Demeter – Goddess of Agriculture, Archetype of Fertility

One of the major Goddesses of the Greek Pantheon, Demeter is the Goddess of Agriculture, Motherhood, Sacred Law, and Fertility. While she is better known for being the mother of Persephone, who later became the Queen of the Underworld, she also played an important role in the Ancient Greek religion. Her main symbols are a torch, the cornucopia, a sheaf of grain, and bread.

Key Facts

Family tree

ParentsCronus and Rhea
Partner(s)Zeus, Poseidon, Iasion, Mecon
SiblingsZeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Hestia, Chiron
OffspringPersephone, Despoina, Arion, Plutus, Philomelus, Eubuleus, Crysothemis, Triptolemos, Iacchus, Hecate

Names & Others

Roman NameCeres
Other NamesDeo, Sitopotnia, Sito, Thesmophoros
Ancient GreekΔημήτηρ
The God ofAgriculture, Motherhood, Grain and Bread, Sacred Law, Fertility
SymbolsWheat, Bread, Cornucopia, Winged Serpent, Torch, Golden Blade

Name and Etymology

The name Demeter is possibly derived from the words δᾶ (da) + μήτηρ (meter), which signify “the mother of the earth”. That is why Demeter’s name is spelled “Damater” in the Doric dialect. The first half of the word may also be related to Deo, a known epithet of Demeter derived from the words δηά (dea) or ζειά (zeia), which refer to a type of grain. As a result, she is revered not only as the mother of the Earth, but also as the provider of food.

Demeter’s name appears in the scriptures as early as the time of Linear A. Although the name da-ma-te appears in Linear B as well, it is more likely that it refers to “households,” whereas si-to-po-ti-ni-ja may refer to Demeter. It is associated with one of her epithets, Sitopotnia, which means “Goddess of Wheat”.

There is additional speculation that the name Demeter / Damater is related to Damatura, a Messapic deity who similarly means “mother of the earth”. Other common epithets of Demeter are Sito (from the Greek word for wheat) and Thesmophoros (Bringer of Laws), alluding to the well-known Greek festival Thesmophoria.

The Romans associated Demeter with Ceres, while the Egyptians affiliated her with Isis.

Demeter’s Origins and Family

Demeter was the second daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. According to the well-known story, Cronus dethroned Uranus, as he wanted to reign in the Heavens. This incident made him suspicious of his own offspring, and he swallowed them all, believing they would treat him the same manner. Rhea was able to save Zeus and transport him to the island of Crete. Cronus was tricked as she offered him a swaddled rock to eat.

When Zeus grew up, he returned to the Heavens and forced his father to cough up his siblings. When the Gods were saved, they waged a ten-year battle against the Titans to overthrow them. The Gods won this battle, known as Titanomachy.

Demeter was enthroned as the Goddess of Agriculture, succeeding Gaia and Rhea in presiding over the earth and the crops produced. However, she is most recognized as Persephone’s mother. Demeter played a significant role in the tale of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, and her power as a Goddess was the one who determined the fate of the young woman.

Demeter’s Lovers

Demeter was well-known for both her divine and mortal consorts.

Demeter and Zeus

Her first love affair was with Zeus, her brother. There are two myths surrounding their union. The first depicts them as intertwined serpents from whose union Persephone was born.

The second, and most popular, depicts Zeus transforming himself into a bull in order to sleep with Demeter. However, Zeus repented of his actions. To express his remorse, he castrated a ram and placed his organs in Demeter’s arms. Demeter accepted his formal apology and gave birth to Persephone, her adored daughter, a few months later.

Demeter and Poseidon

Demeter also had a love affair with her other brother, Poseidon. Poseidon decided to pursue her while she was mourning the loss of Persephone. To avoid him, she disguised herself as a mare and tried to blend in with the herds of Oknios, Apollo’s son.

Poseidon, on the other hand, realized what the Goddess had done. As a result, he transformed himself into a stallion, tracked her down, and mated with Demeter without her will. From this union, she bore two children, Despoina and Arion.

Demeter was enraged with Poseidon’s behavior, therefore she was given the name Erinys, which means “the one who is furious“. She clothed in black and took refuge in a cave, causing a famine among mankind (also attributed to her mourning the loss of her daughter). To appease her, Zeus sent the nymphs to bathe her in Ladon, earning her the epithet Lousia, which means “the one who is bathed“.

Demeter and Iasion

Iasion, a young mortal, was Demeter’s most infamous consort. There are two different versions of this myth. Iasion may also be the same person as Karmanor, a Cretan lord.

