Did you know that the English word ‘cereal’ comes from the name of Ceres the Roman goddess of agriculture and grain ? Ceres is also the name of a dwarf planet between the orbit of Jupiter and Mars and there’s a small town in Virginia called Ceres. Ceres makes an appearance in my favorite Shakespearean drama The Tempest when she entertains as part of a masque or drama at an engagement party for Ferdinand and Miranda and an aria about her is featured in the opera The Trojans by Hector Berlioz.
Ceres is the Roman counterpart of the Greek goddess of agriculture Demeter. Corn, grain, poppies and narcissus were sacred to Demeter. She gave the gift of bread to humans and was believed to responsible for the fertility of the soil. I’ve discovered there’s a line of beauty products named after Demeter. It specializes in perfumes that smell like cherry blossoms, jasmine, lavender but also features fragrances like grass, dirt and leather.
I’ve just been to a workshop where we were introduced to the twelve Greek gods and their Roman counterparts who will be featured in the upcoming Olympus exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. I need to learn more about them, so I’m going to write about pairs of Greek and Roman gods in blog posts over the next little while, to help me prepare for upcoming tours. I decided to start with Demeter and Ceres.
Demeter is at the centre of lots of dramatic stories the most famous of which involves her daughter Persephone who was fathered by Demeter’s brother Zeus. Persephone was abducted by the god Hades and went to live in the underworld with him.
Her daughter’s disappearance makes Demeter so sad that she no longer blesses the land or agriculture so there is a famine. Persephone’s father Zeus, wanting to stop the famine, sends a messenger to cut a deal with Hades that Persephone only has to stay in the underworld with him for four months a year and can spend the others with her mother. Those four months are the season of winter because Demeter is too depressed about her exiled daughter to make things grow.
There’s also a story in which Demeter takes revenge on a fellow named Erysikhthon who cuts down trees in her holy forest in order to build a banquet hall. Demeter curses him with an insatiable appetite and after he eats everything in sight he finally starts gnawing on his own flesh and eats himself. Demeter was one of twelve gods who lived on Mount Olympus.
Her chariot was drawn by winged dragons and she lent it to Triptolemos and sent him out into the world to teach human beings about the practise of agriculture.
Demeter is the goddess of lots of things including pig farmers, bread, fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, wet nurses, flour mills, ploughing and motherly devotion.
One pair of gods down and 11 more to go!