homeric hymn to demeter

For the ancient Greeks, a pig was “the cheapest sacrificial animal,” easily raised in large quantities. Not only that, but “pig-sacrifice for Demeter was the most common feature of all forms of the Demeter cult.”[1] In particular, we should consider that the pig was the animal that died in the place of the initiate at the Eleusinian mysteries.

In Aristophanes’ Acharnians, the Megarian sells his daughters in a bag as “mystery piggies,”[2] thereby associating his daughters with the sacrificial pigs for sale. This episode is not simply a comic distortion. The cultural knowledge that the dark humor depends on is the fact that pig-sacrifice in the Demeter cult had the character of an anticipatory sacrifice of virgins.[3]

In this regard, Greek mythology explains the Eleusinian pig-sacrifice by telling stories about Kore, the daughter of Demeter. Kore became Persephone. Myth accounts for the pig-sacrifice by telling of the descent of the maiden, Kore, into the underworld. That is, the myth tells of the rape of Kore by Hades, who thereby made her into his queen.

The oldest and most important version of this myth is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter,[4] which, in Walter Burkert’s no-nonsense plot summary, “relates a maiden’s death that has the approval of Zeus: it describes the sacrifice of a maiden.”[5]

In beginning of the hymn, Kore is frolicking in the field. Then the earth opens up and Hades snatches her down into the underworld:[6]

1: I begin to sing of Demeter, the holy goddess with the beautiful hair.
And her daughter [Persephone] too. The one with the delicate ankles, whom Hadês
seized. She was given away by Zeus, the loud-thunderer, the one who sees far and wide.
Demeter did not take part in this, she of the golden double-axe, she who glories in the harvest.
5: She [Persephone] was having a good time, along with the daughters of Okeanos, who wear their girdles slung low.
She was picking flowers: roses, crocus, and beautiful violets.
Up and down the soft meadow. Iris blossoms too she picked, and hyacinth.
And the narcissus, which was grown as a lure for the flower-faced girl
by Gaia [Earth]. All according to the plans of Zeus. She [Gaia] was doing a favor for the one who receives many guests [Hadês].
10: It [the narcissus] was a wondrous thing in its splendor. To look at it gives a sense of holy awe
to the immortal gods as well as mortal humans.
It has a hundred heads growing from the root up.
Its sweet fragrance spread over the wide skies up above.
And the earth below smiled back in all its radiance. So too the churning mass of the salty sea.
15: She [Persephone] was filled with a sense of wonder, and she reached out with both hands
to take hold of the pretty plaything. And the earth, full of roads leading every which way, opened up under her.
It happened on the Plain of Nysa. There it was that the Lord who receives many guests made his lunge.
He was riding on a chariot drawn by immortal horses. The son of Kronos. The one known by many names.
He seized her against her will, put her on his golden chariot,
20: And drove away as she wept. She cried with a piercing voice,
calling upon her father [Zeus], the son of Kronos, the highest and the best.
But not one of the immortal ones, or of human mortals,
heard her voice. Not even the olive trees which bear their splendid harvest.

persephone abductionThis marriage to Hades is a violent death. The seizure of Kore and the consummation of her marriage to Hades is nothing other than a rape that becomes a murder, a rape gone wrong.

René Girard has identified a recurring structure in myth called “the sacrificial crisis”.[7] The sacrificial crisis occurs when good violence goes bad. The crisis is solved when the escalating crisis of bad violence is ended by a return to good violence. How does bad violence suddenly become good? It becomes sacred.

Sacred violence brings an end to the plague of bad violence. This occurs in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. A rape goes wrong. Good violence goes bad. Kore is raped, but dies. The crisis of bad violence escalates as Demeter seeks revenge, slaughtering mortals.

The crisis is solved by the transfiguration of Kore’s rape and murder into a celebration and etiology of the harvest. Kore becomes Persephone, whose name means “the killer of suckling pigs.”[8] The slaughter of pigs is the return to sacred violence. The sacred slaughter of pigs solves the problem initially created by the rape of Kore the khoiros.

Because of their reliance on this sacred violence, the Greeks did not view the rape of a young virgin in the same way we do.[9] But we might think otherwise on account of Demeter’s reaction, the problem she has with it, as recorded in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Our outrage seems to find a parallel in Demeter’s outrage.

In the hymn, Demeter grieves for her daughter, and then she eventually forces Zeus into a compromise: namely, the seasonal return of Kore from the underworld. This compromise, coaxed from Zeus, is analogous to Demeter’s power to coax the grain from the ground every spring, and the hymn explicitly makes this grand etiological link.

