Demeter & Persephone

Demeter & Persephone


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Explainer: The Story of Demeter and Persephone

The student of Greek mythology is often struck by the fact that some gods and goddesses have extensive roles in the mythical narratives, and others have very limited parts to play. The goddess Demeter is an interesting case of this. As an Olympian goddess and fertility figure, she was very important in ancient Greek religion and life, but she had a rather small role in its literature and mythology.

She was mentioned a little bit in Homeric epic, especially the Iliad, but had no actual part to play either in the Iliad or the Odyssey. Nor was she featured at all as a character in extant Greek drama.

There is, however, a rather beautiful poem called the Homeric Hymn to Demeter in which Demeter and her daughter Persephone are the central focus of attention. It probably dates to the first half of the 6th century BC. It is 495 lines long and composed in hexameters, the same poetic meter as the Iliad and Odyssey. Despite its connections to epic poetry, however, and the title “Homeric”, the hymn is of uncertain authorship.


The great goddess Demeter had a young, beautiful daughter, Persephone. Persephone’s father was the great son of Cronus himself, the Thunderer Zeus. Once upon a time, the beautiful Persephone, along with her oceanid friends, played carefree in the blossoming Nise Valley. Like a light-winged butterfly, the young daughter of Demetrius came running from flower to flower. She plucked gorgeous roses, fragrant violets, snow-white lilies and red hyacinths. Persephone was carelessly mad, not knowing what fate her father Zeus had ordained for her. De could think that she would not see the clear sunlight again soon, that she would not soon enjoy the flowers and inhale their sweet scent. Zeus gave her in marriage to his gloomy brother Hades, the ruler of the realm of the shadows of the dead, and with him she was to live in the darkness of the underworld, deprived of the light of the scorching southern sun.

Hades saw Persephone as she went mad in the Nise Valley, and immediately decided to steal her. He begged the goddess Gaia to create an unusually beautiful flower. The goddess Gaia agreed, and a wonderful flower blossomed in the valley of Nise its intoxicating aroma spread to all sides. Persephone saw the flower, she reached out, grabbed the stalk, and tore it off. But suddenly the earth dissolves and in a golden chariot, drawn by black horses, the ruler of the realm of shadows of the dead, the gloomy Hades, appears. He grabbed the young Persephone, put her on his chariot, and in an instant disappeared with his fast horses into the bowels of the earth. Persephone barely managed to shout. The cry of terror from Demeter’s young daughter spread far and wide he reached both the abysses of the sea and the high bright Olympus. No one saw the gloomy Hades kidnap Persephone, only the god Helios, the Sun, saw it.

Hades kidnaps Persephone, Luca Giordano

The goddess Demeter heard Persephone’s cry. She quickly found herself in the Nise Valley, looking everywhere for her daughter, asking her friends, the Oceanids, but she was nowhere to be found. The Oceanids did not see where Persephone had disappeared.

Severe grief over the loss of her only beloved daughter gripped Demeter’s heart. Dressed in dark clothes, for nine days, alien and indifferent to everything else, the great goddess Demeter wandered the earth, shedding bitter tears. She looked everywhere for Persephone, begging everyone for help, but no one could help her in her grief. Finally, only on the tenth day, she went to the god Helios – the Sun, and with tears in her eyes asked him:

“Oh, radiant Helios! You travel in a golden chariot high in the sky all over the earth and all the seas you see everything, nothing can be hidden from you if you have at least a little mercy on me, an unhappy mother, tell me where my daughter Persephone is, tell me where to look for her! I heard her cry, they stole her from me. I was looking for her everywhere, but I couldn’t find her anywhere!”
The radiant Helios replied to Demeter:

“Great goddess, you know how I respect you and you see how I grieve as I watch your grief. Know: the great cloudman Zeus gave your daughter to his gloomy brother, the ruler Hades, who stole Persephone and kidnapped her in his horrified kingdom. Overcome your heavy grief, goddess great is your daughter’s husband, she became the wife of the mighty brother of the great Zeus.”

