In Greek mythology, Demeter is the Goddess of the Harvest, grain, agriculture, growth, fertility, the seasons and the sacred law. Her daughters are Persephone, by Zeus and a goddess known only as Despoine (the mistress), who was important in the Arcadian mysteries, and a horse, Arion, by Poseidon.
Demeter is sometimes confused with Gaia, Rhea, or Cybele. The goddess's epithets reveal the span of her functions in Greek life. Her name literally means "Earth-Mother", showing she was not only a goddess of fertility but of the Earth itself. She is invoked as the "bringer of seasons" in the Homeric hymn, a subtle sign that she was worshiped long before the idea of the Olympians arrived. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter has been dated to sometime around the Seventh Century BC.
She and her daughter Persephone, were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries that also predated the Olympian pantheon. Demeter and Kore (Persephone, "the maiden") are usually invoked as "to theo" ('"the Two Goddesses"), and they appear in that form in Linear B graffiti at Mycenaean Pylos in pre-classical times. They are also called the "Two Queens". A sacrifice is described as being intended for the "Two Queens and the King", a possible reference to either Poseidon or Zeus. A connection with the goddess-cults of Minoan Crete is quite possible.
According to the Athenian rhetorician Isocrates, the grea gifts which Demeter gave were cereal, which made man different from wild animals; and the Mysteries which give man higher hopes in this life and the afterlife.
Theocritus remembered an earlier role of Demeter:
- For the Greeks Demeter was still a poppy goddess
- Bearing sheaves and poppies in both hands. — Idyll vii.157
Demeter (Δημήτηρ, Dēmētēr) - Goddess of the harvest, fertility, agriculture, nourishment, growth, nature and the seasons. Who presided over grains and the fertility of the earth. Middle daughter of Cronus and Rhea. Also the lover of Zeus and Poseidon, and the mother of Persephone. Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, was thought to have first taught mortals how to work the land and reap it's harvest. Endowed with the power to bring feast and famine to the world, she is said to have the ability to control the seasons and transform the face of nature. Today peaceful farmland flourishes on the very soil where it is believed the Trojan War was fought. Proof perhaps of the healing power of Demeter, to bring forth new life even at that legendary site of epic violence. Her symbols include the poppy, wheat, torch, cornucopia, and pig. Her Roman counterpart is Ceres.
Demeter and Poseidon
Demeter and Poseidon's names are linked in the earliest scratched notes in Linear B found at Mycenaean Pylos, where they appear as PO-SE-DA-WO-NE and DA-MA-TE in the context of sacred lot-casting. The 'DA' element in each of their names is seemingly connected to an Proto-Indo-European root relating to distribution of land and honors (compare Latin dare "to give"). Poseidon (his name seems to signify "consort of the distributor") once pursued Demeter, in her archaic form as a mare-goddess. She resisted Poseidon, but she could not disguise her divinity among the horses of King Onkios. Poseidon became a stallion and covered her. Demeter was furious ("Demeter Erinys") at the assault, but washed away her anger in the River Ladon ("Demeter Lousia"). She bore to Poseidon a daughter named Despione, and a steed named Arion, with a black mane. In Arcadia, Demeter was worshiped as a horse-headed deity into historical times.
Demeter and Persephone
The central myth of Demeter, which is at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries is her relationship with Persephone, her daughter and own younger self. In the Olympian pantheon, Persephone became the consort of Hades (Roman Pluto). Demeter had a large scope of abilities, besides being the goddess of the harvest she also controlled the seasons and because of that was capable of destroying all life on earth. In fact her powers were able to influence Zeus into making Hades bring her daughter Persephone up from the underworld. Persephone became the goddess of the underworld when Hades abducted her from the earth and brought her into the underworld. She had been playing with some nymphs, whom Demeter later changed into the Sirens as punishment for not having interfered, and the ground split and she was taken in by Hades.
Life came to a standstill as the depressed Demeter searched for her lost daughter. Finally, Zeus could not put up with the dying earth and forced Hades to return Persephone by sending Hermes to retrieve her. But before she was released, Hades tricked her into eating six pomegranate seeds, which forced her to return for six months each year. When Demeter and her daughter were together, the earth flourished with vegetation. But for six months each year, when Persephone returned to the underworld, the earth once again became a barren realm. Summer, autumn, and spring by comparison have heavy rainfall and mild temperatures in which plant life flourishes. It was during her trip to retrieve Persephone from the underworld that she revealed the Eleusinian Mysteries. In an alternate version, Hecate rescued Persephone. In other alternative versions, Persephone was not tricked into eating the pomegranate seeds but chose to eat them herself. Regardless, the result is the occurrence of the unfruitful seasons of the ancient Greek calendars.
Demeter's Stay at Eleusis
Demeter was searching for her daughter Persephone. Having taken the form of an old woman called Doso, she received a hospitable welcome from Celeus, the King of Eleusis in Attica. He asked her to nurse Demophon and Triptolemus, his sons by Metanira.
As a gift to Celeus, because of his hospitality, Demeter planned to make Demophon as a god, by coating and anointing him with Ambrosia, breathing gently upon him while holding him in her arms and bosom, and making him immortal by burning his mortal spirit away in the family hearth every night. She put him in the fire at night like a firebrand or ember without the knowledge of his parents.
Demeter was unable to complete the ritual because his mother Metanira walked in and saw her son in the fire and screamed in fright, which angered Demeter, who lamented that foolish mortals do not understand the concept and ritual.
Instead of making Demophon immortal, Demeter chose to teach Triptolemus the art of agriculture and, from him, the rest of Greece learned to plant and reap crops. He flew across the land on a winged chariot while Demeter and Persephone cared for him, and helped him complete his mission of educating the whole of Greece on the art of agriculture.
