The Goddess Demeter

Demeter (Ceres) is the Goddess of Agriculture, and one of the daughters of Rhea and Kronos.  The last two syllables of the name “Demeter” are said to mean “mother.”  The name is also defined as the “earth goddess” or “corn mother.”  Demeter is sometimes related to or identified with the Earth-goddess, Gaia.  Demeter was understood to take the place of Gaia, the earth mother.  The Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone portrays three “traditional roles [of women] as Maiden, Mother, and wise Crone” (Leeming and Page, p. 66).  Composed around 675-625 B.C., many variations of the myth of Demeter and Persephone developed.  Three related versions of the myth are found in the "Homeric Hymns," the Myth of Osiris and Isis, and The Hymn to Inanna.  All three accounts share several themes: the reason for the change of seasons, the introduction of ideas of immortality, and the goddess disguised as a nursemaid.

In Hymn to Demeter in the "Homeric Hymns," Demeter gives birth to her daughter, Persephone, also known as Porsepine.  One day Persephone is out playing in the fields of Eleusis and she finds “a flower shining marvelously, a wonder for all to see” (Shelmerdine, p. 34) and is instantly captivated by it.  Then suddenly the god of the underworld, Hades, comes up from the ground and “seized her against her will” (Shelmerdine, p. 35).  Persephone screams for help but no one but Hekate and the sun god, Helios, hear her cries.  However, they do not intervene.  Eventually, Hades makes Persephone the queen of the Underworld and his wife.  Demeter, in desperate search for her daughter, mourns continually.  Grief stricken, the goddess wanders off to Eleusis where she encounters Metaneira.  Distraught about her daughter, Demeter tries to fill the void by nursing Metaneira’s child, Demophoon.  She nurses him as a god, by “(burying) him in the force of the fire, like a firebrand” (Shelmerdine, p. 46).  Demeter eventually is caught in the act, leaves her home and returns to feeling lost in sorrow:  “She went out of the house…wasting away with longing for her deep-girded daughter” (Shelmerdine, p. 49).  Throughout her stay in Eleusis, all that is living dies and decays, which leaves the people of Greece with no harvest and as a result, no sacrifices can be made to the gods and goddesses.  Zeus sends a messenger to console Demeter.   Hermes travels down to the underworld to negotiate an agreement with Hades: “he rushed quickly down to the hiding-places of earth” (Shelmerdine, p. 51).  Hades agrees to let Persephone return to her mother.  But before Persephone leaves the underworld, Hades “gave her the honey-sweet seed of a pomegranate to eat” (Shelmerdine, p. 52).  When Persephone finally returns to Demeter, her mother finds out about the pomegranate seed and is saddened once again for Persephone “would not remain all her days again with revered Demeter of the dark cloak” (Shelmerdine, p. 52).  Furthermore, Persephone must return to Hades for half a year.  During the second half of each year, she remains with her mother, Demeter.  When Persephone is with Hades, all harvest dies and decays, which reflect the seasons fall and winter.  While she is with Demeter, everything is growing and living, signifying the seasons of spring and summer.  The movement of seasons also suggests the theme of immortality. 

In the Hymn to Demeter, Demeter disguises herself as a nursemaid.  She cares for the young boy, Demophoon, as if he were a god.  She attempts to immortalize him by placing him in fire.  In addition, when the angry Metaneira snatches her son from the fire, Demeter tells her: “Humans are foolish and without the sense to know their destiny ahead of time…May the oath of gods…know that I would have made your dear child immortal and ageless all his days, and I would have granted him unfailing honor. Now there is no way for him to avoid death and a mortal fate” (Shelmerdine, p. 48).  Here, the subject of immortality is stressed once again. 

There are several representations of birth and death within the myth.  Demeter represents birth, in that she is the goddess of harvest, who controls the growth and birth of living things.  Persephone symbolizes death, for she is taken into the underworld, and while she is there all living things die.  Rebirth and resurrection also correspond to the rituals and sacrifices performed in the city of Eleusis.  Demeter restores the crops to the people of Eleusis in celebration of the return of her daughter Persephone: “So she spoke and fair-wreathed Demeter did not disobey, but at once made the seed rise up from the fertile soil. All the wide earth was laden with leaves and flowers” (Shelmerdine, p. 57).  The restoration of the harvest can be seen as the rebirth of the earth for all things which are once dead grow back to life, a yearly resurrection that occurs with the seasons.

