Classical Mythology: Home and Harvest: The Sisters of Hera
Home and Harvest: The Sisters of Hera
Though not given a share in ruling the universe, the sisters of Hera (and Zeus) were no less deserving of honors. The original Olympian goddesses assumed “traditional” female responsibilities derived from the functions of ancient earth goddesses. Hera protected marriage and childbirth, Hestia guarded the hearth and home, and Demeter promoted fertility and the harvest. Since these functions played no small role in the earthly lives of mortal men and women, the Greeks (and later the Romans) showed them great reverence. Ancient literature on mythology and religious practices—written exclusively by male authors—offers us few tales about Demeter and Hestia. However, other relics of antiquity—artifacts, graffiti, place names, and so on—provide strong evidence that women in particular directed religious practices and daily worship primarily toward female deities.
Home Is Where the Hearth Is
What a Life!
Only once did Hestia come close to losing her virginity. One night at a rustic feast, the gods ate and drank too much and fell asleep or passed out. Priapus, an incredibly ugly man possessed of grossly elephantine genitals, prepared to mount her. But just as he lowered himself on top of her, a braying ass woke Hestia up. The goddess screamed and Priapus skittered away like a scared rabbit.
The first-born of the six children of Rhea and Cronus, Hestia was the kindest, most virtuous, and most charitable of all the Olympians. As goddess of the hearth and fire—the symbolic center of the home—Hestia watched over the home, household activities, and the family. Indeed, some storytellers assert that Hestia herself invented the art of building houses. By extension, she also protected the community, the civic affairs of the communal family.
Unlike most other gods and goddesses, Hestia had few shrines built to honor her. But she needed none, for every home was her shrine—as well as the public hearth of every city. Suppliants could seek her protection in any private home or in the city hall.
The goddess of the home and family never had a family of her own. At one time, both Poseidon and the younger god Apollo pursued her, and the competition for her favor threatened to get ugly. But her supreme dedication to peace never allowed Hestia to take part in wars, rivalries, or other disputes. So in order to maintain peace on Olympus, Hestia turned down both rivals and swore by Zeus's head to maintain her chastity forever. Thereafter she withstood all amorous advances by gods, Titans, and mortals alike. Zeus rewarded her for this sacrifice by guaranteeing her the honor of receiving the first portion of every public sacrifice.
Although the division of kingdoms among the three sons of Cronus left Earth as common ground, if anyone on Olympus ruled over Earth, it was Demeter. The goddess of the harvest, earth, and fertility, Demeter presided over all crops, but especially grains. (For some reason she was not fond of beans, regarding them as impure.)
Kore means “maiden,” one of the three principal aspects of ancient goddess worship. The ancients divided female divinity into The Maiden, The Mother, and The Crone—the three phases of an ancient woman's life.
Demeter, like Hestia, never married, but she did have several love affairs. With her first love, Zeus, Demeter had two children: a daughter, Kore (later called Persephone); and a son, Iacchus.
Attending the marriage of Ares' daughter Harmonia and Cadmus, the first king of Thebes, Demeter fell in love for the second time: with the bride's brother, Iasion, a Titan. The couple lay together in a thrice-plowed field. But when the lovers returned to the wedding feast, Zeus spotted the mud on their arms and legs and jealously killed Iasion on the spot with a thunderbolt. Her child by Iasion, Plutus, would become the god of the earth's wealth.
For the most part, Demeter was gentle and mild. Very rarely, however, she exploded with anger. Her most notable outburst of anger came in the wake of her daughter Persephone's abduction by Hades. In her thirst for vengeance—and her sorrow—Demeter made the earth barren, forbidding trees to blossom and crops to grow and creating a year-long famine.
What a Life!
One mortal who incurred Demeter's wrath was Erysichthon. Needing timber, he cut down trees in a grove sacred to her, refusing to heed the cries of the trees' dryads (nymphs who dwell in trees) or the blood flowing from their wounds. When Demeter, in the guise of her priestess, Nicippe, told him to stop, he raised his axe and told her to be gone. For this sacrilege, the goddess condemned him to eternal hunger. Erysichthon stuffed himself to no avail. Unable to afford feeding himself, he became a beggar. In the end, he gnawed on his own flesh until he died.
Even in the throes of despair, however, Demeter responded to kindness with kindness and generosity of her own. In the midst of her search for Persephone, the daughters of Celeus, king of Eleusis, invited Demeter—who had disguised herself as an old woman—to stay in their palace. In return for this kindness, Demeter schooled Celeus and the Eleusinians in the religious rites in her honor that came to be known as the Eleusinian Mysteries—the most widespread and influential of all Greek religious rites. (Celeus constructed a temple at Eleusis in her honor.)
Queen Meteneira also offered Demeter a place in her home, asking the old woman to serve as her young son's nurse. Demeter adored the boy, Demophon, and—in gratitude to his parents—wanted to give him the gift of immortality. But Meteneira was horrified to discover the old woman laying the baby on the embers at night to burn away his mortality. As a result, Demeter never got the chance to complete this rite. (Demophon grew up to be a great, but mortal, leader of Eleusis.)
Demeter also rewarded Triptolemus, an Eleusinian (perhaps another son of Celeus) who gave her the first clue to her daughter's whereabouts. To thank him, Demeter taught him the art of agriculture. She then sent him throughout the world with seed-corn, a wooden plough, and her dragon-drawn chariot to sow these lessons everywhere.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.