Most of the world’s supply of food, which has always been the most basic of needs, comes from agriculture. So important is agriculture indeed that gods of agriculture were highly revered in ancient times. These agriculture gods were mostly gods of earth and fertility. The earth gods were believed to bring fertility to the fields of their worshipers. Who are the gods and goddesses of agriculture in the Mediterranean? Here we explore the Mediterranean deities who bestow bounty through the earth’s fruition.
Demeter is the goddess of agriculture in Greek mythology. This Greek goddess was in charge of the fertility of the land. The grains of the field may grow only because the fertility goddess allows them to.
The agriculture goddess’ most beloved child is called Persephone, and in the daughter’s loss comes the goddess of earth’s deepest anguish — and her most famous myth. When Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, Demeter abandoned the fields in search for her daughter. Unless and until the earth goddess is reunited with her daughter, Demeter would not come back to her charge, nor would her mood allow all the land’s vegetation to grow.
Fortunately, exhorted by Zeus the father of gods, Hades was forced to give Persephone back — though not without getting the young goddess to eat hell’s pomegranate seeds. Having eaten the food of the dead, Demeter’s daughter has to spend a third of the year in the underworld, in which time the agriculture goddess pines and wails at her loss. This explains the season of winter, when the god of death abducts her daughter, and the goddess of agriculture abandons the fields to search for her daughter, leaving the land unproductive. The elaborate Eleusinian mysteries in Greece were held in honor of Demeter and Persephone.
While Demeter is the goddess in charge of the fertility of the earth, the goddess of agriculture is not herself the representation of the earth, which is borne by Gaea, the mother of gods. Demeter’s equivalent in Roman mythology is Ceres, also an agriculture goddess, though Ceres is not the most revered agricultural deity in the Roman Empire. To which god did the Romans lay the hope for abundant harvests?
While his counterpart in Greek mythology is the horrible Titan named Cronus — the giant who devours his children for fear of being dethroned — Saturn is a beneficent god in Roman mythology much exalted by the Romans. Saturn is the Roman god of agriculture, said to have brought Rome its agricultural golden age. The agriculture god brings bountiful harvests to his worshipers, who in return offer him what is perhaps the most famous festival in Ancient Rome: the Saturnalia, which ran from December 17 to 23. Saturnalia is among the early traditions from which Christmas was formed.
Osiris is the Egyptian god of the underworld. Do you wonder how the god of hell can become the god of agriculture? The answer has to do with Egyptian cosmology, where the underworld is not so far beneath, and can directly affect the land above it. Osiris is said to be responsible for sending water above the earth, flooding the Nile River and making its banks fertile. The agriculture god is accordingly thanked for the land’s vegetation. Plants grow from beneath the earth, because they are bidden by the god in the underworld.
Notorious in the Bible is Dagon, the patron god of the Philistines, and god of earth in the wider Canaanite mythology. The fertility god is among the Elohim or Children of El, who is both the supreme god of the Canaanites and God of the Bible. The name Dagon literally means “Grain,” attesting to the importance of the god of agriculture over the wheat fields.
As if his role as agriculture god is not enough to ensure bountiful harvests, the earth god fathered a rain god: Baal Hadad, who marries Astarte, the queen of heaven. Philistines, Canaanites and Phoenicians held on to this trinity of fertility gods for the bountiful fruitage of their crops.
Links between the Gods of Agriculture
Nations of the Mediterranean exchanged culture, both through maritime trade and colonization. In the same way that nations exchanged articles of trade, they also exchanged gods, not excluding gods of agriculture. This is especially true between the Greeks and Romans, who freely exchanged deities, including the goddesses of agriculture, Demeter and Ceres, as well as the agriculture gods Cronus and Saturn. Dagon was likewise identified with Cronus. While the Greek counterpart of Osiris is Hades, Osiris entered Greek mythology as a separate god called Serapis.