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.
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.
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
Theocritus remembered an earlier role of Demeter:
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.
In Arcadia, Demeter was worshiped as a horse-headed deity into historical times:
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 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.
Some scholars believe the Demophon story is based on an earlier prototypical folk tale.