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Demeter

Δημητηρ

Goddess of the Harvest

Demeter

Olympian Demeter
Demeter, Law-Giver
The Abduction of Persephone
Demeter and Poseidon
Demeter and Triptolemus
Demeter and Erysichthon
The Eleusinian Mysteries
Demeter and Timoleon
Encounters With Demeter
Hymn to Demeter
Text References
Images of Demeter

Olympian Demeter

Demeter is one of the twelve Olympian Immortals. She did not inherit her authority nor was it given to her freely. The Immortals who currently occupy Mount Olympos (Olympus) fought a bitter ten-year war with the Titans to gain possession of the sacred mountain.

When the Titans Kronos (Cronos) and Rheia (Rhea) began to have children, Kronos was given a prophecy by Gaia [Earth] and Ouranos [Heavens] that one of his children would take his throne and usurp his power. Thinking that he could defy Destiny, Kronos began to swallow his children as they were born … Demeter was swallowed along with Hera, Poseidon, Hades and Histia (Hestia). When it came time for her sixth child to be born, Rheia substituted a stone for the infant and Kronos was tricked into swallowing the stone instead of the child … thus Zeus was hidden from Kronos and allowed to secretly grow to maturity on the island of Crete. To avenge the mistreatment of his mother and free his brothers and sisters, Zeus ambushed Kronos. The attack was so violent that the five swallowed-up children, including Demeter, were vomited forth.

Kronos and the other Titans immediately understood the threat that Demeter and her siblings represented … the War of the Titans began. After the dust and fire subsided, Zeus, Demeter, Hera, Poseidon, Hades and Histia ascended Mount Olympos and established their domination of heaven and earth … Demeter became the goddess of the Harvest … she gave men the seeds and knowledge to make their crops grow … also, to make it possible for men and women to live in harmony with each other and with nature, Demeter implemented laws … for that reason, she was given the name Thesmophoros [Law-Giver].

It's obvious from the writings of some of the ancient authors that the age and origin of Demeter was a matter of confusion. Demeter has been confused with Gaia, the original goddess of the earth but the confusion was based on semantics and not parentage. Demeter was born many ages and generations after Gaia but as the goddess of the Harvest, Demeter and Gaia have much in common.

Demeter became the consort of her brother Zeus … their daughter Persephone became the focus of a potentially disastrous schism involving the Immortals which threatened the extinction of the mortals of the earth.

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Demeter, Law-Giver

With the introduction of grain and fruit trees, the mortals of the earth were faced with new problems and situations they had never encountered as 'hunter gatherers.' Living in farming communities made it necessary for men and women to cooperate in new ways … they needed to work together in order to sow and harvest the crops that Demeter had given them. Demeter enacted laws to govern the new farming communities … she was thus called Thesmophoros, the Law-Giver. The laws she set forth are not recorded specifically but it is obvious from the results that they were effectively obeyed.

There was a festival called the Thesmophoria that honored Demeter as the Law-Giver. The rites of that ancient festival were probably the basis for the Eleusinian Mysteries. Of all the gods and goddesses, the rites that accompanied the worship of Demeter were the most secret and therefore still unknown to us.

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Demeter and Persephone

Demeter and Persephone

The Abduction of Persephone

While at play with the beautiful daughters of Okeanos [Ocean], Persephone was picking flowers … but these weren't earthly flowers … these flowers were the work of Zeus and put there for "a girl with a flower's beauty." The flowers were there to ensnare Persephone in a trap, a beautiful, divine trap. The trigger for the trap was an irresistible flower with one hundred stems of fragrant blossoms. When Persephone reached out with both hands to pluck the flower, the earth opened at her feet and Hades [lord of the Dead] roared forth in his golden chariot and seized her before an alarm could be raised.

No mortal on the earth heard Persephone's cries for help before she vanished into the Underworld. Of the Immortals, only two heard the faint cries of the abducted girl: Hekate (Hecate) and Helios [Sun].

Demeter began searching in vain for her daughter. Her sorrow was so great that she denied herself all food, drink, and comfort for nine days. When Eos [Dawn] took to the skies on the tenth day, Hekate came to Demeter and told her that she had heard a voice but had not actually seen the abduction of poor Persephone. The two goddesses went to Helios because he sees all mortal and Immortal actions. Helios, indeed, knew the plot and the players. He told Demeter that the abduction was the work of Zeus and Hades. He further advised her to accept the situation because Hades was the Lord of Many and "not an unseemly bridegroom." Demeter did not like his advice and choose a long, brooding path to regain her precious daughter.

