Who was Demeter and what was her significance in Ancient Greece?
What was Demeter most famous for? And what were some of her common symbols and epithets? In this article we explore all the important myths associated with Demeter, the Greek goddess of harvest and fertility.
Who was Demeter?
Demeter was the Greek goddess of fertility, agriculture, the grains and holy laws. Her domain of influence bordered on the cycle of life and death. As goddess of fertility, Demeter had the power to influence the yield of crops in a season. Her absence and seclusion often brought about bad harvest and freezing weather conditions. However, her presence ushered in the spring and summer seasons, periods of bountiful growth and prosperity. The ancient Greeks worshiped her not out of fear but out of complete appreciation and reverence.
Birth and Family
According to Hesiod’s Theogeny (700 BCE), Demeter was one of six children of Cronus and Rhea. Thus, Demeter’s siblings were: Hestia, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. She was the second oldest, behind Hestia.
Just like four siblings of hers (Hestia, Hera, Hades, Poseidon), Demeter was swallowed by Cronus just after her birth. She and her siblings were later rescued by Zeus from the belly of Cronus.
According to the myths, Demeter had two children with Iasion, the Crete-born agricultural hero. Those children were Philomelus (the god of wealth) and Ploutos (patron god of plowing).
From the union between Demeter and Poseidon (the Greek god of seas and oceans) came forth the nymph Despoina (Despoena) and Arion, the horse god.
However, Persephone, the queen of the underworld, is arguably the most famous child of Demeter.
Depictions, Symbols and Epithets
Demeter was typically depicted in mature looking, fully clothed with a crown of flowers. It was also common for most depictions of her to have her carrying a sheaf of wheat or corn.
Her symbols were flowers, fruit and grain. Regarding her usual epithets, Demeter has been called Aganippe – the Mare who destroys mercifully or the Night-Mare. She has also been called Potnia (Mistress), Despoina (the mistress of the house), Chloe (the green shoot and fertility bringer), and Thesmophoros (the giver of customs and laws).
Many ancient Greeks regarded Demeter’s emblem as the bright red flower found in barley fields.
The Arcadians represented Demeter with snakes in her hair. In many Arcadian depictions, Demeter was commonly seen holding a dolphin and a dove in both hands. Many people believed that those symbols represented her dominion over life and death.
Demeter’s cult and Worship centers
Unlike many Olympian gods and goddesses, the ancient Greeks worshiped Demeter out of appreciation and not out of fear. She was revered for sustaining life on earth.
Major cult sites of Demeter included: Sito, Crete, and a host of other cities in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). In Anatolia for example, Demeter was known as Cybele. In some places in Sito, she was called Thesmophoros, which translates into “divine order and the law bringer”.
Due to her ability to sustain agricultural produce, ancient Greeks worshiped her as the goddess of the earth. Without her bringing the summer and spring, nothing could grow. Hence she was very much appreciated as an important deity in the Greek pantheon.
The earliest worship center of Demeter may have taken place at Pylos around 1200 BCE. Archaeologists unearthed tablets that bore the inscription, “the Two Queens and the King”. This was a possible reference to Demeter, Persephone and Poseidon.
Other famous cult centers and worship places of Demeter were in Attica (Eleusis), Hermion, Lerna, Corinth, Enna (Sicily), Delos and Selinus.
In addition to the above there were a number of festivals conducted in honor of Demeter. The most famous of those festivals had to be the Thesmophoria festival, which was held in October. The festival was open to women only. The theme of the festival centered on issues of fertility and motherhood.
Demeter and Persephone
Persephone came forth from the union between Zeus and Demeter. Some myths claim that Persephone was born after Zeus mated with his mother, Rhea.
In any case, after Hades took an unhealthy liking to Persephone, the Greek god Hades went ahead to kidnap Persephone. According to the myth, Hades took Persephone to the underworld and made her queen of his realm.
Demeter searched the entire face of the earth for her daughter. Grief struck and saddened by her daughter’s disappearance, Demeter neglected her work. The crops wilted and the ancient Greeks experienced poor harvest. Virtually everything on the land stopped growing, and the weather was freezing cold.
The all-powerful king of the gods, Zeus, feared that life on earth could vanish if Demeter did not return to nourishing the world. Zeus tasked Hermes, the messenger of the gods, to retrieve Persephone from the underworld. Before Persephone could leave, Hades gave her some pomegranate. Upon eating the fruit, Persephone became bound to Hades and the underworld.
In order to secure her release, Hades struck a deal with Hermes. They agreed that Persephone be bound to the underworld for about one third of the year, most likely autumn and winter. However, Persephone was allowed to spend the summer and spring on earth.
