Demeter: The Greek Goddess of Agriculture

Demeter, daughter of Chronos, mother of Persephone, and sister of Hera, may not be one of the better-known Greek gods and goddesses, but she is one of the most important.

A member of the original twelve Olympians, she played a central role in the creation of seasons. Demeter was worshiped well before many of the other Greek gods and was the key figure of many female-only cults and festivals.

Who is Demeter?

Like many of the other Olympian gods, Demeter is the daughter of Kronos (Cronos, or Cronus) and Rhea, and one of the many siblings who were eaten by their father before he vomited them back up again. To her brother Zeus, she bore Persephone, one of the most important characters in Greek mythology.

The most famous story involving Demeter is her quest to save her daughter from the Underworld, and the rage she went into after her daughter’s rape.

What is Demeter’s Roman Name?

In Roman mythology, Demeter is called “Ceres.” While Ceres existed as a pagan goddess already, as Greek and Roman gods merged, so too did the goddesses.

As Ceres, Demeter’s role in agriculture became more important, while her priestesses were primarily married women (with their virgin daughters becoming the initiates of Persephone/Proserpina).

Does Demeter Have Other Names?

Demeter held many other names during the time she was worshiped by ancient Greeks, the most important of which was Thesmophoros.

Under this name, she was known as “the lawgiver.” Many other names were given to her at temples around the world, commonly used as surnames to indicate the city’s unique connection to her. These include the names Eleusinia, Achaia, Chamune, Chthonia, and Pelasgis. As a goddess of agriculture, Demeter was sometimes known as Sito or Eunostos.

Today, Demeter might be most associated with another name, one also associated with other deities like Gaia, Rhea, and Pachamama. For modern fans of Greek Mythology, Demeter shares the name “Mother Earth.”

Which Egyptian God is Associated with Demeter?

For many Greek deities, there is an association with an Egyptian god. It is no different for Demeter. For Demeter, there are clear links to Isis. Herodotus and Apuleius both call Isis “the same as” Demeter, while many of the ancient artworks we find today need to be labeled with Isis/Demeter as they look so similar to archeologists.

What is Demeter the Goddess Of?

Demeter is most well known as the goddess of agriculture, although she was also known as “the giver of customs” and “she of the grain.” It cannot be understated how important the Olympian goddess was to ancient crop farmers, as it was believed she had control over plant life, the fertility of the ground, and the success of new crops. It is for this reason that she was sometimes known as “mother earth.”

For some ancient Greeks, Demeter was also the goddess of poppies, which were known even then for their narcotic properties.

The land is not the only thing Demeter was the goddess of. According to both Callimachus and Ovid, Demeter is also “the giver of laws,” often handing them down to people after teaching them how to create farms. After all, farming became a reason not to be nomadic, and to create towns, which would then need laws to survive.

Finally, Demeter is sometimes known as the “goddess of the mysteries.” This comes because, after having her daughter return from the Underworld, she passed on what she had learned to many of the kings of the world. These were, according to one Homeric Hymn, “awful mysteries which no one may in any way transgress or pry into or utter, for deep awe of the gods checks the voice.” 

Knowing about the afterlife, and the ancient rites of Demeter, these kings were said to have been able to avoid misery after death.

What are Demeter’s Symbols?

While there is no single symbol that represented Demeter, the appearances of Demeter often included particular symbols or objects. A cornucopia of fruit, a wreath of flowers, and a torch often turn up in many of the artworks and statues representing Demeter.

Perhaps the image most associated with the Greek goddess is three stalks of wheat. The number three turns up many times in the stories and hymns to Demeter, and wheat was one of the most common crops in the areas where people were known to worship the deity of agriculture.

Why Did Zeus Sleep with Demeter?

While Demeter had deeper love, her brother Zeus was probably the most important lover. The “King of the Gods” was not only one of Demeter’s lovers but the father of her treasured daughter, Persephone. In The Iliad, Zeus (while talking about his lovers) says, “I loved the queen Demeter of the lovely tresses.” In other myths, Demeter and Zeus are said to have laid together in the form of serpents.

READ MORE: Zeus Family Tree: The Family Tree of the King of the Gods

Did Poseidon and Demeter Have a Child?

