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Demeter

[dih-mee-ter]

Demeter (Greek: Δημήτηρ, possibly "distribution-mother" from the noun of the Indo-European mother-earth *dheghom *mater, also called simply Δηώ), in Greek mythology, is the goddess of grain and fertility, the pure. Nourisher of the youth and the green earth, the health-giving cycle of life and death, and preserver of marriage and the sacred law. She is invoked as the "bringer of seasons" in the Homeric hymn, a subtle sign that she was worshipped long before she was made one of the Olympians. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter has been dated to about the seventh century BC. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries that also predated the Olympian pantheon.

Her Roman equivalent is Ceres, from whom the word "cereal" is derived.

Demeter is easily confused with Gaia or Rhea, and with Cybele. The goddess's epithets reveal the span of her functions in Greek life. Demeter and Kore ("the maiden") are usually invoked as to theo ('"The Two Goddesses"), and they appear in that form in Linear B graffiti at Mycenaean Pylos in pre-classical times. A connection with the goddess-cults of Minoan Crete is quite possible.

According to the Athenian rhetorician Isocrates, the greatest gifts which Demeter gave were cereal (also known as corn in modern Britain), which made man different from wild animals; and the Mysteries which give man higher hopes in this life and the afterlife.

Titles and functions

In various contexts, Demeter is invoked with many epithets, which offer clues to her roles: Potnia ("mistress") in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is an ancient epithet which appears in Mycenaean inscriptions in Linear B. Hera especially, but also Artemis and Athena, are addressed as "Mistress". As Erinys ("implacable"), a stern Demeter is invoked: the Erinyes or furies, were the implacable agents of retribution; in a similar sense, Demeter could be invoked as Thesmophoros ("giver of customs" or even "legislator") a role that links her to the even more ancient goddess Themis. This title was connected with the Thesmophoria, a festival of secret women-only rituals in Athens connected with marriage customs.

Chloe ("the green shoot") invokes her powers of ever-returning fertility, as does Chthonia ("in the ground"). Anesidora ("sending up gifts from the earth") applied to Demeter in Pausanias 1.31.4, also appears inscribed on an Attic ceramic as a name for Pandora. Demeter might also be invoked in the guise of

  • Malophoros ("apple-bearer" or "sheep-bearer", Pausanias 1.44.3)
  • Kidaria (Pausanias 8.13.3),
  • Lusia ("bathing", Pausanias 8.25.8)
  • Thermasia ("warmth", Pausanias 2.34.6)
  • Kabeiraia, a pre-Greek name of uncertain meaning that links Demeter as patroness to the Kabeiroi.
  • Achaea, the name by which she was worshipped at Athens by the Gephyraeans who had emigrated from Boeotia.
  • Thesmophoros ("giver of customs" or even "legislator", a role that links her to the even more ancient goddess Themis. This title was connected with the Thesmophoria, a festival of secret women-only rituals in Athens connected with marriage customs.)

Theocritus remembered an earlier role of Demeter:

For the Greeks Demeter was still a poppy goddess
Bearing sheaves and poppies in both hands.Idyll vii.157
In a clay statuette from Gazi (Heraklion Museum, Kereny 1976 fig 15), the Minoan poppy goddess wears the seed capsules, sources of nourishment and narcosis, in her diadem. "It seems probable that the Great Mother Goddess, who bore the names Rhea and Demeter, brought the poppy with her from her Cretan cult to Eleusis, and it is certain that in the Cretan cult sphere, opium was prepared from poppies" (Kerenyi 1976, p 24).

In honor of Demeter of Mysia a seven-day festival was held at Pellené in Arcadia (Pausan. 7. 27, 9). Pausanias passed the shrine to Demeter at Mysia on the road from Mycenae to Argos but all he could draw out to explain the archaic name was a myth of an eponymous Mysius who venerated Demeter. She is the daughter of Cronus and Rhea.

Major sites for the cult of Demeter were not confined to any localized part of the Greek world: there were sites at Eleusis, in Sicily, Hermion, in Crete, Megara, Celeae, Lerna, Aegila, Munychia, Corinth, Delos, Priene, Akragas, Iasos, Pergamon, Selinus, Tegea, Thorikos, Dion, Lykosoura, Mesembria, Enna, and Samothrace.

She was associated with the Roman goddess Ceres. When Demeter was given a genealogy, she was the daughter of Cronos and Rhea, and therefore the elder sister of Zeus. Her priestesses were addressed with the title Melissa.

