Role in Mythology: Goddess of grain, goddess of food plant growth, goddess of a mother’s love for her children, patron goddess of Sicily
Alternative Names: Mother Goddess of the Earth
Family Relationships: Daughter of Saturn, mother of Prosperina/Prosperine (Persephone)
Symbols: Flowers, fruits, corn
Greek Equivalent: Demeter
According to the ancient Roman religion and its mythology, Ceres is a goddess of growing things who oversees agricultural food production, especially that of grain. In art and statuary, Ceres was depicted as a woman in draping robes holding a scepter and a basket filled with various fruits and flowers. She wears a garland constructed of ripe ears of corn, and is said to have beautiful hair.
Ceres in Myths and Stories
Ceres is identified with the Greek goddess Demeter, an agricultural mother goddess. Her myths mirror those of Demeter, such as are recorded in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Her primary myth involves the abduction of her daughter Prosperine by the god of the underworld. Ceres had been seduced by the chief of the gods, after which she gave birth to a daughter. Her daughter grew up among the god’s other children, becoming increasingly beautiful and personable. In time, her uncle, the god of the underworld, fell in love with Prosperine. With her father’s permission, the uncle swept the young girl away on the backs of immortal horses; in other versions of the legend, the ground opened and she was dragged to the underworld. Prosperine yelled, but when her mother arrived, there was no sign of her departure. Ceres then wandered the earth for nine days and nights, carrying two lighted torches, in search of her daughter. By the tenth day, the sun god, who had seen the kidnapping, told Ceres all. She exiled herself until her daughter was returned, but, as she is the goddess of growing plants, the earth became a sterile wasteland. Prosperine had eaten a pomegranate that bound her in marriage to the god of the underworld. A compromise was reached – Prosperine would divide her time between her mother and husband. When she visited, the Romans believed, her mother’s joy caused the earth to blossom in spring and summer. When she returned to the underworld, Ceres grief resulted in the decline of autumn and winter.
Worship of Ceres
Worship of Ceres varied greatly depending on time and place. Sometimes, she was worshiped as an individual deity. On other occasions, her worship included the earth goddess Tellus. She became part of a triad, or trinity, with the wine and fertility god Liber (also identified with Dionysus) and his counterpart, the fertility goddess Libera (or, Persephone), in 496 B.C., when Rome was experiencing a famine after a siege by the Etruscans. This had been advised by the Sybilline books, which, according to legend, were sold by a Sybill, or priestess, to the last Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus. The books were stored in Jupiter’s temple on the Capitoline Hill and consulted by order of the senate during times of great calamity. It was believed that the introduction of this cult would stave off the famine, helping food to grow. The link between the three may lie in Ceres’ alternate role as the protector of a mother’s love for her children.
In 493 B.C., a temple to Ceres was constructed on the Aventine Hill in Rome. Rituals were Greek in origin, and prayers were even spoken in Greek. In addition to religious rites, the temple was home to commercial and political activities and became well known for its magnificent works of art. In front of the temple was the statio annonae, or a supply of food grains subsidized by the Roman state. This temple was destroyed in a fire in 31 B.C., but was later restored by Augustus Caesar.
Festivals of Ceres
Worship by Ceres’ various cults involved three yearly festivals. The first festival was held in January, inviting a triad of deities to oversee the feriae sementivae, or sowing of seed. It was believed that Ceres would protect the seed before it was sown, then it would be cared for by the earth goddess Tellus Mater. After the crop was harvested and placed in storage, it was entrusted to the harvest god Consus. The second festival, called the Cerealia, was celebrated yearly on April 19. The third, the Ambarvalia, was held in May.
As with many of her mythological counterparts, Ceres legacy lives on the the naming of celestial objects. A dwarf planet is named after Ceres. It is considered the largest asteroid in our solar system’s main asteroid belt. It was also the first asteroid to be discovered, coincidentally by an Italian astronomer in 1801.