In a strange act of revenge, Demeter, disguised as a mature woman, settled in the city of Eleusis and became the nanny for the infant son of Keleos and Metaneira. The boy, Demophoon, was raised to be noble and pure but Demeter seemed to be stealing the boy's affection and loyalty away from his parents [just as her daughter had been stolen from her]. One night she was caught transforming the young boy into an Immortal by placing him in the fireplace and cleansing him with fire, but before Demeter [still in disguise] could make Demophoon immortal, Metaneira recognized Demeter for the goddess she was and stopped the ceremony.

Demeter

When Demeter cast her disguise away and revealed her divinity to all, Keleos and the other nobles of Eleusis were glad to oblige when Demeter demanded that a temple be built in her honor. After it was completed, she retreated into the temple and her brooding took on a deadly turn. The following year, no seed sprouted on the earth. No barley grew in the plowed fields. The mortals of the earth were doomed to famine and eventual destruction if Demeter did not lift her curse.

Zeus sent the goddess Iris to dissuade Demeter from her destructive course but Demeter was unmoved. In turn, all the Immortals came to Demeter's temple and begged the goddess to change her mind and give life back to the earth. She refused them all.

Zeus then sent Hermes to the Underworld to speak with Hades and Persephone. Hermes explained the situation and suggested, with gentle words, that Persephone be returned to her mother. Hades was filled with compassion but he was also intent on keeping his bride. He offered Persephone a honey-sweet pomegranate seed as she departed and by tasting the seed she became eternally bound to Hades and the Underworld.

Demeter was joyous when she saw her darling Persephone again but her joy was tempered with the fact that Hades had tricked the innocent Persephone into the eating a pomegranate seed and by doing so guaranteed that she must eventually return to him.

Now, in an effort to save the earth and appease his angry sister, Zeus sent Rheia, mother of the Olympians, and offered Demeter honors if she would only return to Mount Olympos and lift the curse that was killing the people of the earth. Zeus promised that Persephone could spend two thirds of the year with her mother but the remaining third of the year would be spent with her husband, Hades.

Demeter was moved by her mother's plea and Zeus's promises. The earth began to swiftly recover it's vitality and become fruitful again. Demeter and Persephone ascended Mount Olympos and it is said that those on earth whom Demeter and Persephone gladly love are thrice blessed. It's interesting to note that the year was divided onto thirds, just as the three brothers, Zeus [lord of the Sky, Hades [lord of the Dead] and Poseidon [lord of the Sea], divided creation into thirds after the overthrow of Kronos.

When Persephone is with Hades the earth is wracked by the sorrow of her mother but when Persephone returns from the Underworld to walk the earth again, Demeter pours forth the blessings of Spring to welcome her beloved daughter home.

Her age old feud with her brother, Poseidon, might serve to explain why the edge of the sea is barren of crops. The origin of this feud goes back to the abduction of Persephone.

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Demeter and Poseidon

While Demeter was desperately searching for Persephone, Poseidon began to pursue her. She managed to evade Poseidon until she came to Arkadia (Arcadia) where she, in a moment of exasperation, transformed herself into a horse. Poseidon changed into a stallion and mated with Demeter. Demeter was furious with her brother and thus earned the surname Fury … as her temper cooled, she bathed in the Ladon River and assumed the surname Bather. The Arkadians built a temple for Demeter and furnished it with statues of Demeter as Fury and Bather.

Demeter and Poseidon had a daughter who is only referred to as "Mistress" and a son named Arion (Areion) The rites of Demeter as practiced in Arkadia were kept secret from non-initiates thus, the name of the divine daughter of Demeter and Poseidon was never made public.

Arion became famous as the steed of King Adrastus of Sikyon (Sicyon). After the infamous King Oedipus fled the city of Thebes, a bitter rivalry began between Oedipus's sons, Eteokles (Eteocles) and Polyneikes (Polyneices). Adrastus rode Arion in the first attack on Thebes and was the only commander to survive the attack. When the second attempt was made to capture Thebes, Adrastus again rode Arion but this time the assault was successful … the city was captured but Adrastus's son Aigialeus (Aegialeus) was the only commander killed … astride Arion, Adrastus returned home and died of grief.

