What is Demeter’s Symbol?
The gods were often identifiable because of their symbolism, so what were the symbols of Demeter in Greek art?
As the goddess of wheat, grains, and vegetables Demeter’s obvious symbols were related to agriculture. The plants she grew were the most common aspects of her iconography.
Many of her symbols were also loosely associated with agriculture. Her sacred flowers were the ones that grew wild among grains and her chariot was pulled by animals often found in rocky fields.
These images often had a darker meaning, though. Although Demeter was associated with life-preserving foods, many of her symbols invoked images of death.
So why was the maternal goddess of grain so often shown with symbols of the Underworld? In the ancient world, the two realms were not as distant from one another as you might expect!
Demeter and the Symbols of Agriculture
Demeter was the goddess of grains and food crops, so it’s unsurprising that most of her symbolism revolved around this role.
Her most sacred plant was wheat. She was often pictured holding a sheaf of wheat or with a crown of grains.
In some areas, barley was more closely associated with the goddess. She generally was showed with whatever cereal grain was most important in the region, so barley was common in those places where wheat was less prevalent.
While her primary plants were grains, the goddess had flowers among her imagery as well.
Poppies were the flower of Demeter because the flowers often grew up among the wheat in farmers’ fields. Demeter’s priestesses wore brightly colored poppies in their hair or pinned to their clothing.
She was also associated with mint, although this had little to do with the plant’s use in food.
According to legend, a nymph named Menthe had mocked Demeter after the abduction of Persephone to the Underworld. Menthe had been Hades’s lover and her words made Demeter so furious that she turned the young goddess into a plant.
As an earth goddess, Demeter was often associated with snakes. A pair of serpents were said to pull her chariot and she was sometimes painted with a snake at her feet or two large serpents by her side.
Geckos were seen as close relatives of the snake and sometimes associated with her as well. Both could be found under rocks in the fields where Demeter’s crops grew.
These were linked to her search for Persephone as well. When a man mocked her for drinking too quickly during her travels, she turned him into a spotted gecko as punishment.
According to a writer in the 2nd century AD, the goddess of grain even had a sacred fish. The red mullet gave birth three times a year, mirroring the seasons that governed agriculture.
The goddess often carried a cornucopia. More surprisingly, she was sometimes seen with a sword.
The golden sword of Demeter had been her weapon during the Titanomachy. According to some legends, it was actually a sickle and may have been the same tool used by her father to castrate Uranus.
Finally, Demeter could sometimes be identified by carrying a pair of torches. She was said to have carried them during her hunt for Persephone and many characters who went into the Underworld carried similar torches to light their way.
My Modern Interpretation
Most of the symbols of Demeter seem fairly obvious for a goddess of agriculture. Wheat flour, for example, was the staple food of most Greek people so the plant would be strongly associated with the goddess who ensured that crops grew.
Other symbols of Demeter related to the famous story of her search for Persephone. These very symbols, however, hint at the grain goddess’s darker side.
Many of Demeter’s symbols have a connection to agriculture and the earth, but they also carry strong connotations of death and the Underworld.
The torches she sometimes carried, for example, linked to both the story of Persephone and the Underworld itself. The use of torches in Greek art usually connoted a trip through the darkness, more suited to the Underworld than the open-air search for her daughter.
The double torches were a frequent motif in Underworld imagery. Hermes, for example, carried similar torches in images of his journey through the realm of the dead with Orpheus.
Serpents too were chthonic symbols. While they could be found sunning themselves on rocks during the day, they were more often associated with dark holes in the earth and hidden shadows.
Even her sacred flower could have a darker connotation. Poppies are brightly-colored flowers that grow in bright sunlight, but the Greeks were familiar with the species of the plant that is used to produce opium.
The beautiful flowers worn by Demeter’s priestesses was also the color of blood and could be used as a sedative or even a poison.
Why, though, was the goddess who made things grow so closely associated with death?
This was actually not unusual in ancient cultures. Agricultural deities, particularly those concerned with plant growth, were often chthonic beings as well.
The Greeks believed that the Underworld played a key role in the cycle of life.
The dead were buried within the earth and went to the Underworld beneath it. Beneath that same soil, the seeds that grew into food crops germinated.
The Greeks recognized that death and decay were vital to make the foods they depended on grow. In the cycle of life and death, the breakdown of dead material nourished the plants that eventually nourished humans.
The story of Persephone’s abduction is in many ways a retelling of this cycle of life and death. The goddess of vegetation, who was closely associated with her mother, had to spend winters deep beneath the surface to rise again as fresh growth in the spring.
This link between agriculture and death remains in modern iconography in one of the same images used in association with Demeter. Modern personifications of death in the western world carry a sickle much like the one Demeter was sometimes seen fighting giants with.
Demeter was the goddess of agriculture, grain, and food crops. As such, it is not a surprise that much of her iconography revolved around the fields.
Wheat and barley were the primary grains of the Mediterranean. Demeter was often shown with one or both plants, often reflecting the diet of the specific area the art was made for.
Other symbols of Demeter were tied to agriculture, as well. Poppies grew wild in wheat fields, snakes and geckos often lurked around the rocks, and a sickle was a common tool used by any farmer to harvest wheat.
Many of her symbols also carried connotations of death and the Underworld, though.
The two torches she sometimes carried were the same as those shown with other Underworld travelers. Poppies produced a strong sedative and snakes were usually associated with darkness and ill omens.
Demeter’s daughter was the queen of the Underworld, but this was not Demeter’s only association with death.
The Greeks recognized that death and new life were part of a continuous cycle. Without death enriching the soil, the plants living humans relied on could not grow in the fields of Greece.