In ancient Greek religion and myth, Demeter is the goddess of the harvest, who presided
over grains and the fertility of the earth. Her cult titles include Sito, "she of the
Grain", as the giver of food or grain and Thesmophoros, "Law-Bringer," as a mark of
the civilized existence of agricultural society. Though Demeter is often described simply as
the goddess of the harvest, she presided also over the sacred law, and the cycle of life
and death. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian
Mysteries that predated the Olympian pantheon. In the Linear B Mycenean Greek tablets of
circa 14001200 BC found at Pylos, the "two mistresses and the king" may be related with
Demeter, Persephone and Poseidon. Her Roman equivalent is Ceres.
It is possible that Demeter appears in Linear A as da-ma-te on three documents, all three
apparently dedicated in religious situations and all three bearing just the name. It is
unlikely that Demeter appears as da-ma-te in a Linear B inscription; the word ,
da-ma-te, probably refers to "households". On the other hand ,
si-to-po-ti-ni-ja, "Potnia of the Grain", is regarded to refer to her Bronze Age predecessor
or to one of her epithets. Demeter's character as mother-goddess is identified
in the second element of her name meter derived from Proto-Indo-European *mhtr. In
antiquity, different explanations were already proffered for the first element of her name.
It is possible that Da, a word which became Ge in Attic, is the Doric form of De, "earth",
the old name of the chthonic earth-goddess, and that Demeter is "Mother-Earth". This root
also appears in the Linear B inscription E-ne-si-da-o-ne, "earth-shaker", as an aspect of the god Poseidon.
However, the d element in the name of Demeter, is not so simply equated with "earth" according
to John Chadwick. The element De- may be connected with Deo,
a surname of Demeter probably derived from the Cretan word dea, Ionic zeia meaning "barley",
so that she is the Mother and the giver of food generally. Arcadian cult to Demeter links
her to a male deity, who accompanied the Great Goddess and has been interpreted as a possible
substitution for Poseidon; Demeter may therefore be related to a Minoan Great Goddess.
An alternative, Proto-Indo-European etymology comes through Potnia and Despoina; where Des-
represents a derivative of PIE *dem, and Demeter is "mother of the house".
Agricultural deity According to the Athenian rhetorician Isocrates,
Demeter's greatest gifts to humankind were agriculture, particularly of cereals, and
the Mysteries which give the initiate higher hopes in this life and the afterlife. These
two gifts were intimately connected in Demeter's myths and mystery cults. In Homer's Odyssey
she is the blond-haired goddess who separates the chaff from the grain. In Hesiod, prayers
to Zeus-Chthonios and Demeter help the crops grow full and strong. Demeter's emblem is
the poppy, a bright red flower that grows among the barley.
In Hesiod's Theogony, Demeter is the daughter of Cronus and Rhea. At the marriage of Cadmus
and Harmonia, Demeter lured Iasion away from the other revelers. They had intercourse in
a ploughed furrow in Crete, and she gave birth to a son, Ploutos. Her daughter by Zeus was
Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. Festivals and cults
Demeter's two major festivals were sacred mysteries. Her Thesmophoria festival was women-only.
Her Eleusinian mysteries were open to initiates of any gender or social class. At the heart
of both festivals were myths concerning Demeter as Mother and Persephone as her daughter.
Myths Demeter and Persephone
Demeter's virgin daughter Persephone was abducted to the underworld by Hades. Demeter searched
for her ceaselessly, preoccupied with her loss and her grief. The seasons halted; living
things ceased their growth, then began to die. Faced with the extinction of all life
on earth, Zeus sent his messenger Hermes to the underworld to bring Persephone back. Hades
agreed to release her, but gave her a pomegranate. When she ate the pomegranate seeds, she was
bound to him for one third of the year, either the dry Mediterranean summer, when plant life
is threatened by drought, or the autumn and winter. There are several variations on the
basic myth. In the Homeric hymn to Demeter, Hecate assists in the search and later becomes
Persephone's underworld attendant. In another, Persephone willingly and secretly eats the
pomegranate seeds, thinking to deceive Hades, but is discovered and made to stay. In all
versions, Persephone's time in the underworld corresponds with the unfruitful seasons of
the ancient Greek calendar, and her return to the upper world with springtime. Demeter's
descent to retrieve Persephone from the underworld is connected to the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Demeter and her daughter Persephone were usually called:
The goddesses, often distinguished as "the older" and "the younger" in Eleusis.
Demeters, in Rhodes and Sparta The thesmophoroi, "the legislators" in the
Thesmophoria. The Great Goddesses, in Arcadia.