Arion was also the name of the chariot horse of Herakles (Heracles) when he fought a son of Ares named Kyknos (Cycnus) … it is unclear whether Herakles's Arion was the original son of Demeter and Poseidon.

Because of the transformation into a horse by Poseidon in his desire for Demeter, the Arkadians were the first to give Poseidon the surname Horse.

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Demeter and Triptolemus

Triptolemus

Triptolemus (Triptolemos) is credited as the first man to sow seeds. Regardless of who his parents might have been, Triptolemus was given his knowledge and inspiration by Demeter.

There are several accounts of Triptolemus's birth that we must consider. His birth was in pre-historical times and therefore we have no conclusive records to document the event.

Argive Descent - A priest of the Mysteries of Demeter named Trochilus fled Argos and came to Attica where he married a woman named Eleusis … they had two children named Eubuleus and Triptolemus.

Athenian Descent - The fact that Triptolemus was born in Athens was never doubted by the Argives but the parentage of Triptolemus was hotly disputed because of Triptolemus's contribution to the welfare of the human race. The Athenians were quite sure that Triptolemus was the son of an Athenian man named Keleos (Celeus).

Immortal Descent - A poet named Musaeus recorded an account naming Okeanos [Ocean] and Gaia [Earth] as the parents of Triptolemus.

Questionable Descent - The traveler and historian Pausanias relates a story that was ascribed to Orpheus but Pausanias seriously doubted the reference. This account states that Eubuleus and Triptolemus were sons of Dysaules and that the knowledge of sowing grain was given to Triptolemus because the two boys gave information to Demeter about the abduction of her daughter, Persephone.

Secret Descent - Pausanias also relates an interesting but brief account of the origins of Triptolemus; an Athenian man named Choerilus wrote a play called Alope in which he says that Kerkyon (Cercyon) and Triptolemus were brothers … their mother was the daughter of Amphictyon but each had a different father … Triptolemus was the son of Rarus and Kerkyon was the son of Poseidon. Pausanias says that he intended to go further into the story and to describe the contents of the Demeter's sanctuary at Athens, called the Eleusinium, but had a dream that indicated that he should say no more about the mysteries of the temple because it was unlawful to write about such things.

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Demeter and Erysichthon

Erysichthon, the son of Triopas, was a proud and foolish man who encountered the goddess Demeter in her sacred grove in the land of Dotium. The sacred precincts were thick with elm, pear and apple trees … the ditches were full of life-giving water … the trees were so thick that an archer could not shoot an arrow through the teeming forest.

Erysichthon entered the grove with twenty of his attendants armed with axes and hatchets … these were no ordinary men … they were giants of men and they intended to inflict grievous damage to the trees of the sacred grove. One tree in particular, a poplar, was a favorite of the Nymphs of the grove and when Erysichthon and his men hacked into the ancient tree, it cried out in pain … Demeter heard the cry and hurried to the forest and, disguised as the priestess Nikippe (Nicippe), approached Erysichthon … she begged him to stop the desecration of the holy forest and warned him that Demeter would be angered at the defiling of her holy place.

Erysichthon was unmoved by the pleas of the "priestess" and vowed to continue his work because he needed the trees to build a dwelling where he could entertain his companions and have pleasing banquets. His vanity and conceit were unbearable … the goddess of Indignation, Nemesis, recorded his insulting words … Demeter loosed her wrath and assumed her true appearance … the earth trembled at her step and her head reached into the sky … Erysichthon's attendants fled in terror and Demeter let them run away … they were only doing their master's bidding and were blameless … for Erysichthon, however, the goddess had a different fate … she commanded that if he wanted banquets, he would have his fill and never tire of the feast.

From that moment on, Erysichthon was condemned to a life of unending gluttony … Dionysos [a.k.a. Bacchus, god of Wine] joined in the punishment and made Erysichthon thirst for wine to wash down the food he compulsively ate. When people would call to see Erysichthon, his mother and father would lie and say that their son was ill or traveling or injured … they hid the fact that their son was consumed by a curse. Triopas, Erysichthon's father, was descended from Poseidon and prayed for the curse of Demeter to be lifted but the lord of the Sea denied Triopas's prayers. Although Erysichthon ate constantly, he never gained a pound … in fact, he lost weight until he was nothing but sinews and bones.

