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Demeter and Persephone. The Earth Mother, The Bride of Death, and The Eleusinian Mysteries. Demeter of Cnidus. Demeter was the goddess of agricultural fertility, especially grains. She was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, sister of Zeus.

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demeter and persephone

Demeter and Persephone

The Earth Mother,

The Bride of Death, and

The Eleusinian Mysteries


Demeter of Cnidus

Demeter was the goddess of agricultural fertility, especially grains.

She was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, sister of Zeus.

She was unmarried but sexual – if only in that she had a daughter, Persephone, whose father was either Poseidon or Zeus.

Her worship was extremely popular all over the Greek and Roman world.

Roman name – Ceres.


Ancient Fertility Goddesses

Demeter’s name means “earth mother” (da/ga = earth, meter = mother)

Abundant female figurines give evidence for widespread worship of female deities in the prehistoric Mediterranean

Demeter, whose worship and mythology are concerned with both crop fertility and the afterlife, may have evolved from such deities


This Boiotian plate shows an early Classical representation of Demeter

  • Attributes:
  • throne
  • torch
  • crown
  • vegetation (flowers and grain)
  • landscape
  • bird

Sources: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter

  • By “Homer”
  • 7th century BCE date
  • reflects strong beliefs and commonly accepted mythology
  • is allied with the cult at Eleusis (and elsewhere in Greece)
  • Etiological: explains the yearly cycle and the cult at Eleusis

4th century BCE marble of mourning Demeter


Sources: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter

Persephone is abducted by Hades, god of the dead, to be his wife – with Zeus’s permission

Demeter searches for her in vain, bereft and enraged. When she finds out what happened, she wanders through the cities of humans, in disguise

At Eleusis, she becomes the nurse of Demophon. She tries to make him immortal, but is stopped by his mother, who doesn’t understand

Demeter orders the people of Eleusis to establish a cult in her honor.

Meanwhile the earth has become barren. Demeter insists that Persephone be restored to her. Persephone spends part of the year with her, part with her husband Hades


Sources: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter

(a closer look)

Persephone is picking flowers with her friends (a traditional image of a marriageable young girl)

Hades bursts out of the earth in a four-horse chariot and kidnaps her:

As long as the goddess could behold the earth, starry heaven, the deep flowing sea full of fish, the rays of the sun, and still hoped to see her dear mother and the race of everlasting gods, hope soothed her great heart . . .

Demeter hears Persephone cry out and looks for her in vain. Hecate and Helius tell her that Hades kidnapped Persephone with Zeus’s permission.


Visual Images

“O goddess, desist from your great lament; you should not thus bear an unrelenting anger to no avail. Indeed Hades, the ruler over many, is not an unseemly husband for your daughter . . .”

  • physical violence
  • erotic (closeness, detail)
  • face to face
  • dedication by female worshipper

Hades abducting Persephone; South Italian (from Locri); Greek, 470-460 BCE


Visual Images

This Roman wall painting shows the scene in the eroticised light we are used to in a lot of Greek-Roman mythology.


Visual Images:

Hades carries off Persephone as Hecate watches, c. 340 BCE

  • calm demeanor of all participants
  • wedding-like presentation
  • Persephone holds a scepter and wears a crown
  • focus on Persephone

Kore, the maiden, appears as the archetypal virgin girl …

Transformed into queen and emblem of the world’s returning life.


Persephone, Queen of the Dead

Hades is the name of the Underworld itself, and in myth, Hades is shown as an authoritative god.

But in cult, Persephone is just as important if not more so.

She is usually represented in front of Hades when both are shown in cult images

Here she sits enthroned by herself.

Magna Graecia Cult image of Persephone as Queen of the Underworld - ca. 460 BCE


Persephone and Hades, in two votive plaques from Eleusis, with attributes and worshippers . . .

above: c. 470 BCE right: c. 540 BCE


Sources: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter

Enraged at the gods’ disrespect, Demeter withdraws from them and wanders in disguise among humans.

She comes to Eleusis, where Celeus’ daughters find her at the well and bring her home to nurse their baby brother.

“For a long time she remained seated without a sound, grieving; she did not acknowledge anyone, but without a smile, not touching food or drink, she sat wasted with longing for her deep-bosomed daughter --

“Until Iambe in her wisdom resorted to many jokes and jests and brought the holy lady around to smile and laugh and bear a happy heart!”


