November seems like a good time to think of gods of the harvest.The first surprise was to see there’s some overlap with the death gods I looked at in the first installment of the series. Even in the cultures lacking a direct overlap, there tends to at least be a connection between the harvest deity and the underworld. It seemed a strange correlation at first, but made sense the more I delved into the myths.
Agriculture was critical in the development of civilization. It was what enabled man to stay in one place and build cities instead of moving to follow the food. Harvest gods were held in high regard, some of the most venerated of the entire pantheon. For a prime example of both points raised in the intro, we’ll start with the Egyptians.
Egyptian Harvest Gods: Osiris and Renenutet
Here’s a face familiar from the death gods list. Osiris has a major role in the underworld and is also associated with the yearly flooding of the Nile, which gives him dominion over the production of crops. This overlap makes sense if you think like an Egyptian.Osiris was killed, dismembered, and then re-born in the underworld, where he was thought to bring new life to the fields each year.
One legend holds that the Egyptian people were cannibals until Osiris developed agriculture. Isis then taught the people how to grow crops and persuaded them to stop eating each other. The harvest god not only brings food, but wisdom and civilization.
Family Tree: Most legends hold that Osiris was the first son of Geb (the Earth) and Nut (the sky). He had many siblings, including Set, Horus, Nephthys, and Isis, who was also his wife and responsible for gathering the pieces of his body together after he was killed by Set.
Depiction: Osiris’ appearance relates more to his role as the lord of the underworld than it does to his role as the god of agriculture. He is often shown as a mummified human pharoah, with the same long, ceremonial beard and a crown atop his head. His skin is most often shown as green but is occasionally black, the same color as mummified flesh.
One thing that is clear in all representations of Osiris is that he is viewed positively. He is the protagonist in most of the myths where he features. The flooding of the Nile was what allowed the region to be fertile, and it makes sense that the god who makes the crops grow each year would be pretty popular with the people. Osiris became associated with all bounty and fortune, as well as the cycle of death and rebirth that Egyptians believed led to immortality.
As the goddess of nourishment and the harvest specifically, Renenutet was the figure most citizens made offerings to during the harvest season. She was also the goddess who protected the harvest, given epithets like “Lady of Fertile Fields,” “Goddess of the Double Granary,” and “Nourishing Snake.”
Whereas Osiris is more known for his association with the underworld, Renenutet is a primarily harvest goddess. This doesn’t mean she lacks underworld connections, however. There are myths where she travels to the underworld, where she’s shown as a fire-breathing cobra with the power to repel or kill her enemies with a single glance. She protects pharaohs who travel to the underworld and also has a role in mummification, said to imbue the wraps used on pharaohs with magical power that could repel their enemies.
Family Tree: Little background is given as to Renenutet’s parentage or siblings. Her husband is most typically portrayed as being Sobek, who serves as a personification of the Nile; she is occasionally also said to be the wife of Geb. She has two main children: Nehebkau (the serpent guardian of the underworld who protects Ra on his nightly passage) and Nepri (the personification of corn).
Depiction: Renenutet is most often shown either as a cobra or as a woman with the head of a cobra. She may rarely alternatively be portrayed as having a lion’s head, similar to Hathor. Her head is typically covered, wither with a double-plumed headpiece or a solar disk.
Demeter (Ceres): The Greek (Roman) Harvest God
Demeter is the main harvest god within the Greek pantheon. Her direct Roman counterpart is Ceres. She is the goddess of grain, corn, and the harvest—essentially the fertility of the earth—who was thought to make the crops grow each year. As a result, the first loaf of bread baked from the year’s harvest was typically used as an offering to the goddess.
The harvest was Demeter’s main domain in the Greek pantheon, but she is believed to have been derived from a figure that pre-dated the Olympians (along with her daughter Persephone). In this older role, she was also responsible for the sacred law of the earth along with the cycle of life and death. Legend held that she taught mankind how to grow and use corn, thereby bringing about the start of civilization. It is through this introduction of the Greek people to knowledge and learning that earned her the place as the overseer of sacred law, though her influence in this sphere was greatly diminished during the Olympian era of Greek myth.
Family Tree: Demeter is a daughter of Cronus and Rhea, which makes her a sibling to the other Olympians like Hades, Hera, and Zeus. Her best-known daughter is Persephone, the consort of Hades; it is out of grief for Persephone’s absence that Demeter stops producing grain through the winter months. Persephone was not her only child, however; she was in fact quite fertile, and was said to have many children, including a few fathered by her brother Poseidon.
