Bounteous Demeter was one of the chief Olympian deities and the goddess of fertility, particularly as it pertained to agriculture. Known as “golden-haired” by Homer and the “well-garlanded,” “hallowed,” “reverend,” and “bounteous” by Hesiod, Demeter held in her hands the fates of the crops and the harvests. Rarely meddling in affairs human or divine, Demeter was perhaps the most beloved and least controversial of all the Greek deities.
Where most of the chief deities in the Greek pantheon evolved and were reinvented over the course of Greek history, Demeter (and her daughter Persephone, as we will see) was worshipped continually from Mycenaean times, through the Classical era, and all the way down to Hellenistic period.
She was the centerpiece of Eleusinian Mysteries, the annual rites performed by votaries of the cult of Demeter and Persephone. Her longevity speaks to the centrality of agriculture, particularly the lucrative olives and grapevines, the foundations of Greek wealth and power in the Mediterranean world.
The name “Demeter” represents the blending of two words. One is māter, the Greek word for “mother.” The other—much more mysterious—word is da-. One theory holds that this is the Doric form of the word gē, meaning “earth,” which would make Demeter into “earth mother,” a tidy encapsulation of her divine nature.
Another interpretation has da- evolving from the Greek words dais and dēia, both of which mean “barley.” That would make Demeter into “barley goddess,” a translation that also meshes nicely with her role in the generation of cereal crops.1
Demeter never married although she did have several children. With her brother Zeus, she had two. Her son Iacchus, a daimon (a lesser deity or spirit, the root of the word “demon” in English), served as an attendant to Demeter and oversaw the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Her daughter Persephone (also known as Kore) was a goddess, like her mother, associated with agriculture. In art and iconography, Persephone is often depicted with Demeter, and the two were worshipped as a pair throughout the Greek world.
Demeter had children with a mortal male and another god as well. With the mortal man, Iasion, the son of Zeus and the nymph Electra (one of the Pleiads), she had Pluto, god of wealth, and Philomelus. And with Poseidon she had Arion, a horse that could talk and fly!
Though Hera was queen of the Olympian deities and a figure closely associated with maternity and matrimony, Demeter more truly embodied the loving, caring, and nurturing qualities of motherhood. And so it was that the stories of her progeny formed the foundation of her mythology.
Demeter was one of the five children of the Titans Kronos and Rhea. Like her siblings, Hades, Hestia, and Poseidon, Demeter was swallowed by Kronos who feared an insurrection from his children (Kronos had overthrown his father, so he was wary of usurpation). She resided in the Titan's belly until Zeus forced Kronos to regurgitate the children. Once freed, Demeter joined forces with Zeus and his allies in the Titanomachy, or war of the Titans, and she reigned with the Olympians after their victory.
According to the canonical myths, Demeter was assigned her role as agricultural goddess by her victorious brothers, although in historical reality she was worshipped as a goddess of agriculture long before Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon even emerged as distinct entities in Greek thought.
The reimagination of Demeter by the Greeks of the Classical era represents the appropriation of older mother-goddess cults by a male-dominated and deeply misogynistic society, a pattern that repeats over and over again in the ancient world.
Demeter and Iasion
The story of Demeter's union with Iasion constitutes 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 Homer and Hesiod, Zeus flew into a jealous rage (Demeter, recall, was Zeus' consort, and Iasion his son) and hurled one of his infamous thunderbolts, killing his own son.
Demeter was still pregnant, however, and she later delivered twin brothers: Pluto, the god of money and riches, who became fantastically wealthy but would share not of it with his brother; and Philomelus (also known as Philomenus), god of tillage and the plow, whose brother's stinginess forced him to work for his livelihood.
Luckily Philomelus was inventive and created the first plough, which he initially used to earn a living, and later gave to humans to ease their labors. A similar story features Demeter adopting Triptolemus, prince of Eleusis (discussed in more detail below), who went on to give the plough to humans.
