The story of Demeter and Persephone is one of the most famous episodes of Greek mythology. Persephone, a young maiden, was picking flowers when Hades, lord of the underworld kidnapped her. Her mother, goddess Demeter, was so devastated that she turned into an old woman. The plants of the Earth stopped growing.
Seeing that the human race will perish, Zeus, the Sky God, convinces Hades to give Persephone back. He does so, but not before he makes her taste some of the pomegranate seeds. Apparently, those who taste the food of the underworld are forever bound to return there. Therefore, Persephone returns home, but she is condemned to spend the three winter months in the underworld. In spring, when she comes back, the plants of the Earth start blossoming again.
The abduction of Persephone explained
First of all, everyone will agree that this story relates to the change of seasons. In fact, this story is built on a very ancient Indo-European mold. The exact same meaning lies behind the abduction of Sita in Ramayana, or abduction of Helen in the Iliad.
However, it seems that very few people understand what exactly is this myth telling us. The reason for this is a confusion in terms of what its main protagonists are representing. So let us first define the basics.
Demeter – Mother Earth, not the constellation Virgo
Virtually all literature on goddess Demeter will at some point equate her with Virgo. It seems that the confusion started already with Marcus Manilius in his 1st-century Roman work “Astronomicon”. It is not hard to imagine why this happened. The image of the Virgo constellation is that of a woman holding corn of wheat in her hand. And Demeter is the goddess of vegetation.
However, etymological analysis of her name reveals that it literally translates as “Mother Earth”. According to Wikipedia, the Doric form “De” corresponds to Attic “Ge, Gea” – earth. Therefore, the name Demeter means De (Earth) mater (mother).
This is very logical, as in the ancient texts she is also referred to as “the ruler of the seasons”. We see how she quickly ages out of grief for her lost daughter. This “aging” relates to the process of decaying of plants and leaves, while her old white hair is a poetic way of describing a snowy winter.
The name Demeter is really ancient. It appears already in the Linear A as “damate”. The word exists in Linear B too, but here we see the translation “households”. So, the exact same word “da-ma-te”, can mean both Demeter and households? In this context, isn’t it interesting that the Latin word “domina” originally meant “the lady of the house”? The Latin word for “house” is “Domus”. The English word “dame”, lady, comes from vulgar Latin.
Perhaps, the original name of Demeter was dom-mater, meaning again “Mother Earth”, but with an added connotation of home?
Persephone, the real Virgo
That Persephone is a personification of Virgo constellation is already clear from her other epithet – Kore, meaning “virgin”. She was also known as Persephatta. As for her name, Wikipedia gives the following etymology: “female thresher of grain”. The first part *perso, comes from Proto-Greek, and means “sheaf of grain”. The second comes from the PIE root *gʷʰen- “to strike”.
A thresher of grain? It is not hard to agree that the first element, “perso”, relates to the sheaf of grain. Not only that there is a firm Sanskrit connection, but this is precisly what the Virgo is holding in her hands.
However, I do not see a reason to translate the second part “gwhen” as “to strike”. The English word “queen” comes from Proto-Indo-European “gwen” meaning woman. Here is a quote from the highlighted link:
The Proto-Indo-European root meaning “woman.” Sanskrit janis, gná, Greek gynē, Old Church Slavonic zena, Old Prussian genna, Old English cwen, Gothic qino… all meant “woman, queen, goddess”
Therefore, isn’t it better to translate the name Persephone as “a woman with sheaf of grain”, which is precisely what an image of Virgo is?
Astronomical explanation of the Persephone myth
Now that we have distinguished between the real Virgo and the fake one, we can proceed further in analyzing the true meaning of this story. According to Plutarch, Persephone is a manifestation of the spring. In the Eleusinian mysteries, each spring she returned from the underworld. As an allegory for the everlasting circle of life and immortality, she was a common subject on the ancient sarcophagi.
The sole fact that she “appears” and “disappears”, leaves no room for doubt that we are dealing with a constellation. This notion is further reinforced in Homeric hymn, one of the oldest versions of the myth. Demeter has this to say to Persephone upon her arrival from the underworld:
But to cut the long story short, I have created the image below. To make it, I used the free astronomical software Stellarium.
I used the date of 500BC as this was the last time that the stars aligned so nicely. Due to the effects of precession, Virgo still appears on the East in the springtime, just not right after the sunset, but a few hours later.
Below we see Virgo on three different dates: 21.03.500BC, spring, 21.06.500BC, summer, and 23.12.500BC, winter. During the fall Virgo is not visible. These are the months that Persephone spends in the underworld. Demeter is looking for her using torches, an allegory of the Sun’s movement through the Zodiac wheel.
