Thousands of years ago, when the majestic Mount Olympus was hidden somewhere above the clouds, other snow-capped mountains in Greece surrounded it. Goats and sheep grazed on rocky, flower-strewn hillsides while crystal-clear rivers meandered through dark forests between the shimmering waters of the Aegean Sea to the east and the Ionian Sea to the west. Certainly, the people of ancient Greece lived in a world of infinite beauty–but it was also a world of mystery and fear.
The ancient Greeks didn’t have advanced technologies to explain the natural phenomena affecting their daily lives, no Google answers available with just a few keystrokes, not even a dusty old set of Britannicas sitting on the bookshelf. When it came to understanding why the sun shone, the wind blew, the flowers bloomed or even why the seasons changed, they had nothing but their own imaginations to rely upon. And, boy, were those imaginations vivid (perhaps those fun-loving Greeks were paying a little too much tribute to Dionysus, their much-favored god of wine).
I was reminded of all this in the wee hours of yesterday morning when I was startled awake by Boreas, that nasty old North Wind, howling through the wind chimes and kicking over the deck chairs. He didn’t scare me, though, because I had seen the previous night’s forecast and knew that Boreas and his brother Zephyrus from the west were simply ushering in yet another cold front in this Winter That Just Won’t End.
The ancient Greeks weren’t big fans of winter, either, and created stories to explain its despised existence.
Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, dearly loved her only daughter Persephone, goddess of the spring. Persephone was picking wildflowers one day when she spotted a wondrous, golden narcissus blooming in the field. Just as she bent to gather it, the poor girl was snatched by Hades, the dreaded god of the Underworld, who rose from a chasm in the earth and carried her back to the land of the dead to be his bride. When Demeter realized what had happened to her beloved daughter, she went into deep mourning and withheld her gifts from the earth–no plants would grow, no trees would fruit–and after a year of famine, it looked as if all of mankind would die as well. When Zeus, the supreme ruler, was unable to talk Demeter out of her grief, he shook his mighty thunderbolt and demanded that his brother Hades return Persephone to her mother. Although a disgruntled Hades was furious with his bossy big brother, he had no choice but to consent–but that sly dog tricked the starving girl into eating some pomegranate seeds before she left, knowing that anyone who tasted food in the Underworld was required to return there.
Demeter was grateful to have her daughter back–but sorrowed by the knowledge that it wasn’t forever. She restored the Earth’s fertility, allowing the fields and trees once more to be abundant and the flowers once more to turn the whole world bright and beautiful, but for four months of every year thereafter she grieved as Persephone was forced to return to the land of the dead, taking all that was bright and beautiful with her. Those months became known as winter, and even though Persephone joyfully “rose from the dead” each spring and blessed the earth with her presence throughout the summer and fall, it was always with the bitter knowledge of where she had been and where she must return.
(And now we know who to blame for this cold weather nonsense.)
The flower narcissus that aided in Persephone’s capture is more commonly known as a daffodil–and is one of my favorite flowers because, like Persephone’s return, it always signals the reappearance of spring. The ancient Greeks had an interesting story about its creation, too.
Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth whom all the girls loved. He did not return their love, though, leaving heartbroken maidens in a path of nonchalant destruction. One such maiden was Echo, the fairest of nymphs, who had been condemned with the inability to speak first. It was impossible for Echo to express her love to Narcissus, and when he spurned her like all the rest, she retreated in shame to a lonely cave where she was so consumed by grief that eventually all that was left of her was her hollow voice.
Nemesis, the goddess of righteous anger, was not pleased with Narcissus’ treatment of the young girls and decided to make him pay. She lured him to a shimmering lake, and when Narcissus bent for a drink and saw his own reflection, Nemesis made him fall in love with himself. (Can you believe it–a handsome young man in love with himself?)He finally realized the suffering he had inflicted upon the maidens by depriving them of the love of someone as handsome as he, and–unable to leave his own reflection–he slowly withered away and died on that very spot. When the nymphs sought his body to give it proper burial, it was gone–but in its place had sprung the beautiful golden flowers that bear his name to this day.
And speaking of this day, today is officially the first day of spring–the narcissus are starting to bloom, the geese are flying north, the spring peepers are chorusing their delight, and little sprouts of green are popping up here, there and everywhere. It’s time for Hades to loosen his grip on his bride, wave bye-bye, and send her back to her mama and the land of the living. Unfortunately, I’m not sure ol’ Hades is paying much attention to the natural phenomena, much less the calendar–the local forecaster, with all the advanced meteorological technologies at his disposal, is suggesting yet another round of wintry weather for later next week.
I hope he’s wrong–and let’s face it, he and his colleagues often are–but just in case he’s not . . . it’s supposed to be sunny and warm in Greece next week, and I hear there are some beautiful beaches along its shores. So . . . who wants to join me? You bring the credit cards, and I’ll bring the sunscreen and antipasto salad, and we’ll pick up the baklava and spanakopita when we get there. We’ll invite Dionysus to join us, and we’ll drink a toast (or two) to Persephone, that desperately longed-for goddess of spring.
And if we run into Old Man Winter, we’ll buy him a one-way ticket to Hades (with your credit cards, of course) and fill his carry-on bag with pomegranate seeds for snacking.
The flower narcissus (or daffodil)–common in ancient Greece and southern Missouri–is a sure sign that spring is on its way.
Dogwood blooms are another common sight during Missouri springs.
And the pink dogwoods are even prettier.
Cheers to the Goddess of Spring!