You would hear a story – the story – Mousaios, my son? Very well, I will tell it. But first let all the profane ones close the door of their ears – it is not proper for the like to take such holy words into themselves.
The Maiden lived on the beautiful island of Sicily but she could only see its plentiful fields of colorful flowers from her window, for she was locked away in a cold stone tower that was guarded by ferocious dragons, placed there by her mother, the Grain Goddess. Demeter had fled to Sicily from Olympos long ago, after being raped in a field of beans by her brother Zeus, King of the Gods; she had raised the Maiden in fearful isolation lest a similar fate befall her. When the spidery Maiden wasn’t wistfully gazing at the world outside her web, she was busy weaving its replica at her loom and dreaming of a life of freedom and adventure that would never be hers.
One day Hybla, mother of the bee-rich mountains nearby, took pity on the Maiden and sent her Nymphs, who were knowledgeable in all the herbs that grow on that miraculously fertile island, to drug the dragons into a deep slumber from which they would not rouse, and the Nymphs enticed the Maiden from her tower of solitude to dance with them and gather lovely flowers for festive crowns. They were joined in their revels by the virgins Athene, Artemis and Hekate who were overjoyed to be reunited with their long-lost sister the Maiden, who had never been given a proper name of her own, so great had her mother neglected her in an effort to protect her. At the pool of Kyane the Maiden stopped and stared intently at her reflection, mesmerized by the image of herself that floated upon that exceedingly blue water. It was such a rich color because it’s depths were unfathomable – some said it went all the way down to the kingdom of the dead which was ruled over by a somber figure in a wolf’s cloak who sat upon his black throne and never addressed the gloomy subjects of his infernal realm.
From mount Eryx the Goddess Aphrodite watched and plotted. She loathed the King Below for in all of creation his stony heart was the only one she could not touch. Her empire of love extended from the surface of the earth to the dwelling of the remote cosmic Gods high above the stars – but the doors of hell itself were barred her. So she sent her lover Hermes, death’s herald, to beguile Haides with his cunning words – swift as thought he descended and was at the dread sovereign’s side, whispering into his ear. He spoke of the unsurpassed beauty of the Maiden above, inventing erotic verse, and Haides felt a strange stirring in his loins; when he glanced up and caught sight of the Maiden through the waters of Kyane he was done for – trapped by the threads Aphrodite had artfully woven around him with the aid of clever Hermes. He was mad with lust for the Maiden and had to possess her! He reached a hand up through the waters and nearly grasped her, but at the last instant her sisters called out to her and the Maiden rushed off to join the riotous troop of reveling Nymphs.
They ran the distance from the spring of Kyane to the marshes of Enna where the Palikoi have their dwelling, twin sons of the Nymph Thalia and Adranos the Smith God who works his forge beneath the earth in the streams of lava that send up geysers of steam and boiling water to test the hearts of those who swear oaths at this spot. Nearby is the Cave of the Nymphs, the navel of Sicily, which is surrounded by violets and irises and hyacinths and many other types of flower as well; and there is never a season of the year when these flowers grow not. Their fragrance is so great that it throws hunting dogs off the scent, so many rabbits and deer and other creatures have made their home here with the Nymphs in this paradise on earth. While her sisters and the Nymphs were playing with the animals and exchanged ribald verse with the Palikoi who graze their herds in the area (the one placid-eyed cattle, the other swine of immense size) the Maiden wandered off to explore a cave from which the most alluring scent of roses came – roses said to have sprung up for the first time when the shepherd Daphnis was pulled under water by the Nymph who loved him; in the struggle his blood was shed and splattered to the ground becoming roses.
As the Maiden was about to enter the cave the earth shook violently and a great chasm opened up causing the swine of the Palikos-brother to tumble into the abyss. All the other beasts and the Nymphs and Goddesses fled screaming in terror, all save Hekate who watched astonished as a black carriage drawn by black steeds with eyes like glowing coals rose to the surface. Goading them on was the Lord of the dead in golden armor that shown like the sun, the pelt of a wolf hanging across his broad shoulders and a double-headed axe carved from the thigh-bone of a Giant clutched in his right hand. And she watched as the carriage pulled up next to the petrified Maiden and the King of hell reached out and grabbed her about the waist and hoisted her over his shoulder as if she weighed less than a cloud. The Maiden screeched and pounded his back with her tender fists but to no avail; Haides snapped the reins and the team of steeds were off, headed towards that part of Sicily that in time would be settled by the men of Minos when they came here from Crete in search of Daidalos. Hekate watched until even the clouds of dust disappeared, but she dared not follow.
