Demeter and Persephone

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DEMETER AND PERSEPHONE . In the Homeric epics, no link is established between the two goddesses Demeter and Persephone, to whom later sources attribute a close mythical and ritual relationship, insofar as they are mother and daughter. In the Iliad (14.326), Demeter is presented as the bride of Zeus; elsewhere in the same poem (2.696) and in the Odyssey (5.125129), her specific function as goddess of the harvest is also mentioned. Although Demeter appears to play a marginal role in the Homeric religious panorama, she is a figure of extreme antiquity, perhaps related to the Sitopotinja (mistress of the wheat) mentioned in the Linear B texts of Mycenae (twelfth century bce), and she performs a fundamental role in the polytheistic Greek system. In Hesiod's Theogony, Demeter is one of the many brides of Zeus, and in the Erga (vv. 465ff.), the poet presents Demeter Chthonia, partnered with Zeus Chthonios, as the sovereign dispenser of the fruits of the land.

In both of Homer's epics, Persephone, daughter of Zeus (Odyssey 11.217), is referred to as queen of the underworld and bride of Hades. The fact that no link between the two goddesses is mentioned does not imply that such a link was unknown at the time of composition. Nor does it follow that one may identify in Persephone the figure of a pre-Hellenic underworld goddess, different from the Kore (maiden) of the wheat and daughter of Demeter, as proposed by some scholars and comprehensively argued by Gunther Zuntz (1971). The first reference to their relationship and to the dramatic circumstances that led to Persephone becoming the bride of Hades is found in Hesiod (Theogony, 912914). The narration of the event meanwhile, which represents one of the longest-lived and most geographically widespread mythical traditions in Greek history, is the subject of the Hymn to Demeter in the pseudo-Homeric collection, datable to around 600 bce. This text, although literary and nonliturgical in nature, represents a sort of manifesto of the mythical-ritual context of Eleusis, because it links Persephone's abduction to Demeter's founding of the mysteries. Demeter's refusal to accept the loss of her daughter leads Zeus to allow them to periodically meet on Olympus, despite the fact that Persephone has since become queen of the underworld. The successful resolution of the problem involves the human world, to which Demeter grants not only agrarian fertility, which had ceased as a consequence of her mourning, but also a new ritual dimension within which initiates may experience direct and intimate contact with the two goddesses and obtain, with their goodwill, the guarantee of happiness after death. The mythical and cultic role of Demeter and Persephone in Greek religion is not limited to the Eleusinian mysteries, even though these are essential to defining their identity and prerogatives. Their role is actually extremely wide-ranging and diversified, and they are found both in the typical formula of the mother and daughter pair and as distinct figures with respective cults.

Demeter Cults

A wealth of sources testifies to the cult of Demeter throughout the area to which Hellenism spread, from the islands of the Aegean and Asia Minor to Magna Graecia. Sicily was particularly devoted to the worship of Demeter. A characteristic aspect of Demeter cults was the central importance of the abduction and search for Kore; in many parts of Greece and the colonies, and in particular in Sicily, the foundation of the cult and the structure of its places of worship are often linked to the mythical theme of the goddess visiting human hosts. Therefore the divine experience has an etiological function toward the numerous local cults, influencing both the arrangement of the sacred area (temple, enclosure, grove, or even vast sanctuary) and the ritual practice, which assumed a great variety of forms, at times connected to the Eleusinian model, at others Thesmophorion. There is thus created a sort of map of the Demeter cult that reflects the movements of the divine figures in the cosmos, with the earth as their meeting point. The sacred site and the ritual praxis celebrated there are in turn configured as a tangible sign of the divine passage along two vectors: vertical, through the underworld, the surface of the earth, and Olympus; and horizontal, representing Demeter's wandering in search of her daughter. This mythical theme in fact provides a wealth of material for the various cults, constituting the common thread that links the many pieces of the vast mosaic of Demetrian sites.

