Mythman's Demeter



Demeter was the goddess of Corn and therefore also of the Harvest, and her cult particularly flourished in the regions where grain was grown: in the region of Eleusis, in the Peloponnesus, in Crete, in Thrace and in Sicily. She was the first to gather the corn, prepare and preserve it, and to instruct mankind how to sow it.

Demeter's cult titles include Sito (wheat), because she is the bringer of food, grain or corn, and Thesmophoros, which loosely translates as Bearer of Divine Order/Unwritten Law, because of the civilizing aspect of agriculture. She is also known as the Corn Mother, Chloe (green shoot), Cthonia (in the ground) and Anesidora (sending up gifts from the earth.)

She is usually portrayed as serious and dignified, dressed plainly in a long robe. Her nurse was Eirene (Peace). The beloved goddess of the harvest also brought to humans the cultivation of grain (wheat and barley) which, according to one legend, allowed them to stand upright.

Also known as the goddess of fertility, Demeter was the daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea and thus Zeus’ sister. Her other Olympian siblings included Hades, Poseidon, Hestia and Hera.

Demeter was often portrayed on a chariot amid harvest images, including grain, fruit and flowers. Her daughter Persephone was regularly pictured with her in ancient depictions.

Even though she is most often associated as the Harvest goddess, Demeter also presided over Marriage, the Cycle of Life and Death, and the ancient Sacred Laws, which are the moral and ethical codes taught by religious traditions.

Along with Dionysus (known in Roman as Bacchus, god of Wine) Demeter was one of the two most important gods in the everyday lives of people. While many other gods did little to help mortal people unless it suited their needs, these two were truly mankind’s best friends.

What also made them very different from other gods, was that they were the only two to have known and felt suffering and true grief, while the other gods for the most part lived happy and blissful lives, feasting on nectar and ambrosia up on lofty Mount Olympus.

Demeter’s tragic story is her search for Persephone (Kore), Demeter’s only child from her union with Zeus, the King of the Olympians. Persephone grew up happy, playing with Artemis and Athena, the other children of Zeus, but one day her uncle, Hades, fell desperately in love with her.

One day, while she was picking flowers in a meadow along with her girlfriends, the earth opened wide and Hades appeared, riding an awesome chariot that was pulled by four black horses. Persephone was abducted by Hades and dragged down to the Underworld with him.

Hearing her daughter's screams, Demeter rushed to her aid but wasn't able to find her. She had disappeared under the earth, but her mother didn't know this. Heartbroken, Demeter searched the entire earth without stopping to eat, drink or take care of herself.

once she discovered the identity of the abductor she decided to leave Olympus and renounce her divine duties until Persephone was returned to her.

Demeter's self-imposed exile caused the earth to go barren and Zeus, who was responsible for maintaining order in the world, finally commanded his brother Hades to give back Persephone. Because she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate while in the Underworld, however, Persephone was bound to remain there.

An arrangement was eventually worked out and Demeter's daughter later returned to earth with the condition that she spends four months of each year with Hades. In these months Demeter misses her daughter so much that she withdraws her gifts from the earth, and winter comes. But when her daughter returns, Demeter is so happy that she restores all her gifts and spring starts.

The epic poet Homer claims that
the goddess Hecate was an assistant to Demeter while she searched for her daughter and afterwards she became Persephone's attendant in the Underworld.

During the search for her daughter
 Demeter had visited the city of Eleusis and taken a job as a nurse to a royal family. She took care of the infant, a mortal named Triptolemus, using her powers in an attempt to make the boy immortal. When he grew older Demeter gave Triptolemus a chariot of winged Dragons and bushels of wheat with which, flying through the sky, he sowed the whole inhabited earth.

She was known as a kind goddess 
and not usually vindictive, but to punish the Sirens for not coming to the assistance of her daughter when she was being kidnapped, Demeter transformed them into flying creatures, the scourge of ancient sailors.

Another time, while looking for her daughter
, Demeter came to the region of Attica. She was very thirsty, for she had been traveling far and wide, and was relieved to see a spring with cool clear water. As she thirstily lapped the refreshing water, she was startled to hear a man named Ascalabus, laughing  at her because of her way of drinking. Embarrassed at this, distraught at the loss of her daughter, and angry at Ascalabus for being so rude,  Demeter turned him into a gecko, which is a small insect-eating lizard.

There was another instance
 where the goddess proved to be cruel: A mortal named Erysichthon cut down an oak tree sacred to Demeter. In order to punish this profane act, the goddess sent endless famine to the poor man. As much as Erysichthon ate, so much he desired again. There was no satisfying him, and he ate constantly until at the end he ate himself and died.

Either to test Zeus' ability to know all
, or simply to show what a good host he was, a man named Tantalus slaughtered his own son, Pelops, cut him up, boiled the pieces and offered them as a meal at a feast of the gods. Of all the gods only Demeter unknowingly ate his arm, but when this outrage was discovered he was given life again by the will of the gods. His limbs were joined together but the shoulder was not complete, so Demeter fitted an ivory one in its place.


The Eleusian Mysteries was one of Greece’s most important and intriguing festivals. It was associated with Demeter and in fact held in her honor. "I am Demeter, revered by all, the power most useful for gods and men," she said, making herself known to the people of Eleusis. To honor her they raised a temple and thus were born the Eleusian Mysteries.

The Mysteries gave the initiates higher hope for this life and for the afterlife. They are connected to Demeter's journey to the Underworld to retrieve her daughter Persephone. This celebration of harvest was held every five years for nine days in September-October.

We know very little about the Mysteries, as all participants were sworn to secrecy. The candidates for initiation purified themselves in the sea and then the procession followed the sacred path from Athens to Eleusis, arriving at the sanctuary by nightfall. There, they spoke these words:

"I have fasted, I have drunk kykeon,
I have completed my tasks
and put the objects in the wicker basket
and the rush basket."
(Clement of Alexandria, Prokeptic, II, 21)

(Kykeon was barley water flavored with mint, and it was the first nourishment that Demeter had prepared for herself when she broke her fast following her daughter's loss.)

The spoken words were followed by secret rites carried out in silence, completing the first part of the initiation. Here is a nice description from The Wordsworth Dictionary of Mythology:

"The 'mysteries' are so called because their secrets have been very well guarded. Was the symbolic task the search for a rudimentary mill for grinding corn - seen as a step in the progress of civilization - or, indeed, the performance of sexual acts? It is still not known.

The second phase of the initiation was a spiritual experience. The ancient philosopher Aristotle expressed it clearly:

'The initiates were not meant to learn anything, but rather, to experience certain emotions and moods.' (Fragment 15; ed. Rose)

Finally, as Demeter again took her place among the immortals, the initiates returned to Athens and to the life they had left for a short time. The Eleusian Mysteries were only an interlude in the life of the city, an interlude where men, women and slaves found themselves awarded the same status, devotees of a single cult, following the same path. It was a brief and controlled hiatus in the political life of the country.

The Romans gave Demeter the name of Ceres, an ancient divinity of the fertile earth. Demeter's symbol is the poppy, a bright crimson flower that grows well among the barley.





Olympian Gods and Goddesses


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