The mistresses in Arcadia. In Mycenaean Pylos, Demeter and Persephone
were probably called "queens". The myth of the capture of Persephone seems
to be pre-Greek. In the Greek version Ploutos represents the wealth of the corn that was
stored in underground silos or ceramic jars. Similar subterranean pithoi were used in ancient
times for funerary practices is fused with Persephone, the Queen of the underworld. At
the beginning of the autumn, when the corn of the old crop is laid on the fields she
ascends and is reunited with her mother Demeter, for at this time the old crop and the new
meet each other. According to the personal mythology of Robert
Graves, Persephone is not only the younger self of Demeter, she is in turn also one of
three guises of the Triple Goddess Kore, Persephone, and Hecate, which to a certain
extent reduces the name and role of Demeter to that of group name. Before her abduction,
she is called Kore; and once taken she becomes Persephone.
Demeter at Eleusis
Demeter's search for her daughter Persephone took her to the palace of Celeus, the King
of Eleusis in Attica. She assumed the form of an old woman, and asked him for shelter.
He took her in, to nurse Demophon and Triptolemus, his sons by Metanira. To reward his kindness,
she planned to make Demophon immortal; she secretly anointed the boy with ambrosia and
laid him in the flames of the hearth, to gradually burn away his mortal self. But Metanira walked
in, saw her son in the fire and screamed in fright. Demeter abandoned the attempt. Instead,
she taught Triptolemus the secrets of agriculture, and he in turn taught them to any who wished
to learn them. Thus, humanity learned how to plant, grow and harvest grain. The myth
has several versions; some are linked to figures such as Eleusis, Rarus and Trochilus. The
Demophon element may be based on an earlier folk tale.
Demeter and Poseidon Demeter and Poseidon's names appear in the
earliest scratched notes in Linear B found at Mycenae and Mycenaean Pylos; e-ne-si-da-o-ne
for Poseidon, and si-to-po-ti-ni-ja, who is probably related with Demeter. Poseidon carries
frequently the title wa-na-ka in Linear B inscriptions, as king of the underworld, and
his title E-ne-si-da-o-ne indicates his chthonic nature. In the cave of Amnisos Enesidaon is
related with the cult of Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. She was related with the annual
birth of the divine child. During the Bronze Age, a goddess of nature, dominated both in
Minoan and Mycenean cult, and Wanax was her male companion in Mycenean cult. She and her
paredros survived in the Eleusinian cult, where the following words were uttered:
" Mighty Potnia bore a strong son" However there is no evidence that originally the name
of Potnia was Demeter. Tablets from Pylos record sacrificial goods
destined for "the Two Queens and Poseidon". The "Two Queens" may be related with Demeter
and Persephone, or their precursors, goddesses who were not associated with Poseidon in later
periods. An exception is the myth of isolated Arcadia in southern Greece. Despoina, is daughter
of Demeter and Poseidon Hippios. These myths seem to be connected with the first Greek-speaking
people who came from the north during the Bronze age. Poseidon represents the river
spirit of the underworld and he appears as a horse as it often happens in northern-European
folklore. He pursues the mare-Demeter and she bears one daughter who obviously originally
had the form or the shape of a mare too. Demeter and Despoina were closely connected with springs
and animals, related to Poseidon as a God of waters and especially with Artemis, the
mistress of the animals and the goddess of, among others, the Hunt.
Demeter as mare-goddess was pursued by Poseidon, and hid from him among the horses of King
Onkios, but could not conceal her divinity. In the form of a stallion, Poseidon caught
and covered her. Demeter was furious at Poseidon's assault; in this furious form, she is known
as Demeter Erinys. But she washed away her anger in the River Ladon, becoming Demeter
Lousia, the "bathed Demeter". "In her alliance with Poseidon," Karl Kerenyi noted, "she was
Earth, who bears plants and beasts, and could therefore assume the shape of an ear of grain
or a mare." She bore a daughter Despoina, whose name should not be uttered outside the
Arcadian Mysteries, and a horse named Arion, with a black mane and tail.
In Arcadia, Demeter's mare-form was worshiped into historical times. Her xoanon of Phigaleia
shows how the local cult interpreted her: a Medusa type with a horse's head with snaky
hair, holding a dove and a dolphin, probably representing her power over air and water.
The second mountain, Mt. Elaios, is about 30 stades from Phigaleia, and has a cave sacred
to Demeter Melaine ["Black"]... the Phigalians say, they accounted the cave sacred to Demeter,
and set up a wooden image in it. The image was made in the following fashion: it was
seated on a rock, and was like a woman in all respects save the head. She had the head
and hair of a horse, and serpents and other beasts grew out of her head. Her chiton reached
right to her feet, and she held a dolphin in one hand, a dove in the other. Why they
made the xoanon like this should be clear to any intelligent man who is versed in tradition.
