Demeter was the Ancient Greek goddess of harvest and agriculture, presiding over grains and fertility of the earth. She was one of the most prominent figures in Greek mythology and she is one of the 12 most important Greek gods and goddesses. Apart from being the goddess of harvest and agriculture, Demeter was also seen as the goddess of Earth and the underworld. She was a central figure of Eleausinian Mysteries, the “most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece”. Moreover, there was a major festival dedicated to her which was called Thesmophoria. The most famous myth featuring Demeter is the loss and recovery of her daughter Persephone; and she is often depicted in art and literature in relation to this myth. Know more about the birth, symbolism and children of the Greek Goddess Demeter as well as her standing in ancient Greece through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 Demeter is the goddess of harvest and agriculture

In ancient Greek religion and myth, Demeter is the goddess of harvest and agriculture, presiding over grains and responsible for the fertility of the earth. Demeter was seen as a “corn-mother”, the goddess of cereals who provides grain for bread and blesses its harvesters. Being a goddess of agriculture, Demeter is usually depicted carrying bunches of grain and poppies in her hands. The word Demeter is connected with the Greek words da (“earth”) and meter (“mother”). It thus translates as “earth goddess”, which is consistent with her being a goddess of harvest and agriculture. Greeks dedicated a temple to Demeter which was situated in the peripheral area of the Sangri village on Naxos island. The Temple of Demeter was built around 6th century BC and was eventually replaced by a church in later centuries.

Relief of Demeter in Pompeii
Relief of Demeter in Pompeii depicting her as a goddess of agriculture

 

#2 Demeter was also a goddess of the underworld

Demeter was also considered as the goddess of the Earth and the underworld. In one of the regional units of Greece i.e. Arcadia, Demeter was depicted as a goddess with a hair of snakes, holding a dolphin in one hand and dove in the other. Such representation were mainly to symbolize her dominance over the underworld, the air and the water. According to an agrarian-belief in ancient Greece, a new life always sprouts from the remains of a dead body just like a new plant arises from buried seed. In context to this agrarian belief, the Athenians used to call the dead by the name of “Demetrioi”. Moreover, in the city of Sparta, Demeter was called by the name Demeter-Chthonia. In ancient Greek religion, the word Chthonia refers to deities or spirits belonging to the underworld.

Bust of Demeter
Bust of Demeter – Roman copy of a Greek original from the 4th century BCE

 

#3 She is usually shown as a mature beautiful woman

Demeter is considered as a beautiful goddess in ancient Greek mythology. She was portrayed as a mature woman, often seated on a throne and wearing a crown. She is usually shown dressed in finery with long red hair that were usually worn in a bun with a veil over her head. In Homer’s epic Odyssey, she is described as blond-haired, though most depictions of her in art show dark, curly hair. In a Homeric hymn, Demeter is described as beauty spreading round about her; emitting a lovely fragrance“; “a light shining afar” from her divine body; and golden tresses spreading down over her shoulders. Demeter is often shown wearing a Toga which is a distinctive garment of ancient Rome. It was roughly a semicircular cloth, draped over the shoulders and around the body. Cornucopia is a large horn-shaped container overflowing with produce. It was an ancient symbol of abundance and nourishment. Demeter, being a goddess of agriculture, is often portrayed with a cornucopia.

Statue of Demeter
Marble statue of Demeter, National Roman Museum

 

#4 Demeter is one of the 12 Olympian Gods

Demeter is one of the 12 Olympian Gods. The Olympians are a race of deities who are a third or fourth generation of immortal beings. They were worshiped as the principal deities of the Greek pantheon and reside atop Mount Olympus. The Olympians managed to become supreme deities after a 10-year struggle known as Titanomachy. In this struggle, Demeter’s brother Zeus led his siblings to victory over the Titans who were the ruling deities at the time. Although there are a number of immortal residents at Mount Olympus, only 12 of them are considered the most important ones. These include the children of Titans Cronus and Rhea; namely Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter and Hestia; along with the main offspring of Zeus; namely Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Hephaestus, Hermes, Dionysus and Aphrodite. Being the sister of Zeus, Demeter had a place of prominence among the 12 Olympian Gods.

The twelve Olympian gods
Fragment of a Hellenistic relief depicting the twelve Olympians

 

#5 She was born after she was disgorged by her father

According to Greek mythology, Cronus overthrew his father Uranus and ruled over the world along with his wife Rhea. However he was told that one of his children would go on to overthrow him like he had overthrown his father. Cronus had several children with Rhea including Demeter but swallowed them all at birth. However, when her sixth child Zeus was born, Rhea hid him in a cave and instead gave Cronus a stone wrapped in his clothes which he swallowed. When Zeus came of age, he disguised himself as an Olympian cup-bearer; poisoned his father’s wine with a potion; and tricked him to drink it. This led to Cronus disgorging Zeus’ siblings: his sisters Hestia, Demeter and Hera; and his brothers Hades and Poseidon. Along with his siblings, the Hecatonchires, and the Cyclopes; Zeus then fought against Cronus and the other Titans in the Titanomachy. He emerged victories and overthrew Cronus. Later, Demeter had an affair with her brother Zeus which resulted in a daughter named Persephone.