According to the first version, Iasion was a young man from Samothrake or Crete. Demeter noticed him and fell in love with him while he was hunting or strolling on a mountain. According to Homer’s Odyssey, Demeter appeared in her heavenly form in front of Iasion, and they lay together on a field that had been plowed three times.

According to Hesiod, Demeter encountered Iasion during the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia and enticed him away from the ceremony. This tale also includes laying down on a three-plowed field and giving Iasion the seed of wheat.

It is said that Demeter and Iasion had a son named Plutus or Ploutos, the one who bestowed wealth on the people. According to another story, Plutus had a twin brother, Philomelus or Bootes, who was designated as the protector of plowing.

There are also various interpretations of Iasion’s fate. When Zeus found out, he murdered Iasion with a thunderbolt. That could have happened due to jealousy or because Zeus considered it inappropriate for Demeter to be involved with a lowly mortal. There is also Ovid’s narrative, which claims that Iasion resided with Demeter until he died of old age.

Demeter and Mecon

According to Virgil’s Georgics, the Goddess fell in love with Mecon, a young Athenian mortal. To protect him, he changed him into a poppy flower, Demeter’s sacred flower.

Demeter’s Offspring

Demeter children
Napoleon Vier, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Demeter, apart from being the mother of Persephone, also mothered many children according to different Greek and Roman myths.

Persephone

Demeter was the mother of Persephone, the young maiden fathered by Zeus, better known as the Queen of the Underworld. The Greeks worshiped them both during the Eleusinian Mysteries, one of ancient Greece’s most famous yet occult rites. Some people thought the goddesses were the same person.

Demeter was distraught when Hades, the God of the Underworld, abducted Persephone. She left her home on Olympus and began wandering the world. Because of her grief and wrath, Hades agreed to let Persephone spend six months with him and six months with her mother.

The myth of Persephone’s abduction was very important to the Greeks because it explained the changing seasons and the natural cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. See below for a more in-depth discussion of the myth.

Despoine and Arion

Demeter gave birth to two children when she mated with Poseidon: Despoine and Arion.

Despoine, also known as Despoena, was a fertility goddess in Arcadia’s Acacesium Mystery cult. Because her purpose and true name were unknown to the uninitiated, she was given the name Despoine. She was identified with Persephone and Artemis, in addition to her mother, because they were all worshiped together. She is sometimes confused with Hekate because they share the same nickname.

Arion was born with the form of a horse because Poseidon and Demeter had the form of horses when they mated. He was a black, immortal, and fast horse. He first belonged to Oncius because he was born amid his herd. He was then entrusted to Heracles to help him with his labors. Hercules gifted the horse to Adrastus, the king of Argos.  Arion rescued his master’s life in the war of the Seven against Thebes, and he was the only leader to be saved.

Plutus and Philomelus

Demeter was said to have two twin sons with Iasion, Plutus and Philomelus (or Bootes).

Ploutos / Plutus was the god of abundance. He was originally thought to be the deity of agricultural wealth, but he came to represent all wealth. They usually depicted him as a young boy that was holding a cornucopia. There is a possibility Zeus blinded him and made him discriminate when distributing wealth. He was also associated with Hades, as he was the God of wealth as well.

Philomelus was a demi-god. He was the inventor of the plow and the wagon. Bootes literally means “ploughman“, and Philomelus means “friend of the orchards“. As a result, he represents both farming and herding. He is sometimes confused with Eubuleus, another son of Demeter.

Eubuleus, Chrysothemis, Triptolemos

In the myths where Demeter had an affair with Karmanor, they had two children – Eubuleus and Chrysothemis.

Eubuleus was the demi-god of ploughing (like Philomelus). During the Eleusinian Mysteries, he was also worshiped as the demi-god of sacred swine. In Crete, he appears to be the son of Demeter and Karmanor, although, in Eleusinian mythology, he is Triptolemos’ brother. He is thought to be the herder whose animals vanished when the world shattered, and Hades kidnapped Persephone.

Chrysothemis was the demi-goddess of the harvest festival. There is no other known information about the deity.

Iacchus and Hecate

In the Orphic literature, Iacchus and Hecate seem to also be the children of Demeter. Hecate is probably confused with Persephone or Despoine, as they were all called by the nickname of Despoine.

Depiction and Characteristics

Demeter was a beautiful goddess with a fierce and persistent personality, even though she looked more homely than the other Gods.

