Demeter, the Greek goddess of vegetation and fruitfulness, was known to the Romans as Ceres. She was the daughter of Cronus (Saturn)* and Rhea and the sister of Zeus*. Although Demeter was not one of the 12 gods of Olympus*, her origins can be traced back to very ancient times, perhaps to the Egyptian goddess Isis. Her name means "mother goddess" or "barley mother."
Demeter had a daughter by Zeus called Persephone*. The figures of Demeter and Persephone are closely related, and certain aspects of Persephone—for example, as a goddess of the underworld —are also associated with Demeter in different versions of the same myth.
underworld land of the dead
In one tale, Hades, the ruler of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone and kidnapped her to make her his queen. Demeter spent nine days and nights searching for her daughter, bearing a torch. When she failed to find Persephone, she took on the form of an old woman and sat down by a well in the town of Eleusis, which was ruled by King Celeus. The king's daughters soon came along to draw water from the well and saw the old woman, who appeared to be crying. Taking pity on her, they asked her to return home with them to rest under their roof and take refreshment. At the palace, the queen, Metanira, and her servants showed so much hospitality that Demeter agreed to stay and care for the king's son Demophon.
Demeter secretly planned to reward the king and queen by making their son immortal. During the day, she fed the boy with ambrosia, the food of the gods. At night, she laid him in the ashes of the fire to burn off his mortality. However, one night one of the queen's maids saw Demeter lay the boy in the fire and told the queen. Metanira surprised Demeter and cried out for her to stop. Demeter then revealed her true identity and proclaimed that the child would not be immortal but would grow up to do great things. According to legend, Celeus's son Triptolemus (perhaps another name for Demophon) later traveled around the earth introducing agriculture to all the peoples of the world. Demeter commanded the king to build a temple to her and taught him secret rites that the people should perform in her honor.
Still grieving for Persephone, Demeter neglected the earth. As a result, all the crops withered and died, and famine spread over the world. Zeus was alarmed because he feared that all the humans would die, leaving no one to perform sacrifices to the gods. But Demeter would not restore life to the earth unless Persephone was returned to her. Zeus persuaded Hades to release Persephone, but during her stay in the underworld, she had eaten some pomegranate seeds. Because of this, Persephone was forever tied to Hades and required to spend part of the year with him in the underworld and only part on earth with her mother. This story was used to explain the cycle of the seasons. When Demeter was without her daughter, then the earth was barren. When Persephone rejoined her mother, plants could grow.
The rites held in Demeter's honor became the Eleusinian Mysteries, some of the most important ceremonies in ancient Greece. Scholars still do not know everything that took place during the secret rites. However, it is thought that the mysteries involved fasting, a procession from Athens to Eleusis, sacred dances, and a reenactment of the story of Persephone. Those who participated were promised a special future in the underworld after death.
immortal able to live forever
rite ceremony or formal procedure
Demeter's Roman name, Ceres, lives on in the word cereal, used to refer to all types of grain. The Spanish word for beer, cerveza, also comes from the name of the Roman goddess, because beer is made from barley.