GMC: Demeter

(a few parts of this post come from Journey to Olympos’ Demeter chapter . More of my meditations and thoughts from this month may similarly work their way into the book.


Demeter is the Goddess of crops and grains, agriculture and horticulture. She was demeter_reliefresponsible for the fertility of the world. It is She Who feeds us. Mother Gaia loves all Her children equally, from the smallest insect to the largest beast. But Demeter’s concern is with mankind. It is said that before Demeter took pity on us and taught us how to grow our own food, we lived on a meager diet of acorns and berries and raw meat from animals we managed to catch and kill. Demeter is commonly considered to be one of the most approachable Gods, in fact “Approachable” is exactly what Her epithet of Antaea means.


She played little part in the battles of mortals or the sexual entanglements of Olympos. In fact, Demeter never married. Her short relationship with Zeus produced Her daughter Kore-Persephone, and by some accounts She bore a girl by Poseidon as well.

But Demeter never had a long-lasting love affair. Her love affair was with Her daughter; Persephone was Her reason for being and Her chief concern. Demeter placed Persephone even above the welfare of humans, who Demeter felt much compassion and affection for.

Indeed, so much is written about Demeter as Persephone’s mother, that it becomes difficult to see Demeter Herself, to relate to Her beyond Persephone. She was demeter2015_costumeshown on vase paintings wielding a sword during the war with the Giants, an image not often thought of when contemplating Demeter. Although the grieving mother is by far the most prevalent image of Her in Western literature and art, Demeter is not a victim. She is a strong Goddess and capable of defending Herself when necessary. Is not Her retaliation to Persephone’s abduction, to which even great Zeus had to respond, proof enough of Her strength?


The Eleusinian Mysteries


Let this sacred tale of mother and daughter, possibly the most powerful of all the classical myths, serve as an introduction to the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries, held in the last half of September, and to the Thesmophoria, which occurred shortly thereafter. This sacred and truly feminine myth delves deep into the earth, into nature, and into our psyches, drawing strength from ageless archetypes. This is a story of loss, grief, and suffering[1]



Of the Mysteries themselves we know very little, for the initiates kept their oaths of secrecy well. We know, however, much about the rituals that led up to the Greater Mysteries. The week-long Eleusinian Mysteries, held in late September or early October (again, a perfect “coincidence” with which God comes up for the God of the Month Club!), began with a gathering in Athens, as the prospective initiates prepared for the fourteen-mile walk to Eleusis. The sacred objects had been bought from Eleusis to Athens, to be shown to crowd of waiting celebrants, and to be escorted back to Eleusis by the hopeful initiates. They purified themselves in the salt water of the sea, and each initiate sacrificed a piglet they had bought to Demeter. Only then did they begin their long fourteen-mile walk along the Sacred Way to Eleusis, those chosen to carry the sacred objects leading the way.  They carried torches, as Demeter did in Her search for Persephone. But the tone was not one of mourning, but of joyous celebration.


demeter_ceres_greek_goddess_art_15_by_jynette_tignerIt is difficult for many of us today to imagine thousands of initiates, both male and female, slave and free, traveling weeks or even months, bearing the hardships of a lengthy and costly land or sea voyage, journeying from all over the Mediterranean world to pay homage to an exclusively female relationship, that of Demeter and her dear daughter Persephone. And it is beyond our experience to have a state supported holiday during which for nearly two weeks all work and business yielded… to the celebration of the Divine Feminine. Yet that is exactly what happened[2].


When they arrived at Eleusis, they participated in another ritual bath in the nearby river. When the first star of the evening rose, they began a two-day fast, just as Demeter did. Celibacy was mandatory, in sympathy for Demeter’s barrenness and loneliness without Her daughter.

The Mysteries themselves took place after this two-day fast. A building called the Telesterion had been built just for the purpose of the Mysteries, and it was not used in the rest of the year. It was a large, windowless hall that held thousands of people in rows of seats. As I said before, there is not much known of what happened here. We know that there were things said, things done, and things shown, and that the emphasis was on the things shown, but nothing really about what these things were. The only original sources to tell us what happened there were written by Christian authors in furious protests against Pagan religions, so what they had to say is obviously extremely suspect. There has been much speculation by many scholars, but little fact.

