Demeter was a bad ass. She was a radiantly successful, hard working, single mother whose love was fierce and generous. Perhaps you are familiar with the story of her relentless search for her daughter, Persephone? Here’s the gist:
Demeter was the goddess of the earth and the harvest. Her beautiful daughter, Persephone, was gathering flowers one day when she was abducted by Hades, God of the Underworld. Demeter searched high and low, implored the gods and mortals for any sign of Persephone. In her grief and loss, she stopped all plants from growing, and this was the first winter. With no experience to draw from, the people of the earth had not prepared for winter and began to starve. Finally, Zeus sends Hermes, the messenger god, to the Underworld to bring Persephone back. However, while in the underworld Persephone had eaten several Pomegranate seeds, tying her to the realm of the dead. Thus, she spends several months underground, and several months above ground. When she emerges, Demeter rejoices and brings the spring and new life. When Persephone descends, winter comes again.
The story as I learned it emphasizes Demeter’s grief over the loss of her daughter, the victimization of both mother and daughter, and offers a parable for seasonal change. But let’s look a little deeper, for the context of Demeter’s story is a valuable one to know about and offers a different lens on this familiar mama goddess.
The Power of the Harvest
In the agrarian society of ancient Greece, ‘harvest’ was synonymous with ‘economy’. Greece has relatively poor soil, and as islands with finite land to begin with, good yields were critical. About 80% of the population was employed in the labor-intensive work of agricultural production. A good harvest meant a year of health and prosperity for the people.
The connection between the harvest and the economy was so clear to the people that Demeter, along with a sheaf of grain, was imprinted on the silver stater, a form of currency in Greece from the 8th century BCE to 50 CE.
In some versions of the story, Demeter goes to Zeus for help finding her daughter. When he refuses, she threatens, in no uncertain terms, to bring an end to the abundance and fertility of the earth, causing everything to die. Zeus ignores her at first, turning a blind eye to her plight.
The threat to Zeus is an important distinction between this version and the first version of the story I shared. In the first version, Demeter’s grief paints her as the victim in the story, with earth personifying her suffering. In this second version, Demeter is a protagonist, wielding a power that even Zeus, King of the Olympians, ultimately can’t match. She holds life, death, wealth and wellbeing in her hands. She is a destroyer who is not afraid to use the full extent of her capacity to bring back her daughter. This is an essential part of all creator/mother goddesses...and all mothers…. When she stands in power, she will destroy the structures of complacency, self-interest and domination to protect her child.
The Power of the Bond
In this section, I am drawing from the heart...using the myth as a map to explore the relationship between Demeter and Persephone.
I am a single mother, as Demeter was, and my daughter is two years old. I have always had an affinity with the Persephone / Demeter story. But until recently I saw myself through the lens of the wayward daughter who has to go on a path of adventure and discovery that takes her far from the safety of her mother’s sphere. Now, as a mother, I feel a growing awe of the mothering archetype Demeter provides.
I mean...check her OUT. Not only is she this powerhouse business woman, generously cultivating the crops for the harvest, but she is tending to the wellbeing of her beloved child at the same time. In contrast to the story of a father/patriarch and a sacrificial son, Demeter’s love for her nearly-grown daughter will go to the end of the earth and beyond for her safety and preservation.
I’m sure many parents can relate. Before I had a child, I loved the dream of mothering. When my daughter was born, my heart opened and wrapped around her. But as she grows, my love is shaped by the particular person that she is. Her humor, her generosity, her interests. So too, I imagine that Demeter’s relationship with Persephone was one of wonder and pride and adoration, even as Persephone entered the headstrong adolescence that initiated her descent to the underworld.
Image by Meinrad Craighead
A unique aspect of being a single mother, in my experience so far, is that the relationship is a mirror. Without the support and reflection of romantic partnership, my child is the primary way I see my favorite and best parts of myself. I imagine that Demeter, too, found in Persephone a channel for the generous care-taking that was her nature and her responsibility to all. In Persephone’s thriving, she could see her own purpose - a job well done.
