1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Demeter
DEMETER, in Greek mythology, daughter of Cronus and Rhea and sister of Zeus, goddess of agriculture and civilized life. Her name has been explained as (1) “grain-mother,” from δηαί, the Cretan form of ζειαί, “barley,” or (2) “earth-mother,” or rather “mother earth,” δᾶ being regarded as the Doric form of λῆ. She is rarely mentioned in Homer, nor is she included amongst the Olympian gods.
The central fact of her cult was the story of her daughter Persephone (Proserpine), a favourite subject in classical poetry. According to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone, while gathering flowers on the Nysian plain (probably here a purely mythical locality), was carried off by Hades (Pluto), the god of the lower world, with the connivance of Zeus (see also Proserpine). The incident has been assigned to various other localities—Crete, Eleusis, and Enna in Sicily, the last being most generally adopted. This rape is supposed to point to an original ἰερὸς λάμος, an annual holy marriage of a god and goddess of vegetation. Wandering over the earth in search of her daughter, Demeter learns from Helios the truth about her disappearance. In the form of an old woman named Deo (= the “seeker,” or simply a diminutive form), she comes to the house of Celeus at Eleusis, where she is hospitably received. Having revealed herself to the Eleusinians, she departs, in her wrath having visited the earth with a great dearth. At last Zeus appeases her by allowing her daughter to spend two-thirds of the year with her in the upper world. Demeter then returns to Olympus, but before her final departure from earth, in token of her gratitude, she instructs the rulers of Eleusis in the art of agriculture and in the solemnities and rites whereby she desires in future to be honoured.
Those who were initiated into the mysteries of Eleusis found a deep meaning in the myth, which was held to teach the principle of a future life, founded on the return of Persephone to the upper world, or rather on the process of nature by which seed sown in the ground must first die and rot before it can yield new life (see Mystery). At Eleusis, Demeter was venerated as the introducer of all the blessings which agriculture brings in its train—fixed dwelling-places, civil order, marriage and a peaceful life; hence her name Thesmophoros, “the bringer of law and order,” and the festival Thesmophoria (q.v.). J. G. Frazer takes the epithet to mean “bearer of the sacred objects deposited on the altar”; L. R. Farnell (Cults of the Greek States, iii. 106) suggests “the bringer of treasure or riches,” as appropriate to the goddess of corn and of the lower world; others refer the name to “the law of wedlock” (θεσμὸς λέκτροιο, Odyssey, xxiii. 296, where, however, D. B. Monro translates “place, situation”). At Eleusis also, Triptolemus (q.v.), the son of Celeus, who was said to have invented the plough and to have been sent by Demeter round the world to diffuse the knowledge of agriculture, had a temple and threshing-floor.
In the agrarian legends of Iasion and Erysichthon, Demeter also plays an important part. Iasion (or Iasius), a beautiful youth, inspired her with love for him in a thrice-ploughed field in Crete, the fruit of their union being Plutus (wealth). According to Homer (Odyssey, v. 128) he was slain by Zeus with a thunderbolt. The story is compared by Frazer (Golden Bough, 2nd ed., ii. 217) with the west Prussian custom of the mock birth of a child on the harvest-field, the object being to ensure a plentiful crop for the coming year. It seems to point to the supersession of a primitive local Cretan divinity by Demeter, and the adoption of agriculture by the inhabitants, bringing wealth in its train in the form of the fruits of the earth, both vegetable and mineral. Some scholars, identifying Iasion with Jason (q.v.), regard Thessaly as the original home of the legend, and the union with Demeter as the ἱερὸς γάμος of mother earth with a health god. Erysichthon (“tearer up of the earth”), son of Triopas or Myrmidon, having cut down the trees in a grove sacred to the goddess, was punished by her with terrible hunger (Callimachus, Hymn to Demeter; Ovid, Metam. viii. 738–878). Perhaps Erysichthon may be explained as the personification of the labourer, who by the systematic cultivation and tilling of the soil endeavours to force the crops, instead of allowing them to mature unmolested as in the good old times. Tearing up the soil with the plough is regarded as an invasion of the domain of the earth-mother, punished by the all-devouring hunger for wealth, that increases with increasing produce. According to another view, Erysichthon is the destroyer of trees, who wastes away as the plant itself loses its vigour. It is possible that the story may originally have been connected with tree-worship. Here again, as in the case of Iasion, a conflict between an older and a younger cult seems to be alluded to (for the numerous interpretations see O. Crusius s.v. in Roscher’s Lexikon).