Demeter taught mankind the arts of agriculture: sowing seeds, ploughing, harvesting, etc. She was especially popular with rural folk, partly because they most benefited directly from her assistance, and partly because rural folk are more conservative about keeping to the old ways. Demeter herself was central to the older religion of Greece. Relics unique to her cult, such as votive clay pigs, were being fashioned in the Neolithic. In Roman times, a sow was still sacrificed to Ceres following a death in the family, to purify the household.

Demeter Erinys: Vengeful Demeter

Demeter and Poseidon

Demeter and Poseidon's names are linked in the earliest scratched notes in Linear B found at Mycenaean Pylos, where they appear as PO-SE-DA-O-NE and DA-MA-TE in the context of sacralized lot-casting. The 'DA' element in each of their names is seemingly connected to an Proto-Indo-European root relating to distribution of land and honors (compare Latin dare "to give"). Poseidon (his name seems to signify "consort of the distributor") once pursued Demeter, in her archaic form as a mare-goddess. She resisted Poseidon, but she could not disguise her divinity among the horses of King Onkios. Poseidon became a stallion and covered her. She bore to Poseidon a Daughter, the "Mistress" whose name might not be uttered outside the Eleusinian Mysteries, and a steed named Arion, with a black mane.

In Arcadia, Demeter was worshiped as a horse-headed deity into historical times:

Demeter Erinys

As for Demeter, she was literally furious (Demeter Erinys) at the assault, but washed away her anger in the River Ladon, becoming Demeter Lousia, the "bathed Demeter". "In her alliance with Poseidon," Karl Kerenyi noted, "she was Earth, who bears plants and beasts, and could therefore assume the shape of an ear of corn or a mare." In her period of eclipse, the Grain Goddess brought desiccation and death to the croplands of which she was the patroness. Pausanias explicitly connects the neglect of her festival with the barrenness of Phigalia. The rites at Phigaleia noted by Pausanias remained local; by contrast, the specifically Eleusinian mythic theme of Demeter and Persephone, accounting in another way for the annual eclipse of Demeter, was given the widest conceivable currency through the Eleusinian Mysteries that celebrated and recreated it, and passed into the mainstream tradition, as it was carried by literary sources.

Demeter and Persephone

The central myth of Demeter, which is at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries, is her relationship with Persephone, her daughter and own younger self. In the Olympian pantheon, Persephone became the consort of Hades (Roman Pluto, the underworld god of wealth). Demeter had a large scope of abilities. Besides being the goddess of the harvest, she also controlled the seasons, and because of that she was capable of destroying all life on earth. In fact, her powers were able to influence Zeus into making Hades bring her daughter Persephone up from the underworld. Persephone became the goddess of the underworld when Hades abducted her from the earth and brought her into the underworld. She had been playing with some nymphs, whom Demeter later changed into the Sirens as punishment for having interfered, and the ground split and she was taken in by Hades. Life came to a standstill as the depressed Demeter searched for her lost daughter.

Finally, Zeus could not put up with the dying earth and forced Hades to return Persephone by sending Hermes to retrieve her. But before she was released, Hades tricked her into eating six pomegranate seeds (the number varies in various versions; one, three, four, or even seven according to the telling), which forced her to return for six months each year. When Demeter and her daughter were together, the earth flourished with vegetation. But for six months each year, when Persephone returned to the underworld, the earth once again became a barren realm. Summer, autumn, and spring by comparison have heavy rainfall and mild temperatures in which plant life flourishes. It was during her trip to retrieve Persephone from the underworld that she revealed the Eleusinian Mysteries. In an alternate version, Hecate rescued Persephone. In other alternative versions, Persephone was not tricked into eating the pomegranate seeds but chose to eat them herself, or ate them accidentally, that is, not knowing the effect it would have or perhaps even recognize it for what it was. In the latter version it is claimed that Ascalaphus, one of Hades' gardners, claimed to have witnessed her do so, at the moment that she was preparing to return with Hermes. Regardless, the result is the occurrence of the unfruitful seasons of the ancient Greek calendars.

