Demeter and Drought: When the World Turns Dry

Persephone, Triptolemos, & Demeter, Eleusis, 430-440 BCE, wikipedia

Persephone, Triptolemos, & Demeter, Eleusis, 430-440 BCE, wikipedia

The earth moans. Do you hear it? Plants wither. Birds neglect their morning songs. I miss the scent of warm rain.

Yesterday’s clouds held promises. Storms blew through with scattered thunder and a whisper of a rainbow. There wasn’t enough moisture to matter.

In the Finger Lakes, we love to complain about low clouds, cool humidity, and too much rain. This year is abnormally dry, although not yet classified as drought. Established trees and toughest wildflowers are still green, but field crops wilt and brown. I have a generous well plus a spring for my gardens, but parched hay fields and dry streams make me uneasy. Drought reminds me of grief and sorrow, depression and despair, a longing for relief that never comes.

Demeter. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BCE. Credit: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Demeter. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BCE. Credit: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Descent: When the Greek God Hades grabbed Persephone and carried her into the Underworld, her Mother Demeter, the Great Earth Goddess of Grain, grieved. “Where is my darling daughter, Goddess of Spring?”

Search: Demeter looked everywhere on earth and found no trace. In time, she withdrew to her temple and brought a drought upon the land. The world turned dry. Humans had no fruit or flowers to offer at the holy temples. That got Zeus’s attention.

Persephone Hades: painted on pottery cup, ca. 440–430 BC wikipedia

Persephone Hades: painted on pottery cup, ca. 440–430 BC wikipedia



The Crone Goddess Hecate who travels between the realms of above and below said, “Hades captured her and took her to his realm. She’s in the Underworld where she’s the Queen and Guide to Souls.”

Ascent: At Zeus’s command, Hermes brought Persephone back to the World of Light. Demeter relented. Rains brought new life. Plants greened and grew. Flowers bloomed and filled the world with sweet perfume. The goddesses and gods received their offerings.

Pomegranate (wikipedia)This ancient myth, retold in barest outline here, is the central story of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the dominant mystery religion in Greece for over two thousand years. There are many versions, but all have a descent, a search, and an ascent.

Some say Persephone chose to leave her mother and go with the wild god in his black chariot. Most say he abducted her. Did she willingly become his wife and Queen? Did he rape her? Did he force her to eat those succulent red pomegranate seeds, fruit of the Underworld and fertility, or did she eat them willingly? It depends on the version and interpretation.

Because Persephone ate the food of the Underworld, she was bound to spend part of the year there. While Persephone was in the Underworld, Demeter grieved and nothing grew. Her daughter’s return brought spring and new life.

droughtIn the paradoxical language of mythology and the soul, even as Persephone continuously cycles to create Nature’s seasons, she stays in the Underworld to guide souls. When we need help in dark unconscious realms, she’s always there.

This morning, the plants beg for relief. “We need rain,” the farmers say with knit brows. “I’m worried about the earth,” friends say. “Is this is what climate change looks like here?” we ask.

June 2015

June 2015

California is in its fifth year of serious drought. East Africa is stuck in severe deadly drought. Here in my usually green world, it’s simply dry. Longing for moisture, I fill shallow bowls of water for birds and place small bowls of water on my altar.

Demeter, Mother and Nurturer, forgive us for abusing your earth. Remember us in our despair and thirst. May your daughter return with life-giving rain.


Eleusis, 430-440 BC Persephone & Demeter wiki

Demeter, Eleusis, 430-440 BC (wikipedia)

I’ve studied world mythologies with a group of women for thirty years. Ancient archetypal stories help me understand myself and my world. Do you have favorite stories from a religious or mythological source? How do they bring meaning to life? For other pieces I’ve written about mythology see Descending into Darkness with Persephone or Mythology, Nature, and Healing: Daphne Meets the Green Man.

  1. A beautiful piece Elaine. Surely there is something amiss with the planets. I often wonder if God is angry for what the world has done to his creation. Perhaps mythological tales were written as a foreshadowing of things to come? 🙂

    • I think life has always been hard, at least at a local level. Maybe the whole earth hasn’t been so threatened before–and now, because of media, we can’t escape what’s happening. Still praying for rain.

      • I agree with you Elaine, the media is so busy trying to raise ratings at the cost of causing more havoc within the people. And I sure hope you’ve had rain by now. 🙂

        • I’ve had a little rain here and there, but more yesterday and some rain this morning. 80% chance of heavy rain today. May it be so.

  2. Do you have favorite stories from a religious or mythological source? you ask. As I read your post of the familiar story of Persephone and Demeter, I thought of two Bible stories. One, of Elijah hiding from Ahab and eating ravens and drinking fresh water from the Brook Cherith, near the home of the widow of Zarephath whose son he raised to life. In a following chapter, I Kings 18: 44:46, rain comes from “a little cloud of of the sea, like a man’s hand . . . . and it came to pass that “the heaven was black with clouds and winds, and there was a great rain.” All the while the prophet was threatened by Ahab and Jezebel, Hades-type characters.

