published on 27 August 2012
One of the oldest Greek gods, Demeter (Roman name: Ceres) guaranteed the fertility of the earth and protected farming and vegetation. This close connection with the earth was inherited from her mother Rhea, and doubtless she was a reincarnation of local mother-Earth goddesses, commonly worshipped in rural communities.
Daughter of Kronos and Rhea, sister of Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, and Hestia, Demeter was the mother of Persephone and Iacchus (both with Zeus) and Pluto, the god of wealth (with Iasion, who was subsequently killed by a thunderbolt from a jealous Zeus). She also adopted Triptolemus, the Eleusinian prince, who gave the human race the gifts of the plough and knowledge of agriculture. Demeter was also pursued by Poseidon and to escape his attentions, she changed into a mare; however, Poseidon too changed into a horse and their resulting offspring was Arion, the winged horse ridden by Hercules.
Homer in The Iliad describes the goddess as ‘golden-haired’, and Hesiod in his Theogony and Works & Days, describes her as ‘bounteous Demeter’, ‘well-garlanded’, ‘hallowed’, and ‘reverend’.
Demeter and Persephone (also known as Kore in Greek and Proserpina by the Romans) were the subject of a major cult in the ancient Greek world. According to mythology, Hades, god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone as soon as he saw her and carried her off in his chariot to live with him in Hades. In some accounts Zeus had given his consent to the abduction, the location of the crime being traditionally placed in either Sicily (famed for its fertility) or Asia. Demeter searched the earth for her lost daughter and though Helios (or Hermes) told her of her daughter’s fate, she, nevertheless, continued her wanderings until she finally arrived at Eleusis. It was here, disguised as an old woman, that the goddess cared for Triptolemus (or Demophontas), the only son of Metaneira, the wife of Keleos, king of Eleusis. To reward the family for their kindness, Demeter set about making Triptolemus immortal by placing him on a fire every night. However, when Metaneira saw this she raised an alarm. In response, Demeter revealed her true identity and demanded a temple be built in her honour. This was the beginning of the celebrated sanctuary of Eleusis.
Once the temple was completed, Demeter withdrew from the world and lived inside it; at the same time she created a great drought to convince the other gods to release Persephone from Hades. As the drought claimed ever more victims, Zeus finally persuaded Hades to release his ill-gotten bride. Before giving her up though, the wily Hades put a pomegranate kernel in the girl’s mouth, knowing its divine taste would compel her to return to him. In other versions of the myth, Persephone could have been released if she had not eaten anything in the underworld during her captivity, but at the last moment, Hades gave her a pomegranate seed. Finally, as a compromise, it was decided that Persephone would be released but that she would have to return to Hades for one third of the year (or in other accounts one half).
The story of Demeter and Persephone was perhaps symbolic of the changing seasons and the perennial change from life to death, to life once more, or in other words, the changes from summer to winter and the return of life in spring. The cycle became one of the rituals of the sacred Eleusinian mysteries; indeed the symbols of the cult were ears of corn and a torch - symbolic of Demeter’s search for Persephone and a reminder that the rituals were carried out at night. As all initiates were bound by a sacred oath not to reveal the details of the mysteries, they have to this day remained just that, a mystery.
The most important sanctuary to Demeter, then, was at Eleusis in Attica which had religious origins and monuments dating back to the Mycenaean civilization of the 15th century BCE. Eleusis became a truly pan-Hellenic site under the dictator Peisistratus and continued to be visited in Roman times. From the 8th century BCE there was also a sanctuary and temple to Demeter on Naxos, in the 4th century BCE a temple was constructed in her honour at Dion, and Homer mentions that the goddess had a precinct named after her at Pyrasos.
Demeter rarely appears in art before the 6th century BCE and then she is usually shown with Persephone; often both wear crowns and hold a torch, sceptre or stalks of grain. Demeter is also sometimes present in scenes depicting the birth of Athena.
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