Demeter’s Appearance 

Demeter was a very beautiful, mature woman. She has beautiful, rich, golden hair and, like her daughter, delicate feet. Demeter had a fuller figure and a more kind expression. Because she was mourning Persephone, she wore a dark cloak or dark clothing. The goddess sometimes rode a dragon-drawn chariot, sat on her throne, or even traversed the land looking for her daughter. She was often carrying a cornucopia, wheat, or a golden sword.

Demeter’s Personality 

Apart from the known implications of her fury against her siblings and some mortals, which we will address below, Demeter was a deity of life in general. She thrived in tranquility and was the source of all life. She was the one who brought growth and life to the mortals as a protector of agricultural wealth and motherhood.

She was in charge of growing crops and providing sustenance for the entire planet. Demeter aided mankind by teaching them how to cultivate the ground, which supposedly brought mortals closer to their human nature and separated them from animals. She also taught people to appreciate nature, which justified her hatred toward mortals who disobeyed her.

Demeter’s Powers 

Demeter, as one of the Olympian goddesses, was immortal and wielded immense power. She possessed tremendous strength, as well as being invulnerable, ageless, and omnipresent. Demeter could also transform herself or others at will. She could also grant immortality, as evidenced by the Demophon myth.

The goddess was also in charge of the harvest and agriculture in general. She was in charge of the plant’s growth and the seasons. Demeter also could shield farmers from different misfortunes. Her feelings were mirrored in the harvest. That is, when she was delighted, there was a bountiful crop; when she was distraught, there was a drought. That was made evident by the famine she caused during her grief over the loss of her daughter.

Demeter’s Sacred Symbols 

Demeter’s primary symbol was a sheaf of wheat, as she was the goddess of agriculture. She also held a cornucopia, which represented abundance and fertility. The goddess was also linked to bread because she was the source of food for humanity.

Demeter rode a chariot drawn by serpent-like monsters known as Dracones, who were similar to dragons. Sometimes the monsters served as her guards.

Another sacred symbol is the torch.  When the goddess was anxiously searching for Persephone, she held two burning torches. She was also armed with a golden sickle or sword, which is why she was also known as Chrysaoros (Lady of Golden Blade).

Demeter’s Sacred Animals / Plants

As the goddess of agriculture, Demeter is naturally connected with a wide range of chthonic animals and plants. She was also linked to barley, in addition to wheat. The crop was combined with honey and mint to create a sacred drink drunk during the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The goddess also revered poppy seeds and flowers. Poppy is a wild flower that grows among the grain in fields. Demeter’s priestesses used to wear poppy blossoms. Demeter had also turned Mecon, her lover, into a poppy flower.

In terms of animals, Demeter’s most sacred animal was the winged serpent. As a chthonic deity, she was represented by the snake, which is an animal that symbolizes rebirth in nature, as well as the fertility of the earth. The gecko lizard, relative to the snake, was also Demeter’s sacred animal.

Being a goddess of agriculture, the swine were also sacred to Demeter. People attending the Mysteries sacrificed swine to Demeter to ensure the earth’s fertility.

Demeter’s Roles and Responsibilities

Demeter was designated the Goddess of Horticulture and Agriculture after the Titanomachy. As the Goddess of wheat and bread, she had great power over the earth and its products. However, her power over food production, also made her the goddess of hunger. She was an all-powerful goddess with a dual nature that could be both a blessing and a curse. According to Hesiod, she has the power to bring crop failure and famine among mortals.

Being a goddess of food, Demeter also had power over horticulture. All fruits and vegetables were under her dominion, apart from some that belonged to other Gods, like Athena’s olives, Dionysus’ grapes, and Hades’ pomegranates.

Demeter was also in charge of maintaining law and order, as her title of Thesmophoros indicates (Bringer of Laws). Thesmophoria was a celebration devoted to her as the teacher of the law to mankind.

Demeter was described by the Orphics as the Goddess of Mysteries and the Afterlife. After Persephone’s return to earth, she taught the Mysteries to numerous kings and leaders. It is said that only the initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries could have a good afterlife.

Demeter’s duties and responsibilities led to her being identified with Ceres by the Romans and Isis by the Egyptians.

Myths About Demeter

The Abduction of Persephone

Abduction of persephone
Evelyn De Morgan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The most well-known mythology surrounding Demeter is that of her daughter, Persephone, being abducted by Hades, the God of the Underworld. Hades observed the young lady collecting flowers in the Nysian fields and fell in love with her. He abducted her and the only ones who heard Persephone’s cries were Hecate and the lord Helios (the Sun).