This made the goddess Demeter even sadder. She was angry with the thunderer Zeus for giving Persephone to Hades‘ wife without her consent. She left the gods, left the bright Olympus, took the form of an ordinary mortal, and, dressed in dark clothes, wandered among mortals for a long time, shedding bitter tears.

Stopped all growth on the ground. The leaves of the trees withered and fell. The forests stood bare. The grass burned the flowers loosened their colorful wreaths and withered. There were no fruits in the orchards, no green vines, no heavy, juicy grapes ripening in them. The once fertile fields were desolate, not a single stalk in them. Life on earth died. Hunger reigned everywhere crying and moaning could be heard everywhere. Doom threatened the entire human race. But immersed in grief for her tenderly beloved daughter, Demeter saw nothing, heard nothing.

Finally, Demeter came to the town of Eleusis. There, by the city walls, she sat in the shade under an olive tree on the “stone of sorrow,” next to the “well of the virgins.” Demeter sat motionless like a real statue. Her dark robe came down in straight folds. Her head was relaxed, and tears and drops fell from her eyes one after another. Demeter sat like that for a long time, lonely and inconsolable.

The daughters of the Eleusinian king Kelei saw her. They were surprised to see a crying woman in dark clothes by the well, approached her and asked her sympathetically who she was. But the goddess Demeter did not reveal herself to them. She said that her name was Deo, that she was a native of Crete, that she had been kidnapped by robbers, but she escaped from them and after long wanderings reached Eleusis. Demeter asked Kelei’s daughters to take her to her father’s house she agreed to become their mother’s maid, look after the children, and work at Kelei’s home.

Kelei’s daughters took Demeter to their mother Metaneira. It never crossed their minds that they were bringing a great goddess to their father’s house. But when Demeter was brought into the house, she touched the top threshold of the door with her head, and the whole house was illuminated by a wonderful light. Metaneira rose to meet the goddess she realized that the stranger her daughters had brought to her was no ordinary mortal. Kelly’s wife bowed low to her and invited her to sit in her queen’s place. Demeter refused she sat silently in the maid’s usual place, still indifferent to everything that was going on around her. But Metaneira’s maid, the merry Yamba, seeing the stranger’s deep sorrow, tried to cheer her up. She nimbly served both her and her mistress Metaneira her laughter sounded loud and her jokes poured out. Demeter smiled for the first time since her grim Hades had stolen her daughter, and agreed to taste food for the first time.

Demeter stayed with Kelei. She took care of the upbringing of his son Demophont. The goddess decided to make Demophont immortal. She held the boy on her goddess’s breast, on her knees it breathed the immortal breath of the goddess. Demeter smeared him with ragweed, and at night, when everyone in Kelei’s house was asleep, she wrapped Demophont in diapers and put him in the hot furnace. But Demophont did not receive immortality. Once Metaneira saw her son lying in the furnace, she was terribly frightened and began to beg Demeter not to do so. Demeter was angry with Metaneira, pulled Demophont out of the furnace, and said,

“Oh, unreasonable woman! I wanted to give immortality to your son, to make him invulnerable. Know that I am Demeter, who gives strength and joy of mortals and immortals.”

Demeter revealed to Kelei and Metaneira who she was and took her ordinary image of a goddess. Divine light spread over Kelei’s chambers. Goddess Demeter stood upright, majestic and beautiful, her golden hair falling on her shoulders, divine wisdom shining in her eyes, fragrance flowing from her clothes. Metaneira and her husband fell to their knees in front of her.

Goddess Demeter ordered a temple to be built in Eleusis near the spring of Calichora and remained to live in it. At this temple Demeter herself began solemn celebrations.

The grief for her tenderly loved daughter did not leave Demeter, she did not forget her anger towards Zeus. The earth was still barren. The famine became more and more intense, as not a single grass grew in the fields of the farmers. In vain did the oxen of their owners pull the heavy plow on them – their work was in vain. Whole tribes died out. The cries of the hungry rose to the sky, but Demeter ignored them. Eventually, the smoking sacrifices on earth in honor of the immortal gods stopped. Doom threatened all living things. But the great cloudman Zeus did not want mortals to die. He sent to Demeter the messenger of the gods Iris. She quickly flew on her rainbow wings to Eleusis, for the temple of Demeter. And he called her, begged her to return to the bright Olympus among the gods. Demeter remained deaf to her pleas. Other gods were sent by the great Zeus to Demeter, but the goddess did not want to return to Olympus before Hades returned her daughter Persephone.

