This is an extract from the book Hekate Liminal Rites by the authors Sorita d’Este and David Rankine, published by Avalonia in 2009. Reproduced here with kind permission.
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter was effectively the canon of the Eleusinian mystery told through the tale of the Abduction of Persephone. So let us recount that tale to make the light of Hekate clearer.
Hades was lonely in his role as underworld god, and made an agreement with his brother, Zeus, the ruler of the gods. Hades would abduct his daughter Persephone and make her his bride. To do this he created the beautiful narcissus flower as a lure for her, and the earth goddess Ge grew it as a favour to him. When Persephone was out picking flowers with some of the other maiden goddesses including Athena and Artemis on the Plain of Nysa, she spotted the narcissus and wandered off to pick it. Seizing the moment, Hades came out of the earth in his chariot and abducted Persephone, taking her back into the underworld. The only witnesses were Hekate, who heard the struggle from her cave, and Helios the sun god, who saw it all from the sky.
Persephone called out to her mother from the underworld, and Demeter searched the earth unsuccessfully for nine days looking for her daughter. On the tenth day Hekate approached her and told her what she had heard of the struggle, and suggested they speak to Helios. Helios recounted the whole scene, including informing her that Zeus was responsible for the abduction, but tried to persuade Demeter it was a good match for her daughter. Demeter was inconsolable and wandered the earth, ending up at Eleusis, where she took the role of nursemaid to Queen Metaneira’s son Demophon, disguised as an old woman.
Demeter would not eat or drink until princess Iambê made her laugh by telling her obscene jokes, and Metaneira offered her honeyed wine, but she refused it. Instead she told Metaneira to mix barley, water and pennyroyal and make the drink kykeon, which she drank. Demeter nourished the baby prince Demophon, feeding him on ambrosia and placing him in the flames of the fire every night to make him immortal. One night Queen Metaneira saw this and shrieked in horror, disturbing Demeter. Demeter revealed her divinity and chastised her, saying that Demophon would now be mortal like any other human. She instructed the queen to build a temple to her and that her rites (the Eleusinian mysteries) would be celebrated there. When the temple was built Demeter took up residence in it, and prevented anything from growing for the year, so there were no crops and humanity suffered terribly.
From Olympus, Zeus saw the suffering of humanity, and sent Iris, the messenger of the gods, to summon Demeter. Demeter ignored the summons and all the other gods who came to her offering her gifts to return to Olympus, saying she would not move until she had her daughter back, and neither would the crops grow again.
Zeus then sent Hermes to negotiate with Hades for the return of Persephone. However Hades persuaded Persephone to eat a few pomegranate seeds, binding her to the underworld. Persephone was reunited with her mother and they rejoiced. Hekate joined them and welcomed Persephone back, and from that time she became her guide (Propolos) on her annual journey to and from the underworld. For Zeus ordered that due to the pomegranate seeds she had eaten she now was constrained to spend one third of the year in the underworld with her husband Hades, and the other two thirds with her mother Demeter. That is why the earth was barren for one third of the year, as Demeter mourned the time her daughter was in the underworld away from her.
Hekate Liminal Rites, Sorita d’Este & David Rankine (Avalonia, 2009)
Hekate Her Sacred Fires, various contributors, edited by Sorita d’Este (Avalonia, 2010)