The Myth of Osiris and Isis is another early myth with similar themes to those found in the Hymn to Demeter.  Osiris and Isis “loved each other as husband and wife” (Colum, p. 3).  Osiris has a brother named Seth who loathes Osiris and attempts to destroy him many times, but “his plots were baffled by the watchful care of Isis” (Colum, p. 4).  One day Seth comes up with a plan to make a chest that will fit the exact size of Osiris.  Seth holds a banquet, inviting everyone, and says “he would give the chest to the one whose body fitted most closely in it” (Colum, p.4).  Admiring the chest, everyone attempts to fit inside it, but no one fits exactly until Osiris steps inside.  As soon as Osiris’ whole body is inside the chest, Seth’s seventy-two attendants come into the banquet hall and “placed the heavy cover upon the chest; they hammered nails into it; they soldered it all over with melted lead” (Colum, p. 4).  The chest is then thrown into the river.  Later, just as Demeter hunts for her missing daughter, the inconsolable Isis embarks on a search for Osiris throughout the earth.  The chest possessing Osiris flows far out into the sea, and later “a flood had cast it upon the land” (Colum, p. 5).  It is placed in a “thicket of young trees” (Colum, p. 5).  Many trees grow around the chest and eventually consume the chest completely.  The tree, with the chest, is located in Byblos.  Melquart and Astarte, the king and queen of the land, hear about the tree, for it gives off a wonderful scent.  The tree is then cut down and placed in their home.  Isis hears of this tree and immediately recognizes that the chest must be inside of it.  The queen encounters Isis near the tree and invites her into her home.  Like Demeter and the infant Demophoon, Isis takes care of Astarte’s child, acting as a nursemaid.  Isis nourishes the child by laying him “in this fire” as “it burned softly around the child” (Colum, p. 6).  One night Astarte finds her child in the fire and “snatched the child up, crying out” (Colum, p. 6).  Isis is angered by the reaction of Astarte and reveals her true divine form to her.  The goddess retrieves the chest from the tree and brings Osiris back to life.  The evil brother, Seth encounters Osiris and Isis resting together and tears Osiris’ body into fourteen pieces.  The pieces are scattered everywhere.  However, Isis eventually is able to bring them all back together and bring her husband back to life.  Thus, Osiris lives again but this time he lives in the underworld as the Judge of the Dead.

Isis is the mother of the gods “whose myth and mysteries” (Leeming and Page, p. 77) are parallel to those of Demeter, who is also a mother goddess.  Just as Hades is the god of the underworld in the Hymn to Demeter, Osiris is the god of “maize and the Underworld” (Leeming and Page, p. 78).  Osiris is also linked with Dumuzi, husband of the goddess Inanna, in that “he became the seed of life buried in the earth, revived by the power of Goddess and her mysteries” (Leeming and Page, p. 78).  While Isis is seen as “the mother of all life” (Leeming and Page, p. 78), Demeter as well is described as the mother of all living things, as well as of the harvest.  Additionally, in the “Myth of Osiris and Isis,” Isis feels great sorrow for the murder of her husband/brother, Osiris.  Correspondingly, Demeter experiences much grief for her missing daughter, Persephone.  Both Isis and Demeter attempt to alleviate their sorrow by caring and nurturing another woman’s child, specifically a young boy.  Isis is asked to care for the son of Queen Astarte.   Growing attached to this child, Isis “bathed him in flames to confer immortality on him” (Leeming and Page, p. 80).  In the same way, Demeter transforms herself into a mortal named Doso and attempts to ease her heart by nursing a young boy named Demophoon, son of Metaneira.  Like Isis, Demeter gives the baby special treatment and nourishes him as if he were a god.  Also similar to Isis, Demeter tries to make him immortal by anointing him with “ambrosia as if he had been born from a god…she used to bury him in the force of the fire, like a firebrand” (Shelmerdine, p.46).  In both situations, the reactions of the two human mothers are the same: they both witness the supposed nursing of their child, cry out, reprimand the divine goddesses and are afraid for their children.

