Demeter (Gr. Δημητηρ; Lat. Demeter) whose name, probably an alteration of a Greek word meaning “Mother Earth”, was the goddess of agriculture and harvest.
She represented the cultivated and fertile land unlike other goddesses like Gaia or Rhea who personified the land as matter. She is the goddest that facilitated the germination and growth of plants.
She was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea. She is one of the twelve Olympians even if she preferred to reside in Eleusis to stay in contact with the earth rather than Olympus.
She was assimilated by the Romans under the name of Ceres who was a very ancient Latin deity associated with the harvest.
What is Demeter the Greek goddess of?
The basis of the Greek economy was mainly based on the cultivation of cereals (barley and wheat), which is why she was particularly venerated by ensuring the abundance and development of the cities. She remained very close to the Men who built a large number of temples throughout Greece in her honor.
As goddess of the earth, she also had a chthonic character that was later devolved to her daughter Persephone.
The sow, the ram, the crane and the turtledove, as well as the crown of wheat ears, the torch, and the wheat sheaf, are her symbols and emblems.
Daughter of Cronus and Rhea, Demeter taught men the art of cultivating the land, sowing, harvesting wheat, and making bread out of it, which made her look like the goddess of agriculture, fertility, and harvest. Zeus, her brother, who loved her beauty, had Persephone. She was also loved by Poseidon, and to escape his pursuit, she turned into a mare. The god noticed this and turned himself into a horse. Demeter love affair with Poseidon made her the mother of the horse Arion and she had a second child: Despoina. She is represented as a goddess to the poor. According to some sources, she is the mother of the hero Lityerses, linked to the Hercules cycle.
Loves of Demeter
Ceres de Jean-Antoine Watteau(CP)
However, her severe beauty attracted some suitors and she tried to resist them.
While in Arcadia, Poseidon coveted her but she turned into a mare and mingled with King Oncos’ mares. More was needed to discourage the water master, who turn in the guise of a fiery stallion and made her mother of the horse Arion (or Areion), who was immortal, gifted with words and had a magnificent green mane.
Pausanias gives another version by making Gaia, the Arion’s mother; there is also a filiation by Zephyrus and Podarge.
Heracles had ridden it when he made war with the Eleans and later gave it to Adrastus.
They also had a daughter known only as Despoina or Despina, “the mistress”, because her real name was only revealed to the initiated.
Demeter similarly refused to Zeus, who also achieved his goals by transforming himself into a powerful bull and made her the mother of Persephone.
Demeter fell in love with Macris, a Corcyra nymph and out of love for her, she taught him the art of sowing and harvesting to the Titans on her island called Drepane. This name would come from the fact that under the island was the Demeter sickle or the one that had emasculated Ouranos.
Ceres and probably Ploutos
She was made a mother by Iasion, “the plowman”, son of Zeus and the Pleiad Electra. They met at the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia. Warmed by the flowing nectar, the lovers slipped out of the house and united in a field three times plowed. When they returned, gods saw traces of mud on the legs and arms, Zeus understood what had just happened between them; jealous that Iasion had dared to touch Demeter, he struck him to death with his lightning or crippled him severely.
According to other sources he lived with Demeter and introduced his cult in Sicily.
This union gave birth to Plutus, the blind god of wealth and abundance and Philomelus who invented the plow. To thank him for his invention, Demeter placed him in the sky in the form of the constellation of the cowherd…
Myths and facts about Demeter
The kidnapping of his daughter and the long quest that followed is the main legend that touches Demeter. All the others are in fact only complementary anecdotes.
Kidnapping of Persephone
Hades had fallen in love with Persephone and he went to Zeus to ask his permission to marry her. Zeus feared to offend his older brother with a categorical refusal, but he also knew that Demeter would never forgive her if Persephone was locked in Tartarus; so, as a diplomat, he replied that he could neither grant nor refuse her consent.
This answer emboldened Hades who kidnapped the girl while she was picking flowers in a meadow; perhaps it was in one of the many places that Demeter traveled during his wandering search for Persephone. But his priests say it was Eleusis’. She searched for Persephone without rest for nine days and nine nights, without eating or drinking, constantly calling her daughter, but in vain. The only news she could gather came from Hecate, who, early one morning, had heard Persephone call to help. She had hurried to help him but had found no trace of the girl.
