Who was Demeter?
Demeter was the Greek goddess of agriculture, the harvest, growth, earthly fertility, nourishment, the lifecycle and sacred law.
Demeter, together with her daughter Persephone, was a central figure of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Mysteries were a religious tradition pre-existing the Olympian pantheon, thought to have had their roots in the Mycenaean period of circa 1400–1200 BC. In the Olympian mythological tradition she is described as the daughter of the God Cronus and the Goddess Rhea. Her siblings were Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades and Hestia. Aside from Persephone Demeter’s other children were Despoina, Arion, Plutus, Philomelus, Eubuleus, Chrysothemis and Amphitheus I. Her consorts were said to have been Iasion, Zeus, Oceanus, Karmanor and Triptolemus.
Demeter’s most established relational link is with her daughter Persephone, Queen of the Underworld and their story provides us with a depiction of Demeter’s key characteristics. The maidenly Persephone was abducted and taken to the underworld by her uncle Hades. Demeter, consumed with the loss, searched for her daughter relentlessly. Whilst this happened earth’s seasons stopped, all earthly growth ceased and living things began to die. Zeus, facing extinction of life on earth, Hermes as a messenger to the underworld with the task of bringing Persephone back. Hades agreed to her release, but only on the condition that she had eaten nothing whilst there. Persephone, though, had consumed some pomegranate seeds, thus beholding her to Hades and his underworld realm for certain months of every year, when earth is at its least fertile.
Demeter and Persephone were thus often worshiped together and referred to by joint titles. Epithets applied to Demeter included ‘Mother Earth’, ‘Corn Mother’, ‘She of the Grain’, ‘Legislator’, ‘Giver of Customs’, ‘the Mare who Destroys Mercifully’ and ‘the Green Shoot’
Similar deities to Demeter which are found in other cultures include the Roman Goddess Ceres, the Anatolian goddess Cybele, Egyptian Goddesses Isis and Sekhmet, Christianity’s Mary/Pieta, Norse Goddess Freyr and the Aztec maize goddess Xilonen.
The Demeter Archetype
The Demeter archetype is often described as having innocent and childlike qualities, often introverted but with a sweet and unassuming nature and desire not to disappoint. An archetypal Demeter’s heart is ruled by innocent rather than sexual love and as a result they seek relationships with others primarily for companionship and intellectual stimulation rather than for passion. The Demeter archetype can be drawn in particular to men who need mothering or who are emotionally needy. Their innocent, trusting demeanor in these circumstances can make this archetype prone to exploitation by particular types of men.
As an embodiment of Mother Nature, Demeter is a relationship-oriented, warm and nurturing source of life. They are likely to want to raise a family and seek security in the companionship of their partner, children and other relatives. Indeed the Demeter archetype’s view of their self-worth and identity centres around their relationship with their partner and role as a mother figure. This is what they would cite as their key achievement and most important function in life. Their maternal instincts are strong and the loss of any child or relative, however temporarily, will impact on them deeply. They feel grief and loss keenly and will openly express this. The mother may also actively attempt to keep the child close to them, using manipulative tactics to do so as a result of their fear of loss.
The desire to protect those that the Demeter archetype cares for can also bring out a shadow side to the innocent archetype which is more devious and manipulative, willing to do whatever necessary to protect those that they love and to take revenge on those who harm them. However, when this side is demonstrated it never comes to the Demeter lightly, and they act only in the interests of what they see as justice. The Demeter archetype does not actively seek to compete with other women, preferring indeed to help vulnerable women in society, but will act against them should it be necessary to defend her own.
This focus on family and maternal functions means that the Demeter archetype is less likely to be education of career oriented. In their youth they are likely to appear indecisive about their life goals
The association with Mother Nature and Earth’s fertility has led to the Demeter archetype being connected with professions such as baking, farming, foster parenting, floristry, gardening, governesses, nannying, nursing and victim support.
Characteristics of the Demeter archetype
- Mother Earth
- Relationship Oriented
“[Demeter reveals her true divinity to Queen Metaneira :] ‘Lo! I am that Demeter who has share of honour and is the greatest help and cause of joy to the undying gods and mortal men . . .’ When she had so said, the goddess changed her stature and her looks, thrusting old age away from her [i.e. her disguise as an old woman] : beauty spread round about her and a lovely fragrance was wafted from her sweet-smelling robes, and from the divine body of the goddess a light shone afar, while golden tresses spread down over her shoulders, so that the strong house was filled with brightness as with lightning.”
– Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter 275.
‘Good Demeter mothering keeps a child in the heat and passion of life which immortalize and establish soulfulness. Mothering involves not only physical survival and achievement—Demeter’s grain and fruit—it is also concerned with guiding a child to his or her unknown depths and the mystery of fate.’
– Thomas Moore
‘Mary in Christianity, Isis in ancient Egypt, Demeter in Greece, Venus in Rome and Guan Yin in China have all functioned as conduits to recollections of early tenderness. Their statues often stand in darkened, womb-like spaces, their faces are compassionate and supportive, they enable us to sit, talk and cry with them. The similarities between them are too great to be coincidental. We are dealing here with figures that have evolved not out of shared cultural origins but in response to the universal needs of the human psyche.’
— Alain De Botton