Among the sources that testify to the functional relationship between myth and sacred place, the Periegesis by Pausanias in particular offers extensive material for the reconstruction of a basic Demetrian cartography, whereas the remaining documentationliterary, epigraphic, and archaeologicalhelps fill in the details. Among the numerous cults connected with the theme of Demeter's wanderings, the most significant are those of Megara and Pheneos. In the first location, Pausanias mentions the rock called "Anaclethris because Demeter (if the story be credible) here too called her daughter back when she was wandering in search of her. Even in our day the Megarian women hold a performance that is a mimic representation of the legend" (Periegesis, 1, 43, 2). Every year at Pheneos a festival with evident aspects of the mysteries was celebrated in a construction known as the Petroma, formed by two large stones with a circular opening, "with a mask inside of Demetra Cidaria. This mask is put on by the priest at the Greater Rites who for some reason or other beats with rods the Folk Underground. The Pheneatians have a story that even before Naon arrived the wanderings of Demeter brought her to their city also. To those Pheneatians who received her with hospitality into their homes the goddess gave all sorts of pulse save the bean only" (Periegesis 8, 15, 14). Insofar as the divine maskmany examples of which have been found in the Demeter sanctuariesis worn by the celebrant, this leads one to suppose that the latter aims to impersonate Demeter herself. The beating of the rods on the ground would thus seem to be aimed at "recall" and may be considered similar to the ritual performed at the Anaclethris rock in Megara in memory of the despairing wail of the mother looking for her abducted daughter.

Reports of Diodorus Siculus illustrate a different but parallel mythical tradition by placing the divine event in a Sicilian setting. It is difficult to establish the antiquity of this version, whereby the island is the place of the abduction, of Demeter's search, and also of the maiden's return, although this version was already formed by the high Hellenistic period. Nevertheless the spread of the Demetrian cult, starting from the most ancient colonial foundations (eighth to seventh centuries bce) in Sicily, leads one to believe that the process of "transferring" the cult and its adaptations to local conditions induced the corresponding mythical narration to become rooted in the territory, along with the cultic structures. Diodorus situates the Sicilian version of the abduction in the Heroic Age and attributes the foundation of the magnificent festival of Syracuse to Herakles (Bibliotheke, 4.23). He goes on to provide an extended narration of the myth that, while reflecting the existing pan-Hellenic pattern, is characterized by its entirely Sicilian setting, which unfolds on the road linking Enna, where the abduction of the divine maiden took place, and Syracuse. Here the king of the underworld "ripped open the earth, plunged with the abducted maiden into Hades and made a spring flow forth, where the Syracusans every year celebrate a famous festival" (Bibliotheke, 5.34).

Having completed the union between mythical event and ritual practice, the historian offers a detailed description of two festive cycles, with sacrifices and grandiose ceremonies dedicated respectively to Persephone at the time of the ripening of the wheat (MayJune) and to Demeter at the time of sowing of the seed. The first festival is called the katagoge of Kore, a name intended as the "recall" of the divine maiden rather than as her "descent" (into the underworld). The result is that in the Sicilian context the positive outcome of the story, with Persephone's periodic return to her mother, was the premise and foundation for a special cultic practice.

The second festival, dedicated to Demeter, concerns the theme of the goddess's laughter, which marks the end of her grief, and which is usually provokedaccording to the various traditionsby aischrologia or by more or less explicitly obscene behavior. These attitudes are transferred from the mythical level, on which a female figure with various names (Iambe, Baubo, or a nameless old woman) intervenes, to a ritual level representing one of the most typical and recurrent elements of the Demeter cults, from the Eleusinian mysteries to the Thesmophoria. The seasonal collocation of the Syracusan festival at the time of the sowing or of the first germination of the wheat (OctoberNovember) confirms its connection with agriculture and the analogy with Thesmophorion practice, despite the duration of the rite (ten days) and its public aspects. Many archaeological finds from the city and surrounding territory confirm, in the wealth of votive materials portraying the two goddesses and their worshipers, just how pervasive and deep-rooted Demetrian and Persephonean religiosity was.

Whereas Demeter cults distinguished all of Sicily, some of the main centers were in Agrigento, which Pindar celebrates as the "dwelling place of Persephone" (Pythics, 12, 15); Gela, the site of a characteristic Thesmophorion (Bitalemi); and Enna, where Cicerowho witnessed the tradition whereby "the island of Sicily is entirely consecrated to Ceres and to Libera"recognized the presence of the "more ancient Ceres," venerated in a famous sanctuary (In Verrem Actio 2, 2, 4, 48, 106108). Archaeological research has brought to light in these and many other Sicilian locations sacred areas and votive hoards of such richness as to completely confirm the opinion, again reported by Cicero, of the ancient inhabitants of the island, who claimed that "these two goddesses were born in those places and the cultivation of cereals was introduced for the first time in that land."

