Bounteous Demeter was one of the chief Olympian deities and the goddess of fertility, particularly as it pertained to agriculture. Demeter held the fate of crops and harvests in her hands. Rarely meddling in others’ affairs, Demeter was among the most beloved and least controversial of all Greek deities.
Whereas many of the deities in the Greek pantheon evolved or were reinvented over the course of Greek history, Demeter seems to have been worshipped in some form from the Bronze Age all the way through to the Hellenistic period. Her longevity highlights the importance of agriculture to Greek wealth and power in the Mediterranean world.
The goddess Demeter is attested from the earliest periods of Greek history. She may appear in texts from as early as the Minoan period (ca. 1800–1450 BCE), where her name shows up in the Linear A syllabic script as da-ma-te.
In the early Greek language used by the Mycenaeans and written in the Linear B script (ca. 1600–1100 BCE), da-ma-te seems to have meant something different and likely did not refer to the goddess Demeter. However, this does not mean that Demeter was not worshipped by the Mycenaean Greeks: the Mycenaean si-to-po-ti-ni-ja (“mistress of the grain”) is likely a reference to Demeter in her Bronze Age guise.
While the etymology of the name “Demeter” continues to be disputed, the name is more comprehensible than those of most of the other Greek gods. The second part of the name clearly originated in the Greek (and Indo-European) word matēr (Proto-Indo-European *méh₂tēr), meaning “mother.”
The first part of the goddess’s name is more difficult. One suggestion—apparently already made in the Classical period—is that Dē is a different form of the Greek word gē, meaning “earth.” The name “Demeter” would in this case mean “earth mother.”
Another suggestion, attested only in late antiquity, is that the first part of the goddess’s name is connected to the Cretan word dēai, meaning “barley.” Yet neither of these interpretations is generally accepted by modern scholars. According to Robert S. P. Beekes, the name is not Greek in origin, but may be Indo-European.
[dih-MEE-ter] /dɪˈmi tər/
Demeter’s name varied somewhat according to regional dialects. The name by which she is known today, Demeter, represents the Attic form Dēmētēr; the goddess was Damatēr in Doric and Boeotian and Dōmatēr in Aeolian. A shorter alternative to Demeter (in Attic) was Deo.
Demeter was invoked under many titles and epithets, including potnia (“mistress”), despoina (“mistress of the household”), thesmophoros (“bringer of law”), sito (“she of the grain”), and chthonia (“she of the earth”). Among the goddess’s other epithets were chloē (“the green one”), kallistephanos and eustephanos (“well-crowned”), semnē and hagnē (“hallowed”), and eukompos (“fair-haired”).
Demeter was above all the goddess of agriculture, but she was also the goddess of women and mysteries. Demeter was responsible for the cultivation and harvest of grain. The ancients believed that those who did not do proper honor to Demeter risked starving to death.
As a goddess of women—especially married women—Demeter was also invoked as the protector of women and the household. Demeter, like Artemis, presided over women’s passage from childhood to adulthood. She was sometimes even seen as a healer.
Finally, Demeter was the central goddess of many mystery cults—especially the Eleusinian Mysteries—which preached the importance of initiation and ritual in order to attain a privileged afterlife.
Sometimes Demeter was also associated with death and the infernal powers, as when she was worshipped under the title Erinys (“Fury”).
Demeter was generally described and depicted as a beautiful but modest goddess. She could be distinguished by sheaves of grain, a torch, a kalathos (basket for storing wool), a sickle, an oinochoe (wine jug), or a phiale (libation bowl), which she held in her hands.
Over her hair (which was the color of grain) she wore a polos (headdress), a veil, or a headband; she was generally dressed in a chiton (tunic), a peplos (dress), or a himation (robe). Demeter was commonly shown seated.
In art, it was customary to depict Demeter alone, without any consort. However, the goddess was also sometimes seen in the company of her daughter Persephone or of Iasion, a mythical young man from Crete who was one of her consorts.