Then the great Zeus sent to his gloomy brother Hades Hermes, as fast as a thought. Hermes descended into the horrified kingdom of Hades, appeared before the ruler of the souls of the dead sitting on a golden throne, and surrendered the will of Zeus to him.

Hades agreed to let Persephone go to her mother, but before that he let her swallow a grain of pomegranate fruit, a symbol of marriage. Persephone ascended in her husband’s golden chariot, accompanied by Hermes the immortal horses of Hades flew – no obstacles existed for them and in an instant reached Eleusis.

Forgetting everything out of joy, Demeter rushed to meet her daughter and grabbed her in her arms. Her beloved daughter Persephone was with her again. Demeter returned to Olympus with her. Then the great Zeus decided that two-thirds of the year Persephone should live with her mother, and for one-third to return to her husband Hades.

Pinax of Persephone and Hades, Reggio Calabria

The great Demeter restored the fertility of the earth and again everything turned green and began to bloom. The forests were covered with tender spring leaves flowers variegated green lawn in the meadows. Soon the grain fields were planted orchards blossomed and began to smell the greenery of the vineyards shone in the sun. The whole of nature woke up. All living things rejoiced and glorified the great goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

But every year Persephone leaves her mother, and each time Demeter sinks into grief and dresses in dark clothes again. And all nature mourns the past of Persephone. The leaves on the trees turn yellow and the autumn wind blows them away, the flowers bloom, the fields are deserted, winter comes. Nature sleeps to awaken in the joyous glow of spring – when she returns to her mother from the unhappy kingdom of Hades Persephone. And when her daughter returns to Demeter, then the great goddess of fertility with a generous hand pours her gifts to the people and blesses the work of the farmers with a rich harvest.


A Blight on the Land

Her mother heard her cry and began to search for her throughout the whole world. While Persephone was missing Demeter created a blight on the land in which nothing germinated and nothing grew. She would have destroyed humanity altogether if Zeus hadn’t taken notice and acted accordingly.

A human genocide was clearly not in the gods’ interest. It would deprive them of the honors that they received from mortals. Their existence without honors from humans would be intolerable, and Zeus, as ruler of the world, couldn’t allow that to happen.

But Demeter would not let go of her fury at the loss of her daughter. She wouldn’t go to Olympus, the home of the gods, and she wouldn’t let fruit grow on the earth until she saw Persephone again.

Zeus was forced to relent and sent the messenger Hermes to the underworld to get the girl back. But, just as she was leaving, Hades prevailed on her to eat the seed of a pomegranate to prevent her from staying with her mother above the earth all her days. Persephone was therefore forced to spend one-third of each year under the earth with Hades, and two-thirds with her mother and the community of gods on Mount Olympus .

The return of Persephone to Demeter. (Shuishouyue / Public Domain )

Persephone’s transition from the feminized world of a flowery meadow to the unrelenting male world of Hades could scarcely be more fundamental.

The male gods who perpetrated the deed, Zeus and Hades, had no redeeming features whatever in the hymn, and they were really undone by the sheer force of Demeter’s love for her daughter. The main narrative of the hymn has some similarities to Achilles’ response to the loss of Patroclus in the Iliad, but Demeter’s wrath was universal with a kind of cosmic maternal power to it.


The Story of Demeter and Persephone

Demeter, the sister of Zeus, had a beautiful daughter by the name of Persephone, whom she loved above everything else. According to legend, their home was in the vicinity of Etna in Sicily.

