Category Archives: Secret/Mystery
Etymology: “Bright One”, peraht (Old High German meaning “brilliant”). “Hidden” or “Covered,” pergan (Old High German)
Also Called: Behrta, Berchta, Berigl, Bertha (English), Bechtrababa, Berchtlmuada, Berchte, Butzen-Bercht, Frau Berchta, Frau Faste (the Lady of Ember Days), Frau Perchta, Fronfastenweiber, Kvaternica (Slovene), Lutzl, Pehta, Perchta, Perahta, Perhta-Baba, Posterli, Pudelfrau, Quatemberca, Rauweib. Sampa, Stampa, Spinnstubenfrau (“Spinning Room Lady”), Zamperin, Zampermuatta, Zlobna Pehta, The Lady of the Beasts, The Belly Slitter
Perchta has her beginnings and roots as an Alpine goddess worshiped in the Germanic countries where she protected the forests and animals. Later, as Christian influences increased, Perchta would take on a more sinister appearance and role, especially during the dark winter months where she would become a boogeyman type figure used to scare children into good behavior.
This is one of those confusing ones. Is Perchta a goddess, a witch, demon, or something else?
To answer that, we start at the beginning.
Animal: Goose, Swan
Day of the Week: Friday
Sphere of Influence: Nature, Forests, Wildlife, Spinning, Weaving
Symbols: Staff, Knife,
What’s In A Name?
The meaning for Perchta’s name is fairly easy to find, it comes the Old High Germanic words “beraht” and “bereht” meaning bright, light, flame and white. The word percht was meant as a warning for the sin of vanity. Another potential word in Old High German is the verb pergan, meaning “Hidden” or Covered” as the origin for Perchta’s name.
Given the many different eras and regions of Germany, Perchta is known by several different names. In southern Austria, there is a male form of Perchta known as Quantembermann (German), or Kvaternik (Slovene), meaning “The man of the Four Ember Days.” Jacob Grimm holds the idea that Perchta’s male counterpart is Berchtold.
Perchta is notable for a dual nature where she will have one of two forms that people see her in. During the Spring and Summer months, Perchta takes on the form of a lovely, young maiden dressed in white, or during the colder, autumn and winter months, she is seen as an ugly old hag with a hooked nose and tattered, worn clothing as she carries either a knife or scissors to slit open people’s bellies. Some perchten masks showing the ugly crone aspect give Perchta an iron face and beak-like nose.
Jacob Grimm of the Grimm Brothers fame tries to say that Perchta is an ancient goddess. In some stories, Perchta will be described as having a goose or swan foot; this imagery connects her to having a higher nature and the ability to shape-shift. This same goose foot could also be the splay foot that a spinner develops with one foot pumping the pedal of a spinning wheel.
Swan Maiden – It has been noted that in several languages, that Perchta or Bertha is also referred to by her peculiar foot. Berhte mit dem fuoze in German, Bertha au grand pied in French and Berhta cum magno pede in Latin. The idea given by Jacob Grimm is that foot means that Perchta is a Swan Maiden.
Woodcut – There is a notable woodcut from 1750 that depicts Perchta as “Butzen-Bercht.” The word Butzen is noted to mean “bogeyman.” The woodcut shows Perchta as a crone with a wart on her nose as she carries a basket filled with screaming children, all of them girls. Perchta also holds a staff as she stands before a door to a house where there are more frightened young girls.
The earliest depictions and mentions of Perchta, date her to during the Middle Ages, first in around 1200 and then later in the 1400’s when mention of Perchta becomes more prominent. Perchta served as an enforcer of communal taboos. One such taboo is weaving on sacred days or not joining in the feasts enthusiastically enough. Many of Perchta’s punishments stem out of punishing those who are lazy and haven’t done the proper work.
As to Perchta’s retinue that accompanies her, the first reference to them is in 1468, however, these are the souls of the dead. With the passage of time, this retinue would become demons, and then by the coming of the 15th century, they would become the familiar horned figures of the perchten and the first mentions of costumed processions and parades would appear.
In Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”) written in 1411, we have the first illustration of Perchta and more accurately someone in a mask posing as “Percht with the iron nose.”
Counter-Reformations & Witchtrials – It has been noted that the era of history that Perchta first emerges also overlaps and coincides with the Reformations and Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants over how Christianity should be observed and practiced along with trying to stamp out other non-Christian religions and practices through Europe.
Among Wiccans and Pagans, the period between 1450 and 1700’s is called The Burning Times when thousands of men and women, upwards of around 100,000 were executed and burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. Germany had the worst of it with historians reporting that entire villages could see their population of women gone. There’s some sense to Perchta appearing as a dark figure who carried off girls who didn’t behave and the changes to her appearance during this era.
In the southern parts of Germany and Austria, the name Frau Perchta is attributed to a witch who comes during the twelve days of Christmas, spanning from December 25th to January 6th for Epiphany. If a person is naughty or sinful, Frau Perchta is fierce and terrible with the punishment she will hand out. We are talking she will rip out a person’s intestines and other internal organs to replace with straw, rocks, and other garbage. In this terrible, punishing aspect, this image of Perchta looks very similar to that of Krampus, and figures dressed as her, called perchten are known to also appear in the annual Krampus parades held in several Alpine towns.
Before her darker imagery took hold, Perchta was held in a more benevolent light. Many of her positive attributes would be twisted under Christian influence causing many people to associate Perchta as a dark, Wintertime, Christmas entity to be feared. The influence of Christianity also creates a seeming, conflicting goddess with a dual identity.
Given when the change to her darker appearance happens, Winter when the nights are longer, when it is cold, and nature becomes that much more precarious if people haven’t properly prepared for the cold months. When evil spirits are thought to roam.
Protector Of Women & Children
In this role, Perchta is a goddess who protects women, children, and infants. For those children and infants who died, Perchta is a psychopomp who guided their souls to the Afterlife.
Goddess Of Nature
In this role, Perchta was mainly concerned with tending to her forests and taking care of nature. As a nature goddess or spirit, Perchta was known as “The Lady of the Beasts.” In this aspect, Perchta holds some similarities with Holda and Germany’s ancient hunting cultures.
It was only during wintertime and Christmas, the Winter Solstice that Perchta would concern herself with the affairs of humans. During Winter, Perchta will withdraw up into the mountains where she will create snow. In addition, Perchta will protect her followers by removing evil spirits as they travel.
In this role and aspect, Perchta not only governs the mundane arts of weaving and spinning, but she also presides over fate, much like the Moirai or Fates of Greek mythology.
During the Summer months, Perchta is believed to live in the depths of various lakes, during which time she busies herself with spinning flax upon her golden spindle. During the night, Perchta can be encountered walking along the steep slopes of the alps carrying her spindle. Those who approach Perchta with their flocks can get her to bless them.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. Jacob Grimm of Grimms Brothers fame makes a connection of Herne to the Wild Hunt due to the epitaph of “the Hunter.” That does seem to work, a Huntsman, connect him to the Wild Hunt and for Britain, the idea really jells of a local person who becomes a lost soul, doomed to forever ride with the Hunt.
According to Jacob Grimm, Perchta is one potential leader of the Wild Hunt. Given that during Midwinter, Perchta is known to wander around the countryside at this time with her entourage of perchten, it’s no surprise to see Perchta be suggested as a leader of the Wild Hunt.
Ultimately, just who leads the Wild Hunt will vary from country to country. In Welsh mythology, it is Gwyn ap Nudd or Annwn who lead the hunt with a pack of spectral hounds to collect unlucky souls. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain hold that it is Woden who leads the hunt at midwinter. Herne the Hunter has been given as the name for another leader of the Wild Hunt. Wotan is very similar to Odin (just another name for the same deity really), Herne has been linked to them as both have been hung from a tree.
The arrival of Christianity is about when we see Perchta become a minor deity and then diminished to be some sort of magical creature or spirit. As more time passed, Perchta would then become an evil witch or sorceress. Later, Christian clergy would equate Perchta in official documents as being synonymous with other female spirits and goddesses such as Abundia, Diana, Herodias, Holda, and Richella.
Thesaurus Pauperum – This text and collection of recipes and natural cures was written by prominent Catholic officials for use by the poor. This text mentioned a Cult of Perchta who would leave out food and drink for Perchta on Epiphany for wealth and abundance. This same document would be used to Perchta’s cult in Bavaria in 1468. In 1439, Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach in De decem praeceptis also condemned this practice.
Frau Perchta – Christmas Witch & Bogeyman
During wintertime, especially during the month of December and Yule, as Frau Perchta, she becomes a fierce some looking hag or witch with two faces. Those children who are good and have behaved, have nothing to fear from Frau Perchta. However, for those who are deemed bad and have misbehaved, Frau Perchta is known for slitting open the stomachs of people and pulling out all of their organs to replace them with straw, stones, and garbage.
These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, for the Twelfth Night. The percht are an offshoot of the older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions where she guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. It is in the late 20th century that both Perchten and Krampus appear together in the same processions so that the two have become indistinguishable from one another. The wooden masks worn for these processions are called perchten.
Originally, the term perchten, (the plural for Perchta), referred to the female masks that represent the entourage of spirits accompanying Frau Perchta or Pehta Baba in Slovenia. The perchten are associated with midwinter where they personify fate and the souls of the dead. There are several regional names and variations for the perchten. Their names include: Bechtrababa, Berchta, Berchtlmuada, Berigl, Pehta, Lutzl, Perhta-Baba, Pudelfrau, Rauweib, Sampa, Stampa, Zamperin, Zampermuatta, and Zlobna Pehta.
Other Perchten names are:
Glöcklerlaufen – “bell-running” from the Salzkammergut region.
Schiachperchten – Or “ugly Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. They have fangs, tusks and horse or otherwise ugly features. These perchten, despite their appearance, come to drive off evil spirits and demons as they go from house to house.
Schnabelpercht – Or “trunked Percht” from the Unterinntal region.
Schönperchten – Or “beautiful Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. These perchten come during the Twelve Nights and festivals to bestow luck and wealth to the people.
Tresterer – From Pinzgau region of Austria.
Sometimes the spirits that accompany Perchta will be those of children, particularly unbaptized children in Christian beliefs. Food offerings left out for Perchta and her retinue are said to be consumed by these Heimchen.
For many women, before the arrival of modern medicine, there was a high infant and child mortality rate. Having a benevolent goddess who would come and take care of their children was likely very comforting for many women, to think of their child in a better place or in better hands.
This period is also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. These nights are also known as Magic Nights when Perchta leading the Wild Hunt are known to ride.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions during the last week of December and through the first week of January up to January 6th for Twelfth Night or Epiphany. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas rewarding children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior. People dress as perchten with masks made of wood with brown or white sheep’s wool.
For a while, the Roman Catholic Church tried to prohibit the practice of Perchtenlauf during the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite its best efforts, the parade and processions continued either in secret or as a result have made a resurgence in later centuries.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Also known as Little Christmas in Italy, Old Christmas in Ireland or Epiphany, this holiday is held on January 6th. The feast held on this day is called Berchtentag. In Salzburg, Austria, Perchta is believed to wander the halls of Hohensalzburg Castle during the night.