Demeter’s relationship with seasons and cycles stems from the time that she spends with Persephone. According to the myth, Persephone’s reunification with her mother Demeter during the spring and summer seasons caused plant life and agriculture to thrive. However, in Persephone’s absence, during the autumn and winter seasons, Demeter went into mourning, causing everything that was once thriving to wilt and die. As a result of this, she was described as “the Bringer of food” and “the Goddess of the harvest”.
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Demeter, the Corn-Mother, was considered a very important goddess in the ancient world. She was the one that bestowed blessings upon harvesters. She was also known as Mother-Earth in pre-Hellenic cults and cults of Minoan Crete.
Demeter has been called “the Great Mother Demeter”, as her presence prevents crops from dying and drought. This title of hers later went to her daughter Persephone.
Demeter is venerated for revealing the art of sowing crops and plowing to mankind. It was primarily for this reason why she was called the “Gentle queen of the harvest and the mother of the land”.
How Demeter gave mankind agriculture
While Demeter roamed the world in search of her daughter Persephone, she came to a place called Eleusis. The area was under dominion of King Eleusis of Attica. Demeter then transformed herself into an old woman and besieged the king for a place to lay her head. The king obliged. He even asked her to babysit his children, Demophon and Triptolemus. Moved by how kind the king was to her, Demeter felt the need to make Demophon immortal. The goddess poured ambrosia on Demophon and then set his body ablaze. Her intension was to burn Demophon’s mortal self away. While the ceremony was on going, Demophon’s mother, Metanira, walked in and screamed. As a result, the burning process was not completed.
Still feeling the need to reward the king for his kindness, Demeter decided to show the ways of agriculture to Triptolemus. From then onwards, Triptolemus was able to share this knowledge with his people. Soon, the knowledge spread far and wide to cities beyond Eleusis. This marked the birth of agriculture.
Her association with death and the underworld can also be seen in the cult of Flya. The cult believed that Demeter sent the gifts of life and fertility from the underworld. This view runs in parallel with the Demeter-Persephone relationship. Thus, the reuniting of Persephone, from the underworld, with her mother Demeter ushered in the spring and summer, that is, the gifts of life.
Demeter and Iasion
Iasion was the young man from the island of Samothrace. Some myths have it that he was the son of the nymph Electra and Zeus. Iasion’s life took an interesting turn when he caught the attention of Demeter. According to the Odyssey, the goddess laid with Iasion in a triple-plowed furrow. Subsequently, Demeter gave birth to sons – Philomelus and Ploutos. Zeus found out about this affair and became incensed. Filled with envy and anger, Zeus struck Iasion with his thunderbolt, killing Iasion on the spot.
Other Interesting Myths about Demeter
- Her zodiac constellation is Virgo the Virgin. This assignment was done by Marcus Manilius from the first century AD.
- Other symbols of Demeter include: a scepter, a torch, a snake and a pig.
- During the festival Thesmophoria, Demeter and her daughter Persephone were called “the thesmophoroi”. The word translates into “the legislators”.
- The Arcadians sometimes called Demeter and Persephone “the goddesses” and “the misteresses”.
- Due to his affiliation to Demeter, Iasion was commonly called the agricultural hero. The affair between Demeter and Iasion produced two children – Philomelus and Ploutos.
- Out of an incessant pursuit by her younger brother Poseidon, Demeter transformed herself into a mare to escape Poseidon’s advances. Demeter tried to hide herself among the King Onkios’s horses. The Greek god of the sea, in turn, transformed himself into a horse. The myth goes on to say that Poseidon raped Demeter. Afterwards, Demeter shut herself in a cave in order to purify herself. Owing to her absence, there was massive famine across the earth. Demeter would later wash herself clean in the River Landon.
- Out of the forced union between Poseidon and Demeter, the nymp, Despoena, and the talking horse Arion were born.
- According to Hesiod, in the Theogony, the ancient Greeks regarded Demeter as the Corn-Mother. She was revered for giving the Greeks all the different types of cereals. It is for this reason why she was associated with bread. Similarly, Athenian philosopher Isocrates was of the belief that Demeter was the one that introduced mankind to agriculture. They believed that praying to Demeter helped increased the crops yield.
- Such was her association with death that the Athenians called dead people “Demetrioi”. Her association with death resulted in a number of ancient tribes believing she had the power to bring back things that were once dead to life.
- According to Theocritus, Demeter was the goddess of poppies. He noted that the goddess had sheaves and poppies in both hands.
- The Eleusinian mysteries about Demeter most likely emerged from the Cretan cult, which believed that Demeter was the goddess of poppies. In turn, these poppies symbolized the rebirth of things that were once dead.