She was standing like that still several days later when the Goddess Demeter staggered up, her black gown tattered and stained with dirt, her hair down and loose like a mountain-roaving bacchant, her features etched by sorrow and tears. Demeter spotted the Goddess by the wayside and inquired if she had seen her daughter, whom she was searching for, as she had asked so many times since returning to the tower and the slumbering dragons. Demeter informed her of all the places she had already been – the river of Arethusa where Artemis was wont to bathe, down by the seashore where Poseidon’s one-eyed son pined for fair Galatea, whom he had lost to the white-capped waves, the crater of Aetna where Typhoeus was buried after having been defeated in battle with the Gods; Demeter stopped there to light her torches so that she could continue to search by night. She came to the kingdom of Saturnus in Italy where men lived without war or want; he was a good and pious king and he received the Goddess hospitably, bidding her refresh herself with fine red wine, and take her fill of sweet cakes soaked in honey, and ripe figs plucked right from the tree. He even offered to butcher his fattened oxen to make feast for her, but she refused. All she would accept was a bowl of water with some barley and grated cheese mixed in, and to make this feast fit for a dog more palatable Demeter added some mentha pulegium leaves and drank it right up. In return for his hospitality she offered to make his son Ianus immortal but as she was holding the boy over the fire his mother Ops came and screamed in horror. She grabbed the boy by the head and tried to pull him away from the grieving mad-woman but Demeter held tight and the boy’s flesh, softened by the fire, began to reshape itself so that he now had two faces, one on either side.
She traveled the length and breadth of Italy but found no sign of her daughter and had finally returned to Sicily in search of her. No one she had interrogated in all that time had seen or heard anything – even the Sun that sees all and the primordial oracle of Nyx were silent. At the place that would one day be called Syrakousai she was exhausted and sat to rest a while on a boulder – one can see the indent she made in the stone to this day – and while she wept for the daughter she had lost a strange old woman named Iambe approached her and tried to get her to smile. All her jokes were to no avail so to cover her head in shame Iambe lifted her skirt high, exposing her nether parts, which brought a chuckle to Demeter’s lips – the first time she had laughed since she had come to Sicily to flee her wicked brother.
From there she journeyed to Enna and that’s when she found Hekate standing by the chasm. Hekate explained all and pledged to join Demeter in her search, no matter how long it took them to find the raptured Maiden. Finally the pair came to the Hyblaean range where the prophetic sons of Apollon dwell and perform their orgiastic gecko dances while Mother Hybla beats the kettle-drum for them. These told the wandering women what they had seen in a dream-vision – a black wolf carrying a dove in its teeth through gates of flame – and Hybla warned Demeter to give up her search, for the Goddess would not like what she found. They heeded Mother Hybla not.
Hekate was clever and understood that the dream had indicated the river Phlegethon near Baiae where the Oracle of the Dead was located; its fiery depths served as the border between this world and the next. Hekate took Demeter by the hand (the Grain Goddess was terrified) and led her into a cave which contained a secret passageway to the invisible land. They were greeted by Hermes on the shores of the Kokytos who came bearing torches to lead them the rest of the way.
