Who Is Demeter?
In Greek mythology, Demeter was the goddess of the harvest. She was responsible for ensuring crop growth. It is said that the first loaf of bread made every harvest year was offered to her as a sacrifice. She was also known as the goddess of the earth and oversaw all of agriculture and fertility.
Demeter founded a mysterious festival known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. The large festivals took place every five years for centuries. However, there is little historical data to explain their significance. Those who attended were sworn to secrecy but it is believed that they were symbolic, celebrating the return of the human soul after death through reincarnation, similar to how grain returns to the fields after the death of winter.
There are few mentions of Demeter by Homer but historians believe that the roots of her myths are more ancient than many other Olympian gods.
Legends and Stories
Stories about Demeter focus on her goddess responsibilities, including crops and the harvests. Read two of her more popular myths, both which show her strong emotional ties to what she considered most sacred.
Demeter and Persephone
Demeter had one daughter named Persephone. As she was an only child, Demeter gave her all of her attention and devotion to Persephone. Persephone brought so much happiness to Demeter’s life that the effects spread to the crops, which grew tall and bountiful. Flowers covered every meadow and trees grew tall into the sky. Demeter watched Persephone grow into a beautiful young goddess. Persephone began to attract the attention of male suitors but none were up to Demeter’s standards, especially Hades, the god of the underworld.
Hades approached Zeus, Persephone’s father, and asked for the girl’s hand in marriage. Zeus told the god that Demeter would never agree to the marriage and he was right. But Hades wasn’t one to accept defeat. He hatched a plan to make Persephone his wife and soon put it into action.
One day, as Persephone picked flowers in a field with her friends, Hades rode his chariot up to Earth. He emerged from a hole in the ground that formed next to Persephone and quickly grabbed her. He immediately headed back to the underworld with his soon to be wife. No one even noticed the goddess was gone.
It became obvious soon enough though that Persephone was missing. Demeter searched everywhere for her daughter and her despair quickly had an effect on the crops. Zeus felt the need to step in before the Earth became barren. He told Demeter that Hades had taken Persephone but that he had a plan to win the girl back. He told Hades that they needed to have a meeting and the god agreed.
But Hades was wise and knew that they were going to try and take his new bride. So, he fed her pomegranate seeds, the food of the underworld. Anyone who consumed any part of the fruit became bound to the underworld forever. Persephone didn’t know this so she didn’t question her sudden infatuation with her new husband and home.
During the meeting, Persephone was asked where she wanted to live. When she said she wanted to remain in the underworld, Demeter was devastated. Zeus knew that Hades had somehow cheated so he came up with a compromise.
Persephone was to live with her mother or half the year. During the other half, she would remain in the underworld with her husband. This is the explanation or the changing seasons. When Persephone is with Demeter, crops grow and harvests are bountiful. But when she is with Hades, Demeter falls into a depressed state and crops die.
Demeter and Erysichthon
In the city of Thessaly, located in central Greece, a man named Erysichthon was known for his selfish and arrogant manner. In the center of his town, there was a tall oak tree that grew in the center of a grove dedicated to Demeter. The people of the town would come to the grove, decorate the tree, and pay their respects to the goddess of the harvest.
But Erysichthon ordered his men to cut down the tree, as he wanted to turn it into a large banquet table. But they refused so he acted on his own. With the first chop of his axe, Demeter appeared, but disguised as a priest. She asked the man to stop but he wouldn’t. Demeter then revealed her true form to Erysichthon, who still refused to stop cutting down the tree.
Demeter then punished Erysichthon, cursing him with an appetite that could never be satisfied. He first ate everything in his home but because he was still hungry, he headed out into the town and again ate everything in sight, even food that was reserved for the gods. He became frantic with hunger and even sold his own daughter for food. But when he could no longer find anything to eat, he began to eat his own flesh, and continued eating until he died.
Demeter was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea. She had four siblings, Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, and Hestia. With Zeus, she had one daughter named Persephone.
In artistic representations, Demeter is shown as a middle-aged woman, sometimes shown in a field or holding wheat or barley. Other times, she is shown on a throne holding either a cornucopia of the four-headed Eleusinian torch.
Demeter’s symbols include items that represent her generosity. Many of our symbols associated with harvests today can be linked to the Greek goddess, including the cornucopia and sheaves of wheat. Loaves of bread are also a symbol of her generosity while the torch is symbolic of the festivals once held in her honor.