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Hospitality in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter

August 20, 2007

Yesterday I reread the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter” for a class I’m teaching this fall. I read this text many years ago, but I obviously hadn’t been so engaged with the ancient Near East at the time. The hymn recounts Persephone’s abduction by Hades; and while one would expect to pick up echoes of the Mesopotamian myths of the “Nergal and Ereshkigal” and the “Descent of Inana/Ishtar” what resonated most with me were the strong similarities with “Adapa and the South Wind.” The hymn’s major focus, I would argue is on hospitality.

While I remembered the whole affair with Persephone eating the pomegranate and being stuck in Hell for a third of the year, I had forgotten the entire first half of the myth. After Persephone is abducted by Hades at Zeus’ request, Demeter goes wandering in her grief and despair. She winds up wasting away, disguised as an old lady, at a well. Demeter is found there by three daughters of Keleus, king of Eleusis, who (after OK-ing it with the folks) bring her back to the homestead. Thus we get the standard theme of “entertaining angels unawares” — hospitality in action

Demeter accepts the hospitality of the king and his wife Metaneira, and as such she is bound by the rules of hospitality to reciprocate as best she can. To this end, Demeter begins to nurse Keleus and Metaneira’s young son, Demophon; and she secretly begins a process of divinization. However, Metaneira discovers the ritual one night and thinks that Demeter is trying to kill the boy. The process aborted, the boy will be only a mortal man. Demeter is incensed and tell Mateneira as much. Then she causes the earth to lose its fertility, and the hymn ties it all back to Persephone and Hades story.

This first part of the tale reminds me strongly of Adapa. He gains a council with the Mesopotamian high god Anu after breaking the South Wind’s wings with a spell he presumably learned from his master, Ea. The meeting is to lay down the law that humans are not to be going around doing such things. Presumably Ea sees the writing on the wall that Adapa is toast unless he intervenes because he preps Adapa for his divine audience. However, Ea—the crafty god that he is—also knows that if Adapa isn’t punished, Anu will be forced by the rules of hospitality to offer him food and drink—since he did invite him to his heavenly mansion and all. Since this is Heaven, the food and drink would make Adapa immortal. No one really wants this to happen, especially Anu; but that’s the way things go. So, Ea coaches Adapa how to ingratiate himself to Anu but warns him that the food and drink offered by Anu could kill him.

Later, the meeting goes swimmingly. Adapa makes friends and influences people. Anu, far from smiting the human, is forced to play host. However, Adapa doesn’t eat or drink that which would give him eternal life, think that it would kill him. Anu asks why he hasn’t eaten and Adapa tells him. Anu then proceeds to chide Adapa for having missed out on eternal life and sends him back to his master.

In both the first half of the “Hymn to Demeter” and “Adapa and the South Wind,” humans lose a chance at immortality being offered by the gods because of the rules of hospitality. In both cases the humans misunderstand what is being offered. And, in both cases they get chastised for it by the god offering it.

I should point out that I obviously don’t see a genetic connection here. Similar themes of hospitality are common in other myths from Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, as well as the Bible.

However, I do wonder if this puts a new spin on the end of the myth. Is Persephone’s yearly sojourn in Hell the result of her eating a seeded fruit, or of her accepting hospitality from Hades?

One Comment
  1. August 21, 2007 1:00 pm

    Very interesting. I’ve never thought Apapa got the attention it deserved.

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