In Germany, this is when Perchta will go about collecting her offerings, where she will reward her followers, often with a silver coin or other small gifts, and punish those who haven’t observed certain practices and traditions. This is where Perchta, as Frau Perchta appears in her fearsome guise mentioned earlier to slit open the bellies of wrongdoers and those deemed naughty, only to stuff them full of straw, rocks, and garbage. Perchta would also be interested in making sure that women had spun the wool needed for the year.
In observance of this holiday, there would be a feast held with a ceremonial dance. Several people would dress up, pretending to be evil spirits that someone dressed as Perchta would then chase away, “slaying” the evil spirits in a pageant to invoke a ritual to protect the people of the village.
A special porridge consisting of gruel or dumplings and fish called Perchtenmilch would be eaten during this time. While the family ate, an additional bowl would be left out for Perchta and her entourage. If this traditional meal is forgotten, it is one of the taboos that angers Perchta so that she will cut open people’s stomachs and stuff them with straw.
Note: My earlier section for Frau Perchta gives the time for this celebration closer to Yule in December. Given multiple sources, this change of observances could easily be people conforming old traditions to those of the newer, incoming Christian religion and observance of Christmas along with a change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
Also known as: Bechtelistag, Bächtelistag, Berchtelistag, Bärzelistag, Bechtelstag, Bechtle. It is a celebration typically observed on January 2nd in Liechtenstein and Switzerland and has been happening since at least the 14th century. There are various theories about the origin of this holiday. There is a Blessed Bertchtold of the Engelberg abbey who died on November 2nd of 1197. Another theory holds that it commemorates the first animal killed during Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen’s hunt and the naming of his new city.
Like the English practice of mummery, another idea is that this holiday comes from the word: berchten” meaning to “walk around, begging for food.” Obviously, there is also Perchta given the similarity of the names and that when the celebrations of Epiphany were abolished by the various Protestant regions, those refusing to give up the Twelfth Night traditions, simply moved them to the day after New Year’s to gain another day off. There is a “nut feast” where children build hocks of four nuts with a fifth nut balanced on top. Masked parades are held, along with folk dances and families going out to the pubs to eat.
Translating to mean “Fast Night” or “Almost Night,” this is a celebration that is held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and Lent. It is a night where people eat the best foods possible, and yes, the preferred food is doughnuts. A procession of perchten is known for showing up in some modern celebrations.
This is a dominion of Heathenry inspired by the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. In it, Perchta or rather, Berchta is a major goddess instead of a minor. The eleventh day (Elfder Daag) and twelfth night (Zwelfdi Nacht) are notable days for the Yuletide celebrations that fall on December 31st. In Urglaawe tradition, this feast day is known as Berchtaslaaf.
In this tradition, Berchta is held as either another name for the goddess Holle or is her sister. In this respect, Berchta becomes a goddess of order, notably for one’s own actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Owls are held sacred to her and are her messengers. In the Deitsch lunar zodiac, the Eil or Owl symbol occurs near Yuletide. Like many various cultures, the owl tends to be a symbol and warning of death and danger.
Syno-Deities & Figures
Freyja – Norse
Sometimes a connection of Perchta to this Norse goddess is made, however it’s noted to be rather dubious at best as Freyja and Frigg are often confused together as being the same goddess.
Frigg – Norse
The wife of Odin, placing he as the mother of the Gods, she is associated with marriage, prophesy, clairvoyance, and motherhood along with spinning. Frigg is more likely to be whom Perchta is associated with or stems from.
Holda – Germanic
The goddess Holda has been equated as the southern cousin or a syno-deity to Perchta as they both hold the same function as a guardian of the animals and come during the Twelve Days of Christmas to inspect the spinning.
La Befana – Italy
The Italian Christmas Witch is sometimes compared with Perchta during Winter celebrations. This is more the contrast of where La Befana is portrayed as an ugly, yet good witch and Perchta is in her more monstrous appearance.
Saint Lucy – Germany
A local Saint whose feast day fell near the Winter Solstice. She is primarily known and revered in Bavaria and German Bohemia. Saint Lucy is often equated with Perchta.
A type of fairy or enchanted being, these white women are a variety of light elves. Jacob Grimm saw connection between the goddesses Holda and Perchta in their white forms with these beings.
Other names: Amphictyonis, Sito (“She of the Grain,”) Thesmophoros (“Law Bringer”)
Other Names and Epithets: Achaea, Achaiva (“Sorrowing,”) Aganippe (“the Mare who Destroys Mercifully”, “Night-Mare,”) Anesidora (“Sender of Gifts,”) Antaea, Chloe (“the Green Shoot,” Chthonia (“In the Ground,”) “Corn-Mother,” Daduchos (“Torch Bearer,”) Demeter Lousia, “the Bathed Demeter”, Demeter Erinys, Demeter Melaine “Black Demeter,” Despoina (“Mistress of the House,”) Epipole, Erinys (“Implacable,”) Europa (“Broad Face or Eyes,”) Kidaria, Lusia (“Bathing,”) Malophoros (“Apple-Bearer” or “Sheep-Bearer,”) “Mistress of the Labyrinth,” “Mother-Earth,” Potnia “Mistress,” Thermasia (“Warmth,”) “Green,” “The Giver of Gifts,” “The Bearer of Food,” and “Great Mother.”
When paired with Persephone, she and Demeter are called: “the Older” and “the Younger” in Eleusis, Demeters in Rhodes and Sparta, the Thesmophoroi or “the Legislators” in Thesmophoria, The Great Goddesses and The Mistresses in Arcadia. “The Queens” in Mycenaean Pylos.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Etymology: Earth Mother
It’s generally agreed that the second part to Demeter’s name, “meter” comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning mother.
Now, the first part to Demeter’s name, De originates as Da, becoming Ge in Attic and then De in Doric. Making it that Demeter means “Mother Earth.” The root word of De has also been linked to the name Deo, from the Cretan word for emmer, spelt, rye and other grains. In this respect, Demeter is the giver of food. Another alternative from Proto-Indo-European etymology is that De is derived from Despoina and Potnia where Des- means house or dome, making in this case, Demeter mean “mother of the house.”
In Greek mythology, Demeter is the Olympian goddess of agriculture and the harvest. She specializes in the cultivation of grains and is a fertility goddess. In addition, Demeter ruled over the cycles of life and death as well. Demeter is an ancient goddess whose worship predates the Greeks. Both Demeter and her daughter Persephone were the central figures in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Animal: Horse, Pig, Snake
Colors: Black, Green
Patron of: Agriculture, Harvest
Plant: Grains, Wheat, Barley, Poppy
Sphere of Influence: Growth, Seasonal Cycles, Harvest, Sacred Law
Symbols: Cornucopia, Scepter, Wheat, Torch, Bread
Early Greek Depictions
Found in Pylos, there is a set of Linear B Mycenean Greek tablets that dates from between 1400 to 1200 C.E. that depicts “two mistresses and the king” that are thought to possibly be Demeter, Persephone and Poseidon.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Demeter is described as a blond-haired goddess who separates the chaff from the grain.
Demeter doesn’t often appear in art before the 6th century B.C.E. Demeter is often associated with imagery of the harvest, flowers, fruit, grain and sometimes seen in the company of her daughter Persephone where they are both wearing crowns and hold a torch and scepter or stalks of grain. Another scene that Demeter is shown in is that of Athena’ birth. Sometimes Demeter is shown sitting alone wearing a wreath of braided ears of grain.
The Eleusinian mysteries were an annual religious celebration that predates the Olympian pantheon. It is an important life and death ritual with Persephone in her role as a vegetation goddess and Demeter having important roles where they are worshiped together. During the reign of King Erechtheus of Athens is when Demeter’s worship came to Eleusis.
Originally, the festival was celebrated in the autumn during the seasonal sowing in the city of Eleusis. The myth was told in three phases of a decent, the search and the ascent, describing Demeter’s sorrow and her joy as she became reunited with Persephone. This celebration also involved dancing in the Rharian field where the first grains were grown. There are inscriptions of “the Goddesses” being accompanied by Triptolemos, an agricultural god and another of the God and Goddess that refer to Persephone and Plouton.
There were two sets of observances or celebrations for the Eleusinian Mysteries that would be held every five years.
The Lesser Mysteries would be held the 20th Anthesterion (roughly coinciding with February 28th) and take place over a span of week
The Greater or Eleusinian Mysteries would occur during the 15th-21st of Boedromion (September 28th to October 4th).
Ancient Sumerian Origin – The idea has been put forward by the renowned scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer that the story of Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld likely sees its origins in the ancient Sumerian story of Ereshkigal, the goddess of the Underworld who was abducted by the dragon Kur and forced to become the ruler of the Underworld against her will.
Agrarian Cults – The cults of Demeter and Persephone of the Eleusinian Mysteries and Thesmophoria are based on some very old agrarian cults. These cults were led by priest as evidenced from an image on a Minoan vase dating to the end of the New Palace Period. This ancient cult held a connection to seasonal practices and tasks.
Daemons & Animal Nature – In Arcadia, the worship of Persephone and Demeter were the first daemons local deities who governed the powers of nature. Such ancient beliefs show a connection to animal nature that saw a belief in nature personified with nymphs and deities with human forms but also possessing animal heads and tails or other features.
Celebrate Good Times, Come On!
The seasonal disappearance and the later return of Persephone were times of festivals during the time of ancient Greece. The Eleusinian Mysteries are the most well-known and even then, the secrets for this festival were closely guarded, that not much is known about them.
Secret Rites & Immortality – Life after death seems to be a very common motif in many religions and beliefs around the world, even anciently. That somehow, life, some sort of existence continues even after death. It was no different for initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries who closely guarded their initiation rites. After all, the Eleusinian Mysteries wouldn’t be a mystery if everyone knew about them. For the Eleusinian Mystery initiates, these secrets were that of resurrection and there would be some place better than that of dismal depths of Tartarus.
They wouldn’t be the first to have the idea of life after death. It is thought by the experts, that the rites and mysteries held during the Eleusinian mysteries, along with other traditions such as the Orphic tradition and Mithraism all contributed towards the formation of Christianity and its ideas of resurrection, everlasting life and even immortality.
In the Eleusinian Mysteries, Kore’s return from the Underworld conveyed the idea of immortality and a resurrection from death.
Orphic Tradition – This is where the myth of Persephone is identified with other deities such as Isis, Rhea, Ge, Hestia, Pandora, Artemis, and Hecate. It is within this tradition that Persephone, with Zeus becomes the mother of Dionysus Iacchus, Zagreus or Sabazius.
Local Cults & Worship
Each local cult held their own traditions and ideas for where Persephone had been abducted from. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, it is the “plain of Nysa” where Persephone’s is kidnapped. The Corinthian and Megarian colonists, and Sicilians believed her abduction to happen in the fields of Enna. The Cretes believed that Persephone’s abduction occurred on their island. Other versions will place the abduction in places like Attica, near Athens, or even near Eleusis.