Sources: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter

Demeter tries to make the baby Demophon immortal by burning him in a fire, but is interrupted by his mother Metaneira

  • Demeter as kourotrophos:
  • nurturing mother images are common in the Mediterranean
  • Demeter is usually shown with the female infant Persephone
  • The child in such images is usually male if anything, though

“I could hold a newborn child in my arms and care for him well . . .”


“Mortals are ignorant and stupid who cannot foresee the fate, both good and bad, that is in store!”

Now Demophon, like all mortals, must die in the end.

Demeter reveals her identity to the terrified Metaneira.

Demeter tells Metaneira to establish a cult to her at Eleusis. (Though all men must die, Eleusis will give them hope for the afterlife.)

Metaneira offers wool to Demeter

Demeter enthroned at Eleusis


Sources: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter

Demeter caused human beings a most terrible and devastating year on the fruitful land. The earth would not send up a single sprout, for Demeter of the lovely crown kept the seed covered.

Zeus orders Demeter to come back to Olympus and let the crops grow. She refuses.

All the other gods beseech her. She refuses.

Finally Zeus tells Hades to send Persephone back.

Go, Persephone, to the side of your dark-robed mother. . . While you are here with me you will rule over all that lives and moves . . .

Bur Hades gives Persephone a pomegranate first, and she eats some, thus cementing her connection with her husband and the Underworld.


Sources: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter

Persephone emerges from the earth, and mother and daughter ecstatically reunite.

Demeter discovers that Persephone ate the pomegranate; now she will have to spend part of the year below with Hades.

Still, Demeter makes the earth flourish and joins the other gods in Olympus – a joyful homecoming.

She further establishes the Mysteries and chooses just kings to spread the knowledge.


The mother-daughter relationship of Demeter and Persephone represents the life-affirming process of yearly cycles and crop fertility

The Mysteries at Eleusis ally this cycle with the hope for spiritual rebirth and a joyous afterlife


Myth into Cult

Triptolemus was chosen by Demeter to spread the arts of agriculture to new lands.

He is a “double” of Demophon, and often appears in cult representations of Eleusis

Demeter gives a sprig of corn to the boy Triptolemus, 5c BCE


The Eleusinian Mysteries

“Happy is the one of mortals on Earth who has seen these things. But those who are uninitiated into the holy rites and have no part never are destined to a similar joy when they are dead in the gloomy realms below.”

The Eleusinian Mysteries were already being celebrated in the 7th century BCE and continued for at least 1000 years, until forcibly eradicated by Christian emperors.


The Eleusinian Mysteries

In “mystery religions,” individuals go through a ritual of initiation and join a community of worshippers who have shared this experience.

Often secret knowledge is shared, or there is the expectation of spiritual rewards reserved for members.

Christianity is essentially a mystery religion – one which is open to all comers, like Eleusis.

Persephone (Kore) as Hydranos - purifying a youthful initiate; fragment from a marble stele - 1st quarter of the 4th century B.C. h. 57cm.


The Eleusinian Mysteries

The revelations of the Mysteries were so secret that no one has ever described them in full. But some things we know:

There were two steps to full initiation: The “Lesser Mysteries” (in spring) and the “Greater Mysteries” (9 days in September/ October).

A 45-day holy truce to all wars was established for the festival, and Greek-speaking people from all over the world were invited to come.

Festivities alternated between Eleusis and Athens; on the fifth day there was a grand procession from Athens to Eleusis.


The Eleusinian Mysteries

Days 6 and seven involved fasting and preparation, including drinking the mysterious kykeon.

There were three parts to the initiation: things done (a dramatic reenactment), things seen (a revelation of sacred objects), and things said (??).

The initiation chamber was a mysterious, column-filled enclosure.


The Eleusinian Mysteries

The dark enclosure of the initiation area, the torched carried by participants, and perhaps the kykeon contributed to a spiritual, maybe even ecstatic atmosphere.

The revelation may have been very simple (an ear of grain?) but initiates were primed to understant its spiritual significance.

