Demeter or Ceres: Goddess of Agriculture

Demeter was the goddess of agriculture, especially wheat, and fertility. Demeter means barley-mother. Her Roman name was Ceres. Her symbols were the wheat plant, gecko, mint plant, torch, scepter, and poppy.

Demeter was the daughter of Rhea (a titan) and Cronus (the titan of storms and the sky). Cronus may or may not have swallowed Demeter as soon as she was born because an oracle had said that one of his sons would overthrow him. Cronus in some myths ate all of his other children as well, until Rhea got indignant and hid baby Zeus (the god of storms and the sky) instead of giving him to Cronus. Cronus was unaware of her deception because Rhea wrapped some stones in a baby blanket and told him it was Zeus. When Zeus grew up, Rhea fed Cronus a potion that made him puke up Demeter and the rest of their brothers and sisters. Zeus and some of his siblings, including Demeter, then fought Cronus and won.

The mint plant is one of Demeter's symbols. A nymph named Mintha once boasted that she was better than Persephone (Demeter's daughter). When Demeter found out, she turned Mintha into the first mint plant. The gecko is also one of Demeter's symbols resulting from a transformation. A boy was teasing Demeter about her eating habits (she only drank water when it had barley in it). In revenge, she turned him into a gecko.

Demeter once fell in love with a mortal named Iasion and married him on a field that had been furrowed three times. She had Philomelus (a bard) and Plutus (the god of wealth) as a result. When Zeus found out about their marriage, he killed Iasion. Poseidon (the god of the sea) had designs on Demeter. She tried to get away by turning into a fast horse, but he caught her anyway. From this union she gave birth to an immortal horse and Desponia (the goddess of horses).

A mortal man named Erysichthon once cut down a tree that was in Demeter's sacred grove. She punished him by making him always ravenously hungry, no matter how much he ate. He eventually ran out of money to buy food and resorted to selling his daughter, Metra as a slave. She always escaped and returned to him, until slave traders got word not to buy from Erysichthon. He then got so hungry that he ate himself.

Once Demeter wandered the Earth disguised as an old woman to see how she would be received. One night no one would take her in but a King named Celeus. She tried to reward him by performing sacred rites while sticking his son, Demophoon, into a fire. This would have made Demophoon immortal. However, Celeus's wife saw Demeter doing this and thought she was trying to kill Demophoon. Screaming for help, Celeus's wife rushed in to the room and tried to save her child, but in doing so killed him by interrupting the proceedings. Demeter was terribly sorry, and made up for it by teaching the secrets of agriculture to Triptolemus (another son of Celeus).

Persephone (Demeter's daughter) was promised in marriage to Hades (the god of the underworld) by Zeus. However, Zeus "forgot" to tell both Persephone and Demeter. When Hades came to take Persephone down to the underworld, Persephone was horrified! Hades took her to his palace anyway. Demeter, who was not there when Persephone was abducted, was very worried for her daughter. All of the plants drooped, what was rain turned to snow. It became winter because of her grief. Meanwhile, Persephone was in the underworld, refusing to eat, because she knew if she ate anything it would bind her to the underworld forever. Demeter complained to Zeus. Zeus immediately figured out what had happened, but he was loathe to tell Demeter. However, Demeter, seeing he was guilty somehow, pressed him so much that the whole story came out. She then went down and claimed Persephone. Hades smugly gave her up without a fight. She had eaten four pomegranate seeds because she was dying of hunger. When Demeter learned this she was very sad, for she knew that this meant that Persephone would have to go to Hades one quarter of every year. Persephone eventually fell in love with Hades, but Demeter was never reconciled to the fact, which is why we have winter.

The sirens (bird-women that lured sailors to their deaths) were immortal friends of Persephone when she was abducted by Hades. When they had searched for her as far as they were able, they asked Demeter to give them wings so that they could search even farther. Demeter did, but the wings were so wonderful that the sirens forgot about Persephone and just thought about the wings. Demeter was furious, but she could not take back her gift. Instead, she exiled them to the island of Anthemoessa. They thought that anyone who came near their island was trying to steal their wings, but they could not think of any way to keep sailors away. So, they lured sailors towards the rocky coast of their island with their song, knowing that no ship could survive the turbulent waters without wrecking.

Demeter was commonly depicted in Greek art as maternal, yet regal. Archaeologists have found only one statue which can be attributed to her from Ancient Greece.

Written by Kate Rayment

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