Curiously, ancient Greeks, for a time, believed that it was bad luck to utter the names of two particular earth goddesses. These goddesses were the mother and daughter pair of Demeter and Persephone, and the hesitancy about uttering their names likely was related to the links that these goddesses had to the underworld and its ruler, Hades. According to ancient Greek myth, Persephone was abducted by Hades and forced to become his bride in the realm of the dead. Demeter was furious over the kidnapping, and as a form of protest and revenge against Zeus (who had not intervened to save Persephone), Demeter used her powers over the soil and fertility to cause the earth to wither, threatening all life in existence. The danger to humans—and the resulting collapse of their worship and sacrifices to the gods—finally caused Zeus to act. Zeus sent his usual agent, Hermes, with an appeal to Hades for Persephone to be released back to her rampaging mother. Hades acquiesced to the demand, but it was already too late—Persephone had eaten seeds from a pomegranate cultivated by Hades in the underworld. Although Persephone did, indeed, return to the realm of the living, she soon found out that by consuming a fruit of the underworld, she had transformed into a hybrid deity; for part of the year, she would be a goddess of earthly life, and for other months she would be forced to return to the underworld to serve as the queen of death. As told by ancient Greek mythology, the growth and death of plants during the changing of the seasons was due to the coming and going of Persephone between the realms of life and death, as well as the resulting mood shifts of Demeter as she watched her daughter travel to and from the realm of Hades. Given Demeter’s smoldering rage and Persephone’s status as the Queen of the Dead, it is no wonder that ancient Greeks decided to tread carefully around the utterance of the names of these two goddesses.
Fortunately, the ancient Greeks eventually believed they found a way to avoid the bad luck of using the names of Demeter and Persephone. The solution was to simply use nicknames or titles instead of the goddesses’ actual names. For Demeter, the goddess’ own name composition inspired many alternatives that took little creativity to formulate. As the ‘meter’ portion of Demeter means ‘mother,’ worshippers developed several motherly titles for the goddess, such as the Mother, Grain Mother, Mother of the Gods, and the Mother Goddess of the Earth. Demeter also was interestingly given the title, Thesmophoros, referencing a law-giving aspect of her spiritual influence.
As for Persephone, her name seemed to have been especially shunned. When the playwright Euripides (c. 485-406 BCE) referenced in his play, Helen, a certain goddess “with the name that must not be spoken” (approximately line 1307), it was expected that the Greeks in the audience would know that the goddess in question was Persephone. Besides this approach of calling Persephone a goddess who must not be named, she, like her mother, received an alternative title that came to be used frequently by worshippers. Her new designation was Kore, which had a meaning akin to ‘the Girl’ or ‘Maiden.’ This title usually focused on Persephone’s origin as a grain goddess, and fittingly emphasized her relationship with her mother as opposed to her unwilling service as queen of the dead.
Due to how closely knit Demeter and Persephone were in myth, worshippers came up with several titles that collectively referenced both goddesses. Referencing the mother-daughter relationship, they could be called the Mother and Daughter, or more specifically the Grain Mother and Daughter. Similarly, emphasizing their close bond and shared affinities, they could be called The Demeters, the Twin Goddesses, and the Two Goddesses. This restraint in speech and the use of codewords is a curious element in the worship of Demeter and Persephone, and, perhaps, this was a cause or result of the characteristic secretive nature of the worshippers of these goddesses. Whatever the case, worshippers of Demeter and Persephone were famous for their secretive festivals and secret societies with members sworn to vows of silence about their rituals, as was the case with the prominent cult of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Study for The Return of Persephone, by Frederic Leighton (c. 1830–1896), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- Euripides’ Helen, translated by James Morwood in Medea and Other Plays (Oxford University Press, 1997, 1998, 2008).
- The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, edited by Simon Price and Emily Kearns. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Marvin W. Meyer. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1987.