For AceQueenKing: thank you for supporting equalityauction! Any misunderstandings or playing fast and loose with theology are my own. ;)
Three cities Hera loved best of all: Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae. In the days when the goddesses' voices still fell strongly upon this world and not only the world after, Argos returned her love in kind, and above all others it was the priestesses who worshipped her. The priestess Cydippe was accounted twice blessed, for she was both faithful in her devotion to Hera and a loving mother of two strong sons, whose names were Kleobis and Biton.
The hour came that Cydippe was to journey to the temple for a festival in honor of Hera, but the oxen that were to draw her cart were not to be seen. "Alas!" said Kleobis, "that our mother's steadfastness should be repaid by such perfidy."
"Do not fear," said Cydippe. "Hera whose eyes are full and deep like the cattle can surely call forth humble cows to pull my cart." But Hera's ears were fixed on the temple many stadia away, and did not hear her petition.
"She is busy," said Biton, "no doubt ensuring that Zeus is half as faithful to her as our mother is."
"Hera, who watches over every city upon land, can summon a hundred-eyed peacock to clear my path," said Cydippe. "Though such a woman as I is unworthy to travel in a chariot like Hera's own."
"She may be jealous," said Kleobis, "and plotting a war."
"The Queen of Olympus need only send forth a little cuckoo, and I would have it bear my message to the temple that I cannot serve as I ought."
Kleobis and Biton regarded each other, and they were of one mind. "Dear mother," said Biton, "we cannot love Hera as you do, for we are but simple men who love best those who are near to us and not atop the sacred mountain. But so astounding is your loyalty to her that we could not bear to see you fail in your duty. Let us yoke ourselves together and draw your cart to the temple." First Cydippe's heart was moved by her sons' brave words, and moments later, her whole body was moved as the brothers bore the cart all the way to the temple.
Then the citizens of Argos rejoiced to see their priestess reunited with them, and the festival proceeded without delay. There were prayers and sacrifices and celebration among the devout. But Kleobis and Biton, who thought Hera a poor partner to their mother's loyalty if she could not even find two lost cattle, fell asleep upon the back steps of the temple, exhausted from their journey.
When the ceremony ended, Cydippe entered the temple alone, and knelt before the pillar of Hera. "My Queen," she prayed, "I know you are a jealous and wrathful goddess with many duties upon the earth. It is not mine to know where you can hear me, or why you did not see it fit to restore my oxen. But great Hera, if you listen to me in this place, consider the strength and devotion of my sons. Whatever is the finest gift a god can bestow upon men, grant it to Kleobis and Biton, whose tireless labors delivered me to you."
And from her throne on Olympus, Hera heard the words of her priestess. She took pride in Cydippe's faith, and yet her heart was troubled. For while the goddess knew little of the ways of men, they could comprehend even less of her.
In the ancient days when Persephone was taken by Hades, her mother Demeter journeyed through every corner of the worlds of gods and mortals to seek her out. And among the places where she searched was the city called Eleusis, where she appeared in the guise of an old woman.
Demeter wound her robe tightly about her to shield her from the wind, and rapped on the door of the palace where King Celeus reigned. "Who goes there?" demanded the king. "For the night storms are restless."
"It is only a traveller," said Demeter, "and I fear no storms, for I will know no rest until my daughter, who is lost, is returned to me."
"Come in and take shelter," ordered Celeus. "We have little food to spare, for the judgment of Demeter has halted the growth of every living thing. But you shall be a guest here as long as you wish, and every soldier I can command will aid you in your journey."
Demeter grew somber when she heard of what her anger had wrought upon land, but amused by the king's boast. "I fear your troops will be of little aid to me, oh King, but I am grateful for your hospitality." And she spent the night under Celeus' roof.
In the morning, when the rains had passed, she walked through the royal gardens and saw the work of the king's many servants. "You see, the lush things should be growing here as the seasons change," Celeus told her. "But Demeter in her wrath has let no good thing grow while she grieves. The fruit is rotten, the cattle-feed fails, and we must eat of our own sweat."
The king's words tore at Demeter's heart, yet did not rip it away in full, for she was still bent on the return of Persephone. "What of your own house?"
