Demeter’s role in Greek mythology was as the goddess of grain. She was responsible for the growth of the crops that fed humanity.
Many historians believe that Demeter served a mother goddess function. She was another aspect of Gaia, the primordial goddess of the earth, and possibly her own mother Rhea.
There was much more to Demeter, however, than just her role as a giver of food. As the mother of the Underworld’s queen, she was an important figure in beliefs about death and the afterlife.
These roles are seen in Demeter’s most well-known story. After her daughter was taken to the Underworld, the worried mother searched the world tirelessly to bring her back.
While the abduction of Persephone is Demeter’s most famous story, there was much more to her than her role as a mother. Some of the lesser-known facts and stories about Demeter in Greek mythology show that she was a much more complex character than many people might think!
Historians and linguists have long debated how Demeter got her name. Of the many possibilities, though, nearly all agree that it referred to her as a mother goddess.
Like many Greek gods and goddesses, the exact origins of Demeter’s name are unknown. Linguists know that the word probably predates the forms of Greek spoken in the ancient world, but cannot pinpoint exactly how the name entered the language.
It is possible that an early form of Demeter’s name is referenced in surviving writing from the Minoan culture. The phonetic word da-ma-te, however, does not appear to refer to a goddess.
Instead of looking for a direct source of the name, historians and linguists have relied on interpreting the possible roots of it. Demeter’s name seems to predate Greek mythology.
Most believe that the last two syllables of her name, -meter, were originally -mater. This has clear links to languages throughout Europe and India.
The word -mater is the root for “mother” in many languages. It is the basis for the English word, modern Greek “mitera,” German “Mutter,” and similar words in many other languages.
Linguists believe that this is one of the oldest roots in Indo-European languages. It is possibly one of the oldest roots from even before Proto-Indo-European developed.
Many non-Indo-European languages have similar words. From the Zulu “umama” to the Thai “mae,” many languages use similar sounds in their words for “mother.”
The inclusion of -materin the name of a goddess that was associated with motherhood and agriculture is, therefore, hardly surprising. Demeter’s name in Greek mythology points to the fact that she was revered as a mother goddess, likely well before many of the familiar myths were told.
Linguists are less certain, however, about the other element in Demeter’s name. The de- before “mother” has been a source of debate.
Some have suggested that it may be related to an archaic word for “earth.” In this case, Demeter’s name would have literally signalled that she was the Mother Earth.
Others doubt this interpretation, however, as there is little evidence that de- denoted the earth in languages closely related to Greek.
Some believe that it was instead related to the name Despoina. That goddess’s name came from the ancient root Dem-, or house.
Supporters of this interpretation believe that Demeter’s name was originally sometime like Demsmater, the “Mother of the House.”
Demeter, however, was always associated with agriculture more than the household.
Instead, a likely theory is that her name contains the archaic deo, a general word for a god or goddess. This common root word influenced the names of Greek gods like Zeus, the Roman Jupiter, and deities from further away like the Irish Danu.
If Demeter’s name does come from the deo- root, this would indicate that she was more broadly thought of as a mother goddess. Before she was specifically associated with grain, Demeter may have been a mother figure much like Gaia.
Like most gods and goddesses in Greek mythology, Demeter had certain symbols that were closely associated with her. They identified her in art and were seen as signs of her presence on earth.
As could be expected, Demeter was closely identified with the grains that she made grow. She was often shown carrying sheaves of grain or the cornucopia, a sign of agricultural bounty.
Aside from plants that were useful as food, however, Demeter also had a botanical symbol that is less obviously associated with her domain. Her sacred flower was the poppy.
Demeter was sometimes shown in art holding a poppy or with the flowers near her. Additionally, some ancient writers mentioned poppies as part of the regalia of Demeter’s priestesses.
Such symbols were not chosen randomly. The people of ancient Greece had a reason to associate the goddess of grain with poppies.
Many species of poppies grew in the ancient world. The most common in much of Europe grew as a weed in cultivated fields.
