PLUTO AND PROSERPINE

BY H. P. MASKELL

In the very heart of Sicily are the groves of Enna—a land of flowers and rippling streams, where the spring-tide lasts all through the year. Thither Proserpine, daughter of Ceres, betook herself with her maidens to gather nosegays of violets and lilies. Eager to secure the choicest posy, she had wandered far from her companions, when Pluto, issuing, as was his wont, from his realm of shadows to visit the earth, beheld her, and was smitten by her childlike beauty. Dropping her flowers in alarm, the maiden screamed for her mother and attendants. 'Twas in vain; the lover seized her and bore her away in his chariot of coal-black steeds. Faster and faster sped the team as their swart master called to each by name and shook the reins on their necks. Through deep lakes they sped, by dark pools steaming with volcanic heat, and on past the twin harbors of Syracuse.

When they came to the abode of Cyane, the nymph rose up from her crystal pool and perceived Pluto. "No farther shalt thou go!" she cried. "A maiden must be asked of her parents, not stolen away against her mother's will!" For answer the wrathful son of Saturn lashed his foam-flecked steeds. He hurled his royal scepter into the very bed of the stream. Forthwith the earth opened, making a way down into Tartarus; and the chariot vanished through the yawning cave, leaving Cyane dissolved in tears of grief for the ravished maiden and her own slighted domain.

Meanwhile Ceres, anxious mother, had heard her daughter's cry for help. Through every clime and every sea she sought and sought in vain. From dawn to dewy eve she sought, and by night she pursued the quest with torches kindled by the flames of Ætna. Then, by Enna's lake, she found the scattered flowers and shreds of the torn robe, but further traces there were none.

Weary and overcome with thirst, she chanced on a humble cottage and begged at the door for a cup of water. The goodwife brought out a pitcher of home-made barley wine, which she drained at a draught. An impudent boy jeered at the goddess, and called her "toss-pot." Dire and swift was the punishment that overtook him. Ceres sprinkled over him the few drops that remained; and, changed into a speckled newt, he crept away into a cranny.

Too long would be the tale of all the lands and seas where the goddess sought for her child. When she had visited every quarter of the world she returned once more to Sicily. Cyane, had she not melted away in her grief, might have told all. Still, however, on Cyane's pool the girdle of Proserpine was found floating, and thus the mother knew that her daughter had been carried off by force. When this was brought home to her, she tore her hair and beat her breast. Not as yet did she know the whole truth, but she vowed vengeance against all the earth, and on Sicily most of all, the land of her bereavement. No longer, she complained, was ungrateful man worthy of her gifts of golden grain.

A famine spread through all the land. Plowshares broke while they were turning the clods, the oxen died of pestilence, and blight befell the green corn. An army of birds picked up the seed as fast as it was sown; thistles, charlock, and tares sprang up in myriads and choked the fields before the ear could show itself.

Then Arethusa, the river nymph, who had traveled far beneath the ocean to meet in Sicily her lover Alpheus, raised her head in pity for the starving land, and cried to Ceres: "O mourning mother, cease thy useless quest, and be not angered with a land which is faithful to thee. While I was wandering by the river Styx I beheld thy Proserpine. Her looks were grave, yet not as of one forlorn. Take comfort! She is a queen, and chiefest of those who dwell in the world of darkness. She is the bride of the infernal king."

Ceres was but half consoled, and her wrath was turned from Sicily to the bold ravisher of her daughter. She hastened to Olympus, and laid her plaint before Jupiter. She urged that her daughter must be restored to her. If only Pluto would resign possession of Proserpine, she would forgive the ravisher.

Jupiter answered mildly: "This rape of the god lover can scarce be called an injury. Pluto is my brother, and like me a king, except that he reigns below, whereas I reign above. Give your consent, and he will be no disgrace as a son-in-law."

Still Ceres was resolved to fetch her daughter back, and Jupiter at length agreed that it should be so on condition that Proserpine, during her sojourn in the shades, had allowed no food to pass her lips.

In joy the mother hurried down to Tartarus and demanded her daughter. But the fates were against her. The damsel had broken her fast. As she wandered in the fair gardens of Elysium she had picked a pomegranate from the bending tree, and had eaten seven of the sweet purple seeds. Only one witness had seen her in the fatal act. This was Ascalaphus, a courtier of Pluto, who some say had first put it into the mind of the king to carry off Proserpine. In revenge for this betrayal, Ceres changed him into an owl, and doomed him ever after to be a bird of ill-omen who cannot bear the light of day, and whose nightly hooting portends ill tidings to mortals.

But Ceres was not doomed to lose Proserpine utterly. Jupiter decreed that for six months of each year her daughter was to reign in dark Tartarus by Pluto's side; for the other six months she was to return to earth and dwell with her mother. Joy returned to the mother's saddened heart; the barren earth at her bidding once more brought forth its increase. Soon the fields were smiling with golden corn, and the mellow grapes hung heavy on the vines, and once again that favored land became the garden of the world.