Sacred Texts  Classics  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Myths of Greece and Rome, by Jane Harrison, [1928], at


The name Demeter means not Earth-Mother, but Grain-Mother. So long as man was a hunter only, the Lady-of-the-Wild-Things and the Earth-Mother who, unbidden, sent up flowers in the spring and fruit in autumn, these were adequate to express his needs. But there came a time when man settled down to plough the earth, to sow seeds and reap grain, and then he needed a Grain-Mother, Demeter.

p. 64

We are used to see ploughing and sowing and reaping done mainly by men, and it may surprise us to find that the Grain-Goddess took the form of a woman. But the first beginnings of agriculture have always lain with women. While the man was away hunting, woman, tied at home by her baby, had leisure to sow grain and reap fruits. Moreover, there is another and a magical reason. In his History of the New World Mr. Payne tells us that in primitive America man would have nothing to say to agriculture. He dared not interfere, for he thought it depended magically for its success on women, and was connected with child-bearing. "When the women plant maize," said the Indian to Gumilla, "the stalk produces two or three ears. Why? Because women know how to produce children. They only know how to plant the corn so as to be sure of it germinating. Then let them plant it, they know more than we do."

Homer seems to know nothing of the beautiful story of the Rape of Persephone and the Mourning of Demeter, of the Kathodos or going down into Hades, and the Anodos, the rising-up in spring. He just mentions Demeter but as dwelling on earth, not on Olympus: he tells how she stands with her yellow hair at the sacred threshing-floor when men are winnowing, and how "she maketh division of grain and chaff, and the heaps of chaff grow white." But he seems to know nothing of

                       "that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpine gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered--which cost Seres all that pain
To seek her through the world."

It is Shakespeare, not Homer, who cries:

                         "O Proserpina,
For the flowers now, that, affrighted, thou letst fall
From Dis's waggon."

p. 65

Persephone is for Homer not Korê, not the lovely maiden form of the Grain-Mother, but the dread Queen of the underworld, ruling in Hades. Odysseus wishes to have speech with the dead heroes in Hades, but:

"Ere that might be, the ghosts thronged round in myriads manifold,
 Weird was the magic din they made, a pale green fear gat hold
 Of me, lest, for my daring, Persephone the dread
 From Hades should send up the awful monster's grisly head."

The "awful monster" is the Gorgon, and the monster's head the gorgoneion. This takes us straight to another aspect of the Mother. Demeter herself, mild and beneficent though she was, had her darker side. The Athenians called the Dead Demetreioi, Demeter's People. Not only did she bring all things to life, but, when they died, she received them back into her bosom. "Dust we are and unto dust we shall return"; and Æschylus says:

"Yea, summon Earth, who brings all things to life,
 And rears and takes again into her womb."

A ghost is to primitive man always a terrifying thing, a bogey, and so the Earth-Mother, as guardian of the Dead, becomes a gorgon. On a Rhodian plate in the British Museum the Great Mother is figured grasping in her hands two birds, with human body and feet, but she is winged, and, in place of her head, she had a gorgon-mask, a gorgoneion with great tusks. There is no such thing as a gorgon, so there can be no real gorgon's head, but there are such things as ritual masks, ugly faces made to scare men and demons. Our museums of anthropology are full of them, and they are still in frequent use among savage tribes. The gorgoneion has pendent tongue, glaring eyes, protruding tusks. It is the

p. 66

image of terror incarnate. The non-existent gorgon monster was created to account for the ritual mask.

This dark side of Demeter, as guardian of ghosts, is expressed in her name Demeter-Erinys. Erinys is simply an angry ghost, and, as ghosts are many, the name has become pluralized as Erinyes. In the Eumenides of Æschylus we have the transformation of these vindictive Erinyes, these angry ghosts, these figures of terror and vengeance, into figures of fertility, holy and benignant, carrying in one hand their underground snakes, in the other, to mark their double aspect, fruit and flowers. Such was the general trend of Greek religion, the transformation of fear and ugliness into beauty and tranquillity.

Two gods yet remain to be considered. Homer does not recognize them, but, by the middle of the fifth century B.C. they have worked their way into Olympus. We find them admitted to the solemn assembly seated in the Parthenon frieze. These two gods, Dionysos and Eros, have certain affinities that make it desirable to treat of them in conjunction. Both are Mystery gods. We begin with Dionysos.

Next: Dionysos