Demeter - The Hag

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

The Hag

Demeter, Greek goddess of fertility and cultivation, is usually described as a mature, beautiful woman whose golden hair resembles fields of ripe wheat, but when her beloved daughter Persephone was kidnapped, Demeter shed her beauty like a snake sheds its skin, transforming into a hag. In an instant, she aged, becoming gray, wrinkled, and bent over. The light disappeared from her eyes. She was emotionally bereft, burning with grief, rage, and a passionate desire for justice.

As Demeter transformed, she withdrew fertility from Earth: crops failed, people began to starve. In her hag aspect, however, the normally benevolent Demeter doesn’t care: her own grief overwhelms her to the exclusion of anyone else’s. To some extent, Demeter in her grieving stage is the prototype for the Hag.

Like so many other hag-goddesses, Demeter’s sacred animals are pigs and snakes. Like Demeter, many hags are Corn Mothers.

Her saga is often interpreted (as with so many other hags’) as an allegory for the year’s seasons. Demeter’s hag phase corresponds with winter while her transformation back into a bountiful goddess with Persephone’s annual return corresponds to spring. (Sometimes Persephone is understood as corresponding to spring, while Demeter symbolizes winter.) However, this tends to gloss over the emotional and spiritual aspects of her saga: Demeter doesn’t just age and become an average old woman; she transforms into the epitome of a Hag specifically because of her intense grief, rage, and loss.

Demeter’s saga, which ultimately became the central focus of the Eleusinian Mysteries, also recounts her healing process and recovery: Demeter rages and grieves, starving Earth and herself, until an aged (a crone but not a hag) female servant, Baubo, finally draws an involuntary laugh from Demeter.

Baubo accomplishes this, where others failed, through the mysterious act of ana-suromai, the name given the ritual act of exposing the vagina. This act, which also features in Egyptian mythology, is believed to represent the eternal life force, the unbeatable power of the Great Mother. The significance in Demeter’s situation is that the ritual act is performed by an old woman for whom literal fertility is not possible. From the moment of her reviving laugh, according to the saga, Demeter channels her private grief into spiritual leadership.

Further information regarding ana-suromai and Demeter’s saga may be found in Winifred Milius Lubell’s The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Women’s Sexual Energy (Vanderbilt University Press, 1994).

See also Beltane Carline, Skadi; ANIMALS: Pigs, Snakes; DIVINE WITCH: Proserpina; ERGOT: Corn Mother: Demeter.