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published: 1/20/05
updated: 12/16/13

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Demeter




Demeter (“grain mother”) is the Greek goddess of corn and agriculture. Only sometimes numbered among the Twelve Olympians, Demeter was associated with the underworld due to her arrangement with Hades regarding her daughter Persephone. She also oversaw marriage, fertility and laws and was the focus of the Eleusian mysteries.

Demeter
Plaster cast of Demeter from Carthage. Photo: baralbion.


Demeter and Persephone
Terracotta statuettes of Demeter and Persephone from Myrina, c.100 BC. British Museum. Photo: Mary Harrsch.

History and Sources

Demeter was rarely mentioned by Homer, but one Homeric similie has "blonde Demeter" winnowing grain from chaff. In an early epic, corn is called "Demeter's grain."

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which is the main written source for the popular story of Persephone and the sojourn at Eleusis, was probably composed in the Archaic period.

In Roman times, Demeter was identified with Ceres, an ancient Italian goddess of growth.





Family

Demeter is the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, granddaughter of Gaia (Earth), and sister-consort of Zeus. Her daughter, Persephone, was fathered by Zeus, and she had a son, Plutus, born from a union with the Cretan hero Iasion. Plutus (Wealth) personifies prosperity and played an important role along with Demeter in the Eleusian mysteries.

Mythology

The legend of Demeter is ancient and probably predates the Olympian gods. As told by the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Demeter's daughter Persephone was carried off by Hades, god of the underworld. Demeter searched the world for Persephone in great distress, leading her to neglect the growth of grain and cause a famine.

Eventually, Zeus was forced by the famine to order Hades to release Persephone. But Hades fed Persephone a pomegranate seed, and because she had tasted food in the Underworld she was compelled to spend a third of every year there. Thus, every year, Persephone spent the winter months underground with Hades as his wife then returned to the upper world in the spring, bringing great joy to Demeter and fruitfulness to the earth.

Demeter and Persephone were so closely linked that they were known simply as "the Two Goddesses" or even "the two Demeters." From the perspective of ancient historians, Demeter and Kore were important influences in the development of civilization because they oversaw the settled rhythm of life that comes with agriculture. They were given the title Thesmophoros, which also indicates their role as givers of law and morality.

Many legends, including the Homeric Hymn, also tell of an important episode that occurred while Demeter was searching for Persephone. Disguised as an old woman, she came to the city of Eleusis, where she was welcomed by the family of King Celeus and received hospitality and assistance. She became the nurse of the king's baby son Demophon and tried to make him immortal by anointing him with ambrosia and holding him in the fire at night to burn away his mortality.

Interrupted in this task by Celeus' wife, Demeter revealed her true identity, promised Demophon heroic honors after death, and ordered a temple be built in Eleusis. It was in this new temple that she withdrew and caused a universal famine until Zeus ordered Persephone's release. This legend is the basis of the Great Mysteries at Eleusis, initatory ceremonies held every autumn (see Worship and Festivals, below).

Patronage

Demeter was first and foremost a grain goddess, but her influence extended to all vegetation and the fruits of the earth (except the bean, which was the province of the hero Cyamites). Demeter also appeared as a goddess of health, birth, and marriage, which were closely related to the fertility of the earth in the ancient world.

Demeter was sometimes identified with Gaia (Earth), with whom she had several epithets in common, as well as the Great Mother of the Gods (Rhea, or Cybele).

Demeter was also a divinity of the underworld. She was worshiped as such at Sparta and at the festival of Chthonia at Hermione in Argolis, where a cow was sacrificed by four old women. The epithets Erinys (“Avenger”) and Melaina (“the Black One”), applied to Demeter in Arcadia, stress this darker side of her character. Here Demeter was said to have taken the form of a mare and mated with Poseiden in horse-shape.

Demeter was patroness of various political and ethnic groups, most importantly of the Amphictyonic League, subsequently well-known in connection with the temple at Delphi.

Appearance and Attributes

Demeter's attributes are connected especially with her role as goddess of agriculture and vegetation: ears of grain, the mystic basket filled with flowers, grain, and fruit of all kinds. She usually carries a sceptre, ears of corn and a poppy, or torches. Her animals is the pig and as an underworld deity she was accompanied by a snake.

In Greek art Demeter tended to resemble Hera, but she was more matronly, fuller-figured, and of milder expression. She was depicted on her own, with Persephone, with Hades, or in groups with the Olympian deities.

Demeter was sometimes shown riding in a chariot drawn by horses or dragons, sometimes walking, or sometimes seated upon a throne, alone or with her daughter. Popular scenes in Greek art included the Rape and Return of Persephone and the Mission of Triptolemus.

Worship and Festivals

The most important festivals in honor of Demeter were the Eleusian mysteries, held in early autumn. These were ceremonies of initiation that guaranteed the favor of the goddess, the promise of a better fate after death, and prosperity in life.

In addition, a number of agrarian festivals were held in honour of Demeter, many of which were secret and restricted to women. The secrecy seems to be based on the sense of awe and fear generated by the powers of the earth and Underworld.

  • Haloa - apparently derived from halos (“threshing floor”), begun at Athens and finished at Eleusis, where there was a threshing floor of Triptolemus, her first priest and inventor of agriculture; it was held in the month Poseideon (December).
  • Chloia - the festival of the grain beginning to sprout, held at Eleusis in the early spring (Anthesterion) in honour of Demeter Chloë (“the Green”), the goddess of growing vegetation. This festival is to be distinguished from the later sacrifice of a ram to the same goddess on the sixth of the month Thargelion, probably intended as an act of propitiation.
  • Proerosia - at which prayers were offered for an abundant harvest, before the land was plowed for sowing. It was also called Proarktouria, an indication that it was held before the rising of Arcturus. The festival took place, probably sometime in September, at Eleusis.
  • Thalysia - a thanksgiving festival held in autumn after the harvest in the island of Cos.
  • Thesmophoria - an autumn women's festival meant to improve the fruitfulness of the seed grain.
  • Skirophoria - held in midsummer, a companion festival.

References and Sources

  1. "Demeter." Encyclopædia Britannica (2007). Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  2. "Demeter." Price, Simon and Emily Kearns, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion (Oxford UP, 2003), p. 354-55.



Primary Sources for Demeter

  • Homeric Hymn to Demeter
  • Homer, Iliad 5.499-502
  • Hesiod, Theogony 453-506