"My elder son, Triptolemus, is a sickly child and fusses at whatever he is fed, so the ill harvest is no disturbance to him," said Celeus. "My younger, Demophon, still nurses at the breast. But he must be weaned soon, for it is not seemly that my wife the queen should be burdened with a suckling babe."
Seeing that he, too, had children, Demeter took more pity upon the king. "I may appear old to your eyes," she said, "but I have fed many sons and daughters at my breast. Let me nurse Demophon, to repay you for your gift of hospitality."
Celeus smiled indulgently, for he saw in her only the face she chose to wear. "And no doubt you shall feel young again. Well, so be it; he can hardly do worse."
So Demeter remained in the palace of Celeus, and she took Demophon to her breast and fed him. Though he was just an infant, she felt everything he might be—a father of kings or a champion wrestler, a general who laid waste to cities or a priest who praised her. For a mortal, he was rich in potential. Yet all the same, he would die and descend to the underworld, claimed forever by Hades just as Persephone had been taken from her. It was not right, thought Demeter, that any child should be doomed so.
Then it occurred to her that she might feed him, not only with the milk of her disguised body, but with the ambrosia of the gods. It would defend him even from the fire in the palace hearth, so that his mortal spirit might be burned away leaving only an immortal prince. Each night, Demophon drank of milk and ambrosia, and cooed in delight as the flames tickled at him.
Celeus and his wife, the queen Metanira, were gracious to their strange guest and pleased that young Demophon thrived in her bosom. Yet outside, the crops still failed and withered, and the elder prince, Triptolemus, took sick. Demeter heard him mewling and supposed, after all she had done, it would be little harm to feed him as well, so that he might be restored to health. So she took the child and fed him of her milk.
But such was Demeter's power, that upon drinking one drop of her milk, Triptolemus was not only healed of his illness but grown to full manhood, and somewhat disturbed by sitting on the lap of what appeared to be an elderly woman with no shirt. Demeter wept, for rather than bestowing immortality upon Demophon, she had instead robbed Triptolemus of many of his years upon the earth.
Metanira, hearing her cry, entered the hearth room at once. "What has young Demophon wailing so?" she demanded. "Is he not fed?"
"Demophon is well," said Demeter carefully. "But I worry for Triptolemus."
Metanira glanced at her firstborn son, showing no surprise that he was grown. "Has he been complaining?"
"How old is your son?"
"Seventeen, of course, old enough to bear his own sword."
Had her milk, like Hera's spread in the heavens, been powerful enough to unspool time itself? "And Demophon?"
"Less than a year, as you well know, or he would not be left to suckle at your breasts."
Even great Demeter was struck mute. "You do your husband great honor, to bear another son after so long."
Metanira laughed. "The crops and trees and cattle have not my fortune, but at least one here is fertile. Come, Triptolemus, your tutor seeks you."
The dutiful prince went as his mother obeyed. And whoever Demeter inquired of in the palace, they said the same: that Triptolemus had certainly been born seventeen years prior, that they had joyed in watching him grow from a newborn to a man, and that the birth of the king and queen's younger son after so many years had been a pleasant surprise to the city. Even Triptolemus himself had as many memories as might be expected from a man of his stature. Demeter gave thanks that her rashness had not brought grief to Eleusis, and then she resumed feeding Demophon and purging what was mortal of him in the fire.
But on another such night, when Metanira entered the hearth room, she saw not Triptolemus but Demophon, and not at Demeter's chest but engulfed in the flames. "Murder!" she raged. "This monster of a nursemaid has come to kill the prince!"
Demeter drew a start and drew Demophon out of the fire. "Foolish woman!" she said. "See, your son is unharmed." She handed the boy to his mother, and he laughed merrily.
"I will not be fooled by your treachery," said Metanira, when King Celeus and the guards had entered the room, surrounding Demeter with their spears. "Through some enchantment my Demophon appears well, but she has endeavored to torture him in the flames."
"They are grave words she speaks against you," said Celeus. "What say you?"
