"Of Demeter, the lovely haired and august goddess, and of her daughter, the fair Persephone, I begin to sing. Hail O goddess! Keep the city safe, and guide my song!"
(Homeric Hymn 13)
Demeter (Roman: Ceres) [Pronounced in English as DE-ME-ter or Dih-muh-ter, Pronounced in Greek as Thi-ME-ter and in Classical Greek as THE-me-trah] is the Greek goddess of agriculture, and especially the growth of grain, the harvest, the fertility of the earth, and the changing of the seasons. Her name means either "earth-mother" or "corn-mother". The word corn has led to confusion among some people today. The word corn means "grain seed" and not the vegetable for which we are usually accustomed. The more proper name for the vegetable is maize. Maize was unknown to the Greeks and was first cultivated in the Americas.
Demeter is the second eldest child and daughter born to the Titans, Cronus and Rhea. She is portrayed as a beautiful, mature woman in her 30s-40s, fully robed, and having long, beautiful, blonde hair, which is normally kept up or covered. Upon her head is an actual crown, or a crown made of wheat, poppies, or both, and she is often shown holding wheat and/or poppies in one of her hands. In her other hand she may be shown holding a cornucopia, the symbol of abundance, a torch, or her sacred staff made from a stalk of giant fennel. A basket containing the secret objects of her mysteries may be found at her feet.
With regards to her sphere of influence over the earth, Demeter took after mother, Rhea, representing rocky terrain, and her grandmother, Gaia, the actual embodiment of the earth, with Demeter herself representing fertile plains.
In early Greece Demeter held a much larger sphere of influence than just the growing and harvesting of crops. As a goddess of agriculture Demeter was originally viewed as being the civilizing force for humanity due to the fact that the raising of crops requires permanent dwellings. Thus, Demeter is the bestower of civilization. As a fertility goddess, Demeter was viewed as the original goddess of marriage, being called upon to increase human fertility the same as she increases the fertility of the fields. In time Demeter's sister, Hera, would come to acquire this role.
Unlike her sister Hestia, Demeter took many lovers, both gods and mortals, though never actually taking an official spouse. In myth it has become a common standard, due to prudish morals of the past, that when a deity has sex with another deity or mortal that they are thus "married". Today we realize that people don't have to be married in order to enjoy sex. There is no evidence for an actual traditional marriage to be found with any of Demeter's lovers.
Demeter's mortal lovers include; Iasion, whom she begot the gods Plutus (the god of wealth), and Philomelus (demigod of ploughing). Carmanor, whom she begot Chrysothemis (demigoddess of the harvest festival songs) and Eubuleus (demigod who leads people back from the Underworld), and Mekon. Iasion was her first mortal lover. She desired him from the first time she saw him and actively pursued him. She tricked him into following her into a field that had been plowed three times, seduced him and lay with him in the dirt. Zeus, seeing the mud on the back of her robes immediately understood what happened. Zeus struck Iasion with a lightening bolt, killing him instantly. Karmanor also met the same fate. When Demeter's favorite mortal lover, Mekon, died she transformed him into a poppy and then took it as her sacred flower.
Demeter's first divine lover was her brother, Zeus. Together they mated in the form of serpents. Demeter conceived and gave birth to Persephone (Destroyer), a.k.a. Kore (maiden) and in some versions of the myth, the god Dionysus as well. Persephone was the delight of her mother and the pair were inseparable.
When Persephone reached the age of marriage, about 14-16 years of age, Hades, the lord of the Underworld, saw her while she was picking flowers with her friends and desired her. Hades did the traditional thing by going to her father, Zeus, and asking for her hand in marriage. Zeus granted it and approved of her abduction. This may seem a strange thing for modern people to understand but marriage for the most of human civilization was not done out of genuine love, but rather marriage was considered a socio-economic contract and civic duty. It was everyone's responsibility to marry and reproduce. Failure to do so brought shame and mistrust from society. Additionally, only the father's approval/permission was needed for a marriage. The mother's opinion, let alone the opinion of the soon-to-be-bride, was considered to be unimportant. The bride didn't even need to be told in advance that her father had arranged her marriage.
One day as Persephone was picking flowers and playing in the fields with her nymph companions, Zeus caused a beautiful white flower, some say a narcissus, to spring forth from the earth. Persephone was immediately drawn to it. She had never seen a flower like this before. It's perfume was intoxicating. It was irresistible to her and she bent over to pluck it. No sooner had she pulled the flower from the ground did a vast, black chasm open up in the earth out of which ushered forth the dark chariot of Hades. The somber god grabbed Persephone, threw her over his shoulder and plummeted back into the chasm with the earth closing up after him. The young goddess screamed, but in vain, as miles of soil muffled her cries. The chariot raced at incredible speeds and Persephone's tears were soon replaced with awe and wonder. In front of her stood the glittering palace of Hades. Not only was her abductor the dread king of the Underworld, but he also possessed all the riches located therein, including gold, silver, and precious stones. Hades was so wealthy that he was often called Pluto (wealth) by the Greeks and later, Romans. As Persephone was left to ponder her predicament, and what it all entailed, Demeter was just finding out about her absence.
