Demeter was one of the greatest of the Greek deities. She was the daughter of the Titans, Rhea and Cronos, and the sister of Hera, Hades, Hestia, Poseidon and Zeus, the Olympian gods. It had been foretold that Cronos would be deposed by one of his children and so to prevent this, he swallowed each one as they were born. However, Rhea was very unhappy about this and so, when her last child, Zeus, was born, she wrapped a large stone in the blankets and handed it to Cronos, who swallowed it. Rhea took Zeus to Crete, before Cronos realised.
When Zeus grew up, somehow Rhea persuaded Cronos to swallow an emetic and he regurgitated all the children, who then battled the Titans and eventually won. Demeter was the goddess of the earth’s fertility and its harvest, also presiding over the cycle of life and death and the sacred law.
Demeter was much loved by humans as she gave them agriculture, especially cereals. With her daughter Persephone, she founded the Eleusinian Mysteries, huge festivals which were held every five years. Those attending were sworn to secrecy, and so, even though they were important for several centuries, little is known about what went on. It is believed that the possibility of the rebirth of the human soul was central, maybe focussing on Persephone’s ascent each year from the Underworld, but that is conjecture and they really are still a Mystery.
What was the Underworld like?
Hades and Cerberus
The god Hades presided over the Underworld, which was where the humans souls went after death. In general it was a colourless grey place where the ‘shades’ wandered around aimlessly. It was surrounded by 5 rivers: The Styx ( meaning hate), the Lethe (forgetfulness), Phlegethon (fire), Cocytus (grief) and Acheron (pain). It is over the Acheron that dead souls are ferried by Charon, who demands payment for doing so; relatives would put a coin into the dead person’s mouth for the ferry.
Once across the river, the dead souls were greeted at huge gates by Cerberus, the three-headed dog, who allows all in, but none out! The souls are then judged: those who have angered the gods will go to Tararus for severe, maybe torturous, punishment. Ordinary wrongdoers go to the Fields of Punishment, whilst those who have been especially brave and good (eg heroes) will go to the Elysian Fields, a place of happiness and peace. The majority of souls ended up in the Meadows of Asphodel. In this grey and formless place, the souls wander with no purpose, memory or emotion.
Hades was not a popular god, unsurprisingly, and was feared and hated by many, although he was not cruel or evil, like, for example, the devil. He had no monuments or temples built to him. The Greeks believed in an afterlife, but saw no special meaning to it.
Why Pomegranate seeds?
Pomegranates (botanical name: Punica Granatum) are an ancient fruit and have been cultivated in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas for many millennia. Israelite scouts brought pomegranates to Moses to prove the fertility of the ‘Promised Land’.
For the Greeks, throughout the ages, it has symbolised marriage, fertility, death and rebirth. Hera, queen of the gods, is often depicted holding a pomegranate, and ancient Greeks sacrificed pomegranates to Demeter. Depictions of pomegranates have been used to decorate buildings, coins and clothing. Pomegranates have been traditional in rituals associated with marriage and with death.
By giving Persephone pomegranate seeds to eat, rather than any other food, Hades was being especially cunning, because they were symbolic of marriage and faithfulness. By eating them, Persephone was tied to Hades and would have to return.
What is the significance of the myth?
Pic - ca. 440-430 BC. Said to be from Vulci.
This myth is a symbol of the cycles of nature and the seasons. Before the abduction of Persephone, the earth is imagined as having no seasons and being perpetually fruitful. After the abduction, when Persephone is in the Underworld, Demeter mourns and the earth is unproductive. Each year when Persephone returns to her mother, Demeter rejoices and the earth flowers and produces once again.
The number of pomegranate seeds Persephone eats in the myth, varies with the region in which it is being told. In some versions she eats only 4 seeds, that being the number of months the earth in not productive in those warm regions. In others, she eats 6 seeds symbolising the number of unproductive months in colder regions.
The myth also symbolises the cycle of life and the hope of rebirth. Persephone’s descent to and return from the Underworld, gives hope to the immortality of the soul, symbolising death and rebirth. This concept seems to have underpinned the festivals of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The myth also illustrates the strength of a mother’s love and the importance of the bonds between mother and child.