Bounteous Demeter was one of the chief Olympian deities and the goddess of fertility, particularly as it pertained to agriculture. Described as “golden-haired” by Homer, and “well-garlanded,” “hallowed,” “reverend,” and “bounteous” by Hesiod, Demeter held the fate of crops and harvests in her hands. Rarely meddling in affairs human or divine, Demeter was perhaps the most beloved and least controversial of all Greek deities.

This marble bust of Demeter is a Roman copy of a Greek original from the 4th century BCE. Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, Italy. Here Demeter appears “well garlanded,” as her old descriptions suggest.Public Domain

Whereas most of the chief deities in the Greek pantheon evolved or were reinvented over the course of Greek history, Demeter was worshiped continuously from Mycenaean times all the way through to the Hellenistic period. She was also the centerpiece of the Eleusinian Mysteries—annual rites performed by votaries of the cult of Demeter and Persephone. Her longevity spoke to the role of agriculture in the foundations of Greek wealth and power in the Mediterranean world.

Etymology

The name “Demeter” represented the blending of two words. One was māter, the Greek word for “mother.” The other—much more mysterious—word is da-. One theory held that this is the Doric form of the word , meaning “earth,” which would make Demeter the “earth mother,” a tidy encapsulation of her divine nature. Another interpretation held that da- evolved from the Greek words dais and dēia, both of which meant “barley.” That would make Demeter the “barley goddess,” a translation that also meshes nicely with her role in the generation of cereal crops.1

Family

Though Demeter never married, she did have several children including two with her brother Zeus. Iacchus, a daimon (a lesser deity or spirit, the root of the word “demon” in English), served as an attendant to his mother and oversaw the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Persephone (also known as Kore) was a goddess who, like her mother, was heavily associated with agriculture. Persephone was often depicted alongside Demeter in Greek art and iconography, and the two were worshiped as a pair throughout the Greek world.

Demeter had children with a mortal male and another god as well. With Iasion, a mortal man who was the son of Zeus and the nymph Electra (one of the Pleiads), she had Philomelus and Plutus, god of wealth. With Poseidon, she had Arion—a horse that could talk and fly.

Mythology

Though Hera was queen of the Olympian deities and a figure closely associated with maternity and matrimony, Demeter was a more accurate embodiment of the loving, caring, and nurturing qualities of motherhood. Thus, the stories of her progeny formed the foundation of her mythology.

Origins

Demeter was one of the six children of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. Like her siblings, Hades, Hestia, Hera, and Poseidon, Demeter was swallowed by Cronus, who feared an insurrection amongst his children (Cronus had overthrown his own father, and was wary of usurpation). She resided in the Titan’s belly until Zeus forced Cronus to regurgitate the children. Once freed, Demeter joined forces with Zeus and his allies in the Titanomachy, or war of the Titans, and reigned alongside the other Olympians following their victory.

Marble statue of Demeter in the Palazzo Altemps, Rome, with the head restored.Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC BY-SA 2.5

According to the canonical myths, Demeter was assigned her role as agricultural goddess by her victorious brothers; historically, however, she was worshiped as a goddess of agriculture long before Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon had even emerged as distinct entities in Greek thought. The reimagining of Demeter by the Classical-era Greeks represented the appropriation of older mother-goddess cults by a male-dominated and deeply misogynistic society, a pattern that repeated over and over again in the ancient world.

Demeter and Iasion

The story of Demeter’s union with Iasion constituted an important element of her legend. Iasion caught Demeter’s eye at the marriage of Cadmus. the legendary founder and first king of Thebes, and Harmonia, goddess of harmony and friendship. While the revelers celebrated, Demeter lured Iasion away and the two had intercourse with Demeter lying in a freshly plowed furrow. When the two returned to the party, Zeus noticed the mud on Demeter’s back and realized what they had done. According to both Homer and Hesiod, Zeus flew into a jealous rage (Demeter was Zeus’ consort, and Iasion his son) and hurled a thunderbolt toward Iasion, killing his own son.

Demeter was still pregnant, however, and later delivered twin brothers: Plutus—the god of money and riches, who became fantastically wealthy but would not share such wealth with his brother—and Philomelus (also known as Philomenus), the god of tillage and the plow who was forced to work for his livelihood. Luckily, Philomelus was inventive, and used his skills to create the first plough. Initially, he used his invention to earn a living; later, he gave it to humans to ease their labors. A similar story featured Demeter adopting Triptolemus, prince of Eleusis, who went on to give the plough to humankind.

The goddess of agriculture also had a son with Poseidon, the god of the sea who was also associated with horses and horsemanship. In the stories of their union, Poseidon took a liking to Demeter and pursued her. Fearing Poseidon’s relentless pursuit, Demeter fled as best she could, even assuming the form of a horse to escape his advances. Familiar with a horse’s shape, Poseidon transformed into a stallion and caught her. Poseidon’s rape of Demeter produced Arion, an immortal male horse with wings and the ability to speak. Heracles would later ride Arion while completing his legendary labors.

