Demeter: Fertility, Fury and The Fall

Demeter: Fertility, Fury and The Fall September 15, 2018

Demeter reigns over the life cycle, from the fallow of winter to the bounty of the fall harvest. To the ancient Greeks, her dominion over agriculture extended her influence to civilization, including the mysteries of the life, death and rebirth. This fall, I’m honoring Demeter as a Goddess of Fury and Fertility, while following the ancient practice of creating an Inner Temple to contain my personal mysteries. I’ve included the new translation of The Orphic Hymn to Demeter that I’ll be using, along with Demeter’s themes, epithets, correspondences, animals, and more to help you connect with this impressive goddess.

“Regal Demeter stands waiting to receive her daughter.” The Met Museum.

Note: This article is part of my ongoing series about goddesses that are important to me. In each one, I attempt to breathe new ideas into both the standard interpretations of their stories and modern perspectives. Each article is an act of liberating the goddesses from traditional views. The story of Demeter, told so eloquently in her Homeric Hymn, is one of the most widely known ancient myths featuring women. I am well aware of how the story of Demeter and Persephone is usually told and understood. There are probably hundreds of articles online that describe their mythology. Over the past several decades there have been different interpretations offered as well. One of these views is that Demeter represents the forced confinement of the natural world with the rise of patriarchy, that which was called “civilization” by the ancient Greeks. I don’t disagree with this perspective.

This article takes the opposite approach by emphasizing the utility of control in life and witchery through the power of the divine feminine. I refuse to see Demeter as a victim. My intention is to break the chains that control her through discussing the ways she demonstrated power. This article, like all in the series, are acts of resistance and reclamation..

A list of the other articles in this series can be found at the bottom of this article. 

Demeter’s Themes

She is above all else, Fierce Goddess in Control and not a timid deity at all. Honestly, when I see her portrayed as such, it really gets to me. Demeter, like her daughter Persephone and their companion, Hekate, is so often reduced to a narrowly defined weak or undesirable character. All three were revered as Soteira (Savior). Both Demeter and Hekate were viewed as Kourotrophos, Guardian of Children.

I wish I could yield my magical golden sword to cut through these inaccurate portrayals, perhaps this article will help expand understanding of Demeter. She reminds us that we need to intentionally cultivate what we seek to grow and to impose order on chaos, whether it is all of humanity or our personal lives. She intimidates me far more than either Persephone, the goddess I feel closest to, and Hekate, who is my matron.

Demeter has no patience for weakness and does not suffer fools. She speaks to us, if we will only listen, telling us that we must develop our own thesmoi, what we call boundaries, in order to live a productive life. True understanding of the mysteries, the secrets of life and death, comes not from cavalier attempts but through rigorous self-discipline.

Her major themes beyond control include: civilization, determination, fertility, harvest, the life cycle, resistance, uncertainty and wholeness. Her act of resistance regarding her daughter’s marriage eventually resulted in the ordered structure of Persephone’s trek and the resulting annual seasonal cycle, permitting agriculture and civilization to flourish.

Her fury at the lack of order (when Persephone was abducted in particular but also in other stories) relates directly to her role as a Fertility Goddess.

Demeter’s Fury

Demeter’s epithet of Brimo (Fierce) is well evidenced through not only her wrath over Persephone’s abduction, but also in her unwanted sexual alliances and in her treatment of humans that failed to honor her.

One of the ten marble fragments from The Eleusinian Relief that I was fortunate to see at The Met Museum in NYC. Demeter is on the left. The boy has clearly earned her favor, not fury.

“Demeter devised a plan to destroy the fleeting race of earth-born humans, burying all seed in the earth, destroying the gods’ honors. She rages terribly “and does not mingle with the gods: she sits far away in her fragrant temple, keeping to the rugged city of Eleusis.” – Hermes explaining the Demeter’s fury to Hades. From The Homeric Hymns: A Translation, with Introduction and Notes (2014) by Diane J. Rayor

Later Latin versions of Persephone’s (Prosperine) situation indicated Ascalaphus, the only one to witness her eating the pomegranate seeds, ratted her out and was then turned into an owl by Demeter (Ceres). Persephone went on to become a mighty Queen of the Under World. Read more about that in my article.

Demeter’s sexual encounters were most frequently against her will and involved turning into animals. Her fury over the impending sexual conquests revealed her furious inner beast. With Zeus, he changed into a snake to match her chosen escape animal form. They wrapped around each other as serpents resulting in the birth of Persephone. While she was searching for Persephone, Poseidon and her had a similar encounter. This time she turned into a mare and then he transformed into a stallion so he could still have her. The result was Areion, a talking immortal horse. In versions localized to the Arkadian mysteries, she also had Despoina by Poseidon. This name being an honorific given to Persephone, Demeter and Hekate as well: “the desponai” meaning “empresses.”

