Planting the Seeds of Death: Black Demeter in Early Greek Cult
The familiar image of Demeter is that of an agrarian goddess who may, when under duress, spread barrenness across the Greek landscape. Agriculture was clearly deeply connected to the life – and death – of a city and its populous, and so worship of Demeter spread across the Greek world, particularly where agriculture was a key industry. As with all Greek divinities, though, Demeter had both positive and negative aspects – while she was praised as a giver of life, grain, fruit and abundance, she was also worshiped in association to the potential barrenness she could inflict. In Phokis, for example, she was worshiped with the epithet ‘Barren.’ In other places she is known by epithets such as Melaina (‘Black’) and Erinys. The Erinyes were themselves goddesses of vengeance, agents of death who dwelt in the underworld and Demeter’s association with them may hint at a stronger connection between the agrarian goddess and the underworld. And we may find this connection even though the majority of cult activity dedicated to Demeter is centred on agriculture, for which there is no clear or obvious underworld connotation save for the barrenness she cast over the land following the rape of her daughter. This paper, therefore, aims to uncover the hidden underworld aspect of this agrarian goddess and, in so doing, to propose some significant conclusions regarding the connection between death and life in ‘popular’ death-and-life-related cultic practices and possible religious beliefs in early Greece.