On a side note, this ancient myth made its way to Christianity. The disappearance of Virgo is a special celebration. However, this time the main protagonist does not go into the underworld, but up in heavens. This day is known as the Dormition of the Mother of God
Triptolemus and the cult of Demetre
Another important character of the cult of Demetre is Triptolemus. His name means “triple warrior”. He was also known under the name Buzyges. This other name means the “ox-puller” and it was also an epithet of Hercules.
These names are a clear indication that we are dealing with Orion, but for the sake of brevity of the article, I will not divert further. Let us just say that Orion lies in the proximity of constellation Taurus, the bull. The title “triple warrior” probably refers to the fact that this constellation is also visible during the three seasons. Orion is not visible in the summer when Virgo gets abducted. He then starts a search, which is, for example, the main motive of an Orpheus myth, which I will discuss in another article.
Let us now recap the main facts on these three characters. I used an image from a Greek vase from Louvre, dated to 500BC. This is the same date as the one I used in the astronomical calculations above. Note how Persephone pours water from a jug. This is an allegory to a rainy season that starts in spring and brings fertility to Earth. A very long time ago, this was the original meaning of Aquarius, but since then the constellations have moved considerably, so the language of the myth followed.
So, who is Hades?
After the summer solstice days become shorter. We have seen how the ancients created an abduction myth to explain this phenomenon. As the Virgo started disappearing under the western horizon, on the east there was a flying horse, Pegasus, pulling a chariot, Auriga. Ophiuchus dominated the southern horizon.
I believe that it is precisely Ophiuchus that represents Hades, and for the following reasons.
First of all, Ophiuchus means “serpent-bearer”. The association with the serpents is appropriate as autumn is the time when snakes go back to the “underworld” and hibernate. They also will surface only in spring.
Second, snakes are chthonic symbols, they are universally associated with the underworld. And this is the realm of Hades. The snake was also a symbol of wisdom, and this is another thing with Hades: He was not necessarily evil, and he was surely wise.
Thirdly, one of his epithets was Ophieus, not very far from Ophiuchus. But his more famous names are Agesander (Ἀγήσανδρος) and Agesilaos (Ἀγεσίλαος), both from ágō (ἄγω, “lead”, “carry” or “fetch”) and anḗr (ἀνήρ, “man”) or laos (λαός, “men” or “people”) Catcher of people? Not only of Persephone but all those souls who enter the underworld.
Hades and Cerberus
Hades is often portrayed with his three-headed dog Cerberus. This dog was guarding the entrance to the underworld. His role was basically the same as that of Anubis in Egyptian mythology.
Now, the constellation Scorpius stands right next to the Milky Way. This was the river Styx that souls of the dead cross on their way to the underworld. Also, the shape of Scorpius can be seen as three heads of a dog, especially by those cultures where scorpions are not a part of the fauna.
The thing is that days get shorter after the summer solstice, but they only start getting really short once they reach Scorpius, a few months later. Virgo also completely disappears around this time. In the East, they believed that the Scorpius gives the fatal wound to the old Sun. In Greece and Egypt, it was a dog of the gates of the underworld.
And Scorpius stands next to Ophiuchus, just like Cerberus stands next to Hades.
Finally, the etymology of the name Hades is unknown. But let us just say that “had” in some Slavic languages means “snake”. An absolutely appropriate name for Ophiuchus…
On Slavic etymologies of Ancient Greek gods
This was just another example of how important the knowledge of the stars is for decoding ancient myths. It can also help us understand some modern-day rituals.
But besides the star lore, that which is particularly interesting in this specific myth is a large quantity of Slavic words in ancient Greek. In my humble opinion, the name of Hades has no better translation than “snake”, and no similar parallel in any other language.
The name of Persephone, if really comes from gwen – woman, is nothing else but Slavic “zhena”. This is quite obvious from the official explanation of this word which I posted above.
Besides, In a Linear B Mycenaean Greek inscription on a tablet found at Pylos dated 1400–1200 BC, John Chadwick reconstructed the name of a goddess as Preswa. Interestingly, Virgin Mary in Slavic language has an attribute “Presveta” – the holiest.
The same goes for the name of Demeter. Just like Latin “domus”, “dom” means “house” in all Slavic languages. The word “mater” for “mother” is absolutely the same in Slavic.
Demeter’s other epithet “si-to-po-ti-ni-ja”, means “Lady of the Grain”. The word “sito”, attested already in Linear B is of the same root as Slavic “zhito”, and English “wheat”.
However, the Slavic “zh” sound is definitely the oldest. Those nations who did not have it had to start the word with “s” or “wh”. Moreover, “zhit” in Russian means “to live”, while the color yellow is “zhuta” – or literally, “the color of the wheat”.
We do know that Scythians and Sarmatians were the main suppliers of wheat in the Ancient Greek world. Sea-locked Greece was not a perfect place for growing crops. The nearest sources were Balkan Pannonia and the vast territory from modern-day Bulgaria to Ukraina.
Knowing all this, should we be too surprised to see that the contact between these two ancient nations was much more complex than usually credited by mainstream history?