Demeter’s Fertility

To the ancient Greeks, fury, favor and fertility all went together. Death and marriage were deeply entwined, partially because pregnancy was fraught with risk. Women were seen as mysterious creatures embodying the life-death-rebirth in all things. Demeter’s sexual experiences and children reflect these themes. In addition to Persephone and Areion, Demeter bore Ploutus who was the embodiment of abundance and wealth. He was the result of her willing encounter with the hero Iasion in a “thrice ploughed field.” Zeus blinded Ploutus so that wealth would not be given based on merit. Ploutus is closely identified with Hades as Pluton (Pluto) in his role as the guardian of earth’s hidden wealth. Hades is such a complex deity that I want to write more, but he’s not the star of this article, so he’ll have to wait his turn. He ruled the Under World and also influenced things above ground is what you need to know in relation to this blog. In some stories, Demeter had another child with Iasion, whose name may mean “bindweed.” This weed, part of the morning glory group of plants, was a common one in farm fields in ancient Greece.

That Demeter, Mother Grain herself, coupled with a common (yet heroic) weed to yield fortune speaks to the nature of agriculture, as does the tale of her fury over Persephone’s abduction. The cycle of life is to be controlled, order must be imposed from above in order to civilize the behavior of humans. Demeter gave Triptolemos, both her Mysteries and the plough. The role of the Mysteries as part of civilized society in the Greek work isn’t to be forgotten. Today, we tend to see our rituals as removed from mainstream society. In ancient Greece, they were part of the social and political structure of the government. It may even be that the story of Demeter and Persephone was invented to encourage participation in the rituals, grow crops and to follow laws.

The Greeks attributed agriculture to the creation of civilization, in this way Demeter birthed law and order as well. The theme of imposed control is found throughout all of Demeter’s stories. She is not a wild goddess wandering the rocky shores of her isolated island  like Kirke nor is she relegated to the hearth like Hestia. Her fertility lies in birthing things that require control, from Persephone to civilization. Even The Eleusinian Mysteries are about imposed control over the natural cycle of life and death in their secret revelations about immortality. Initiates who spoke of the Mysteries risked several consequences. When the Temple of Eleusis was defiled, it marked the end of the Greek Empire. Demeter was overthrown but survived as Roman Ceres where her role as a goddess of agriculture and law and order continued until the rise of Christianity when she was replaced by a closely named saint.

Demeter’s Ancient Cult

Demeter was adapted by the Greeks in the same way that they pretended to have invented both agriculture and civilization. The Eleusinian Mysteries represented only a fraction of the widespread cult and many festivals that honored Demeter, signalling her importance in a country where only about 20% of the land was arable. The spring Lesser Mysteries and other first sowing festivals honored Demeter Chloe, Verdant Goddess (of the Green). During the growing season, she is Demeter Evalosia (Mother of the Harvest). While Persephone is reigning with Hades, she is Demeter Brimo Cyanopeplos, the raging dark veiled mother of the barren world.

The modern Wheel of the Year consisting of four seasons doesn’t parallel the growing cycle in Greece or the celebrations of the ancients or Persephone’s annual trek. Notably, they would have been planting a second crop around the time of the Eleusinian Mysteries that were held only every four years.

Demeter and Autumn

Where I live, the natural energy of the land is showing the first signs of returning to fallowness. Leaves are all over the yard, the starlings are back and there’s signs that black bears have been feasting on the abundant berries. To me, this is the time when Persephone descends back into the Under World and Demeter either retreats in fury or travels to Olympus.

I turned to a festival that was practiced all over ancient Attica during what is roughly the period between Canadian and American Thanksgivings (middle of October; third week of November) to inspire my fall personal development work. The megaron was a box representing the inner temple that was used in various festivals, particularly Thesmophoria, as a magical mixing pot representing the circle of life. In this box, remnants of slain pigs were placed (perhaps helped to decay quicker with the help of live snakes). The box was blessed and then farmers used the “activated” remains to enchant their seeds before sowing them for the second harvest. Perhaps this use of a megaron is reflected in Demeter’s connection to the cornucopia.

Thesmophoria was a widespread festival that included much more than this magical crop activation, Demeter was honored on a hill top, and gender roles were reversed with women acting as lawmakers (thesmoi means “the laws”). This festival blended Demeter’s three main roles as Goddess in Control: mysteries, agriculture and civilization.

Demeter’s Symbols and Correspondences

Symbols to use in developing sigils, placing on the altar, and in spells: Torches, golden sword/sceptre, cornucopia. The plough, seeds and other agricultural symbols as well as those representing imposed order. If you want to connect with furious Demeter, a black veil may enhance the process.