When finally they reached the castle of the Midnight Sun Demeter’s frantic search was over – there in the chamber-room on a throne of gleaming bone to complement the onyx of her lord was the Maiden, though she was a maiden no longer. The girl licked blood-red pomegranate juice from her kiss-swollen lips and informed her mother that she now had a name. Persephone she was to be called when her mother came to visit; she lived in this world of death now, with Haides her master. As the two began to fight as only women can fight the cheeks of Persephone’s husband took on a semblance of color they had never known before – Hekate and Hermes turned their gaze away, uncomfortable by the death-king’s open display of emotion. The sound of Aphrodite’s triumphant laughter made Eryx temporarily bereft of doves. Finally daughter and mother were reconciled: Persephone would remain as Queen of those below and not suffer to be locked away in her mother’s bower – but she would come back for visits, since she loved Demeter dearly. Demeter was satisfied that Haides would protect and care for and treat her daughter well, for she had seen how they were doting upon each other when Hermes led her into their chamber. Yes, this Kronides would make a fine husband for her little girl – a better husband than she herself had ever known. Neither Zeus nor Poseidon nor Zephyros had treated her well – the only pleasure she’d known, and briefly, was in the arms of Iasion in a thrice-plowed field. But this would not do – the two of them running off to elope! They were Gods born of Gods and rulers of uncounted hosts below the earth – they deserved honor in the halls of high Olympos. And so Demeter set about arranging a proper wedding for them, one to rival even that of Kadmos and Harmonia.
The site that they chose would in generations to come be called Lokroi of the Western Wind but the Gods then knew it as the Land of Blessedness. All the great and small Gods of Greece and Italy were summoned to the festivities which lasted for a full nine days and nine nights and not once in all that time did saffron-cloaked Hymenaios’ torches smoke or sputter. The party really got started on the sixth day when Dionysos and his shaggy Satyrs arrived on the scene with kegs of the best wine that had ever been brewed and he gifted the groom with a kantharos that remained always full and a golden branch of ivy; to the bride he gave a finely-wrought distaff and a ball of silver thread which he said she would one day have need of.
Each of the Gods sought to outdo each other in the gifts they bestowed on the happy couple and when it was Mother Hybla’s turn she brought a large kettle-drum with a spider at the center of a web painted upon the taut hide. Once she had presented her gift Demeter took her aside and inquired about the strange prophecy she had delivered which had gone unfulfilled. Mother Hybla just laughed and said that there is time yet for you to regret what your eyes have witnessed. Zeus was last among the Gods to present his daughter with her bridal gift. He staggered up to the happy couple, head muddled from his son’s wine and nearly tripping over his feet like some poor sloppy Satyr. He gave his daughter possession of Sicily and the girdle of Aphrodite and slurring his words told her he hoped she used it well, for he wanted many fat grand-children to bounce on his knee just like Demeter’s flabby titties had bounced when they conceived her in that bean-field. Hera, shamed by her drunken husband’s obscene outburst, escorted him back to Olympos and the revelers returned to their celebration as if nothing had happened.
Persephone settled into her role as Queen of the dead quite happily; she persuaded her husband to make some changes so that it was a more pleasant place for the shades to spend eternity and their love blossomed like the flowers that had led her to that cave. She even convinced Haides to get a pet, the three-headed dog Kerberos who fawned upon his masters but was ferocious when he stood sentry at the gates of hell. As happy as their marriage was, it remained childless for death’s lord was sterile. Persephone said she did not mind – she had all the dead as her children, but secretly she was grieved by her empty womb and so when Theseus and Perithous harrowed hell to rescue her she imprisoned them and vented her anger by punishing them in increasingly cruel ways. Likewise Persephone devised torments for Ixion and Tantalos and Sisyphos and all of the other great sinners; before her Haides had merely buried them in shit, for he lacked her creativity or malice.
Then everything changed, so that in times to come their happiness would seem as insubstantial and fleeting as a dream. While Persephone was pelting Niobe with seventy stones, her husband grabbed her by the neck and thrust her up against a wall. He ripped the gown from her body and grinned wolfishly at her nakedness. For a moment she was caught pleasantly by surprise – her husband’s affections were never so ardent – but then she looked into his eyes and knew that it was not Haides who was having his way with her. She had seen him but once, at her wedding, and she would recognize the eyes of her father Zeus anywhere. Persephone pleaded and tried to fight her rapist off, but to no avail. One could wrap a golden chain about the waist of Zeus and all the Olympians together could not force him to budge so much as an inch, so great was his power. Still she fought and pleaded with her father not to do this thing, but all he said was that he would have fat grand-children to bounce on his knee, one way or another. She begged him to resume his natural form or at least to change into a horse or a bull or some winged creature, but he retained the face of her husband all the while that he raped her. Zeus could be a gentle lover, soft as rays of golden sunlight – he was not gentle with Persephone. He tore her flesh and made her bleed like an over-ripe pomegranate crushed in a fist. And when her rending was complete he left her there with only battered Niobe to help her back to her husband.