Distant localities that lay in the mythical played a part in creating a sense of some mystically, distant chthonic world that normally couldn’t be visited and created more of an air of mystery and prestige to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the month known as Anthesterion, Persephone was the only one to whom the mysteries were dedicated to in Athens.
Temples dedicated to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the worship of Demeter and Persephone were found throughout all ancient Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily, Magna Graecia and Libya. Not much is known about the specifics of local rites and worship.
Amphictyony – An ancient ruin site, this is likely the oldest cult center for Demeter in Anthele along the coast of Malis, Thessaly. For those interest in history, this is near Thermopylae where the famous 300 Spartans fought the invading Persians. After the “First Sacred War,” this Amphictyony became known as the Delphic Amphictyony. Basically a meeting place for many local Greek tribes and cities to come gather to maintain temples to the gods, festivals and work out any disputes and problems.
Megara – Temples to Demeter were called Megara and would be built in groves with neighboring towns nearby.
Mysia – The goddess Demeter worshiped here had a seven-day festival held at Pellene, Arcadia.
Sacrifices To Demeter – These would consist of pigs, bulls, cows, honey cakes, and fruit.
New Year’s Celebration & Divine Child
A near eastern culture with strong ties and connection to the ancient Greeks. The Minoans of Crete held a belief in a fertility goddess whom every year, would give birth to the God of the New Year. That sounds familiar. The New Year’s baby to symbolize the New Year.
This god of the New Year would become the fertility goddess’ lover and of course, the cycle would repeat with the god’s death and his rebirth at the New Year. Similar beliefs and cults are found with those of Adonis, Attis and Osiris.
In Minoan Crete, this fertility goddess is Ariadne and the “divine child” who died every year were part of an aniconic religion whose main deities were female. Every year, an ecstatic sacral dance that involved tree-shaking and the worshiping of stone or stone idols were conducted. The idea and suggestion have been put forward that the worshiping of Persephone may likely be a continuation of the worshiping of a Minoan Great Goddess.
Eileithyia – She is a local Minoan goddess found in Amnisos, Crete where she is a goddess of childbirth who gives birth to a divine child. Her consort is given as Enesidaon, the “earth-shaker” an epitaph of Poseidon. Eileithyia’s myth and cult would come to be absorbed into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Divine Child – This boy consort to the Great Goddess symbolized the annual dying and renewal of vegetation every year.
Mycenean Greece – Arcadia
While we know the mystery cults existed, not much is known about other than a few inscriptions. In Mycenae, Persephone is thought to have been identified with a local goddess by the name of Despoina, “the Mistress” and chthonic goddess of West-Arcadia. Despoina’s worship is just an example of another deity who would be absorbed into the worship of Greek deities. To the uninitiated of the Arcadian mysteries, the name Despoina was not allowed to be revealed.
The local temples throughout Arcadia were often built near springs and there is evidence of continual fires being kept at some of these. The worship of Demeter and Kore were closely linked to springs and animals.
Another mystery cult similar to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Many of the secret rites and traditions are very similar to each other, including an early concept idea of immortality. Thesemophoria were held and celebrated in the city of Athen before coming more wide spread throughout Greece. It was a women-only festival that held strong association to marriage customs. It would be held on the third day of the year in the month of Pyanepsion, marking when Kore was abducted, and Demeter neglected her duties as a harvest goddess. The date can vary, if the festival were held in Athens, it would during the 11th-13 Pyanepsion, roughly coinciding with October 23rd-25th.
One ceremony involved burying sacrifices of pigs into the earth and then unearthing the decayed remains of pigs buried from the previous year. The remains would be placed on an alter and mixed with seeds before being planted.
Thesmophoria would be celebrated over the course of three days. On the first day is the “way up” to the sacred space. The second day is a day of feasting where pomegranate seeds are eaten. The third and final day, is a meat feast that honors Kalligeneia, goddess of beautiful birth. Hades, under the euphemistic name of Zeus-Eubuleus would attend the feast.
Thesmophoros – “Giver of Customs” or “Legislator” is a name and epitaph that links Demeter to the goddess Themis, which derives from the word thesmos, the unwritten law.
Parentage and Family
Cronus and Rhea
Zeus, Oceanus, Karmanor, and Triptolemus
Iasion – Demeter manages to lure Iasion away during the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia.
Poseidon – The Arcadian cult and myths link Demeter and Poseidon together. In this respect, Demeter is then equated with the Minoan Great Goddess, Cybele.
She is the second child born of Cronus and Rhea.
The birth order is Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus.
Chiron – a half-brother by way of Cronus and the nymph Philyra.
Amphitheus I – Her son by Triptolemus.
Arion – A magical speaking horse, her son by Poseidon.
Chrysothemis & Eubuleus – Her children by Karmanor.
Despoina – Her daughter by Poseidon.
Dmia – Her daughter by Oceanus.
Iacchus – Her son by Zeus. Due to the similarity of his name with Bacchus, he is sometimes identified as being Dionysus.
Persephone – Goddess of Fertility and Queen of the Underworld, her daughter by Zeus.
Philomelus – her son by Iasion.
Ploutos – Also spelled Plutus, her son by Iasion.
While Demeter may just very well indeed predate Grecian culture, she is counted among the twelve major deities who resided on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain peak in Greece and all of Europe. For the Greeks, this was the perfect location for where the gods would preside at while keeping watch on humankind down below them.
As there are several deities within Greek mythology, just who numbers among the Olympians varies. It’s generally agreed that the twelve major Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and then either Hestia or Dionysus.
Birth Of A Goddess
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Demeter and all her siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophesy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea hides him away and manages to convince Cronous that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetit, Cronous eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Rhea takes and hides Zeus, that later, when he is older, he can come fulfill the prophecy killing his father Cronus. During the battle, Zeus splits open Cronus’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia.
There is a ten-year long war known as the Titanomachy, that by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Demeter and the other gods take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
Demeter & Zeus
Zeus as we know, King of the Gods, fathered many children with many goddesses and mortal woman alike and usually by rape.
In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Zeus rapes his sister Demeter, resulting in Kore, Persephone.
By one account, Demeter becomes a fourth wife to Zeus and in their union, they have a daughter by the name of Kore (Persephone).
With the information from the Homeric Hymn and Zeus’ reputation, that would be an awful lot of wives if he married everyone he’s to have raped.
The Rape Of Persephone
You read that right. Yes, I could have titled this one differently. However, this is the title of the story for Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld that many are familiar with and the most well-known story regarding Persephone. Plus, this is also a story involving her mother Demeter and her role in it and the primary story told in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden, she lived with her mother Demeter, a harvest Goddess. Kore herself is a fertility goddess who makes or causes everything to grow. Kore’s father is the mighty Zeus himself.
Kore grew up and spent her time playing in the fields with the nymphs, gathering flowers, playing and with her mother. As she grew older, Kore came to attract the attention of the other male Olympian gods. Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her hand in marriage. The young Kore rejected them all for she was still interested in playing with her nymph friends and collecting flowers. Demeter made sure that her daughter’s desires are known.
This doesn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this is love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (Kore’s father), to petition for Kore’s hand in marriage, getting permission.
Zeus took the proposal to Demeter who refused. Kore isn’t going to leave her or go anywhere, least of all the Underworld with Hades. Not going to happen!
At first, this sounds as if Demeter is simply being unreasonable. The type of response of a mother fearing the empty nest or mother smothering and won’t let her child go. What we would call now days, Helicopter Parenting.
Zeus likely thinks he’s being reasonable, mentioning that every child grows up and leaves their parents eventually and that Kore is certainly old enough to marry. But Zeus isn’t listening, he thinks he knows better. That Demeter is just making an idle threat that if he marries off Kore to Hades and takes her down to the Underworld, nothing will grow!
Since they can’t get Demeter’s approval for the match, Zeus and Hades take a step back, allowing Demeter to think she’s won this round. Hades comes up with a plan to outright kidnap/abduct Kore while she is out gathering flowers. Zeus is in on this too and plants a narcissus flower to attract Kore’s attention.
While Kore is distracted by this new, unusual flower, behind her, a chasm opens up in the earth and out comes Hades, riding in his chariot to snatch up Kore to carry away with him back to the Underworld.
Of all of Kore’s Nymph friends, only the Naiad, Cyane tried to rescue and stop her abduction. Overpowered by Hades, Cyane in a fit of grief cried herself into a puddle of tears, forming the river Cyane.
Demeter, hearing the nymph’s cry out that something was amiss, came running, only to find that her daughter is missing and none of the nymphs in their crying could tell her what happened. Angry, Demeter cursed the nymphs that they turned into Sirens. Only the river Cyane offered any help with washing ashore, Kore’s belt.
In vain, Demeter wandered the earth, searching for her daughter. During her search, Demeter found herself in the palace of Celeus, King of Eleusis in Attica. Demeter took the guise of an old woman, calling herself Doso and asked the King for shelter. Celeus took the old woman in and had her nurse Demophon and Triptolemus, his sons.
Now, from a goddess’ perspective, she planned to reward Celeus’ kindness by gifting his son Demophon immortality. To grant the gift of immortality, Demeter anointed the child with ambrosia and laid him down in the hearth fire with the intention to burn away his mortality. Mom, Queen Metanira walks in and see her baby laying in the fire and understandably freaks out, screaming. Demeter decided against this idea and instead taught the older boy, Triptolemus the knowledge of agriculture. From this, this is how humankind learned how to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Unable to find her, Demeter went and hid herself in sorrow at the loss of her daughter. Once plant life begins to die, the other gods go in search of her. Especially once all their followers begin to cry out there’s no food, help them.
Pan is the one who eventually finds her in a cave. Demeter in her despair, reiterates that without Kore, nothing will grow.
The way this gets told in most retellings, Demeter is threatening to refuse any new life or plant growth. To appease her and prevent people from starving, the gods agree to find Kore so that life can return. It seems that way if you don’t know or forget Kore’s already existing role as a fertility goddess.
Hecate realizes and knows there’s a problem. Hence, she intervenes. All isn’t lost if Kore hasn’t eaten the food of the Underworld, the dead, she can return to the world above.
Down in the Underworld, a frightened and despairing Kore is refusing the advances of Hades and refusing to eat any food. Kore knows that if she eats the food, she won’t be able to return to the living world.
Now at some point, Hecate comes and talks with Kore. At some point, Kore falls in love with Hades or she sees the state of what the Underworld is like. A plot twist comes and Kore does, either willingly or tricked into it, eats some pomegranate seeds. The number of which varies from one to four, Persephone is bound to the Underworld and must spend part of the year there. The rest, she can spend above in the mortal world with her mother Demeter.
This way, Hades doesn’t lose his wife and queen and Persephone can fulfill her role as a fertility goddess, bringing life to the land.
As a note, I came across commentary that says there are some 22 variations in Antiquity about the story of Persephone’s abduction. I doubt I could find all of them. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter written between 650-550 B.C.E. is thought to be the oldest story.
