Demeter was the goddess of agriculture, grain and bread who sustained mankind with the earth’s rich bounty. She presided over the foremost of the Mystery Cults which promised its initiates the path to a blessed afterlife in the realm of Elysium. Demeter was depicted as a mature woman, often wearing a crown and bearing sheafs of wheat or a cornucopia (horn of plenty), and a torch.
Residence: Mount Olympus
Symbols: Cornucopia, wheat, torch and bread
Parents: Cronus and Rhea
Consort: Iasion, Zeus, Carmanor, Poseidon
Siblings: Hestia, Hades, Hera, Poseidon, Zeus, Chiron
Children: Persephone, Despoina, Arion, Plutus, Philomelus, Eubuleus and Chrysothemis
Roman equivalent: Ceres
Demeter’s daughter Persephone was abducted to the underworld by Hades. Demeter searched for her ceaselessly, preoccupied with her loss and her grief. The seasons halted; living things ceased their growth, then began to die. Faced with the extinction of all life on earth, Zeus sent his messenger Hermes to the underworld to bring Persephone back. Hades agreed to release her if she had eaten nothing while in his realm; but Persephone had eaten a small number of pomegranate seeds. This bound her to Hades and the Underworld for certain months of every year, the autumn and winter.
This myth helped explain the seasons: during the months that Persephone returns to Demeter, the spring and summer, the world is full of life and bountiful crops but as soon as Persephone leaves again for the Underworld, her mother begins to grieve again and nothing grows.
Demeter’s search for her daughter Persephone took her to the palace of Celeus, the King of Eleusis in Attica. She assumed the form of an old woman, and asked him for shelter. He took her in, to nurse Demophon and Triptolemus, his sons by Metanira. To reward his kindness, she planned to make Demophon immortal; she secretly anointed the boy with ambrosia and laid him in the flames of the hearth, to gradually burn away his mortal self. But Metanira walked in, saw her son in the fire and screamed in fright. Demeter abandoned the attempt. Instead, she taught Triptolemus the secrets of agriculture, and he in turn taught them to any who wished to learn them. Thus, humanity learned how to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Demeter tried to hide from Poseidon‘s advances, changing herself into a mare and mixing with the horses of King Onkios. Poseidon did mate with her in the shape of a stallion, which resulted in the birth of the fantastic horse Arion. Oncius kept Arion and later gave him away to Heracles as the latter was starting a military campaign against Elis.
Erysichthon ordered all of the trees in one of Demeter’s sacred groves to be cut down. One tree, a huge oak, was found to be covered with votive wreaths, symbols of the prayers Demeter had granted, and so Erysichthon’s men refused to cut it down. The king used an axe to cut it down himself, killing a dryad nymph in the process. The nymph’s dying words were a curse on Erysichthon. Demeter punished the king by calling upon Limos, the spirit of unrelenting and insatiable hunger, to enter his stomach. The more the king ate, the hungrier he became. Erysichthon sold all his possessions to buy food, but was still hungry. Finally, he sold his own daughter, Mestra, into slavery. Mestra was freed from slavery by her former lover, Poseidon, who gave her the gift of shape-shifting into any creature at will to escape her bonds. Erysichthon used her shape-shifting ability to sell her numerous times to make more money to feed himself, but no amount of food was enough. Eventually, Erysichthon ate himself.