that eat most of what is thrown down; for this reason a noise is made when the women bail up and then again when those forms are laid down, so that the snakes will go away. . . Unspeakable sacred things are made of dough and carried up, models of snakes and male membra; they also take pine branches. . . This is thrown into the so-called ‘Megara,’ and so are the piglets, as we have already said.”

The logic of the ritual is that, in order to avoid a widespread cruel famine (a mythical symbol for violence), controlled sacrificial violence is required. But in order to understand the meaning of the symbols in these seemingly bizarre rituals, one must understand their logical connection to the distortions and lies preserved in the mythical tale. In sum, the lies exist to hide the original victims. Thus, in order to become truly literate readers, we must be sensitive to the uncomfortable human truths disguised by our most cherished myths.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[1] On deconstruction’s error (“only interpretation exists”) see René Girard, 2001 (1999). I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Trans. James G. Williams. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 171.

[2] Elizabeth T. Hayes 1994, Images of Persephone: Feminist Readings in Western Literature. Gainesville: UP of Florida: 9 notes the name Persephone is probably a translation of the pre-Greek local Earth Mother’s name, “Pherrephata,” which means “killer of suckling pigs.”

[3] René Girard, 1977 (1972). Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 39-67.

[4] René Girard, 1986 (1982). The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 136-154.

[5] H. Cer. 305-333. Translated by Gregory Nagy.

[6] H. Cer. 256-262.

[7] H. Cer. 242-245, 292-305.

[8] Girard 1977, 42-44, 103. Cf. Girard 2001, 22-24, 79-81.

[9] H. Cer. 310-312.

[10] H. Cer. 273-274. Cf. the hymn’s account of the pomegranate incident at 371-374 with Kore’s contradictory account at 411-413. Whose version of the facts do we accept, the hymn’s or the victim Kore’s? If we are inclined to accept Kore’s version, we do so against the very testimony of the hymn that makes Kore into just another naïve or lying adolescent.

[11] The death of Kore and the deification of Demeter/Kore solves the sacrificial crisis of a pre-agricultural society that had previously been founded on the murder of the scapegoat Demophoon; it now makes a transition to an agricultural society by means of the sacrifice of the virgin Kore. There are traces in the hymn of Demophoon as a scapegoat whose founding murder solved a sacrificial crisis: H. Cer. 265-267; Cf. Girard 1977, 109. The theme of two founding murders (Demophoon for the pre-agricultural society, and Kore for the agricultural) is analogous to the two founding murders for Rome (the expulsion of Tarquin for the Republic, and the murder of Caesar for the Empire); the resolution of the crisis after Caesar’s murder is like the resolution of the crisis of Kore’s rape, and Brutus’ suicide is like Kore’s eternal pomegranate suicide cycle: cf. René Girard, 1991. A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare. New York: Oxford UP, 200-225.

[12] Britton Johnston, 2001. “Temples of Debt: Capitalism As a Sacred/Sacrificial System.” Paper for Colloquium on Violence and Religion meeting in Antwerp, Belgium, on June 1, 2001.

[13] Burkert 1983, 256-258.

[14] Walter Burkert, 1985 (1977). Greek Religion. Trans. John Raffan. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 242-43. Cf. Girard 2001, 105 on the attenuated process in “later mythic cults”.

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Published: Feb 4, 2016
Christopher Morrissey
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at the Benedictine monastery of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute and a Member of the Inklings Institute of Canada. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. His book of Hesiod’s poetry, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.
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