One sunny day while Persephone was out with her friends gathering roses, lilies and hyacinths from a blossoming meadow, she suddenly, from a distance, saw the most beautiful flower she’d ever seen. She ran over there to collect it and was thus separated from her companions. Just as she would pick the flower, she heard a loud noise, like that of thunder. The ground split open right before her and from the depths a black chariot pulled by four black horses emerged. In the chariot sat a dark figure, a king of some sort because he wore a crown on his head. His face was shadowy and his gaze gloomy and grave.

Persephone was struck with fear and attempted to run away. But before she managed to escape, the shadowy king hastily approached her with his black chariot and violently grabbed her and placed her by his side. Her cries were so loud that they immediately caught the attention of her companions. She prayed, screamed and cried but to no avail, the shadowy king lashed his horses and they rapidly burst back to the depths whence they came and the earth closed above their heads. The friends of Persephone called and searched for her but she was gone. Demeter was devastated and full of despair. She went everywhere and searched the whole of Sicily but there were no traces of her daughter to be found.

With no more options left, she beseeched the moon goddess Hecate and asked her if she knew where Persephone was. Hecate referred Demeter to the sun god Apollo, who was all-seeing. From Apollo she learnt that it was Hades, the king of the underworld, that had abducted her daughter and that she now lived beside him in the underworld in the dark and deep night.

Demeter’s anger over Hades insidious bridenapping knew no boundaries. She retreated from her duties of caring for the fields and gardens. The grass on the fields withered away and the trees in the gardens dried up and from this emerged distress and poverty in all the countries of the world.

This troubled Zeus, the king of the gods, whom from his all-seeing throne on Mount Olympus decided to send down his messenger Iris to Demeter in order to conciliate and comfort her in her sorrows. But it didn’t work, Demeter wanted nothing but to have her daughter back. Zeus thus sent his other son Hermes to the underworld to meet Hades and order him to send Persephone back to her mother. Hades being subordinate to Zeus did as he was told. However before he handed Persephone over to Hermes, he managed to convince Persephone to eat a pomegranate which grew from the soil of the underworld. After she ate of this fruit, she was granted passage back to the world above, Earth.

Demeter was overjoyed when she saw her daughter and embraced her like never before. But this joy quickly turned into anxiety as she asked her daughter whether she had eaten anything in the underworld. Persephone confessed to her mother that she had eaten a pomegranate and Demeter was stricken with terror once again. She knew that whomever ate from the underworld had closed her own path back to this world.

After those turn of events, the gods of Olympus decided to make a deal with Hades and the gods of the underworld, a deal which meant that Persephone would be allowed to spend a certain part of the year with her mother on Earth, and the other part to live with her consort Hades in the depths of the underworld. When Persephone has to leave her mother to go back to the underworld, Demeter is deeply saddened and withdraws into solitude and isolation. When this happens, all the lands become dark and cold and the vegetation stops growing, but when Persephone returns to her mother, the sun shines its nourishing light once again over the lands of the earth and spring and summer prevail.


Contents

Birth

Demeter was the second born child of Kronos and Rhea, after Hestia and before Hera. After her birth, Kronos devoured her and she would remain there, growing, for she was immortal and would never die. Once Zeus had grown, he fed Kronos a mixture of wine and mustard, which made him disgorge his children. Demeter was the second to last person to be thrown up. She also fought in the Titanomachy, until the gods won. She would then become an Olympian. Poseidon and Zeus both wanted to marry her, though she refused. She would, however, have affairs with them later on.

Poseidon had come one day to attempt to make her lay with him. She, in an attempt to escape him, turned herself into a Mare. Poseidon was confused at first, but then turned into a Stallion, then as result was Arion and Despoina.


The Story of Demeter and Persephone

Demeter, the sister of Zeus, had a beautiful daughter by the name of Persephone, whom she loved above everything else. According to legend, their home was in the vicinity of Etna in Sicily.

One sunny day while Persephone was out with her friends gathering roses, lilies and hyacinths from a blossoming meadow, she suddenly, from a distance, saw the most beautiful flower she’d ever seen. She ran over there to collect it and was thus separated from her companions. Just as she would pick the flower, she heard a loud noise, like that of thunder. The ground split open right before her and from the depths a black chariot pulled by four black horses emerged. In the chariot sat a dark figure, a king of some sort because he wore a crown on his head. His face was shadowy and his gaze gloomy and grave.