Demeter called out her daughter's name but got no reply. At first Demeter thought her daughter had just grown absent minded and had forgotten to check in with her. As time passed Demeter became worried and began to stop and ask people if they had seen her. She first went to the nymphs who played with Persephone. They had been distracted and neither saw or heard her disappearance. Demeter then went to the cave of Hecate and asked her if she knew what had happened to her daughter. Hecate's words were of no comfort. Hecate revealed that Persephone was abducted and that she heard her screams but she did not see who took her. Demeter became panicked. Sensing her fear, Hecate volunteered to help Demeter. The nymphs, the companions who had been picking flowers with Persephone, also were so upset that they prayed to the gods to be given wings so that they may fly across the world to search for Persephone. The gods granted their prayer and they were transformed into the Sirens.
Hecate told Demeter to go inquire of Helios, the sun god, for from his vantage point he sees all things that happen on the earth. Demeter sought the bright god out and begged him to answer her. Helios admitted that he had seen it all. He informed Demeter that Hades carried Persephone away, down to the place of the dead, beneath the green earth. Demeter was livid. She stormed Olympus and demanded that Zeus restore her daughter to her. It was then that Zeus admitted to Demeter that as her father he had agreed to Hades taking Persephone as his wife. He tried to comfort Demeter by reminding her that Hades is a powerful god and that he would make a worthy husband and mate but Demeter would hear none of it. She was beside herself in grief and left Olympus vowing never to return.
Demeter neither bathed, nor fixed her hair. Instead of putting on her fine robes Demeter dressed herself in black and wandered the earth in disguise for 9 days, in mourning for the daughter she feared she would never see again. As she wandered the earth she blessed or cursed humans depending upon how she was treated. Those who were kind to her were blessed. Those who treated her poorly suffered greatly. Her wandering brought her to Eleusis, in Attica. There she took the form of an elderly women and called herself Doso. She became the nurse/nanny for King Celeus's and Queen Metanira's sons, Triptolemus and Demophone. She delighted in her new job as it took her mind off of the loss of her daughter. She especially loved taking care of the new born Demophone and fell hopelessly in love with the infant. Dreading the knowledge that Demophone would some day die, Demeter decided to secretly make the baby immortal. In the dead of night, for several nights, she carefully sneaked into the children's quarters and snatched the sleeping baby. With ambrosia, the food of the gods, she anointed his body, breathed her magic breath upon him, and then held him in the fireplace so that the flames would gradually burn off his mortal form. She would have succeeded had his mother not interrupted her.
Demophone's brother, Triptolemus, was sick and Metanira awoke one night and decided to check upon him. She walked in just as Demeter was holding Demophone over the fire. Metanira did what every good mother would do. She let out a scream and rushed to save her son. In shock at having been discovered, Demeter dropped the infant and Metanira picked him up and held him tight against her bossom. Demeter was saddened once more. Revealing her true identity to Metanira, Demeter then explained that her interruption of the ritual destroyed it's magic and that now there was no hope of Demophone ever becoming a god. Demeter saw the ill Triptolemus trembling at his mother's side and decided to return the kindness she received from the family by blessing Triptolemus, instead. She picked up the boy, held him to her bossom and bade him suckle. Ingesting the goddess's breast milk healed him and made Triptolemus mature into an adult man in one day. It was then that Demeter taught Triptolemus the art of agriculture. She made him her first priest and bade him to initiate mankind to her mysteries and spread the secrets of agriculture. She equipped Triptolemus with a chariot drawn by winged serpents by which he would be able to travel across the world. He appeared to men as a beautiful youth, wearing a crown or crowned with wheat, and his near-perfect body bedecked with sacred serpents.
Having blessed Triptolemus and having given him instruction, Demeter turned and left. Her grief soon returned. Not only had she lost her beloved daughter but now she had, in a sense, lost a mortal child as well. In her grief she stopped caring, literally. She was in such a deep depression that she no longer blessed the earth or looked to it's upkeep. As a result, vegetation withered and famine soon took hold across the land.
Demeter next traveled to Arcadia. It was there that her brother Poseidon, god of the sea, found her and attempted to seduce her. Demeter fled. In an attempt to hide from Poseidon, Demeter transformed herself into a mare and hid herself in the stables of King Onkios. Unfortunately, Poseidon found her, transformed himself into a stallion and raped her.
After being violated Demeter became naturally enraged and transformed into Demeter Erinyes (Demeter the Fury) or Demeter Melaine (Black Demeter), with the appearance of a woman, dressed in black, and having a mare's head. In such aspect she was viewed as the goddess of vengeance. She allegedly then stalked the night, ranting, raving and scaring people literally to death with her appearance. The Phigalians worshiped this dark aspect of the goddess in a cave with a statue sculpted for them by Onatas. The statue was carved from wood and portrayed the goddess with a horse's head, serpents for a mane, and carrying a dove in one hand and a dolphin in the other hand.
