Ceres: Roman Goddess of Fertility and the Commoners

Ceres is the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility, and motherly love. She is equivalent to the Greek goddess Demeter and was highly revered by the ancient Romans as the provider of food and sustenance.

She was often depicted holding sheaves of wheat or barley, symbolizing the abundance of crops. The myth of Ceres is closely tied to the changing seasons and the cycle of life, as she was the mother of Proserpina (Persephone in Greek mythology), who was abducted by Pluto (Hades) and taken to the underworld.

Ceres was also associated with motherly love and protection. In this aspect, she was often depicted with a nurturing demeanor, emphasizing her role as a caretaker and provider. The influence of Ceres extended beyond mythology and into Roman culture.

Who is Ceres?

Ceres is the very first Roman goddess whose name was written down. Or, at least what we were able to find. An inscription of the name Ceres can be traced back to an urn that is dated at about 600 BC. The urn was found in a grave that wasn’t located very far from the capital of the Roman Empire.

The inscription says something like ‘let Ceres give far,’ which seems to be quite an odd reference to apparently one of the first divinities of Rome. Far stands for a sort of grain.

The Name Ceres

The name of the Roman goddess also provides us with quite a bit of information about her.

The ancient Roman etymologists thought that the name Ceres had its roots in crescere and creare. Crescere means to come forth, grow, arise, or be born. Creare, on the other hand, means to produce, make, create, or beget. So, the message is quite clear here, Ceres goddess is the embodiment of the creation of things.

Also, sometimes the things that relate to Ceres are referred to as Cerealis. It actually inspired the name of the biggest festival that was held in her honor.

What is Ceres Related To?

Like many stories in Roman mythology, the exact scope of what Ceres stands for is quite contested. This is mostly evident in one of the most detailed sources in which the Roman goddess is described – a tablet that was found somewhere in the vast empire of ancient Rome.

The tablet dates back to around 250 BC and she was referred to in the Oscan language. Not a language you will hear about every day, since it has gone extinct around 80 AD. It tells us that fertility is generally considered the most important aspect that relates to Ceres. More specifically, her role as goddess of agriculture.

The words have been translated into their English equivalents. But, that doesn’t mean that we know exactly what they mean. At the end of the day, the interpretation is what matters. What is certain is that these kinds of interpretations of words are necessarily different today than they were around 2000 years ago. Therefore, we can never be 100 percent certain about the actual meaning of the words.

But still, the inscriptions indicated that Ceres could represent up to 17 different divinities. All of them were described as belonging to Ceres. The descriptions tell us that Ceres is related to motherhood and children, agricultural fertility and growing of crops, and liminality.

She Who Stands Between

Liminality is nowadays an anthropological concept that relates to ambiguity or disorientation when you transfer from one stage to the other.

In the inscriptions, Ceres is referred to as Interstita, which means ‘she who stands between’. Another reference calls her Legifere Intera: she who bears the laws between. It’s a bit of a vague description still, but this will be clarified later on.

Ceres and Common People

Ceres was the only one of the gods who was involved on a day-to-day basis in the lives of the common folk. Other Roman deities really just related to everyday life in scarce instances.

Firstly, they could occasionally ‘dabble’ in human affairs when it suited their personal interests. Secondly, they came to everyday life in order to provide the aid of ‘special’ mortals they favored. However, the Roman goddess Ceres was truly the nurturer of mankind.

Ceres in Mythology 

Ceres is the goddess of many things. Her relationships are rooted in a variety of things, including her Greek equivalent Demeter, and members of her family tree.

Ceres, Greek Mythology, and the Greek Goddess Demeter 

Although Ceres is a very important goddess of ancient Rome, she actually has no native Roman myths. That is to say, every mythical story that is told about her didn’t develop amongst the members of the ancient Roman society itself. The stories were actually adopted from other cultures and, most importantly, Greek religion.

The question then becomes, where does she get all her stories from? Actually, according to the reinterpretations of gods that were described by several Romans, Cere was the equal of the Greek goddess Demeter. Demeter was one of the Twelve Olympian gods of Greek mythology, meaning that she was one of the most powerful goddesses of them all.

The fact that Ceres doesn’t have native myths of her own doesn’t necessarily mean that Ceres and Demeter are the same. For one, they obviously are deities in different societies. Secondly, the stories of Demeter got reinterpreted to some extent, making her myths potentially a bit different. However, the root and basis of the myths are generally the same between the two.

Also, the myth and the influence are two different things. Later on, Ceres was believed to represent a broader spectrum than what Demeter represented.

Family of Ceres

Not only are the myths quite the same as the ones that Demeter was involved in, but also the family of Ceres is quite similar. But, obviously, they were named differently than their Greek counterparts. Ceres can be considered the daughter of Saturn and Ops, the sister of Jupiter. She has a daughter with her own brother, who goes by the name Proserpina.

