Demeter - Ergot, The Corn Mother, and The Rye Wolf

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Ergot, The Corn Mother, and The Rye Wolf

De” refers to divinity, as in deity, dei or deva; “Meter” is literally mother, and so Demeter is the Divine Mother or the Deified Mother. Another suggestion is that her name derives from deai, the Cretan word for barley and thus her name would mean Barley Mother. (Barley was among the very first grains cultivated in that region and frequently the most successful; Crete was a particularly early area of cultivation.)

Demeter’s votive imagery shows her holding wheat in one hand, poppies in the other while snakes writhe around her. Sometimes she brandishes a pomegranate too. She famously has golden hair like a field of ripe wheat. Her sacred animals include pigs, horses, and snakes.

Demeter is not an Earth goddess; she is specifically the spirit of cultivation and crops. Her most famous myth is the saga of the kidnapping of her daughter Persephone.

Instead of residing in Olympus, Demeter prefers to live on Earth. Although she has liaisons (notably with her brother Zeus, Persephone’s father), she is an independent, unmarried woman. She raises her daughter herself.

One day, Persephone, usually identified as the Spirit of Spring, spots an unusual and beautiful black narcissus. It’s a trap. When she plucks it, Earth breaks open beneath her feet. Hades, her uncle, Lord of the Dead, rides up in his chariot, grabs Persephone and pulls her down to his realm. In a moment, Earth closes up, as if this incident never occurred.

Persephone just has time to scream; Demeter hears her and comes running but is unable to locate her. Persephone has been playing with various maidens but not one has witnessed her kidnapping.

Demeter proceeds to behave like any parent who has lost a child; she runs around hysterically searching, with absolutely no success. She continues to search; she beseeches help from her fellow gods. Only Hecate, lunar Spirit of Witchcraft, offers her assistance.

Demeter searches all over Earth on a fool’s quest looking for Persephone, who, of course, is nowhere on Earth. She’s down below, locked in gloomy Hades, Realm of the Dead.

Demeter’s search for Persephone is a lengthy epic saga; she has many adventures and encounters many characters. She eventually receives information from two sources: a young swineherd, the sole witness to the crime; several of his pigs fell into the chasm together with Persephone. Hecate also brings Demeter to Helios the Sun, witness of everything that occurs during the day, who confirms that Hades has kidnapped Persephone.

Demeter demands that Zeus, King of the Gods, force Hades to return Persephone. This is when she discovers that technically Hades didn’t kidnap Persephone—or at least not from his perspective, as Persephone’s father Zeus gave her to him. Neither bothered to consult with mother or daughter/bride. Hades refuses to send her back; Zeus isn’t interested in attempting to force him.

In response, beautiful, golden Demeter transforms into the Corn Mother’s shadow side. She abruptly withdraws her gift of fertility from Earth: nothing grows. She begins to wander in the guise of an old, gray, bitter, gloomy, humorless, and dangerous hag; she still has her goddess powers; she is still grand. It is during this period that she founds the Eleusinian Mystery religion. A reaped ear of corn (wheat) was displayed as the central mystery at Eleusis.

Another myth involving Demeter suggests that she was the very last Greek deity to stop accepting human sacrifice.

People begin to starve. Customary offerings to the gods are no longer forthcoming and so the gods begin to starve too. Eventually the protests of the other gods, as well as the potentially disastrous weakening of their powers normally fueled by offerings, finally forces Zeus to order Hades to return Persephone to Demeter. Hermes is sent to fetch her.

Meanwhile in Hades, Persephone has been raped and set on the throne as the queen of Hades. In a parallel action to her mourning mother, she has been on a hunger strike. However, she has consumed six seeds from one of Hades’ pomegranate trees and so Hades refuses to let her leave with Hermes. By eating the food of the dead, she has joined their ranks.

A compromise is reached: Persephone will spend half the year with her mother on Earth, half with her husband in Hades. The time spent with Hades corresponds to the period following the harvest when crops are dormant; she emerges on Earth with the first breath of spring. When she is in Hades, her mother mourns and nothing grows; when Persephone emerges in springtime, her mother rejoices and crops are abundant.

This story is ages old; countless interpretations exist, the most obvious that Persephone, daughter of the Corn Mother, is a metaphor for grain.

Hidden undercurrents, however, lie beneath the tale of Persephone’s kidnapping and Demeter’s subsequent grief, desolation, and rage. It is more than the tale of one mother’s loss and more than just an allegory of the harvest.

Image If Persephone represents grain then the story may also be understood as a metaphor for the transfer of power over agriculture and its rituals from women to men with different spiritual orientations. Persephone is now a prize to be violently taken without consulting the Corn Mother.

Image Who owns the child? Previously the child belonged to its mother; Zeus asserts father-right, a radical concept at one time. Hades does not actually kidnap Persephone—her father gave her to him. The two men (father and prospective husband) negotiated the deal without input from mother or daughter, a scenario that replays daily in much of today’s world.

Image Demeter the Corn Mother lives humbly on Earth, not in the palaces of Olympus. Her traditional offerings included raw grain, raw honeycombs, and unspun wool—simple offerings that indicate that Demeter was a deity of the ordinary people. If Persephone is a metaphor for grain, then who owns the grain? Among the underlying themes of the saga are class and property issues very relevant to emergent agrarian societies: rank exists in all societies but peasants don’t exist among hunter-gatherers.

See ANIMALS: Pigs, Snakes; BOTANICALS: Opium Poppy; DIVINE WITCH: Hecate, Hermes, Proserpina; MAGICAL ARTS: Necromancy.