OTHERS

Blessing of spring

KALYANI DAVIDAR

Greek legends have endured because they are enthralling and seem to lose (some of them at least) for a brief moment, the "myth" quality.

The tale of Persephone is one such and linked to a cycle of Nature and Life as it is. Persephone was the daughter of golden- haired Demeter whose blessing to the earth was an abundance of grain and fruit. One bright day, when it was time for her to travel o'er the earth to give life to crops that they may yield abundantly, Demeter left her child at a sylvan spot at the base of the mountain of Etna in Sicily, a place with a lake vibrant with dulcet-voiced swans and lusciously greened by verdure. Along with her nymph companions, Persephone spent delightful moments play-wandering in that beautiful setting. Persephone's gaze fell upon a radiant flower like a star, on the cleft of a rock. Its unique charm seemed unsurpassed and she headed towards it. The flower was a narcissus but one endowed with extraordinary loveliness. Persephone stretched out her hand, plucked the flower and gazed upon its perfection, but not for long, for she heard a deafening roar, followed by a crash that seemed to come from the volcano Etna which yawned darkly as though to devour her.

"Persephone," called a voice which tried to calm her fears and which proceeded from beneath her feet. Persephone looked up and the mountain heaved open around her and lo, there rumbled a chariot drawn by four black horses whose eyes were wild, and from whose nostrils streamed fire. The earth was resonant with the clang of hooves and the charitoeer controlled the animals with a skilled hand.

Terrified, Persephone tried to flee but the driver yanked her by her golden tresses, wrapped her in his black cloak and carried her to the nether-world. Trying to calm her fears he said, "Persephone, the world I take you to will be resplendent with gems set amidst great trees that have turned to coal. I am Hades, king of the dead and you shall be my queen."

Far above, among the luscious fruit and berry-laden boughs and the corn, Demeter stood, weeping bitterly. Nine days and nine nights she wandered over the earth in futile quest. "Have you seen my beautiful Persephone," she bewailed, "the girl with the flowing tresses and dainty feet?" Covering her ahead with a pall- black veil and garbed in mourning, Demeter continued her floundering quest until she remembered Apollo, the sun god. Surely nothing could escape the brightness of his gaze. Would not his powerful rays have fallen upon Persephone until she was cruelly devoured by the darkness of Hades? And so to Apollo, Demeter went. Moved by the mother's bitter tears, Apollo disclosed the truth: "Zeus has given Persephone to his brother Hades as wife. They share the black throne in the underworld."

Standing upon the Sicilian plain, Demeter wept and tore her hair. "Tell Zeus, no longer will I dwell on lofty Olympian heights with the other Gods, nor will I bless the earth with harvest-plenty. Olive, grape and corn and everything that made the earth smile shall yield no more their wholesomeness and...

And bleakness did fall up on the earth for no longer did Demeter pat the furrowing oxen with her invisible hand or plant and tree with her fecund fingers. Not until she saw her child again would she bless the fields and stop the women and young girls labouring there from grieving that no rain came to slake the parched earth's thirst. Man and beast began to die but Demeter unmoved, continued to weep for her lost daughter night and day.

Zeus then sent his messenger Iris, the rainbow who spanned earth and sky, to tell Demeter that he beckoned her back to Mount Olympus. Demeter ignored the summoning. More gods called unto Demeter but she paid no heed. Then came the promise from Zeus to Demeter; "You may have Persephone again but on condition that she has not partaken of the forbidden food that the dead have feasted on."

From Olympian heights to the underworld, Hermes the messenger dived and passing through the dark labyrinth of caverns and tunnels came upon a hall whose walls glistened like polished ebony. By the flicker of feeble light that shed an eerie glow, Hermes saw Persephone beside her husband Hades on a throne. In bold tones Hermes announced: "Zeus commands that you return Persephone where she rightfully belongs or else Demeter's curse will render the earth into nothingness.

Though king of the nether-world, Hades dared not disobey Zeus his brother and relinquished his queen, but not before exhorting her to share a pomegranate with him, a piece of which he thrust into her mouth. (To this day, it is said, Sicilian peasant women give the pomegranate fruit to their lovers when forced to stay apart believing that the fruit ensures a safe and speedy return.)

With Hermes as guide, Persephone travelled the vast dark expanse of wind and fire until in an olive grove where fell the light of day, she saw her mother. Flinging her arms around her daughter, Demeter cried out: "Tell me Perspehone, did you eat the repast of the dead for if you did so, Hades still has his clutches on you." "He forced me to eat a fruit," she cried in despair, "and against my will I ate it." What would the consequence be, Persephone wondered.

Zeus decreed that Persephone should spend a third of the year in the dark core of the earth with her husband Hades who had so craftfully deluded her. But each spring, Hades was to bring Persephone back to her mother.

And so it is, that when Persephone is on the illumined part of the world, there is green all about and sheaves of golden grain a plenty on the threshing floor. Poppies and irises, snowdrops and helianthus and ever so many more are all abloom and Demeter's fair countenance beams with joy. All men praise the Goddess who nourishes with her benign grace. But when the time comes for Persephone to depart, frost lays bare the earth and blights much growth and there is but a faint trace of colour where once all hues were splashes. The poetry of the earth at this time, seems dead... truly dead.

(A Greek legend retold)