Other sisters of Ceres include Juno, Vesta, Neptune, and Pluto. The family of Ceres are mostly agricultural or underworld deities. Most of the myths that Ceres was involved in were also quite a family affair.

The Abduction of Proserpina

Ceres had a couple of children. But, most notably, Ceres was the mother of Proserpina. In Greek mythology, Ceres’ daughter Proserpina is known as Persephone.

Ceres Protects Proserpina 

Ceres gave birth to Proserpina after a loving relationship with Jupiter. It should come as no surprise that the goddess of fertility and the almighty god of ancient Roman religion would create some beautiful children. But, Proserpina was known to be a bit too beautiful.

Her mother Ceres had to hide her from the eyes of all gods and mortals, just so that she could live a quiet and peaceful life. It would, according to Ceres, protect her chastity and independence.

Here Comes Pluto

However, the Roman god of the underworld Pluto had other plans. Pluto already longed for a queen. It can, indeed, get quite sinister and lonely in the realm that he represented. Also, being shot with Cupid’s arrow made his longing for a queen even greater. Because of Cupid’s arrow, Pluto became obsessed with no other than the daughter that Ceres tried to hide.

One morning, Proserpina was unsuspiciously picking flowers when, out of the blue, Pluto and his chariot thundered through the earth. He swept Proserpina off her feet and into his arms. She was dragged with Pluto into the underworld.

Ceres and Jupiter were, quite logically, furious. They looked for their daughter around the world but in vain as she was now located in the underworld, a whole different realm. Ceres, however, kept searching. With every step, the grief became stronger.

While the grieving in itself is already bad enough, something else happened. Ceres is, after all, the goddess of fertility. Because she was grieving, everything in nature grieved with her, meaning that the world became grey, cold, and cloudy.

Luckily, one of the mightiest Roman gods had quite some connections. Jupiter was tipped that Proserpina was with Pluto. He didn’t hesitate to send someone to the underworld.

Mercury Finds Pluto

In order to get back their daughter, Jupiter sent Mercury. The messenger found their daughter Proserpina with Pluto, demanding him to give back what he unjustly obtained. But, Pluto had other plans and asked for one more night, just so that he could enjoy the love of his life for a bit longer. Mercury conceded.

That night, Pluto charmed Proserpina into eating six little pomegranate seeds. Nothing too bad, one would say. But, as the god of the underworld knew like no other, if you eat in the underworld you are forever doomed to stay there.

Seasons Change

According to the ruler of the underworld, Ceres’ daughter Proserpina had willingly eaten the pomegranate seeds. Virgil, one of the best poets amongst the ancient Romans, describes that Properina indeed agreed to this. But, there were only six seeds. Pluto therefore proposed that Proserpina would spend a month in the underworld for every seed that she had eaten.

Proserpina was, thus, obliged to return to the underworld for six months every year.

But in the end, Ceres was reunited with her daughter. Crops started to grow again, flowers started to blossom, and babies started to be born again. But, after the six months that cover the summer and the spring, Proserpina would return again to the underworld, leaving her mother in grief.

So, indeed, the ancient Romans believed that Proserpina was in the underworld during autumn and winter, while being on the side of her mother Ceres in spring and summer. So if you’re blaming the weather gods for the bad weather, you can now direct any complaints straight to Ceres and her daughter Proserpina.

Influence on Fertility

The links to fertility are already quite evident from the myth of Ceres and Proserpine. Indeed, Ceres is oftentimes just portrayed as the Roman goddess of agriculture. Her Greek counterpart was also generally considered the goddess of agriculture, so it would only make sense that the Roman Ceres is exactly the same.

It is true to some extent that Ceres’ most important function was in relation to agriculture. After all, most of the Roman art that was made about her focussed on this aspect of her.

The goddess of agriculture became known as the goddess of fertility. This covers a bit more than just agricultural fertility.

Ceres is also associated with the concept of human fertility, through her connections with motherhood and weddings. Many of her functions as the goddess of agriculture, or rather the goddess of fertility, were also shown in imperial coin images. Her face would be attributed to several forms of fertility, and depicted on the coins of the Roman Empire.

Agricultural fertility

But that doesn’t mean her role as the goddess of agriculture should be completely surpassed.

In this role, Ceres was closely related to Gaia, the goddess of the earth. Well actually, she was related to Terra: the Roman equivalent of Gaia. She oversaw the reproduction and growth of animals and crops. Terra was in this sense the cause of crops to exist, while Ceres is the one that placed them in the earth and let them grow.

Gaia and Demeter show up in several Greek rites, which were also adopted in older Roman rites. When it comes to Ceres, her biggest festival was the Cerialia. It was part of a cycle of agrarian festivals that occupied half of the month of April. The festivals were dedicated to assuring fertility in nature, both agricultural and animal fertility.