Later, Triptolemus taught Lyncus, King of the Scythians, the arts of agriculture but he refused to teach it to his people and then tried to murder Triptolemus. Demeter turned him into a lynx. This myth was used to explain the nomadic lifestyle of the Scythians and other steppe peoples.
Some scholars believe the Demophon story is based on an earlier prototypical folk tale.
Titles and Functions
Like most of the major gods, Demeter was given epithets to reflect patronage in a certain area or field.
- Demeter Potnia - Demeter the Mistress
- Demeter Khloe - Demeter of the Green Shoots
- Demeter Anesidora - Demeter who Sends Forth Gifts
- Demeter Epogmie - Demeter of the Furrows
- Demeter Karpophoros - Demeter, Bearer of Fruit
- Demeter Thesmophoros - Demeter, Bringer of Customs
- Demeter Erinys - Demeter the Implacable
- Demeter Lousie - Demeter the Purifying
- Demeter Polyphoros - Demeter the All-Nourishing
- 'Demeter Kyanopolos - Demeter the Black-Cloaked
- Demeter Kalliphyros - Demeter of the Beautiful Ankles
In Ancient Culture
In a clay statuette from Gazi (Heraklion Museum, Kereny 1976 fig 15), the Minoan poppy goddess wears the seed capsules, sources of nourishment and narcosis, in her diadem. "It seems probable that the Great Mother Goddess, who bore the names Rhea and Demeter, brought the poppy with her from her Cretan cult to Eleusis, and it is certain that in the Cretan cult sphere, opium was prepared from poppies" (Kerenyi 1976, p 24).
In honor of Demeter of Mysia a seven-day festival was held at Pellené in Arcadia (Pausan. 7. 27, 9). Pausanias passed the shrine to Demeter at Mysia on the road from Mycenae to Argos but all he could draw out to explain the archaic name was a myth of an eponymous Mysius who venerated Demeter.
Major sites for the cult of Demeter were not confined to any localized part of the Greek world: there were sites at Eleusis, in Sicily, Hermion, in Crete, Megara, Celeae, Lerna, Aegila, Munychia, Corinth, Delos, Priene, Akragas, Iasos, Pergamon, Selinus, Tegea, Thorikos, Dion, Lykosoura, Mesembria, Enna, and Samothrace. Her priestesses were addressed with the title Melissa.
She was especially popular with rural folk, partly because they most benefited directly from her assistance. Relics unique to her cult, such as votive clay pigs, were being fashioned in the Neolithic. In Roman times, a sow was still sacrificed to Ceres following a death in the family, to purify the household.
- Demeter was usually portrayed on a chariot, and frequently associated with images of the harvest, including flowers, fruit, and grain. She was also sometimes pictured with Persephone.
- Demeter is not generally portrayed with a consort: the exception is Iasion, the youth of Crete who lay with Demeter in a thrice-ploughed field, and was sacrificed afterwards – by a jealous Zeus with a thunderbolt, Olympian mythography adds, but the Cretan site of the myth is a sign that the Hellenes knew this was an act of the ancient Demeter.
- Demeter placed Aethon, the personification of famine, in Erysichthon's gut, making him permanently famished. This was a punishment for cutting down trees in her sacred grove.
- In Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, a ship called the Demeter is ruined by the Count.
- Demeter appeared in the 1997 Disney movie, Hercules, as one of the gods upon Mount Olympus and also in the Disney Hercules television series.
- Nilsson, p.45: "We have a document concerning the Eleusinian cult which is older and more comprehensive than anything concerning any other Greek cult, namely, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter composed in Attica before Eleusis was incorporated into the Athenian state, not later than the end of the seventh century B.C. We know that the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries was an old agrarian cult celebrated in the middle of the month Boedromion (about October) and closely akin to the Thesmophoria, a festival of the autumn sowing celebrated by the women not quite a month later. I need not dwell upon this connection, which is established by internal evidence as well as by direct information."
- Isocrates, Panegyricus4.28: "When Demeter came to our land, in her wandering after the rape of Kore, and, being moved to kindness towards our ancestors by services which may not be told save to her initiates, gave these two gifts, the grea in the world — the fruits of the earth, which have enabled us to rise above the life of the beasts, and the holy rite, which inspires in those who partake of it sweeter hopes regarding both the end of life and all eternity".
- Nilsson, p.50: "The Demophon story in Eleusis is based on an older folk-tale motif which has nothing to do with the Eleusinian Cult. It is introduced in order to let Demeter reveal herself in her divine shape".
- Walter Burkert (1985) Greek Religion, Harvard University Press, 1985.
- Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire, D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, 1962. An illustrated book of Greek myths retold for children.
- Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 1903
- Karl Kerenyi, Eleusis: archetypal image of mother and daughter, 1967.
- Karl Kerenyi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, 1976
- Martin P. Nilsson, Greek Popular Religion, 1940. 
- Carl A. P. Ruck and Danny Staples, the World of Classical Myth, 1994.
|Deities in Greek mythology|
|Protogenoi||Khaos • Gaia • Tartaros • Uranus • Erebos • Nyx • Aether • Hemera • Eros • Oceanus • Pontus • Thalassa|
|Titans||Atlas • Cronus • Mnemosyne • Prometheus • Rhea • Tethys • Themis • Metis • Hecate • Eos • Helios • Selene|
|Twelve Olympians||Zeus • Hera • Demeter • Hestia • Poseidon • Ares • Artemis • Apollon • Athena • Hermes • Hephaestus • Aphrodite • Dionysos|
|Daemones||Bia • Dike • Eris • Hebe • Hygieia • Hypnos • Nemesis • Nike • Phobos • Poena • Soteria • Thanatos|