Before the invention of modern herbicides, poppies were plentiful in fields across Europe. While they grew wild, they thrived where the land had been cleared.
For this reason, the bright red flowers were associated with agriculture. Poppies were Demeter’s symbol because they grew among the grains she oversaw.
Some historians believe, however, that there may have been another reason for the goddess to be associated with poppies.
In Minoan Crete, images were made of a goddess adorned with red poppies. She not only wore the flowers, but also the seed capsules.
The use of such capsules in medicine had been discovered long before. While not all species of poppy have the same effects, some are used to make opium.
Historians believe that the Cretan goddess may indicate that opium was produced for medicinal or ritual purposes on the island. Their goddess may have been associated with the narcotic effects of the plant.
This symbolism is fitting with Demeter’s role as an Underworld goddess. Particularly in the mystery cults, she was a goddess who bridged life and death.
The effects of opium on dulling the senses and producing sleep made it a fitting symbol for a goddess with links to the Underworld. As Demeter’s flower, it may have been an ancient symbol of her dominion over the cycle of death and rebirth.
One of the less well-known stories about Demeter in Greek mythology is similar to another famous tale.
Whenever the gods appeared on earth, there were several stories about what they did there. Different groups and cities often claimed that they had a personal connection to the deity from their time on earth.
Demeter’s most famous visit to the human world was after the abduction of her daughter, Persephone. After Persephone was taken by Hades, Demeter spent days wandering the world in search of her.
One of the cities that claimed to have been visited by Demeter during her search was Eleusis. Disguised as an older woman, she was welcomed by King Celeus and his wife, Queen Metaneira.
The queen had given birth to two sons late in life and the youngest, Demophon, was still a baby. When she saw the guest that had arrived at her palace, Metaneira saw an opportunity for her son.
Despite her disguise, the king and queen recognized Demeter’s divinity. They asked her to care for their son and, thus, to pass some of her power on to him.
Children who were nursed by goddesses received some amount of divinity from them. If Demeter nursed their son, the king and queen knew, he would grow to be more noble, stronger, and more handsome than other men.
Demeter agreed, happy to bless the infant in exchange for his parents’ hospitality. She promised that her charms would keep him safe from witchcraft and childhood illnesses.
During her stay in Eleusis, Demeter became attached to young Demophon. She came to love the baby and decided that, instead of simple charms and blessings, she would confer full divinity onto him.
To do this, Demeter anointed the child with ambrosia. She then held him over a fire to slowly burn away his mortality.
As she was doing this, however, Metaneira walked in. She screamed when she saw her infant son being held over the flames.
Demeter was angry that the queen had interrupted her, and that Metaneira thought she would harm the baby. She pulled the baby away from the fire and scolded the queen.
Witless are you mortals and dull to foresee your lot, whether of good or evil, that comes upon you. For now in your heedlessness you have wrought folly past healing; for–be witness the oath of the gods, the relentless water of Styx–I would have made your dear son deathless and unaging all his days and would have bestowed on him everlasting honour, but now he can in no way escape death and the fates. Yet shall unfailing honour always rest upon him, because he lay upon my knees and slept in my arms. But, as the years move round and when he is in his prime, the sons of the Eleusinians shall ever wage war and dread strife with one another continually.
-Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter 212 ff (trans. Evelyn-White)
Having cursed the city, Demeter angrily left to continue her search. Demophon did not become a god, but he did grow up with the blessings that had been conferred upon him as the foster son of a goddess.
This story dates back to at least the 6th or 7th century BC. This makes it older than the first known telling of a similar but more well-known tale.
Demeter’s attempt to make Demophon immortal is almost identical to the story of how Thetis attempted to make her son Achilles immortal. Both anointed and burned infants but were interrupted before they could complete the process.
Historians believe that this story was taken from a folktale that existed before the legends were written. It was so popular and enduring that the story of Demeter’s favor toward the prince of Eleusis became part of the legend of one of the Trojan War’s most famous heroes.
