Demeter was one of the three daughters of Rhea and, thus, a sister of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades.
She had other connections to her brothers, however. She was the mother of children by both Zeus and Poseidon, and the mother-in-law of Hades.
Arguably her most famous myth is of the fury she displayed when Hades abducted and married her daughter, Persephone. Although Zeus, the king of the gods and the girl’s father, had arranged the marriage Demeter challenged his authority and forced the ruling gods to almost completely give in to her demands.
How was one of Zeus’s sisters so powerful that she could inspire fear in the two greatest kings of the gods?
Demeter was more than just a grain goddess. She was a representative of the powerful mother archetype and, according to some, another aspect of many of the most powerful mothers of Greek mythology.
Demeter was among the siblings freed from their father’s stomach when Zeus began the Titanomachy. After the war, she took her place as the goddess of grains and plant growth.
Demeter was not only Zeus’s sister, however. She was also the mother of one of his children.
According to most writers, the siblings were the parents of Persephone. She and her mother were constant companions until Zeus arranged to have her abducted and taken to the underworld as the bride of Hades.
Demeter was so distraught at losing her daughter that she wandered the world searching for her. The goddess was furious when she learned that her brother, the girl’s father, had arranged her abduction without telling her.
Demeter demanded that her daughter be returned. If she was not, the goddess of grain would withdraw her gifts from the world.
If grain did not grow, the people of the world would starve to death. The gods would stop receiving their customary offerings as well.
The threat was so severe that Demeter was able to force her brothers to negotiate with her. Unfortunately, Persephone could not be freed entirely because she had eaten food from the underworld.
Despite this, Demeter was in such a powerful position to negotiate that she was able to regain custody of her daughter for the majority of the year. Persephone would spend only three months in the underworld, during which time the grain stopped growing and winter fell over the earth.
Zeus and Hades were both powerful kings, so for Demeter to force them into negotiations proved that she too was a strong deity. Her strength, as hinted to by her relationship with Zeus, shows her roots as a powerful goddess of the earth.
Much has been said about Demeter’s identification as a mother goddess. Her chief trait in most myths was her nurturing and maternal protectiveness.
The story of Persephone’s abduction features Demeter’s fierce protection of her child. It also highlights her role in nourishment and nurturing.
Without Demeter making grain grow, humanity would literally cease to exist. Her power over the growth of food was so absolute that Zeus himself would be injured by her withholding her gifts.
The maternal goddess of growth and the earth is an ancient archetype that long predates Demeter. Even in the Greek religion, Gaia was the older and more dominant mother goddess of the earth.
Gaia was a largely inactive force in later myths, however. While she had given birth to the earliest beings in creation, many of her duties were taken over by newer goddesses.
Demeter was one of these, but this was not her only link to motherhood. Once again, a relationship with Zeus shed light on the goddess’s true nature.
The Orphic cults had their own mythology which often had significant differences from the more mainstream Greek religion. While they largely had the same gods, the ways in which they viewed these deities was often very different.
According to the mystery cults, Persephone was in fact the daughter of Rhea, not Demeter. Zeus had taken the form of a serpent to mate with his own mother, then did the same with Persephone to give birth to Dionysus.
The Orphic cults went further, however, in saying that Rhea came to be known by a new name after this event. Demeter was not Rhea’s daughter, but was instead the name she came to be known by after her daughter’s birth.
Demeter was often conflated with other mother goddesses in various myths. Various interpretations have claimed that she was another aspect not only of Gaia and Rhea, but also of Dione or Persephone herself.
Interestingly, there is no surviving story of how Persephone was born other than the Orphic legend. While Demeter’s other children, including those fathered by Poseidon, have tales related to their conception there is no such story about Demeter and Zeus.
Some historians take this as further evidence that the tale arose out of a more ancient mother goddess tradition. Like Uranus and Gaia, Zeus and Demeter were once such powerful forces that an elaborate seduction or abduction story was not needed when the story first arose.
Other have pointed to the position of power Demeter held in negotiations with Zeus and Hades as proof that she was once far more powerful than the later myths implied. Zeus was the king of all the gods, and only the most powerful goddesses would be able to force him to do as they wanted.
Zeus and Demeter were brother and sister, but various Greek legends show a much more complex relationship between them.
They were usually credited as the parents of Persephone, although no legend survives that details the younger goddess’s birth story. Zeus arranged for Persephone’s marriage by abduction with Hades.
Neither the king of the gods nor the king of the underworld were willing to discuss the marriage with Demeter, however. Her reaction after learning the truth about her daughter’s disappearance showed that the two kings had reason to fear her anger.
As the goddess of the grain and vegetable crops, Demeter threatened to starve both humans and the gods if her daughter was not returned. While Persephone’s marriage could not be completely undone, Demeter’s position was so strong that she was able to keep her daughter with for two thirds of the year.
Demeter’s strength relative to the two greatest kings of the pantheon is evidence of her position as a great mother goddess. Various traditions and interpretations saw Demeter as another name for not only Persephone but also Rhea and even Gaia.
As a representative of the mother earth archetype, Demeter may have once been revered as a general life-giving goddess rather than one specifically related to food crops. Her interactions with Zeus may be remnants of an older tradition in which the mother goddess surpassed even the king in power.