Make Way for the Demetric System

Considering the importance of agriculture in ancient society, it is not at all surprising that ancient pantheons pretty much always had at least one fertility deity. In fact, a lot of the earliest known gods fit into this category, and a few of them managed to retain their significance when religion began to incorporate other aspects of civilization. In Greek mythology, the most important fertility goddess was Demeter, daughter of Kronos and Rhea, and hence sister of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. She does not feature all that much in the heroic myths, but she had her own place in Greek religion. In addition to agriculture, she was also a patroness of marriage (which I suppose would have overlapped Hera’s position somewhat) and death and rebirth. She was also central to the Eleusinian Mysteries, which predate the establishment of the Olympian pantheon.

The most famous myth involving Demeter involves her daughter Persephone. Persephone was the child of Demeter with Zeus, and Hades abducted her to make her his bride. When Demeter finally found her, Hades allowed her to return to her mother. Due to an incident involving a pomegranate, however, she had to divide her time between the upper world and the Underworld. When Persephone is with her husband, Demeter goes into mourning, and nothing grows. That, according to the myth, is why the seasons change.

Other myths featuring this goddess include her attempt to burn away the mortal nature of Demophon of Eleusis, her liaison with Iasion, and her rape by Poseidon when they were both in the form of horses. Demeter’s Latin name is Ceres, from which we get the word “cereal,” as well as the name of a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt and the space station in Super Metroid.

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10 Responses to Make Way for the Demetric System

  1. vilajunkie says:

    I always wondered (well, after I had learned some sex ed, obviously) if Persephone’s time in Olympus and Hades was listed as the reason for the seasons in the clean version–and that in the older and/or more adult versions, her time-share was the reason for menstruation among teenage girls. I mean, after all, Persephone was a young girl, the goddess of springtime, she was picking flowers with her handmaidens, she ate pomegranate seeds (and pomegranates are dark red fruit that “bleed” when you cut them open), the earth is barren when she’s in Hades, etc. Of course, something like that just proves that Freud Was Right. But the Eleusinian Mysteries very well could have been about the “feminine mystique”.

    It’s also interesting that Demeter and Dionysus are the only “tragic” Olympian gods (well, of the Big Twelve at least). All the other gods seem to have relatively happy lives with no remorse for manipulating each other and their worshipers. Well, I’m getting this from Edith Hamilton in her Mythology, which is the book of choice it seems for English teachers giving lessons on Greek mythology. I think Ms. Hamilton has a point though.

    • Nathan says:

      I believe the pomegranate was a symbol of fertility in ancient Greek culture, so it’s quite possible that it, and by extension the myth of Persephone, could relate to menstruation. Societies tended to link the fertility of the earth with that of women anyway.

      I suppose Hephaestus could sort of count as a tragic god, since Hera threw him out of Olympus due to his ugliness. He seems to have gotten back into his mother’s good graces after that, though.

      • vilajunkie says:

        Depends on the society and the time period. The essence of fertility is a feminine thing, yes, but a lot of societies ritually burned/buried temporary living kings, young men substituted for the king or a god, or (if they could afford to burn hay better used as livestock fodder or straw better used in bedding, or didn’t like the idea of killing a human being instead) male-shaped effigies of the king or a god to renew the fertility of the community’s land. Then again, a lot of societies (sometimes the same ones) had a fertility goddess paired with a fertility god that basically had the same powers but were invoked for different aspects of fertility. Freyr and Freyja being such a pair. Or even Demeter and Dionysus.

        Hephaestus was also tragic for being married to the most beautiful and most desirable goddess in all of Mount Olympus, yet she cheated on him all the time with Ares. I suspect Hephaestus knew but didn’t want to upset anyone, much like King Arthur and the affair between Guinevere and Lancelot, and the time he built a trap to catch them in bed together was to teach them a lesson in a way that they would understand it.

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