A Greek goddess

About the object

Demeter and Persephone

The headdress worn by this figure provides a clue to who it represents. This type of tall, cylindrical hat is particularly associated with the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, Demeter’s daughter. An additional clue is the necklace she wears. It is in the shape of a pomegranate, a fertility symbol on accounts of its many seeds, which again is associated closely with Persephone and through her, with her mother. In the Greek myth, Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, god of the dead, and carried off to the underworld as his wife. When her mother discovered that the kidnap had been sanctioned by Zeus, the king of the gods, she refused to allow anything to grow on earth, and plants, animals and humans grew weak and died. Eventually, Persephone was returned to Demeter, but not before she had eaten some seeds from a pomegranate. This act condemned her to go back to the underworld for a number of months each year and it is during those months that Demeter is so sad that she again neglects to support life on earth.

Life and death

The figurine was probably placed in a tomb, where the association with Demeter and Persephone would have been particularly appropriate. The story of Persephone acted as a mythic explanation of the seasons of the year, and the worship of Demeter was essential to maintaining the fertility of the earth. But it also describes the cycle of death and birth and in doing so holds out the hope that death does not mean total oblivion. It is this hope that lies at the heart of so-called ‘mysteries’ that were one aspect of the worship of Demeter and Persephone as well as of some other Greek gods. Mysteries were rituals through which an individual was initiated into the cult and in which he or she participated after initiation. Secrecy was important, as the benefits of initiation derived from a sense of wonder and communion with the deity, but did not mean that mysteries were exclusive only to a few. The most famous mysteries of Demeter and Persephone took place at Eleusis, near Athens, and anyone, even slaves, could be initiated as long as they could speak Greek and had not committed murder.

Public worship

Gods were involved in every aspect of human life from childbirth to warfare and needed to be kept on one’s side or thanked for their help. They were worshipped and respected through simple daily rituals, such as pouring liquid offerings of wine or milk, through more formal ceremonies in the home or community, and through large scale festivals. Festivals for Demeter were often limited to particular groups of people, such as women, or more specifically wives (at the Thesmophoria, held in autumn), or the group of initiates at the mystery festivals, who might number into the thousands. Other festivals focused on the wider community, whether citizens of a particular city, for example, the City Dionysia festival at Athens and the Heraia at Argos, or that of all the Greeks, for example, the Olympic Games and the Pythian festival at Delphi.

Most festivals included animal sacrifice, during which a portion of the animal was frequently offered to the god and the rest of the meat shared by the worshippers. Festivals thus served to bring the community together both by gathering to worship the god and by communal feasting. The priests who conducted the ceremonies were often not life-long religious specialists as in most modern religions, but were members of the community who had been appointed, usually for a fixed period, to carry out the rituals. Both men and women could hold priesthoods, with men often serving in the cult of gods and women in the cult of goddesses. There was a priestess of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis, and at the Panathenaia at Athens, a woman officiated as priestess and girls served in the cult of the goddess. In ancient Greece, religion was the one area where women could hold public office and play an important role in public life.

More information

Eleusinian Mysteries
Brief article on the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Introduction to Greek gods and goddesses
Introduction to Greek gods and goddesses with links to essays on death and mystery cults.

Information about Greek religion
Information about Greek religion illustrated with objects from the University of Pennsylvania Museum: click forward through various aspects of religion.

Olympian gods and goddesses
List of the Olympian gods and goddesses with basic information and links to a selection of minor gods, heroes and monsters.

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A Greek goddess