Greek mythology has fascinated me since I was a wee tyke. I went through a phase in middle school where I checked out every mythology book in our tiny school library and poured over the dramatic stories of Artemis, Apollo, Athena, Zeus, Hermes (he was my favorite), Eros and Psyche, Hades and Persephone, Dionysus and Ariadne. My favorite was and still is the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, the talented musician who traveled to the Underworld to steal back his dead lover, only to have her snatched from him at the cusp of success through his own folly. Although I find the end of that story pretty distasteful, poor Orpheus. Bloody Maenads.
Naturally, it thrilled me to no end that a Studies in Mythology course was offered at the university I am studying at, so you better believe I’m taking it this fall. We have not left Greek mythology yet, and I kind of hope we do touch on other cultures, because I would like to hear more about Norse, Indian, Native American, and Japanese mythology, but with the way things are going, I doubt it will happen. We primarily discuss the real world applications of the mythology and how the Greeks used the stories to explain – well, everything unexplained, which we tend to do with whatever religion we choose to follow, if we choose to do so. We are in the midst of presentations, where we split into groups and chose one Greek goddess or god to present to the class, so I have had the privilege to hear a lot of obscure stories surrounding their antics from our professor.
My group presented Demeter, goddess of the harvest, agriculture, and fertility. I wanted to take a moment to give props to this divine woman, and explain why I think she is a crouching tiger hidden badass.
Demeter, sister of all the major gods and goddesses that spawned from Cronus and Rhea, was a maternal figure; benevolent, keeper of traditional laws, marriage, the earth, and the cycle of life and death. A hit with the farmers, that one. She is normally depicted with wheat or corn husks in her hair, but according to my professor, who is from that general area, wheat did not grow in Greece at that time; only barley. It was said that Demeter would only drink water with barley in it. One of her sacred animals was the pig, for all you bacon lovers. Pigs were routinely sacrificed in the rituals that celebrated her; the super secretive Eleusinian Mysteries and the Thesmophoria. She was a big deal to a lot of people, since she held the keys to successful harvests; she gifted humanity with the knowledge of agriculture, and was also the bringer of the seasons. The story that’s tied to those two crucial bits is quite famous: the tale of Persephone and Hades.
In a nutshell, Zeus promised Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, to Hades without Demeter’s knowledge. Persephone was snatched up by Hades while picking flowers and stolen away to the Underworld.
Demeter heard Persephone’s cry for help, but was too far to see what occurred. No one told that poor woman what happened to her daughter, so she wandered the earth grief stricken, refusing to eat or drink, as she searched for Persephone. During her wanderings, disguised as an older mortal woman, she stopped to rest at the town of Eleusis, and ended up working as a nurse for the king of Eleusis (in one version. The identity of the couple varies). To show gratitude for their hospitality, she set about making the couple’s son, Demophon, immortal, by placing him in the fire each night to burn away the ‘weakness’ of mortality in him. The ritual was interrupted by his mother, who did not understand Demeter’s actions and promptly freaked the freak out. Demeter, in turn, revealed who she was and chastised the woman for her ignorance. Instead of punishing them, she demanded instead that they build a temple in her honor. Thus the Eleusinian Mysteries came about, a nine day celebration devoted to Demeter and Persephone. She also bequeathed the gift of agriculture to the couple’s other son, Triptolemus (in other versions, Triptolemus is in fact the child she tried to make immortal instead of a brother), teaching him how to harvest and giving him the means to travel and teach others. In this way, Demeter’s gift is a kinder, more benevolent version of the start of civilization compared to the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity and was eternally punished for it.
Anywho – eventually Demeter found out what happened to Persephone, through Hecate and Helios. When Zeus refused to recant on the deal and give her back from Hades, Demeter turned into the biggest mother bear to ever dig her claws into an SOB. Zeus won’t give her daughter back? Then she’ll go after his precious mortals and starve every last poor bastard on earth until he gives in.
She knew how to hit him where it hurt. She let everything on earth die and turned a deaf ear to his pleas. As long as Hades had her baby, the planet had nothing.
Not in her house, man. Not in her house.
After a year of barren harvests and rampant hunger, Zeus decided to send everybody but himself to convince Demeter to quit with the hunger strike, because he’s an arrogant tool. Demeter was having none of that and continued to grieve in her new temple at Eleusis. Zeus would not leave Olympus, Demeter refused to step foot there, and neither actually budged; Zeus sends Hermes to Hades, ordering the god of the Underworld to let Persephone go to her mother so Demeter will feed people again. Hermes is like the really put out child forced to deliver messages from one angry parent to another.
Hades agrees, but not before convincing Persephone to eat the seeds of a pomegranate, the symbol of marriage. This forces Persephone to spend a third of the year in the Underworld with him, and the remaining two thirds with her mother. Demeter never got over this, so every time Persephone leaves her, the earth cycles into winter, and upon her daughter’s return, spring arrives and she allows for growth, hence Demeter’s connection to the cycle of renewal, birth, and death.
Other random, interesting things about Demeter: she had a slew of other kids besides her famous daughter. There was that one hot little affair with an island prince name Iasion, where they slipped away to a “thrice-plowed field” at a wedding and made whoopee. Of course Zeus found out, and of course he struck Iasion down with a lightning bolt and killed him, because he’s a douche, why is he SUCH a douche? Demeter had two boys by Iasion; Plutus (or Plouto), the god of wealth and abundance, and Philomelos, who invented the plough. There is this weird, unsettling little myth about Demeter’s horse offspring Areion and the goddess Despoine, thanks to Poseidon also being a total bastard. She had a few others, including two by Karmanor, who is sometimes interchanged with Iasion. In Roman mythology, she is Ceres, the word we derived cereal from.
Demeter is a badass because she goes for broke for her daughter, and her protector mode is unreal. She kept a watchful eye on Triptolemus during his travels to deliver agriculture to other parts of the world, intervening if he was ever attacked, and turned one would-be attacker – a king – into a lynx. She once punished the Thessalian king, Erysichthon, for chopping down trees in a sacred grove dedicated to her; after trying to stop him in human form and having him come at her with an ax, she cursed him with insatiable hunger. No matter what he ate, he would always be hungrier for it. After depleting his wealth to end his starvation, he was forced to start eating himself.
Lessons: do not touch Demeter’s sacred trees. Do not promise her daughter to some dude and kidnap her, or she will try to kill everyone.
For generally being portrayed as gentle, maternal, and deeply connected to mankind and the earth, Demeter does not play around when someone or something she cares about is in danger, and does not compromise. Her crouching tiger, hidden badass nature is what drew me to her for our presentation, and learning more about her was hella interesting. Here is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the Demeter/Persephone story in its entirety – at least this version of it.
Do y’all have any favorite mythology stories you want to share, or favorite gods or goddesses? Tell me about it in the comments!
One last thing: One of my group members found this awesome, unintentionally funny claymation video that strips the story of Persephone, Hades, and Demeter down to its basic root, and it is just too good. We laughed harder at this than we probably should have. Enjoy!