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Like Mother, Like Daughter: Rhea and Demeter as Models of Subversion in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter

Suzanne Lye

Dartmouth College

In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the goddess Rhea plays a crucial role in convincing her daughter Demeter to put aside her anger and return to the company of the gods. Rhea’s significance to the hymn as a whole, particularly her mother-daughter relationship with Demeter, has largely been overlooked. While scholars have generally focused on Rhea’s role as Zeus’  final messenger to Demeter, Rhea’s importance as a mother figure is signaled much earlier in the  poem when Demeter is twice referred to as the “daughter of lovely-haired Rhea” (Ῥείης ἠυκόμου θύγατερ, H.H.Dem. 60, 75). This identification of Demeter in terms of her relationship to her  mother is marked in the context of a poem which “idealizes the mother/daughter relation” (Foley 1994: 134). Demeter has already been named “mistress mother” (πότνια μήτηρ, 39) in relation to her daughter Persephone. To then be called a daughter herself suggests that Demeter’s character as a mother in the poem must be explored in the context of her relationship with her own mother Rhea. This paper explores the figure of Rhea in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter as the model mother who provides a template for her daughter’s rebellion against patriarchal power structures.

Demeter’s reaction to the forced marriage of her daughter and Rhea’s appearance in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter highlight the mother-daughter bond as a subversive challenge to patriarchal rule. At the beginning of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Zeus asserts his right as patriarch to make a marriage contract for Persephone without the knowledge of her mother. Demeter rejects this arrangement, just as her own mother Rhea rejected the actions of Cronus. The story of Demeter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter mirrors Rhea’s story of motherhood in Hesiod’s Theogony. Both goddesses rebel against patriarchal rule due to threats to their offspring. When their children are taken away, they are each described as plunging into deep depression, which makes them flee the company of their peers – Rhea feels “insufferable grief” (πένθος ἄλαστον, Theogony 467) and Demeter feels “pain” (ἄχος, H.H.Dem. 90) upon having Persephone forcibly taken away.

Additionally, the retaliation of both goddesses against their kings comes in the form of holding back their reproductive powers. Rhea flees to her parents and hides her youngest child Zeus on Crete, ending her fertility as the consort of Cronus. Likewise, Demeter finds refuge in the land of mortals at Eleusis and stops the fertility of the earth and production of the harvest (H.H.Dem. 305-309). Their defiance against the desires of their male rulers poses a serious challenge to existing power structures. Rhea’s rebellion against Cronus’ consumption of their children eventually leads to the overthrow of the Titans. Demeter’s refusal to return to Olympus even after Zeus sends Iris and the other gods to summon her with promises of extra honors, or timai (314-328) similarly threatens to unravel Zeus’ rule by destroying the human race and removing the timai of the other gods (310-312). Zeus averts this disaster by yielding to Demeter’s request for the return of her daughter, thus honoring the mother-daughter bond. This, however, is not enough, so he sends their mother Rhea to persuade her. Zeus gains Demeter’s compliance not only by yielding to her demand but also by relying on the closeness of a mother-daughter relationship. Rhea’s arrival is the final step in Zeus’ recompense to Demeter, and the latter’s pleasure at seeing her mother immediately returns the earth’s productivity (457), which Persephone’s return alone did not accomplish. Demeter’s joy at seeing her mother Rhea is matched by the joy her own daughter Persephone displays (434-437). At the end of the poem, Demeter is both mother and daughter for her triumphant return to Olympus. Rhea’s presence in the poem underscores the strength of the mother-daughter relationship and proposes a longer frame of matrilineal identities as integral to interpreting the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

Session/Panel Title

Mothers and Daughters in Antiquity

Session/Paper Number

23.2

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