Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

The Kingdom under the Ground

The Greeks thought that there was a kingdom underground over which a king reigned whom they called Dis. We generally call him by his other name of Pluto.

It was a very gloomy world, full of dark caves, and with black rivers rolling through dimly lighted plains. On one of the rivers was a boat rowed by Charon, who met the dead as they came down from the upper world, and ferried them across the wide stream. He would only take into his boat those who had been properly buried. Those who had been drowned, or had fallen in battle and lain neglected on the battlefield, or any who had perished on mountains or in deserts, were left to wander up and down the gloomy banks of the black river. They had no home either in the world above or the world below. For that reason the Greeks were very particular to give their friends a good funeral. Generally dead bodies were burned, and their ashes gathered up and buried.

These dead people were only shades, or shadows, or ghosts, very thin and pale, and with faint, weak voices. Some were punished for their sins. Ixion was fastened to a wheel which turned around forever. Sisyphus rolled uphill a heavy stone, which as soon as it reached the top rolled down again, so that his labor never ended. Tantalus stood in water up to the chin, but when he bent his head to drink, the water flowed away out of his reach. Over his head hung branches with apples, pears and grapes, but when he stretched up his hand to gather them they drew away, so that he was forever hungry and thirsty. He was always "tantalized," as we say.

Thos who had been good and who had done good while on the earth were happier, but not very happy.

Cerberus, the watchdog of this place, kept the shades from escaping. He was glad to see those who came in, but tore in pieces those who tried to run away. He had three heads, and every hair on his body was a snake.

King Dis, or Pluto, had a black chariot with four black horses. Once he took a ride up to this sunlit world of ours. He came to a valley filled with lilies and violets, and among them, fairer and sweeter than any, was a young girl filling a basket with the flowers. Pluto was very lonely in his dark home. He had no queen to cheer and comfort him. When he saw this girl he thought, "How bright she would make that old palace of mine!"

He sent a servant to catch her and bring her to the chariot. Then he set out for home. Persephone—her Latin name was Proserpina—screamed and cried, but the king drove on and down, and made her queen of the underworld.

This girl was the daughter of Demeter, the earth-mother, who went everywhere seeking her child. As she went she wept. The peasants did not know who she was, but they pitied her and said, "Good woman, come into our hut, eat bread and drink milk."

But she said, "how can I eat unless I find my child? Have you seen her?"

They could only sadly answer, "No!"

She went on and on, asking the flowers, the trees, the rivers, the stars, the men and women and wandering gods whom she met, if they had seen her child. They had only one answer, "No. We have not seen her."

One woman asked, "Was she very beautiful?"

"Oh," said the weeping mother, "she was most beautiful! No star was brighter, no flower was sweeter, no bird had a more musical voice. If you had seen her you would not. Earth had not her like, and heaven itself had nothing lovelier."

The woman said, "No, I have not seen her. My own littler daughter is very pretty. Did you notice her?" But Demeter had no eyes for other children, so she went on and on, over land and sea, calling, "Persephone! My child, my darling! Are you forever lost to me?"

She reached Sicily, and found the place where Pluto had gone down with Persephone. She cried, "O wicked and ungrateful earth! I have made thee rich and beautiful with grass and grain, and yet thou openest a way for a monster to carry off my daughter. Thou shalt no more be fruitful, only thorns and thistles shall grow upon thy breast."

Arethusa, the river-goddess, said to her, "Do no be cruel, good mother. I came through the underworld and saw your daughter there. She is the queen and is so afraid, but whether or not she is happy I do not know."

When Demeter heard that, she went up instantly to Zeus and asked him to get back her daughter.

The king of the gods said, "If she has not eaten anything down there, she can be set free. But if she has taken any of their food she must stay."

Hermes was sent down to bring her back, if possible. He asked her if she had eaten anything that grew in the underworld.

"Nothing, she said, "except a few pomegranate seeds, but they were very few."

Pluto said, "I claim my rights. You see she has eaten here, and she must stay with me."

Hermes argued with the dark king, who said, "Her mother loves her dearly. So do I. Why must I give her up? It was very lonely here before she came. I cannot live that way again!"

Hermes said, "Do this! Let her mother have her for six months; then she shall come back and stay with you for six months."

It was arranged that way. In the spring and summer, when the flowers were blooming, Persephone lived with her mother, and they went hand in hand through the [unreadable in copy]. Through dark autumn and gloomy winter she sat on the throne by Pluto, and made the shadowy underworld lighter and happier.