It is as a corn-goddess that Demeter appears in Homer and Hesiod, and numerous epithets from various sources (see Bruchmann, Epitheta Deorum, supplement to Roscher’s Lexikon, i. 2) attest her character as such. The name Ἰουλώ (? at Delos), from ἱουλος, “corn-sheaf,” has been regarded as identifying the goddess with the sheaf, and as proving that the cult of Demeter originated in the worship of the corn-mother or corn-spirit, the last sheaf having a more or less divine character for the primitive husbandman. According to this view, the prototypes of Demeter and Persephone are the corn-mother and harvest maiden of northern Europe, the corn-fetishes of the field (Frazer, Golden Bough, 2nd ed., ii. 217, 222; but see Farnell, Cults, iii. 35). The influence of Demeter, however, was not limited to corn, but extended to vegetation generally and all the fruits of the earth, with the curious exception of the bean, the use of which was forbidden at Eleusis, and for the protection of which a special patron was invented. In this wider sense Demeter is akin to Ge, with whom she has several epithets in common, and is sometimes identified with Rhea-Cybele; thus Pindar speaks of Demeter χαλκοκρότος (“brass-rattling”), an epithet obviously more suitable to the Asiatic than to the Greek earth-goddess. Although the goddess of agriculture is naturally inclined to peace and averse from war, the memory of the time when her land was won and kept by the sword still lingers in the epithets χρυσάορος and ξιφηφόρος and in the name Triptolemus, which probably means “thrice fighter” rather than “thrice plougher.”
Another important aspect of Demeter was that of a divinity of the under-world; as such she is χθονία at Sparta and especially at Hermione in Argolis, where she had a celebrated temple, said to have been founded by Clymenus (one of the names of Hades-Pluto) and his sister Chthonia, the children of Phoroneus, an Argive hero. Here there was said to be a descent into the lower world, and local tradition made it the scene of the rape of Persephone. At the festival Chthonia, a cow (representing, according to Mannhardt, the spirit of vegetation), which voluntarily presented itself, was sacrificed by three old women. Those joining in the procession wore garlands of hyacinth, which seems to attribute a chthonian character to the ceremony, although it may also have been connected with agriculture (see S. Wide, De Sacris Troezeniorum, Hermionensium, Epidauriorum, Upsala, 1888). The striking use of the term δημήτρειοι in the sense of “the dead” may be noted in this connexion.
The remarkable epithets, Ἐρινύς and Μέλαινα, as applied to Demeter, were both localized in Arcadia, the first at Thelpusa (or rather Onkeion close by), the second at Phigalia (see W. Immerwahr, Die Kulte und Mythen Arkadiens, i. 1891). According to the Thelpusan story, Demeter, during her wanderings in search of Persephone, changed herself into a mare to avoid the persecution of Poseidon. The god, however, assumed the form of a stallion, and the fruit of the union was a daughter of mystic name and the horse Areion (or Erion). Demeter, at first enraged, afterwards calmed down, and washed herself in the river Ladon by way of purification. Demeter “the angry” (ἐρινύς) became Demeter “the bather” (λουσία). An almost identical story was current in the neighbourhood of Tilphossa, a Boeotian spring. In the Phigalian legend, no mention is made of the horse Areion, but only of the daughter, who is called Despoina (mistress), a title common to all divinities connected with the under-world. Demeter, clad in black (hence μέλαινα) in token of mourning for her daughter and wrath with Poseidon, retired into a cave. During that time the earth bore no fruit, and the inhabitants of the world were threatened with starvation. At last Pan, the old god of Arcadia, discovered her hiding-place, and informed Zeus, who sent the Moirae (Fates) to fetch her out. The cave, still called Mavrospēlya (“black cave”), was ever afterwards regarded as sacred to Demeter, and in it, according to information given to Pausanias, there had been set up an image of the goddess, a female form seated on a rock, but with a horse’s head and mane, to which were attached snakes and other wild animals. It was clothed in a black garment reaching to the feet, and held in one hand a dolphin, in the other a dove. The image was destroyed by fire, replaced by the sculptor Onatas from inspiration in a dream, but disappeared again before the time of Pausanias.
