Nuturing Images: Demeters
Much of what we know about Demeter comes from The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a poem of unknown authorship which chronicles the myth surrounding her daughter, Kore’s, marriage to Hades. Kore and Demeter are rarely mentioned without the other. The two goddesses were also historically worshipped together in ancient temples like that mentioned in the above poem at Eleusis. Demeter is commonly attributed with fertility, and by association, life. However, as is often true, the power to give is most notable when, conversely, the opposing power to withhold is realized.
In sharp contrast to the other female personalities represented in the bulk of Greek mythology, the goddess Demeter is portrayed with an uncharacteristic care and concern for her daughter, the goddess Kore, who fully returns her regard. This departure from the prevailing limitations in the power of goddesses and the unusual emphasis on the importance of the familial bond between Demeter and her daughter are, in themselves, remarkable. The myth of the goddess Demeter is made more remarkable by her sphere of influence, fertility and agriculture, and her primary role as nuturing mother, neither of which appear, on the surface, as bastions of power in ancient Greece or in Greek mythology.
Greek goddesses were powerful figures in mythology. But, traditionally their powers were limited in scope. In a surprising departure from this tradition, Demeter brings gods, goddesses and mortals to their metaphorical knees when she demands Kore’s return from the marriage Zeus, Kore’s father, has arranged for her. Angry and mourning, Demeter leaves Olympus and hides the seed for the next harvest far below the ground, bringing famine to the land of mortals. Zeus, concerned that the entire mortal race will die, leading to a lack of sacrifices and gifts to all the gods and goddesses, sends the entire pantheon to individually beg Demeter, in seclusion at her newly erected temple in Eleusis, to relent. When she steadfastly refuses, Zeus offers her gifts and honors, and then he finally sends Hermes to persuade Hades to return Kore to her mother. Only when she is reunited with Kore does Demeter restore the seed (and fertility) to the land.
To understand the magnitude of this myth, several aspects of what are generally considered to be normal within Greek culture and Greek mythology need to be addressed. In Greek culture, fathers chose the husbands for their daughters and were fully within their rights to marry their daughters to whomever they chose without consulting their wives. Zeus’ decision to marry Kore to Hades without consulting Demeter was in no way different. It was also culturally common to marry daughters to men outside of the community in which they were raised to create or continue political alliances. This parallels the separation of a mother and daughter by marriage to a distant family and Demeter’s loss of Kore when she is taken to Erebos, the underworld and land of the dead, where Demeter presumably cannot follow. Additionally, Zeus has not only the rank of father, but also the rank of ruler of the gods and goddesses on Olympus. That he relents in either of those roles to restore Kore to Demeter is astonishing and out of keeping with both traditional mythology and cultural expectations.
It is also noteworthy that it is Demeter’s role as an agricultural goddess that gives her the weapon she needs to demand Kore’s return. As she can give life through sustenance, so can she also take it away by withholding sustenance. And by withholding sustenance to mortals, she can also withhold sustenance, in the form of sacrifices and gifts, to other gods and goddesses, some of whom have more daunting powers than she is credited with. In this role as nurturer, she can cause the downfall of mortals, gods and goddesses alike through the simple act of denying nurturance.
More surprising than any of the above, however, is Demeter’s role as mother to Kore in this myth. Gods and goddesses in Greek mythology are not a close family, protective of their familial ties, nurturing to their children. To the contrary, once born, a god or goddess is customarily on its own. The filial ties are generally ignored or cause for competition, jealousy and a multitude of other expressions leading oftentimes to violence between them. The relationship of Demeter and Kore is a marked departure from this custom. Demeter’s grief over the loss of her daughter causes her to take extreme actions. She is even depicted as taking over the care of a royal infant son and attempting to make him immortal during her time of grief over the loss of Kore. And her feelings for Kore are entirely mutual. Kore is depicted as a reluctant wife, even after her initial abduction, due to her homesickness for Demeter. When Hades, after ensuring Kore’s return for one-third of each year with the fateful pomegranate seed he causes her to swallow, urges her to return to her mother, she does so eagerly, running into her mothers arms, rejoicing. Only after Kore’s relationship with her mother is restored does life return to normal. Kore takes up her duties as Queen of the Underworld, Demeter resumes her agricultural responsibilities and they continue to spend two-thirds of the year together. This depth of feeling between mother and child goddesses is in stark contradiction to the bulk of mythology.
Worshipping Demeter and Kore had at its core the worship of life and death. Demeter, as representative of nurturance and sustenance, was balanced by Kore (or Persephone, as she was named after her marriage), as Queen of the Underworld and wife of the ruler of the dead. Demeter, goddess of the fertile fields, and Demter, cause of famine in her grief. It is also interesting to note that the pomegranate, an important element in both The Homeric Hymn to Demeter and in Eleusian rites, has the same paradoxical representations – that of life giving, seen in the fruit with many seeds, and that of death, as the pomegranate has abortifacient and contraceptive qualities (perhaps the reason why Kore never has children). These qualities were well understood in ancient times. And Demeter, represented as a goddess wise in the ways of herbs, would have been perceived as knowing of these qualities as well. Other abortifacient and contraceptive herbs, including pennyroyal and pine, were also elements in Eleusian rites. This emphasizes the potential power of Demeter to both give life and withhold or take life away.
Myths are reflections (however distorted) of widespread cultural beliefs. And, this myth presumably would not have existed without some relevance to cultural practices in Greek history. Some understanding of the unusual aspects of this myth may be explained by matriarchal societies, which fell into obscurity with time or by cultural minorities in Greece, such as Sparta, where women held a more powerful place in society. Intimate relationships between mothers and daughters, for example, were reportedly common in Sparta, where men and male children spent the vast majority of their time living away from their homes. For the same reason, women ruled absolutely over the home. In a society such as Sparta, the role of a mother would be greatly emphasized. The myth of Kore’s marriage to Hades and the myth of the Amazons are perhaps reflections of societies such as these.
The role of nurturer, traditionally and in ancient Greek society, emphasized mothering qualities, cooking and childrearing. The worship of Demeter and Kore, however, resonate more strongly to include not only the life giving and life sustaining aspects but the shadow side of death and neglect as well. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter seems to convey (with greater respect than we commonly see in comparable literature) the intrinsic contribution of the mother in Greek culture and the implicit warning of the grave consequences inherent in not respecting her.
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