In Arcadia, there was an important cult of Demeter Melaina (“Black Demeter”), in which Demeter was depicted with the head of a horse.
Demeter could also be distinguished by a number of symbols and sacred paraphernalia. For example, she sometimes sat upon a chariot drawn by a dragon. Her sacred animals included serpents and reptiles, swine, and turtle doves; her sacred plants included wheat, barley, mint, and poppy.
Demeter was one of the six children of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. Along with 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 being usurped). 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.
Demeter, Persephone, and the Eleusinian Mysteries
The mythology of Demeter was largely centered around the abduction and liberation of her daughter Persephone. It all began when Hades, the god of the Underworld, first saw the beautiful Persephone and fell in love with her. He descended upon her in his chariot and stole her away 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. The second Homeric Hymn, dedicated to Demeter, vividly describes the mother’s anguish as she searched for her daughter:
Bitter pain seized her heart, and she rent the covering upon her divine hair with her dear hands: her dark cloak she cast down from both her shoulders and sped, like a wild-bird, over the firm land and yielding sea, seeking her child. But no one would tell her the truth, neither god nor mortal men; and of the birds of omen none came with true news for her.
As Demeter searched far and wide, she happened to visit Eleusis in the guise of an old woman. While there, she was greeted warmly and given shelter by Queen Metaneira and King Celeus. In return, she nursed their sick child, known as Demophon in most versions of the myth.
Demeter took a liking to the young Demophon and sought to burn away his mortality in the family fireplace. But this plan failed when Metaneira caught her and reacted with horror (an understandable—though ultimately disastrous—response). Demeter rebuked Metaneira for her lack of understanding; in most traditions, Demophon was now doomed to die like any ordinary mortal, while in other traditions he actually died as a result of the bungled ritual.
Nonetheless, Demeter ensured that Eleusis became an important center for her worship. In the second Homeric Hymn, the goddess gives detailed instructions for the construction of a great temple in her honor after she reveals herself to Metaneira and Celeus. She also taught the secrets of agriculture to the Eleusinian prince Triptolemus.
Meanwhile, Demeter also discovered what had happened to Persephone. In the best-known tradition, it was the Sun (Helios) who finally told Demeter where to find her daughter. In other traditions, however, it was the nymph Arethusa or the people of Hermione who gave Demeter the information she was looking for.
When she learned that her daughter had been abducted by the grim god of the dead, Demeter became bitter and withdrawn. Her enormous despair caused the rains to stop and the crops to die in the fields.
The other Olympians soon realized that they needed to ease Demeter’s sorrow before the drought endangered human life. To deal with this situation, Zeus sent Hermes to the Underworld to order Persephone’s return. Though Hades protested at first, he ultimately gave in, agreeing to release Persephone as long she had not eaten anything in the Underworld. Unfortunately, Persephone had eaten a few pomegranate seeds and was therefore 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 myth of Persephone is an aetiological myth—that is, a myth that explains why the world is the way it is. The ancients believed that the time of Persephone’s absence from Demeter coincided with the most challenging and life-threatening seasons—either the hot and dry Mediterranean summer, when plant life was endangered, or autumn/winter, when cold temperatures 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.
There are a handful of other myths about Demeter, most of them concerning her role in teaching agriculture to mortals. Various sources described how Demeter educated her mortal favorites—the Eleusinian Triptolemus, but also Celeus, Diocles, or Eumolpus—on how to till and sow the land and take advantage of the harvest. Triptolemus stood out as especially dear to Demeter: he was often represented on a chariot pulled by winged dragons, said to have been presented to him by Demeter.
Demeter also played a rather sinister role in the myth of Erysichthon. Erysichthon was a rich king who made the mistake of offending Demeter by cutting down one of her sacred groves. As punishment, Demeter cursed Erysichthon with eternal hunger.
