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Who is Demeter in Greek Mythology?
DEMETER, the Greek goddess of vegetation and fruitfulness, was the daughter of CRONUS and RHEA. Like her Roman counterpart, Ceres, she was primarily associated with corn. Demeter possesses mysterious powers of growth and even resurrection.
As we dive into Greek mythology explained series today, the goddess Demeter is what we will be examining today.
Starting with her name, there are a few ways it can be pronounced depending on how authentic you want to sound. The English translation is quite simply Demeter, but as a general rule of thumb, if a word has been translated from Greek into English and now begins with the letter D, the way it’s pronounced in Greek will differ.
The D sound is often replaced by TH or what sounds like THEE. Demeter in Greek is pronounced as THEE-MEET-EER, with the emphasis placed on the second E.
Of course, Demeter was one of the original six Olympians to be born from the Titaness Rhea and then swallowed by Cronus, her father. Once released with her father defeated, Demeter would then become quite a key figure in the lives of the ancient Greek people as the goddess of the grain. This included not only agriculture and the harvest but also nourishment and growth of the earth and humanity.
The ancient Greeks believed that the overall fertility of the earth was down to Demeter, and because of this, several cults formed in Demeter’s name to honour the goddess and show their gratitude. But also to ensure that the earth remained fertile because it did directly affect their food supply.
The cult of Sito referred to the goddess as ‘shield of the grain’ because the ancient Greeks believed that it was through Demeter; they were given food and grain.
The second of Demeter’s cult known for its annual festival was Thesmophoria (Thesmophoros, “Law-Bringer”— the mark of the civilized existence of agricultural society) which mainly focused on Demeter and her daughter PERSEPHONE. It was fairly common practice for men to be wholly forbidden from attending this festival, and even just seeing or hearing about the events that took place was frowned upon.
The women of Demeter’s cult kept their secrets entirely secret. The festival itself took place at the end of summer, close to the harvest period, lasting for several days. As to what exactly took place during this festival, we don’t know, but some accounts suggest that special pigs were sacrificed and placed into pits known as Negara.
The pig’s entrails, along with cakes and bread baked in the shapes of serpents and phalluses, would then be placed on altars dedicated to Demeter and her daughter. So, the yearly routine for a Greek woman who was part of Demeter’s cult involved killing some pigs, throwing him in a pit and then baking some penis cake—which I do find quite amusing because penis-shaped cakes are something that we usually see around bridal parties and birthday parties unless they’ve been secretly worshipping Demeter this whole time and we just never knew about it. In that case, we’ve just uncovered the penis cake conspiracy.
This festival is one of the most widely celebrated across ancient Greece because of how integral Demeter was to the ancient Greek people’s survival. And the risk of anger in Demeter was far too significant, and we will discuss what exactly the goddess was capable of a bit later on in this article.
Demeter’s Lovers and Children
Over the years, Demeter had numerous consorts, which in turn resulted in multiple children. The most well-known of these being Persephone, who was fathered by Zeus—who I’m sure many of you are already familiar with.
One of the lesser discuss relations was with Iasion, the son of Zeus and the nymph Electra. When attending Cadmus and Harmonia’s marriage, Demeter lured him away from the celebrations and into a field where the two would enjoy the sunset and roam around in the area, counting sheep. I’m kidding; they just had sex.
When they eventually returned to the celebrations, the back of Demeter’s dress was covered in mud because that is what happens if you choose to roll around in a field. Now, this in itself wouldn’t have been much of a problem. Still, it was spotted by Zeus, who would guess what had happened and who reacted out of anger and jealousy—or maybe it was out of boredom and pleasure, no one knows of Zeus because he just does whatever he wants, whenever he pleases.
Regardless of why he chose to do so, he then proceeded to strike down a source of a single bolt of lightning. Demeter did, however, have his twin sons, Plutus, the god of wealth and Philomelus, the god of agriculture and farming.
There are some tales that Demeter go back to the Bronze Age, around the same time we have the first accounts of people speaking Greek. These tales would associate Demeter with Poseidon rather than Zeus.