Overly Simplified – One version of the above story is drastically simplified and glosses over a lot of details to the story of Persephone and Hades. In it, Hades just happens to be out and about in the mortal realm when he spots Persephone. It’s easy enough to say Hades has love and first sight and he simply grabs Persephone and carries her off with him down to the Underworld. Persephone is unhappy at first with her lot, but eventually she grows to love Hades and comes to accept her fate as his wife.
As to Demeter, she is so overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter that she neglects her duties with creating plant growth. It is Zeus who makes a decree that Persephone may be reunited with her mother, but only for part of the year. Zeus sends the god Hermes down to the Underworld to retrieve and bring Persephone back.
Hades held no desire to give up the goddess whom he intended to marry. Coming up with a plan, Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Now because she had eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone was bound to stay.
Persephone needed to only stay part of the year and the rest, she could be with Demeter. This way too, Hades didn’t lose his bride for she would have to return to him.
Not the best version of the story to give as it removes many details and robs Persephone of any agency or choice in the matter. Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
Version 2 – When Demeter becomes distraught over the loss of Persephone, she goes mad and wanders the land disguised as an old woman carrying a pair of torches in her hands. She searches for some nine days and nights.
Eventually Demeter meets Hecate on the tenth day who takes pity on Demeter’s miserable appearance. Hecate tells Demeter to seek out Helios, the sun god who can tell her of what happened. Demeter finds Helios who informs her about Hades abducting Persephone.
Demeter begs Hades to release Persephone and allow her to come back to the living world. Hades consults with Zeus about the matter. Hecate returns and lets Demeter know that Persephone hasn’t eaten four pomegranate seeds and because of that, Persephone will still be able to return to the living world. There is a catch and that is, because Persephone has eaten some of the pomegranate, she will have to return to the Underworld for part of the year.
Both version 2 and 3 retellings go for making it look as if Demeter is responsible for refusing to allow anything to grow and does so out of anger or spite. Or that in her grief, Demeter simply neglects her duties for making things grow. This idea originates in Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” that gives the idea that Demeter is in charge of fertility.
Those versions work if you want to ignore that Kore/Persephone is a Fertility goddess, she’s the one who is responsible for new plant growth.
Version 3 – Some versions of the story place the episode where Demeter goes to Celeus’ kingdom to hide in sorrow after she learns just who abducted Persephone. Regardless of if its Helios or Hecate who tells her the news.
This placement in the narrative often fits when the impression of Demeter as Fertility goddess is wanted to be given and that in her despair or out of spite, sets the world on a path to barrenness and winter.
Side Note – Sometimes the characters of Demephon and Triptolemus seen as being the same person, especially Triptolemus.
Ascalaphus – In what seems to be padding the story, Ascalaphus, the keeper of Hades’ Orchard is who tells the other gods that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds. Demeter becomes so enraged with this news that she buries him beneath a huge rock in the Underworld. Later, when Ascalaphus is released, Demter turns him into an owl.
Hades’ Role In The Myth
In the story for the Rape of Persephone, Hades fits into the story as he is an Underworld deity himself. Among the Greeks, it was believed that Hades rode around in his chariot catching the souls of the dead to carry back down to the Underworld.
With Persephone being a chthonic goddess, the Greeks likely came up with the story to better fit the goddess to her role as a Queen of the World. It unfortunately greatly diminishes her role and what her functions were from a much earlier era.
In the myths where Hades is called Pluto or Ploutos, he is not only a god of the Underworld, but wealth where the riches of the earth can be found. Partnering him up with Persephone is meant only to add to his power and domain for now it is the riches of the earth in terms of fertility. In this case, the wealth of corn or grain springing forth from the ground every year and the promise of renewal it brings with it.
This is perhaps the biggest aspect about Demeter. As an Earth Goddess and Goddess of the Harvest, this is Demeter’s biggest role in her gifting mankind with the knowledge of agriculture, especially for grains and cereals. Without the advent of agriculture, humans would still largely be hunter-gatherers moving about and never having settled in any place to build cities and all the rest that follows.
Grain – This crop was of great importance to the ancient Greeks as it was rare and hard to come by in the Grecian country sides. Persephone’s close association with this crop held the promise of renewal, regeneration and possibly immortality, knowing that she would return every spring.
This strong connection of grain and rebirth or renewal is what ties Demeter so closely to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In Hesiod, there are prayers to Zeus-Chthonios and Demeter to help ensure that the crops will be full and strong.
Secrets Of Agriculture – In the larger story of “The Rape of Persephone,” there is a shorter episode that occurs. During Demeter’s search for her missing daughter, the goddesses’ wanderings took her to the kingdom of Eleusis in Attica where King Celeus ruled. While there, seeking shelter in the guise of an old woman, Demeter, after deciding to not gift immortality to the young son, Demophan, the goddess instead taught the knowledge of agriculture to the older son, Triptolemus. In this way, this is how humankind learned the knowledge of how to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Now, there a few different versions to this myth and other figures such as Eleusis, Rarus and Trochilus will be who learned the secrets of agriculture. Fair enough.
Without the knowledge of agriculture, humankind would have continued to be nomadic, hunter-gathers. With Demeter’s influence, humankind is able to settle and stay in one place to begin building up their cities and civilizations. This fits with one of Demeter’s names: Thesmophoros as “Law Bringer” and laying out the planning and laws of society.
Seasonal Cycles & Changes
Like her daughter, Demeter is also closely connected to the Ancient Greeks beliefs about the changing of the seasons, especially as seen in the story: “The Rape of Persephone.” That Spring and Summer are when Persephone has returned to the Living World to be with her mother Demeter and that Fall and Winter come when Persephone descends back down to the Underworld to be with her husband Hades for the rest of the year.
Sure okay, makes sense I guess.
The more simplified Greek versions would have it that Demeter is responsible for the fertility of the earth and that she causes it to be winter out of grief and spite because her daughter Persephone isn’t with her. Add to that so many people wanting to give stories about how fickle and petty the Greek Gods could be, this just seems to fit the Pantheon’s MO, nobody is questioning the story?
Yay! I love mankind so much! I’m going to teach them agriculture and how to harvest! Boo! Hiss! You took my daughter! I’m going to punish the very mortals I claim to love so much by making the earth barren and winter!
That really doesn’t make sense!
Fertility Goddess – That’s because you have to remember that Persephone is a chthonic fertility goddess. The earth can grow again, and Spring comes when Persephone has ascended to the Living World.
The fertility function is something that the Greeks really seem to have forgotten and which role and function they attached to Demeter. That way, a version of the story where Demeter is the fertility goddess, it’s out of spite and grief that Demeter causes winter and refuses to allow anything to grow.
Harvest Goddess – Yeah! Everyone remembers this aspect about Demeter. Afterall, she taught mankind the secrets of agriculture! This is Demeter’s domain and better fits the dual roles that she and Persephone share.
Alright kiddos, Persephone’s going back to the Underworld to be with Hades again, better bring in those crops and harvest like I told you! It’s gonna’ be awhile and we don’t need any empty bellies or people dying while we wait for Persephone to come back.
Fall comes, and this is where Demeter’s role comes in. As plants become dormant or die, now is the time for harvesting, to make sure there enough food has been stored and gathered for the long winter months until Persephone and Spring returns. The first loaf of bread is thought to have been sacrificed to Demeter.
As a goddess of the Harvest, this domain ties closely to Demeter’s role as a goddess of Agriculture, having taught humankind it’s knowledge so they can grow enough food.
To keep with the version of the story where Demeter makes it Winter out of spite or grief because her daughter has been abducted seems contradictory. Especially if Demeter is one of the few Greek Gods who is considered closest to humankind and understands the most about grief and loss.
Just by the very meaning of Demeter’s name, “Earth Mother,” we know she is a mother goddess. Not necessarily a “Great Mother Goddess” as the Romans would identify Cybele and Rhea with.
As a mother goddess, Demeter is seen as the most compassionate and closest to humankind of all of the Greek Gods for she is the one who understands the most about grief and loss. It’s her gifts of abundance and the harvest yields that nurture and sustain humans through the long winter months.
This is another plant besides grains that is strongly associated with Demeter. Her emblem is that of a bright red poppy flower growing among the barley. Theocritus wrote of Demeter being a poppy goddess, that she held poppies and sheaves of grain in both of her hands. In Gazi, Minoa, there is a clay statuette that was found of a goddess wearing seed capsules on her diadem. The idea has put forward that a Great Mother Goddess, under the names of Rhea and Demeter introduced the poppy with her cult in Cretan.
Healing A Poor Man’s Son – An episode often set during Demeter’s search for her daughter, the goddess comes across a poor, old man who is out gathering firewood. He invites the goddess to his home, likely not knowing who she is, and offers to share a meal with her. This would be the law of hospitality among the Greeks known as Xenia.
When Demeter told the old man about her search for her missing daughter, he wished Demeter success and said that he understood her grief and suffering for his own son lay dying. Taking compassion, Demeter decided to go with the old man to his home. She stopped once to gather some poppies and when they arrived, Demeter went straight to the boy’s bedside, kissing him on the cheek. At once, the boy’s sickly pallor left him, and he was restored to health.
As to the poppies, I assume the story intended some healing use and connection. Poppies are a source of opium from which morphine is derived. There is a history of poppies being used medicinally, mainly for diarrhea and pain, chest colds, coughs and pneumonia. So, a Greek audience likely knew very well what Demeter intended to use the poppies for.
Poppy seeds are also used in preparations for bread and confections. Not likely an immediate use of drug abuse.
Goddess Of Marriage
As a goddess of marriage, Demeter is venerated at the celebration of Thesmophoria. It’s an interesting connection and one that makes sense if one remembers that it wasn’t unusual for mothers to be kept out of the loop as to whom their daughter would marry when the father is making the arrangements.
Of course, this future husband was likely someone easily two if not three times the girl’s age and she would find herself torn from her birth home and leaving to live with her husband, most likely in another town and province.
Demeter’s grief over the loss of her daughter would resonate with many women in ancient Greece. Taking from the stance of Demeter as responsible for fertility, she, unlike many women was able to do something that others couldn’t. That was to defy Zeus’ will by holding the world hostage until he agrees to release Persephone back to Demeter, even if only for part of the year.
It may have been a partial victory, but a victory all the same for Demeter. Many mothers probably hoped to be able to do something similar. Or say, a daughter could return to visit her maternal family, things would never return to the way they were before. But just for a little while, they could.
Demeter & Iasion
Iasion is noteworthy as he is considered the only consort Demeter took by choice rather getting raped or forced by another person. Iasion is the son of Zeus and the mortal woman, Elektra.
During the marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia, Demeter spotted Iasion and fell in love. She managed to lure Iasion away from all the other party goers. The two would head out to a field near Crete where they would have a tryst. Demeter would later give birth to twins: Ploutos (or Plutus) who is known for bestowing wealth and plenty on people and Philomelos who would become the patron of plowing.