Zeus was not the only brother who loved. When searching for her daughter, the goddess was followed by her brother, Poseidon. Trying to escape him, she turned herself into a horse.

In response, he did the same before raping her. She eventually bore the god of the sea a child, Despoine, as well as a mythology horse called Areion. The anger of what happened to her caused the goddess to turn the river Styx black, and she hid in a cave.

Soon, crops of the world started to die and it was only Pan who knew what happened. Zeus, learning about this, sent one of the Fates to comfort her and eventually calm, ending the famine.

Who Did Demeter Marry?

Demeter’s most important lover, and the one she loved, was Iasion, the son of the nymph Electra. From this hero of Classical mythology, Demeter bore the twin sons Ploutus and Philomelus.

While some myths state that Demeter and Iasion were able to marry and spend their lives together, others tell a different story, involving a single tryst in a “triple-furrowed field.” Whichever myth is read, however, the ending is almost the same. In a jealous rage against the hero, Zeus threw down a thunderbolt and killed Iasion. For followers of Demeter, all fields should therefore be triple-furrowed in honor of their love, and to ensure healthy crops.

Did Demeter Have Any Other Children?

The love of Demeter and Iasion was important to all ancient Greeks, with their marriage being recorded in The Odyssey, Metamorphoses, and the works of Diodorus Siculus and Hesiod. Their sin, Ploutus, became an important god in his own right, as the god of wealth.

In Aristophanes’ comedy named after the god, he was blinded by Zeus to dispense gifts of wealth to the Greeks without bias. When his sight was restored, he was able to make decisions, which caused chaos. In Dante’s Inferno, Ploutus guards the fourth circle of hell, the circle for those who hoard or waste money.

What is Demeter Most Famous For?

While Demeter appears in only a few stories, one strikes as extremely important in Greek mythology – the creation of the seasons. According to the myths, which appeared in many forms, the seasons were created due to the kidnap of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, and the distraught goddess’ search for her. While Persephone was able to return for a short time from the Underworld, she was forced back again, creating the cyclical seasons, from winter to summer and back.

READ MORE: 10 Gods of Death and the Underworld From Around the World

The Rape and Kidnapping of Persephone

The story of Persephone and Demeter’s search for her appears in two different texts by Ovid, as well as Pausanias, and the Homeric hymns.

Hades Falls In Love with Persephone

In a rare fit of curiosity, the death god and god of the Underworld, Hades (Pluto, or Plouton), had traveled up to see the world. While up there, he was noticed by Aphrodite, the great goddess of love. She told her son Cupid to fire an arrow at the Olympian so that he might fall in love with the virgin Persephone.

Near the lake known as Pergus, Persephone was playing in a beautiful glade, gathering flowers, and playing with other girls. Hades, powerfully obsessed due to Cupid’s arrows, grabbed up the young goddess, raped her in the glade, and then carried her away crying. In doing so, Persephone’s dress was torn, leaving behind scraps of fabric.

As Hades’ chariots raced past Syracuse on his way home to the Underworld, he passed the famous pool in which Cyane, “the most renowned of all the Nymphae Sicelidae,” lived. Seeing the girl being kidnapped, she cried out, but Hades ignored her pleas.

READ MORE: Hades Family Tree: A Family of Hades, Greek God of the Dead

Demeter’s Search for Persephone

Meanwhile, Demeter heard of her daughter’s kidnapping. In terror, she searched the lands. She did not sleep at night, or rest during the day, but constantly moved across the earth in search of Persephone.

As each part of the earth failed her, she cursed it, and plant life shriveled up in shame. She was especially angry at the land of Trinacria (modern Sicily). “So there with angry hands, she broke the ploughs that turned the soil and sent to death alike the farmer and his labouring ox, and bade the fields betray their trust, and spoilt the seeds.” (Metamorphoses).

Not content to search only the earth, Demeter also scoured the heavens. She approached Zeus and raged at him:

“If you remember who fathered Proserpina [Persephone], half this anxiety should be yours. My scouring of the world simply made the outrage known: the rapist keeps the rewards of sin. Persephone did not deserve a bandit husband; no son-in-law is acquired this way . . . Let him go unpunished, I’ll endure it unavenged, if he returns her and repairs the past.” (Fastis)

Persephone Returns

Zeus made a deal. If Persephone had eaten nothing in the Underworld, she would be allowed to return. He sent down his brother, Hermes, to bring Persephone back to the heavens, and, for a short term, mother and daughter were united. However, Hades discovered that Persephone had broken her fast, eating three pomegranate seeds. He insisted that his “bride” be returned to him.