Colors: spring/early summer – green, later summer/fall – gold/yellow, winter – black. Red for fertility.

Botanicals: All grains including barley and wheat, poppy, bindweed, morning glory, garlic, pine cones.

Incense: Benzoin

Imagery/locations: hilltops for her Upper World, fields (especially for encouraging fertility), caves to symbolize the womb.

Animals: horse, serpent and owl

(If you want the specific ancient sources supporting these correspondences, get in touch. The process of identifying them and interpreting them for modern practice is complex and lengthy, so I don’t share the details in an article. However, I am happy to respond to your inquiries.)

Celebrating Demeter During Autumn

This autumn, I am channeling my inner Demeter, enforcing boundaries, cultivating my personal crops and harvesting the bounty of well tended fields. If the fall for you is about the harvest, you can honor Demeter with a simple ritual performed on the Equinox or one of her ancient festival dates.

Construct an offering including local crops (not wild harvested plants), especially regional grains. Place a representation of Demeter, dressed with olive oil on the altar. Two candles, one for you and one for her can be used.

Offerings: A supper of these, garlic, olive oil, wine, pork and fresh fish is appropriate. A bowl of cereal since it is named after her would also be well received if you’ve got no time and limited resources. The Romans celebrated her at Cerealia after all. Barley and other types of cakes are also suitable.

Evoking Demeter

After altar and offerings are ready and cleansing has occurred, light two yellow or gold candles. One represents you and the other her energy. Facing your candle, concentrate on all your crops, harvests and efforts to impose order. Recite the Orphic Hymn to Demeter to evoke her energy into your space, asking her to bestow her candle with her energy to help with your own crops, harvests and efforts to impose order or practice resistance. This is a new translation by Sara Mastros:

Deo, All-Mother, bestower of bliss,
Daemon most holy, oh many-named goddess,
Demeter the Corn Mother, benevolent, generous
Who suckles all mortals from your bountiful breast.
Wealth-giver, hard-worker, delighter in peace,
Grain giving goddess who oversees seeds,
You rule over the threshing and make the fruits swell,
From the caves of Eleusis wherein you dwell,
You kindle love in our hearts and water our mouths,
In anticipation of grain sprung forth from your grounds.
You invented the ox-yoke, and gave us the ploughshare,
And you bring forth rich harvests in response to our prayer.
You make all things grow, and love summer’s scythe,
You’re the hearth-mate of Bromios, splendidly wise.
Torch bearer, Chthonia, you who bring light,
Pure, kindly, and blessed, all children’s delight,
Your dragon-drawn chariot tears through the skies,
And whirls round your throne with ecstatic cries.
Only child, you are mother of the ten thousand things,
you’re the High Queen of mortals, who brings forth the spring.
Many formed blossoming, you bloom bright with holiness,
Come, blessed one, fruit with summer’s great heaviness,
Deep-laden with peace, good order, all-grace, and other delights.
Bring blessings of wealth, health, and happiness to our mystical rites.

Note: The corn referred to in the hymn is more like a generic grain that what we in North American call maize.

More info: https://mastroszealot.com/

Make An Inner Temple

I’m making my own megaron, a box representing my Inner Temple, and calling upon Demeter to boost the decay of the rot in my life and help it fuel the seeds I wish to sow during the Autumn Ritual described above and to reveal to me her mysteries. I’m using a simple wooden pine box painted gold, charged with sigils. What I’ve got in my Inner Temple is none of your business, but I’m happy to share some pictures of the outside.

Incense: Benzoin (storax); offerings of corn meal and garlic. Gold Demeter and megaron box made by me. Altar mat made of rushes, similar to the ancient practice of hold rituals to Demeter on them, representing the threshing floor.

Other Articles In This Series

Hekate: Goddess of Our Time

Hekate: Guardian, Guide and Gatekeeper (Or Why The Maiden, Mother Crone Model Is Harmful)

Persephone, Emotional Warrior Queen: Her Story, Themes, Correspondences and More

Kirke (Circe) Is A Goddess We Need Right Now: Her Story, Themes, Correspondences and More

Medea: Her Story, Themes, Correspondences, Rituals, Spells and More

Artemis, Wild Goddess: Her Story, Themes, Correspondences and More

Hekate and Her Four Sovereign Goddesses: Artemis, Medea, Persephone and Kirke (includes a ritual)

 

Sources and Further Reading

The Theoi pages on Demeter are excellent: http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Demeter.html

You can read the Homeric Hymn to Demeter translated by H.G. Evelyn-White here:

http://www.theoi.com/Text/HomericHymns1.html

His early 20th century translation is now public domain and can be downloaded from the Loeb Classical Library: Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica. Translated by Evelyn-White, H G. Loeb Classical Library Volume 57 (1914).

