Learn about Greek mythology and the earth science explanation of the seasons by studying the story of Persephone, the goddess of spring.
In Greek mythology, Demeter was the goddess of the harvest. She had a daughter, Persephone, whom she loved dearly. As Persephone grew up, she became so lovely that flowers sprang up where she walked.
Hades, the god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone and wanted her for his queen. He knew that Demeter wouldn’t agree to their marriage, so he kidnapped Persephone and carried her off to the underworld. He caused a crack in the earth, and Persephone fell in, along with some pigs. The swineherd (like a shepherd, but for pigs) saw his pigs disappear along with the girl, but said nothing except to his brother.
Demeter was distraught at the disappearance of her daughter, and she stopped blessing the earth with harvest. All the plants died and winter came for the first time.
Meanwhile, Persephone lived sadly as the queen of the underworld. Anyone who ate the food of the dead while in the underworld could never return, so she didn’t intend to eat anything.
However, up on the earth, people were starving. Demeter was still mourning for her daughter, though, and wouldn’t allow anything to grow. At last, the brother of the swineherd told what his brother had seen the day Persephone disappeared. Zeus, the king of the gods, intervened and told Hades to return Persephone to her mother.
As he prepared to take Persephone back to the land of the living, Hades offered her a pomegranate. Persephone, distracted and excited, ate six seeds. Triumphantly, Hades pointed out that Persephone had eaten the pomegranate seeds, and Zeus arranged a compromise: Persephone should live six months (one for each pomegranate seed) with Hades in the underworld, and six months with Demeter on earth.
Every year, when Persephone leaves her, Demeter grieves again and lets all the plants die. When Persephone returns, spring comes with her, with flowers that grow where she walks and the abundant fruits with which Demeter blesses the earth.
Demeter is too sad while Persephone is gone to allow people to grow food, but she has compassion for the humans, so she gave them cereal grains and taught them to plant and store seeds.
We like the version of this story that is in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, but Sally Pomme Clayton and Virginia Lee have done a beautiful picture book called Persephone. The story in this book is greatly simplified.
Ewan Nguyen has imagined the story with birds, and made it simple enough for young children:
Aside from the versions which have been deliberately simplified for little kids, this is a complicated story. Read or tell the story to the class, and then have the class retell the story:
- Activity Village has some Ancient Greek Masks. Have students use these designs as inspiration as they create their own masks for the characters of the story: Demeter, Persephone, Hades, Zeus, the swineherd, and the swineherd’s brother. Students can also create masks for the souls of the dead in the underworld, the starving people on the earth, and the rest of the Greek pantheon, if you’d like everyone to have a part.
- Divide the class into groups and the story into scenes, and have each group write one scene from the story as Reader’s Theater. LuAnn Kluge has shared a Google Docs Reader’s Theater script, if you’d prefer to skip the writing part of the assignment.
- Then have some students read the script as other students in masks present the story in a series of tableaux. In a tableau (or tableau vivant), the characters stand still in positions that show the scene. Give students time to plan their tableaux and to practice their readings.
- Present the story to a neighbor class, or film the performance.
Once the story is thoroughly understood, move on to some cross-curricular connections:
- Why do we have seasons? The National Weather Service has a clear explanation with a simple demonstration. They also discuss the idea that eggs can be balanced on their end only on the vernal equinox (first day of spring). We’ve never heard of this superstition, but we like the way the Weather Service discusses superstitions.
- Check out the tilt of the earth on its axis at an interactive website.
- Learn about seeds, a wonderful means of storing energy and an important element in the story. Share the video below with your class, germinate some bean seeds in a damp paper towel, or grow some sprouts in the classroom. Check out some variations on this idea in our Jack and the Beanstalk lesson plans. Jack has a single mom, too, and leaves her to go to another realm. His story has beans rather than grain and pomegranate seeds, but it’s still a story with seeds. If you’re focusing on seeds, compare the two stories.
- Agriculture is about science, but it’s also important in history. If Demeter didn’t teach people about agriculture, how did they come up with the idea? Check out Prehistoric Puzzles for some interesting ways to think about the beginnings of agriculture. This is an old-style website, so you must go to the main page>puzzles>diet and subsistence>agriculture and then to classroom>projects>origins of agriculture to find it, but it’s worth a bit of clicking. Explore the rest of the site, too, for more interesting things.
- Ask students to discuss, in small groups, what difference the discovery of agriculture could make for people. Have students create drawings showing the difference between daily life for hunter-gatherers (people before agriculture) and for farmers (people with agriculture).
- Descriptions of the underworld in Greek mythology are not like descriptions of Hell in modern religious texts. The underworld which Persephone visited was mostly sort of boring. Have students use the library or internet to research the underworld, or use the descriptions found in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and write descriptive passages about it.
- Hades was, in Greek mythology, the god of the dead, but also of prosperity (so was Demeter’s son, Plutus, and some say that Pluto, the equivalent of Hades in Roman mythology, has gotten confused with Plutus). In D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, he tries to woo Persephone with a black marble throne and glittering jewels, but she prefers the warmth of the sun to the cold jewels. Not only did Hades have access to the precious minerals under the ground, but he was also greedy and didn’t want the souls in his care to be able to leave. Demeter, since she is the goddess of harvest, is also associated with prosperity, so the story of Persephone contrasts two ideas of prosperity: abundance and greed. Have students create a mind map about this idea, and then write a reflective essay on the subject.