Both μέλαινα and ἐρινύς, according to Farnell, are epithets of Demeter as an earth-goddess of the under-world. The first has been explained as referring to the gloom of her abode, or the blackness of the withered corn. The second, according to Max Müller and A. Kuhn, is the etymological equivalent of the Sanskrit Saranyu, who, having turned herself into a mare, is pursued by Vivasvat, and becomes the mother of the two Asvins, the Indian Dioscuri, the Indian and Greek myths being regarded as identical. According to Farnell, the meaning of the epithet is to be looked for in the original conception of Erinys, which was that of an earth-goddess akin to Ge, thus naturally associated with Demeter, rather than that of a wrathful avenging deity.
Various interpretations have been given of the horse-headed form of the Black Demeter: (1) that the horse was one of the forms of the corn-spirit in ancient Greece; (2) that it was an animal “devoted” to the chthonian goddess; (3) that it is totemistic; (4) that the form was adopted from Poseidon Hippios, who is frequently associated with the earth-goddess and is said to have received the name Hippios first at Thelpusa, in order that Demeter might figure as the mother of Areion (for a discussion of the whole subject see Farnell, Cults, iii. pp. 50-62). The union of Poseidon and Demeter is thus explained by Mannhardt. As the waves of the sea are fancifully compared to horses, so a field of corn, waving in the breeze, may be said to represent the wedding of the sea-god and the corn-goddess. In any case the association of Poseidon, representing the fertilizing element of moisture, with Demeter, who causes the plants and seeds to grow, is quite natural, and seems to have been widespread.
Demeter also appears as a goddess of health, of birth and of marriage; and a certain number of political and ethnic titles is assigned to her. Of the latter the most noteworthy are: Παναχαία at Aegium in Achaea, pointing to some connexion with the Achaean league; Ἀχαία, “the Achaean goddess,” unless it refers to the “sorrow” of the goddess for the loss of her daughter (cf. Ἀχέα in Boeotia); and, most important of all, Ἀμφικτυονίς, at Anthela near Thermopylae, as patron-goddess of the Amphictyonic league, subsequently so well known in connexion with the temple at Delphi.
The Eleusinia and Thesmophoria are discussed elsewhere, but brief mention may here be made of certain agrarian festivals held in honour of Demeter.
1. Haloa, obviously connected with ἅλως (“threshing-floor”), begun at Athens and finished at Eleusis, where there was a threshing-floor of Triptolemus, in the month Poseideon (December). This date, which is confirmed by historical and epigraphical evidence, seems inappropriate, and it is suggested (A. Mommsen, Feste der Stadt Athen, p. 365 foll.) that the festival, originally held in autumn, was subsequently placed later, so as to synchronize with the winter Dionysia. Dionysus, as the god of vines, and (in a special procession) Poseidon φυτάλμιος (“god of vegetation”) were associated with Demeter. In addition to being a harvest festival, marked by the ordinary popular rejoicings, the Haloa had a religious character. The ἀπαρχαί (“first fruits”) were conveyed to Eleusis, where sacrifice was offered by a priestess, men being prohibited from undertaking the duty. A τελετή (“initiatory ceremony”) of women by a woman also took place at Eleusis, characterized by obscene jests and the use of phallic emblems. The sacramental meal on this occasion consisted of the produce of land and sea, certain things (pomegranates, honey, eggs) being forbidden for mystical reasons. Although the offerings at the festival were bloodless, the ceremony of the presentation of the ἀπαρχαί was probably accompanied by animal sacrifice (Farnell, Foucart); Mommsen, however, considers the offerings to have been pastry imitations. Certain games (πάτριος ἀγών), of which nothing is known, terminated the proceedings. In Roman imperial times the ephebi had to deliver a speech at the Haloa.
