In Greek mythology, Demeter, who was called Ceres by the Romans, was one of the children of Cronos and Rhea and a sister of Zeus. She was the goddess of the earth, fertility, and grain. It was she who taught farmers to plow and plant, and she called the crops forth from the tilled earth. Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, goddess of spring, were honored in the highly secretive Eleusinian mystery rites, cult celebrations that took place in the Greek city of Eleusis, north of Athens.
When Persephone was a young maiden, Hades, the god of the underworld and brother to Zeus, fell in love with her. He stole her away to his kingdom beneath the earth and made her his reluctant queen.
Distraught at the loss of her daughter, Demeter appealed to the gods, but she was told that it was a good match and that she should be happy. In despair, Demeter disguised herself as an old woman and wandered the earth, lamenting and refusing to allow anything to grow.
At one point in her wanderings, Demeter came to the land of Eleusis, where she served as a nursemaid to the king’s son. When Demeter attempted a ritual to grant the child immortality, she was interrupted and her divine nature was revealed. Demeter stayed and taught the people of Eleusis the secrets of agriculture, and gave them the rites that came to be known as Eleusinian.
Meanwhile, mortals and gods alike were suffering because Demeter continued to withhold the earth’s fertility. Without her blessing, nothing grew, ﬂowered, or bore fruit. Mortals starved, and there was nothing to offer to the gods in sacriﬁce.
Finally, Gaia, the earth herself, appealed to Zeus. Despite his earlier approval of the match, Zeus gave in and sent Hermes to order Hades to return Persephone to her mother.
Persephone was delighted, however, when she was in the underworld she had eaten six seeds from a pomegranate given to her by Hades. Since nobody who had eaten food in the underworld could return entirely to the world of the living, Hermes proposed a compromise: Persephone would spend half of the year with Demeter and the other half of the year with Hades.
Nobody was entirely happy with this arrangement, but they all agreed to it. Persephone returned to Demeter, and Demeter allowed the earth to bloom once more. Each time Persephone returned to the underworld, however, Demeter grieved anew and the earth lay barren until her daughter returned to her.