Erysichthon's affliction remained a family secret and his ravenous eating had no limit … he ate until the fields were bare and the flocks were all eaten … Erysichthon ate the mule and the heifer his mother had been feeding as a sacrifice for the goddess Histia (Hestia) … he ate their racing horse, the war charger and even the cat … finally, all was consumed and Erysichthon was forced to travel the public roads where he begged for scraps and crumbs until the end of his miserable life.

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Demeter

The Eleusinian Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated the return of Persephone after she had been abducted by her uncle, Hades. The festival of the Greater Mysteries was celebrated at the city of Eleusis which is 15 miles (24 kilometers) northwest of Athens. The ceremonies and procession for the sacred event began in Athens on the fifteenth day of Boedromion [approximately the second week of September by our calendar] and lasted from seven to nine days.

The Eleusinian Mysteries included the worship of Demeter, Persephone and Iakchos (Iacchos) as Bacchus [a.k.a. Dionysos, god of Wine]. Most of the ceremonies were public but only initiates were allowed to participate in the final rituals. The rites are called Mysteries because the Greek word Mystes means One Initiated. There were several stages of initiation. The rites of the Lesser Mysteries were held in the spring and dedicated to Persephone. The Lesser Mysteries involved the ritual purification of the candidates for initiation. The Greater Mysteries were held in the fall and dedicated to Demeter. The initiates were called Epoptes, i.e. One Who Has Seen. The only Greek citizens who were excluded from the ceremonies were people with Blood Guilt, i.e. those who had killed. Men, women and slaves were allowed to take part in the ceremonies. All Greek cities honored the sanctity of the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries by instituting a truce which would halt wars and conflicts. This would allow participants to travel to and from Athens and Eleusis without worrying about local and national disputes.

The rituals of the Greater Mysteries were scrupulously guarded and ancient writers who dared to expound on the subject were probably just guessing as to the actual rites performed at Eleusis. The rites performed in Athens were more public and conducted at the City Eleusinion which was a temple for Demeter and Persephone located between the Acropolis and the Agora. In preparation for the procession to Eleusis, sacred ritual objects were brought from the temple at Eleusis and stored in the Eleusinion.

After a ritual cleansing and purification, participants would gather at the Sacred Gates near the Kerameikos cemetery and then walk from Athens to Eleusis on what was called the Sacred Way. The priests and priestesses of Demeter would lead the procession carrying a wooden statue of Iakchos and other sacred objects hidden in wooden boxes destined for the Telesterion in Eleusis where the final and most secret rites were performed. The members of the procession chanted the name of Iakchos as they walked and would stop briefly at shrines of Apollon and Aphrodite along the road. Masked men were stationed along the Sacred Way to insult the participants and humble them before they reached Eleusis.

Upon reaching Eleusis, the participants would fast until the following morning. The initiates were then permitted to enter the Telesterion where the sacred objects were revealed. All that the initiates were permitted to say about the ceremonies was, "things were spoken, seen and performed." Once the final rites were complete, a night of feasting and revelry began. A bull was sacrificed and libations were poured honoring the dead.

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Demeter and Timoleon

The historian Diodorus Siculus relates an interesting story concerning Demeter and Persephone. Circa 337 BCE, the Athenians mounted an invasion of Sicily to oust the tyrant Dionysus II. A man named Timoleon was selected to lead an army against Dionysus but the number of troops at his disposal was barely adequate to do the job. Timoleon was a man of sincere faith and stopped in Corinth to consult the priestesses of Demeter and Persephone and seek their blessings. The priestesses told him that they had received favorable dreams during the night and that the goddesses would guide and protect Timoleon and his fleet. As if on cue, a blazing torch appeared in the western sky. Timoleon and his men had no doubt that the goddesses would give them a victory in Sicily. The blazing torch remained visible until the fleet reached Sicily. This event was witnessed by nearly a thousand men. The only element of this story which is disputed is whether one of Timoleon's ships was named The Sacred Ship of Demeter and Persephone before or after his visit to the temple of the goddesses.

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Encounters With Demeter

The Death of Pyrrhus

Pyrrhus was a descendant of Achilles at least fifteen generations removed. He had proven himself to be brave and generally, buy not always, victorious in battle. While fighting in Argos on the Peloponnesian Peninsula circa 272 BCE, Pyrrhus was killed by a roof-tile thrown by a 'woman' … in actuality, the tile was thrown by Demeter. Pyrrhus was buried where he died and at the command of an oracle, a Temple of Demeter was built on the spot where Pyrrhus died … Pyrrhus's shield was dedicated and hung over the door.