But the etiology really has more to do with sacred violence than with grain. And that is why the hymn is not a hymn to “girl power.” Before we celebrate the feminine empowerment of Demeter, and applaud her successful crusade to secure the return of her daughter Kore from Hades, we should look carefully at what the myth says.

Kore is not an innocent victim, and Demeter is not a champion of the innocent victim. If we read the myth otherwise, we are projecting our own cultural heritage (the Christian concern for victims) into our reading. The Greeks did not share our same concern for victims.[10]

The proof of this is that the myth makes Kore responsible for what happens because it portrays her as culpable for picking the narcissus flower. As Girard argued in “Are the Gospels Mythical?”:[11]

As soon as we become reconciled to the similarities between violence in the Bible and myths, we can understand how the Bible is not mythical—how the reaction to violence recorded in the Bible radically differs from the reaction recorded in myth.

Beginning with the story of Cain and Abel, the Bible proclaims the innocence of mythical victims and the guilt of their victimizers. Living after the widespread promulgation of the gospel, we find this natural and never pause to think that in classical myths the opposite is true: the persecutors always seem to have a valid cause to persecute their victims. …

Even if they are not accused of any crime, mythical victims are still supposed to die for a good cause, and their innocence makes their deaths no less legitimate. …

If the violence of myths is purely mimetic—if it is like the Passion, as Jesus says—all these justifications are false. And yet, since they systematically reverse the true distribution of innocence and guilt, such myths cannot be purely fictional. They are lies, certainly, but the specific kind of lie called for by mimetic contagion—the false accusation that spreads mimetically throughout a disturbed human community at the climax when scandals polarize against the single scapegoat whose death reunites the community. The myth-making machine is the mimetic contagion that disappears behind the myth it generates.

There is nothing secret about the justifications espoused by myths; the stereotypical accusations of mob violence are always available when the search for scapegoats is on. In the Gospels, however, the scapegoating machinery is fully visible because it encounters opposition and no longer operates efficiently. The resistance to the mimetic contagion prevents the myth from taking shape. The conclusion in the light of the Gospels is inescapable: myths are the voice of communities that unanimously surrender to the mimetic contagion of victimization.

kore persephoneThe mythical lie in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter about the death of the maiden, Kore, is that the innocent maiden is complicit in her fate. When she picked the narcissus flower, then she met her fate. True, it was planted to “lure” her, as the hymn says; but her fatal flaw, according to which the mythical logic portrays her as culpable, is that she chose to pick it.

Learning to liberate ourselves from the lies of myth is a crucial part of a liberal education. We can always benefit from a morally serious reflection on the classics. With his thesis, Girard challenges us to consider that this myth is not just a harmless story about a girl picking flowers. It blames her for her horrible fate insofar as she herself chose to pluck the forbidden vegetation.

We find this difficult to accept. To our sensibilities, she is clearly a victim of a violent abduction and forced marriage, and so we find it repugnant to blame her in any way for such events. For this reason, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is a useful example, one that prods us to rethink our usual way of reading myths. Perhaps on other, less obvious occasions, we could be more sensitive to the ways in which a myth’s logic is unjustly accusing its victims and surreptitiously rationalizing the crimes against them.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[1] Burkert 1983, 257.

[2] Aristoph. Ach. 764: khoirous mustikas; Cf. Sommerstein 1998, 108, 194-196, and Burkert 1983, 259 n.12 on “mystery piggies” (Burkert’s translation).

[3] Burkert 1983, 259.

[4] Burkert 1983, 259 n.15.

[5] Burkert 1983, 262. Cf. evidence at 262 n.28 from Greek tragedy that to be raped by Hades means simply to die.

[6] H. Cer. 1-23. Translated by Gregory Nagy.

[7] René Girard, 1977 (1972). Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 39-67.

[8] Elizabeth T. Hayes 1994, Images of Persephone: Feminist Readings in Western Literature. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 9 notes the name Persephone is probably a translation of the pre-Greek local Earth Mother’s name, “Pherrephata,” which means “killer of suckling pigs.”

[9] Andrew Stewart, in Ellen D., Reeder, ed. 1995. Pandora: Women in Classical Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 76, notes the central issue in classical Athenian law on rape was not consent but rather damage to the honor of the woman’s male guardian. Accordingly, Greek had no single word for rape. Cf. Susan Deacy and Karen F. Pierce, eds. 1997. Rape in Antiquity: Sexual violence in the Greek and Roman worlds. London: Duckworth, 1-96.

[10] René Girard, 2001 (1999). I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Trans. James G. Williams. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 161-169.

[11] First Things April 1996.

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