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Today we feature a special treat from the ancient world. This is the Arimaspi Calathos, a gold headdress for a priestess of Demeter, goddess of grain, agriculture, and fecundity. It was crafted in the second half of the 4th century BC by master Greek goldsmiths out of thirty sheets of fine gold plate hammered into shape and cunningly joined together (plus some enamel and other bits). The headdress is commonly known as “the fighting griffins calathos” for the magnificent eagle-headed mythical beasts on it. The central griffin is proudly uninterested in fighting, but its two companions rip into Greek women who are sinking to the ground beneath the onslaught. I can’t find any images of the remaining crown, but it looks like it is probably similarly violent and enigmatic. Greek jewelry was beautiful, dark, and interesting: you never see celebrities these days wearing anything featuring griffins killing lots of people.

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The piece was found during excavations of the Bolshaya Bliznitsa burial mound, a funerary complex for the ancient Greek city of Phanagoria. Phanagoria was the largest city of the Greek colony on the Taman Peninsula, which separates the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea. The Greeks founded a trade colony there in 543 BC in order to trade with the Scythians and the Sindi (and perhaps with people from much farther to the east as well. Judging by the hats worn by their priestesses, it was a good place to trade, although the imagery of the votive crown suggests that it was also a life of robust competition and fearsome struggle.

Gold Headdress-The Arimaspi Fighting Griffins Calathos -Greek work-Second half of the 4th century BC

SerapisHellenistic

Serapis was a deity created by fiat for political convenience. When the Macedonian empire conquered Egypt during the heady reign of Alexander the Great, it proved difficult to integrate Greek and Egyptian culture. Religion was a particular sticking point: the animal-headed & multitudinous gods of Ancient Egypt struck the Greeks as barbarous and primitive. Likewise, the Greek gods, who cared little for humans (and even less about what happened to them in the afterlife) struck the Egyptians as cold. Ptolemy I, Alexander’s satrap who came into control of the Egyptian part of the empire realized that this was a dangerous tension, and so during the 3rd century BC he proclaimed a new god, Serapis, who combined elements of Greek and Egyptian deities (although some ancient sources suggest that worship of Serapis existed before, at least in some form, and Ptolemy merely stylized and popularized him).

Serapis (Late Antique ca. 2nd Century BC)

Serapis (Late Antique ca. 2nd Century AD)

Serapis took the form of a powerful Greek nobleman with a fulsome beard, a modius upon his head, a forked scepter in his hand, and the dog of the underworld, Cerberus, at his feet. Sometimes a serpent was depicted beneath Serapis. Serapis was meant to combine the Egyptian gods Osiris, death lord of the underworld, and Apis, a mighty bull god of fertility, but soon the new deity acquired characteristics of Hades and Demeter as well (who were also deities of the underworld and fertility, respectively). Serapis thus stood for the mystical death/resurrection cycle of living things. He shepherded the dead to a comfortable land beyond while simultaneously bringing life and fecundity to the world of the living.

 

Triptych Panel with Painted Image of Serapis (Egypt, about A.D. 100, encaustic)

Triptych Panel with Painted Image of Serapis (Egypt, about A.D. 100, encaustic)

Serapis became very popular in the Greco-Roman world. During Roman times he was often portrayed as the consort of Isis (whose cult was extremely fashionable and beloved throughout the Roman sphere). Great temples—Serapeums—were built throughout Egypt and beyond to venerate the cosmopolitan international deity. Yet Serapis did not transition out of classical antiquity very well. Christians had their own deity of death and resurrection (who had uncomfortable parallels with the older god), and one of the defining moments of transition between the classical and Christian eras was the destruction of the Alexandrian Serapeum in 389 AD. Later, Renaissance classicists and scholars were drawn to the Olympian pantheon with their gripping moral dramas, but not to the perplexing syncretic figure. Yet numerous statues and artworks are left to testify to the age of Serapis, when the societies of the ancient Mediterranean world blended together (as did their deities of the underworld).

Bust of Serapis (Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC, stored in the Serapaeum of Alexandria)

Bust of Serapis (Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC, stored in the Serapaeum of Alexandria)

 

Papaver rhoeas is an annual flower which grows across Eurasia and northern Africa.  The brilliant vermilion flower is commonly known as the red poppy, the corn poppy, or the field poppy.  This plant has an ancient and unmistakable connection to agriculture. The poppy tends to grow in ground which has been broken.  It is fairly resistant to non-chemical weed control mechanisms, and it can grow, flower, and then set seed before barley or wheat is harvested.  All of this means that field poppies were an inextricable part of early grain fields (where they were sometimes more abundant then the grain).

Even though the wildflowers are weeds, they are very beautiful weeds and the ancient Greeks were quick to give divine significance to the red blossoms. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture who legendarily presented humankind with the secrets to grain-farming (a craft which she first revealed to the demi-god Triptolemus).  Her emblem was the red poppy growing among the barley. The flower’s distinctive red with orange undertones gave its name to a color coquelicot (which is the French word for the corn poppy).  In English, the word coquelicot has been used to describe that color (which, coincidentally is one of my favorite) since the 18th century.