The Roman poet Ovid describes the rituals of the festivals as being inspired by one particular instance. It is believed that a boy on a farm in the old Roman Empire once trapped a fox that had been stealing chickens. He wrapped it in straw and hay and set it afire.

Quite a cruel punishment, but the fox actually managed to escape and ran through the fields. Since the fox was still burning, it would also set all the crops on fire. During the festivities of Cerialia, a fox would be burned to punish the species in the same way in which it destroyed the crops.

Ceres and Grain

It’s in the name, but Ceres was mostly related to grain in particular. She is believed to be the first one who ‘discovered’ grain and started to cultivate it for mankind to eat. It’s true that she is mostly represented with wheat by her side, or with a crown made of wheat stalks.

Human Fertility

So, Ceres as the goddess of agriculture makes a good case to be considered one of the most important goddesses. But, she was also considered to be important for human fertility. This reference is mostly rooted in the idea that food is needed for humans to live, including to be fertile.

It’s not uncommon in mythology that deities are related to both agricultural and human fertility. Female divinities frequently took on joint roles like this. This can, for example, also be seen in the goddess Venus.

Motherhood and weddings

Also in relation to human fertility, Ceres can be considered somewhat of the ‘mother goddess’ in Roman and Latin literature.

The image of Ceres as a mother goddess is also seen in art. She is shown frequently with her daughter, Proserpina, desperately pursuing her when Pluto takes away her daughter. Her role in relation to motherhood also comes forward in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Ceres, Fertility, and Politics

The connection between Ceres and fertility was also a tool within the political system of the Roman Empire.

Relation to the Patriarchy

For example, the females higher up would like to relate themselves to Ceres. Quite odd, one might say, since she was such an important goddess for the exact opposite group.

The ones who claimed a relationship with Ceres were mostly the mothers of the ones who were ruling the empire, deeming themselves to be the ‘mother’ of the whole empire. The Roman goddess probably wouldn’t agree with this, but the patriarchs probably couldn’t care less.

Agricultural Fertility and Politics

Besides her relation to the ones higher up, Ceres as the goddess of agriculture would also be somewhat of political use. Ceres would sometimes be depicted as wearing a crown made of wheat. This, too, was a thing that many Roman emperors liked to dress with.

By attributing themselves to this asset, they would position themselves as the ones that secured agricultural fertility. It indicated that they were blessed by the goddess, assuring that every harvest would go well as long as they were in charge.

Ceres and the Plebs

Although all the myths of Ceres are adopted from her Greek counterpart Demeter, what Ceres stands for is definitely different. While there might not have been formulated new myths surrounding Ceres, the interpretation of the already existing ones creates a whole new space of what Ceres represents. This new area is the ‘plebeians’, or ‘plebs’.

Normally, when referring to plebs, it’s quite a degrading term. However, Ceres didn’t’ subscribe to this. She was a companion to the plebs and guaranteed their rights. Indeed, one might say that Ceres is the original Karl Marx.

What are Plebs?

The plebs existed in opposition to the other classes in society, mainly the patriarchy. Patriarchs are basically the ones with all the money, the politicians, or the ones who claim to know how we should live. Since they are born in positions with relative power (male, white, ‘Western’ countries), they can quite easily impose their often murky thoughts on others.

So, the plebs are everything but the patriarchy; in the Roman case anything but the Roman elites. Although both the plebs and the elites were an important part of the Roman Empire, only the smallest group had all the power.

The exact reason why someone would belong to the patriarchy or to the plebs is quite uncertain, but probably rooted in ethnic, economic, and political differences between the two orders.

From the start of the Roman timeline, the plebs have struggled to obtain some form of political equality. At one point, around 300 BC, they moved to better positions. Some of the plebeian families even shared power with patricians, which created a whole new social class. But, what had Ceres to do with this?

Worshipping Ceres by the Plebs

Ceres played an important role in allowing the plebs to create a sense of self, including nurturing themselves in a position of actual power.

Aedes Cereris

The group known as the plebs first started worshipping Ceres through the building of a temple. The temple is actually a joint temple, which was built for all Ceres, Liber Pater, and Libera. The name of the temple was aedes Cereris, clearly indicating who was the one who it was really all about.

The building and space of aedes Cereris are known to have elaborate artworks but mainly served as the headquarters for the plebs that were adopted into positions with more power. It was really a meeting and working space, housing the archives of the Plebs. It was an open, common, space, where everybody was welcome.

Also, it functioned as a refuge where bread was distributed to the poorest of the Roman Empire. All and all, the temple formed a place of self-identification for the plebeian group, a space where they were taken seriously without feeling inferior. By having such a space, outsiders would also more seriously take into account the life and wishes of the plebeian group.

In a sense, the temple could also be seen as Ceres’ ancient cult center. Indeed, the community at aedes Cereris is one of the many Roman cults, since an official Roman cult would be created with the temple as a focal point. Unfortunately, the temple would be destroyed by a fire, leaving the plebs without their center for a long time.

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