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The Goddess Demeter in Greek Mythology

Updated on July 4, 2015

Asked to name a Greek god or goddess most people would name Zeus, Apollo or Artemis, very few people would name the goddess Demeter; but in Ancient Greece, Demeter was one of the most important deities, widely revered and worshipped.

The importance of Demeter in Greek mythology is reflected by the fact that the Greek goddess was given a privileged position upon Mount Olympus, being one of the 12 Olympian gods.

The Birth of Demeter

Demeter was the sister of Zeus, and was therefore daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. This made Demeter sister to Hestia, Hera, Poseidon, Hades and Zeus. Cronus was an insecure supreme god though, and each time Rhea gave birth to a child, Cronus would swallow it, imprisoning it within his stomach. The only sibling to escape the fate was Zeus, and so Demeter would grow up in her father’s stomach.

Eventually, Zeus would return to free his siblings, as Cronus was presented with a potion that regurgitated them. A war would later take placed between the male brothers and the Titans; although Demeter is not thought to have fought during the war. Demeter though would later fight in the Gigantomachy.

After the Titanomachy, Zeus would appoint Demeter as one of the first of the Olympian gods.

The Goddess Demeter

The Greek Goddess Demeter - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (inv. 9457). - PD-life-100
The Greek Goddess Demeter - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (inv. 9457). - PD-life-100 | Source

Lovers and Children of Demeter

As with virtually all of the Greek goddesses, Demeter was a remarkably good looking woman, and was lusted after by god and mortal.

Zeus and Poseidon would both sleep with Demeter. The union with Zeus would famously bring forth the goddess Persephone; and less famously the partnership was said by some to have brought forth the first incarnation of Dionysus.

Poseidon would mate with Demeter whilst both were in the form of horses; and this union would give rise to Despoina, the goddess of the Mysteries, and the immortal horse Areion.

Demeter would also sleep with a handful of mortals.

Demeter would sleep with Iasion, a prince of Samothrace, during the wedding feast of Cadmus and Harmonia. This brief relationship would bring forth Ploutos (god of agricultural wealth) and Pheilomelus (inventor of the plough). Zeus would become jealous of the relationship so, and Iasion was struck down by a thunderbolt because of this jealousy.

A second mortal mate was named as Carmanor, a prince of Crete; although in some sources this is the same man as Iasion. Demeter would bear two children from this relationship, Euboulos (god of the ploughed wealth) and Chrysothemis (goddess of the harvest festival).

Demeter Mourns the Loss of Persephone

Demeter Mourning - Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) - PD-art-100
Demeter Mourning - Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) - PD-art-100 | Source

Demeter and the Abduction of Persephone

The mythology of Demeter is primarily based around the story of the abduction of her daughter Persephone.

Demeter and Persephone were virtually inseparably; with daughter living with her mother on Mount Olympus. Hades decided though, that Persephone would make the perfect Underworld consort. One day when Persephone was picking flowers, Hades would emerge from his realm and abduct the daughter of Demeter, with both journeying back to the Underworld unnoticed.

Demeter would eventually discover the disappearance of her daughter but no-one could tell her what had happened. Demeter would therefore set off from Mount Olympus to hunt for Persephone.

The search for Persephone would take Demeter the length and breadth of the known world, but during this period she did not partake of nectar and ambrosia, and as a result she started to fade. Also during this time, Demeter also neglected her work, and so crops failed and famine enveloped the world.

Eventually, Hecate and Helios combined to tell Demeter what had happened to her daughter, but even so this did not help the goddess, as her powers would be useless in the realm of Hades.

Zeus implored his sister to return to Mount Olympus, as did other Greek gods and goddesses, but Demeter refused; and so Zeus had to ask Hades to return Persephone. Hades would eventually agree to Zeus’ request, but not before he had bound Persephone to return to his side for a period each year through the consumption of some pomegranate seeds.

Demeter though would be reunited with Persephone, and mother was happy once again; and crops grew once again. Later, of course Persephone would return to the Underworld, and Demeter would be upset once again. The separation, and then reunification, of mother and daughter would bring forth the seasons; the spring and summer would see crops grow as Demeter and Persephone were together, and the rest of the year, during the separation, nothing would grow.

Demeter

The Goddess Demeter - Strato-Cat - CC-BY-ND-3.0
The Goddess Demeter - Strato-Cat - CC-BY-ND-3.0 | Source

The Vengeance and Favour of Demeter

The gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon were known to be quick to anger, and Demeter was no exception, but the goddess of Agriculture was also quick to confer favours as well.

Amongst those who faced the wrath of Demeter were beautiful nymphs, the Sirens. Originally the companions of Persephone, they were transformed by Demeter after they had failed to protect Demeter’s daughter.

The youthful Ascalabus was transformed into a gecko when he mocked the goddess; King Lynkos was transformed into a lynx when he tried to murder a favoured subject of Demeter; and King Triopas of Thessaly was punished with unquenchable thirst when he destroyed a sacred glade of Demeter.

Those who found favour with the goddess though, were rewarded. For being hospitable Phytalos was given the first fig tree, and similarly Trisaules and Damithales were given pulse crops.

Four men of Eleusis were also favoured by Demeter; these men were Triptolemus, Celeus, Diocles and Eumolpus. Demeter would instruct them in agricultural ways, but she would also instruct them in the ways of the Mysteries.

The Role of

Broadly speaking Demeter was the Greek goddess of Agriculture, and was most closely associated with the growing of grain, although the growth of fruit and vegetables was also part of her domain.

In Ancient Greece though, Demeter was also a goddess of Law and Order, as well as a deity being associated with the Afterlife. This last role might seem strange, seeing as it was Hades who abducted her daughter, but Demeter was an essential goddess for the Eleusian Mysteries and other Ancient Greek mysteries.

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