Determination, Accepting Help
When the earth opens up and swallows Persephone, it closes again without a trace of her. Demeter searches for months, high and low, asking all she meets for information. Finally, help comes in the form of two women; Baubo, the little-known goddess of obscenity and humor, and Hecate, the grandmother crone goddess. Baubo comes to Demeter when she is at her wits’ end, when she is giving in to grief. Baubo tells Demeter some good, old-fashioned, raunchy jokes, and gets her to smile...and then laugh. And Hecate faces Demeter in her pain and suffering, finally providing the information about Persephone’s whereabouts that gives Demeter the fuel to get up, dust off, and pick up her power to demand Persephone’s return.
Would she have succeeded without help? Maybe. But in this story, it is only when she lays her burden down and grieves that help comes forward. In my own life, I have felt this lesson. Being powerful doesn’t actually mean being able to “handle it’ all yourself.
The Surprising Gift of Letting Go
Persephone DOES return. With the people and animals of the earth dying and the crops withering, Zeus finally sends Hermes, the messenger god, down to the underworld to bring her back. They are reunited with joy and love and celebration. But they are both changed. The whole world is changed. During her time in the underworld Persephone has grown up. And Demeter’s power, as a mother, as a provider, is radically altered. From this point on, Persephone will always return to the underworld for part of the year, leaving her role as daughter to take up her role as queen. She has her own life, her own identity, her own work, separate from her mother.
There’s an interesting gift in this yearly loss for Demeter. After “the first winter,” during Demeter’s months of searching, the humans of the world learn a little something about preparing and storing the grain that grows. When Persephone makes her yearly descent, the humans draw on their reserves and hope that what has been harvested will be enough to see them through.
Hecate, whose truth-telling, firm, loving presence played such a key role in Demeter’s perseverance, showed up again when Persephone returned for the first time. And from that moment on, Hecate accompanies Persephone wherever she goes (more about this in a future post :).
And so, suddenly, Demeter finds herself in a new situation when winter comes. The humans are taking care of themselves. The earth is resting. Persephone is going, along with grandmother Hecate, to spend several months on her own journey. What is Demeter to do….take a break?!?!
Yes. She is. And in this time she is able to do other things, like teach the mysteries of agriculture and have adventures of her own. She is still a beloved mother. She is still the generous and abundant giver of grain. But she is also her own. She is released from the type of “power” that is synonymous with never resting, always producing, always achieving.
I like to imagine that she goes and visits with Baubo each winter and that the two of them, and maybe some other goddess sisters, gather around the fire with some barley beer and spend hours cracking each other up. I imagine that Demeter can lie fallow and regenerate herself a little.
The Eleusinian Mysteries - Demeter’s Offering To All Of Us
Demeter and Persephone’s story goes back way farther than classical Greek mythology. By the time Zeus came around, the mother and daughter already had a devoted following, and a central place in the spiritual lives of the people. For 1,800 years, beginning in 1500 BCE, the ritual reenactment of the descent, search and return, the impact of the first winter, and the miracle of the subsequent spring was a yearly rite of initiation called the Eleusinian Mysteries. Men and women of all classes and walks of life participated in these rites that were guarded so secretly that, to this day, no one truly knows what took place. However, popular belief is that the initiation explored the true power and mystery of the earth - Demeter herself - and freed initiates from the fear of death.
I like to think that this is the gift Demeter and Persephone gave the people, to hold them and help them through the cyclical nature of all that is. Although the rites practiced in this initiation are lost to the ages, we can still learn so much from the lessons Demeter’s story conveys:
Love is power...it will carry us through even the hardest times.
Your power comes from what you offer the world (LOVE)
Your power comes from the best expression of your soul’s purpose (LOVE)
Do not hesitate to use your power to protect those you love.
Accept help. You can’t do it alone.
Be willing to change.
Be willing to let go of what you love, and trust that it will return to you.
The nature of all things is cyclical, and the earth is endlessly generous.