Something broke in her that day – gone was the sunny Girl plucking flowers, gone the haughty Queen of the underworld. In their place remained a mere shell of a woman, a shadow of her former self. So deep in sorrow was she plunged that she neither ate nor spoke nor saw to the needs of her immortal body – even when her pale belly swelled with life. When she was delivered of a daughter – Melinoë whose body was half light and half dark and mangled by the fury of her father – Haides hoped that she would be restored to him, but instead Persephone thrust the crying babe away from her and refused to give her her breast. Haides did the best that he could to raise little Melinoë but he had no training in such things or skill in general when it came to dealing with others. Aphrodite took pity on them for the devastation she had unleashed with her ambitions and so became Melinoë’s wet-nurse. When the girl was older Haides made sure that she had plenty of monsters as well as the Erinyes to play with, but she grew strange with only these strange things to keep her company. Haides worried that he was doing wrong by her, so he sought a normal girl and one of good character to be her playmate – the daughter of his old friend Herakles – who accepted death to preserve the lives of her siblings. He adopted her as his own daughter and Melinoë and Makaria became bosom companions, though there remained something off about Persephone’s wayward daughter. She was often found staring at things even spirits could not see and was subject to uncontrollable fits of manic violence that frightened the Lord of hell. These failed to rouse her mother from her melancholic torpor; the most she would do to acknowledge her daughter was recoil in disgust when she came near.
Haides was mulling over his problems, as he often did these days, when Dionysos came striding up and boldly announced that he was there to win back his mother’s soul. Having proved his might on earth and established himself as one of the Olympians by brokering the release of Hera and aiding them in their war with the rebellious Giants, the son of Semele planned to conquer even hell itself. The King of the dead was in no mood to be sassed by the upstart Wine God and so he leapt from his black throne and transformed himself into a ravening wolf mid-air. Haides’ fangs and claws tore the side of the bull that Dionysos had become and the son of Zeus butted the lupine God away with his savage horns. The fight was fierce and shook the halls of hell, causing the shades to scatter like a swarm whose hive has been upturned. Melinoë alone remained, clapping and laughing madly at the skirmish that played out before her. Haides struck the bull a mighty blow and Dionysos resumed his man-shape just in time to save Melinoë from getting crushed. He begged an end to their conflict – saving his mother from the gloom was not worth harming a child as precious as this. Haides’ heart was warmed by the stranger’s kindness and he changed his countenance so that it gleamed as brightly as the Sun once more. Haides collapsed to his knees and confessed that he didn’t know what to do – his daughter was insane and her mother even worse, lost to him in the Labyrinth of Tartaros. Dionysos merely smiled and said that such things were his specialty.
He slaughtered a ram by the river of Lethe and spread its wet hide over a tripod, which he bid Melinoë sit upon. Then he washed her in milk and sprinkled her with ash and white chalk, making a game of it, until the girl looked like a ghost. He placed a crown of flowers on her head and then started to dance and sing in a rough semi-circle around her. Melinoë watched incredulously at first, glancing at her equally incredulous father who just shrugged his shoulders. Then all of a sudden her eyes grew heavy and she began to sway in time to the rhythmic movements and noise Dionysos was making. Haides feared she might fall off the three-footed stool but despite the laxness of her body she remained firmly in place. Then Dionysos began taking a series of toys from the pouch he wore at his side and handed them to the girl. With each gift he leaned in and whispered something in her ear, then continued dancing about like a capering goat. And then he showed her something else, something which it is not lawful to reveal to the uninitiate, something that left her simultaneously weeping and laughing. After it was done he helped her down from the tripod and the two of them walked hand-in-hand to Haides, Melinoë running the rest of the way to her father, clasping him tightly to her as she never had before. She glanced up at him with eyes that had always been murky with madness but now were clear as the light of the day; Haides shed tears as freely as Aethra one day would. He had his daughter back. Before death’s King could properly thank Dionysos he had his back turned towards them and was approaching the Labyrinth of Tartaros into which Persephone had wandered and gotten lost. Haides had tried to find her and failed; neither Hekate nor Hermes nor any of the others he sent proved any more successful. Dionysos should have been frightened to be entering hell’s hell but he was too drunk to care.