The goddess of agriculture also had a son with Poseidon, the god of the sea, who was furthermore connected to horses and horsemanship. In the stories of their union, Poseidon took a liking to Demeter and he pursued her. In this case, he seems literally to have stalked her, and Demeter in fear fled, eventually assuming the form of a horse to escape his advances.
But Poseidon was familiar with the shape of the horse, and he 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, which Heracles rode in his legendary labors.
Demeter, Persephone, and the Eleusinian Mysteries
The mythology of Demeter centers on the abduction and liberation of her daughter, Persephone. It all started when the god of the underworld, Hades, first saw the beautiful Persephone and fell in love with her. He rushed toward her on his chariot (the action usually takes place on Sicily) and seizing Persephone, stole away with her to his domain.
Devastated by the loss of her daughter, and not knowing what really happened, Demeter set off in search of the missing girl. She looked far and wide, happening one day to visit Eleusis, where she disguised herself as an old woman. In Eleusis, she was greeted warmly and given shelter by Metaneira and Keleos, the queen and king, and in return she nursed their sick child, Triptolemus (also Demophon). Her divine breast milk instantly turned Triptolemus into an adult, and to further protect the boy, Demeter, still disguised, tried to burn away his mortal soul in the family fireplace. She failed, but only because Metaneira caught her in the act.
At this point in the tale, Demeter finally 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 Demeter soon came to reside in the temple they built for her in Eleusis. Rather than cheering her broken heart, Demeter became bitter and withdrawn in the temple and in her enormous despair she caused the rains to stop and the crops died in the fields.
To other Olympian gods, it quickly became apparent that Demeter's sorrow needed to be assuaged lest the drought continue and human life be imperiled. So Zeus sent Hermes to Hades, ordering him to return Persephone. Hades demurred but ultimately relented, agreeing to release to Persephone if she had not eaten anything in the underworld.
Persephone, it turns out, had eaten a few pomegranate seeds and because of this she was forced to return every year to the underworld for either one third or one half of the year (depending on the version of the myth).
Some popular versions of the myth claim that the time of Persephone's absence from Demeter coincides with the most challenging and life-threatening times of the season—either the hot and dry Mediterranean summer, when plant life is endangered, or autumn/winter when cold temperature and frosts temporarily halt agricultural growth.
Either way, the seasonality of Persephone's absence from, and return to, Demeter became central to the Eleusinian Mysteries, since it symbolized the cycles of growth and decay, life and death, that were integral to agriculture and indeed to all life.3
Demeter and the Greeks
Demeter was the paragon of maternal care, and the most stable and consistent deity of the pantheon. Her constancy in myth testifies to the stability of Greek agriculture, which thrived in the mild climate of the Mediterranean. Had the Mediterranean been less amenable to stable agriculture, then Demeter likely would have been more volatile, perhaps 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 suggests the abundance of Greek agriculture. Greek farms produced not only the food essential for survival, but a bounty of commodity crops, such as olives, figs, and grapes, which produced enormous wealth for the Greeks, the masters of the Mediterranean economy.
Demeter is not the most exciting figure in the Greek pantheon, and she lacks the popular allure of the powerful male figures such as Zeus and Poseidon, but her image and aura persist in association with agriculture.
The Great Seal of North Carolina depicts Demeter and Persephone in a pastoral setting with the sea in the background. Demeter is shown holding three grains of wheat and sitting on a cornucopia, an image that implies abundance. Demeter International is also the name of the largest certification organization for “biodynamic farming,” a type of farming with exacting standards of “purity.”
There is also a Demeter Fragrance Library, a company that offers fragrances and cosmetics designed to smell like everything from flowers and herbs to items associated with agriculture, such as “Tomato,” “Grass,” and “Dirt.”
Homeric Hymn 2, to Demeter, translated by Hugh Evelyn-White, II:256-274. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/348/348-h/348-h.htm#link2H40046 ↩