We do know that after the rituals of the Mysteries were concluded, the initiates walked into the nearby Rharian Field. There, “they repeatedly invoked Hue! Cue! (Rain! Conceive!). It was called the Mystical Formula… and the Neoplatonist Proclus reports that the Priest looked to the Heavens when calling the first word, and towards the Earth when calling the second[3].”

Likewise, we know which Gods and heroes were worshiped at Eleusis, the chief ones being, obviously, Demeter and Kore, “the Maiden”. They are often called simply “the Two Goddesses”. The second pair depicted was Persephone and Her husband Haides under His name of Plouton, “wealth”. Kore and Persephone are the same Goddess, in Her forms as Spring Maiden and Queen of the Dead, but these forms are so opposite that She was often split into two. The King and Queen of the Underworld were here called simply “the God” and “the Goddess”. Martin P. Nilsson, the author of Greek Folk Religion, observed that when it was obvious Who they were talking about, the Greeks tended to just say “the Goddess” or “the God” instead of names. So at Athens “the Goddess” meant Athena, and at Delphi Apollon was referred to as “the God.” At Eleusis, “the God and Goddess” are Haides-Plouton and Persephone. In addition, mortal heroes were added to the pantheon of Deities and spirits honored at Eleusis, which Nilsson elaborates on:


To each of these two pairs a hero is added, and so we get two triads: Demeter, Kore, and Triptolemos; and “the God”, “the Goddess”, and Eubouleus. They are seen on an Attic relief found at Mondragone near Sinuessa in Italy, with the addition of a seventh figure clad in a Dionysiac costume – boots and fawnskin. He is Iacchos. Iacchos is a personification of the Iacchic cry heard in the great procession which went from Athens to Eleusis in order to celebrate the Mysteries. The gay revels, the merry cries, and the light of the torches in this procession were reminiscent of the festivals of Dionysus, and the name of Iacchos suggested the second name of this god, Bacchos. So Iacchos was represented in the likeness of Dionysus. But he is a later creation, who owes his existence to the procession mentioned; that is to say, he cannot be older than the incorporation of Eleusis into the Athenian state, and he was created at the earliest in the sixth century B.C. There is no question of Dionysiac elements in the Eleusinian Mysteries at an early age, but we shall see that from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C., there was a certain mixing up of the Mysteries of Eleusis and the cult of Dionysus[4].


Triptolemos is barely mentioned in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter as one of several Eleusinian noblemen. Apollodorus is credited with saying that Triptolemos was one of the eldest Eleusinian princes[5], and that Demeter gave him a chariot drawn by dragons to help him spread the secrets of agriculture. The story was picked up by others[6]. Eubouleus is not mentioned in the original Homeric Hymn to Demeter at all, but is found in later sources. The story goes that he was a herdsman tending his herd of swine when Haides came to kidnap Persephone. When the earth opened up, his herd was lost as the pigs fell into the chasm. This myth likely came k26-1ploutosabout to explain why pigs were sacrificed to Demeter. Diodorus of Sicily actually said the Euboulos was a son of Demeter[7], perhaps meant symbolically. According to some, Demeter and Her mortal lover Iasion, when they lay together in a thrice-plowed field, She bore the Ploutos[8], the demi-God of agricultural wealth. This is pretty interesting, considering Plouton was another name of Haides. Also fathered by Iasion is Philometes-Bootes[9], the inventor of the wagon and plough. So although Persephone may be Demeter’s most beloved child, She had many children, most of them agricultural heroes and demi-Gods.

Demeter and Persephone, having defeated death and returned from the Underworld, offer hope of a better future. The Greeks believed that those initiated into the Mysteries had a better fate in the afterlife, bound for a more joyous place than gloomy Haides. This no doubt did much to spread the popularity of the Mysteries.