While mourning, Demeter, dressed in black, began searching for her daughter. She left her home on Olympus and began wandering the Earth. Hecate found her after ten days and informed her of the situation. Hecate led Demeter to the Sun’s palace, holding flaming torches in her hands. The Sun revealed to her that Hades had imprisoned Persephone and that it was Zeus’ fault for everything that had occurred. He also tried to console her by saying Hades is a good spouse. The goddess fled Sun’s palace distraught and enraged with Zeus and Hades.

Demophon and Triptolemus

Demeter arrived in Eleusis while roaming the earth. The four daughters of King Celeos discovered her, but she did not reveal who she was. They informed Demeter that their parents had a son, Demophon, but they couldn’t raise him because they were too old. She accepted, and Metaneira, the queen, granted her permission to raise her son.

Demeter decided she would make the child immortal. She was feeding him ambrosia and attempting to grant him immortality by fire. Metaneira was worried about her child, so she grabbed him and began to threaten the deity. Demeter was enraged and revealed herself to them.

She instructed Celeos to build her a temple in which she isolated herself. She taught Triptolemus, Deocles, and Eumolpus the Eleusinian mysteries.

Demeter and the Great Famine

When she was in isolation at her temple in Eleusis, she caused famine to the earth in despair for the loss of Persephone. Zeus, concerned about the destiny of humanity, began sending emissaries to convince Demeter to allow the ground to yield crops. She refused and demanded that her daughter return. Zeus decided to send Hermes to Hades to urge him to set Persephone free.

Hades agreed, but he gave Persephone six pomegranate seeds to bind her forever to the Underworld. Persephone would return to the upper world and stay there for six months, while she would spend the other six in the Underworld. Demeter was content with the deal and let the crops grow again.

Erysichthon 

Erysichthon was a Thessalian king and Poseidon’s grandson. He was well-known for his irreverence to the Gods. One day, accompanied by 20 slaves, he went to a forest dedicated to Demeter and started chopping down trees to build a palace. When he attempted to cut a poplar tree, which Demeter and the Dryads favored, Demeter appeared before him as a priestess and told him to stop. Erysichthon was threatening her. He cursed Erysicthon with unending hunger after she revealed her true appearance but she spared the slaves.

According to Callimachus and Ovid, Erysicthon could not satisfy his hunger no matter what he attempted, and he even sold his daughter, the shapeshifter Mestra, to purchase food. According to legend, he ended up eating his own flesh.

The Wrath of Demeter

The goddess’s wrath appears to have fallen on many mortals and Gods, particularly during her hunt for her daughter. Demeter punished many people who got in her way, like Poseidon and Erysichthon.

Askalaphos, a young man who observed Persephone devouring the pomegranate seeds, was one of her first victims. Demeter imprisoned him beneath a rock in the Underworld, and when Heracles released him, she transformed him into a screech owl.

Colontas refused to welcome Demeter into his home in Argolis and did not honor her. He burned him alive, along with his house, for that deed.

Lyncus was a Scythian king to whom Triptolemus taught the art of agriculture. However, Lyncus became jealous and attempted to murder Triptolemus in his sleep. Demeter punished him by transforming him into a lynx.

Triptolemus also attempted to teach agriculture to Carnabon, a Getae ruler. Carnabon attempted to keep him by his side by murdering one of Triptolemus’ chariot’s Dracon. Demeter punished him by making his life intolerable, leading him to commit suicide. According to another legend, she changed him into a Dracon to replace the one who was killed, and he transformed into the constellation Ophiuchus.

Finally, Demeter punished the nymph Minthe for having an affair with Hades. Wanting to protect Persephone, Demeter turned the nymph into the plant Minthe.

The Favor of Demeter 

Demeter also favored anyone who helped her in any way. She started by favoring her own son, Philomelus, by placing him into the sky as the constellation of Bootes.

She also blessed anyone who accepted her into their home. Thus, she blessed Phytalus by giving him a fig tree, Celeus by raising his son Demophon, and Trisaules and Damithales by giving them pulse seeds. The goddess also took pity on Plemnaios, a king whose children perished at birth, by nursing his only son that survived, Orthopolis.

Demeter nursed another little boy, prince Trophonios. It is said that he became a prophet after his death, a Chthonian Daimon.

Finally, the goddess turned the Sirens into monstrous birds. That might be a blessing, to help her find Persephone, or a curse, because they did not help her find Persephone.

