Ceres: Roman Goddess of Fertility and the Commoners

On the first of January in 1801, an Italian astronomer by the name of Giuseppe Piazzi discovered a whole new planet. While others were celebrating the new year, Giuseppe was busy doing other things.

But, you got to give it to him, discovering a new planet is quite impressive. Unfortunately, it was a bit less impressive than what he thought at first. That is to say, after half a century it was reclassified as a dwarf planet, diminishing a bit the relation of the planet to our solar system. 

The planet did, however, still get named after a very important Roman goddess. Other planets were already being named Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus. One big name was left, so the newest planet got the name Ceres. 

However, it turns out that the Roman goddess potentially surpasses her eventual classification as a dwarf planet. Her influence was simply too enormous to be related to a minor celestial body.

Do we need to rename the planet and attribute the name Ceres to a bigger planet? That’s a debate for another time. An argument can definitely be made, but a solid base is needed first to build that argument.  

The History of the Roman Goddess Ceres

Believe it or not, but Ceres is the very first Roman god or 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 capital is Rome, in case you were wondering.

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. But, if you know that far stands for a sort of grain by the name of spelt, the reference becomes a bit more logical. After all, grains are and have been a staple for the human diet for a very long time. 

The Name Ceres

The name of the Roman goddess also provides us with quite a bit of information about the legend and her appraisal. To get the best picture, we should turn to the ones that dissect the words and try to understand what they mean, or where they come from. In an unnecessarily complex world, we refer to these people as etymologists.

The ancient Roman etymologists thought that the name Ceres had its roots in crescere and creare. Crescere means to come forth, grow, arise, or to 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 honour. Still wondering what inspired the name of your breakfast?

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. Ceres was inscribed in 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 everyday, 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? Yes. Basically, an idea of transition. It’s 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 

Purely based on the archeological evidence and by dissecting her name, we can already conclude that 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 

So, there is one confession to make. 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 Olympians 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 till some extent, making her myths potentially a bit different. However, the root and basis of the myths is generally the same between the two.

Also, the myth and the influence are two different things. Later on, it will become clear that Ceres was believed to be representing a broader spectrum than what Demeter represented. 

Family of Ceres

Not only are the myths itself quite the same as the ones that Demeter was involved in, 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 actually got a daughter with her own brother, which 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. In this same atmosphere, there is one particular myth that is the most famous when referring to Ceres.

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. So in theory, Ceres is the mother of Persephone, but just with some other implications. And, well, another name. 

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 actually, 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 are, quite logically, furious. They seek their daughter around the world, but in vain. It was indeed quite deceiving to search the earth, since their daughter was now located in the underworld, a whole different realm. Ceres, however, kept searching. With every step, the grief became stronger.

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

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 send 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, it were only six seeds. Pluto therefore proposed that Proserpina would yearly return a month for every seed that she had eaten.

Proserpina was, thus, obliged to return to the underworld for six months every year. But, as indicated earlier, she actually agreed herself to eat the seeds. This also means that she was quite reluctant to go back and reunite with her mother when she had to go back eventually.   

But in the end, Ceres was reunited with her daughter. Crops started to grow again, flowers started to blossom, babies started to be born again. Indeed, spring came. Summer would follow. 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.

Ceres, Goddess of Agriculture: Influence on Fertility

The links with 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 that in relation to agriculture. After all, most of the Roman art that was made about her focussed on this aspect of her. But, as indicated earlier, Ceres would be re-interpreted in several ways as her role of a Roman goddess. 

The goddess of agriculture became rather 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 at imperial coin images. Her face would be attributed with 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 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 on 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. A double destroyment of the crops. During 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. 

Since grain is an important staple for the Roman empire, her importance for the Romans is once again affirmed. 

Human Fertility

So, Ceres as the goddess of agriculture makes a good case to be considered one of the most important goddesses. But, we shouldn’t forget that 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 with 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, as we will see later. 

The ones who claimed relationship to Ceres were mostly the mothers of the ones that 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. As indicated earlier, 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 with 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 we just concluded that all the myths of Ceres are adopted from her Greek counterpart Demeter, what Ceres stands for was definitely different. While there might not have been formulated new myths surrounding Ceres, the interpretation of the already existing ones create a whole new space of what Ceres represents. This new area are 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 one with all the money, the politicians, or the ones that 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

Mainly, the creation of such a new group brought even more challenges. Why that is? Well, from the outside it might be that the two groups are together and respect each other, but the actual reality within the group is probably that the same power structures remain.