On the tenth day, Demeter came in disguise to Eleusis where King Celeus and his wife Metaneira gave her hospitality; To rest a little, she asked to stay as a nurse for Demophon, the young prince who had just been born.
Adam Elsheimer’s Ceres and Stellio
When Demeter entered the palace his guests were surprised that it almost reached the ceiling joists and out of respect, Metaneira gave him his own seat which Demeter refused and remained standing in silence. Likewise, she refused the drink and food offered to her.
Iambe, Pan’s daughter, tried to cheer Demeter up by reciting jest and obscene verses to her.
Baubo lifted his shirt and showed her his belly and started dancing in front of Demeter who began to smile.
The old nurse of the prince, jokingly advised her to take a little kykeon, a roasted barley drink, which she drank greedily. This made the young Ascaelabus, Celeus’ eldest son, laugh, but it was very badly taken by Demeter who threw the rest of the drink in his face and turned him into a lizard. And that’s why some lizards have spots on their skin.
A little embarrassed by what she had done, Demeter decided to be pleasant to Celeus by making Demophon immortal. And that night, she held him over the fire to consume his humanity in him. But Metaneira who had accidentally entered the room broke the charm and Demophon died. Before leaving Demeter wanted to make a gesture for his hosts once again by making a gift to Triptolemus, another son of the royal couple.
colossal statue of the Vatican Museum
Triptolemus, who was grazing his father’s flocks, had recognized Demeter and given him the information she needed: ten days earlier, his brothers Eumolpus, a shepherd, and Eubuleus, a pig farmer, who were in the fields feeding their animals, suddenly saw the earth open up and swallow the Eumolpus pig before their eyes; then, in a thumping sound of hooves, a cart pulled by black horses appeared and rushed into the open fault. The face of the one driving the tank was not visible, but with his right arm, he held a young girl tightly against him, screaming loudly.
Finally, Demeter had some early evidence; she summoned Hecate. Together, they went to Helios who saw everything and forced him to admit that Hades was the culprit. Demeter was so angry that she continued to wander the earth, preventing trees from bearing fruit and grasses from growing. Zeus first sent him a message through Iris and then a delegation of the Olympian gods carrying gifts of reconciliation and asked her to resign herself and accept his wishes. But she refused to return to Olympus and swore that the land would remain barren until Persephone was brought to light.
The return of Persephone
LEIGHTON © Leeds City Art Gallery
Zeus no longer had a choice. He sent Hermes to bring a message to Hades: that he would return Persephone. Hades accepted on condition that she had not yet tasted the food of the Dead.
And since Persephone had not eaten anything since her kidnapping, Hades, forced to hide his spite, sent her back to her mother.
Persephone’s tears stopped flowing. But just as she was on her way to Eleusis, one of Hades’ gardeners, named Ascalaphus, testified that he had seen Persephone pick a pomegranate and eat seven grains.
At Eleusis, Demeter, happy, kissed Persephone, but upon hearing the grenade affair she became sadder than ever and said once again: “I will not go up to Olympus and I will not remove my curse concerning the earth. “Zeus then asked Rhea to discuss with Demeter and a compromise was finally reached.
Stamp with the effigy of Ceres
Persephone would spend three months of the year with Hades and would be the queen of Tartarus with the title of Persephone, and the other nine months with Demeter on Earth. This represents the rhythm of the seasons and is at the source of the Mysteries of Euleusis. Demeter finally agreed to go home. Before leaving Eleusis, she taught Triptolemus, Eumolpus and Celos (as well as Diocles, king of Pheres, who had actively sought Persephone throughout this period) how to practice her worship and she introduced them to her Mysteries which were highly appreciated.
Demeter is also the heroine of a few side legends that are in fact for the most part secondary episodes of her great quest to find her daughter.
