Agriculture and Greek Myth

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Agriculture in Greek Mythology
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Classical mythology and the sacred religious cult, the Eleusinian Mysteries, reveal a lot about the importance of agriculture and the future fecundity of the land to ancient civilisations. As the mother-goddess of the grain and rich harvest, the myths of Demeter are pivotal to a contemporary understanding of the cultural function of agriculture in the ancient world. The use of primary sources, most notably the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, provide crucial insight into agriculture and its cultural context as represented in this etiological tale of classical mythology.

Considering that land provided liquid wealth and/or livelihood to the vast majority of Athenian citizens, it is no coincidence that classical myths of fertility focused largely on the regeneration of the land as dictated by the power of Demeter. A significant domestic economic activity of the polis, agriculture laid the foundations for a successful and prosperous city-state. Professor of Classics and History at David Herlihy University, Kurt Raaflaub, points out two important functions of the land in Periclean Athens. Firstly, that ‘the land served to demarcate “rich” and “poor”, and secondly, that it ‘underlay the ideal of autarkeia, “self-sufficiency”.’ Providing further evidence to the centrality of agriculture in classical Athens, and more specifically to the oikos, Plutarch describes how Pericles “sold all his annual produce all together at once, and then he used it to buy in the agora each item as it was needed, and so provided for the daily livelihood of his household”. The economic and cultural value of agriculture in antiquity is conveyed through classical mythology of Demeter and her founding of the Eleusinian Mysteries, one of the most famous religious cults in the ancient world.

The myth of Demeter and Persephonê, preserved in time by the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, tells the story of the wheat-goddess’ controlling power over the fertility of the earth and the consequences that result from her wrath of famine. The divine myth explains how Hades, god of Death, abducts Persephonê, daughter of Demeter and Zeus, and takes her to the underworld to be his bride. A fifth century clay plaque depicting Persephonê, enthroned beside Hades, holding a stalk of wheat, is demonstrative of her close relationship to the grain-goddess, Demeter (see Fig.1). Enraged by her beloved daughters capture (at the consent of Zeus), Demeter plagued the earth and its harvest until Persephonê was returned. The Homeric Hymn tells of the devastating impact of Demeter’s curse on the land, writing ‘the oxen tugged the curved plows through the furrows, in vain, and plentiful grains of white barley fell on the ground without fruit’. The significance of Demeter’s act is heightened by the fact that both god and mortal were affected by the plaguing of agricultural land, for even the almighty Zeus was powerless against her. The hymn acknowledges this extraordinary power of Demeter and the importance of agricultural fecundity, describing the Goddess’ terrible scheme, ‘to wipe out the frail human races born and sustained by the earth, by hiding the seeds in the ground, ending the offerings that men now make to the gods in the heavens’. At Zeus’ request, Hades returned Persephonê to Demeter at her temple in Eleusis, but only for two-thirds of the circling year. It was with this joyous occasion that spring arrived, and the source of life to humankind was restored.

To the ancient world, the etiological tale of Demeter and Persephonê rationalised the changing of seasons. More specifically, it existed as a metaphor for the inevitable cycle of life and death that applies to both the seasonal pattern of growth in agriculture, and also to mankind. Descriptions in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, identify the goddess as...
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