The Eleusians claimed that Demeter came to regret her hasty anger against the city. After Persephone was found, the goddess decided to grant a boon to the king’s family after all.
Demophon had not been made immortal, but he had been blessed by Demeter in other ways. When she returned, Demeter thus sought out the prince’s older brother.
She had decided to share the gift of agriculture with mankind so they could grow food themselves instead of relying entirely on her. She chose Triptolemus, the older son of the king and queen of Eleusis, to spread her instructions.
Demeter taught Triptolemus how to sow seeds, tend to the plants, and mill grain into flour. She then instructed him to go to all the populations of mankind and teach them in turn.
To help Triptolemus spread her knowledge, Demeter gave him a winged chariot pulled by a pair of great serpents.
Triptolemus traveled to many lands and shared the knowledge of agriculture with them. The people received him warmly until he came to the barbaric land of Scythia.
The Scythians killed one of the serpents that pulled the chariot and chased Triptolemus out of their kingdom. For this, Demeter swore that they would never learn to grow their own food and would forever live savage lives.
The people of Eleusis believed that Triptolemus returned to his home city and established the cult of Demeter there. His close relationship with the goddess gave him unique insight into her nature.
This cult became the Eleusinian mysteries, a secretive sect that revered Demeter and Persephone above all other deities. They had their own temples to Triptolemus, who they believed was welcomed among the gods for his service to mankind.
One of the reasons Demeter showed such favor to the city of Eleusis is because she had been welcomed so warmly there. This was not the case with most places she visited.
There were many stories of people treating the goddess poorly as she searched forPersephone. These myths highlighted the goddess’s wrath.
While other gods like Poseidon and Hera were well-known for their punishments, Demeter was usually seen as a more nurturing and kind figure. Some legends, however, showed that she was just as capable of fury and vengeance as the other Olympian gods.
Some of those who were cursed by Demeter included:
- Ascalabus – After days of searching without food, water, or rest, Demeter was given a cup of barley drink by an old woman. When a boy called Ascalabus mocked the greedy way in which she drank it, Demeter turned him into a gecko.
- Colontas – A man from Argos, he refused to show Demeter hospitality or any amount of respect when she sought a place to rest. In revenge, Demeter burned his house down, killing him in the fire. Because his daughter had tried to help her, however, Demeter had her taken to the sanctuary of Hermione to become a priestess.
- Ascalaphus – When the daimon of the Underworld told Demeter that Persephone had eaten food from the Underworld, and thus would not be able to fully return, the goddess was so furious that she turned him into either a lizard or a screech owl.
- Minthe – After Demeter learned that Persephone had been forced into marriage with Hades, a nymph called Minthe bragged that she would be able to win the Underworld god away from his new bride. Demeter turned her into a mint plant for the insult.
- The Sirens – According to some, the Sirens had been the nymphs who were with Persephone when she was abducted. Demeter turned them into monsters for failing to protect their mistress.
The worst of Demeter’s wrath, however, was directed toward her brothers.
Zeus, the king of the gods, had made the plan for Persephone’s abduction. Once Demeter learned what had happened to her daughter, she used her full power to threaten him.
The goddess of grain had neglected her duties as she searched for Persephone, so crops were already beginning to suffer. If Zeus did not order her daughter’s return, however, she would permanently deny mankind her gifts.
This would have little direct effect on the Olympians since they lived on ambrosia rather than grain. It would be disastrous for the people who worshiped them, however.
If the people of earth were to starve en masse, the gods and goddesses would have no more worshippers. They would no longer receive the sacrifices that made them more powerful.
According to some, Demeter caused a great famine around the world until she was able to see Persephone again. Her power as the mother of agriculture was so great that even Zeus had to give in to her will.
Another story said, however, that it was her other brother who caused the great famine.
Some mystery cults believed that Poseidon had assaulted Demeter during her search for Persephone. She took the form of a mare to escape him, but he turned himself into a horse to give chase.
