Demeter is the Greek goddess of the fertile soil and agriculture and an important aspect of the Goddess. As a goddess of nature, Demeter also represents women, marriage, harmony and health. She controls the seasons, the dying of the earth in winter and its rebirth in spring. She is acknowledged in the spring and autumn equinox celebrations, just as she was worshiped in ancient times (see Wheel of the Year).
Cults of Demeter were particularly strong in ancient Eleusis, and she was a central figure in the Eleusinian Mysteries of death and rebirth. According to myth, Demeter is the daughter of Cronos and Rhea, and the sister of Zeus and Poseidon. In an incestuous union with Zeus, she bore a daughter, Kore, “the maiden,” also known as Persephone. Hades, the god of the underworld, lusted after Kore, and Zeus promised the maiden to him without telling Demeter.
Hades raped Kore and kidnapped her to his underworld kingdom. When Demeter learned of this, she went into profound mourning, donning black clothing and searching nine days for her daughter. On the tenth day she encountered Hecate, the patron goddess of witchcraft, who had heard Kore cry out. The two went to Helios, who had witnessed the abduction.
Upon hearing the entire story from Helios, Demeter went into a rage. She resigned from the company of the gods and neglected her duties. Crops failed and famine spread throughout the lands. The situation grew worse and worse, but Demeter could not be persuaded to act. Finally, Hermes succeeded in convincing Hades to let Kore go. But the crafty god of the underworld tricked Kore into eating part of a pomegranate before she left; this partaking of food in the underworld doomed her to spend at least part of her time with Hades forever. A compromise was struck: each year she would spend six months above the earth, six months below. The coming and going of Kore is signaled by the equinoxes.
Demeter was so grateful to have her daughter back at least part of the year that she initiated mankind into her mysteries and taught him agriculture, symbolized by corn. Many of the secret rites of her cults were practiced only by women, because of their power to bring forth life. In Attica, the rituals were performed by both men and women.
Demeter and Kore were sometimes considered as two aspects of the Corn Mother and were called the “Two Goddesses” or the “Great Goddesses.” Sacrifices of fruit, honey cakes, bulls, pigs and cows were made to them. The Romans identified Demeter with Ceres, their goddess of the earth, and incorporated Demeter’s aspects into their own goddess. The concept of the earth goddess who governs the fertility of the earth exists around the world.
Demeter is the primordial Corn Mother. She is not an Earth goddess; she is very specifically the spirit of cultivation and crops. De refers to divinity, as in deity, dei, or deva; Meter is literally Mother, and so Demeter is the “Divine Mother” or the “Deified Mother.” Another theory is that her name derives from deai, the Cretan word for barley, and thus her name would mean “Barley Mother.” Barley was among the very first grains cultivated in that region and frequently the most successful; Crete was a particularly early area of cultivation. Demeter’s myth credits her as being the founder, inventor, and promulgator of agriculture. She is a very great and powerful goddess.
The myth for which Demeter is now most famous involves the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, but it is only one of a wide canon of myths in which she features. She was a tremendously important goddess, an ancient indigenous spirit of Greece incorporated into the Olympian pantheon. Instead of residing in Olympus, however, Demeter preferred to live on Earth.
Demeter was a goddess of the masses and the elite. She presided over Mysteries, most famously the Mysteries of Eleusis near Athens, where she was venerated alongside Persephone. She was venerated with her daughter, Despoena, in Arcadian Mysteries and presided over the Mysteries at Lerna, one of the entrances to Hades. (See the Glossary entry for Mystery for further details.)
Demeter is a great magician with a particular talent for transformation. She bestows healing, fertility, protection, and prosperity. There is virtually nothing she can’t do for those she loves. If she is angry, she punishes by causing insatiable hunger.
Manifestations: Demeter is a shape-shifter and can take any form. Famous manifestations are as a horse, hag, or beautiful woman with golden hair resembling a field of ripe wheat.
Iconography: Demeter is depicted as a beautiful, regal, mature woman holding wheat in one hand and poppies in the other. Snakes writhe around her. Sometimes she is portrayed as a horse-headed woman, as in the votive imageset inside the cave where Demeter once mourned for Persephone. The image is described as a seated woman’s body with a horse’s head and mane holding a dove and dolphin. Snakes emerge from her head.
Demeter Melaina is the path of Black Demeter, black as the fertile earth: she is the prototype for at least several Black Madonnas.
Attributes: Torch; ear of wheat; scythe (lost while searching for Persephone); basket
Sacred plants: Barley, wheat, grains in general, poppies, pomegranates; pennyroyal; Vitus agnus-castus; entheogenic and visionary plants; oak trees
Creatures: Pigs, horses, snakes, grasshopper, crane
Sacred days: The women-only Thesmophoria honored Demeter and Persephone. Some scholars date this festival to the Stone Age. Her Eleusinian Mysteries were inaugurated in approximately 1500 BCE and lasted until 396 CE. Other festivals dedicated to Demeter include the Chloeia (festival of sprouting grain), the Haloa (a harvest festival), and the Thalysia (a thanksgiving festival).
Offerings: Do not give her wine; Demeter drinks mint-flavored barley water. She accepts wreaths of grain; votive pigs; images of women carrying piglets; foccacce bread in the shape of genitals
From the Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.