Persephone was struck with fear and attempted to run away. But before she managed to escape, the shadowy king hastily approached her with his black chariot and violently grabbed her and placed her by his side. Her cries were so loud that they immediately caught the attention of her companions. She prayed, screamed and cried but to no avail, the shadowy king lashed his horses and they rapidly burst back to the depths whence they came and the earth closed above their heads. The friends of Persephone called and searched for her but she was gone. Demeter was devastated and full of despair. She went everywhere and searched the whole of Sicily but there were no traces of her daughter to be found.

With no more options left, she beseeched the moon goddess Hecate and asked her if she knew where Persephone was. Hecate referred Demeter to the sun god Apollo, who was all-seeing. From Apollo she learnt that it was Hades, the king of the underworld, that had abducted her daughter and that she now lived beside him in the underworld in the dark and deep night.

Demeter’s anger over Hades insidious bridenapping knew no boundaries. She retreated from her duties of caring for the fields and gardens. The grass on the fields withered away and the trees in the gardens dried up and from this emerged distress and poverty in all the countries of the world.

This troubled Zeus, the king of the gods, whom from his all-seeing throne on Mount Olympus decided to send down his messenger Iris to Demeter in order to conciliate and comfort her in her sorrows. But it didn’t work, Demeter wanted nothing but to have her daughter back. Zeus thus sent his other son Hermes to the underworld to meet Hades and order him to send Persephone back to her mother. Hades being subordinate to Zeus did as he was told. However before he handed Persephone over to Hermes, he managed to convince Persephone to eat a pomegranate which grew from the soil of the underworld. After she ate of this fruit, she was granted passage back to the world above, Earth.

Demeter was overjoyed when she saw her daughter and embraced her like never before. But this joy quickly turned into anxiety as she asked her daughter whether she had eaten anything in the underworld. Persephone confessed to her mother that she had eaten a pomegranate and Demeter was stricken with terror once again. She knew that whomever ate from the underworld had closed her own path back to this world.

After those turn of events, the gods of Olympus decided to make a deal with Hades and the gods of the underworld, a deal which meant that Persephone would be allowed to spend a certain part of the year with her mother on Earth, and the other part to live with her consort Hades in the depths of the underworld. When Persephone has to leave her mother to go back to the underworld, Demeter is deeply saddened and withdraws into solitude and isolation. When this happens, all the lands become dark and cold and the vegetation stops growing, but when Persephone returns to her mother, the sun shines its nourishing light once again over the lands of the earth and spring and summer prevail.


A Mother’s Love

The focus of the poem is one of the most renowned narratives from Greek mythology—the rape of Persephone by Hades, the god of the Underworld, and the response of Demeter to her loss. It is a remarkable narrative, built fundamentally on the power of a mother’s love for her only child.

The ancient Greek word for “mother” [meter] is actually embedded in Demeter’s name. The “Hymn” describes the primordial maternal power brought to bear upon the male sky-god Zeus, who had secretly (that is, without Demeter’s knowledge) given over his daughter Persephone to a marriage with his brother Hades.

Demeter is one of the “older” generation of Olympian gods. Her siblings are Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades on the male side, and Hera and Hestia on the female side. Zeus, the sky god, has sexual relations with two of his sisters—Hera, who is a kind of long-suffering queen of heaven and Demeter, who is more earth-focused. In a famous passage in the “Iliad” Book 14, Zeus recounts to Hera herself some of his sexual exploits, and he names Demeter in his long list of amours.

Persephone is not mentioned in the passage as the product of this particular sexual encounter, but that is definitely the idea. Demeter and Persephone are often thought of together as “The Two Goddesses.” This name helps to emphasize the power of their bond, and the gravity of Zeus’s action in violently separating them.

The “Hymn” tells the story of Persephone and other young girls gathering flowers in a meadow. As she bends down to pick a beautiful flower, the earth opens up and Hades emerges on his horse-drawn chariot. She gives out a scream, but he carries her off into the depths of the earth.