Ninion pionax—painting of Eleusinian Mysteries; fourth century BCE


An initiation at the Eleusinian Mysteries

“Happy is the one of mortals on Earth who has seen these things. But those who are uninitiated into the holy rites and have no part never are destined to a similar joy when they are dead in the gloomy realms below.”



  • Schedule of festivities
  • Day 1: Anodos (way up) – procession carrying sacred items
  • Day 2: Nesteia (fast) – Demeter’s mourning, or recreation of prehistoric way of life
  • Day 3: Kalligeneia (beautiful offspring) – celebration with sacrifices and feasts
  • 3-day festival in October/November
  • held a central role in state cult
  • celebrated by adult, married citizen women (or women who had been married)
  • held on the Pnyx (where the all-male, political Assembly usually met) and displaced the Assembly
  • the women camped there the whole time


Before the ritual, piglets and phallic cakes were buried on the site. During the festival, they were removed (nicely rotted) to be mixed with seed grain and ensure fertility of crops.

“piglet” was slang for vagina.

Women observed chastity just before and during the festival, and celebrated with obscenity and joking. Contradictory?



Women in procession (Locri); Demeter(?) with a piglet


Thesmophoria vs. Eleusis

open: male and female, slave and free, local and foreign, as long as you could speak Greek

exclusive: women only, and only married Athenian citizen women

personal: an individual’s experience within a community of worshippers

civic orientation: allied with the city’s prosperity

focused on crops and fertility

focused on spiritual wisdom and life after death



Demeter was a powerful goddess whose temples and sanctuaries frequently merited the greatest resources of their polis.

6-5c BCE temple of Demeter at Paestum


Local Traditions

6-c terracotta showing Demeter and Persephon as identical seated images – “Maiden and Mother partners” – from Corinth

Throughout Greece, Demeter and Kore (the Maiden) are worshipped in almost every town of any size

Many towns have sanctuaries of “Eleusinian Demeter” and local legends which describe how Demeter revealed the mysteries to them, too.


Local Traditions

  • Phenea, in Arcadia: The myth
  • Demeter received hospitality from some Pheneans, and gave them lentils (but not beans, which are impure), and revealed the mysteries to them.
  • The ritual:
  • Near the sanctuary two enormous stones are fitted together: “The Rock”
  • (most people from the area swear “by the Rock”)
  • Inside the fitted top is a mask of “Kidarian Demeter” (“Demeter of the headdress” or “dance”)
  • The priest wears the mask at the mystery once a year
  • He flogs the statue of the god of the Underworld

Local Traditions

  • Mountain temenos of Black Demeter, Arcadia
  • At some point Demeter took the form of a horse, and Poseidon mated with her (against her will?)
  • Some believe that Poseidon was the father of Persephone by this mating.
  • Demeter, furious with Poseidon, took refuge in a mountain cave, dressed in black. The earth was perishing.
  • Pan, out hunting, found Demeter in the cave, The Fates persuaded her to put aside her grief.
  • The local cult statue (in the mythic cave, surrounded by an oak grove, near a spring)looked like a woman with a horse’s head, with serpents sprouting from her head;in a long tunic, with a dove in one hand and a dolphin in the other.

Local Traditions

The statue was accidentally destroyed and the cult fell into disuse. Then a famine came.

The Pythia gave an oracle that unless the cult was revived and a new statue made, the people of the area would revert to being “acorn eaters,” “consume themselves” and become “child-eaters.”

They quickly made a bronze statue and reinstituted the cult.

By the 2nd century CE, people came from all over for the cult, though the new statue had also been destroyed.

They left sacrifices of the fruits of cultivated trees, grapes, honeycomb, and greasy unspun wool.

A priestess and three city officials oversaw the yearly community sacrifice


Demeter: the Great Goddess of Greece?

Demeter plays so small a role in Greek myth that it is easy to lose sight of her importance in the Greek world.

Every podunk town in Greece had a significant shrine to her, and a significant festival, and often, a local tradition of connection with the mysteries.

Demeter was a small part of storytelling but a big part of physical and spiritual well being.


Demeter, Persephone and Artemis

Kore (Persephone), “The Maiden,” is sometimes associated in cult (though not in myth) with Artemis, the other “Maiden.”

The three women, mother, bride and virgin, reflect life stages and close relationship of women.