Demeter was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea, and sister of Hestia, Hera, Aides, Poseidon, and Zeus. Like the other children of Cronus she was devoured by her father, but he gave her forth again after taking the emetic which Metis had given him. Her Roman equivalent is Ceres.
Demeter is intimately associated with the seasons, being the great Olympian goddess of agriculture, grain, and bread (the prime sustenance of mankind) and the harvest. It is Demeter that makes the crops grow each year. The first loaf of bread from the harvest is sacrificed to her. Demeter is the goddess of the earth, of agriculture, and of fertility in general. She also presided over the foremost of the Mystery Cults (Eleusinian Mysteries) which promised its initiates the path to a blessed afterlife.
By her brother Zeus, Demeter became the mother of Persephone (Proserpina) and Dionysus and by Poseidon of Despoena and the horse Arion.
The most widely known tale of Demeter is the rape of her daughter, Persephone by Pluto (Hades). This story suggests the main idea embodied in Demeter. Zeus, without the knowledge of Demeter, had promised Persephone to Pluto, to be his wife in the underworld. While Persephone was gathering flowers, which Zeus had caused to grow in order to tempt her and to favor Pluto’s scheme, the earth suddenly opened and she was carried off by Pluto.
Demeter wandered about in search of her daughter for nine days, without taking any nectar or ambrosia, and without bathing. On the tenth she met Hecate, who told her that she had heard the cries of Persephone, but did not know who had carried her off. Both then hastened to Helios, who revealed to them that Pluto had been the ravisher, and with the consent of Zeus.
Demeter in her anger at this news avoided Olympus, and dwelt upon earth among men, conferring presents and blessings wherever she was kindly received, and severely punishing those who repulsed her or did not receive her gifts with proper reverence. In this manner she came to Celeus at Eleusis. At Eleusis Persephone and Demeter were joined by Hecate, who henceforth remained the attendant and companion of Persephone.
As Demeter still continued in her anger, and produced famine on the earth by not allowing the fields to produce any fruit, Zeus, anxious that the race of mortals should not become extinct, sought Persephone’s return.
Pluto agreed to release her, but gave her a pomegranate. When she ate the pomegranate seeds, she was bound to him for one third of the year, either the dry Mediterranean summer, when plant life is threatened by drought, or the autumn and winter. During these months Demeter grieves her daughters absence, and withdraws her gifts from the world, creating winter. Persephone’s return brings the spring.
Demeter was especially worshipped by women. Her priestess also initiated young married people into the duties of their new situation. As the goddess of the earth she was a subterraneous divinity, who worked in the regions inaccessible to the rays of Helios. As agriculture is the basis of a well-regulated social condition, Demeter is represented also as the friend of peace and as a law-giving goddess.
Demeter’s greatest gifts to humankind were agriculture, particularly of cereals, and the Mysteries which give the initiate higher hopes in this life and the afterlife. These two gifts were intimately connected in Demeter’s myths and mystery cults.
According to the personal mythology of Robert Graves, Persephone is not only the younger self of Demeter, she is in turn also one of three guises of the Triple Goddess — Kore (the youngest, the maiden, signifying green young grain), Persephone (in the middle, the nymph, signifying the ripe grain waiting to be harvested), and Hecate (the eldest of the three, the crone, the harvested grain), which to a certain extent reduces the name and role of Demeter to that of group name. Before her abduction, she is called Kore; and once taken she becomes Persephone (she who brings destruction).
Demeter is often depicted as a mature woman, crowned and holding sheaves of wheat and and a torch.
Demeter’s emblem is the poppy, a bright red flower that grows among the barley. Sacred to her are livestock and agricultural products, poppy, narcissus and the crane.
Demeter is also known for founding the Eleusinian Mysteries. These were huge festivals held every five years. They were important events for many centuries. Yet, little is known of them as those attending were sworn to secrecy. The central tenant seems to have been that just as grain returns every spring after its harvest and wintery death, so too the human soul could be reborn after the death of the body.