Persephone Cults

Some cults were dedicated solely to Persephone without Demeter, albeit often coupled with her underworld husband Hades, whereas others included her mother but merely in a sporadic or marginal role. Among these, particularly significant is the Magna Graecian cult in Locri, whose flourishing is shown by a few literary sources and by extensive archaeological evidence. Whereas its period of greatest splendor was between the end of the sixth century and the mid-fifth century bce, this cult also spread outside the Locri Persephoneion to Medma and other towns of Magna Graecia and to Francavilla in Sicily. It was characterized by the enthusiastic participation of the local people and by a rich mythical background with a corresponding ritual praxis, whose reconstruction depends entirely on the exegesis of the complex iconography. The votive pinakes (tablets) that have been found in large numbers in the favissae (underground chambers for sacred deposits) of the sanctuary present numerous scenes in which the divine and mythical levels intertwine deeply with human life and ritual. The scenes are dominated by the majestic figures of Persephone and Hades on their thrones, often accompanied by other divine figures (Dionysos, Hermes, Ares) and above all human images, such as maidens with various attributes (ball, cockerel) and women engaged in picking fruit, in ritual procession, and in scenes of sacrifice or nuptial significance. A particularly interesting depiction is that of a female figure (goddess or woman?) sitting at a table upon which is placed a basket that she holds open to reveal a boy inside. Another scene that stands out for the frequency and variety of figurative motifs is that of a chariot drawn by winged horses carrying a maiden, who is led, often by force, by an abductor, who is sometimes a youth and sometimes an older man. The two levels of the divine and human are inextricably intertwined, because the scenario of the mythical marriage is superimposed by the reference to the common female experience of marriage perceived as a maiden's separation from her family and her assumption of the new role of adult woman, wife, and mother.

Lastly, the varied ancient religious literature attributed to the mythical Thracian poet Orpheus displayed a great interest in the myths and rituals gravitating around the mother and daughter pair. Although the thesis of an influence of Orphic doctrines in Eleusis has been convincingly confuted by Fritz Graf (1974), numerous testimonies reveal the existence of particular mythical versions of the abduction, which the Orphic Argonautika link explicitly to the Thesmophoria. In some formulas relative to the otherworldly journey of the soul contained in the well-known gold leaves from Thurii (fourth – third centuries bce) that seem to reflect an eschatology of Orphic inspiration, Persephone is invoked as "pure Queen of them below" (in Kern, 1922, fr. 32 c-f), and Demeter is also mentioned.


The Story of the Goddess Persephone, And Why the Seasons Continue to Change

Have you ever wondered why the seasons changed at all? Well, I guess the reason for this might vary depending on who you ask.

According to Greek Mythology, the reason why the seasons change is because of Hades and his need to lock away the woman he fell for. For anyone who may not be quite as aware, Hades in Greek Mythology was/is the god of the Underworld. He was a son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea.

Persephone the young woman Hades fell for was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter (who both also happened to be Hades siblings). Demeter had an obsessed type of love for her daughter and would keep all men away from her but one day, Hades decided to steal her and lock her away in the Underworld. One day, while she was playing and picking flowers with her friends in a valley the Earth under her feet, began to come open and Hades rode through on his chariot to take her down into the Underworld. This happening so quickly her friends saw nothing and she was gone before she could even let out a scream.

It is thought that off in the distance her father Zeus and his brother Helios witnessed this event but did nothing as to not cause a fight but some people do not believe they were aware until later. Demeter, who was distraught once she learned of her daughter’s disappearance, wandered the Earth looking for her until it was revealed to her that Hades had indeed kidnapped her. Because Demeter was so upset she no longer carried out her duties as the goddess of harvest and fertility. This meaning that the Earth itself began to dry up and harvests failed.

Having decided this could no longer be ignored Zeus set out to make things right. While in the Underworld Persephone was kept in an ornately decorated room and brought all kinds of foods but refused to eat. She had heard that should you eat anything from the realm of Hades you would never be able to leave. She wanted to get back home to her mother so she held out as long as she was able to until the hunger was just too much.