As noted above, the poppy sprouts up in broken ground. During World War I, artillery bombardment and trench excavation caused tremendous ground disturbance, which caused the poppies to flourish. All throughout the warm months of the conflict the flowers bloomed profusely in no-man’s land and between the trench lines.  One of the war’s most famous poems “In Flander’s Field” was a short rhymed poem in the form of a French rondeau which described the poppies blowing among the endless lines of freshly dug graves.

The armistice which ended World War I and silenced the big guns took place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. In the years after the war, veterans from the Allied forces were honored (and the dead remembered) by the wearing of real or artificial poppies on Armistice Day. In the United States, Congress changed the name of Armistice Day into Veterans Day on 1954 in order to honor all veterans (although, naturally, in other Allied nations today remains Armistice Day or Remembrance Day).  The wearing of red poppies (which apparently started in America) has been largely supplanted by other national symbols like the yellow ribbon and Old Glory. None-the-less this is still a day we share with our allies.

This is a particularly sad and touching Veterans’ Day both because of the wars we are currently fighting in Central Asia and because, earlier in 2011 the last few field veterans of the Great War died.  There is now no one left alive who fought in World War I and saw the red poppies flowering among the mud and steel and bones of no-man’s land. Years ago it struck me forcefully that the Lost Generation was vanishing when I was in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and saw a sign explaining how the last few Armisitice maples (silver maples planted in great sweeping avenues to commemorate the end of the First World War) were being taken down and replaced with Red Oaks to commemorate September 11th.  Even mighty trees wear down. Generations die and are replaced.  New tragedies come along. However the soldiers’ vigilance and sacrifice are never over. I would like to thank all of the men and women who have served in the uniform of the United States or its allies.  If anybody deserves to have the sacred flower of the goddess of grain repurposed to memorialize their valor, it is surely them.

The ancient Greeks reserved their most ardent and heartfelt prayers for the gods of the mystery cults.  Among these mysterious deities of the underworld–great gods like Hecate, Cronus, and Persephone–one entity stood out: Triptolemus was not a god at all but a mortal.  Unlike the other heroes and demigods the Greeks worshipped, Triptolemus was neither a warrior nor a doer of great deeds.  He never seduced a goddess or slew a monster. The goddess who favored Triptolemus was not all-conquering Athena, or the dark sorceress Hecate. Yet a trip to an art museum with a good Greek collection will reveal that he was much on the minds of the Greeks: Triptolemus appears more often in actual Greek sacred art than do many figures much more familiar to us today.

Demeter Mourning Persephone (Evelyn De Morgan, 1906)

Triptolemus owed all of his fame and respect to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, seasons, and growing things (known as Ceres to the Romans). When Demeter’s daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, Demeter aged from a beautiful woman into a horrible crone.  The world lost its fertility as Demeter’s attention wavered away from keeping the world fecund.  She stumbled through a desolate world of famine, death, and cold looking for her lost daughter.  Most people turned away the desperate crone but Triptolemus’ father Ceulis, the King of Eleusis in Attica, was kind to her and asked her to raise his sons Demophon and Triptolemus.  In the midst of the dark season which befell the world, Ceulis remained a charitable and generous host, and Demeter noted his kindness. To reward Ceulis’ family she decided to make his firstborn son Demophon into an immortal god.  Nightly she smeared Demophon with ambrosia, the food of heaven & the balm of the gods, and then she placed him in the fire to burn his mortality away.  One night as she was blowing her divine breath on the glowing child, Demophon’s mother Metanira entered the room.  Horrified by the spectacle before her, the Queen flew into a frenzy and began screaming.  Demeter grew angry at the Queen’s histrionics and decided to withdraw her boon from Demophon–who burst into flames without her divine protection.  She went back out into the ravaged land and resumed her search for Persephone.

Demeter Holding Cereal and Serpents

When Demeter finally found Persephone and orchestrated her annual return from the underworld she still did not forget the kindness of Ceulis’ family.  She saw that the transition from summer’s abundance to winter’s scarcity was difficult for humans and was killing many of them. Demeter taught Ceulis’ younger (still living) son Triptolemus the art of agriculture.  She gave him a flying chariot drawn by magical serpents (who, like Demeter, knew the secrets of the land) and sent him forth to teach the crafts of planting and harvesting grain to the rest of humankind. These lessons made Triptolemus sacred to the Greeks.  Growing grains allowed them to cease their eternal foraging and pursue the fruits of civilization.  Since Triptolemus was so dear to Demeter and Persephone, he became a focus of the Eleusinian Mystery cult, which sought to provide its initiates with an eternal place in the most pleasant fields and gardens of the underworld (which were of course the bailiwick of Persephone).

Triptolemus riding a winged chariot (Athenian red-figure skyphos 5th B.C.)

Triptolemus was portrayed as a beautiful youth with a diadem on his brow. He rode a winged snake-drawn carriage and in his hands were a plate of grain, ears of barley & wheat, and a scepter.  Since Triptolemus’ agricultural outlook was entirely based around sowing and reaping grains,   he recommended a pro-animal point of view somewhat at odds with the herdsmen and hunters of ancient Greece.  According to Porphyry, Triptolemus’ three principles for living a simple godly life were 1) honor one’s parents; 2) honor the gods with grains and malted beverage, and 3) spare the animals.

Mixing Vessel with Triptolemos (Athenian, ca. 470 BC)

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