Demeter, Greek Goddess
Goddess of the
and the Nurturing Spirit
In Greek mythology the
goddess Demeter was the most generous of the great Olympian goddesses.
The Greek goddess Demeter was beloved for her service to mankind in
giving them the gift of the harvest, the reward for cultivation of the soil.
Also known as the Roman goddess Ceres, Demeter was
the goddess of the harvest and was credited with teaching humans how to grow, preserve,
and prepare grain. Demeter was thought to be responsible for the fertility of the
She was the only one of the Greek
goddesses who was involved on a day-to-day basis in the lives of the common folk. While others occasionally "dabbled" in
human affairs when it suited their personal interests, or came to the aid of
"special" mortals they favored, the goddess Demeter was truly the nurturer of
Demeter also was the only one of the
Greek goddesses who could truly empathize with the human experience of suffering and
grief, having experienced it fully herself.
The goddess Demeter is best known
for her fierce defense of her daughter, Persephone, who was also known as the child, Kore
(or Cora). Persephone's father was Zeus, the
mighty ruler of the Olympians. The goddess Demeter had been one of his early consorts,
long before his marriage to Hera.
was an obedient, cheerful girl who had a happy childhood, playing with her cousins,
Artemis and Athena. Reaching adolescence, she
was carefree and spirited, often dancing playfully and picking wildflowers in the meadow
near her home.
beauty drew the attention of Hades, the god of the underworld, and he could not help
falling in love with her. One day as
Persephone reached over to pick a flower, the earth opened and the arm of Hades reached up
from the underworld.
And so Hades abducted her, dragging her back to his kingdom.
Persephone's screams, the goddess Demeter rushes to the meadow, but cannot find
Persephone. Carrying a torch, Demeter
traveled the world day and night, never eating or resting, searching futilely for her
Poseidon, god of the sea, noticed
the goddess Demeter as she traveled and pursued her with amorous intent. Then Demeter tried to fool him by changing herself
into a mare and hiding herself in the middle of a herd of horses, but he was not fooled. Poseidon saw through Demeter's disguise, turned
himself into a stallion, and took her at his will.
When Demeter continued her
journey in search of her daughter, she met an old and poor man who was gathering firewood
who invited her to return to his home to eat supper with his family and to rest on her
journey. When she told him that she was searching for her daughter, he wished her success
and told her that he understood her suffering since his son lay dying at home. Demeter,
goddess of compasion, changed her mind and went with the kindly man, stopping
only once to gather some poppies by the path. Entering
his humble home, Demeter went straight away to the boy's bedside and kissed the boy
lovingly on the cheek. Immediately the pallor
left his face and his breathing eased, as Demeter's love had restored the son to full
Although it was the custom of the
Greek goddesses and gods to become very vindictive toward anyone who failed to honor them
in a dignified fashion, Demeter was such a kind goddess that she seldom utilized this
privilege. One of the few times was when she
stopped on her travels to quench her thirst by drinking from a spring and heard a man
named Ascaelabus laughing at the sound of her gulping the fresh water. Embarrassed, and
angry at the man for being so rude, Demeter turned him into a lizard.
Resuming her search, she
soon encountered Hecate, goddess of the crossroads, who advised her to speak with Helio,
goddess of the sun . . . reasoning that,
since she had been riding her chariot (the sun) through the sky that day, she had surely
seen what had happened to Persephone. Helio told the goddess Demeter what she had seen and
that Persephone was now ensconced as Hades' wife and Queen of the Underworld. She also gave her the shocking news that Zeus
himself had sanctioned the marriage, giving Hades permission to abduct Persephone.
Understandably, the goddess Demeter felt betrayed.
Renouncing her divine duties that included bringing fertility to the land,
Demeter left Mount Olympus swearing that the earth would remain barren until her daughter
was returned to her. She took refuge in the
city of Eleusis. Disguised as an old woman, the goddess Demeter was met the city rulers
two young daughters at the well, and they, liking her immensely, invited her to return to
their home to meet their mother. There she
met their mother who was cuddling her infant son. This
must have stirred Demeter's longing for her abducted daughter horribly. Demeter became
profoundly depressed, almost catatonic, eyes gazing off into the distance and unwilling or
unable to even speak.
tried to all that they knew to cheer their guest; but it was to no avail. Eventually one
of the household servants, a middle-aged maid named Baubo, came and sat in front of
Demeter and started talking, mostly making humorous comments (most likely of the
"male-bashing" sort), some of them quite risque. Encouraged when she saw the
beginnings of a smile forming on Demeter's grief stricken face, Baubo hiked up her skirt
and "mooned" the goddess. Demeter responded with a deep belly laugh that brought
her out of the deep depression. Her good
nature now restored, Demeter was soon hired to work as a nursemaid to the infant son of
the city's ruler.
Caring for him lovingly, feeding him on the nectar and ambrosia of the gods,
Demeter grew very attached to the young Demophoon and decided to make him immortal. But, just as Demeter was holding his feet over the
fire (the ritual which would transform him into an Olympian god, Demophoon's mother
entered the room.
Mistakenly believing that
Demeter was about to burn her son, she began to scream.
The goddess Demeter then dropped her disguise, revealing the beautiful
goddess that she truly was, and berated the mother for her stupidity in stopping the
ritual that would have given her son immortality.
addition, Demeter demanded that a temple be built in her honor. This was done, and the goddess Demeter remained
there, sitting alone in the darkness, once again depressed and grieving for her lost
this time, with the goddess Demeter refusing to function, the land grew barren and the
harvests ceased . . . the earth saw a winter that did not end. Zeus finally opens his eyes to what was happening
and sent messengers to apologize and coax the goddess Demeter to return.
Demeter, however, remained adamant that she would
not return until Persephone was rescued. Finally,
Zeus gave in and sent Hermes to command Hades to release Persephone.
Persephone, upon hearing the news, rejoiced
for she had missed her mother sorely. As she
was leaving, Hades offered her a pomegranate to eat. Persephone had refused all food
while she had been in the underworld, and was surely hungry.
Although she undoubtedly knew that those who ate
anything in the underworld were not allowed to return to the earth, Persephone
accepted Hades' gift, eating only the seeds. Hermes
borrowed Hades chariot and stallions and flew Persephone home to her mother as Zeus had
Demeter was not pleased that
Persephone had eaten the pomegranate seeds and would have to return to the underworld for
four months during each year, but was otherwise overjoyed to be reunited with her
Happily, Demeter resumed her divine duties and restored the fertility of the
earth. Each year the goddess Demeter longs
for her absent daughter and withdraws her favors from the earth for a period we know as
winter, but Persephone returns each spring to end her desolation.
Once Persephone was safely returned, albeit for only a third of a year, the Greek
goddess Demeter decided to reside in her temple in Eleusis where she had enjoyed the
welcome and support of her friends during her long search for Persephone.
There she developed the Eleusian mysteries, a
series of profound religious ceremonies that taught her initiates how to live joyfully and
how to die without fear.
story of Greek goddess Demeter illustrates the tremendous capacity of a woman to love and
nurture, within her own family and the world at large.
It also reminds us to stand firm for what is good and right, even in the
face of adversity, when powerful forces are aligned against us.
The goddess Demeter's message also reminds us of
the seasons of a woman's life, that even though there are times of great sorrow there is
also great joy to be found.