Most people have at least a passing familiarity with Demeter’s traditional roles as grain goddess and divine mother. Some Hellenistoi are aware of Her further involvement in issues of death and rebirth, and grief and redemption. The spheres of influence which tend to go unexamined save for Her worshippers are the areas of terror and fury, Demeter Melaina and Demeter Erinys. The Goddess’s love and beneficence are undeniable, the Great Mother of all who gives us not only bread and life but the promise that we can ‘live well and die with better hope’ (Cicero, De Legibus). With her Holy Daughter She gives us the agricultural cycles and the seasons. But within the familiar story of the Two Goddesses are whispers of the Arkadian and Orphic myths which carry dark undertones, revealing deeper levels and a more complete understanding of the breadth of influence borne in the totality of the Megala Meter.
The mourning of Demeter is a well-known theme in the great myth, and one of the aspects of the Goddess most associated with Her. Echoes of loss permeate the story, not only Demeter’s terrible loss of Kore, but Metaneira’s grief at her perceived loss of her son (and according to some sources a real loss when Demophoon sickens and dies at Demeter’s abandonment of him). Kore herself cries out with sorrow at her last glimpse of the lovely upper world of her Mother as the earth closes over her. Demeter’s long wanderings and Her demeanor as She enters Eleusis are recognizable and sympathetic to us as a mother who has lost her beloved child. It is a situation to which we can relate, and which makes us feel closer to Her.
Anger is a natural phase of the grieving process. Even in the most well-known one variant of the myth Demeter’s anger is demonstrated in Her fury at Metaneira’s interference in the line ‘The shafts of terrible anger shot through Demeter’ (Athanassakis, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, 251). Her anger is directed at both mortals and gods; Her refusal to allow grain to grow threatens the very existence of men, and She is equally adamant in Her refusal to allow Her fellow gods to persuade Her. She is not appeased until Her daughter is restored to Her and the annual cycle of visitation is established. All of this makes sense from a human perspective, and the Goddess’ anger, while terrible and with dire consequences for mortals, is also comprehensible.
The Arkadian variant gives another face of the Goddess, one more wild and terrifying, and much more in keeping with Her epithet Erinys which is widely attested but less applicable to the more common story. It is in this tale that Demeter is paired with Poseidon, a god with whom Her name is associated in Minoan archaeology but with whom we do not see Her linked in the familiar tale. His name may mean ‘husband of Da’, an archaic version of Demeter. In this story the sea-god glimpses beautiful Demeter as She wanders sorrowing through the region of Arkadia and desires Her. In Her terrible grief She spurns his advances but he persists, until She turns Herself into a mare and conceals Herself in a great herd of horses, but Poseidon is not deceived. The God of horses becomes himself a stallion and covers Her in that form. This ravishment, mirroring that of Persephone by Aidoneus, brings forth a black fury that is not generally associated with the tender, grieving Mother Goddess. The event changes Her face, in both a metaphorical sense as She becomes Demeter Erinys, and literally as She takes on the head of a great mare. This nightmare Demeter stalks the region of Arkadia terrorizing the inhabitants until they appeal to Pan, who goes to the cave on Mount Elaeus where She lurks and placates Her. A temple was built to Her on the River Ladon near Thelpousa, where She was worshipped as the mare-headed Demeter Erinys along with the mysterious daughter born from the union with Poseidon, known only as Despoina which means ‘mistress’ and is more of an epithet than a name. A mystery cult emerged in this region about which we know little. It would seem as if Despoina is a counterpart of Persephone and seems to have evoked the same mingling of awe and fear. Another being is produced from the rape, a wonderful horse called Areion, who is described as being either black or green-maned, and has the power of speech. The colors evoke Demeter’s epithets of Melaina, black, and Khloe, green.
Pan’s mediating influence has the desired effect, and the dark wrath of the Goddess is cooled. She bathes in the River Ladon, symbolically washing away Her fury, and transforms from Demeter Melaina to Demeter Louisa, the Mild. Speculating on the influence of Pan in interesting. It could be that his very nature as wild, uncivilized Nature god is what the Goddess of civilization needs at this time. She brings cultivation and the potential for humans to transform from migrant hunter/gatherers to modern agricultural communities, Pan mediates this by maintaining the wild uncultivated areas, allowing the natural healing force of Nature to counter the deleterious effects of agriculture upon the land.
As is always the case in Demetrian myth, there is an etiological component to unpacking this story as well. Fertile earth and salty sea do not mingle well to create a welcoming atmosphere for living things. It is possible that this myth reflects a racial memory of a tidal wave or other sea-borne disaster that overwhelmed the arable coastal land, driving the inhabitants over the mountains to centrally located Arkadia, bringing with them memories of the travails if not the details. Sea water would render farmland inhospitable for many generations and make a compelling etiological explanation for Poseidon’s assault and Demeter’s subsequent wrath. There is a fragment in which describe Demeter makes Her way to a fountain after the rape, and upon seeing the water which recalls Her tormentor causes it to turn black (Ptolemy Hephaistion, New History Book 3).
In the lesser-known Orphic myth the ancient earth goddess Rhea, daughter of Gaia, is conflated with Demeter. After Rhea gives birth to the Olympian six, She essentially ‘becomes’ Demeter. Zeus is consumed with lust for Her, but She is repulsed by the notion of having relations with Her son and tries to flee, turning Herself into a snake. Zeus then becomes a snake and ravishes Her, in a story that has obvious parallels with the later tale involving Poseidon. It is from this union that Kore/Persephone is born. Later Zeus chooses Persephone to bear the son he wishes to rule after him. He lies with her in the form of a snake as he did when begetting her, and they produce Dionysos Zagreus. We see in this mystic variant the same themes of conflict, anguish and resolution that are more explicitly drawn in the mainstream myth.
Demeter’s wrath, while less demonic than in Arkadia, is evident in lesser myths as well. When Erysikhthon commits the impiety of cutting down Her sacred grove at Pelasgia, She gives him an opportunity to desist. But when he not only persists but threatens Her with an axe, She inflicts him with a particularly poignant torture for a Goddess of grain and abundance, an unassuageable hunger that rages through him despite how much he gorges himself, until he literally eats his way through his family’s wealth and starves to death in the streets. Lynkos of Skythia makes the mistake of abusing xenia when Triptolemos comes to bring him Demeter’s gift of cultivation. He tries to murder the young man, and Demeter turns him into a lynx. The Sirens are said to have been formerly companions of Kore, transformed by Demeter into birdlike monsters with sweet seductive voices for refusing to help Her search for Her daughter. And then there is the story of Minthe, the prideful nymph who had been the mistress of Aidoneus before he brought Persephone to be his queen. Minthe was jealous, and proclaimed herself more beautiful than Demeter’s daughter, and that soon she herself would usurp Persephone’s place and sit beside the All-Receiver. Demeter crushed her underfoot, turning her into a fragrant herb whose scent is released when stepped upon.
Demeter is first and foremost a Mother Goddess, tender, fiercely protective, and loving. Her grief is the grief of all parents who lose a child in untimely fashion. Her role as Plutodoteria, the bounteous provider, cannot be disregarded, as She is the Mistress of Grain who provides sustenance for mortals. But it is unwise to overlook Her attributes as Demeter Erinys, the dark Fury who can also bring terror and destruction.
Cicero’s De Legibus
The Homeric Hymns, Athanassakis translation
Carl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks
Carl Kerneyi, Eleusis
Walter Burkert, Greek Religion
Robert Graves, The Greek Myths
Charles Stein, Persephone Unveiled
Robert E. Bell, Women of Classical Mythology