Other Demeter’s legends
Demeter and Erysichton
Les Metamorphoses by Jean Mathieu (© BNF)
Demeter had a gentle soul and Erysichthon, son of Tropias, king of Thessaly was one of the few men with whom she behaved harshly. Erysichthon had the temerity to violate the privacy of a grove that the Pelasgian had planted in his honor on the Dotion plain.
To obtain wood for his new banquet hall, he began to cut down the sacred trees. Demeter took the form of Nicippe, priestess of the goddess, and gently enjoined him to stop. But nothing happened and he even threatened her with his axe, so she told him to carry out his plans because he would surely need this room to eat there.
She condemned him to perpetual hunger. The more he ate, the more he lost weight, until the day his parents could no longer support him, so he became a beggar who roamed the streets and ate everything he could find.
Triptoleme and Demeter
She gave Triptolemus the wheat seed, a wooden plow and a cart dragged by snakes as a gift and sent him around the world to teach men about agriculture. But before that, she gave him lessons in the plain of Raros and that is why some say he is the son of King Raros.
To Phytalus, who had treated her kindly on the banks of the Cephissus, she gave her a fig tree, the first one we had ever seen in Attica, and she taught him how to cultivate it. Later his descendants welcomed Theseus to the banks of the Cephisus.
She had been received with hospitality by two men, Trisaules & Damithales in Arcadia, and in gratitude, she gave them the seeds for all the pod vegetables, except the bean which was considered impure. After his departure, they built a temple in his honor on Mount Cyllene.
Demeter and Ascalaphus
Metamorphoses by Jean Mathieu (© BNF)
On the other hand, she punished Ascalaphus, son of Ares, or rather of Acheron and Orphne for his gossip because he brought back Persephone to Hades that she had eat the pomegranate grains. Demonstrate the metamorphosis directly into an owl or wedged it under a large stone. Heracles freed him on his way down to Hell, but Demeter still angry turned him into an owl who became Hades’ pet.
At the odious banquet offered to the gods by Tantalus, Demeter, still troubled by the disappearance of her daughter, was the only one of the Immortals to taste the infamous stew composed of the members of Pelops, the son of Tantalus.
When Pelops was brought back to life, she gave her an ivory shoulder to replace the one she had gnawed on.
Cult of Demeter
Demeter and the Eleusis snake
All of Greece worshipped her as a major goddess. Wheat lands, like Sicily, even more than others. Benefactor, she protected the crops, she taught people what is the very basis of civilization: the cultivation of wheat and the making of bread. She was celebrated with country banquets, festivals that showed its popularity. The cult was based on the rhythm of the seasons. Some rites recalled that agricultural fertility and human sexuality go to hand in hand: the faithful carried baskets with earthly figurations of sexual organs, threw jokes during processions. He was at the source of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
She was also particularly venerated by women, for example during the Thesmophories in Athens, a ceremony that took her name from the epithet of the goddess “Thesmophoros”. (the Legislator) and which was reserved for women, which was sure to make men talk. The secret of her Mysteries was very well guarded and her disclosure was punishable by the death penalty; Aeschylus was almost condemned. They worshipped fertility both for themselves and for the city: Aristophanes made it the subject of his comedy, “The Thesmophories”.
The Phigalians would love a Demeter with a mare’s head and mane, surrounded by dragons and snakes. This statue having been burned by accident, the Phigalians forgot the cult of the goddess, which sent a great drought on the country. This calamity would have led them to eat their own children if they had not stopped it by restoring the cult of Demeter the Black.
Its temples called Megara were often found in the forests. The snake, a Chthonian animal par excellence, and the piglet were dedicated to him.
Demeter in arts
Palace Demeter (Vase) Ceres (Pompeii)
Demeter’s iconography is not very rich. Art has essentially taken up the maternal character of Demeter, who appears standing in a long tunic, with his chest well marked, brandishing a torch that evokes both his quest for Persephone and his relationship with death and the return to earthly life.
Many terracotta statues show her as a majestic goddess, sitting on a throne. In her hand, she holds a sheaf of ears of corn, a horn of plenty or a scepter. The head is covered with a veil or crown of braided wheat ears. Many coins bear his head crowned with ears of corn.
She often appears with her daughter Persephone with snakes and sometimes with Dionysus.