Demeter gave a low bow. "Your Majesties, it is true that I have placed Demophon in the hearth fires. But as you see, the flames have not burned him. For I gave him the ambrosia of Olympus, so that he might never perish, but be transformed into an immortal, worthy to eat with the gods."
"You, old traveller?" jeered Celeus. "Who are you to claim these things?"
"The Mother of Grain and the Giver of Law," said Demeter, and at once she cast off her guise, and appeared in all her glory. "Give me your son, and I shall complete the ritual."
"You!" cried the king. "Once we would have welcomed you and knelt before you, but no longer. You have brought famine and turned the harvest to dust. Leave this place at once!"
"Do not speak in haste," Demeter urged. "For it is only my daughter's abduction that has caused this despair. Once she is reunited with me, the land will bloom and be ripe again."
"You came here in deceit. Do not push me further, or you will see that I am accounted great among mortals."
With a bitter heart, Demeter turned and departed the palace. But on the threshold, she was stopped by Triptolemus, who stood in awe at her revealed form. "Who are you," he dared ask, "to bless our house so?"
And knowing that the king and queen's anger had yet to reach him, Demeter spoke truly. "I am Demeter, Lady of the Harvest," she said. "Heed me; in the past I have opened my hand freely to all on the earth below, but now that my daughter is taken from me, my hope is dried up and I have no nourishment to pour out. Yet I would not see your city starve for Hades' folly, so I will teach you how to work the land. How to bind oxen together and use them to plough the fields, how to rotate the crops among your soil so each may thrive in your season. It is not as easeful as taking food from the hands of the gods, but if you labor with diligence, you will grow to feed your city, and in turn teach those who come after you." And as Demeter had once, unknowingly, caused time to weave a new pattern around Triptolemus, so too did she in just one night's speech tell him all she could of agriculture.
Then, tired of her fruitless search and how she had been cast out from Eleusis, Demeter returned to Olympus to drink nectar with Hera and tell her of her troubles. "You must not concern yourself with the ways of mortals," Hera urged her. "They were not meant to understand our ways or appreciate our splendor."
Demeter thanked her sister for her prudent words, but when she had rested, she set out to the human world once again, and did not cease her wandering until Persephone came forth from the underworld. And while Demeter neglected the plants that grew of the soil, the prince Triptolemus remembered what she had taught him, and led the people of Eleusis to subside on what grew even in the lean years. Many across Attica learned from him, and Eleusis became a great city.
By the time Persephone emerged from the realm of Hades, and began her seasonal migration between the houses of her mother and her husband, the infant Demophon had grown to be an old man. Since Demeter had never completed her ritual, he was still a mortal, but one who had drunk of two worlds. As his brother had taught younger generations the secrets of growing a rich harvest, Demophon thought it fit to give those who would come after the hope of a life beyond death. So in secret, he taught his followers the tale of Demeter and Persephone, and charged them with initiating the children of Eleusis into the sacred mysteries. It was always done in great secrecy, for those without understanding might rashly assume falsehood as Metanira had, but the mysteries were preserved for hundreds upon thousands of years.
All this, Hera remembered, as she listened to the petition of Cydippe in the temple. She regretted her speech to Demeter, for she knew that not even the highest mountains could keep the voices of mortals from the ears of the gods. And yet, though they drew near, they were still separated by a vast gulf. If kings and queens could not comprehend the gifts of ambrosia, who could?
The things that mortals would choose for themselves, she knew, were not things that would last. Young men might boast of strength, or riches, or a handsome face. But all these could be lost as soon as the winds changed, or provoke a rival to jealousy and bloodshed. And so, she judged, the greatest gift a god could grant to a mortal would be to release him from his mortality, that he might behold eternity not in a sanctuary or through a hidden rite, but in its fullness. It would be no use to explain herself beforehand; only once it was done would they sense her wisdom.
Nor would there be glory in decrepitude, in having lived a life full of turmoil and grief. The kindest way to slip from life was also the swiftest—without pain, in the midst of a triumph that had been cheered by close kin and nameless crowds alike, side by side. So Hera bent low to the earth, and breathed over Kleobis and Biton, and called them to her, and they did not wake.