In the end, a compromise was brokered. Persephone would be allowed to stay with her mother for six months of the year, as long as she returned to Hades in the Underworld for the other six. While this made the daughter miserable, it was enough for Demeter to bring the crops back to life.

The Other Myths and Stories of Demeter

While the search for Persephone is the most famous story involving Demeter, there are small stories that abound. Many of them even occur during Demeter’s search and subsequent depression.

Demeter’s Rages

Many of the smaller stories reflected the rage of Demeter as she searched for her daughter. Among the many punishments she dished out were turning the famous Sirens into bird-shaped monsters, turning a boy into a lizard, and burning down the houses of people who did not help her. However, because of the later role in the tale of the hero Heracles (Hercules), one of the more famous punishments of Demeter was that inflicted upon Askalaphos.

The Punishment of Askalaphos

Askalaphos was the custodian of the orchid in the Underworld. It is he who told Hades that Persephone had eaten a pomegranate seed. Demeter blamed Askalaphos for her daughter having to return to her abuser, and so punished him by burying him under a giant stone.

Later, in his travels to the Underworld, Heracles rolled the stone of Askalaphos, unaware that it was a punishment by Demeter. While she did not punish the hero, Demeter would not allow the custodian’s freedom. So, instead, she turned Askalaphos into a giant short-eared owl. According to Ovid, “he became the vilest bird; a messenger of grief; the lazy owl; a sad omen to mankind.”

Triptolemus and Demophoon

Two of the central characters in the myths behind the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter are the brothers Triptolemus and Demophoon. As part of the story of Persephone, there are many versions of their story, though they all contain the same core points.

Triptolemus, the First Priest of Demeter

During Demeter’s travels to find her daughter, the Greek goddess visited the land of Eleusinia. The Queen there at the time was Metanira, and she had two sons. Her first, Triptolemus, was quite ill, and in an act of maternal kindness, the goddess breastfed the boy.

Triptolemus immediately became well again and grew instantly into an adult. Demeter would go on to teach Triptolemus the secrets of agriculture and the Eleusinian mysteries. Triptolemus, as the first priest of Demeter and demi-god, traveled the world in a winged chariot drawn by dragons, teaching the secrets of agriculture to all who listened. While many jealous kings attempted to kill the man, Demeter always intervened to save him. Triptolemus was so important to ancient Greek mythology that more artworks have been discovered depicting him than there are of the goddess herself.

How Demophoon Nearly Became Immortal

The story of Metanira’s other son is less positive. Demeter planned to make Demophoon even greater than his brother, and while she stayed with the family. She nursed him, anointed him with ambrosia, and performed many other rituals until he grew to be a god-like figure.

However, one night Demeter placed the adult-sized child into the fire, as part of a ritual to make him immortal. Metanira spied the woman doing so, and in a panic screamed out. She pulled him from the fire and berated the goddess, forgetting for a second who she was. Demeter would not suffer such an insult.

“You fool,” the goddess cried, “I could have made your son immortal. Now, although he will be great, having slept in my arms, he will eventually die. And as punishment on you, the sons of Eleusinians shall ever wage war with each other, and never see peace.”

And so it was that, while Eleusinia would see many great harvests, it never found peace. Demaphoon would be a great military leader but never see rest until he died.

Worshiping Demeter

Mystery cults of Demeter spread across the ancient world and archeological evidence of her worship has been found as far north as Great Britain and as far east as Ukraine. Many of the cults of Demeter involve fruit and wheat sacrifices at the beginning of each harvest, often presented at the same time to Dionysus and Athena.

However, the center of worship for Demeter was in Athens, where she was a patron city goddess and where the Eleusinian Mysteries were practiced. Eleusis is a western suburb of Athens that stands to this day. Central to these mysteries was the story of Demeter and Persephone, and so most temples and festivals worshiped the goddesses together.

