Ceres, Roman Goddess of Agriculture: Importance & Mythology

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Romans had many agricultural deities, but none was as important to them as Ceres. In this lesson, we'll explore the mythology surrounding Ceres and see just what she meant to Roman life.

Ceres

I think we can all acknowledge that agriculture is important. That being said, would we ever go so far as to actually worship it? Maybe not, but the ancient Romans certainly did. Or, at least, they worshipped the divine embodiment of it. Ceres was a Roman goddess of agriculture as well as fertility in general. This meant that in pretty much every way possible, she was one of the goddesses directly responsible for life itself. According to some myths, it was Ceres who showed humans how to grow wheat. According to others, she saved humanity from famines.

Historically, Ceres was probably a mixture of various Greek and Etruscan influences on the Romans, but over time she became a uniquely Roman deity also associated with the plebeians, the lower class people of Rome, who at the time were amongst the first in the world to gain political representation through the Roman Senate. So, Ceres was important. In fact, of Rome's many agricultural deities, she is the only one who is named as part of the Dii Consentes, the Roman equivalent of the Greek's Twelve Olympians, their leading gods and goddesses. You see, we respect agriculture, but the Romans really worshipped it.

Roman statue of Ceres
Ceres

Myths of Ceres

Ceres was born the daughter of the god Saturn and Ops. In various myths she is seen as mother to different deities, reflecting her role as a fertility goddess, but the most famous story is about her and her daughter Proserpina. According to the most accepted version of the myth, Pluto, god of the underworld, was sad and lonely. Venus, the goddess of love, felt bad for him, so she sent Cupid to shoot him with an arrow, upon which Pluto came out of the underworld to look for love. Pluto emerged through Mount Etna, a volcano in Sicily, where he saw Proserpina playing with some nymphs in the lake. Pluto abducted Proserpina and took her back to the underworld to be his bride.

The abduction of Proserpina
Proserpina

Now, it wasn't long until Ceres realized her daughter was missing, and she searched every corner of the Earth looking for her. As the goddess of agriculture and fertility got angrier, famine started to spread. This made Jupiter, the supreme Roman god, very nervous. He was afraid that all the people of Earth would die, which was a problem because then there would be no one left to worship him. Jupiter tends to have simple motives for his actions. So, he sent his messenger, Mercury, to talk to Pluto, who was Jupiter's brother. Pluto agreed to let Proserpina go. According to some stories, he forces Proserpina to eat six pomegranate seeds and, according to other versions, she does this herself. Either way, pomegranates were the fruit of the dead and those who ate them could not stay in the world of the living. This meant that every year Proserpina had to return to the underworld and spend 4-6 months with Pluto.

To the Romans, this explained the cycle of the seasons. When Proserpina comes out of the underworld in springtime, her mother Ceres is happy and fills the earth with flowers. Ceres and Proserpina spend summer together and the crops grow. By fall, Ceres knows that Proserpina has to go soon, so she fills the world with beautiful autumn leaves and the crops are ready to harvest. In winter, Proserpina returns to Pluto in the underworld, and the plants on Earth die until Proserpina returns and her mother is happy again.

Importance to the Romans

As far as deities go, Ceres was clearly one that had a direct role in Roman life. She caused the seasons, she was responsible for fertility, and she either spread or stopped famine. In fact, according to traditional Roman sources, the worship of Ceres in Rome first began due to a famine. In 496 BCE, a major famine hit Rome and the plebeians threatened to rebel. In response to a Sibylline prophesy, the Roman ruler at the time vowed to bring the cult of Ceres to Rome. Up until this time, her major temples were in Sicily, which partly explains her close connection to Greek mythology, but the Romans built her a temple in their city and later brought priests to conduct her sacred ceremonies. The famine ended, the plebeians stopped fighting with the government, and Rome went on to conquer the other nearby Latin tribes.

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