October–The Eighth Month
In this, the “eighth” month, was held a great festival at Eleusis, a town twelve miles from Athens, in honour of the Greek goddess Demeter. The Roman name for Demeter was Ceres, and she was worshiped as the Goddess of Agriculture, since the fields and their crops were thought to be under her special care. The Greek name Demeter means “Earth Mother”, and the name Ceres has given us the word “cereals”, a general name for wheat, barley, rye, and oats.
Ceres had a daughter, Persephone, who spent a great part of her time wandering with her companions on the slopes and plains of Sicily. One day, as Persephone and her maidens were plucking flowers and weaving them into garlands, Pluto, the God of the Underworld, rode by in his dark chariot drawn by four black horses. Attracted by Persephone’s beauty, he determined to carry her off and make her his queen.
One story says that he caused a most wonderful flower to spring up, and Persephone, seeing it in the distance and wishing to gather it, was thus separated from her companions. As she stooped to pluck the flower the earth opened, and Pluto in his chariot came up from the Underworld and, seizing Persephone, carried her down to his dark and gloomy home.
Another story says that as soon as he saw Persephone he walked quickly towards her, and before she could guess his intention, caught her up and, carrying her in spite of her struggles to his chariot, drove away at topmost speed. He at length reached a river, whose roaring torrent it was impossible to cross. Afraid to turn back lest he should meet Ceres, he struck the earth such a blow with the two-pronged fork which he always carried as the emblem of his power, that the ground opened beneath him, and thus he was able to reach his dark kingdom of Hades in safety. This Hades, the Underworld to which Pluto had brought Persephone, was the home of the dead, the place to which came the spirits of those who had died, there to receive a fitting reward for their deeds on earth.
From Pluto’s throne flowed five rivers:
1. Styx (the Hateful), a sacred river, and one by which the gods “fear to swear, and not keep their oath”. It was also the river which had to be crossed by the spirits before they could reach the throne. They were ferried across by an old boatman named Charon, who charged them an obol, about ½d. of our money. It was the custom, when a man died, for his relations to put an obol under his tongue, so that he might have no difficulty in crossing the Styx. Those who came without their obol had to wait a hundred years, after which time Charon would take them across free of charge.
2. Acheron (Pain), a dark and very deep river that also had to be crossed by the spirits.
3. Lethe (Forgetfulness), which had the power of making all those who drank of its waters forget the past.
4. Phlegethon (Blazing), a river of fire which surrounded Tartarus, that part of the Underworld to which were sent the spirits of evil-doers, in order that they might suffer punishment for their wicked deeds.
5. Cocytus (Wailing), a river of salt water, the tears of those condemned to the torments of Tartarus.
In a distant part of Hades, far removed from the place of torment, were the Elysian Fields. Here dwelt the great and the good, in perpetual day, and amid the ever-blooming flowers of an eternal spring.
While the frightened Persephone was thus, against her will, made queen of this sunless kingdom of the dead, Ceres, with many tears, was seeking her daughter in the flower-strewn meadows, but all in vain. After many wanderings in Italy, and even in Greece, where she visited the city of Eleusis mentioned above, Ceres at last learnt of Persephone’s fate, but her joy at finding that she was safe was turned to grief by the thought that Pluto would never allow her to come back to the happiness of the sun-lit earth.
Meanwhile the goddess had neglected all her duties; the flowers withered away, the trees shed their leaves, the fruit was fast falling from the branches, and the crops could not ripen. The time of harvest was quickly passing, and the people, threatened with famine, and finding that their prayers to the goddess were unheeded, appealed to Jupiter to save them from starvation and death by allowing Persephone to return to the upper world. Jupiter at last consented, and said that Pluto must give up Persephone, provided that she had not eaten anything since the time when she had been carried off. Unfortunately that very day she had tasted a pomegranate which Pluto had given her, and she was compelled to stay with her husband one month for each of the six seeds she had eaten. So for six months she has to live in the Underworld, and there in the thick gloom, never pierced by a ray of sunshine, she waits for the time when she may return to the sun-kissed hills and plains of her favourite land, where, happy in her mother’s smile, she dances with her companions amid the flowers.
“Persephone to Ceres has returned
From that dark god who stole her for his bride,
And bids the Earth, that for her coming yearned,
Its sombre garb of mourning lay aside.
The sun o’ertops the clouds with wonted speed,
And so to give the goddess honour due,
O’er hill and dale, o’er mountain-side and mead,
Now scatters flowers of many a wondrous hue.
The trees that shed their leaves, each leaf a tear,
Now deck themselves again in bright array,
And Man delights to see the Winter drear
Yield place to Spring, and Night to gladsome Day.”
At length comes the time when once more Persephone must return to her desolate home, and with heavy heart she leaves the sorrowing Ceres.
“Persephone is called away,
And Ceres weeps
That she must go; while o’er the Earth
Now slowly creeps
The gloom of death; fled is that smile
Of love that made
All Nature waken into life,
And all things fade.”
The Old-English name for October was “Winterfylleth”, that is, “winter full moon”, because winter was supposed to begin at the October full moon.