Ascalaphus was the son of Acheron (the river of woe and the entrance to the Underworld) and Orphne, a nymph that lived in Hades. A child can obviously not choose his parents, and it is hard to imagine a gloomier family. Ascalaphus, nevertheless, managed to surpass his father and mother in the darkness of his achievements. He had been entrusted with the orchards of Hades and witnessed Persephone eating a pomegranate. He could not keep his silence and informed the gods (Hades among them), meaning that Persephone was now bound to remain in the Underworld for part of the year. Demeter was furious at this infernal tattletale and buried him beneath a heavy rock. His punishment lasted until Heracles descended to Hades on his last labour (kidnapping Cerberus). He came across the stone, rolled it, and released the hapless Ascalaphus. Demeter, being famous for the duration of her anger, witnessed this and gave another go at her attempt to punish him by turning him into an owl, a bird vile and lazy, a “messenger of grief and a sad omen to mankind” in the famous description of the Roman poet Ovid. According to a different version, it was Persephone who transformed Ascalaphus into a bird by sprinkling him with water of the river Phlegethon, a river described by Plato as “a stream of fire, which coils round the earth and flows into the depths of Tartarus”.
Persephone changes Ascalaphus into an owl, Melchior Küsel, 1670, engraving, Harvard Art Museums © President and Fellows of Harvard College