Sometimes referred to as Mother Nature incarnate, Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest was a force to be reckoned with. One of the twelve prime goddesses of the Greek Olympic pantheon, Demeter was the daughter of the Titan ruler Chronos and Rhea or mother earth. Originally designated as the goddess of barley and wheat, a crop of prime importance to the ancient Greeks, Demeter eventually became associated with all of agriculture, and played a duel role as the bringer of harvests and famine. She was sister to Zeus, the mighty god who overthrew the titans and brought about the reign of the Olympian gods.
Demeter was responsible for the earth’s fertility as well as mortal fertility. She was often evoked in fertility rituals and during child birth to ensure a healthy delivery for the mother and the child. She was also honored as the goddess of marriage, newly wed women and maidens about to wed would pay her homage to gain her blessing in a fruitful marriage. She was the goddess of horticulture and gave to man the skills necessary to grown and tend orchards for fruits such as figs, apples and pears. Demeter held an honored place as the goddess of the meal barley drink, a malted drink enjoyed by commoner and noble alike throughout the ancient world which was considered especially holy to the goddess. Demeter is usually depicted in artwork and statues as a matronly woman with long blond hair crowned with a wreath of corn ears. She is often holding a sickle or sword.
Other aspects of the goddess gave her a more formal role in civilization as a goddess of peace and law giving. Since organized agricultural development is the basis of most ancient civilizations, she naturally was believed to be responsible for society’s advancement of communal living in the forms of law giving and granter of peace between mortals.
One of the most important and well known myths associated with Demeter is the kidnap and rape of her beloved daughter Persephone by Hades god of the underworld. When Zeus promised Persephone to Hades in marriage without the permission of Demeter, Hades swept the unawares Persephone away in his chariot to the underworld. Demeter upon finding out mourned for her daughter so long that the crops began to wither, the flowers and trees died and mankind was in danger of extinction from hunger. Zeus intervened and decreed that Persephone should spend one third of the year with her husband and the rest with her mother. This is why during the winter the crops die, as Demeter mourns for her daughter but in the spring and summer the crops return and the flowers bloom as Demeter is delighted in the return of her long lost child. The analogy of the myth of Persephone may explain why Demeter was associated as a goddess of the afterlife as well as the other roles she played.
The worship of Demeter can be traced across Asia Minor and parts of northern Africa through Mesopotamia and into the Mediterranean. She is thought to be an ancient goddess, identified with many minor deities in these regions as her worship spread and encompassed other cultures. She has been identified with several earth and fertility goddesses of major importance in the ancient world such as Isis of the Egyptians and Ceres of the Romans.
Demeter never married she had few lovers. She fathered Persephone by Zeus and later Dionysus. During her search for Persephone she was pursued by Poseidon who raped her in the form of a stallion after she had transformed into a mare to escape him. She bore two children, the famous immortal horse Areion and the goddess Despoine, a secret goddess associated with the rites of the Eleusinian mysteries.
She took once as a lover a Cretean prince Iasion who was later immortalized as the ultimate sacrifice to the harvest and became a demigod, also believed to have been the child of Zeus and the nymph Electra who was the founder of the mystic rites on the Isle of Samothrace. To him she bore three sons. Plutous, the Greek god of riches (not to be confused with Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld). Philomelus, a demigod who invented the wagon and plough. He was immortalized by Demeter by being placed among the stars in the constellation Bootes, Ursa major represents his wagon or plough.They also had another son named Koryabs who became the leader of the Samothracian Korybantes. She also bore a son, Eubolues, a minor god of the ploughed earth and a daughter, Khrysothemis, a minor goddess of the harvest festival to Karmanor a lord of Crete and loved a mortal named Mekon who was transformed into the poppy flower.
Modern images of the ideal of a personified mother nature often relay a kindly, gentle and loving woman. Demeter played duel roles as a giver of the gift of life to human kind in the form of nurturing crops and plentiful harvest for her devout worshippers. But like the reality of nature, her wrath could be cruel and even deadly. Myths of Demeter’s darker nature include such tales as the unfortunate fate of the demigod Askalaphos, servant of Hades god of the underworld. Askalaphos, was caught between a rock and a hard place, litterally when compelled to testify against Persephone, the daughter of Demeter by witnessing that she had eaten of the pomegranate seeds given her while in the underworld, dooming her to remain in Hades for a portion of the year as the fates had decreed any who ate or drank of the food of the underworld were doomed to stay there. Demeter was so infuriated that she fastened a heavy boulder to his limbs for him to carry through eternity in the underworld. She later turned him into the horned owl after the Hero Hercules released the boulder from his shoulders.
