Demeter was the great Soul of the world, in latin Anima Mundi. Or at least, she represented the web catching the great Soul and the Souls of the world, be they human or metallic.
The two elements which compose her name – Δημήτηρ – are an alteration or a more ancient form of a word meaning “Earth Mother”. Although nowadays being chiefly celebrated for her maternal tribulations, in ancient times Demeter was praised as the goddess of fertile and cultivated soils feeding all humans and animals.
But in even more ancient ages she shared with Osiris the same secret world of wheat and resurrection. Thus Demeter’s sphere of influence also reached the underworld; though her character of nether divinity soon devolved on a special goddess: Persephone who, incidentally, played the role of her daughter.
We know that Mythological characters were often conceived to embody all the different phases of the same leading role, as in Alchemy. In fact we will see Dionysus (1) as a new embodiment of Demeter, for in Alchemy a passive substance also contains its active agent. It is just a matter of extracting it. As Robert Graves points out in his “The White Goddess”, all the feminine characters in Olympus could be reduced to one single leading actress. And vice versa. The egyptian Isis provided an excellent prototype. But we have said above that Osiris, together with Dionysus, were also involved in Demeter’s functions. In fact, in Alchemy, all gods were being born by the same substance: our ineffable Secret Fire and personified all its extensions.
Demeter was a classical example of the alchemical rule of three ( a symbol may stands for at least three different meanings) and it was so in her worshippers minds too. In fact she was known as the Treble Goddess: sometimes she took the function of Gaea, the goddess of Earth; sometimes of Cybele as feeding mother; sometimes of Aphrodite, for her improving fertility role; sometimes as Hecate, goddess of the dead moon, her chthonic aspect, and sometimes as Artemis, the knowledge goddess. In Alchemy Demeter is a symbol for the raw matter to be worked to extract our Secret Fire; for our Primitive Mercurius or Nature; for the same Secret Fire finally achieved; for the metallic Soul to be resurrected from raw matter; and also for the sacred knowledge giving rise to all that.
So many features as Demeter have wheat, crops, bread and single grain every time in ancient religions and myths they were involved in celebrations, in fact most of the times they were evoked out of the ordinary harvesting. In very ancient times, emerging from the neolithic peoples, bread and wine were seen as symbols of human evolution, since only the developed societies were able to produce. With the gift of agriculture, the foundation of civilization, the harvest gods gave the men the decency and the laws. Thus the house of bread was a synonym for house of knowledge. But what kind of knowledge? Wheat often appeared in christian cross iconographies. The same name Bethlehem, the Christ’s birthplace, seems an alteration from Beth-El, the house of God, to a word meaning “the House of Bread”.
The presence of wheat and bread is wide also in later catholic iconographies, and not surprisingly they are officially tied to the idea of heavenly nourishment, however not in the alchemical sense of Secret Fire coming from the sky (2, even if a more sapiential use have been proposed, see the Saint Denys Chalice), but rather to the symbolic presence of God in the substantial spiritual nourishment. If we go back to more ancient religions we find that one of the names of Osiris is “bread”, so no wonder he is often represented with wheat and bread, in fact the ancient hieroglyph for “mummy” was a piece of bread resting on a shelf. If in Catholic Eucharist a wheat wafer is distributed in the place of the original bread as a symbol of divine flesh given in sacrifice, the Jews already offered to God in the temple their bread of proposition. And if St. John says that he/she who eats the bread-body and drinks the blood-wine acquires eternal life, more ancient priests in the Middle East already provided bread as a symbol of the matter in space to capture the intangible spirit. If Christ is said to be the bread coming down from heaven, the Jews already spoke of the manna as the bread descended from heaven.
The main Philistine deity, Dagon, was also a deity of wheat. In fact his name meant, in Phoenician, wheat, but strangely the god was depicted with the body half human and half fish. And here we returned to the bread and fish connection. In the last supper, Christ eats bread and fish. Bread being the net catching the fish. If you remember I aforementioned Middle East ancient people taking bread as a symbol of the matter in space able to capture the intangible spirit. As a matter of fact, according to alchemists, Mercurius is the alchemical net able to catch or extract Sulphur, as well as our Spirit of Life to catch Souls. And fishes were symbolically standing for Souls.
It is not a coincidence that wheat, in one form or another, was reconnected to the theme of resurrection. In the Odyssey, Odysseus poured wheat flour at the entry of Hades, to bring the dead back to life.
Another unexpected, and apparently nonsensical, feature of Demeter is cruelty. During the mourning for her daughter and while her desperate searching for her, the goddess renounced her divine functions, so that the earth perished and stopped to give fruits. In Arcadia Demeter robbed men of the last wild fruits and forced them to feed on human flesh. In fact, beside the Demeter called “the house of bread”, there exists a second one called “the voracious”. Sacrifices made for the harvests in her honor involved, or were characterized, by bloodshed or cruelty. Probably news of mysterious rites for immortality, including the extraction of the Soul from a living human, arrived at laypersons ears and bloody sacrifices seemed to them quite plausible. Nobody knew, and knows, how those resurrection rites were actually performed and what really went on inside these impossible to reach milieus. Anyway it is a fact that sacrifices are an ancient hermetic symbol for our Mercurius extracting our Sulphur (3).
Cicero spoke of a shrine dedicated to Ceres (4) in Catania: In the inner part there was an ancient statue of Ceres, but the male people not only did not know of its physical appearance, they did not even know its existence. In fact at that shrine men were not allowed: the tradition had it that the celebration of these sacred rites took place only among women. Both married and unmarried.
Also at Thesmoforia special celebrations were held in honor of Demeter and participators were mostly women. The rites took place nightly in a sacred enclosure (temenos) near a grove. But in these rituals girls were excluded from these so called “orgies”. Probably sacrifices and banquets were held. that’s also evidenced by archaeological findings: in the sanctuary of Bitalemi the remains of a hearthstone were found with pottery and bones of pig, seventh century B.C. and in the most ancient part of Lasos sanctuary, sixth century B.C., clay female figurines have been found with a pig, torch lamps and small vases, all makes supposing that in Termophoria were executed ritual feasts, or sacred meals.
The italic Ceres gave her name to the special celebrations taking place at the Caereris Mundus, a sacred pit which was opened in Rome in only three special days, August 24, October 5 and November 8, which were considered as major religious days. This pit ideally put in communication the world of the living with the dead of the underworld.