Demeter was the sister of Zeus and the goddess of the harvest. She ruled over all forms of agriculture, especially grains and cereals and was key in keeping the earth's crops abundant and fruitful.
She was often called upon by farmers who were looking to secure blessings for the upcoming harvest season. Demeter chose the red poppy flower as her emblem and incorporated its hypnotic properties into her sacred mysteries.
The rich rosy tint of its petals optimistically brought the promise of life after death to the people of the ancient world.
Demeter is best known for being the mother of Persephone, the young maiden who was carried off by Hades, the god of the underworld. If you would like to read more about the abduction and learn how it divided the year into seasons please see my page titled Tales of Persephone .
Though she is usually portrayed as being without a husband, Demeter was not void of children. Along with her daughter Persephone who was sired by Zeus, (making the god both her father and her uncle) she also produced twin sons Plutus and Philomelus after laying with her paramour Iasion in a thrice plowed field.
It seems that after consuming a bit too much nectar at the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia , Demeter and her lover scurried off in search of a quiet place to accommodate their romantic desires. After laying together in a freshly tilled furrow, the drunken pair returned to the party suspiciously covered with muck and mire.
Zeus immediately guessed what had transpired between the two and in a jealous rage struck Iasion dead with one of his thunderbolts. The amorous affair brought about the birth of Demeter's twin sons Plutus and Philomelus.
Though the brothers were identical in appearance, the two were granted very different stations in life.
Plutus, who is often seen holding a full cornucopia went on to be associated with bountiful harvests and the wealth of the earth. He is sometimes described as having certain physical ailments that creatively symbolize distinct aspects of his nature.
For instance it is written that Zeus took away his eyesight to allow the young god to distribute his gifts fairly without the threat of prejudice.
He was also said to be both lame and winged; a whimsical way of illustrating the notion that wealth is slow to arrive but often departs with speed. Unfortunately Philomelus did not share in his brother's good fortune.
Unlike Plutus who lived a life of affluence, Philomelus was destined to live his life as a farmer. In order to sustain himself, Philomelus ingeniously invented the first plough (sometimes a wagon) which he used for cultivating his fields. Demeter was so proud of her son that she later placed him in the night sky as the constellation Bootes.
After the abduction of Persephone, Demeter disguised herself as an old woman and sadly wandered from town to town. Upon reaching the city of Eleusis, the weary goddess decided to pause a moment and rest herself beside the edge of a stone well.
As she cooled herself in the gentle breeze she was joined by the four daughters of King Celeus who were out seeking water for the evening meal. Not recognizing the old woman as a goddess, the girls engaged Demeter in conversation, collectively asking questions about her homeland and her present-day journey.
Demeter dolefully explained that in order to avoid being sold into slavery she had been forced to flee from her home in Crete. The sisters took pity on the old woman and offered to provide her with a hot meal and a comfortable place to spend the night. Demeter graciously accepted the invitation and accompanied the girls back to the palace of the king.
Queen Metaneria took an instant liking to the gloomy old woman and swiftly adopted her as the caretaker of her infant son Demophon. Because Demeter was still grieving the loss of her daughter, she happily focused all of her attention on the baby prince.
Determined to make the boy immortal, each night the goddess gently anointed him with ambrosia and then placed his tiny body upon the flaming embers of the hearth. One evening Metaneira's curiosity got the better of her and she decided to check up on the old nurse.
As she peeked through a crack in the door, the queen was horrified to see Demeter place the sleeping child upon the fire. Metaneria let out a shriek and along with her daughters frantically raced over the threshold and entered into the dimly lit bed chamber.
Demeter angrily cast the baby to the floor and with a powerful wave of her hand returned to her true and radiant form. The women stared in disbelief as the goddess chastised them for their doubting behavior.
She then sternly declared that in order to make amends, it was imperative for the people of Eleusis to erect a great temple and dedicate it in her honor. Celeus obeyed the commands of the goddess and a glorious sanctuary was built.
Here the goddess Demeter was worshiped and revered above all others. Though Prince Demophon never gained immortality, Demeter looked favorably upon the child and kindly blessed him with a life full of happiness and good fortune.
Triptolemus was also the son of King Celeus of Eleusis. He was very ill as a child and like his younger brother Demophon was placed in the care of the goddess Demeter.
Demeter had taken the form of an old woman named Doso and was acting as a caretaker to the king's two youngest children. In order to restore the young boy back to health, the goddess began to regularly serve him meals containing traces of her breast milk.
Miraculously, Triptolemus was not only cured but instantly grew to adulthood. Demeter then blessed the young man with the knowledge of agriculture, which he eagerly taught to the people of Greece. He was said to have flown across the Greek countryside aboard a winged chariot artfully spreading the craft of reaping and sowing.
It came to be that Triptolemus visited the land of Scythia and the home of King Lyncus. When the young man offered to teach the king the art pf planting Lyncus became jealous of his visitor's intellect and attempted to slay him with a sword. Demeter swiftly came to Triptolemus' rescue by transforming the envious king into a lynx.
According to Robert Graves, Erysichthon was the son of Triopas and the king of Thessaly. One day as he was leading a party of twenty companions through the forest he came across a sacred grove dedicated to the goddess Demeter.
Thinking the wood from the surrounding trees would make a lovely dining hall, the self-serving king gathered up his fellow travelers and began chopping his way through the woodlet.
Hearing the disturbance, Demeter disguised herself as Nicippe, the priestess of the grove and politely asked the band of intruders to stop their unlawful attack upon the land. Choosing to ignore the humble requests, Erysichthon pushed past the priestess and continued to callously cut his way through the hallowed thicket.
It was not until Erysichthon turned and swung his axe in the direction of the pleading maiden that Demeter shed her disguise and stood before the insolent king in all of her divine glory. To punish Erysichthon for his impertinent behavior, the goddess damned him to a life of insatiable hunger. The more he ate, the more food he desired.
Unable to afford the food needed to keep their son satisfied, Erysichthon's parents had no other choice but to cast him out onto the streets. There he was forced to remain, living the life of a beggar and forever trying to fill his voracious hunger.
The Roman poet Ovid presents us with a slightly different version of the story. It seems that as King Erysichthon and his companions were felling trees to supplement the building of his new banquet hall, the group happened upon a massive oak tree ornately decorated with floral wreaths.
Knowing that the tree could only belong to a goddess, the band of woodsmen adamantly refused to cut it down. "I fear the wrath of no goddess" Erysichthon proclaimed and defiantly swung his axe into the side of the sacred tree.
As the blade pierced the thick layer of protective bark a groan of agony echoed from deeply within the belly of the trunk. For you see the oak tree housed a dryad nymph who had been mortally wounded by the thrust of Erysichthon's axe. The other nymphs desperately prayed to Demeter to avenge their sister and punish Erysichthon for his ruthless deed.
The goddess swiftly took action and cursed the cruel king with the feeling of insatiable hunger. Erysichthon ravenously devoured everything he could get his hands on.
When it came to be that he had emptied both his cupboard and his treasure chest, the forlorn king resorted to selling his daughter Mestra into slavery. Realizing that his hunger pangs were never to be quenched, Erysichthon grimly took to devouring his own flesh until he finally ate himself to death.
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