The Greek stories concerning Demeter as a life-giving and nurturing power are built upon far more ancient traditions in cultures that honored this power under many names. Sculptures and images often depict her, as our Greek myth does, as the giver of plant life in particular. Here is an image of a cylinder seal impression dating from Sumerian times, the oldest culture for which we have written language. Her name was Ninhursag.
She was considered the mother of the plants, animals, and mountains, and she was one of the seven great deities of Sumer. Temple hymns identify her as the “true and great lady of heaven” (possibly in relation to her standing on the mountain) and kings of Sumer were “nourished by Ninhursag’s milk.” Sometimes she is depicted accompanied by a lion cub on a leash.
The image below, dated from around 2500 BC, shows libations being made to a vegetation goddess found in ancient Girsu:
And there is Asherah, pictured below, mentioned in the Hebrew bible as being worshiped widely, detail from an ivory box found at Mīnat al-Bayḍāʾ near Ras Shamra (Ugarit), Syria, c. 1300 BC
This brings us closer in time, to ancient Crete. Below is an image of a Mycenaean wall painting of a woman, or a goddess, holding bundles of harvested grain, found at the House of Frescoes near Grave Circle A at Mycenae, dated to the 13th century BC.
Many scholars believe that much of Hellenic Greek mythology and spiritual tradition grew out of the earlier Mycenaean culture.
There has been a great uproar in the past thirty years or so among scholars debating the meaning of ancient female images or sculptures. Mpderm women have been eager to associate themselves with these figures. Some scholars have begun to challenge the now widespread usage of the term “mother goddess” along with all the things attributed to her in the 1960’s and afterward, as her images have become more widely known. These critics say that every image of a woman is not necessarily an image of a goddess, and some scholars deny there was ever a cohesive “matriarchal society” connected with ancient goddess worship. However, it is certainly clear that ancient societies did hold in reverence what we might call Mother Nature and Mother Earth, with all her nourishing abundance, and ascribed her qualities to a personified diety, giving her various names in various locations. Texts such as the following give the lie to cynical denials of the spiritual aspect of these traditions:
Orphic Hymn 40 to Demeter, 3rd century B.C. to 2nd A.D. Translation by Thomas Taylor, 1792 :
“To Demeter Eleusinia. O universal mother, Deo famed, august, the source of wealth, and various named: great nurse, all-bounteous, blessed and divine, who joyest in peace; to nourish corn is thine. Goddess of seed, of fruits abundant, fair, harvest and threshing are thy constant care. Lovely delightful queen, by all desired, who dwellest in Eleusis’ holy vales retired. Nurse of all mortals, who benignant mind first ploughing oxen to the yoke confined; and gave to men what nature’s wants require, with plenteous means of bliss, which all desire. In verdure flourishing, in glory bright, assessor of great Bromios [Dionysos] bearing light: rejoicing in the reapers’ sickles, kind, whose nature lucid, earthly, pure, we find. Prolific, venerable, nurse divine, thy daughter loving, holy Koure [Persephone]. A car with Drakones (Dragon-Serpents) yoked ’tis thine to guide, and, orgies singing, round thy throne to ride. Only-begotten, much-producing queen, all flowers are thine, and fruits of lovely green. Bright Goddess, come, with summer’s rich increase swelling and pregnant, leading smiling peace; come with fair concord and imperial health, and join with these a needful store of wealth.”
Here is another, a Homeric hymn from the 7th or 6th century BC,Translated by Evelyn-White about 1910 :
“I begin to sing of rich-haired Demeter reverend goddess and her trim-ankled daughter [Persephone] whom Haides rapt away. . . Right blessed is he among men on earth whom they freely love: soon they do send Ploutos as guest to his great house, Ploutos who gives wealth to mortal men. And now, queen of the land of sweet Eleusis and sea-girt Paros and rocky Antron, queen, giver of good gifts, bringer of seasons, lady Deo, be gracious, you and your daughter, all beauteous Persephone, and for my song grant me heart-cheering substance.”
And we have this lovely portion of a hymn by Callimachus, a Greek poet of the 3rd B.C., translated by Alexander William Mair – 1921:
“…Sing, ye maidens, and ye mothers, say with them : ‘Damater, greatly hail! Lady of much bounty, of many measures of corn.’ And as the four white-haired horses convey the Basket, so unto us will the great goddess of wide dominion come brining white spring and white harvest and winter and autumn, and keep us to another year. And as unsandalled and with hair unbound we walk the city, so shall we have foot and head unharmed for ever…Hail, goddess, and save this people in harmony and in prosperity, and in the fields bring us all pleasant things! Feed our kine, bring us flocks, bring us the corn-ear, bring us harvest! And nurse peace, that he who sows may also reap. Be gracious, O thrice-prayed for, great Queen of goddesses!”