Aristophanes in The Frogs introduces a chorus of mystae in the scene which is laid in the underworld. …. The mystae dance and revel in a meadow strewn with flowers. This conviction of a happier lot in the Underworld, which filled the minds of the initiated, sprang from ancient roots, the world-wide idea that the other life is a repetition of this life.  The idea is found, for example, in the eleventh book of the Odyssey, which describes Odysseus’ visit to the underworld. The simple fact is that the initiated believed that they would continue to celebrate the Mysteries in the underworld, as Aristophanes and Euripides show them doing. Since the Mysteries were the most edifying event they knew of, such a conception of a future state formed the brightest possible contrast to the dark and gloomy Hades in which the Greeks believed[10].The most obvious interpretation of the myth of Demeter is one of seasonal change and of the harvest, with Persephone representing the seeds of the earth, which were stored in underground silos during the scorching summer months. 


Coming to Peace with Demeter (reposted from 2/26/2011)


I have never been fully comfortable with Demeter. Intellectually I understand Her importance, both in the ancient world and today, but until the last few years I could not help but be somewhat emotionally put off by Her. I always identified more with Her wayward daughter Persephone. While I am aware of my own bias, the fact remains that my relationship with my own mother colors my perceptions. I cheer demeter_ceres_greek_goddess_art_03Persephone’s escape from Her oppressive and suffocating mother, as I escaped mine. So much of Demeter’s identity is bound up in Her daughter that if you have had a negative experience of the mother-daughter relationship, it can certainly poison your idea of Demeter. Who is Demeter, other than a mother? Who is Demeter beyond Persephone?

In trying to make my peace with Demeter, I began thinking of other ways that the myths surrounding Her could be interpreted. Demeter’s story is essentially one of loss, and Her ensuing battle with depression. Taking out the mother-daughter aspect made it easier for me begin to become comfortable with Her.

After Her loss, Demeter wanders the earth, searching for what was taken from Her. When She can’t find it, She puts on the guise of an old woman and ends up working in the palace of the local king, caring for his young son. She puts on a fake face, like many people who have suffered a loss or are depressed in some way. She pretends to be happy, telling everyone “I’m fine”, “It’s okay”, and “Nothing’s wrong”. She tries to make Herself happy by pretending She already is. Inwardly She falls more and more into Her depression.

Eventually something happens that causes the mask to fall, and all the festering painful emotions are exposed to the light. In the myth of Demeter and Persephone, this happens when the Queen stumbles onto Demeter attempting to make the young Prince immortal. When the Queen’s panic broke the spell, Demeter’s mask of being happy fell away as Her second chance was wrenched from Her. Her misery and anger revealed, She retreats into the temple that the Eleusinians build for Her. Demeter retreats into Herself, spending all Her time mourning for Her daughter. She neglects Her duties for the fertility of the world and the crops die and people begin to starve. Similarly, when we give into depression and retreat into ourselves, our creativity dries up and we begin to starve if we stay too long disconnected from human contact, wallowing in our pain.

Yet, strangely, it is only when we allow ourselves to feel our pain that we can begin to heal ourselves. We must allow ourselves to mourn. Too many people in demeter14lWestern societies, especially boys and men, are taught to suppress their emotions. They are told “boys don’t cry” and instructed to “man up” if they dare allow themselves to feel.

How unhealthy this suppression is! To ignore and suppress a feeling – whether it is a desire, a fear, or grief – only increases its power. We must acknowledge our pain in order to begin moving through it. Acceptance is always the first step.

Another way I found myself better relating to Demeter is as a feminist figure. True, Her over-identification with Her daughter and the role of Mother could very well be seen as anti-feminist, a throwback to the days when being a wife was the only career open to women, and the child consumed the entire existence of the mother. This is a condition that we are taught to believe is totally without power, without dignity. Yes, the myth tells us that Zeus went behind Demeter’s back and married off Their daughter without Her consent, or even informing the girl. But, in the end, Who is it that gives in? Is it Demeter, the downtrodden female, Who surrenders? No, it is mighty Zeus, King of the Gods, Who caves in the face of Demeter’s awesome wrath. Once Her anger and grief was focused towards a goal, nothing could stop Her. Even Zeus quaked before Her fury. Here is another lesson for us. This lesson applies to all people, no matter their gender, but it is especially valuable for women. This lesson is that we should not be afraid to get angry when we need to.