The service of Demeter, without being an exclusive prerogative of women, was nevertheless usually performed by priestesses. In the priestly hierarchy of Eleusis, an essential role was played by the hiereiai ("priestesses") and by the hierophantis ("she who reveals the sacred things"), who acted as the female counterpart of the highest-level priest, the hierophant who revealed the sacred symbols of the mysteries. The other esoteric Demeter cults, particularly the Thesmophoria, are entirely characterized by female aspects, with only a few exceptions, in which men's involvement was limited to certain phases of the rite. This exclusive female Demetrian rituality is not configured as being in opposition to the male sphere but rather in a dialectic relationship and complementary to it. In almost all cases the cults in question have an evident political dimension in the sense that, inserted in the official calendar of the city, they are connected to the promotion of the well-being and prosperity of the entire community. Whereas generally excluded from the judicial-administrative activities of the Greek city, women nevertheless played a crucial role on the sacred level, which represented an essential and irreplaceable element of city life, for it was on this level that the city depended for its legitimacy and for the strength that ensured its survival and continuity.

The Thesmophoria are the oldest and most pan-Hellenic in diffusion of the female esoteric Demeter cults. The name Thesmophora was given to the goddess as an expression of her role as giver of civilizing laws (thesmoi ), in particular of the rules of marriage. Agriculture and marriage, as well as chthonic and human fertility, are Demeter's functional prerogatives and the cornerstones of human identity. Humans, in the Greek ideological panorama, are defined as different from the gods due to their double roles as eaters of bread and generators of children, insofar as they are mortal but producers of culture. The Thesmophoria, which was reserved for married women with full rights of citizenship, took place once a year, although on different dates in the festive calendars of the various Greek cities. The festival is also connected to the abduction of Persephone; sources relate that on the days of the festival the thesmophoriazousai (the women who celebrated the Thesmophoria) ritually evoked Demeter's grief, the search for Persephone, and Persephone's retrieval. The festival involved both of the goddesses; in many cases a male figure, Eubuleus or Zeus Eubuleus; and a triad that included a married couple, probably identifiable as Persephone and an underworld Zeus, who corresponded to Hades/Pluto. Extensive archaeological evidence confirms the pervasive nature of this cult, with numerous finds dating from the archaic age up to late Hellenism spread throughout the Hellenized Mediterranean world, with particular concentrations in the Aegean Islands, in Magna Graecia, and in Sicily. The recurrent image of the female figure in votive deposits (the worshiper or goddess herself) with various attributes (a piglet, a cist, a dish of fruit, a torch) vividly express its central element, with its double reference to agrarian and female fertility. The presence of various figures of kourotrophos, a divine or human nursing mother, in the Thesmophorion places of worship strengthens the female connotations of the mythical-ritual scenario gravitating around the two god-desses.

Numerous other exclusively female rituals gravitate around Demeter, often together with her daughter and in relationship with the mythical theme of the abduction. In Athens there was the Stenia, a nocturnal festival in which women kept a vigil, perhaps awaiting the return of the two goddesses, and the Scire, connected also with Athena, Poseidon, and Erecteus. Sources of the imperial age attest the presence of mysteries of one or the other goddess in numerous centers, above all in the Peloponnese and in Asia Minor, and in cities in which the cult of Demeter had a long and consolidated tradition, such as Smyrna, Ephesus, and Pergamus.

Persephone Cults

Some cults were dedicated solely to Persephone without Demeter, albeit often coupled with her underworld husband Hades, whereas others included her mother but merely in a sporadic or marginal role. Among these, particularly significant is the Magna Graecian cult in Locri, whose flourishing is shown by a few literary sources and by extensive archaeological evidence. Whereas its period of greatest splendor was between the end of the sixth century and the mid-fifth century bce, this cult also spread outside the Locri Persephoneion to Medma and other towns of Magna Graecia and to Francavilla in Sicily. It was characterized by the enthusiastic participation of the local people and by a rich mythical background with a corresponding ritual praxis, whose reconstruction depends entirely on the exegesis of the complex iconography. The votive pinakes (tablets) that have been found in large numbers in the favissae (underground chambers for sacred deposits) of the sanctuary present numerous scenes in which the divine and mythical levels intertwine deeply with human life and ritual. The scenes are dominated by the majestic figures of Persephone and Hades on their thrones, often accompanied by other divine figures (Dionysos, Hermes, Ares) and above all human images, such as maidens with various attributes (ball, cockerel) and women engaged in picking fruit, in ritual procession, and in scenes of sacrifice or nuptial significance. A particularly interesting depiction is that of a female figure (goddess or woman?) sitting at a table upon which is placed a basket that she holds open to reveal a boy inside. Another scene that stands out for the frequency and variety of figurative motifs is that of a chariot drawn by winged horses carrying a maiden, who is led, often by force, by an abductor, who is sometimes a youth and sometimes an older man. The two levels of the divine and human are inextricably intertwined, because the scenario of the mythical marriage is superimposed by the reference to the common female experience of marriage perceived as a maiden's separation from her family and her assumption of the new role of adult woman, wife, and mother.