Demeter in Ancient Greek Religion

Demeter was highly revered in Ancient Greek religion. The Greeks usually praised her together with her daughter, Persephone.

Sites Sacred to Demeter

Many temples were raised all over Greece to honor the goddess. There are known temples of Demeter all around Attica and Peloponnese, like Thoriko, Thebes, and Eleusis, while there is also a big temple devoted to Demeter on the island of Naxos, which is still in great condition.

Worship & Festivals

Many festivals were held in Demeter’s honor. The Eleusinian Mysteries, Thesmophoria, Haloa, and the Great God Mysteries of Samothrace were among the most well-known.

Eleusinian Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries were secret, sacred initiations held in two parts in the town of Eleusis. The Lesser Mysteries took place in early spring, while the Great Mysteries took place near the beginning of autumn. The Demeter cult worshiped the goddess through a recreation of Persephone’s abduction. It commemorated Persephone’s return from the Underworld and was divided into three primary sections: Persephone’s descent, Demeter’s quest to find her daughter, and the main theme, Persephone’s ascent.

Everyone was welcome in the Mysteries, regardless of gender, socioeconomic class, or age – as long as they could afford the high admission cost. The initiates were bound by a holy oath not to discuss anything that occurred during the mysteries, which explains the lack of information we have on the festival.

Thesmophoria

The event was held in late October to celebrate the beginning of the new grain season. It was a holiday honoring both agricultural and human fertility, and it was only accessible to married women. During the festival, pigs were frequently sacrificed. Aristophanes’ play Thesmophoriazusae parodies Thesmophoria.

Haloa

Haloa was an Attic gardening festival held in December/January, a time of agricultural dormancy. It was dedicated to Demeter, Dionysus, and Poseidon. It focuses on the first fruits that appear throughout the harvest season.

Mysteries of the Great Gods

The Mysteries occurred on the little island of Samothrace. They took place within the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. Because of the festival’s mysticism, we don’t know which Gods were worshiped. So, Demeter was associated with a deity in Samothrace’s theological system, but she was not referred to by her own name.

Representations of Demeter in Art

Demeter in art
Walter Crane, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Demeter is usually portrayed as a mature woman, having a full and plump body, and magnificent blonde hair. She was shown as a very beautiful woman. She does not appear usually in art before the 6th century BC. Demeter appears in two sculptures at the Parthenon: the first depicts her waiting with Persephone for the birth of Athena, and the second depicts her standing between Ares and Dionysus, holding a light. There are also some red-figured and black-figured vases that depict the goddess with her daughter and Triptolemus.

In post-classical art, she is usually the object of the allegory of the fertility of the earth, as seen in “Offering to Ceres” by Jacob Jordaens and “The Union of Earth and Water” by Rubens. We can also see her in plays, like “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.

In The Old Texts

Demeter is frequently mentioned in ancient literature, particularly in connection with the myth of Persephone. She occurs in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, as well as Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days. Demeter is also mentioned in agricultural writings such as Pausanias’ Descriptions of Greece and Virgil’s Georgica.

Most of the material on her involvement in the myth of Persephone comes from the Hymns written for her by the Orphics and the Homeric tradition.

She has also been the theme of Greek and Roman lyric poetry, as seen in the works of Callimachus and Ovid. Ovid, in particular, provides extensive information on Demeter’s appearance, demeanor, and mythology in his Fasti and Metamorphoses.

FAQs

Who was Demeter?

Demeter was the Goddess of Agriculture, Motherhood, Sacred Law, and Fertility.

Who were the parents of Demeter?

Demeters’ parents were Cronus and Rhea.

Did Demeter have any siblings?

She had four brothers and two sisters: Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Hestia, and Chiron.

Who was Demeter’s daughter?

Persephone

Demeter’s mythologies and powers are similar to which Norse goddess?

Possibly Sif, wife of Thor the Norse god of war and thunder.

Which festivals were held in honor of Demeter?

The Eleusinian Mysteries, the Thesmophoria, and the Haloa.

Featured Image Credit: Altes Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of author

Vasiliki Moutzouri

Vasiliki has been a professional author, editor, and academic researcher since 2018. She currently lives in Athens, Greece. She has studied Philology and Computational Linguistics at the University of Athens. She is interested in literature, poetry, history and mythology, and political philosophy. Other interests include playing music, traveling, and playing pen-and-paper games. She has written a children’s book and a few poems. She is currently working as a content writer, translator, and editor, as well as an academic researcher in the field of linguistics.