Zeus would become jealous of Iasion and kill him with a thunderbolt. By one account, Zeus didn’t think it appropriate that a Goddess would consort with a mortal. But it’s okay if he does it? Got it.
Ploutos & Philomelos
In a case of sibling rivalry, Philomelos was envious of Ploutos great wealth. Rather than re-enact a biblical scene worthy of Cain and Abel, Philomelos bought a pair of oxen and invented the plow so he could earn a living tilling the earth. This so impressed Demeter, that she placed Philomelos up into the heavens to become the constellation Bootes.
Demeter & Poseidon
Well sure and why not? Demeter is the Goddess of the Earth and Poseidon is the God of Water. That’s a good match and they’re consenting adults and gods.
Mycenaen Greek – This is Bronze Age Greece, there is a script known as Linear B found in Mycenae and Mycenaean Pylos where both Demeter and Poseidon’s names appear. Poseidon is given the epitaph of E-ne-si-da-o-ne “earth-shaker” and Demeter’s name is given si-to-po-ti-ni-ja. In these inscriptions, Poseidon’s title and epitaph E-ne-si-da-o-ne (Enesidaon) links him as a King of the Underworld and gives him a chthonic nature.
Touching back to the Eleusinian Mysteries, there are tablets found in Pylos that mention sacrificial goods for “the Two Queens and Poseidon” or “to the Two Queens and King.” It’s agreed that the Two Queens very likely refer to Demeter and Persephone or its later precursor goddesses who are not associated with Poseidon later.
Eileithyia – She is a local Minoan goddess found in Amnisos, Crete where she is a goddess of childbirth who gives birth to a divine child. Her consort is given as Enesidaon, the “earth-shaker” whom we just mentioned is Poseidon. Her cult and worship would survive within the Eleusinian Mysteries. Plus, we see where local deities’ worship get absorbed and conflated with a more popular, well-known deity.
Arcadia – We’re still in Bronze Age Greece! Here, Demeter and Poseidon Hippios or Horse Poseidon give birth to a daughter, Despoina, who is a goddess in her own right before some of the myths confuse her with Persephone or make her an epitaph of Demeter.
In this myth, Poseidon is a river spirit of the Underworld, appearing as a horse. In this form, Poseidon pursues Demeter, who is also in horse form. Demeter hid among the horses of King Onkios. Due to her divinity, Demeter couldn’t remain hidden for long and Poseidon caught up with her and forced himself on her. When the two gods copulate, Demeter gives birth to a goddess who is also in horse or mare form. This is a myth that sounds very similar to another one between Poseidon and Athena and more accurately, Philyra and Cronos when Chiron is born. The horse motif is very common in norther-European myths and folklore.
As a mare-goddess, Demeter is known first as Demeter Erinys due to her fury with Poseidon for forcing himself on her. She becomes Demeter Lousia, “the bathed Demeter” after washing away her anger in the River Ladon. There’s something to be said for this as you can’t hold onto your anger forever, you must let it go or otherwise it consumes you.
The whole myth of pairing up Demeter and Poseidon is to connect Demeter as a Goddess of the Earth and Poseidon as a God of Water with their connection over nature. Despoina is the daughter who results from their union and whose name could not be spoken outside of the Arcadian Mysteries. Demeter and Poseidon also have another child, a horse by the name of Arion who is noted being able to speak, being immortal, really swift and for having a black mane and tail.
The effigy or imagery of Demeter worshiped in Arcadia depicts her as a gorgon or medusa-like with a horse’s head and snake hair while holding a dove and dolphin that likely represented her power over air and water. Close to the Arcadian city of Phigaleia, there is Mt. Elaios where a cave held sacred to Demeter is found. Here, an image of Demeter Melaine is seated showing the goddess dressed in black with a horse’s head and snake hair. According to Pausanias’ Description of Greece, when the statue caught fire and was destroyed, the Phigalians failed to make a new statue for Demeter, eventually leading to neglecting her sacrifices and festivals, the land became barren.
Demeter & Ascaelabus
I assume this is an episode set during when Demeter is searching for her daughter. When Demeter stopped at one point to kneel by a spring to quench her thirst, a man by the name of Ascaelabus began laughing when he heard the sound of Demeter’s gulping. Angry and embarrassed, Demeter turned the man into a lizard for his rudeness.
Demeter & Triopas
Considered the father of the Thessalians, Triopas was cursed by Demeter after he destroyed one of her temples. In retaliation, Demeter sent a huge serpent to kill Triopas. Even in death, Demeter wasn’t finished and she set Triopas up among the heavens as a constellation where the serpent could forever torment him.
Demeter & Erysichthon
Erysichthon was a Thessalian hero who decided to build himself a palace. Unfortunately for Erysichthon, the grove of trees he chose were sacred to Demeter. As Erysichthon set about to cut down the trees, Demeter came in disguise as a priestess by the name of Nikippe to try and warn Erysichthon not to cut the trees.
Nikippe is also the name of a nymph who lived in the grove. So when Erysichthon ignores the warning and chops down the tree, killing Nikippe, Demeter became very wroth and cursed Erysichthon with an insatiable hunger.
The more that Erysichthon ate, the thinner he became. In addition, when he had spent all of his money to try and sate his insatiable hunger, Erysichthon turned to selling his daughter Mestra into slavery.
Luckily for Mestra, she was a mistress of Poseidon and he granted the powers of shape-shifting into animals. Using this ability, Mestra would be able to escape slavery every time her father sold her.
In New Age, Pagan and Wiccan practices, Demeter is often seen as the Mother aspect of the “Triple Goddess” with Persephone representing the Maiden and Hecate the Crone.
Virgo Zodiac Constellation
The constellation of Virgo is the sixth sign of twelve that form the classical Greek Zodiac. For those who study and are into the classical Greek Zodiacs, this time is typically said to be from August 23 to September 22. Virgo is often depicted as a Winged Maiden holding a stalk or sheaf of wheat or some other grain in her hand. This figure is sometimes identified with that of Demeter, most notably by Marcus Manilus in his Astronomicon in 1st century Rome.
Ceres – Roman Goddess
Ceres is the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility, and motherhood and equated with Demeter. Similarly, Ceres has a daughter by the name of Proserpina is also abducted by Pluto down to the Underworld to become Queen of the Dead. The biggest difference in the myth is that Pluto is struck by an arrow from Cupid after his mother Venus told him to do. This is what causes the God of the Dead to fall madly in love with Proserpina. The other difference is that Cere’s celebrations and festivals come during the Spring while Demeter is venerated in Fall with the Harvest.
Cybele – Phrygian & Roman Goddess
The Greeks are who make the connection and equate Cybele with Demeter and Rhea, seeing in her a Mother Goddess. While Cybele does have her origins in Phrygian worship, when the Greeks encountered her, they just saw another deity like their own, just under a different name. Yes, all three are a Mother Goddess and Goddess of the Earth, you can see why the Greeks would equate all three together.
The Romans are clearer in acknowledging more clearly the genealogy of the Greek pantheon and equating Cybele whom they readily adopted as their own with Rhea and then equating Demeter with Ceres, a Roman Harvest goddess.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
The Greeks are who equate Demeter with her mother, Rhea, a Titaness, mother of the gods who is also a goddess of the earth and fertility. As I previously mentioned with the name of Antaea, that epitaph could be applied to Demeter, Cybele and Rhea equally. It works if you’re just seeing all the gods as different aspects of the divine and not making any distinction. It’s possible that’s just remnants of an older belief and religion that the Greeks replaced with their own.
Gaia – Greek Goddess
I’m my own Grandma!
Not really, leave it to the Greeks to continue with blending all their deities as being one and the same, to blur or ignore their own genealogies for their Pantheon. Gaia is the primordial goddess of the Earth and from whom all life sprang forth. Again, it works if you’re just seeing all of these deities as just different aspects of the divine.
Alternate Spelling: Ὀρφεύς, Greek
Etymology: There are more than a few different etymologies that have been given for the name of Orpheus. One suggestion has been orbhao, meaning “to be deprived” and another is orbh, “to put asunder or separate.” This later is in reference about Orpheus having been torn apart by the Maenads. A last word is “goao,” meaning “to lament, sing wildly or cast a spell,” this word appears to combine all the traits that Orpheus is known for as a forlorn lover, musician and priest.
Golden Age Hero
Among the Greeks, Orpheus is the name of the greatest and legendary musician and poet of mythology and religion. His music was so great that he could charm all living things and even the stones of the earth. The story that Orpheus is the most well-known for, is that of going to the Underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice back to the lands of the living. Orpheus’ other claim to fame in stories is being a member of the Argonauts.
Parentage and Family
There’s typically a couple slight variations as to who Orpheus’ parents are.
Apollo & Calliope – In this version of parentage, Orpheus is very much so a god, even if a minor god.
Oeagrus & Calliope – With this version of parentage, with his father a mortal king and his mother the muse Calliope, Orpheus is certainly considered a demigod.
The Muses (though I’d think them more like Aunts), the Graces, Linus (who goes on to Thebes, thus becoming a Theban).
Aristaeus – the son of Apollo and a potential half-brother to Orpheus if we use the parentage of Apollo and Calliope for Orpheus.
Eurydice – Sometimes known as Argiope. Some versions of the story mention her to be a Nymph. Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back to life after her untimely death.
Musaeus of Athens is thought to be Orpheus’ son.
Orpheus’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
There are a couple of different lines of parentage for Orpheus that are given.
In one, he is the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope.
In the second, he is the son of a mortal king, Oeagrus and again, the muse Calliope.
Depending on the lineage one goes with, Orpheus is either a minor god or demigod.
The ancient writer, Strabo wrote of Orpheus as a mere mortal who lived in a village near Mount Olympus. According to Strabo, Orpheus would have made his living as a wizard, likely the charlatan, street performer kind and musician.
For those interested, this city in ancient Greek and likely located where the modern village of Agia Paraskevi close to Litochoron, is reputed to be the birthplace of Orpheus. Dion and Mount Olympus also nearby to Pimpleia. There are several springs and memorials dedicated to Orpheus and the Orphic Cults. Even the Cults of the Muses were honored and known by the epithet of Pimpleids.
Early Literature & History
The ancient Greeks, except for Aristotle, seem to have accepted Orpheus as a historical personage. Neither Homer or Hesiod mention him in any of their writings. Pindar makes note of Orpheus, calling him “the father of songs” and that he is the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope. The earliest reference to Orpheus is found in the fragments of a poem by the 6th century B.C.E. poet Ibycus. In this fragment, Orpheus is called onomaklyton Orphēn or “Orpheus famous-of-name.”
Orphism – The Orphic Mysteries
Orpheus is considered by the Greeks to be the founder of the Orphic Mysteries. He is often credited as being the composer for the Orphic Hymns, of which, only two have survived to the present day of this body of literature and hymns. Some 87 hymns have been attributed to Orpheus for the god Dionysus and sung for the Orphic and Bacchus Mystery cults. The composer, Onomacritus is likely to have written many of the early Orphic hymns.