In time Demeter realized that she was pregnant. She gave birth to twins, an immortal horse named Arion and a mysterious goddess named Despoine (Mistress). Despoine's worship was associated with a mystery cult where initiates where forbidden from divulging Despoine's true name. In art, Despoine was usually portrayed as veiled. We know little to nothing of Despoine but there are hints that she was none other than the goddess Artemis, herself.
Having giving birth, Demeter went to the river Ladon and bathed herself. There she transformed into Demeter Louisa (Demeter the Washed). There, Demeter was purified and her anger abated. Meanwhile, the Olympians were searching for Demeter. As the vegetation of the earth withered and died and famine took the land, Zeus feared that the human species would go extinct. He ordered all gods to be on the look out for Demeter and to notify him if/when they should spot her. It was Pan who spotted her in a cave and who sent word to Zeus. Zeus then bade the Moirai (Fates), and Iris (goddess of the rainbow) to go to her and comfort her. The Fates returned to Zeus and informed him that Demeter would no longer bless the earth until Persephone is returned to her. In response, Zeus sent Hermes to the Underworld to ask Hades to release Persephone. Surprisingly, Hades consented but only upon one condition. Persephone must not have eaten any food while in the Underworld. For those who eat of the food of the dead can not return to the land of the living. Unfortunately, Persephone had grown famished and after seeing a pomegranate she had picked it up and ate of it's seeds. Hermes then was forced to report the bad news to Zeus. Zeus reached a compromise. Persephone was allowed to return to the land of the living but was forced to return to the Underworld each year and spend a month for every seed she ate. Demeter accepted this ruling.
The reconciliation of Demeter and her daughter Persephone caused the earth to once again become green and nature to blossom. Thus, the changing of the seasons are explained.
The people of Eleusis, having been instructed by the goddess, built her a temple and taught Demeter's sacred mysteries, most of which centered around this myth of the abduction and return of Persephone. The Eleusian Mysteries became one of the great mystery cults of the ancient world. It was believed that initiates were able to travel to paradise, called Elysium or the Elysian Fields, upon death. Initiates were charged with secrecy and to this day we know very little about the rituals of the cult as to date there are no accounts of anyone breaking their vow of secrecy.
Parents: The Titans Cronus and Rhea
Offspring: Persephone, Dionysus, Arion, Despoine, Plutus, Philomelus, Eubuleus, Chrysothemis
Sacred Epithets/Aspects: Eucarpus (fruitful), Chrysaorus (golden sword), Pyrphoros (fire bearing), Saemni (august), Spaermii (presiding over seeds), Chthonia (of the earth), Anesidora (she who sends forth gifts), Chloe (green), Epogmia (of the furrows), Plutodotira (giver of wealth), Carpophorus (bearer of fruit), Malophorus (bearer of fruit), Thermasia (warm), Megala Mater (great mother), Thesmophorus (bringer of law), Thesmia (of law), Prostasia (leader, patron), Panachaea (of all Greeks), Europa (of Europe)
Sacred Color: (Orphic Mysteries: Green)
Zodiac Sign: (Orphic Mysteries: Virgo)
Sacred Symbols: Corn, Wheat, Poppies, Serpents, Torch, Cornucopia, Fennel Stalk Staff, Chariot Drawn by Winged Serpents, Basket, Bread
Sacred Incense: Benzoin
Sacred Offerings: Libation, Fruit, Honey Cakes
Sacrificial Animals: Pigs, Bulls, Cows
Sacred Plant: Corn, Wheat, Poppies, Cornflower, Myrtle, Mint
Sacred Bird: Turtle Dove, Screech Owl
Sacred Animal: Serpent, Pig
Festival: Thesmophoria, Eleusian Mysteries, (Roman: Ceralia, April 12-18)
***Note: Take notice that most of Demeter's mortal male lovers were killed by Zeus or met a tragic ending. This is not accidental. This was done out of punishment for the violation of social order. For the Greeks, gender roles and social order was extremely important. Sexual penetration was viewed as an act of dominance. It was okay for a male god to sexually penetrate a mortal female lover because he is a god and thus is dominant over her as she is both mortal and female. However, a mortal man who dared to sexually penetrate a deity is guilty of violating natural order as he is attempting to dominate that which is greater than he. Therefore, in myth it is very common for any mortal man foolish enough to have sex with a goddess to either be killed and or suffer some tragedy that effects him for the rest of his life. For another example, Anchises had sex with Aphrodite. She warned him not to tell anyone or else Zeus would gain revenge. He fails to heed her warning and Zeus strikes him with a lightening bolt that either kills him or cripples him for life, depending on the version of myth being told.
***Note: The abduction of a woman to be taken as a wife may have been a ritual carried out with the permission of the father.
***Note: Dionysus is usually said to be the son of Zeus and the mortal, Semele.
***Note: The myth of Demeter and Persephone is also referred to as "The Rape of Persephone", with the word rape used with it's original meaning, that of abduction.
***Note: Today, most people interpret the myth of the abduction of Persephone as explaining winter. However, for the Greeks the myth actually explained why the crops died during the drought and heat of Summer.