From the outside it’s better to have a mixed group with all different types of people, but from the inside it’s even worse than before: nobody believes you if you claim to be oppressed. 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 is 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 centre. 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 focal point. Unfortunately, the temple would be destroyed by a fire, leaving the plebs without their centre for a long time.

Ceres: She Who Stands Between

As indicated earlier, Ceres is also closely related to liminality. To remind you, this is somewhat the idea of transition. Her relation to liminality already goes to show in her story about the plebs: they went from one social class to a new one. Ceres helped them with that re-identification. But, in general liminality is a thing that is quite recurring in any story of Ceres.

What is Meant with Ceres’ Relation to Liminality?

The word liminality is derived from the term limen, which means threshold. The relation of Ceres with this term is more so when someone crosses this threshold from one state. 

Although it would be lovely to directly step into a new state, fully conscious of how to function and what to do, this is simply not the case. In the end, these categories are all human conceptions, and finding a place to fit in these conceptions will differ per individual and per society. 

Think for example about peace and war: at the beginning the distinction is quite clear. No fighting or a lot of fighting. But, if you dive deeper into it, it might become a bit more vague. Especially when you take into account things like informational warfare. When are you at war? When is a country at peace? Is it merely the statement of the official government? 

Individuals, Societies and Nature. 

Exactly that kind vagueness and what it loosened in individuals is the thing that Ceres guarded over. Ceres took care of the people that were in a state of transition, soothing them and guiding them into the direction that created security.

When it comes to individual cases, Ceres is closely related to things that are referred to as ‘rites of passage’. Think about birth, death, marriage, divorce, or overall initiation. Also, she is associated with the periods of agriculture, which is rooted in the change of seasons. 

Liminality is therefore somewhat the backdrop of everything what Ceres does and represents. Think about her role as goddess of agriculture: she enables the transition from something that isn’t suitable for human consumption to something that is. The same goes for human fertility: the passage from the world of the pre-living to the world of the living.

In this sense, she is also related to death: the passage from the world of the living to the world of the death. The list really goes on and on, and it won’t do any good to provide an endless list of examples. Hopefully, the core of Ceres and liminality is clear.

Ceres’ Legacy

Ceres is an inspiring Roman goddess in Roman mythology. And, we haven’t even talked about her actual relation to the dwarf planet as indicated in the instruction. Yet, although it could’ve been interesting to talk about a planet, the real significance of Ceres is represented by her stories and what she is involved with.

A reference to the important Roman goddess as goddess of agriculture is definitely interesting, but not overly special. There are quite a lot of Roman gods that relate to this realm of life. Therefore, if we want to know something about the relevance of Ceres for today, it might be more valuable to look at her role for the plebs and liminality. 

Down to Earth Roman Goddess

As a somewhat ‘down to earth’ goddess, Ceres was able to connect with a wide variety of people and the stages that these people went through. What she actually represents seems to be quite vague, but that is exactly the point. It is not so much that Ceres imposes certain rules on the ones who pray to her.

Moreso, Ceres shows that differences between people are ample and can’t be overcome. She helps people with identifying what exactly they are and what they represent. This can be seen in the temple that was discussed, or her general helping with the transitioning from one thing to another. 

Although, for example, peace and war seem to be straight forward, it is actually quite the opposite. Not for the least because societies severely change as a result of these two phenomena. They have to reinvent themselves after a period of disruption, something with which Ceres helps.

By believing in, and praying to, the Roman goddess Ceres, the inhabitants of Rome didn’t only perceive spiritual guidance as something external. Indeed, that is something that you often see in other mythological figures or religions in general. For example, some religions pray to a god, just so that they can obtain a good status after the mortal life they live. 

Ceres doesn’t work this way. She focuses on the living beings and their lives right here and now. Ceres is the goddess that enables people themselves without them having to search for external sources of guidance and meaning. Some might say this makes her a more practical goddess, deserving a bigger planet than just the dwarf planet Ceres.

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