Persephone ended up eating just a few pomegranate seeds but that was more than enough to seal her fate in some form, tying her to the Underworld itself. Zeus was able to work out a compromise in the end. Persephone would spend half months with her mother and the other half with her husband. This meaning the time that she spent in the Underworld would be winter on earth. She would go back and forth from the Underworld and Earth. Persephone did become the wife of Hades but was also able to leave the Underworld at least for a little while so in the end not all was lost.

What do you think about this? I for one find it to be a bit fascinating. Persephone is easily one of my favorite ‘Greek Goddesses.’


Demeter’s Name Meant She Was a Mother Goddess

Historians and linguists have long debated how Demeter got her name. Of the many possibilities, though, nearly all agree that it referred to her as a mother goddess.

Like many Greek gods and goddesses, the exact origins of Demeter’s name are unknown. Linguists know that the word probably predates the forms of Greek spoken in the ancient world, but cannot pinpoint exactly how the name entered the language.

It is possible that an early form of Demeter’s name is referenced in surviving writing from the Minoan culture. The phonetic word da-ma-te, however, does not appear to refer to a goddess.

Instead of looking for a direct source of the name, historians and linguists have relied on interpreting the possible roots of it. Demeter’s name seems to predate Greek mythology.

Most believe that the last two syllables of her name, -meter, were originally -mater. This has clear links to languages throughout Europe and India.

The word -mater is the root for “mother” in many languages. It is the basis for the English word, modern Greek “mitera,” German “Mutter,” and similar words in many other languages.

Linguists believe that this is one of the oldest roots in Indo-European languages. It is possibly one of the oldest roots from even before Proto-Indo-European developed.

Many non-Indo-European languages have similar words. From the Zulu “umama” to the Thai “mae,” many languages use similar sounds in their words for “mother.”

The inclusion of -materin the name of a goddess that was associated with motherhood and agriculture is, therefore, hardly surprising. Demeter’s name in Greek mythology points to the fact that she was revered as a mother goddess, likely well before many of the familiar myths were told.

Linguists are less certain, however, about the other element in Demeter’s name. The de- before “mother” has been a source of debate.

Some have suggested that it may be related to an archaic word for “earth.” In this case, Demeter’s name would have literally signalled that she was the Mother Earth.

Others doubt this interpretation, however, as there is little evidence that de- denoted the earth in languages closely related to Greek.

Some believe that it was instead related to the name Despoina. That goddess’s name came from the ancient root Dem-, or house.

Supporters of this interpretation believe that Demeter’s name was originally sometime like Demsmater, the “Mother of the House.”

Demeter, however, was always associated with agriculture more than the household.

Instead, a likely theory is that her name contains the archaic deo, a general word for a god or goddess. This common root word influenced the names of Greek gods like Zeus, the Roman Jupiter, and deities from further away like the Irish Danu.

If Demeter’s name does come from the deo- root, this would indicate that she was more broadly thought of as a mother goddess. Before she was specifically associated with grain, Demeter may have been a mother figure much like Gaia.

She Had a Surprising Flower Symbol

Like most gods and goddesses in Greek mythology, Demeter had certain symbols that were closely associated with her. They identified her in art and were seen as signs of her presence on earth.

As could be expected, Demeter was closely identified with the grains that she made grow. She was often shown carrying sheaves of grain or the cornucopia, a sign of agricultural bounty.

Aside from plants that were useful as food, however, Demeter also had a botanical symbol that is less obviously associated with her domain. Her sacred flower was the poppy.

Demeter was sometimes shown in art holding a poppy or with the flowers near her. Additionally, some ancient writers mentioned poppies as part of the regalia of Demeter’s priestesses.

Such symbols were not chosen randomly. The people of ancient Greece had a reason to associate the goddess of grain with poppies.

Many species of poppies grew in the ancient world. The most common in much of Europe grew as a weed in cultivated fields.

Before the invention of modern herbicides, poppies were plentiful in fields across Europe. While they grew wild, they thrived where the land had been cleared.