After wandering through nightmares and perversions for an eternity he finds the Maiden, more a monster than a girl. He gets the rocks to spew forth wine and bids her drink in a voice impossible to ignore. Once she has drunk to intoxication she begins talking. The things she says are horrible and beyond believing, a mix of truth and delusion which she cannot tell apart. Dionysos listens to it all, gentle and not judging. He bids her drink more and then he holds her, soothing the pain and fury that has become such a part of her that she knows nothing else. She relaxes into his loving arms and he just holds her and rocks and says nothing. How funny, she remarks after a while. I remember when our positions were reversed. You were my child then, trembling in fear for you knew the monsters with white faces would come for you one day and no matter how hard you fought or fast you ran they would still rip you apart and eat your bloody flesh. I held you and shushed you to sleep, my child, not believing a word of it – and then it happened. I couldn’t save you from them. Do you remember that? No, Dionysos whispers. But I have drunk so much to ease my pain that there is much that I have forgot. I am sure that you tried, mother. Mother? Persephone asks, her body going stiff. Why do you call me that? I am sorry, my sister. Dionysos whispers, I have been so many things over the centuries it is hard to keep track of them all. Oh my brother, you say the strangest things. Persephone laughs, letting him stroke her hair. I suppose you have no choice but to make up stories to entertain yourself, being trapped down here. Especially considering how infrequent my visits have been of late. You come when you can, Dionysos says. I do not begrudge you your life above. Don’t you? She asks. Even with that hideous face and bull’s horns that keep you locked away down here? It’s not your ugliness, you know. I think you’re quite lovely. It’s that you remind father of mother’s sin, of his inadequacies as a man. And he cannot have that. I know, he replies with sorrowful resignation. At least you come to visit me. I will never leave you, my brother. She whispers into his ear, her soft hand exploring the growing hardness between his legs. Not even when you should find yourself a suitable mate, a king from a distant land perhaps? No. Not even then. They make love in the dark, slow and tender and sad, for they both know that isn’t true. She’s going to be his death and run away with that Athenian – the threads of their fate have already been spun. After they have made love (which resulted in the conception of Iakchos) she sits bolt upright. My father. Where’s my father? Don’t worry, my little dove, your father is fine. Dionysos assures her, stopping further protest with a kiss. I gave him my vine-branches and taught him how to make strong wine to share with his neighbors. Boy, are they in for a treat! My dog, she says, confused. Why is my dog’s cry so plaintive?
Dionysos cut Persephone down from the tree, held her lifeless body close to him, and carried her out of the Labyrinth and into a meadow of fragrant flowers that would never grow old or lose their scent, setting her down beneath a tree where a stream of ice-cold water ran. In the distance shown a white cypress, radiant in the gloom. Many souls congregated there. He cupped the water in his hands and held it for her to drink. Once she had, he asked if she knew who she was. At first she didn’t. Then she looked at him confusedly and said, I am a child of earth – of earth and the starry sky. Fate and the Thunderer sent me here. I don’t know my name. Yes you do. Who are you? She stared at him for a moment and then nodded. I am the darkness that makes the stars shine forth. And I. Who am I? Persephone smiled. You are my Starry Bull, my savior. And I will always come for you, whether you are sister, wife or mother. Mother? But I’m not Semele. Not this time, he answers. And then the two of them walked hand-in-hand back to the throne-room of Haides until Persephone spotted her husband – she ran the rest of the way, threw herself into his arms and rapturously kissed him. You returned my daughter and wife to me – however can I thank you? Haides of the golden hair was beside himself with joy. I want a third of your kingdom, the Bull proclaimed with savagery in his eyes. And I want you to renounce any claim you might have on my initiates, brother. And the two Gods clasped hands in solemn oath to each other.
So when you come before the judges in the underworld you tell them the whole story, you tell them that Bakchios set you free, that you have wine as your fortunate reward.