Zeus the Many Married God – Part 4: Demeter

Zeus and Demeter

Zeus’s fourth wife was said to be his sister Demeter, goddess of the harvest. This is perhaps his most problematic marriage, if a marriage even occurred. Not much is known about the relationship of Zeus and Demeter. The Olympian goddess of agriculture was an important deity to the ancient Greeks. Perhaps Zeus, god of the sky, wanted a piece of the earth as well so he set out to make Demeter his wife. But whatever happened between them, it may not have been consensual. It is said that Zeus raped Demeter after chasing her into a field and flirting with her.

Demeter was horrified when she realized what Zeus wanted with her. She changed into a snake to escape him. This was a bad decision on Demeter’s part because Zeus was one of the best shape-shifter gods. He changed into a snake as well and chased Demeter into a small crevice where he forced himself on her. Months later, Demeter’s daughter Persephone, the goddess of spring was born.  If a marriage occurred, it was short lived. Demeter raised her beautiful daughter alone. Together, mother and daughter watched over the world’s seasons and plants. Demeter did not miss having a husband to share her life with, she had her kind daughter Persephone who loved nature as much as she did.

Hades and Persephone

Although Zeus was an absent father to Persephone when she was growing up, he felt entitled to make parental decisions on her behalf. Persephone grew to be an extremely beautiful maiden and attracted the attention of her uncle Hades. The god of the Underworld wanted to make Persephone his bride. Hades went to his brother Zeus and asked for Persephone’s hand in marriage. Zeus told Hades he could have her and to go ahead and take her. No one thought to ask Persephone’s mother Demeter what she thought about this or even Persephone herself. Her father Zeus had given her away and so Hades felt entitled to have her. While Persephone was gathering wild flowers with her nymph friends, the earth split open and Hades sprung out in a chariot pulled by four black stallions. Hades snatched Persephone and dragged her down to the Underworld against her will.

When Demeter found out her daughter had disappeared she was despondent. She wandered the Earth looking for her. At last the sun god Helios, who saw the whole thing, told Demeter what had happened. Demeter did not bow to the authority of her child’s father Zeus. She wanted her child back. She refused to govern the harvest, causing a worldwide famine. Zeus was forced to do something about it or people would starve. He tried to negotiate for Persephone’s return but when he checked in with Hades it was found that she had eaten a few pomegranate seeds. If she ate anything in the Underworld it would mean she had to stay there. A compromise was struck. Persephone would spend a third of her time in the Underworld and the rest up top with her mother. The time she would be in the Underworld the crops would cease to grow and it would be winter as Demeter would be missing her daughter.

Demeter Stands Her Ground

Demeter was never happy when her daughter was not with her but she did win a victory against Zeus. It was a time when fathers arranged the marriages of their daughters and their mothers did not have a say in the matter. Demeter stood her ground. She knew her own power and she used it. She shut down the world’s food production rather than let Zeus dictate who should have her daughter. How much agency Persephone had in all this is a question. It was well known that if you ate something in the Underworld you would have to stay. Persephone willingly ate the pomegranate seeds. She may have been making her own choice to stay in the Underworld. She may have been exercising the little power she had on where she was to live.

Persephone went on to become known as the Dread Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. She was goddess of spring, the dead, destruction, life, grain, and nature. After being abducted, like her mother before her, she came into her power. Zeus arrogantly thought he could hold dominion over his daughter and her mother. Demeter showed him that as a goddess who knew her own power, he didn’t stand a chance against her.