HUM102W (Summer 2013) Unit 3 Cherry Fan
The Goddesses of Fertility
Demeter and Aphrodite are the two goddesses of the Greek pantheon most associated with fertility.
Other significant goddesses, such as Athena, Artemis, and Hestia, are virgins. They may project a sort of
latent fertility, but their disinterest in procreation makes them of little interest when considering issues
of fertility in general.
The great myth of Demeter is narrated in Homeric Hymn 2. It emphasizes her maternal relationship to
her daughter Persephone and her power over the fertility of the earth. The longest Homeric Hymn to
Aphrodite (5) is less clear. Here the tables are turned. Rather than having an erotic power over others,
Aphrodite herself falls in love (or “in bed”, if you like). Nevertheless, these goddesses and their distinct
identities reveal that female fertility is not necessarily a unified concept. Procreation and sexuality can
be separated in the human mind.
I begin to sing of rich-haired Demeter, holy goddess, of her and of her daughter lovely Persephone. Hail,
goddess! Keep this city safe, and govern (or begin) my song.
Homeric Hymn 13
Demeter’s name clearly has the element –meter, which means “mother”. The De- part has confounded
linguistic specialists. Could it somehow be like Ge- and mean “earth? We just don’t know. In Greek
religion she is associated almost exclusively with agriculture, particularly grains, an aspect that is clearly
emphasized in her Roman name Ceres (as in “Cereal”). In the short Homeric Hymn to her (13 above), she
is also asked to safeguard the city. This may just mean “keep it sound, healthy”, i.e. well fed.
Another aspect of her that is clear both in this short poem and in cult is her pairing with her daughter
Persephone. They are referred to as the “Twain Goddesses”. In Athens, the women celebrated an
annual festival of the Thesmophoria in their honour, a women-only event, one of their great occasions
to escape their domestic responsibilities and the oversight of the men in their families. The comic poet
Aristophanes wrote an entire comedy that fantasizes about the feminine conspiracies being hatched at
Thesmophoria. But because of its women-only status, we do not have that clear an idea of what went on
at the Thesmophoria, other than that some suckling pigs were slaughtered and buried, apparently as a
means of ensuring crop growth and human fertility.
The great Homeric Hymn to Demeter (2.) can be read in a number of ways. One of the most
popular sees the hymn as a mythological script for the ritual of the mysteries at Eleusis, a cult
center just west of Athens. There, every year in September great number of initiates, mystai
mystês sg.) were initiated into “secrets” or “mysteries”, which apparently promised a wondrous
life after death (480-3). Another way of reading the poem sees it as an allegory for a woman’s
coming of age, her transition from puberty to marriage to motherhood. Still another sees it as
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an allegory for the cycles of seasons. The poem is anonymous, and we know nothing about how
or when it was performed, so any way of reading the poem is going to be quite conjectural. Let’s
read through the poem together and observe how the first two readings may work. (You might
think about the third on your own.)
The poem opens with a salutation to Demeter and Persephone that links them, as is familiar. It
also introduces Aidoneus, Hades, who “seizes away” Persephone through an arrangement with
his brother, Persephone’s father, Zeus. The seizure of Persephone is plainly the principal event.
As a code for a ritual performance, it might signal a time of deprivation, such as fasting.
Psychologically, it announces the powerlessness of a young girl whose father has the power to
arrange her marriage without her permission (or that of her mother).
Persephone has been enjoying the idyllic life of a young, aristocratic woman playing with her
companions in a flowery meadow (4-6). She is old enough to be moving about without Demeter.
A psychological account may see this as a reflection of age of self-consciousness, as the young
man realizes that she is a distinct individual who feels some independence from her mother. But
just at that moment she is seized away, “raped” in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and
married off to her uncle (16-23). In a terrified response she psychologically divides herself and
imagines herself not as the victim of the “rape”, in the sense both of a sexual attack and simply
of a seizure, but as the mother who mourns the loss of her daughter. Hecate knows what has
happened (24-5). Perhaps she is another object of the girl’s imagination, herself imagined as
another, a witness of the attack; perhaps she is a contemporary of the girl, one of her old
playmates who likewise mourn her loss. Helius likewise has observed. The sun sees everything
that happens during the day.
When Demeter finally hears her daughter’s call for help (38), she tears her clothing and rushes
off in a nine-day search. For ritual, this passage signals a nine-day period of fasting and
lamentation, perhaps of wandering beyond the city. A torch signals the initiate’s involvement in
the rite (48). The involvement of both Hecate and Helius in the revelation to Demeter may signal
the participation of both men and women in the mysteries.
After Helius’ revelation of what has happened and despite his claim that Persephone’s marriage
is a good match, Demeter becomes even angrier, particularly with Zeus. Why? Is it because the
realm of Hades is inescapable? Nothing in the text suggests this. What does seem suggested,
both by Demeter’s greeting to Helius (64) and by Helius’ opening words to her (75-6), and
especially by his characterization of Hades as “not an unfit son-in-law” (84), is the question of
honour. Zeus has not consulted Demeter and has thus dishonored her. Her status as a goddess
has been denigrated. For this reason, she leaves the realm of the gods and descends to the
realm of humans.
The psychological reading of the poem sees the young bride, whose feelings have likewise been
ignored, filled with resentment. (Of course Persephone does not appear in this part of the poem;
the young bride is in a state of denial.) Isolated in her uncle’s (now her husband’s) home, she no
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longer wishes the presence of her father-either. She does not have the freedom to leave, but, as
Demeter, she imagines doing so. In fact, she imagines rejoining her playmates as they go to
gather water at the village well, and that is where Demeter goes, in the guise of an old woman,
to Eleusis (96-108).
Interpreted from the point of view of ritual, it is easy to see how young women might be
employed to make the initiate feel at ease and to reintroduce her after her time of fasting and
isolation. She might begin simply by drinking water, which is the young women have from the
fountain. She introduced herself as “Doso” (I shall give), an appropriate name for an agricultural
goddess. (You might be thinking that it’s odd for the initiate and the goddess to be identified,
but in Greek religion it’s not really uncommon. They votary and divinity often merge into ritual.)
Demeter comes to the house of Keleos. The script for the ritual seems clear. Although offered a
chair, the initiate continues to stand and stay silent (193-4). Then a servant, Iambe, prepares a
special seat and makes some jokes (202-4). “Iambe” is a name associated with “iambic” poetry,
a sort of salacious jesting. In this way, the initiate lightens up. But she refuses wine when it is
offered and takes the kykeon mixture instead. It’s a simple mixture of milled barley, water and
Demeter is enlisted as Nurse to spell off the girl’s mother, Metaneira. Psychologically this
spelling off can coincide with the birth of the new bride’s first child. (Even though a woman gives
birth to a child, she can have the feeling that it’s not hears. At least that’s my wife’s view of our
children sometimes.) In the poem, Demeter sees herself caring for the child of another. She
nurses him and attempts to steel the child by holding him in the fire (238-9). Of course,
following a common folktale motif, Demeter is interrupted. The child’s chances for immortality
With this revelation of the child’s mortality comes also Demeter’s revelation to the Eleusinian of
her identity and her insistence on honours (268). This must coincide with the point in the ritual
where the mystery is performed, the initiate is to behold the presence of the goddess. Scents
are used, and lights are shone (276-80). Psychologically, the bride asserts herself; she ha
distracted herself enough with the baby and now she wants more recognition. She tosses the
baby on the ground.
Demeter has removed herself already from the society of the gods.