The recent translation by Diane J. Rayor is worth purchasing. Her affection for the hymns is evident, her notes are very insightful and the translations reinvigorate the hymns for our contemporary minds: Diane J. Rayor (2014). The Homeric Hymns: A Translation, with Introduction and Notes (2014)

The version of The Orphic Hymn to Demeter that I used was translated by Sara Mastros. You can learn more about her project and pre-order the Orphic Hymns Grimoire here.
https://mastroszealot.com/

Source for some of the epithets: http://www.hellenicgods.org/demeter-epithets

Calendar merging the ancient Greek festivals with our modern months: http://www.hellenion.org/calendar/

Lesley Adkins and Roy A Adkins (1997). Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece.

Karen Bennett (2003). The Recurrent Quest: Demeter and Persephone in Modern Day Ireland. Classical and Modern Literature, 23 (1), 15-32. (You can read this for free on JSTOR which you should because there is a great review of their story as well as two amazing contemporary Irish poems exploring their tale.)

Charlene Sprutnak (1992). Lost Goddesses of Ancient Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths. Great source for where the Greek’s got their mythological ideas from.

Robert Graves (1996). Greek Myths. My usual reference.

William Smith and Charles Anton (1884). A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology and Geography. When I need to know something about these topics, I start here. Public domain.

Devotional and Ritual Books:

Mettuta Benu and Rebecca Buchanan, Editors (2014). Potnia: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Demeter. (Potnia means “revered”). I love this book.

Joy Reichard. Demeter and Persephone: Death and Rebirth. Kindle Edition. This is worth reading since it’s only a couple of bucks or free on Kindle Unlimited. There is a discussion of their story as well as rituals.

About Cyndi
Cyndi Brannen is a witch and spiritual teacher, a trained energetic healer, psychic and herbalist. Merging together her training in shamanism, Tarot, past life work, meditation and psychology, she teaches and writes about better living through witchcraft. She founded Open Circle Witchcraft about a decade ago now offering online courses, including Hekate's Modern Witchcraft. Keeping Her Keys: An Introduction to Hekate’s Modern Witchcraft explores Hekate from her ancient origins to modern understanding through magic and personal development is available now for pre-order from Moon Books. True Magic: Unleashing Your Inner Witch uses the magic of the elements and the three realms to activate your true witch powers and will be available later in 2019 from Moon as well. Connect with her on Facebook or at keepingherkeys.com to learn more about her teaching and writing. Cyndi lives in rural coastal Nova Scotia with her two sons where she can often be found wandering the cliffs or wild foraging plants. She lives what she teaches: fierce love, emotional courage and true magic. You can read more about the author here.
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  • Erin Coldrick

    An extremely interesting read that is going to result in me wanting to learn more about this subject. 🙂

  • DesertRose

    That is fascinating.

    And as a pagan living in Florida, I have my own issues with the whole Wheel of the Year concept; here, the “fallow” time for agriculture is the height of summer, when it’s too hot for plants to survive (with a few exceptions that are mostly native plants), so I’d be interested to know more about the divisions of the season in ancient Greece (since that is also a peninsula at a fairly low latitude). Could you point me at some resources for that info?

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article!

  • Christie Meister

    I don’t practice much but like to study a lot. So I am wondering if there are sights on the web dedicated to learning about all kinds of God and Goddesses from basic to advanced such as u put out here??? ii’m Physically disabled and so a lot of ritual work is not practical for me, as least not right now! however I feel beginning to learning about this stuff is a good avenue for me? Any Ideas on such sites???

  • There’s so much excellent content here on Patheos Pagan, but it can be overwhelming to navigate. I think learning about the gods and goddesses is a form of ritual. If you join my private study group, The Witches’ Realm, we are just about to launch two different projects that you might find helpful. One if our Beginner Broom Riders group and the other is a biweekly study of Goddesses. Find it on Facebook by clicking on the groups tab on the main Keeping Her Keys page.

  • Try this to get started: Joy Reichard. Demeter and Persephone: Death and Rebirth. Kindle Edition. This is worth reading since it’s only a couple of bucks or free on Kindle Unlimited. There is a discussion of their story as well as rituals.

    I

  • Thanks!

  • DesertRose

    Thank you so much! I apologize for my delay in replying.

  • persephone

    From what I’ve read, ancient Greece, well, current Greece, the growing season would be like your Florida. Winter would be the growing season, with Summer parching and drying everything.

  • Yes…why it is important to connect the story of Persephone to our own local seasons. After all, the story is about the life cycle, not calendar dates.