In some versions of the story, Erysicthon burned through all his wealth in a doomed attempt to satisfy his hunger. Other versions of the myth are more complicated, however, with Erysichthon repeatedly selling his shape-shifting daughter Mestra in order to buy food. Every time Erysichthon sold Mestra, she would transform herself and find a way to return to her father so that he could sell her again. Eventually, however, this plan failed, and Erysichthon ended up eating himself.
A similar story was told about the Thessalian king Triopas, sometimes said to have been Erysichthon’s father, as well as about a son of Helios named Aethon.
Demeter and the Greeks
Demeter was not only the paragon of maternal care, but also one of the most stable and dependable deities within the Olympian pantheon. Her consistency of character testified to the stability of Greek agriculture, which thrived in the mild climate of the Mediterranean. Had the Mediterranean been less amenable to agriculture, Demeter would likely have been more volatile—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 generated enormous wealth for the Greeks—the masters of the Mediterranean economy.
Demeter was worshipped widely throughout the Greek world. As the goddess of agriculture, her worship encompassed not only the life-giving properties of food production but also life more broadly. Demeter was thus honored in connection with fertility, childbirth, and peace.
The festivals of Demeter (perhaps unsurprisingly) were primarily the domain of women. Often, men were strictly prohibited from participating in or even knowing about the festivals of the goddess. One of the most important festivals of Demeter, the Thesmophoria, was celebrated only by adult women; men were not permitted to attend. The Thesmophoria was held annually at Athens as well as many other Greek cities; it was usually connected with the sowing of the fields in late autumn, though sometimes it was connected with the harvest in the spring instead.
Another important festival of Demeter was the Eleusinia, held every two years around the end of the summer. This festival honored Demeter and her daughter Persephone (often called Kore, “Maiden,” in ritual contexts); it was a kind of thanksgiving for the goddess’s gift of grain to humanity. The festivities included games and contests.
Demeter, like the other Greek gods, received sacrifices in both public and private cult. These sacrifices included animals such as pigs (symbolizing fertility), bulls, and cows, but also prepared foods such as honey cakes and fruits.
Demeter had temples all over the Greek world, including in Attica (especially Eleusis), the Argolid, Crete, Delos, the western coast of Asia, Sicily, and Italy. Her temples were usually called Megara (from the Bronze Age Greek word megaron, meaning “great hall”) and were often built in groves.
There were other, more unusual cults also centered around Demeter. Probably the most important of these were the Eleusinian Mysteries (not connected with the Eleusinia festival). As the name suggests, much of what happened during the Eleusinian Mysteries remains shrouded in mystery. Those who participated in the rituals of this cult (held at a Panhellenic sanctuary in Eleusis in the region of Attica) were sworn to secrecy; this vow was clearly taken seriously throughout the existence of the cult, since almost no details of the mysteries are known today.
At the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries were Demeter and her daughter Persephone (also called Kore, or “Maiden”). The central theme of the cult’s rituals appears to have been the Anodos, or “ascent,” of Persephone from the Underworld to the world of the living. The cult thus emphasized the constant renewal of life, itself symbolized by the various cycles of nature over which Demeter presided: the seasons, birth and death, etc. Initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries—which was open to all genders and social classes—promised a blessed afterlife.
In other places, Demeter was closely linked with her brother Poseidon, the god of the sea. This linkage of the two gods was especially prevalent in Arcadia, a region in the northern Peloponnese. In the city of Thelpusa, for example, Demeter was worshipped as Demeter Erinys (“Demeter the Fury”) and was said to have been raped by Poseidon in the form of a horse; in the city of Phigalia, Demeter was worshipped as Demeter Melaina (“Black Demeter”), the mother (by Poseidon) of the household goddess Despoine; in the city of Lycosura, this Despoine was the main deity, with Demeter and her consort Poseidon taking second place.
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.
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 implying 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 offering cosmetics designed to smell like flowers, herbs, and other fragrances associated with agriculture, such as “Tomato,” “Grass,” and “Dirt.”