Demeter, Persephone, and the Eleusinian Mysteries

The mythology of Demeter was largely centered around the abduction and liberation of her daughter, Persephone. The story began when Hades, the god of the underworld, first saw the beautiful Persephone and fell in love with her. He rushed toward her on his chariot (this action usually taking place on Sicily) and stole away with her to his domain.

Devastated by the loss of her daughter, and unaware of Hades’ role in her disappearance, Demeter set off in search of the missing girl. As she searched far and wide, she happened to visit Eleusis in the guise of an old woman. In Eleusis, she was greeted warmly and given shelter by Queen Metaneira and King Keleos. In return, she nursed their sick child, Triptolemus (also known as Demophon). Her divine breast milk instantly turned Triptolemus into an adult; to further protect the boy, a still disguised Demeter tried to burn away his mortal soul in the family fireplace. She failed, but only because Metaneira caught her in the act.

A view of the excavation of Eleusis, Greece. This is the site of the annual Eleusinian Mysteries and the first temple to Demeter and Persephone, built in ca. 1500 BCE. It was later destroyed by the Persians in 479 BCE.Marcus Cyron / CC BY-SA 2.0

At this point, Demeter revealed herself to the Eleusinians and demanded that they build a great temple in her honor. According to the Homeric Hymn 2, "To Demeter":

Lo! I am that Demeter who has share of honour and is the greatest help and cause of joy to the undying gods and mortal men. But now, let all the people build me a great temple and an altar below it and beneath the city and its sheer wall upon a rising hillock above Callichorus. And I myself will teach my rites, that hereafter you may reverently perform them and so win the favour of my heart.2

Metaneira and Keleos complied with her wish, and soon Demeter came to reside in the temple they had built for her. Rather than cheering her broken heart, Demeter became bitter and withdrawn in the temple. Her enormous despair caused the rains to stop and the crops to die in the fields.

It quickly became apparent to the other Olympians that Demeter’s sorrow needed to be assuaged lest the drought continue and human life be imperiled. To deal with this situation, Zeus sent Hermes to Hades and ordered him to return Persephone. Though Hades demurred, he ultimately relented, agreeing to release to Persephone if she had not eaten anything in the underworld. Persephone had eaten a few pomegranate seeds, however, and was forced to return to the underworld annually for either one third or one half of the year, depending on the version of the tale being told.

The Return of Persephone (1891), Frederic Leighton. Oil on canvas in the Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds, England.Public Domain

Some popular versions of the myth claimed that the time of Persephone’s absence from Demeter coincided with the most challenging and life-threatening times of the season—either the hot and dry Mediterranean summer, when plant life was endangered, or autumn/winter when cold temperature and frosts temporarily halted agricultural growth. Either way, the seasonality of Persephone’s absence from, and return to, Demeter became central to the Eleusinian Mysteries, as it symbolized the cycles of life and death that were integral not only to agriculture, but to all life.3

Demeter and the Greeks

Demeter was not only the paragon of maternal care, but also the most stable and consistent deity within the Olympian pantheon. Her consistency of character within her myths testified to the stability of Greek agriculture, which thrived in the mild climate of the Mediterranean. Had the Mediterranean been less amenable to stable agriculture, Demeter would likely have been more volatile, and more like Inanna, the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility who was as turbulent as the harsh conditions of the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The adoration of Demeter and Persephone in the Greek world—and particularly in the Eleusinian Mysteries—further suggested the abundance of Greek agriculture. Greek farms produced not only the food essential for survival, but also a bounty of commodity crops such as olives, figs, and grapes that produced enormous wealth for the Greeks—the masters of the Mediterranean economy.

Pop Culture

Though Demeter lacked the allure of the powerful male figures in the Greek pantheon such as Zeus and Poseidon, her image and aura still persisted in association with agriculture.

Demeter (seated) and Persephone depicted on the Great Seal of North Carolina, at left, and historical coat of arms, right.Public Domain

The Great Seal of North Carolina depicted Demeter and Persephone in a pastoral setting with the sea in the background. Demeter was shown holding three grains of wheat and sitting on a cornucopia, an image implying abundance. Demeter International was also the name of the largest certification organization for “biodynamic farming,” a type of farming with exacting standards of “purity.”

There was also a Demeter Fragrance Library, a company offering cosmetics designed to smell like flowers, herbs, and other fragrances associated with agriculture, such as “Tomato,” “Grass,” and “Dirt.”

References

Bibliography

  1. “Demeter.” Encyclopedia Mythica. Last modified May 3, 1997. https://pantheon.org/articles/d/demeter.html.

  2. “Demeter.” Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/demeter.

  3. Cartwright, Mark. “Demeter.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified 27 August 2012 https://www.ancient.eu/demeter/.

  4. Homer. “Homeric Hymn II, to Demeter.” Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. Translated by G. Hugh Evelyn-White. Project Gutenberg. Last modified February 4, 2013. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/348/348-h/348-h.htm#link2H_4_0035.

Footnotes

  1. “Demeter,” Online Etymology Dictionary; “Demeter,” Encyclopedia Mythica

  2. Homer, “Homeric Hymn II, to Demeter,” 256–274. 

  3. Cartwright, “Demeter.”