    Another story in Psalms 137:1-4 reflects the sorrow of deprivation, the Israelites weeping in captivity. I used these words in a paper in a graduate humanities course, but I can’t remember the context. They are highlighted in my Bible because they are so beautiful: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

    2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

    3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

    4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

    How do they bring meaning to life? These stories reflect the LORD’s provision, providing rain in one case and bringing the Jews out of captivity eventually in the other example. Your writing always makes me think, often prompting me to excavate other sources, the sign of a good post, Elaine. I shall pray for rain in your corner of the world.

    • The Middle East knows about the blessing of rain, Marian. Thank you for these wonderful Biblical stories since I imagined you would answer that question. I’ll read about Elijah whose name I know from Passover. I knew these passages from the Psalms, but you prompt me to read again and give thanks for the ample provisions I’ve been given in this life.

      Thanks for digging into your storehouse of treasures. Somehow you find time for much more than packing.

      • Here’s the thing: I can stand only so much packing and then I turn to this. Reading and writing and maintaining connections online keep me balanced and sane, to what degree that is true.

        We just discovered we’ll need to sell a vacated rental property also. I’m not giving in to overwhelm now though: It would take too much energy.

  3. There is a twist in my heart as I re-read your post this morning Elaine. It reminds me of the rainmaker story – I’d have to go back to check it thoroughly which I won’t do now so to paraphrase: A sage was asked to come to the land where there was terrible drought. He stayed there for days and days asking only for a small hut in which to live. Some days later the rain did come and when asked how he made this happen he said he did not make it happen. Where he comes from he said there is Tao but here, things are out of balance. Now that he himself is in balance, there is balance in the outer as well … and hence the rain – psyche and nature …

    May your rains come soon. Here in South Africa we too are experiencing drought and the awful ramifications of it –

    • Thank you for reminding me of the Chinese rainmaker, Susan. Isn’t it a great story? Here’s a link to it:

      We certainly need balance in our wild world. There was a light sprinkle this morning, but not enough to help. There’s a chance of rain in the forecast for the next few days, but the thunderstorms have a way of drying up this year. The plants are so stressed. The farmers are a little desperate. Seems so many of us are dealing with drought or floods. May the rain come.

  4. Thank you Elaine – I went to have a look and signed up for their newsletter. I FB’d the link, with thanks to you for directing me to it. And yes a lovely reminder too of how wisdom has to be called from very far away, great distances –

    I love your analogy of drought with grief –

  5. Powerful story and interpretation.

    • Thanks, Viv. As you know, I ran with one contained part of a magnificent complex story. I’m experimenting with sharing a little of what I’ve learned from mythology in short blog format.

  6. I like the way you’re explicating and synthesizing the essence of myths from a psychological and physical perspective, Elaine. It’s a very clear and interesting way to show how relevant myths can be to our daily lives, inner and outer. I think you’ve found a perfect format for your writing voice and believe it to be a valuable contribution to collective awareness. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Jeanie. I’m experimenting with writing about mythology as it relates to life because that’s how mythological stories feel relevant to me. As a Great Mother Goddess, there is so much to be said about Demeter, but I stayed with one little aspect of her saga, the one most pertinent to my dry experience right now. So much rain east of here yesterday, but I didn’t get a drop. As Marian suggested, we need a rainmaker.

  7. I love learning about these myths through your posts. Wish there was a movie or DVD where I could get a big dose of mythology easily while being totally entertained. And tying it into our current concerns about the earth makes a study of mythology even more appealing to me. Thanks so much, Elaine.

    • Thanks, Robin. I don’t know any such videos or movies, but I understand your desire. I study mythology the old-fashioned way from books and an ongoing class where we dig into each particular image and look for meaning.

  8. Thank you, Elaine, for creating a bridge between this ancient myth and its relevance to modern life. There is much wisdom contained in the story of Demeter, Persephone, as well as the other archetypal roles played by the goddesses and gods here. By focusing on one perspective that speaks to our modern condition of earth grief and ‘dryness,’ you create real depth for us to work with our our grief over Climate Change. On a side note, I’m currently reading Lewis Hyde’s book “Trickster as Maker of Worlds,” in which he focuses on Hermes’ role as the intermediary between the gods and mortal affairs, and my friend Maya has been on a year-long personal journey with Hecate. I’ve enjoyed following all these threads and using the wisdom shared to navigate parts of my own life…

    • My mythology class spent well over a year on Demeter some years ago and much more time with Persephone–from the intellectual to the most personal. The drought here (and elsewhere) made me think of Demeter in this specific way without exploring the power of the Mother Archetype. What happens when grief dries up all the moisture of life and turns the world brown? We’re getting some rain here and the trees in my forest look healthy despite the dry summer. When I was in California, I felt I could hear the plants moaning for moisture, and I know they still are. We’re having the hottest driest summer on record.

      Personally, I’m a wet griever. I turn to poetry, painting, nature, and story. But that’s my little world. Demeter had an archetypal point to make about the feminine in a male-focused world. We need Her. Does your friend Maya write about Hecate? About the trickster: I see coyote scat on my trails and would hear them if I wore my hearing aides at night. The trickster is out there in the shadows–and sometimes, as in our political world right now, he shows his darkest aspects.

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