Closely related to the myth of Demeter and Persephone as well as the Isis and Osiris myth, is the Hymn to Inanna.  In the story, Inanna descends to the underworld to visit her sister, Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld.  Descending down to the underworld, Inanna brings seven “me,” a crown, small lapis beads, double strand of beads, a breastplate, a gold ring, a lapis measuring rod and line, and a royal robe (Wolkstein and Kramer, p. 53).  Inanna’s “faithful servant,” Ninshubur, also goes with her to the underworld (Wolkstein and Kramer, p. 53).  Inanna instructs Ninshubur to dress as a beggar and go to Nippur, temple of Enlil, and cry out to him, saying “do not let your daughter Be put to death in the underworld” (Wolkstein and Kramer, p. 54).  If Enlil does not help her, Inanna tells her servant to turn to Ur.  If Ur does not answer her, then Inanna says to ask Eridu for “surely he will not let me die” (Wolkstein and Kramer, p. 54).  After Inanna gives her servant the commands, she orders her servant to go and not forget her instructions.  Before meeting with her sister, Inanna “must go through seven gates” (deities.html, p. 1).  Inanna encounters Neti, the chief gatekeeper, and asks why she has come.  Her response is to “witness the funeral rites” of her sister’s husband, Gugalanna (Wolkstein and Kramer, p. 54).  Neti then informs Ereshkigal of Inanna and her possessions.  Hearing this, Ereshkigal orders Neti to close each gate and only allow her to enter every gate by removing one of her possessions.   When Inanna finally arrives at the throne of her sister, Ereshkigal, Inanna is entirely exposed.  Upon arrival Inanna “pulls her sister off her throne, and mounts it herself” (deities.html, p.1).  The judges of the underworld recognize this and condemn Inanna to death by decaying and rotting on a meat hook.  “After three days and nights” Ninshubur “dressed herself…like a beggar” and turns to Enlil for help but is let down (Wolkstein and Kramer, p. 61).  Inanna’s servant then goes to Ur but is again disregarded.  Ninshubur finally asks Enki, and he accepts.  Enki creates two creatures “neither male nor female” called kurgarra and galatur (Wolkstein and Kramer, p. 64).  He commands them to go to Ereshkigal with the food and water of life and “sprinkle” it on the “corpse” of Inanna (Wolkstein and Kramer, p. 64).  Inanna comes back to life but is unable to leave without a replacement.  Inanna returns to earth and chooses Dumuzi, her husband, to take her place, for he “has been having a grand time in her absence, partying” (deities.html, p. 2) while everyone else was faithful and mourning deeply for her.  As Dumuzi suffers in the underworld, his wife, mother and sister, up on earth, mourn for him.  Geshtinanna, his sister grieves so much for him that she decides to endure half of each year for him.   Dumuzi stays in the underworld six months each year and for the next six months his affectionate and loving sister, Geshtinanna, the Lady of Wine, takes his place. 

            Inanna and Demeter are both divine yet domineering female figures.  They are both associated with the earth and living things.  In addition, Dumuzi can be linked with Persephone in that he is forced to go to the underworld and stay there half a year just as Persephone does in the Hymn to Demeter.  Thus Dumuzi becomes associated with death.  In addition, like Demeter and Isis, Geshtinanna is seen as a nursemaid when she says: “I would find my brother! I would comfort him! I would share his fate!” (Wolkstein and Kramer, p. 166).  Geshtinanna reveals a nurturing and compassionate side for her brother.  In Hymn to Inanna, an agreement is made between the messengers Kurgarra and Galatur and Ereshkigal.  Kurgarra and Galatur give their attention to the queen of the underworld and she agrees to let Inanna go.  But in order for Inanna to return to earth, the gods of the underworld tell her to find someone to replace her: “No one ascends from the underworld unmarked. If Inanna wishes to return, she must provide someone in her place…”

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