For this reason, the bright red flowers were associated with agriculture. Poppies were Demeter’s symbol because they grew among the grains she oversaw.

Some historians believe, however, that there may have been another reason for the goddess to be associated with poppies.

In Minoan Crete, images were made of a goddess adorned with red poppies. She not only wore the flowers, but also the seed capsules.

The use of such capsules in medicine had been discovered long before. While not all species of poppy have the same effects, some are used to make opium.

Historians believe that the Cretan goddess may indicate that opium was produced for medicinal or ritual purposes on the island. Their goddess may have been associated with the narcotic effects of the plant.

This symbolism is fitting with Demeter’s role as an Underworld goddess. Particularly in the mystery cults, she was a goddess who bridged life and death.

The effects of opium on dulling the senses and producing sleep made it a fitting symbol for a goddess with links to the Underworld. As Demeter’s flower, it may have been an ancient symbol of her dominion over the cycle of death and rebirth.

Demeter Burned a Child

One of the less well-known stories about Demeter in Greek mythology is similar to another famous tale.

Whenever the gods appeared on earth, there were several stories about what they did there. Different groups and cities often claimed that they had a personal connection to the deity from their time on earth.

Demeter’s most famous visit to the human world was after the abduction of her daughter, Persephone. After Persephone was taken by Hades, Demeter spent days wandering the world in search of her.

One of the cities that claimed to have been visited by Demeter during her search was Eleusis. Disguised as an older woman, she was welcomed by King Celeus and his wife, Queen Metaneira.

The queen had given birth to two sons late in life and the youngest, Demophon, was still a baby. When she saw the guest that had arrived at her palace, Metaneira saw an opportunity for her son.

Despite her disguise, the king and queen recognized Demeter’s divinity. They asked her to care for their son and, thus, to pass some of her power on to him.

Children who were nursed by goddesses received some amount of divinity from them. If Demeter nursed their son, the king and queen knew, he would grow to be more noble, stronger, and more handsome than other men.

Demeter agreed, happy to bless the infant in exchange for his parents’ hospitality. She promised that her charms would keep him safe from witchcraft and childhood illnesses.

During her stay in Eleusis, Demeter became attached to young Demophon. She came to love the baby and decided that, instead of simple charms and blessings, she would confer full divinity onto him.

To do this, Demeter anointed the child with ambrosia. She then held him over a fire to slowly burn away his mortality.

As she was doing this, however, Metaneira walked in. She screamed when she saw her infant son being held over the flames.

Demeter was angry that the queen had interrupted her, and that Metaneira thought she would harm the baby. She pulled the baby away from the fire and scolded the queen.

Witless are you mortals and dull to foresee your lot, whether of good or evil, that comes upon you. For now in your heedlessness you have wrought folly past healing for–be witness the oath of the gods, the relentless water of Styx–I would have made your dear son deathless and unaging all his days and would have bestowed on him everlasting honour, but now he can in no way escape death and the fates. Yet shall unfailing honour always rest upon him, because he lay upon my knees and slept in my arms. But, as the years move round and when he is in his prime, the sons of the Eleusinians shall ever wage war and dread strife with one another continually.

-Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter 212 ff (trans. Evelyn-White)

Having cursed the city, Demeter angrily left to continue her search. Demophon did not become a god, but he did grow up with the blessings that had been conferred upon him as the foster son of a goddess.

This story dates back to at least the 6th or 7th century BC. This makes it older than the first known telling of a similar but more well-known tale.

Demeter’s attempt to make Demophon immortal is almost identical to the story of how Thetis attempted to make her son Achilles immortal. Both anointed and burned infants but were interrupted before they could complete the process.

Historians believe that this story was taken from a folktale that existed before the legends were written. It was so popular and enduring that the story of Demeter’s favor toward the prince of Eleusis became part of the legend of one of the Trojan War’s most famous heroes.

The Eleusians claimed that Demeter came to regret her hasty anger against the city. After Persephone was found, the goddess decided to grant a boon to the king’s family after all.


Watch the video: Hades and Persephone - The Story Of The Seasons Greek Mythology Explained


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