Orphism was at its height during the 6th century B.C.E. in ancient Greece. Shrines dedicated to Orpheus reportedly containing relics of his have been regarded as Oracles. In the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter in Taygetus, there was a wooden statue of Orpheus.
Orphic – The word orphic derives from Orpheus’ name and has come to have the definition of mystic, fascinating and entrancing. With the connection to the Oracle of Orpheus, the word orphic can also refer to or mean oracular. As a seer and auger, Orpheus also practiced astrology and founded cults for Apollo and Dionysus.
Orphikos – Or the “Orphic Way of Life.” Plato makes mention of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would offer purification rites for the wealthy and have a collection of books attributed to Orpheus and Musaeus. The most devoted to the Orphic rites would frequently practice vegetarianism, refusing to eat eggs and beans as well as practicing celibacy.
Orphic Ritual & Eschatology – It’s thought that this ritual involved a symbolic or actual dismemberment of an individual who represented the god Dionysus reborn. There was a lot of Orphic eschatology doctrine centered around the rewards and punishment for the soul once the body died and being free to pursue their true purpose or life.
Wine – Wine was an important element of the Orphic religion, used in their sacrament for a sacred intoxication they believed would bring them closer to god and as a means of gaining mystic knowledge. This concept was introduced to the Greeks by Pythagoras, who was viewed as a reformer to the Orphic Mysteries that succeeded the Dionysus Mysteries. It’s easy to see or assume this concept of wine in religious sacraments makes its way into other religious practices.
Gifts Of Orpheus
Other gifts that Orpheus is thought to have given to his fellow humans is that of medicine, though that is credited as more having been Aesculapius or Apollo. Writing, often more the purview and invention of Cadmus. Lastly, agriculture, though with this role, Orpheus takes on the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus who gives Demeter’s knowledge of agriculture to humans. The ancient writers Aristophanes and Horace go so far as to state that Orpheus even taught cannibals to live on eating fruit. According to Horace, Orpheus is the one who brings order and civilization to otherwise lawless and savage people.
Other Cults And Religious Worship
Orpheus is credited with establishing the worship of different deities in other places throughout ancient Greece.
Hecate – in Aegina.
Demeter Chthonia – in Laconia
Kores Sōteiras – also in Laconia as a savior maid
Orpheus & His Lyre
While Orpheus was living with his mother Calliope and her other sisters, the muses in Parnassus, the youth met the god Apollo who was courting the muse Thalia at the time. In his role as the god of music, Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play. Calliope, as Orpheus’ mother, taught him how to compose songs and lyrics.
A minor note though is that while Hermes is the one who invented the lyre, Orpheus is who perfected the art of music with it.
Jason and the Argonauts
In the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus is but one of many companions who journeyed with Jason.
In his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason had been advised by Chiron in a prophesy that he would need the famed musician Orpheus.
Feeding The Crew – Armed only with his golden lyre, Orpheus aided and helped feed the crew of the Argos by charming fish from the sea with his music.
Calming The Storm – In one episode, a storm rolled in and Orpheus played his lyre, thereby, immediately calming the seas and ending the storm.
Siren Call – This the most famous episode in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts that Orpheus is known for. When the Argonauts encountered the Sirens, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and played his music much louder than the Sirens, drowning out their voices so that the crew could bypass the danger. One account has the Sirens changing into rocks.
However, one Argonaut, Boutes is mentioned as still being affected by the Sirens’ call and leaps overboard when the Argo started sailing further away. Lucky for Boutes, the goddess Aphrodite saved him and took him to Cape Lilybaeum.
These are the same Sirens that Odysseus encounters in Homer’s epic of the Odyssey. The Sirens lived on a series of three small, rocky islands known as the Sirenum scopuli. The voices of the Sirens, when they sang or called out would cause sailors to leap to their deaths into the sea and crashing their boats on the rocks to sink beneath the waves.
Unrequited Love – The 3rd century B.C.E. poet Phanocles, wrote of Orpheus being in love with Calais, the son of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. The affection doesn’t seem to have been returned as Phanocles writes of how Orpheus would go to shady groves and sing of his unfulfilled desire and longing for Calais.
Pederasty – Since we’re on this subject of love, Ovid writes of how Orpheus eventually came to spurn the love of women due to his loss of Eurydice. Due to Orpheus fame and skill with music, many people still wanted his companionship and not just as friends either. Continuing with Ovid’s line of thought, Orpheus is to be counted as the first Thracian to engage in pederasty. Pederasty being the relationship between an older man and a younger man, often in his teens. Ancient Greek social customs say this relationship was consensual.
Orpheus & Eurydice
This is perhaps the most well-known of the stories surrounding Orpheus, the death of his wife Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld to try and bring her back.
There are a few different variations to how Eurydice died. Most versions agree that in one way or another, she had been bitten by a venomous snake.
When Orpheus met and fell in love Eurydice, like many couples, they decided to tie the knot and get married. Hymen, the god of marriage presided over the marriage to bless it. However, Hymen prophesied that this marriage would not last.
Sooner than anyone thought, the trouble would come. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice went out walking in some tall grass. In one version of the story has Eurydice bitten while dancing to Orpheus’ music. In another version, a satyr jumped out and did as all satyrs do when confronted by a female, they chased after Eurydice. In her flight from the satyr, Eurydice fell into a viper’s nest where she was bitten on the heel.
Yet another version of the story, told by Virgil in his Georgics, has a man by the name of Aristaeus, a shepard chasing after Eurydice before she is bit by a viper. In Ovid’s retelling of the story, Eurydice’s death comes about by dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day. Aristaeus is also, incidentally Apollo’s son. So, potential half-brother that might have been invited to the wedding and lusting after his brother’s wife.
When her body was later discovered by Orpheus; in his overwhelming grief, he played a rather sorrowful tune. This music caused all of the nymphs and gods to grieve for Orpheus’ loss. Virgil describes Dryads as weeping from Epirus and Hebrus and as far as the land of Getae. Orpheus is further described as having wandered to Hypberborea and Tanais in his grief for Eurydice’s loss.
Moved by Orpheus’ laments, the gods and nymphs advised the great musician to go into the Underworld to bring back Eurydice. Sometimes it is just the god Apollo who advises Orpheus to make the descent. Eventually Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bringing his wife back to life. Using his famous lyre, Orpheus succeeded in charming Charon, the ferryman for the river Styx, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and both Hades and Persephone. They agreed to a bargain, that Orpheus could lead Eurydice back up to the lands of the living. However, there was one condition for this and that was that Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice until they had reached the surface.
Tragically, just before they reached the surface, Orpheus’ anxiety and love for Eurydice overwhelmed him, that he looked back at his wife. This caused Eurydice to be pulled back down to the lands of the dead, this time for good.
Ancient Views –
Interestingly, Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld is sometimes viewed in a negative light. Some, like Plato, speaking through the voice of Phaedrus in his Symposium, say that Hades never intended for Eurydice to return to the lands of the living and had presented Orpheus with an illusion or apparition of his deceased wife. Plato saw Orpheus as a coward, who instead of choosing to die and be with the one he loved, decided to defy the gods and the natural order by going to Hades and bringing his dead wife back. By Plato’s argument, Orpheus’ love wasn’t true as he did not want to die for love, so the gods’ punishment is that Orpheus would have only the illusion of getting his wife back and would than later be killed by women, the Maenads.
It has been suggested that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice might be a later addition to the Orpheus myths. One example put forward is that of the name Eurudike, meaning “she whose justice extends widely” is very probably one of Persephone’s titles.
Don’t Look Back!
This mythical theme of not looking back is a stable of many stories. It is famously known in the biblical story of Lot’s wife looking when his family fled the destruction of Sodom. Other stories are those of the hero Jason’s raising up the chthonic Brimo Hekate with Medea, Adonis’ time in the Underworld and that of Persephone’s capture by the god Hades. Even in general folklore, there is the one simple task the hero is to do to win the prize and yet, they still manage to fail, thus upsetting the gods, fay or other supernatural being.
Distraught with the loss of his wife a second time, Orpheus fell into solitude, spurning the companionship of others and even disdaining the worship of the Greek Gods. In Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus went mad in his failure to bring back his wife.
An Affront To Bacchus/Dionysus
In the version of this account by Aeschylus, in his play the Bassarids, Orpheus worshiped only the sun, Apollo. One morning, when Orpheus went to the Oracle of Dionysus located near Mount Pangaion to do his morning respects to the sun, he ended up getting torn to pieces by the Maenads for failing to give proper respect to Dionysus whom he had previously been devoted to. Eventually Orpheus was buried in Pieria. The Greek writer Pausanias says that Orpheus was killed and buried in Dion. Per Pausanias, the river Helicon is to have sunk underground when the Maenads who killed Orpheus went to wash the blood off their hands.
Where it’s the god Bacchus who is mentioned, Orpheus had once been a devotee to the Bacchus’ Mysteries. So this version of the story has Bacchus punishing the Maenads for Orpheus’ death by turning them all into trees. This version of the story is disputed as whey would Bacchus punish his own followers even if Orpheus had once been a follower himself. Though an argument comes that Bacchus allows the death for Orpheus when the musician abandoned Bacchus’ Mystery Cult.
A slight variation to all of this as recounted by Dürer in his Death of Orpheus, the Ciconian women, when they set about to kill Orpheus, first did so by throwing sticks and stones at him. Due to Orpheus’ skill with music, the very stones of the earth and sticks wouldn’t hit him. It is then, that these enraged women tore Orpheus apart with their bare hands in a fit of Bacchae madness.
Orpheus’ head and lyre would eventually find their way to the shores of Lesbos where the local people buried his head and built a shrine near Antissa to honor him. Orpheus’ head would offer up prophesies. When this oracle began to become more famous than Apollo’s Delphi Oracle, the god silenced the Antissa oracle.
Sometimes the Muses are credited with having taken Orpheus’ body for burial, first in Leibethra before the river Sys flooded and eventually to Dion. It’s expected that Orpheus’ shade does return to the Underworld to be reunited with his love. In Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Orpheus’ limbs are entombed at the base of Mount Olympus where nightingales to this day, “sing more sweetly than anywhere else.”
As to the lyre, the Muses would come claim it and place it up into the heavens to become the constellation Lyra.
Instead of being killed by a group of women, Orpheus is said to have committed suicide in his inability to bring back Eurydice or after a failed trip to the oracle found in Thesprotia. This suicide is seen as Orpheus playing his lyre, calling for the wild animals to come tear him apart. Another story says that Zeus struck Orpheus with lightning as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods to mortal men.
Analogies To Other Greek Figures Of Myth
The story of Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Maenads has similarities with other figures of Greek myths and legends.
Dionysus – In terms of the Orphic Mystery Cult, the death of Orpheus seems to parallel the story of Dionysus’ death and their decent into the Underworld of Hades.
Pentheus – A former king of Thebes who was also torn apart by the Maenads. His story is mainly found and best retold by Euripides in his The Bacchae.