The jilted lover of Hades, a nymph named Minthe suffered a drastic fate at the ire of Demeter when she loudly proclaimed in her jealousy over Hades match to Persephone that she was by far the fairer lover and Hades would return to her and banish the wretched daughter of Demeter from his halls. Demeter in her angst of the words against her daughter trampled the poor nymph under her heals and destroyed her utterly. Hades, in an act of compassion caused the dust that was left of his former lover to bring forth the Mint plant which named after the Nymph whom it commemorates.
The yearly highlights of her worship revolved around two major festivals, the Thesmophoria and the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Thesmorphoria, attended only by married women who were the spouses of Greek city state citizens, was a celebration of fertility which was held in commemoration of the season of the year in which Demeter spends in mourning for her daughter Persephone who is forced to be away from her and remain in the underworld with her husband Hades for a portion of the year. Unmarried women and any men were not allowed to attend the ceremonies which were marked by three days of rituals involving a day of fasting while remaining seated on the ground, only eating pomegranate seeds, sacrificing pigs, and a day of feasting on meats. More intricate rituals are not clearly known since only women were allowed to attend the religious events and few women wrote of the festival. Modern knowledge of the festivals details are brought to recent scholars through bits and fragments of scholarly works from the past.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were actually composed of two separate festivals the lesser and greater mysteries held at separate times of the year commemorating the myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The mysteries were rituals, festivals and a series of initiation ceremonies for initiates of Demeter’s cult. The mysteries are believed to have originated at Eleusis in Greece. The lesser mysteries were for those who wished to become familiar with the religious cult and begin initiation into the mysteries of the cult. The greater mysteries were for those who had already become initiates and those who were higher up in the ranks of the cult. The lesser mysteries were open to anyone who was free of the guilt of committing murder and who was not a Barbarian. The system of rituals and festivities was extremely complex. A more detailed explanation of them can be perused here: Eleusinian Mysteries.
Although Demeter never married or took a mate, she is ofen depecticted in relation to Posiden in her most ancient versions. In Arcadia she was worshipped in her mare form, and indeed her ability to transform into a mare and other beasts of the land and sea is celebrated throughout the ages in her various cults throughout the ancient world. In connection with Posiden she is seen as a duel goddess, the elder Demeter and the younger Persephone, his two queens. She is also known as a casual concubine of Zeus. This union is remarked upon as signifcant in some areas of Greece when an effigy of Zeus invades the sacred marital rituals performed during the Thesmorphia festival.
Other names and representations of the goddess represent her wide and varying qualities, like mother nature herself she could be kind or cruel. She was known as “the nightmare”, by the title Aganippe meaning “the mare who destroys mercifully”. Nightmares were sent from the realm of Hades, the underworld and realm of her daughter, sometimes worshipped as Demeter’s duel younger self, Persephone. She was also known as Thesmohoros, “the giver of customs” refering to her role as the mistress of unwritten laws within society which are connected to her festival the Thesmorphoria. As Erinys she brought divine retribution to those who broke social taboos and ignored customary morals and rules. She was also known as “The mistress of the House”. A title attributed to few other goddesses.
Demeter was widely known as the goddess of the poppy, whose worship may have entailed ritual use of opium, a powerful hallucinogenic made from the poppy flower. The poppy and poppy seed were an important staple in ancient diets. The use of the opium poppy predates written history and can be traced as far back as ancient Sumeria where it was used in medicine to treat such conditions as asthma and failing eyesight. It has been used over the centeries to create many narcotic based pain relievers including morophine and has always been known for its sleep inducing properties. The poppy has several different species, all of which had an important place in ancient agriculture. Poppy seeds are used to derive poppy oil, a healthy edible oil with a variety of uses. The nature of opium itself can be seen as a excellent metaphor explaining duel existence of Demeter as both a taker and bringer of life.
Being the goddess of the harvest, ancient Greek communities would sacrifice the first loaf of bread made from the annual grain harvest to her. Demeter had numerous shrines and temples dedicated to her worship throughout the ancient world. Her favor was important for insuring the growth of crops and prosperity of the land. Her worshippers sacrificed to her the first fruits of the fields and a portion of the first harvests. Other objects sacred to her include livestock, especially pigs, corn, grain, the poppy, the narcissus, the mint plant, the turtle dove, dolphins, black mares, the snake, the gecko and the crane. Sneezes were thought to be omens of Demeter since they were associated with harvesting and milling probably due to hay fever or irritation from the mill dust.
Among her many treasures could be found her great chariot drawn by a pair of winged Drakones, serpent like beasts whom she also used as attendants and guards. She is often depicted carrying two great torches in her search for Persephone. She wielded a golden sickle, sometimes depicted as a sword, which is said to have belonged to her grandfather Chronos whom used it to castrate his own father and which she used in the war of Giants fought by the Olympians gods to gain control of Olympus. Her most sacred animal was the serpent which represented rebirth and fertility. Worshipers sacrificed swine and turtle doves to her to ensure the earths fertility.