What makes plants grow in the ground, the sun shine in the sky, thunder clap and winds blow?
The ancient Greeks believed these things to be the work of many gods and goddesses.
To add reality to this idea they made up stories about the lives of the gods and goddesses – stories which were handed down through the centuries.
This is one of the stories they told about Demeter, the goddess whom they called Mother of the Earth.
Black King Pluto, who ruled the Underworld, had seized Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, as she was gathering flowers and carried her to the Underworld in his chariot. There he made her his queen.
Demeter, in her grief, went into deep mourning.
She left Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, for the other gods were chiding her for her sadness and urging her to forget what had happened and return to her work caring for the earth.
And this Demeter, in her loneliness, refused to do.
To avoid the other gods and goddesses she disguised herself as an old woman and went to live on earth. One day she wandered down a lonely road and, suddenly remembering her lost daughter, she sat down on a stone and began to cry.
Soon one of the daughters of King Celeus passed by. The princess asked the old woman why she was weeping.
“My daughter has been stolen from me,” cried Demeter, “and she will never come back.”
The princess put her arm around the old woman, whom, of course, she did not recognize as Demeter, and invited her back to her father’s palace at Eleusis to rest.
Demeter, touched by this kindness, went with the princess. When Queen Metaneira, the wife of King Celeus, heard her story, she felt sorry for the old woman and decided to make her the nurse of her tiny baby boy, who was puny and ill.
“In caring for him, this old woman may forget her own sorrow,” said Metaneira, and she handed her son, whose name was Triptolemus, to Demeter.
Seeing the little boy so unwell, Demeter kissed him, and, to the astonishment of the royal family, the child immediately began to smile and his cheeks became rosy.
That night Demeter decided to confer immortality upon the little boy Triptolemus – a blessing that only the immortal gods and goddesses could give.
So she spoke a powerful charm, anointed the boy with nectar, and laid him on some burning coals.
Meanwhile, in her room in the palace Queen Metaneira lay awake and began to think that she had perhaps been foolish to leave her child alone with a strange old woman.
She got up quietly and went into the nursery.
There, seeing the boy lying on hot coals, the Queen snatched the child away and began screaming at the old woman.
But when she looked round there was no old woman. Instead there was a beautiful, radiant goddess, for Demeter had changed back to her real self.
“I am the goddess Demeter, Mother of the Earth,” she told the astonished Queen. “I wanted to make your son immortal to repay your kindness to me. You have stopped me, but I shall always remember him.”
And with that she vanished.
In due time Triptolemus grew into a strong, handsome young man.
Demeter, too, had had her desire granted. Zeus, the father of the gods, had been forced by Demeter’s distress to plead with Pluto for the return of Persephone, Demeter’s daughter.
Persephone could not stay away from Pluto forever, but it was arranged that she should spend six months of every year with him in the Underworld and six months with her mother.
Demeter was overjoyed when Persephone returned. Happily she went back to work, and for those six months everything on earth flourished and life was pleasant. But for the six months Persephone spent in the Underworld Demeter went into mourning. On earth the days were cold and cheerless.
Demeter never forgot the kindness shown her on earth. One day she returned to the palace at Eleusis and revealed herself to Triptolemus as a goddess.
Bidding the young man follow her, Demeter led Triptolemus to her home in the valley of Enna, where she taught him to sow and plough, and told him all the secrets of good farming.
Then she lent him her great chariot, and told him to travel round the world in it, teaching men how to grow corn properly.
Triptolemus, now made immortal by Demeter, amazed men on his travels with his knowledge, and they quickly learned from him.
Now they were able to lay up a store of corn for the winter instead of living only by hunting meat during the cold months. Everywhere Triptolemus went he was thanked for his advice.
When Triptolemus had finally travelled all round the world he returned to his palace home at Eleusis, and every year he held there the great festivals of Eleusinia, in honour of Demeter, the Mother of the Earth, and Persephone, her daughter, who brought spring to the earth.
And from that time a new name was called among the gods – that of Triptolemus, god of agriculture.
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