fhDemeter is a goddess of the earth, associated with agriculture, the harvest and the changing of the seasons. She has authority over the cycles of life and death as well as the sacred law.
Sacred law refers to the rules and norms used in rituals, especially those related to the worship and celebration of a god or gods. Demeter is often described as the goddess of her associations:
- Goddess of Agriculture
- Goddess of Life and Death
- Goddess of Sacred Law
Demeter is similarly the goddess of her many gifts, which include agricultural techniques, grains (especially corn), nourishment, growth and the general fertility of the entire planet earth. Demeter is an Olympian goddess among the assortment, or pantheon, of Greek gods.
Demeter and the Origin of the Seasons
According to the main myth attributed to her, Demeter has a daughter named Persephone. Hades, the god of the underworld, is secretly in love with Persephone. With Zeus’ permission, Hades abducts Persephone. Grief-stricken, Demeter wanders the earth in search of her beloved daughter, lighting her way with the lamps of Hecate.
During Demeter’s state of grief, the planet begins to die. The earth’s death greatly alarms Zeus. Zeus dispatches the divine messenger Hermes to the underworld to plead for the return of Persephone. Hades reluctantly agrees to let Persephone return to the Demeter, but only if Persephone does not eat while in his realm.
During her first time spent in Hades’ realm, Persephone eats pomegranate seeds. In one version of the myth, Hermes tricks Persephone into eating the seeds. This act binds Persephone to Hades’ eternally, and she returns to Hades’ realm for four to six months annually.
Pomegranate seeds symbolize the union between Hades and Persephone. In the Northern Hemisphere, pomegranates develop and ripen from September to February. Thus, the pomegranate is a metaphor for the time that Persephone spends with Hades. It also a symbol of Persephone’s youth and ripeness thriving despite harsh circumstances.
When Persephone joins Hades in the underworld, Demeter grieves her daughter’s absence, and the earth experiences fall, winter or long seasons of inclement weather and agricultural stress, such as drought. When Persephone returns, Demeter rejoices, and her joy ushers in the fair weather and the renewal of spring and summer.
Demeter in Eleusis
At one point during her traumatic search over the earth for Persephone, Demeter takes the form of an old woman and begs for shelter at the palace of Celeus, king of Eleusis. Eleusis is a suburb of ancient Attica. Its capital is Athens.
The king grants Demeter’s request and, in return, asks her to nurse his two sons: Demophon and Triptolemus. Demeter, out of kindness, nearly grants Demophon immortality by placing him the flames of the heart.
Unfortunately, Demophon’s mother interrupts the ceremony before its end, and Demophon remains mortal. Later, Demeter initiates Triptolemus into the divine arts and the knowledge of agriculture. Triptolemus shares this knowledge with anyone who listens. Today, we call this collective knowledge the Mysteries of Demeter.
Demeter’s Family Background
Demeter is the middle daughter of six children. Her siblings are Hestia, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus. Her parents are Cronus and his sister-wife, Rhea. Demeter and her siblings are the first generation of gods who reign from Mount Olympus.
Prior to the reign of the Olympian gods, Greek gods reigned from Mount Othrys. This older generation of Greek gods are the Titans. The Titans seize power after Cronus, the youngest Titan, overthrows their oppressive father, Uranus.
Gaia, the personification of earth and the wife of Uranus, helps Cronus overthrow Uranus after Uranus imprisons Gaia’s children, the immensely powerful Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires.
This war between Cronus and his father, and the subsequent wars between Zeus and the Titans, are the Titanomachy, which is Greek for “Titan Battle.” It is also referred to as the War of the Titans, Battle of the Titans and Battle of the Gods.
Cronus takes his father’s place after Uranus’ defeat, and with Rhea he produces several children. His children, the first generation of Olympians, possess unique strengths and powers.
Like his father, Cronus grows to distrust and fear his own children and the threat their power poses to his supremacy. To prevent befalling his own father’s fate, Cronus eats his children.
Rhea manages to save Zeus before Cronus consumes him. She hides him in a cave on Crete, where he receives nourishment from Amalthea, his foster mother. When he comes of age, Zeus and his siblings (including Demeter) wage war against Cronus. Zeus frees the Cyclopes and Hectaronchires, and they aid him and his allies in the war.
Consorts, Lovers and Descendants
Demeter has three male lovers/partners frequently mentioned. In her youth, Demeter falls in love with a mortal named Iasion. She encounters him at the marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia. They make love in a thrice-plowed field. Demeter subsequently bears twins: Ploutus, the god of wealth, and Philomelus, the patron of plowing.
Demeter’s involvement with a mere mortal angers Zeus, and the king of the gods strikes Iasion dead with a thunderbolt. Next, Demeter partners with Poseidon, god of the sea, and bears two more children: Arion, a talking horse, and Despoena, a nymph.
Lastly, Demeter partners with Zeus, becoming his fourth wife. Persephone is the product of this relationship. Some accounts hold that Demeter has four additional children, a total of nine.
With Karmanor, a Cretan demigod related to the harvest, she begets Eubuleus and Chrysothemis (not to be confused with Electra’s sister.) With Triptolemus, who is either the son of Celeus or of Gaia and Oceanus, she begets Amphitheus. With Oceanus she begets Dmia.
Depictions and Symbolism
In art and sculpture Demeter often takes the form of a matronly woman, dignified and robed. She usually appears alone or with Persephone, but there are depictions of her and Iasion together. One popular image of “the goddesses” is a chariot containing Persephone that Demeter drives.
Representations of Demeter’s gifts and symbols often flank her image, such as
- Shafts of wheat
- A scepter
- Ears of corn
- A cornucopia
- A crown of flowers
Full-body depictions of Demeter always show her seated like a high-born woman or a monarch, or standing proudly with an outstretched hand.
Festivals and Cults
Demeter’s festivals and cults were sacred mysteries, rituals shrouded in secrecy and withheld from nonbelievers. The two major festivals were the Thesmophoria and the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Thesmophoria was open only to women. It was a fall festival coinciding with the sowing of seeds or the harvesting of crops.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were open to both genders and any social class. During the festival, individuals underwent initiation into the cult of Demeter and Persephone. The festival took place at Eleusis to commemorate Demeter’s time there as a guest at Celeus and her bestowal of divine knowledge on Tritoplemus.