The Creation of the Fig Tree

Like most of the Olympians, Demeter would assume the guise of a mortal and mingle with the earthly population. On one occasion, she was wandering in Attica near the sacred precinct of a hero named Lakios (Lacius) when a local man named Phytalus welcomed the goddess into his home. As a reward for his hospitality, Demeter gave Phytalus the fig tree which was unknown to mortal men at the time. A Temple of Demeter was built and an inscription documented the event:

Anaklethris

In Megara, near the Town Hall was a rock where Demeter once stood and called for the return of her abducted daughter, Persephone. The rock is named Anaklethris and can be translated as Recall. As late as 160 CE, the women of Megara conducted performances at the Anaklethris that mimicked Demeter's desperate plea for Persephone's return.

Confusing Surnames

The port city of Nisaea had a curious name for Demeter that seems to have been confusing in its origin … the goddess was called Demeter Malophorus. According to Pausanias, the surname Malophorus might have meant Sheep-Bearer or Apple-Bearer. Pausanias offers the explanation that those who first reared sheep in the land named Demeter Malophorus … however, Demeter was always associated with grains and fruits but rarely with animals … it might be more logical to assume that the goddesses' surname meant Apple-Bearer.

Plemnaeus

Plemnaeus was an unfortunate man who seemed to be cursed … all the children born to Plemnaeus and his wife died the first time they cried. Demeter took pity on Plemnaeus and, in the guise of a strange woman, became the nurse of Plemnaeus's newborn son, Orthopolis … in the care of the goddess, Orthopolis did not cry and therefore lived to have a child of his own … her name was Chrysorthe. She became the consort of Apollon and had a son named Koronos (Coronus). Plemnaeis built a Sanctuary of Demeter as a thank-offering to the goddess for the rearing of his son.

Demeter and Chthoia

When Demeter was in Argolis, she was entertained by two men named Atheras and Mysius … another man named Kolontas (Colontas) offered no hospitality or respect to the goddess. Kolontas's daughter Chthoia disapproved of her father's behavior but Kolontas would not offer hospitality to the goddess … Demeter was quick to exact her punishment. Kolontas and his horse were burned alive. Chthoia was taken to Hermion by Demeter where she built a sanctuary for the Hermionians … Demeter's surname there is Thermasia [Warmth].

The rituals and rites performed in the Sanctuary of Demeter by the Hermionians are for women only. In front of the temple are statues of women who have served as priestesses to the goddess. Inside the Temple are statues of Athene (Athena) and Demeter that can be seen by men and women. There are seats inside the Temple for older women so they can watch as sacrificial cattle are driven in one by one. As to what happens during the sacrifice, no man is allowed to see and the women will not tell.

Chthoia was also associated with the worship of Demeter by the Lakedaemonians (Lacedaemonians) as Demeter Chthonia [Demeter of the Lower World]. The Pausanias believed that the Lakedaemonians simply copied the rites performed at Hermion but the Spartans insist that their rites were given to them by Orpheus.

The Attack on Aegila

The town of Aegila in Lakonia (Laconia) was attacked by Aristomenes and his Messenian warriors … they knew that the women were having a festival of Demeter in Aegila but contrary to all civilized conduct, attacked anyway. The Goddess inspired the women to take up the knives they were using in the rituals to defend themselves. Aristomenes was struck with torches and taken as a prisoner but escaped during the night. A priestess of Demeter named Archidameia was accused of allowing Aristomenes to escape because she had once been in love with him but she insisted that he had burned through his bonds and escaped by his own wits.

Pelpos

There is a story that Demeter inadvertently ate the flesh of Pelops but there is another version that disputes this claim. Pelops was famous for having the Peloponnesian Peninsula named after him but he was also noted for several other colorful exploits. Pelops's father Tantalos (Tantalus) was a self-indulgent man who was finally severely punished in the Underworld for offending the Immortals. Tantalos was accused of killing his son Pelops but his crime did not stop there … he tried to feed the dead child to the Immortals. He apparently cooked the child in such a way as to disguise its true nature … Demeter was the only Immortal to eat the false meal … she supposedly ate Pelops shoulder. Hermes restored Pelops to life and replaced the shoulder Demeter had eaten with ivory.

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Demeter

Demeter is often confused with the Roman goddess, Ceres.

Text References
Images of Demeter
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