Lastly, the varied ancient religious literature attributed to the mythical Thracian poet Orpheus displayed a great interest in the myths and rituals gravitating around the mother and daughter pair. Although the thesis of an influence of Orphic doctrines in Eleusis has been convincingly confuted by Fritz Graf (1974), numerous testimonies reveal the existence of particular mythical versions of the abduction, which the Orphic Argonautika link explicitly to the Thesmophoria. In some formulas relative to the otherworldly journey of the soul contained in the well-known gold leaves from Thurii (fourththird centuries bce) that seem to reflect an eschatology of Orphic inspiration, Persephone is invoked as "pure Queen of them below" (in Kern, 1922, fr. 32 c-f), and Demeter is also mentioned.

See Also

Baubo; Eleusinian Mysteries; Goddess Worship, overview article, article on Goddess Worship in the Hellenistic World; Greek Religion; Hades; Hekate; Orpheus; Thesmophoria.


Publication of the complete edition of the Locri pinakes, after extensive analyses of the iconography and underlying religious concepts, was successfully started with publication of the first four volumes, various authors, in Atti e Memorie della Società della Magna Grecia, ser. 4, 1, 14 (Rome, 1999). For a picture of the historico-cultural situation in Locri, a useful source is Atti del sedicesimo Convegno di studi sulla Magna Grecia Taranto, 38 ottobre 1976, vols. 12 (Naples, 1977). The problem of Persephone's identity as been analyzed by Gunther Zuntz, Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia (Oxford, U.K., 1971).

Claude Bérard's Anodoi: Essai sur l'imagerie des passages chthoniens (Rome, 1974) analyzes extensive iconographic material relative to myths of crossing cosmic levels in which various divine figures are involved, including Persephone. The agricultural connections of the various forms of the Demeter cult in Attica are highlighted by Allaire Chandor Brumfield, The Attic Festivals of Demeter and Their Relation to the Agricultural Year (New York, 1981). Walter Burkert's excellent manual on Greek religion, Die Griechische Religion der archaischen und Klassischen Epoche (Stuttgart, Germany, 1977), translated by John Raffan as Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), provides indispensable data for collocating the cult in the wider context of Greek religious history. The typology of the nursing deities is examined by Theodora Hadzisteliou Price in Kourotrophos: Cults and Representations of the Greek Nursing Deities (Leiden, Netherlands, 1978). An exhaustive overview of the Sicilian and Italian centers of the cult, with comprehensive archaeological documentation, is provided by Valentina Hinz, Der Kult von Demeter und Kore auf Sizilien und in der Magna Graecia (Wiesbaden, Germany, 1998). See also Otto Kern, Orphicorum Fragmenta (Berlin, 1922), and Alberto Bernabé and Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal, Instrucciones para el más allá: Las laminillas órficas de oro (Madrid, 2001). The relation between Eleusis and Orphism has been discussed in detail by Fritz Graf, Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens in Vorhellenistischer Zeit (Berlin and New York, 1974).

A useful commentary with a wide range of parallel documentation accompanies the translation by N. J. Richardson of The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Oxford, 1974). Giulia Sfameni Gasparro's Misteri e culti mistici di Demetra (Rome, 1986) offers a picture of the Demeter cults as intended to set up an intense relationship between the faithful and the goddess through the ritual reevocation of the mythical event, often in an esoteric context.

On the methods of access to the priesthood by Greek women, see Judy Ann Turner, "Hiereiai : Acquisition of Feminine Priesthoods in Ancient Greece," Ph.D. diss. (University of California, Santa Barbara, 1983). For the complex religious and social dimension of feminine priesthood in the ancient world, see Sfameni Gasparro, "Ruolo cultuale della donna in Grecia e a Roma: Per una tipologia storico-religiosa," in Donna e culture: Studi e documenti nel III anniversario della "Mulieris Dignitatem," edited by Umberto Mattioli (Bologna, Italy, 1991), pp. 57121.

Giulia Sfameni Gasparro (2005)