After Orpheus was murdered by either the Ciconian group or Thracian Maenads, he was turned into a swan and placed up into the heavens to become the constellation Cygnus next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
Alternate Spelling: Kybele
Other names: Agdistis Cybele Magna Mater, Berecyntia, Brimo, Dindymene, Magna Mater, Mother of the Gods, Kubaba, Matar Kubelē, Kubileya or Kubeleya “Kubeleyan Mother” (Phrygian, translation: “Mountain Mother”), Lydian Kuvava (Turkish Kibele), Κυβέλη, Kybêlê, Kybele, Κυβήβη Kybebe, Κύβελις Kybelis (Greek), Meter Theon, Great Mother
Other Names and Epithets: Antaea, Mātēr, Mētēr, Mistress Cybele the Mother, Mistress of Animals, Idaea, Isis, Rhea, Demeter, Ops, Potnia Theron (Mistress of the Animals), Mater Deum Magna Idaea, Meter Theon Idaia (“Mother of the Gods, from Mount Ida”), Meter Oreie (Mountain Mother), “The Mother of the Gods, the Savior who Hears our Prayers”, “The Mother of the Gods, the Accessible One.” Megalenses ludi, Pessinuntica (Phrygian – “Mother of the Gods.”)
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Etymology: ” Mother of the Mountain,” “Cavern-Dweller”
An inscription found on one of Cybele’s Phrygian rock monuments has been translated as mater kubileya, “Mother of the Mountain.” The inscription for matar or “Mother” is found at many other Phrygian sites.
Animal: Bee, Hawks, Lions, essentially all wildlife.
Colors: Brown, Green, Blue
Day of the Week: Saturday
Patron of: Nature, Natural places, Mountains, Caverns, Walls, Fortresses
Plant: Almond, Pine
Sphere of Influence: Fertility, Menstruation, Nature, Sex, War, Mother of Life
Symbols: lions, naiskos, tympanon (hand-drum or tambourine), pine cones
Early Greek depictions of Cybele are small votive representations of her rock-cut statues and images found in Phrygia. Cybele is shown standing alone inside a naiskos, which is basically a rock-hewn relief with walls and roof overhead to represent a temple or doorway. She is crowned with a type of tall cylindrical hat called a polos, a long flowing chiton that covers her shoulders and back. Cybele is sometimes shown with lion attendants to either side of her.
Approximately 5th century B.C.E., the Greek sculptor Agoracritos made the official Hellenized version of Cybele in the Athenian agora. This statue shows Cybele sitting on a throne with a lion at her side and holding a tympanon, a type of hand drum that the Greeks used in her cults and worship. In Greece, Cybele would be very closely identified with the Greek’s mother goddess figure of Rhea.
Anatolian & Phrygian Origins
While Cybele is known as the Great Mother in the Roman pantheon, she was originally a mother goddess from Anatolia. She is likely the precursor of a Neolithic goddess in Çatalhöyük (Konya), where a statue of a pregnant goddess that appears to be giving birth is seated on a lion throne was found within a granary.
For the Phrygians, Cybele is the only known goddess and is also likely the state deity. In addition, Cybele was a goddess of caverns, goddess of the Earth in its primitive form and was worshiped on mountain tops. Cybele’s domain was over all the wild creatures of the earth. Phrygian art dating to the 8th century B.C.E. shows Cybele attended by lions, a bird of prey and a small vase for libations or other offerings.
Greek colonists would later adopt Cybele in Asia Minor before bringing her back to the mainland where her worship would spread during the 6th century B.C.E.
In Çatal Hüyük, Turkey, there is a figurine that was found dating back to 8,000 B.C.E. that depicts a Mother Goddess squatting in the process of giving birth and is flanked to either side by two leopards. This figurine is thought to be Cybele in a very early form.
Cumae – The Sybils of this temple were Cybele’s priestess and oracles.
Ionia – In places such as Magnesia and Maeander, where Cybele is worshiped as Dindymene, she held temples.
Pessinus – Located near Mount Dindymus in Phrygia, a temple was built here dedicated to Cybele Dindymene. Legend holds that the Argonauts built this temple. Here, Cybele was represented by a black meteoric iron stone. This same meteorite may have also associated with another mountain deity of Pessinus as Agdistis.
Rome – A temple for Cybele as Magna Mater stood on the slopes of Palatine Hill it overlooked the Circus Maximus and facing another of Cybele’s temples on Aventine. The first temple here was destroyed by fire in 111 B.C.E. and later rebuilt. In Imperial Rome, the temple burned down again and was rebuilt by Augustus, only to get burned again.
During the ground breaking and preparation for Saint Peter’s Basilica on Vatican Hill, a shrine known as the Phrgianum and dedicated to Magna Mater was found. A motif of Saint Peter is found standing at the site of Cybele’s temple in Rome.
The Roman port of Ostia also boosted a sanctuary to Magna Mater and Attis, commemorating their arrival to Rome. The worship of Cybele brought on the anger of many Christians within the Roman Empire. Especially when Saint Theodre of Amasea, in recanting his beliefs, did so by burning down a temple of Cybele.
Mount Sipylus – A stone carving found here is believed to be the oldest image of Cybele. The carving itself is attributed to the legendary Greek hunter Broteas as having created it. The 2nd century C.E. geographer Rausanias mentions a Magnesian cult to “The Mother of the Gods” having been present.
Cults Of Cybele
The rites for Cybele were secretive and mysterious like many Earth Mother Goddesses such as Demeter and Isis. Cybele’ cult was directed by eunuch priests known as Corybantes or Galli. They were very faithful in conducting their orgiastic rites that were often wild and emotional with lots of ecstatic cries and frenzied, passionate music of flutes, drums and cymbals. In addition, sacrifices were made to Cybele, symbolizing the death and rebirth of her son and consort Attis. Self-castration is said to have taken place in Cybele’s rites. Other later rites were the taurobolium in which a bull was sacrificed and a priest bathing in its blood.
As a mystery cult, not much is known about Cybele’s initiates and worshipers. Stone reliefs show Cybele alongside both young male and female attendants carrying torches and vessels used for purification. Surviving literature describes a joyous sound of abandonment with loud percussions of tympanons, castanets, cymbals and flutes and a lot of frenzied dancing. It has been suggested that the dancing is likely to have been circle-dancing by women.
Worship Among The Greeks
Cybele’s cult was introduced to Greece by returning soldiers from the Trojan War and is noted for having caused a lot of conflicts. It would later be adopted by the Romans who held festivals in Cybele’s honor. The worship of Cybele among the Greeks held various mixed views. Here, her various different aspects were mixed with other goddesses. Notably the goddesses of Gaia, an Earth-goddess, Rhea, a Minoan goddess and the Harvest-Mother goddess of Demeter. The city-state of Athens invoked Cybele as a protector.
In 6th century B.C.E., Herodotus mentions that when Anacharsis returned to Scythia, that his brother the Scythian king had Anacharsis put to death for joining Cybele’s cult.
Athenian tradition holds that sometime around 500 B.C.E, a city metroon was created in order to placate Cybele after she visited a plague upon the city after one of her priests was killed for trying to introduce her cult. It’s thought that this story would explain why a public building would be dedicated to an imported goddess. The earliest source to this story is referenced in the “Hymn To The Mother Of The Gods,” circa 362 C.E. by the Roman emperor Julian. Given Cybele’s wild and forceful nature, her cults were often privately funded rather than publicly funded among the Greeks.
In Greek rites, Cybele was often seen as a foreign and exotic mystery-goddess who rode in a lion-drawn chariot accompanied with wild music, wine and a rather disorderly following; not unlike Dionysus or Bacchus’ Bacchanalias. As a foreign goddess, Cybele was seen as the great goddess of the Eastern World.
The transgender or eunuch priesthood was uniquely Greek. Many of Cybele’s Greek cults held a rite to a divine Phrygian Shepard-consort of Attis. This joint cult of Cybele and Attis was found throughout Magna Graecia, with evidence of this cult in Gaul, modern day Marseilles and Lokroi in southern Italy during the 6th and 7th centuries B.C.E. Following Alexander the Great’s conquests of the known world, wandering devotees to Cybele became common place in Greek literature and social life.
The Greeks associating Cybele with the Minoan goddess, Rhea has led to a number of different male demigods becoming tied into Cybele’s mythology as attendants or guardians for her infant son Zeus, in the cave of his birth.
Within the Grecian cults, these different male demigods acted as the intermediaries, go-between, even messengers for the goddess and her mortal followers through the use of dreams, trances and ecstatic dances and song.
Some of these demigod messengers are:
Korybantes – Or Kouretes, a group of nine armed dancers who are the offspring of the Muse Thalia and the god Apollo. They used drumming and dancing to drown out the cries of an infant Zeus to prevent him from being discovered.
Corybantes – Simply the same group, only this is the Phrygian name for this group of dancers.
Dactyls – A group of magician-smiths who are sometimes the offspring of Rhea or they worked for the god Hephaestus. They were ancient smiths and healers who sprang into being as Rhea went into labor with her son Zeus.
Telchines – An ancient primordial race with dog heads and flippers for hands. They were best known for their metal working. A group of nine Telchines were employed by Rhea to raise her infant son Zeus.
Worship Among The Romans
To the Romans, Cybele was known as Magna Mātēr or “Great Mother.” In the Roman State, Cybele’s cult and worship was adopted after the Sibylline oracle said it would be an important religious factor during Rome’s Second Punic War with Carthage.
The Romans had some dire omens in the way of a meteor shower, failed crops and an impending famine. It should be noted that a second consultation with the Greek oracle at Delphi confirmed to the Romans that adopting Cybele’s cult and worship would be the right way to go in assuring victory.
Cybele’s arrival into Rome is marked by the arrival of the Pessinos’ black meteor stone from the neighboring Roman ally and Kingdom of Pergamum. Further, Roman legend connects the voyage of the meteor stone with a Claudia Quinta who was accused of being unchaste. When the ship carrying Cybele’s sacred stone became stuck on a sand bar in the Tiber River, Claudia prayed to the goddess for help. Proving her innocence, Claudia was able to single-handedly pull and tow the ship free of the sandbar. Shortly after, Rome’s fortunes changed with a successful harvest and their being able to defeat Hannibal, the then leader of Carthage.
Among the Romans, Cybele was rewritten to be a Trojan goddess and thus making her an ancestral goddess through the Trojan prince Aeneas. Many of Rome’s leading families claimed Trojan ancestry and this made for Cybele’s integration into the Roman culture and pantheon a sort of reunion with a Mother Goddess’ exiled people. Further Romanization of Cybele sees her identified with the goddess Ops, wife of Saturn and the parents of Jupiter.
Rome’s dominance over the Mediterranean and Europe, saw many of Cybele’s cults get Romanized and spread throughout the Empire. Just what the exact nature of Cybele’s cults and worship among the Romans has meant were greatly discussed and disputed in both Greek and Roman literature and even among modern scholars.
