One of the six original Olympians, Demeter is the child of the King and Queen of the Titans - Kronos and Rhea, and of all the Greek gods of the earth it is she who is paramount. Demeter rules over the fertility and lifespan of the fruits and vegetables of the earth and especially of the grain, she is however also a patroness of human and animal reproduction as well – the life force of all living things. Demeter is also the goddess of the harvest and it was she who taught mankind how to sow and tend crops so that they could settle land and end their wandering nomadic lifestyle. She is also a goddess who takes great care in the preservation of the ‘natural law’ and tradition (whatever the society may see it as being); this is partly due to her popularity among rural populations (who most directly benefited from her attention) which are often more conservative and cling to older ways long after their urban counterparts. Demeter is a pre-Olympian deity; her worship extends far, far back into the times of Mycenaean Greece and their nomadic forbearers; votive offerings of clay pigs (an offering unique to Demeter have been found dating to Neolithic times). Her name probably in Greek means ‘distribution mother’ and is likely derived from the name of the Pre Indo-European mother-earth goddess *dheghom *mater (the astrix indicates that this is a reconstructed word and not one found in literature or modern languages).
Rarely is Demeter ever portrayed with a husband or lover in classical mythology but in the older regional myths if Eleusis and in Linear B inscriptions she does appear with consorts. Karmanor fathered Demeter’s daughter Khrysothemis the goddess of ‘the golden custom’ a harvest festival incorporating song, sex and banqueting amongst the grain harvest. Iason was a youth of Krete with whom Demeter laid with in a ‘thrice-plowed field’ and was killed by a jealous Zeus. Mykenean inscriptions link her with Poseidon under the names DA-MA-TE and PO-SE-DA-WO-NE (which seems to translate as "consort of the distributor”). The link between these two carry over in to Helleic mythology in an Arkadian myth of Posidon persuing the reluctant goddess who hid herself as a mare (Demeter was worshiped as a horse-headed deity into historical times in Arkadia) among the herds of King Onkios though she was unsuccessful and was found by the horse god. Demeter bore two children from this union: Arion an immortal, talking stallion and Despoina, the Arkadian version of Persephane.
Demeter’s daughter by Zeus – Persephone – is the best known of all Demeter’s children and at the center of the most important myths of her worship. Each year Persephone spends a season in the underworld and Demeter in mourning withholds the gift of fertility, bringing winter and barren fields. Though there are some that feel that her decent was a one time event and not a yearly and was influenced by the destruction of Thera and the black mourning cloak worn by Demeter the ash from the explosion (the seasonal yearly explanation, in this theory, is a later explanation based on Near Eastern decent mythologies).
When Persephone was abducted by Haides Demeter, taking the form of an old women named Doso wandered the earth searching for her daughter and in these travels she revealed the Eleusinian Mysteries to mankind. Tired from her wanderings she stops at the palace of Celeus, the King of Eleusis and becomes the nurse of his sons Demophon and Triptolemus. In return Demeter attempted to make Demophon immortal but was stopped by the fearful screams of his mother when she saw the child in the hearth-flames, instead Demeter taught Triptolemus the secrets of agriculture and gave him a winged chariot to carry him all over Greece to spread the knowledge. This was the start of the Eleusinian Mysteries. We don’t know a lot about the rituals in the mysteries, the secrets have been well kept; but we do know some pieces of information and others can be gleaned. Poppies and possibly ergot, a psychoactive agent that grows on rye, were used to create a hallucinatory state among the participants who would watch a recreation of the Eleusinian myths cycle and then partake in a sacred meal. The mysteries taught men how to call Persephone back from Haides but also instructed followers in how to attain eternal life after death.
The worship of Demeter and Persephone is ancient, the two appear linked on Linear B tablets as ‘the two goddesses’ or ‘the king and two queens’ (the king quite possibly revering to Poseidon). She is also worshiped under the name of her mother, Rhea, and the two were often seen as aspects of the same goddess. This is especially true in Orphic cosmology in which Zeus impregnates his mother Rhea with Persephone and after the child’s birth takes the name Demeter – the mother. One of her common epithets, which also shows up in Linear B, is Erinys – the furious and in this form was often cruel and punishing. In the Roman religion Demeter was merged with the grain goddess Ceres and had many of the same myths and customs and had a special cult site on the highly agricultural island of Sicily.
My honoring of Demeter is very simple – respect the earth, thank all that gives it’s life so that I may live and never forget to marvel at the beauty of nature. You can support Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation by making a tax-deductible donation.