Demeter in the Modern Age


Modern folk can have a hard time relating to Demeter. Most of us are far removed from an agricultural life. We city-dwellers simply cannot comprehend the amount of labor that it takes to grow food from the soil. We are no longer at the mercy of heat waves that scorch crops and violent storms that can sweep away fields in a matter of hours. Grocery stores perch on every street corner. We go to a store and find our food wrapped prettily in colorful plastic or contained in cardboard boxes, arranged in neat little rows under fluorescent lights.

We don’t eat with the seasons anymore. Does anyone realize how strange it is to see rows of blueberries and watermelons in the stores in the middle of winter? I doubt many do. Even if the thought does occur to them, it doesn’t really sink in. How can it? Every craving is instantly satisfied. We don’t know what it’s like to go long winters without fresh fruit. We simply can’t. We have no idea what the first fruit of the season tastes like after being deprived of it for months on end.

Most Americans don’t get their daily servings of fruit and vegetables. I’ve known people – adults, not teenagers – to claim that greasy French fries from Burger King count as a serving of vegetables! And what a sad state of affairs this thinking has gotten us! Obesity is a nation-wide epidemic, and health is a major issue. Truly we need to reconnect with Demeter, now more than ever! I believe connecting with Demeter may be a part of, or perhaps the key to, the solution to this dilemma we now find ourselves in.

In addition, we tend to forget that without Demeter, without agriculture, there would be no modern society at all. Without agriculture we would have to be hunter-gatherers to survive. To advance as far as our culture has practically requires us to be stationed in one place, a luxury that agriculture affords us. We do not need to spend all our time tracking game and foraging for food, which frees time up for so-called “higher” pursuits. We don’t see where our food comes from anymore. We don’t see all the work that goes into its production, the treatment of the animals we eat, or the hardships of the people who work in our fields and orchards. All this combined should give you an idea of the importance of Demeter. We may not live an agrarian lifestyle anymore, but Demeter is still vitally important to our very existence.

I still can’t say that I know Demeter intimately, but I see the day coming, very soon, when I will. My life has changed a lot in the last few years. In fact, I am currently in the process of setting up a homestead in Missouri. I own five acres with a cabin in the Ozarks, and although most of it is wooded, I am working on gardening in the small clearing when I live while I clear the rest of the land. I am in the process of changing my life forever, and soon I will be living a more agricultural lifestyle. I value the closeness to earth that Paganism offers, but I wanted more. I will soon be a homesteader, working on building a permaculture food forest, gardening, raising animals. It won’t be long before Demeter is vital to my life and my practice.

In fact, I’m working on building raised beds for next year’s garden right now, and a few of them will soon be planted with fall crops, like winter greens, cabbages, and maybe parsnips and beets.

I’ve been contemplating where to build an altar to Demeter for the garden already, and since She’s come up this month I think I decided to make it a priority. On September 18th, I built a simple outdoor altar to Demeter in my garden. It was just two cinderblocks with a very large, heavy, flat stone on top. A simple altar, but Demeter is a simple Goddess. I dedicated it by offering a libation of pure water and olive oil. I spoke to Her for a moment, offering a short prayer that we would learn what we need to be good farmers, and that She would make our garden plentiful and bless our land. The idea is that every time we harvest something from the garden, a portion goes onto Her altar. When I get a bunch of tomatoes, one tomato goes on Her altar. When I gather herbs, a few leaves will be offered. You get the idea. Eventually I plan to make it a little taller with a couple more cinderblocks, so at this point have not cemented it together yet. It was very solid, so I think it will hold together anyway.




