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, the goddess Demeter, was devastated by this event and transformed into an old woman. As a consequence, the plants on Earth ceased to grow.
As the human race faced the threat of extinction, Zeus, the Sky God, intervened and convinced Hades to release Persephone. However, before letting her go, Hades made her eat some pomegranate seeds. Unbeknownst to Persephone, consuming the food of the underworld meant she would be forever tied to that realm.
As a result, Persephone was allowed to return home, but she had to spend three winter months each year in the underworld. When she reemerged in spring, the Earth’s plants flourished once again, symbolizing the renewal of life.
The abduction of Persephone explained
Undoubtedly, this story clearly symbolizes the change of seasons, a theme that can be traced back to an ancient Indo-European archetype. The abduction of Persephone mirrors similar narratives found in other cultural myths, such as the abduction of Sita in the Ramayana or the abduction of Helen in the Iliad.
However, the true meaning of this myth is often misunderstood, largely due to confusion surrounding the symbolic representations of its main characters.
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”. The reason for this association is quite understandable, as the Virgo constellation’s depiction resembles that of a woman holding a sheaf of wheat in her hand, aligning with Demeter’s role as the goddess of vegetation.
However, etymological analysis of her name reveals that it 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).
Indeed, in the ancient texts she is 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 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 Linear A as “damate”. This word exists in Linear B too, but it is translated as “households”. So, the same word “da-ma-te”, can mean both Demeter and households? Similarly, the Latin word “domina” originally meant “the lady of the house”, as the Latin word for “house” is “Domus”. The English word “dame” – “lady”, comes from vulgar Latin.
In conclusion, the name Demeter probably means “Mother Earth”, and as such, we cannot equte her with Virgo.
Persephone, the real Virgo
That Persephone is a personification of the Virgo’s 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 precisely 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 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 the myth. 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 eternal circle of life and immortality, Persephone became a popular subject on ancient sarcophagi.
The idea that Persephone “appears” and “disappears” strongly suggests that she may be associated with a constellation. This interpretation gains further support from the Homeric hymn, one of the oldest versions of the myth. Here, Demeter says to Persephone:
Below we see Virgo on three different dates: 21.03.500 BC (spring), 21.06.500 BC (summer), and 23.12.500 BC, (winter). During the fall Virgo is not visible. These are the months that Persephone spends in the underworld. Demeter is looking for persephone with torches – an allegory of the Sun’s movement through the Zodiac.
On a side note, this ancient myth made its way to Christianity. The disappearance of Virgo is a special celebration. However, this time the virgin does not descend into the underworld but rather ascends to the 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. Orion lies in the proximity of the constellation Taurus, the bull. The designation “triple warrior” perhaps 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 quite reminiscent of an Orpheus myth, which will be discussed in another article.
The image below comes from a Greek vase, dated to 500 BC. 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 role of Aquarius, but over time, the constellations shifted due to the effects of precession. As a result, the language of the myth adapted to reflect the changes in the celestial positions of the constellations.
So, which constellation is Hades?
As we saw, the abduction myth of Virgo offers a symbolic explanation for the phenomenon of days becoming shorter after the summer solstice. As Virgo begins to disappear below the western horizon, the eastern sky showcases the constellation Pegasus, depicted as a flying horse, drawing a chariot represented by the constellation Auriga. Additionally, Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer, commands the southern horizon (south of heaven).
Ophiuchus would be the best candidate to represents Hades, and for the following reasons:
Firstly, Ophiuchus means “serpent-bearer”. The association with the serpents is appropriate as autumn is the time when snakes go back to the “underworld” to hibernate. They will also return in spring.
For this reason, Snakes are chthonic symbols. They are universally associated with the underworld, the realm of Hades. The snake also represented wisdom, and this is another thing with Hades: Unlike the Christian devil, he was not necessarily evil, and he was surely wise.
Secondly, one of Hades’s epithets was Ophieus, not very far from Ophiuchus. But his more famous names are Agesander (Ἀγήσανδρος) and Agesilaos (Ἀγεσίλαος), from ágō (ἄγω, “lead”, “carry” or “fetch”) and anḗr (ἀνήρ, “man”) or laos (λαός, “men” or “people”) In other words, he was a “catcher of people”, not only of Persephone but all those souls who enter the underworld.
Hades and Cerberus
Hades, the lord of the underworld in Greek mythology, is commonly depicted with his faithful companion Cerberus, a three-headed dog. Cerberus’s primary role was to guard the entrance to the underworld, ensuring that spirits could enter but not leave. This duty closely resembles that of Anubis in Egyptian mythology, where Anubis was the guardian of the realm of the dead and played a crucial role in guiding souls through the afterlife.
the constellation Scorpius is located near the Milky Way, which in ancient mythology was often associated with the river Styx, a symbolic river that souls of the deceased crossed on their journey to the underworld.
The shape of Scorpius, with its curving tail and pincers, can also be interpreted as resembling the three heads of a dog, especially in cultures where scorpions were not prevalent.
After the summer solstice, days begin to get shorter, but it is around the time when the constellation Scorpius appears a few months later that the days truly become noticeably shorter. During this period, Virgo also completely disappears from the night sky.
In the Eastern beliefs, Scorpius was often associated with delivering the fatal wound to the old Sun. This celestial event might have been symbolically linked to the changing seasons, as the Sun’s perceived decline in strength and daylight hours during the autumn months gave way to the coming of winter.
And finally, Scorpius stands right next to Ophiuchus, just like Cerberus stands next to Hades.
The etymology of the name Hades is unknown. However, in some Slavic languages “had” means “snake” – an appropriate name for Ophiuchus.
On Slavic etymologies of Ancient Greek gods
In my humble opinion, the name of Hades has no better translation than “snake”, and no similar parallel in any other language. Similarly, the name of Persephone, if it really comes from gwen – woman, has a cognate in Slavic “zhena”.
Besides, In a Linear B Mycenaean Greek inscription on a tablet found at Pylos dated to 1,400–1,200 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.
And finally, 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”.
Without a doubt, 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?