Homeric Hymn to Demeter Or The Thesmophoria – Which Came First?

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A dedication to Bacchus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1889)(Notice the pomegranates on the table on the right) (Public Domain)

Homeric Hymn to Demeter Or The Thesmophoria – Which Came First?

Evoking early agrarian rituals which celebrated the primal mysteries of birth, death, and resurrection, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter has the distinction of being amongst humankind’s first literary compositions honoring agricultural renewal and the Great Mother Goddess tradition. Thought to have been composed within 50 or so years after Homer’s epics, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter was penned in the seventh century BC and is one of a series of 33 Homeric hymns which honor individual deities. They are called Homeric, not because they were composed— or sung— by the poet known as Homer, but because they employ the same meter used in the epics: dactylic hexameter or six feet per line. These Homeric Hymns were originally sung as prayers and while there is no record of a specific performance of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter—hereafter referred to as the Hymn— most scholars agree that a portion of the Hymn was likely sung at the cult festivals honoring Demeter.  It is useful to note that up until the eighth century BC, Greek culture had been conveyed orally only—not by written documents. 

Demeter (left) handing ears of wheat to Metanire, the queen of Eleusis (Public Domain)

Demeter (left) handing ears of wheat to Metanire, the queen of Eleusis (Public Domain)

The Hymn begins when an agreement is reached between Persephone’s father, Zeus— Lord of the Gods—and his brother Hades— Lord of the Underworld, to allow Hades to abduct or marry Persephone without the knowledge or consent of either mother, Demeter, or daughter, Persephone. The abduction is the event that spurs the action of the myth and resonated with women of the Greek world whose marriages were made in this fashion. At heart, the Hymn is a woman’s story. All the major roles are played by females and the areas of concern: marriage, agriculture, and sacrifice are in the feminine realm. 


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