Demeter was the Greek goddess of grain, a major source of food and a symbol of fertility and renewal. The Romans identified her with Ceres, the Italian goddess of grain. Demeter was one of the 12 major gods of classical* Greece and was an important figure in Greek mythology. The myth of Demeter explained the seasonal cycles of nature, and it formed the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most widespread rituals of ancient Greece.
Most of the Greek myths about Demeter tell of the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, king of the underworld*. According to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (an ancient poem), Hades seized Persephone while she was picking flowers in a meadow and took her to the underworld to be his queen. Demeter heard Persephone cry out but could not reach her. The grief-stricken Demeter searched the earth for her daughter, refusing to eat or drink until she was found. Finally, she learned from Helios (the sun-god) that Hades had kidnapped Persephone with the consent of Zeus,the girl’s father. Enraged by the actions of the gods, Demeter left Mt. Olympus, the home of the gods, and wandered the earth in human form.
During her travels around the world, Demeter bestowed the gift of agriculture on those who offered her hospitality and punished those who did not. Eventually, she came to Eleusis disguised as an old woman. Weighed down by her sorrow, she stopped near a well to rest. The king’s daughters came to the well to draw water. Taking pity on the old woman, they invited her to return with them. After Demeter revealed her identity, she commanded the king of Eleusis to build a temple for her.
Still grieving over the loss of her daughter, Demeter held back the earth’s crops for an entire year. Zeus and the other gods tried to persuade her to restore to humans their life-giving grain, but she refused. Zeus then ordered Hades to release Persephone. Hades agreed but secretly gave her pomegranate* seeds as she departed. By eating fruit of the underworld, Persephone was forced to live with Hades for part of every year. Still, Demeter rejoiced at the return of her daughter and allowed the fields to bear crops again. Thereafter, Demeter cursed the earth and made it barren during the time that Persephone dwelled in Hades (in winter). Then, in the spring, when her daughter came back to her, she caused the grain to grow and ripen again. Before leaving Eleusis, Demeter revealed her secret rites to the king and ordered that they be performed in her honor. This, according to the legend, began the Eleusinian Mysteries. Demeter then returned to Mt. Olympus.
During the Eleusinian Mysteries, the drama of the loss and recovery of Persephone was reenacted by the initiates* with music and dancing. These secret ceremonies originally celebrated fertility, but their focus broadened over time to include the idea of life after death for humans, just as grain dies and is reborn each year. Demeter was also honored at many festivals related to planting and harvesting. Many of these festivals were celebrated in secret by women because of their association with fertility. The Greeks considered Demeter an important influence on civilization, and she was worshiped throughout the Greek world. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Divinities; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Persephone; Religion, Greek.)
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
* pomegranate thick-skinned, many-seeded berry about the size of an orange and with a tart flavor
* initiate one who is just learning the rites of worship