According to Robert Graves, Persephone is not only the younger self of Demeter, she is in turn also one of three guises of Demeter as the Triple Goddess. The other two guises are Kore (the younger one, signifying green young corn, the maiden) and Hecate (the elder of the three, the harvested corn, the crone) with Demeter in between, signifying the ripe ears, the nymph, waiting to be plucked, which to a certain extent reduces the name and role of Demeter to that of groupname. Before Persephone was abducted by Hades, an event witnessed by the shepherd Eumolpus and the swineherd Eubuleus (they saw a girl being carried of into the earth which had violently opened up, in a black chariot, driven by an invisible driver), she was called Kore. It is when she is taken that she becomes Persephone ('she who brings destruction'). Hekate was also reported to have told Demeter that she had heard Kore scream that she was being raped. (Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 24. p 94-95, ISBN 0-14-001026-2)

Demeter's stay at Eleusis

Demeter was searching for her daughter Persephone (also known as Kore). Having taken the form of an old woman called Doso, she received a hospitable welcome from Celeus, the King of Eleusis in Attica (and also Phytalus). He asked her to nurse Demophon and Triptolemus, his sons by Metanira.

As a gift to Celeus, because of his hospitality, Demeter planned to make Demophon as a god, by coating and anointing him with Ambrosia, breathing gently upon him while holding him in her arms and bosom, and making him immortal by burning his mortal spirit away in the family hearth every night. She put him in the fire at night like a firebrand or ember without the knowledge of his parents.

Demeter was unable to complete the ritual because his mother Metanira walked in and saw her son in the fire and screamed in fright, which angered Demeter, who lamented that foolish mortals do not understand the concept and ritual.

Instead of making Demophon immortal, Demeter chose to teach Triptolemus the art of agriculture and, from him, the rest of Greece learned to plant and reap crops. He flew across the land on a winged chariot while Demeter and Persephone cared for him, and helped him complete his mission of educating the whole of Greece in the art of agriculture.

Later, Triptolemus taught Lyncus, King of the Scythians the arts of agriculture but he refused to teach it to his people and then tried to murder Triptolemus. Demeter turned him into a lynx.

Some scholars believe the Demophon story is based on an earlier prototypical folk tale.

Children

Portrayals

  • Demeter was usually portrayed on a chariot, and frequently associated with images of the harvest, including flowers, fruit, and grain. She was also sometimes pictured with Persephone.
  • The Black Demeter, a sculpture made by Onatas.
  • Demeter is not generally portrayed with a consort: the exception is Iasion, the youth of Crete who lay with Demeter in a thrice-ploughed field, and was sacrificed afterwards – by a jealous Zeus with a thunderbolt, Olympian mythography adds, but the Cretan site of the myth is a sign that the Hellenes knew this was an act of the ancient Demeter.
  • Demeter placed Aethon, the god of famine, in Erysichthon's stomach, making him permanently famished. This was a punishment for cutting down trees in a sacred grove.

Demeter in astronomy

Demeter is a main belt asteroid 26km in diameter, which was discovered in 1929 by K. Reinmuth at Heidelberg.

Demeter in popular culture

  • In Nirvana's In Utero liner notes, Kurt Cobain lists the people he thanks, including 'the goddess Demeter'. On the back of the album there are some symbols related to Demeter.
  • In Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, the sailing ship Demeter is taken over and its crew killed by the Count before running aground on the English coast.
  • Demeter appeared in the 1997 Disney movie, Hercules and the animated series based on it, as one of the gods upon Mount Olympus.
  • Demeter is also one of the poems in Carol Ann Duffy's collection The World's Wife.
  • Demeter (together with Dionysius) was used as an archetype for the character Tori by contemporary artist Tori Amos in her 2007 album American Doll Posse. Amos created five personalities for the album, each representing a different Greek god or goddess.
  • In the computer game Zeus: Master of Olympus, Demeter is one of the gods to whom the player can build a temple. The completion of the sanctuary to Demeter provides the city with arable farmland suitable for raising crops or livestock; the goddess provides blessings and sanctification of buildings associated with produce, and can be appealed to for a supply of food.
  • In the Konami game for the MSX computer The Maze of Galious, Demeter is one of the gods the player can visit to buy artifacts which gives extra powers.

References

  • Walter Burkert (1985) Greek Religion, Harvard University Press, 1985.
  • Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire, D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, 1962. An illustrated book of Greek myths retold for children.
  • Jane Ellen Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 1903
  • Karl Kerenyi, Eleusis: archetypal image of mother and daughter, 1967.
  • Karl Kerenyi, Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, 1976
  • Martin P. Nilsson, Greek Popular Religion, 1940.
  • Carl Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth, 1994.

External links

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