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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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