“I begin to sing of rich-haired Demeter, giver of good gifts, bringer of seasons, universal Mother.” Thus start several ancient Greek hymns to Demeter, the Olympian Goddess of the Harvest and agriculture. You’ve probably heard of Demeter in conjunction with her daughter, Persephone. But although motherhood is a sacred aspect of Demeter’s identity, the Goddess is so much more than that!
As we approach the first Harvest of the Year, let’s take some time to acquaint ourselves better with “She of the Grain”.
The origins of Demeter
Demeter means “Earth Mother” or “Grain Mother”. She is considered one of the six original Olympians: a child of Kronos and Rhea, a granddaughter of Ouranos (Sky) and Gaia (Earth), and a sibling of Zeus. Possibly though, Gaia, Rhea and Demeter are all different names/iterations of the same Mother Earth Goddess.
Way before the Olympian pantheon, Demeter was worshipped in the East under a different name: Cybele, the personification of Mother Earth. Already popular in Asia Minor, Demeter/Cybele arrived in Minoan Crete where she was called “Idamate”, Earth Mother. (To this day, the most impressive mountain of the Cretan island still carries her name.) As such, her Olympian origin story may be an attempt to give the most powerful, overarching Goddess, a more narrow and specific domain — a common practice at the time.
Demeter’s role in the Greek Pantheon
As we’ve seen, the Gods and Goddesses of the Olympian Pantheon of Ancient Greece all had very specific roles and domains. As such, Demeter became in charge of agriculture, particularly fruit, grain, and ultimately bread. She was the one who gave Earth and its inhabitants the bounty they needed to survive each season as well as teaching them how to plant, sow, and harvest so that they would always have food. Demeter was also often called Sito (“She of the Grain”) and Thesmophoros (“Law-Bringer”). This was because, apart from matters of the Harvest, Demeter also presided over the cycle of life and death, as well as the upholding of sacred laws.
The most common myth around Demeter and her great power revolves around her daughter Persephone. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus. Demeter and Persephone were very close so when Persephone was abducted by Hades and carried to his Underworld domain, Demeter was so devastated by the loss of her child that she brought drought and winter on Earth. There were no more grains and fruit; people were starving.
At some point, Zeus intervened and ordered Hades to release Persephone back to her mother. But Hades, who had fallen in love with Persephone, offered her a pomegranate before letting her go, from which Persephone ate six seeds. According to Underworld laws, that meant she would be bound to Hades for six months every year. There was nothing Demeter could do about it, so she accepted this new reality, which brought forth the creation of the “seasons”. Whenever her daughter would emerge from the Underworld, Demeter would be so happy she would fill the Earth with flowers, fruit, and grain. These became the bountiful seasons of Spring and Summer. But when it was time for Persephone to descend back to Hades, Demeter’s sadness would let the Earth dry out; thus bringing forth Autumn and Winter.
During these long winters, although she knew her daughter would eventually return to her, Demeter would still roam the Earth holding a torch, looking for her.
At some point, as she searched, Demeter found herself at the palace of the king of Eleusis, outside of Athens. There, disguised as a crone, she asked for shelter and became the wet nurse of the King’s sons. Wanting to repay the King for his kindness, Demeter tried to make one of his sons immortal by anointing him with ambrosia and placing him in the fires of the hearth to “burn away his mortality”. But when the Queen witnessed Demeter burning her son in the fire, she screamed, interrupting the process. Still, Demeter was determined to reward the King’s family, so she taught his other son the art of agriculture which he in turn shared with humanity. That way, people could make the most of the bountiful seasons and be prepared when winter came.
The descent of Persephone to Hades and the rebirth of the Earth at the hand of Demeter was at the core of Demeter’s worship ever since her Anatolian roots as Cybele. Mystical festivals were held in her honor throughout Asia Minor and Greece, celebrating Earth’s fertility and the cycle of life and death: as a new plant emerges from the seeds that are buried in the Earth, so can new life emerge from a dead body. These festivals were held almost exclusively by women and granted the people who attended them “a better chance at the afterlife”.
Symbols and associations
Demeter was perceived as a beautiful, mature woman, with long golden hair hanging from her shoulders. Very often she is depicted holding a torch and wearing a crown of wheat. Older imagery shows the Goddess with snakes instead of hair, holding a dove and a dolphin in each hand known as the symbols of her power in all three realms (Underworld, Earth, and Water). Snakes were indeed a sacred animal to Demeter, along with pigs. Her sacred flower is the poppy, and it is thought that in her Mysteries, her worshippers used the poppy to make opium in order to induce hallucinations.
Demeter was always worshipped outside in Nature; her temples were the fields of grain and the trees, where people would hang wreaths to commemorate everything she’s done for them.
Nowadays, Demeter is seen as a manifestation of the Mother aspect of the Triple Goddess, the one who brings fertility and nourishment both to the world and to ourselves. Every time we admire a fragrant blossom or stop to cherish the food on our plates, we are honoring the Goddess. Human food and fruit were always considered “the gift of Demeter”, after all.
A Lammas invocation of Demeter
As a Harvest Festival, Lammas is the perfect Sabbat to invoke Demeter. And what better way to get closer to She of the Grain than bake your own Lammas bread? Start this ritual in the early morning of August 1st, so you can enjoy Demeter’s blessings with your whole family during your Harvest feast.
What you’ll need:
- A clean wooden surface
- A yellow, orange, or golden candle
- A handful of edible flowers of your choice (like chrysanthemums or marigolds)
- A handful of seeds of your choice (like pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds)
- A handful of seasonal fruit (like apricots)
- A handful of oats
- White flour (3 cups)
- Buttermilk (2 cups)
- Bicarbonate of soda (1 teaspoon)
- Salt (1 teaspoon)
- A bowl and a baking pan
What you’ll do:
- Take a cleansing bath.
- Wear a practical robe or dress you can work in.
- Gather your ingredients and go to your kitchen (you can also do this in your altar, if you have enough space)
- Ground yourself and draw a circle.
- Place your candle at the edge of your wooden surface (so that you’ll have ample space to knead the bread) and light it.
- Meditate on its flame. Think of the Harvest and of all the things you are grateful for to Demeter. When you’re ready, begin the invocation:
Oh Mother Demeter of celebrated name,
from whom both men and Gods immortal came
Bless us this Sabbat with the fruit of our hands
May abundance and happiness spread in these lands
From the seed to the grain, from the flour to the feast
May we harvest together from the west to the east
Oh Mother Demeter, ruler of corn
Bless us this harvest may we all be reborn
- You can stay silent and focused for the next part or repeat the incantation throughout while making the bread.
- Place the flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk in your bowl. Stir them with your hands, until a dough is formed.
- Once the ingredients have come together into a dough, add your flowers, seeds, and chopped fruit. Mix it all together.
- Place the dough onto your wooden surface (dust a bit of extra flour first) and softly knead it for a minute, to form a ball.
- If you want, you can carve a pentacle on the surface of your bread, or the shape of a wheat grain.
- Place your ball on the baking sheet and into a preheated oven. As you place the bread in the oven, repeat the incantation one more time.
- The bread will be ready in about 20-30 minutes. During that time, you can meditate with the help of the candle, proceed with the rest of your Lammas cooking, or take a walk outside. Be mindful of the bread and the presence of Demeter in your life.
- Once the bread is ready, share it with your family and loved ones at your Lammas table. Make sure everyone eats at least a bite, so that the Goddess’s blessings may be distributed to all.