2. Chloeia or Chloia, the festival of the corn beginning to sprout, held at Eleusis in the early spring (Anthesterion) in honour of Demeter Chloë, “the green,” the goddess of growing vegetation. This is to be distinguished from the later sacrifice of a ram to the same goddess on the 6th of the month Thargelion, probably intended as an act of propitiation. It has been identified with the Procharisteria (sometimes called Proschaireteria), another spring festival, but this is doubtful. The scholiast on Pindar (Ol. ix. 150) mentions an Athenian harvest festival Eucharisteria.
3. Proërosia, at which prayers were offered for an abundant harvest, before the land was ploughed for sowing. It was also called Proarcturia, an indication that it was held before the rising of Arcturus. According to the traditional account, when Greece was threatened with famine, the Delphic oracle ordered first-fruits to be brought to Athens from all parts of the country, which were to be offered by the Athenians to the goddess Deo on behalf of all the contributors. The most important part of the festival was the three sacred ploughings—the Athenian ὑπὸ πόλιν, the Eleusinian on the Rharian plain, the Scirian (a compromise between Athens and Eleusis). The festival itself took place, probably some time in September, at Eleusis. In later times the ephebi also took part in the Proërosia.
4. Thalysia, a thanksgiving festival, held in autumn after the harvest in the island of Cos (see Theocritus vii.).
5. The name of Demeter is also associated with the Scirophoria (see Athena). It is considered probable that the festival was originally held in honour of Athena, but that the growing importance of the Eleusinia caused it to be attached to Demeter and Kore.
The attributes of Demeter are chiefly connected with her character as goddess of agriculture and vegetation—ears of corn, the poppy, the mystic basket (calathus) filled with flowers, corn and fruit of all kinds, the pomegranate being especially common. Of animals, the cow and the pig are her favourites, the latter owing to its productivity and the cathartic properties of its blood. The crane is associated with her as an indicator of the weather. As a chthonian divinity she is accompanied by a snake; the myrtle, asphodel and narcissus (which Persephone was gathering when carried off by Hades) also are sacred to her.
In Greek art, Demeter is made to resemble Hera, only more matronly and of milder expression; her form is broader and fuller. She is sometimes riding in a chariot drawn by horses or dragons, sometimes walking, sometimes seated upon a throne, alone or with her daughter. The Demeter of Cnidus in the British Museum, of the school of Praxiteles, apparently shows her mourning for the loss of her daughter. The article Greek Art, fig. 67 (pl. iv.), gives a probable representation of Demeter (or her priestess) from the stone of a vault in a Crimean grave.
The Romans identified Demeter with their own Ceres (q.v.).
See L. Preller, Demeter und Persephone (1837); P. R. Förster, Der Raub und die Rückkehr der Persephone (1874), in which considerable space is devoted to the representations of the myth in art; W. Mannhardt, Mythologische Forschungen (1884); J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903); L. Dyer, The Gods in Greece (1891); J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough (2nd ed.), ii. 168-222; L. Preller, Griechische Mythologie (4th ed., by C. Robert); O. Kern in Pauly-Wissowa’s Realencyclopädie, iv. pt. 2 (1901); L. Bloch in Roscher’s Lexikon der Mythologie; O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte, ii. (1907); L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, iii. (1907); article “Ceres” by F. Lenormant in Daremberg and Saglio’s Dictionnaire des antiquités. (J. H. F.)
- O. Gruppe (Griechische Mythologie, ii. 1177, note 1) considers it “certain” that Ἀχαία = Ἀχελωία, although he is unable to explain the form.