At the beginning of time, there were three great gods who were brothers: Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto. They decided to divide the world and each rule a portion. Jupiter gained the land, while Neptune ruled the seas. And to Pluto went the Underworld, the land of the dead.
When Pluto wanted a wife, he came to his brother, Jupiter, for help and advice.
The brothers decided, without asking her, that Proserpina would make a good bride, and began to plan how Pluto might make her his wife.
Proserpina was the beautiful young daughter of Ceres, goddess of the harvest, and, like her mother, she loved the green things of the earth.
One day, Proserpina was gathering flowers in a grassy meadow near a lake. As she filled her apron with one beautiful blossom after another, it seemed that an even more wonderful flower was always just a few steps further away.
That was no accident. These flowers were not the work of her mother, Ceres. They had been placed by Jupiter to lure Proserpina farther from where Ceres was tending the fields of wheat and barley that men depended on for their food.
As Proserpina moved to pluck each flower, she moved closer to a spot near the lakeshore where a crack ran through the earth into the Underworld.
Finally, as she bent to gather a white poppy very near that crack, the ground shook.
Proserpina froze in sudden astonishment, bent over with her hand reaching for the flower, as the earth opened in front of her and a chariot, drawn by four giant black horses, came thundering out of the cavern below.
In a moment, she was swept up by the strong arms of Pluto as the chariot circled out around the shore of the lake.
A nymph who lived in that lake, Cyane, saw what had happened, and, though she feared mighty Pluto, she stood in the path of his chariot as it circled back towards the cavern, holding out her arms to halt his horses.
“Stop!” she shouted. “You cannot do this! Do you not know that you cannot force a woman to love you? Do you not know how to persuade a young woman with words and gifts and kindness?”
But Pluto did not even slow his chariot. He stretched out his scepter and changed the nymph Cyane into a spring that ran from the edge of the cavern into the lake. The chariot raced back into that cavern and the crack that had opened slammed shut, as Proserpina’s final scream for help echoed across the waters.
Far across the fields, that cry reached the ears of Ceres. The goddess paused only a moment, and then raced towards the sound.
But all she found was the flowers that had dropped from her daughter’s hand as she was carried away.
She walked back and forth across the meadow, calling her daughter, but no voice responded. At last, she began to walk along the lake shore, still calling Proserpina and weeping with a mother’s fear.
At the edge of the crack, Cyane, now nothing more than a trickle of water, heard the goddess and wished that she could call out to her. Her heart ached, but she had no voice.
At last, Cyane realized that, as the chariot disappeared into the earth, Proserpina had dropped the light cloth belt that bound her waist. One end of this belt was caught between the rocks, but Cyane’s waters lifted the other end and floated it out through the crack and towards the edge of the lake.
Ceres walked along the lake, looking first ahead, and then behind, and then out over the water, calling all the time for her daughter. Only after Cyane tangled the belt around her ankle did she look down, and cry out as she recognized the cloth. Ceres bent to pick it up, but, when she found it caught fast in the earth, she knew her daughter had been taken into the Underworld.
The goddess sped at once to find Phoebus, who drives the chariot of the Sun across the sky each day. “You must have seen!” she said to him. “You must have looked down and seen who took my daughter!”
“Do not worry,” Phoebus said. “She is safe with Pluto in his kingdom below the earth where she shall be queen.”
“Safe?” Ceres cried. “How can you say she is safe when she has been taken against her will?”
“It was the will of Jupiter,” Phoebus said. “Pluto needed a wife and Jupiter chose Proserpina for him.”
Ceres stood a moment, her fury rising. “Then I am done with Jupiter, done with Olympus,” she shouted. “I am done with any who would do something so evil!”
Ceres returned to earth, but she no longer looked like a strong, beautiful goddess. Instead, she changed herself into an old woman in a gray cloak and traveled slowly from place to place, sadly thinking of the daughter she had lost.
No longer did she make the plants grow in the fields, no longer did flowers bloom or fruit ripen on the trees. The green earth grew brown, as drab and plain as the goddess who once had cared for it.
At last, she came to a town in Eleusis. There, Ceres sat beneath an olive tree near the village well, her head covered with a veil.
To all who passed, she looked to be an old woman who had lost everything but life, and valued life very little with no child to make it pleasant.
And to herself, she felt very much as if that were true.
Next: Ceres grieves for her lost child
Text by Mike Peterson, c. 2005 - illustrations by Dylan Meconis, c. 2005