Content warning: There are specific aspects of Demeter’s stories not included in my summary to avoid triggers, so if you do research Demeter yourself, be aware that there are aspects of violence, sexual violence, and child abuse within the tales.
Demeter, a complex goddess of agriculture and fertility, is both a loving and a raging mother and an assault survivor. She embodies many human emotions and difficulties, including the difficulties that come with dealing with mental health issues and grief. She is also a symbol for the turning, changing year, and the greening of the world in springtime.
Who is Demeter?
Demeter is the daughter of Rhea, a titan who was born of Gaia (the earth titan) herself. Rhea’s father was Ouranus, or Uranus, the starry personification of the sky (Theogeny, Hesiod, approx. 700 BCE). Rhea became pregnant by the Titan Kronos, who had mutilated Ouranus and was terrified that one of his own children would do the same to him. Poor Demeter, therefore, had a rough start in life, being literally swallowed by her father as he tried to dispose of his kids to protect himself.
Of course, his plan came to nothing, as with the help of Gaia and Ouranus, Rhea was able to hide the last of her children: Zeus. She gave a stone in swaddling clothes to Kronos, who swallowed it whole, not realising his error. After a year, he vomited up the stone and the other children, including Demeter, who would go on to become one of the most important goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology and religion.
Why is Demeter one of our Family Deities?
Demeter is an agricultural goddess, associated with food, fertility, and the turning of the seasons, which alone makes her ideal for family worship – especially for those wanting to live a life more in tune with seasonal change.
Demeter also has a mother goddess aspect, which comes from her close relationship with her daughter, Kore, aka The Maiden, also known as Persephone. Persephone was kidnapped while at play, when her mother and the other goddesses were distracted. She went to pluck a narcissus, but this stunning flower was placed as a trick to lure her into the waiting arms of Hades, god of the underworld. For this reason, it’s probably not wise to include narcissus or daffodils on your spring altars to Demeter, as she probably doesn’t want the reminder of what she came to see as her great failure.
Demeter was helped by “tenderhearted Hecate” (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Hugh G. Evelyn-White translation, 1914) who took her to see Helios, the sun god, who confirmed what had happened. Zeus had set the whole thing up, basically giving away Persephone as a gift to his eldest brother, Hades. Because it was Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, who had done this, no one else would help Demeter. She gave in to grief, and eventually depression, making her somewhat of a patron to anyone who has ever had to struggle with mental health, or care for anyone who has.
Demeter stopped eating, drinking, and washing. She avoided Olympus and travelled the Earth instead, disguised as a disfigured woman, eventually becoming a nurse to a child of a wealthy woman. Unfortunately, Demeter still grieved, and began to try and raise the child as an immortal, feeding the baby ambrosia, the nectar of the gods, and plunging the infant into the fire at night. Metaneira, the mother, spotted Demeter popping the baby in the fire and, unsurprisingly, freaked out completely. Demeter took this very personally and became angry, revealing her true form and demanding a temple and special rites. Even with all this honour, Demeter still mourned her missing daughter, and a terrible famine fell upon the land. As the goddess of agriculture, her grief became real in the form of barren fields. This affected Zeus and the Olympians, as the humans had nothing to give in terms of sacrifice or offerings.
Eventually, Zeus realised that without Persephone, Demeter would never return growth and fertility to the land. He commanded Hades to let Persephone return, but Persephone ate some pomegranate seeds which meant she was compelled (or allowed) to return to the underworld a few months out of the year. Demeter grieved when her daughter left for the underworld, and nothing grew during these few months which became known as winter.
Demeter represents complex familial relationships, not just the love between a parent and children, but sibling relationships, and the ways we form bonds with other families too. There is the understanding of sorrow and grief, and the difficulties in letting go of children – even for a short space of time. She also represents the inevitability of the turning seasons, and the darkness and sadness many feel in wintertime.
Demeter was worshipped in many forms in the ancient world, associated with Ceres in Roman religion and later merging with Ceres to become Demeter again. In modern Hellenic worship, Demeter is considered a very important goddess, often included in seasonal rites either alongside or opposite her daughter Persephone. Demeter is also found mentioned in many modern Pagan circles, even as one of the primary goddesses in this popular chant to raise energy:
“Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hekate, Demeter, Kali, Inanna!”
Honouring Demeter can be about honouring the turn of the season, looking after your own mental wellbeing or caring for another, building or working on family ties, or simply enjoying the relationships you already have.
Symbols of justice such as weighing scales
A golden sword
The colour green
Anything you have grown yourself; your harvest
Wheat, corn or other grains
Meditate (safely) whilst in a warm bath
What are your experiences with Demeter or other family-related deities? Tell us your thoughts over at our Facebook Group.