The Eleusinian Mysteries

One of the largest cults in ancient Greece, the Eleusinian Mysteries was a series of initiation rites that would occur yearly for the cult of Demeter and Persephone. They involved both men and women and centered around the belief that there was an afterlife in which all could receive rewards.

The geographical center of this mystery cult was the temple to Demeter and Persephone, found near the western gate to Athens. According to Pausanius, the temple was opulent, with statues of the two goddesses as well as Triptolemus and Iakkhos (an early priest of the cult). At the site of the temple, today sits the Archaeological Museum of Eleusis, where many artifacts and images found over the years are now stored.

Little is known about the ceremonies that formed the Eleusinian mysteries, though fragments of information can be put together from sources such as Pausanius and Herodotus.

We know it involved a mystic basket filled with something only priests were allowed to know, as well as the anointing of children. Dramatic re-enactments of the myth would be played out in the temple, and parades would be held over nine days to celebrate the women.

Due to traces found in some pottery around known temples to Demeter, some modern academics believe psychoactive drugs were used as part of the mysteries. Specifically, researchers have found trace elements of ergot (a hallucinogenic fungus) and poppies.

As Persephone is known as a goddess of poppies, some hypothesize that ancient Greeks may have learned to create a form of opioid tea for use in their mysteries.

Demeter in Ancient Art

We have many statues and images of Demeter from the early Roman period, with almost all offering the same image. Demeter is portrayed as a beautiful, middle-aged woman with the appearance of royalty.

While occasionally she is found holding a scepter, her hands usually contain either a “triune sheath of wheat” or a cornucopia of fruits. Many images also have her providing the priest Triptolemus with fruit and wine.

READ MORE: Ancient Greek Art: All Forms and Styles of Art in Ancient Greece

Demeter in Other Art

Demeter was not a popular subject for artists otherwise intrigued by mythology, with painters like Raphael and Rubens only painting one image of her each. However, there is one artwork that is worth mentioning, as it not only contains the goddess but presents a key scene in the famous myth.

Ceres Begging for Jupiter’s Thunderbolt after the Kidnapping of Her Daughter Proserpine (1977)

Antoine Callet, the official portraitist to Louis XVI, was quite fascinated by Demeter and her relationship with Zeus (though he referred to them by their Roman names, Ceres and Jupiter).

As well as several sketches, he painted this two-by-three-meter oil-on-canvas piece to be used as an entry for France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. It received much praise at the time, with its vibrant colors and fine details.

Demeter in Modern Times

Unlike many of the more famous Greek gods, Demeter’s name or likeness appears very little in modern times. However, three examples do stand out that might be worth mentioning.

READ MORE: The Greek God Family Tree: A Complete Family Tree of All Greek Deities

A Goddess for Breakfast

For many of us, stumbling to the table to pull out a box and some milk, we participate in a practice that, for all intents and purposes, is a rite of devotion to Demeter, a “sacrifice of cereal.”

“Cerealis,” is Latin for “Of Ceres” and was used to describe edible grains. In French, it became “Cereale” before English dropped the final “e.” 

How Does Demeter Make Programming Easier?

In the esoteric world of computer programming, there is the “Law of Demeter.” This “law” states “that a module should not have the knowledge on the inner details of the objects it manipulates.” While the details of the law are quite complex for laypeople, the fundamental concept is that creating programs should be about growing them from a single core, like growing crops from seeds.

Where is Demeter in the Solar System?

An asteroid discovered in 1929 by German astronomer, Karl Reinmuth, 1108 Demeter rotates around the sun once every 3 years and 9 months and is over 200 million kilometers away from Earth, inside the Asteroid Belt of our solar system. A day on Demeter lasts just over 9 Earth hours, and you can even track the asteroid via NASA’s small-body database. Demeter is just but one of nearly 400 “minor planets” discovered by Reinmuth over 45 years as an astronomer.

How to Cite this Article

There are three different ways you can cite this article.

1. To cite this article in an academic-style article or paper, use:

Thomas Gregory, "Demeter: The Greek Goddess of Agriculture", History Cooperative, April 14, 2022, Accessed June 13, 2024

2. To link to this article in the text of an online publication, please use this URL:

3. If your web page requires an HTML link, please insert this code:

<a href="">Demeter: The Greek Goddess of Agriculture</a>

Leave a Comment