As a result, Demeter gave birth to two children. Despoina was a goddess of the mysteries and Areion was born in the form of an immortal horse.
Demeter was furious with her brother, both for the assault and for the fact that it had taken place while she was in mourning for her missing daughter. She retreated to a cave, dressed in black robes of mourning, and was given the name Demeter Erinyes – Furious Demeter.
Her anger led Demeter to ignore her duties on earth. Crops withered and people quickly began to starve.
There was nothing any of the other gods could do to end the worldwide famine caused by Demeter’s fury. Only when she emerged from the cave and bathed herself did the great famine end.
While Demeter did not show her anger as often as many of the other gods of Greek mythology, when she did it was a powerful force.
While some goddesses in Greek mythology were associated with warfare and weaponry, these tended to be the exception. Athena and her retinue were women of war, but more maternal goddesses like Demeter were rarely shown in scenes of fighting.
During the Titanomachy, for example, goddesses of all types were said to have taken refuge in the home of Oceanus. Olympian goddesses, Titanesses, and nymphs were all kept away from the war.
Things were different, however, when the gods fought the giant. In both art and literature, all of the Olympians were shown taking part in the fighting.
Some images showed Demeter taking on the giants with a spear in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. Other representations of the war with the giants, however, may have given Demeter one of her most surprising names.
In some works of art, the maternal goddess of agriculture is shown fighting against the giants with a massive sword.
This was likely a golden sword, although Greek vase painting showed figures in either red or black instead of full color. One of Demeter’s epithets was Krysaoros – The Lady of the Golden Sword.
Outside of images of the Gigantomachy, there are few references to Demeter actually carrying such a sword. As a maternal goddess, she would seem to have little use for such a weapon.
Some historians believe, however, that the imagery of Demeter’s sword developed over time. It was originally not a sword at all, but a scythe.
A scythe, which is usually used to cut grains, would be a fitting implement for Demeter as an agricultural goddess. It was a practical farming tool that could also double as a weapon when the need arose.
There were some writers, in fact, who mentioned Demeter having possession of such a scythe. Hers was not an ordinary tool, however.
Some people believed that Demeter had recovered the scythe that had once been used by her father, Cronus. Made of a strong metal, it had been used to castrate Uranus and take away his power over the Titans.
Demeter’s sword, therefore, may have been much more than a simple weapon. Originally a different type of blade, it was a powerful relic with a connection to the history of how the gods came to power.
While Demeter’s most famous legend in Greek mythology is her role in the abduction of Persephone, she was an important goddess far beyond this story.
Her mythology and her name show that she was seen as a mother to more than just one goddess. With “mother” being part of her name, the goddess of grain was seen as a figure that gave life to the entire human race.
Demeter caused grain to grow and taught the human race how to cultivate their own food. According to legend, when she was prevented from making an infant prince immortal, she gave his older brother the task of teaching agriculture to the people of earth.
Her sacred flower symbol, the poppy, also shows Demeter’s role in agriculture and beyond. While poppies were associated with the tilled fields in which they grew as weeds, their use in her symbolism may have also referenced the narcotic effects of opium in her role as an Underworld goddess.
While she was seen as a loving mother figure, Demeter also had a terrible temper. Particularly during her search for Persephone, she cursed and harshly punished those who failed to help her or mocked her suffering.
This included the gods. Her power as the goddess of crops was so great that even Zeus and Poseidon were affected when she caused a great famine out of anger and grief.
Some images reference Demeter’s power in another way. She is sometimes shown fighting the enemies of the gods as The Lady of the Golden Sword.
Historians believe that Demeter’s sword may have originally been a scythe, a reference to both her role in agriculture and the story of Cronus’s defeat of Uranus. It was another way of showing the great power of the grain goddess.
While many people know Demeter only for her role in Persephone’s story, there was a lot more to her than meets the eye. In Greek mythology, Demeter was a goddess of maternal care, the cycle of death, and vengeful power.