Offerings to Demeter

Demeter was given first fruit offerings. The first flowers or food from your area would be appropriate. The poppy flower, which was commonly found growing in wheat fields, came to be so closely associated with Demeter that Her priestesses would often wear a garland of them[11], or carry some, during important festivals. Mint[12] is another one of Her sacred plants. Barley[13] is also sacred to Her, in fact in the Mysteries a sacred drink was made of barley, mint, honey and water. There is also an obscure story told by Pausanias, which says that when Demeter was searching for Persephone, and a man named Phytalos welcomed Her, gave Her hospitality, and tried demeterto help, She rewarded him with the first fig tree[14]. So figs may be considered sacred to Her as well, even if it is not one of the more wide-spread stories. Fresh figs, or even fig newtons, could be wonderful food offerings. The importance of pigs to Demeter’s worship has already been discussed in this chapter, but there are other creatures sacred to Her as well. Serpents[15], which dwell deep in the earth, are also sacred to Her. In fact, One of Demeter’s symbols was a winged serpent, and Her chariot is pulled by these dragon-like creatures[16]. Snakeskins or images of snakes would be great gifts or additions to Her altar. Other animals mentioned in association with Her are the white turtle-doves[17] and the red mullet fish[18].

Any type of grains would be wonderful offerings, as well as pork chops. Images and statues of pigs, wheat, or cornucopias would be good offerings, as well as become permanent fixtures on Her altar. Dove feathers would work too. Just remember that Demeter is usually not given wine. In the Homeric Hymn She refuses it and many people take that to mean that She never wants wine. Although this is a personal gnosis thing, since some people believe that She refused the wine specifically because She was in mourning. So, it’s something to keep in mind, but ultimately a personal decision.

Plant something. You don’t need a huge, fancy garden to connect with Demeter. Growing even one small plant, caring and nurturing for it, watching it grow and flower will help you connect with Demeter. Be aware of what you are eating. Thank the spirits of the animals and plants you eat, who have given up their lives for you. But also try to eat ethically. You do not have to be vegetarian, but look into the farms and companies where your meat comes from to make sure that the animals are treated humanely. Donate money or time to child abduction causes, rape crisis counseling, and support for single mothers, or organizations that support the rights of farmers and migrant workers.


[1]        Francis Bernstein, Ph.D. Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Rome: Myths, Gods, Goddesses, Celebrations, and Rites for Every Day of the Year. Harper San Franciso. 2000. Page 165-166

[2]        Francis Bernstein, Ph.D. Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Rome: Myths, Gods, Goddesses, Celebrations, and Rites for Every Day of the Year. Harper San Franciso. 2000. page 171

[3]    Potnia: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Demeter. Edited by Melitta Benu and Rebecca Buchacan. Bibliotheca Alexandria. 2014. Page 229

[4]     Martin P. Nilsson. Greek Folk Religion. University of Philadelphia Press. Philadelphia. 1961. Page 46-48

[5]    Pseudo-Apollodorus. Bibliotheca 1. 32

[6]     Callimachus. Hymn 6 to Demeter 17,  Pausanias. Description of Greece 7. 18. 2

[7]    “Karme, the daughter of Euboulos who was the son of Demeter.” – Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5.76.3

[8]     Hyginus. Astronomica 2.4, Hesiod. Theogony 969, Diodorus Siculus 5.48.2


[9]  Hyginus. Astronomica 2.4

[10]    Martin P. Nilsson. Greek Folk Religion. University of Philadelphia Press. Philadelphia. 1961. Page 59

[11]    Callimachus. Hymn 6 to Demeter 2, Virgil. Georgics 1. 208.

[12]    Homeric Hymn 2 Demeter 205

[13]    Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter 205

[14]    Pausanias. Description of Greece. 1. 7. 2.

[15]    Ovid. Fasti. 4. 495 ff.

[16]    Ovid. Metamorphoses. 8. 782, Apuleius. The Golden Ass 6. 2, Nonnos. Dionysiaca. 5. 562 ff

[17]    Aelian. On Animals. 10. 33

[18]   Aelian. On Animals. 9. 51

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