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Demeter was one of the twelve Olympian gods that lived on Mount Olympus. Goddess of the harvest and agriculture, Demeter (Roman counterpart Ceres) reigns over grain and the fertility of the entire earth, making her an important figure for peasants and farmers.
In addition to being the goddess of the harvest, she also presided over sacred law as well as the cycle of life and death that nature goes through. She was sometimes called Sito, meaning “She of the Grain” or Thesmophoros, meaning “Law-Bringer”.
Demeter, as a mother figure, was powerful, important and compassionate. Her actions had far-reaching consequences for earth. Here’s the story of Demeter.
The Story of Demeter
In art, Demeter is frequently associated with the harvest. This includes flowers, fruit, as well as grain. Sometimes she is depicted with her daughter, Persephone. Contrary to many other gods and goddesses, however, she is not usually depicted with any of her lovers.
One of the best-known myths involving Demeter is about the loss and reunion with her daughter, Persephone. According to the myth, Persephone was abducted by Hades and forcibly taken to the Underworld to be his bride. Demeter searched the earth looking for her daughter and when she could not find her, she fell into despair. Her grief caused her to neglect her duties as a nature goddess and as a result the seasons ground to a halt and all living things began to shrivel and die. Eventually, Zeus sent his messenger Hermes into the Underworld to bring Demeter’s daughter back, in order to save the world. But it was too late as Persephone had already eaten the food of the Underworld which forbade her from leaving.
In the end, Persephone was allowed to leave the Underworld for the part of each year, but she would have to return to him in the Underworld. Demeter was overjoyed that her daughter had returned, but every time Persephone left, she would mourn.
The abduction myth is an allegory for the changing seasons and a way to explain the growth and fallow cycle of crops. It was believed that when the old crops were laid in the fields at the beginning of autumn, Persephone ascended to reunite with her mother. During this time, the old crop met the new and Persephone’s ascent brought with it the green sprouts of new growth. But when it was time for Persephone to return to the Underworld, the world entered a wintry state, crops ceased to grow and all the world awaited her return, just like Demeter.
Symbols and Characteristics of Demeter
Demeter was often worshipped more generally as an earth goddess. She is sometimes represented as having hair made of snakes and holding a dove and a dolphin which was thought to perhaps symbolize her dominion over the Underworld, water, and air. She was known to bless the harvesters and an apt modern-day term for her would be “Mother Earth”. Her close connection with her daughter also strengthened this association of Demeter as a mother.
Demeter’s symbols included the following:
- Cornucopia – This refers to the horn of plenty, a symbol of her status as the goddess of fertility and agriculture. She is associated with abundance and plenty.
- Wheat – Demeter is often portrayed holding a sheaf of wheat. This reflects her role as the goddess of Agriculture.
- Torch – The torches associated with Demeter symbolize the torches she carried when looking for her daughter across the globe. It strengthens her association as mother, protector and nourisher.
- Bread – Since ancient times, bread has symbolized food and nourishment. As one of Demeter’s symbols, bread signifies that she provides abundance and food.
- Lotus Staff – Sometimes Demeter is shown carrying a lotus staff, but what this means exactly is unclear.
- Pig – Pigs were often chosen as sacrifices for Demeter to ensure that the earth remained fertile.
- Serpent – The serpent was the most sacred creature for Demeter, as it represented rebirth, regeneration, fertility and healing. Demeter’s chariot was drawn by a pair of winged serpents.
Demeter is depicted as a calm, kind and compassionate mother-figure, but she could also exact revenge when necessary. The story of King Erysichthon is a perfect example:
The king of Thessaly, Erysichthon ordered all of the trees in a grove sacred to Demeter chopped down. One of the trees was specially decorated with wreaths, intended as prayers to Demeter, which the king’s men refused to cut down. Erysichton cut it down himself, slaying a dryad nymph in the processs. Demeter moved swiftly to punish Erysichthon and called upon Limos, the spirit of insatiable hunger, to enter the king’s stomach so that no matter how much he ate he would always starve. Erysichton sold all of his belongings to buy food but was still hungry. Eventually, he consumed himself and perished.
Demeter as a Mother Goddess
The concepts embodied by the goddess Demeter existed in many other cultures. This is especially true when viewed as a general archetype representing agriculture paired with various motherly features.
- Demeter in Roman Mythology
Ceres was a goddess of agriculture, fertility, maternal relationships, and grain. She was the Roman counterpart to the Greek Demeter. While both goddesses share an association with agriculture and fertility, Ceres’ focus on maternal relationships marks her as distinct from Demeter, who was the goddess of the more general sacred law.
- Demeter as The Mother Goddess
It is thought that Demeter may embody some aspects of a Mother Goddess that precede Greek mythology and culture. The concepts that Demeter represents, such as life and death and the relationship between humans and food sown from the earth, exist in many different forms and it is logical to assume that Demeter may be a either a combination or co-opting of other, similar pre-Hellenic gods.
- Worship of Demeter in Ancient Greece
A festival that took place from the eleventh to the thirteenth of October, called Thesmophoria, is dedicated to her. Only women were allowed to attend and honor Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Held annually, it celebrated human and agricultural fertility. It was considered to be one of the most popular and widely celebrated festivals by ancient Greek people. The rites conducted during the festival were administered by entirely by women and kept completely secret.
Demeter In Modern Times
Today, the term “mother earth” and its associated qualities are thought to have originated from Demeter. Her visage is depicted on the great seal of North Carolina in the United States. In the seal, Persephone and Demeter hold a sheaf of wheat and sit on a cornucopia. Additionally, Demeter’s counterpoint, Ceres, has a dwarf planet named for her.
Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring Demeter symbol.
Demeter’s father was Cronus, the Titan of time and the ages, and her mother was Rhea, the Titan of female fertility, motherhood and regeneration.
Demeter is one of the 12 Olympian gods that lived on Mount Olympus, considered the most important of the Ancient Greek gods.
Demeter had many children, but the most important of these were Persephone. Some of her other children include Despoina, Arion, Plutus and Philomelus.
Demeter’s consorts included Zeus, Oceanus, Karmanor and Triptolemus but unlike most other gods, her love affairs weren’t very significant in her myths.
Her siblings included the Olympian gods, Hestia, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus.
Demeter has been assigned the zodiac constellation Virgo, the Virgin by Marcus Manilius’ first century work Astronomicon. In an artist’s reimagining of the constellation, Virgo holds a sheaf of wheat in her hand and sits beside the lion Leo.
Demeter was considered to have been the one to give the gift of agriculture to humans, particularly cereals.
Athenians called the dead “Demetrioi”, a term that is thought to be a link between Demeter and her association with death and life. That just as a seed buried in the ground creates a plant, it was thought that so to, would a dead body beget new life.
Demeter taught the prince Triptolemus the secrets of agriculture, how to plant, grow, and finally harvest grain. Triptolemus then went on to teach any person who desired the knowledge.
Demeter represents abundance, nourishment, fertility, the seasons, hard times and good times, and both life and death. Just as they are concepts forever intertwined, they are represented by one goddess to highlight the dependence both concepts have on each other.
She is the mother goddess that cares for the people of the earth by creating the food that keeps them alive. This association has influenced modern culture, and even today, we see vestiges of Demeter in other mother goddesses and in the mother earth concept.