They say they named her Black because the goddess wore black clothing. However, they
cannot remember who made this xoanon or how it caught fire; but when it was destroyed
the Phigalians gave no new image to the goddess and largely neglected her festivals and sacrifices,
until finally barrenness fell upon the land. Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.42.1ff.
Titles and functions Demeter's epithets show her many religious
functions. She was the "Corn-Mother" who blesses the harvesters. Some cults interpreted her
as "Mother-Earth". Demeter may be linked to goddess-cults of Minoan Crete, and embody
aspects of a pre-Hellenic Great Goddess. It is possible that the title mistress of the
labyrinth that appears in a Linear B inscription belonged originally to Sito,the Great Mother
Demeter and in the Eleusinian mysteries this title was kept by her daughter Persephone.
However there is not any evidence that the name of Potnia in Eleusis was originally Demeter.
Her other epithets include:
Aganippe Potnia in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Hera
especially, but also Artemis and Athena, are addressed as "potnia" as well.
Despoina, a Greek word similar to the Mycenean potnia. This title was also applied to Persephone,
Aphrodite and Hecate. Thesmophoros, a role that links her to the
even more ancient goddess Themis, derived from thesmos, the unwritten law. This title
was connected with the Thesmophoria, a festival of secret women-only rituals in Athens connected
with marriage customs. Erinys, with a function similar with the function
of the avenging Dike, goddess of moral justice based on custom rules who represents the divine
retribution, and the Erinyes, female ancient chthonic deities of vengeance and implacable
agents of retribution. Chloe, that invokes her powers of ever-returning
fertility, as does Chthonia. Chthonia, chthonic Demeter in Sparta.
Anesidora applied to Demeter in Pausanias 1.31.4, also appears inscribed on an Attic
ceramic a name for Pandora on her jar. Europa at Livadeia of Boeotia. She was the
nurse of Trophonios to whom a chthonic cult and oracle was dedicated.
Kidaria in the mysteries of Pheneos in Arcadia where the priest put on the mask of Demeter
kept in a secret place. It seems that the cult was connected with the underworld and
with an agrarian magic. Demeter might also be invoked in the guises
Achaea, the name by which she was worshipped at Athens by the Gephyraeans who had emigrated
from Boeotia. Poppy goddess:
Theocritus, wrote of an earlier role of Demeter as a poppy goddess:
For the Greeks Demeter was still a poppy goddess Bearing sheaves and poppies in both hands.
Idyll vii.157 In a clay statuette from Gazi, 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". Cult places
Major cults to Demeter are known at Eleusis in Attica, Hermion, Megara, Celeae, Lerna,
Aegila, Munychia, Corinth, Delos, Priene, Akragas, Iasos, Pergamon, Selinus, Tegea,
Thoricus, Dion Lykosoura, Mesembria, Enna, and Samothrace.
An ancient Amphictyony, probably the earliest centred on the cult of Demeter at Anthele,
which lay on the coast of Malis south of Thessaly. This was the locality of Thermopylae.
After the "First Sacred War", the Anthelan body was known thenceforth as the Delphic
Amphictyony Demeter of Mysia had a seven-day festival
at Pellen in Arcadia. 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. Genealogy of the Olympians in Greek mythology
Consorts and children
Portrayals Demeter was frequently associated with images
of the harvest, including flowers, fruit, and grain. She was also sometimes pictured
with her daughter Persephone. The Black Demeter, a sculpture made by Onatas.
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 is assigned the zodiac constellation Virgo the Virgin by Marcus Manilius in his
1st century Roman work Astronomicon. In art, constellation Virgo holds Spica, a sheaf of
wheat in her hand and sits beside constellation Leo the Lion.
1108 Demeter, a main belt asteroid 26km in diameter, which was discovered in 1929
by Karl Wilhelm Reinmuth at Heidelberg. Despoina
Greek mythology in popular culture Isis and Osiris
Poppy goddess Potnia
References Walter Burkert 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
Hesiod, Theogony, and Works and Days in The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English
Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William
Heinemann Ltd. 1914. 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. Sacred-texts.com Pausanias, Pausanias Description of Greece
with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes,
Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918.
Carl Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth, 1994.
External links Hymn to Demeter, Ancient Greek and English
text, Interlinear Translation edited & adapted from the 1914 prose translation by Hugh G.
Evelyn-White, with Greek-English glossary, notes and illustrations.
Foley P. Helene, The Homeric hymn to Demeter: translation, commentary, and interpretive
essays, Princeton Univers. Press, 1994. with Ancient Greek text and English translation.
Text of Homeric Hymn to Demeter Online book of Martin P. Nilsson, Greek Popular
Religion "The Political Cosmology of the Homeric Hymn
to Demeter" "The Sophian Prayer to Demeter"