In these somewhat primitive stories, Poseidon was seen as a water spirit who appeared as a horse that would pursue Demeter, who appeared as a Mare. For some of you, this story may sound familiar, that’s because it is quite similar to the story of Nemesis and Zeus.
Demeter, wanting to avoid Poseidon, transformed herself into her ancient form. That was that of a Mare, but Poseidon then transformed himself into a stallion to mate with the goddess. She would then bore Poseidon several children, Despoina, the goddess of mysteries who was a central figure of the Eleusinian mysteries.
The simplest way to describe the Eleusinian mysteries is that the initiation process is held annually for those who wish to join Demeter and Persephone’s cult. Despoina would often appear alongside her mother during these trials as the mistress. Her real name would only be revealed to those initiated into the cult of her mother or her very own Acadian cult.
Demeter and her daughter would often be seen as Arcadia’s two great goddesses, but this daughter was later replaced by Persephone in the years that followed.
The second child of Poseidon and Demeter was Arion, a swift divine horse with the gift of speech, who appears in a work of Homer, as the horse of king Adrastus of August,
These were just some of Demeter’s children who were mentioned by more than just name. She was said to have had no less than nine children of Triptolemus, the threefold warrior and several more for the Titan Oceanos.
Having already discussed some of Demeter’s lesser-known children, I’m sure many of you are waiting to hear about one, in particular, the daughter that she had with Zeus and the child that she arguably had the most substantial connection with—Persephone.
The Story of Persephone’s Abduction by Hades
For the most part, Persephone is seen as the queen of the underworld. Still, as a young woman, she was the goddess of springtime, flowers, and vegetation—all things that we can link back to her mother—so it’s no real surprise that they spent most days together and formed a very close connection.
Then, the issue arose when Hades fell in love with Persephone, and Demeter would not bless their marriage. Because to her, Persephone was a beacon of life and to be surrounded by the dead in Hades was not a future that she wished for her daughter.
It’s relatively difficult to say of any certainty whether her reaction here was a manifestation of her feelings towards her brother Hades, or rather her desire for her daughter to experience life to its fullest and not to be condemned to an eternity in the underworld.
Regardless of Demeter’s concerns, Zeus had already promised Hades one of his daughters as a bride, and Hades had indeed chosen Persephone. Knowing that Demeter would never win in allowing Persephone to join Hades in the underworld, the two brothers hatched a plan—which in most cases ended with Persephone being abducted when she was separated from her mother.
There are numerous versions of this story where Hades made his feelings known to Persephone, and she accepted his proposal. When Demeter returned to see her daughter had disappeared without a trace or even a sign, she was so distraught that she vowed to search night and day, never to rest for sleep would never bring back Persephone.
With aid from Hecate, whose torches lit the darkness, Demeter searched during the night but sadly to no avail. She eventually transformed herself into an older woman, hoping that disguising her appearance or to make the answers that she was looking for more comfortable to come by.
During her search for her daughter, she came across the Palace of Celeus, the West Attica king. Still, in the guise of an older woman, she asked the king for shelter, which he granted on the condition that she nursed his two sons, Triptolemus and Demophon.
With the search for her daughter momentarily halted, Demeter was finally able to rest, and she wished to repay the king’s kindness by making both of his sons immortal. She covered Demophon in ambrosia and placed him in the flames of the earth, where the boy’s mortal self would burn away.
But his mother, Queen Metinera, walked in during this ritual, only to see her son engulfed in flames. She began to scream, assume her son was dead, and eventually, Demeter pulled the boy from the fire before the process was complete. Demophon remained utterly unharmed, but he was still very much immortal.
Demeter instead chose to show her gratitude by teaching Triptolemus the secret of Agriculture, which he would then lead to the people of his father’s kingdom. And this story was considered one of the earliest explanations as to how humanity learned to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Triptolemus was seen by many as Demeter’s first priest and the ambassador to humanity. Through him to meet his creation of agriculture would be taught to the masses.
