Demeter was known as a goddess of grain–of fertility, of successful harvests–and therefore a very important deity for an agrarian people. As the devoted mother of Persephone, she is among the most maternal of any of the Greek goddesses.
With Persephone, she is also the mistress of the Eleusinian Mysteries and a guarantor of a blessed afterlife for initiates.
Although she has other children, Demeter’s best-known relationship is with her daughter Persephone.
Myths and Stories
Demeter’s best known myth is of course the story of the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by Hades. In her anguish she caused the earth to become barren, and would not renew its fertility until Persephone was returned; however, while in the underworld Persephone had eaten several pomegranate seeds–and, having eaten in the underworld, she had to stay there for some months of the year. Each year, while Persephone was with her mother, the earth was fruitful; but when she went to be with her husband, Demeter’s mourning caused the infertile season of the year.
Another story of Demeter has to do with Poseidon’s pursuit of her, and her self-transformation into a horse in an attempt to avoid his advances (not a good plan given Poseidon’s own connection with horses–he turned into a stallion and succeeded in gaining his desire).
Yet another tale tells how Demeter punished Erysichthon for cutting down the trees in one of her sacred groves, and for threatening her with an axe when, in disguise, she attempted to stop him. It was a particularly nasty punishment: she gave him an insatiable hunger that caused him to eat everything in his home, to become a beggar, and finally–when there was nothing left–to devour himself.
Names and Epithets
Like many of the gods, Demeter was addressed under different names or epithets at different times and under different circumstances.
Demeter Chthonia (Demeter Beneath the Earth). This epithet refers to Demeter’s nature as a chthonic deity, dealing as she does with matters under the earth’s surface–both as a promoter of the growth of the seed in the soil, and as a mistress of the mysteries of the underworld.
Demeter Eleusinia (Demeter of Eleusis). Refers specifically to Demeter as one of the Two Goddesses of Eleusis and the mysteries.
Demeter’s worship was widespread; she was honored in numerous festivals.
The Eleusian Mysteries, easily the most important of Demeter’s festivals, drew men and women from all over Greece. The rituals were secret, and the participants kept these secrets so well that we know almost nothing about them; however, they seem to have had something to do with guaranteeing initiates a better place in the afterlife.
Haloa, a festival to Demeter and Dionysos involving explicit sexual language and imagery, very likely a fertility festival.
Skira, a women’s fertility festival.
Stenia, a women’s festival preceding the Thesmophoria, of which little is known.
Thesmophoria, a women’s festival of which, again, little is known for sure, although it clearly seems to have been connected with fertility.
Demeter is often depicted in art carrying a sheaf of grain, loaf of bread or cornucopia, representing her ability to grant abundance and fertility.