Chronus disgorging his children
Depiction of Chronus disgorging his children

 

#6 She was the mother of eight children

Demeter gave birth to 8 children, of which Persephone, Areion, Despoine, Ploutos and Philomelos are the best known. Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter and is also known as the majestic queen of the underworld. According to legend, Demeter gave birth to Areion, an immortal horse when Poseidon raped Demeter in the guise of a horse. Despoine was another offspring of Demeter and Poseidon. She was the goddess of mysteries of Arcadian cults who was worshiped alongside her mother Demeter. Demeter had a relationship with Iasion, who was the son of the nymph Electra and Zeus. Together they had two sons, Ploutos and Philomelos. While Ploutos is the Greek god of wealth, Philomelos is a minor Greek demi-god, patron of husbandry, ploughing and agriculture. While Demeter dedicated herself to the practices of harvesting and agriculture, Philomelos became responsible for ploughing and cultivation of crops.

 

#7 The Thesmophoria festival was held in her honor

In ancient Greece, a festival called Thesmophoria was held annually in honor of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The festival used to take place mostly around the time when seeds were sown in late autumn. It celebrated human and agricultural fertility. Only adult women were allowed to participate in Thesmophoria and men were forbidden from the rites and rituals practiced during the festival. Thus these rites and rituals were kept secret. One of the prominent rituals during the festival was the act of scarifying of the pigs by women. Thereafter, the remains were put inside the pits called Megara for undergoing decomposition. Finally, the decomposed remains were scattered on fields when seeds were sown, in the belief that this would ensure a good harvest. Thesmophoria was held for three days in Athens. These days were named Anodos (“ascent”); Nesteia (“abstinence”); and Kalligeneia (“beautiful birth”). Thesmophoria was one of the most important and widespread ancient Greek festival. In connection to the festival, Demeter is also known as Thesmophoros (“giver of customs”)

Thesmophoric Procession
Thesmophoric Procession – Painting by Francis Davis Millet

 

#8 Demeter was the central figure of Eleusinian Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries was a major festival held annually for the cult of Demeter and Persephone. It is so named as it was based in the ancient Greek suburb of Eleusis. The Eleusinian Mysteries mainly revolve around the mythical incident where Demeter’s daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, the king of the underworld. They are portrayed in three distinctive phases, namely, the descent (loss), the search, and the ascent. The first phase deals with the Demeter’s distress after losing her daughter and how it caused a terrible drought leading to suffering and starvation among people. The second phase deals with how Demeter searched high and low for her daughter. The third and the main phase deals with the union between the mother and the daughter and, as a result, how the earth returned to its former verdure and prosperity. The rites, ceremonies and beliefs related to the mysteries were kept secret and consistently preserved from antiquity. The Eleusinian Mysteries are the “most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece”. It predated the Olympian pantheon and may have its roots as early as 1400 BCE.

Depiction of Eleusinian Mysteries
Ninnion Tablet – A plaque depicting elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries

 

#9 Ceres is the Roman equivalent of Demeter

According to Roman mythology, Ceres is considered as the goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships. She was credited with teaching humans the art of growing, preserving and preparing grain and corn. She also possessed the power to fertilize, multiply and fructify plant and animal seed. Due to this, Ceres is considered as the counterpart of the Greek goddess Demeter. In Roman art and literature, the mythology related to Demeter is re-interpreted with Ceres playing her role. Finally, the worship of Demeter was formally merged with that of Ceres around 205 BC. Just like Demeter was one of the twelve Olympian Gods, Ceres too was one of Dii Consentes, the twelve major deities of the Roman pantheon. Moreover, just like the Thesmophoria festival was held to honor Demeter, Ceres was too honored by a major Roman festival known as Cerealia.

Sculpture of Ceres
Ceres – Sculpture in the Vatican Museum

 

#10 Demeter features on the Great Seal of North Carolina

The most important myth of Demeter is the loss and recovery of her daughter Persephone; and hence she is often portrayed alongside her daughter or searching for her. Demeter appears on Greek vases as early as 6th century BCE. She is often showed robed and sometimes holding a torch, in reference to the myth of her searching for her daughter. In post-classical art, Demeter is frequently represented as an allegory of the fruitfulness of the earth. Such depictions include the 1620 painting Offering to Ceres by Jacob Jordaens; and the 1960 sculpture Demeter by Jean Arp. Similarly, in popular culture, Demeter is depicted as an important deity to humans who is responsible for the fertility of crops and who controls the seasonal changes. She features in the Great Seal of North Carolina where the figure Plenty represents Demeter holding onto three wheat and sitting on the horn of plenty, a hollow horn filled with the inexhaustible gifts of celebratory fruit. An asteroid which was discovered by German astronomer Karl Reinmuth on May 31, 1929 was named after Demeter; and came to be known as 1108 Demeter.

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