The Mourning Teacher
Teaching, Agriculture, Harvest, Fertility, Plants
Grains, Bread, Cornucopia, Poppy
”Demeter, greatly hail! Lady of much bounty, of many measures of corn.”
Callimachus, poet and scholar
The decade-long Titanomachy left Demeter weary of battle and she wandered the mortal world in disguise. Travelling far and wide she found the world upturned and the early works of man destroyed. Feeling guilty for her part in their suffering, Demeter wanted to help the starving mortals who clung on to life. She declared herself the goddess of agriculture and teaching, setting out to return the fruits of the harvest to the mortal world.
Demeter travelled in disguise to Eleusis where the King Keleus was generous in his hospitality and she became a nurse for his sons Triptolemos and Demophon. In thanks for the King's welcome she decided to make his sons minor gods. She fed the babies nectar and the ambrosia of the gods as she prepared to burn away their mortals souls in an altar fire.
As she placed the younger boy into the fire, their mother came into the room. In fear for her child the mother knocked Demeter aside and pulled her unharmed son from the flames. Summoned by the King to explain her actions the goddess became insulted by the mortal's disrespectful tone. She dropped her mortal disguise and revealed herself to the court. At once Keleus begged forgiveness for their rudeness as they had not known Demeter's true nature. Accepting the King's grovelling apologies, Demeter granted the King’s request that she still help humanity recover.
Demeter taught the people of Eleusis many secrets: how to cultivate its fruits and grains, the art of the harvest, grinding wheat and turning it into bread, and crop rotation. With this knowledge, Keleus' son Triptolemos went forth into the world, bringing agriculture to the rest of Greece. In honour of her teaching, farmers plant poppies in fallow fields.
Persephone, Demeter's daughter with mighty Zeus, is her most treasured possession. When Persephone eloped with Hades, Demeter was overcome with woe. The offerings of the people to her went unanswered and crops everywhere failed. She turned away the entreaties of the gods and in her grief she refused any counsel save her own sadness. Though Zeus did negotiate the return of Persephone, for part of the year at least, Demeter curses the months her daughter spend with Hades. During these times she returns to Earth, disguising herself as a beggar woman, and no crops will grow. In this way Demeter created winter.
Though she may care what happens to humanity and have compassion towards man, Demeter should not be angered. Erysichthon, a noble man, wished to build a new roof for his hall of the finest wood. He took his axe and struck a blow to a tree at the centre of a grove sacred to Demeter. The nymphs of the grove warned Demeter, who appeared in disguise and asked Erysichthon what he was doing. Mocking the old woman before him, Erysichthon struck again at the tree. Enraged, Demeter shed her disguise to reveal her true power. She cursed the noble with an insatiable hunger so he would never know the satisfaction of food. The nobleman’s hunger broke his family apart and left him destitute.
Demeter considers hospitality to be very important, especially towards strangers, and failure to show it always annoys her. One winter as Demeter travelled the world she came to Argolis. The hospitality of the city pleased her as did their autumn offerings. However, one man, Kolontas did not acknowledge Demeter with respect and made no offerings. His daughter recognised the god and tried to prevent her father's insulting behaviour but he ignored her. Angered by such hubris Demeter set fire to Kolontas’ house, saving just his daughter from the flames. On another occasion, a thirsty and road-weary Demeter stopped at a village well. As she gulped down the water without decorum, a small boy laughed at the goddess and mocked her lack of dignity. Without hesitation Demeter turned the boy into a gecko.
Demeter fought against the Titans in the Titanomachy though her motivation was more preventing Cronus from eating any more children than hatred for the elder god. She fears the Titans' revenge and the damage a new war among the gods would do to the mortal world. Her champions are tasked with finding the agents of the Titans and interfering with their plans, especially in rural places. This work is on top of the champions' role of promoting Demeter's worship, protecting her sacred places and spreading the knowledge of farming.
Demeter appears as a middle-aged woman in full courtly robes with long blonde hair and a poppy brooch. Seen as compassionate and caring, Demeter is the most approachable of the older Olympians and the least likely to take insult. However, she can be just as stubborn and proud as her siblings, traits which make rousing her anger a poor choice. Demeter is incredibly protective of what is hers and is unwilling to share, which is evident in the goddess' grudge against Hades over Persephone.
Mortals most often encounter her during the winter months when she neglects her duties and wanders the mortal world pining for her daughter. During this time she loses some of her divine bearing and becomes distracted, short-tempered and whimsical.
Demeter has major temples in glades near every city of Greece and numerous sacred groves in the countryside. Her worship is widespread since everyone depends on her good favour and the harvest it brings. The greatest festivals are Thesmophoria and Eleusinia. Thesmophoria is a mid-autumn festival where the women attend a private ceremony at the nearest temple. They give thanks to Demeter for the harvest and make offerings of sows and honeycakes. Additionally the first fruits of the year's harvest are presented at the temple and given up to the goddess. Eleusinia is a bi-annual festival held in the city of Eleusis in Attika. Here there are games, contests and ceremonies in honour of Demeter. The site of Eleusis itself is sacred to the goddess as where she first gave agriculture to humanity, and there is a permanent temple with a large priesthood.