It is generally agreed that the addition of Cybele’s consort Attis and her eunuch priests known as Galli or Gallai and all the wild, ecstatic features of her worship from her Greek and Phrygian cults have been largely Romanized. Something the Romans were very good at when adopting the gods of other cultures into their own. Under the rule of Caesar Augustus, he built a large temple to Cybele on the Palatine Hill. The statue of Cybele found within this temple has the likeness of Augustus’ wife, Livia.
Big Three – Cybele’s worship in Rome became so popular that it would become one of the three, major and important cults within Rome. The other cults are the Cult of Isis and Serapis (Osirus) and Mithraism. All three of these cults would persist and last until Rome’s conversion to Christianity as a state religion. Under Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century C.E., he outlawed all other cults and the church of Magna Mater, Cybele ceased to be and saw heavy persecution and the destruction of her temples.
Castissima Femina – “Purest or Most Virtuous Woman” Claudia Quinta’s connection and involvement with bringing the worship of Cybele to Rome would become more glorified and embellished over the centuries. To the point of forming a small cult. Claudia Quinta would be shown in the dress of a Vestal Virgin in art. Imperial Augustan ideology viewed Claudia as the very ideal of virtuous Roman womanhood.
Criobolium And Taurobolium – While the Greeks may have had no problems with castration for initiation into Cybele’s Cults, the Romans did hold prohibitions to this practice that greatly limited who could be initiated into the cult. Around 160 C.E., it is known that Roman citizen who sought initiation could offer up two forms of animal sacrifice as an alternative to self-castration.
The first, Taurobolium, sacrificed a bull, considered to a potent and expensive offering. The high cost for this sacrifice ensured that only Rome’s highest social class could be initiated. The second, Cribolium, sacrificed a ram, seen as a more inexpensive and thus less potent offering. This sacrifice is more typical of Rome’s poorer social classes.
The Christian apologist, Prudentius gives a description of these sacrifices where a priest stands in a pit under a slatted wooden floor. When the acolytes killed the bull with a sacred spear. The priest will come out from the pit, covered in the bull’s blood, much to the applause of spectators. This is atypical of Roman sacrifices as what is more likely to have happened with a sacrifice is that the blood is carefully collected and offered up to the deity along with the animal’s reproductive organs.
Both the Criobolium and Taurobolium are not linked to any specific religious celebration with Magna Mater, though they clearly have the same symbolism seen with the observance of Hilaria, March’s “Holy Week” that celebrates and honors the death and rebirth of Attis. Later, during Rome’s Imperial era, many of Attis’ initiates come from the deeply religious and wealthy citizens and not necessarily for the worship of Cybele.
Galli – This is the name for Cybele’s priesthood during Imperial Rome. They were eunuch priests who practiced castration as a sign of their devotion to the goddess Cybele. The Galli castrated themselves in service to Cybele as they thought that doing so would give them the powers of prophecy. After castration, they would dress as women, keeping their hair long and adopting female mannerisms and appearances. The Galli also wore a tall cylindrical hat called a polos. It is known the Galli held orgiastic rituals accompanied by loud cries and the loud noise of flutes, drums and cymbals. While there are certainly the male priests who wore women’s clothing, in some regions there were also known to be female priestesses devoted to Cybele.
In Servius’ account, Attis is the founder of this priesthood with the highest ranking Gallus taking the name of Attis. The more junior Galli was known as Battakes. The Galli located at Pessinus were very politically influential among the Roman Senate.
In Rome, the Galli were forbidden citizenship and the rights of inheritance, as they were eunuchs and unable to have children. This was a very stark contrast to many other priests of other Roman gods who did have families and raise children, particularly of the more senior priests.
The Galli are thought to have castrated themselves in keeping with the myth of Attis where he castrates a king for their unwanted sexual advances and gets castrated in turn by the dying king. Cybele’s priest would have found Attis at the base of a pine tree where he dies and they proceed to bury him. In memory of Atti’s passing, the priests are believed to have emasculated themselves and added him to the celebrations and rites for the goddess Cybele. In Hellenistic Greek, a poet refers to Cybele’s priests as Gallai, a feminine form of the name. The Roman poet Catullus refers to Attis in the masculine form of his name until he is castrated. Catullus then refers to Attis in the feminine form of his name thereafter. Different Roman sources refer to the Galli by a third gender of medium genus or tertium sexus when mentioning them.
During the Megalesia festival, the Galli were allowed to leave their temple under Cybele’s law and go out into the streets begging for money. The standard of dress that the Galli wore, marked them as outsiders to the Roman people. Despite their effeminate dress and mannerisms, the Galli were considered sacred and inviolate as they were part of a state Cult. The Roman prohibitions of castration made the Galli a clear image of curiosity and scorn. The Galli were a constant presence within Roman cities even into Rome’s Christian era.
Parentage and Family
Dindymene – In Phrygian mythology, she with King Maeon, is the mother of Cybele. Otherwise, the name of Dindymene is sometimes seen as just an alternative name for Cybele.
Maeon – (Also spelt Meion). A King of Phrygia and Lydia, with his wife Dindymene, fathered Cybele.
In this version of the myths, Cybele was left out, exposed on Mount Cybelus to die. However, leopards came and suckled Cybele, allowing her to survive.
Zeus & Gaia – Pausanias identifies Cybele’s parents as being the Phrygian Sky-Gods and Earth-Goddess whom he names as having been Zeus and Gaia.
Attis – A vegetation bull-god. In the very conflicting and varying stories, Attis is both Cybele’s son and consort.
Midas – As in King Midas of the golden touch. He is sometimes shown to be a consort of Cybele. Though he is definitely regarded as a leader to Cybele’s cult.
Cybele is ultimately the mother and grandmother to a good many deities of the Roman Pantheon.
Cronos – When Cybele is identified with Rhea, she is the mother of Alce, Midas and Nicaea.
Gordius – With him, Cybele is the mother of Midas, when he’s not shown as her consort.
Iasion – With him, Cybele is the mother of Corybas (also spelt Korybas). Iasion is the Samothrakian for Cybele’s consort Attis. Corybas is the first of the Korybantes who will later stand guard over the infant Zeus.
Olympos – With him, Cybele is the mother of Alke-Kybele
Sabazios-Dionysos – Some versions of his birth place him as Cybele’s son instead of Hera/Juno’s child.
A Crisis Of Identity
While Cybele has her origins in Anatolian and Phrygian culture and mythology; her being imported and adopted by other cultures in the Mediterranean has led to a good many other goddess being identified with Cybele or seen as alternative names and epithet.
The most notable is that of the Greek Goddess Rhea, who is also a Mother Goddess. Many of her myths have become intertwined with those of Cybele’s over the years.
Other goddess who have been equated and identified with Cybele are the Roman Goddess Ops, the wife of Saturn, the Egyptian goddess Isis, a minor local goddess or nymph Idaea and the Greek goddess Demeter.
Cybele And The Sibyls
Due to the similarity in the how the names sound, there tends to be a lot of associating the Sibyls as potential female priests and oracles for Cybele. While female oracles, the Sibyls could claim patronage to any deity and not necessarily Cybele. Most seem to follow the Greek god Apollo as he is a god of Prophecy.
Many Sibyles would prophesy at holy sites and they were originally at Delphi and Pessinos, following chthonic deities. And yes, Pessinos is where Cybele originated from when the Romans brought her black stone and statue back home. So there just might be a real connection.
Agdistis – Hermaphrodite – The Birth Of Cybele
Anatolian Goddess – Before the drastic changes to her myth, Agdistis had been a benevolent goddess of healing. Accepted for as they are until later changes are made and forced to this goddess as she and many others are absorbed into the larger myth of Cybele and adopted by other cultures, namely Greece and Rome.
When taken as a separate deity from Cybele, Agdistis is of mixed Anatolian, Greek and Roman mythology. They are a hermaphrodite or androgynous being; having both the male and female sexual organs. This dual nature of Agdistis made them symbolic of the wild and uncontrollable nature. This is an aspect that was seen as so threatening to the other gods that they sought to destroy Agdistis. The one explanation found or given is that Agdistis, being a hermaphrodite, held a huge sexual appetite and the gods were unable to handle it. They felt that this being could and should only be one gender or the other and for the gods, it was easier to remove the male sexual organs.
There a lot of ancient inscriptions that plainly and clearly show Agdistis as being separate from Cybele. However, later, Agdistis’ name would become one of Cybele’s many epithets. A common occurrence for many localized gods and goddess of Phrygia as the gods were imported into Greece and then Rome and many deities of a foreign place were often seen as being the same god, just known by another name.
There are multiple versions of the story for how Agdistis is attacked by the other gods and is castrated, how Attis is born and that Agdistis, now Cybele falls in love with the youth, promising to make him immortal.
How in some versions, Attis is punished for falling in love with is mother, how instead of keeping his vow to Cybele to only follow her, that he falls in love with another and that a jealous, angry Cybele drives Attis and the other guests at a wedding mad. How after, regretting her actions that she pleads to Jupiter/Zeus to restore Attis. One version of the story has both Agdistis and Cybele as separate beings who both fall in love with Attis.
The Greek Version – In this version of the myths, Cybele was raped by Zeus and gave birth to Agdistis. It should be noted, that Attis is very strongly and likely an invention and addition to Cybele’s myth.
As a deity separate from Cybele, Agdistis was a mountain deity found on Mount Dindymus near the city of Pessinus.
The Roman Version – In one version of the myths, Cybele, known as Agdistis is thought to have been a hermaphrodite, having been born of the earth where Jupiter’s sperm fell. The gods castrated Agdistis who then becomes the goddess Cybele. Where the severed pieces of Agdistis’ manhood fell, an almond tree grew. The fruit of this tree impregnated the nymph Nana when she placed an almond on her womb. Or more likely, that she ate an almond. Nana later gave birth to the god Attis. The baby Attis was abandoned by Nana as she was afraid of her father. The baby was discovered and saved by shepherds. Attis would grow up to become Cybele’s lover.
Pausanias’ Version – Pausanias identifies the Phrygian Sky-God and Earth-Goddess as being Zeus and Gaia.
In Pausanias’ version of the story, while sleeping, Zeus had some of his sperm fall on the ground. This of course created a Daimon that was hermaphroditic having the sexual organs for both male and female. This Daimon would be called Agdistis, another name for Cybele. The other gods feared Agdistis and cut off the male organs. This proceeded to create an almond tree. The daughter of the river Saggarios then took the almond fruit and held it to her bosom where it vanished. The daughter would find later that she was pregnant and give birth to Attis.
A slight variation to this story is that while Gaia, as the Great Mother slept on a rock called “Agdo,” the god Zeus raped Gaia and brought about Agdistis birth.
Other variations yet have either Dionysus or Liber who make a potion to put Agdistis to sleep so they can castrate them by tying his genitals to his foot so they’re ripped off when Agdistis stands.
Depending on the version of the story read, there are different accounts to the sequences of events and who is involved, a river nymph or king’s daughter that Attis marries.
It certainly reads as a very conflicting story that will vary by which author relates it. There’s been a good many changes to the story, especially considering how much Attis is a later addition that is largely added-on by the Romans.