Soon after leaving the palace, Demeter was told by Hecate that the titan Helios had witnessed the events that took place when Persephone had gone missing. So, she set out to consult with him, where she learnt of her daughter’s abduction and the roles played by Hades and Zeus.
During the search for her daughter, Demeter abandoned her responsibilities. The seasons halted, crops, flowers and all things living began to die. With fruit supplies now scarce, humanity began to starve and perish. They prayed to Zeus in the hopes that he could save them, but he could do nothing.
The only things you could do is plead Demeter to return to her post, but she refused to do so unless Persephone was returned to the land of the living. Now faced with the possibility of all life becoming extinct, Zeus had no choice but to bring his daughter back. And so, he sent the messenger of the gods Hermes to retrieve her.
Hades agreed that he would return Persephone, but before she left, he convinced her to eat a pomegranate, which then bound her to his domain. When Hermes returned with the bad news, Demeter was furious.
She made it known to Zeus that if her daughter were not returned, she would make it so all life would cease to exist and thus, they eventually struck an agreement between them. Persephone would spend a portion of the year in the underworld with Hades, and the rest will be spent on the earth with her mother.
The Powers of Demeter and Powerless Zeus
The ancient Greeks often used this story to explain the different seasons, and there are numerous versions and interpretations with duration and the exact time of year Persephone spent in the underworld differ entirely.
Some like to believe that spring and summer signified Persephone and her mother being reunited, and the unfruitful winter represented her return to Hades. If there is one thing that we do learn from this story, it is how powerful Demeter truly is.
The goddess of the harvest isn’t one that you would associate a tremendous amount of power with, but you would be wrong. We see that Demeter refusing to perform her duties for a short period results in almost the death of everything. This does become a threat used to ensure the return of Persephone.
Zeus being in the position where he’s completely powerless isn’t one that we often see in Greek mythology. Still, on this occasion, he is truly helpless and has no other option but to concede to the demands being made.
Some of you may be thinking, ‘how does Demeter have any leverage in his position, to begin with?’ and you can definitely ask the question, ‘why would Zeus care of humanity in all things living dies?’ and ‘how does that affect him negatively?’
Humanity made up the vast majority of Zeus’s worshipers. They were his children, his wives, and his many affairs. Demeter not only threatened to destroy those who adored and worshipped Zeus but also everything that Zeus and his fellow gods had built. And that is why, in this scenario, he truly has no choice but to concede.
Demeter’s Relationship with the Greek People
So, we’ve briefly gone over some of the consorts and children associated with Demeter, along with some of the famous stories that she appeared in. But we’ve not discussed her relationship with the ancient Greek people in any real detail.
Demeter is one of the most respected Greek deities because of how dependent the ancient Greeks were on grain and the harvest. The origins of Demeter’s name can be traced back and translated to mean Mother Earth or the Earth Mother roughly. And if we look at Gaia as the earth itself, then Demeter’s role is very similar to that of a mother—caring and nourishing for the earth to ensure that it flourishes.
The ancient Greeks identified several plants with Demeter, including wheat, mint, and poppy, which were all considered sacred. The poppy even is in one of her many symbols. There are some accounts where Demeter is deemed to be part of a triple goddess, closely associated with the story of Persephone abduction.
The triple god has consisted of Hecate, who assumed the wise old crone’s role, Demeter herself, who is the carried mother, and Persephone, who represents the exuberance of youth. We can also interpret the three goddesses as meaning the past, present, and future.
Unlike her siblings, Demeter did not demand respect, nor did she command fear. Her many cults and the Greek people worshipped her out of appreciation and gratitude for what she provided humanity. Her worship, for the most part, was done in conjunction with her daughter.
This daughter was originally Despoina, but she was later replaced by Persephone in the years that followed. This is very important because it does highlight some of Demeter’s best qualities. She was caring and protective, not only to her children but also to the ancient Greek people, and that is why they held her in such high esteem.
Over the years, humanity faced many hardships and challenges, but Demeter and what she provided proved to be a constant reliability and consistency source. And that is unless you try and take away her daughter because in that case, you’ll probably just die of starvation.