Depiction: There are a few sacred items associated with Demeter that she may be shown with, including poppy and narcissus, in addition to domesticated livestock and agricultural products. Her sacred animals include the crane, the snake, and the pig. She is often depicted as wearing a crown or a wreath made of corn; she may be carrying either a torch, wheat, or a cornucopia, to represent her bringing of plenty.
In terms of the worship of Demeter, her main festivals largely took place around harvest time. Her chief festival was so massive it was held only once every 5 years. There were also a series of mystery cults that worshiped Demeter. In these cults, less emphasis was placed on her role as a harvest goddess and more on her role in the afterlife; adherents believed worship of Demeter could lead them to a better afterlife in Elysium.
The smaller figures related to the harvest differ between the Greek and Roman traditions, including personifications of grain and protectors of the harvest. Some of these were not “true” gods in the sense that the evolved naturally out of the pantheon but were introduced by Greek or Roman leaders as a form of propaganda (this was especially true of the ancillary figures featured in later-period Roman myths). All of these figures were beholden to Demeter or Ceres, respectively, their roles invariably as helpers to the more important harvest goddess.
Nidaba: Babylonian Goddess of Grain and Writing
In a reversal of the situation with Demeter above, Nidaba started as a purely agricultural deity—the goddess of grain—and gradually grew in her role within the pantheon as technology developed within the society. Nidaba became first associated with writing and accounting, likely because these activities were mostly used, in early years, to keep track of food stores. From there, her role gradually shifted until her primary role in the pantheon was as the patron of scribes.
Family Tree: Nidaba’s ancestry is uncertain; she is at various points described as being the daughter of Enlil (wind), Uras (earth), Ea (creation), or Anu (sky). She is also at points mentioned as being the sister of Ninsum, who was the mother of the well-known epic hero Gilgamesh. Nidaba is typically described as having been married to Haya, with whom she has a daughter called alternately Sud or Ninlil.
Depiction: Despite her large role in the pantheon, little iconography exists that depicts Nidaba, either in her role as agricultural goddess or her role as patron of scribes. One depiction from Lagash shows her with long flowing hair, crowned with a tiara featuring ears of corn and a crescent moon, but given the scarcity of depictions it’s not known if this was typical of statues of Nidaba from this time.
Norse Harvest Gods: Freyr and Gefjun
Freyr was called “foremost of the gods” and was one of the most venerated deities in the Norse pantheon. Included in his domain were all things that could be considered prosperity, including sexual fertility, wealth, and peace, along with bountiful harvests and an abundance of growing things.
The name “Freyr” is not a true name so much as it’s a title, roughly translating to “Lord.” His true name was originally Ingwaz, which became either Ing, Yngvi, or Ingunar, depending on the culture where the name was written. He lived in Alfheim, the land of elves, though it’s unknown what his connection to the elves ultimately was beyond inhabiting their realm.
Family Tree: Freyr is the son of Njoror, the sea god; his mother is said to be Nerthus, the goddess of fertility (and, coincidentally, Njoror’s sister). He had no official wife but did have many lovers among the goddesses and giantesses, including his sister, Freya.
Depiction: It’s easiest to identify Freyr when he’s with his familiar, a boar named Gullinborsti (literally translating to “Golden Bristled”). He may also be shown with his ship, Skiobladnir, which was renowned for always having a favorable wind, as well as being enchanted so it could be folded to fit in his pocket. When traveling on land, he’ll often do so in a chariot drawn by boars. In terms of his own physical description, it is rarely distinctive except for when he’s shown with an inhumanly large erect phallus (like any good representative of sexual fertility).
Similar to Freyr, Gefjun was the goddess of general abundance, prosperity, and fertility, along with being the general goddess of agriculture and plowing. Her name translates roughly to “Giver” or “Generous One,” and though she’s thought to have perhaps originated as simply one facet of the goddess Freya, her myth has become well-established enough by this point to be considered a separate deity.
Gefjun features in several myths. The best-known tells of her traveling through Sweden disguised as a homeless woman. When she appears to the generous King Gylfi, he tells her she can have as much land as four oxen can plow in a day. In response, Gefjun summons her four sons (whose father was a giant) and turns them into oxen. They plow the land so well that they drag it away from Sweden, creating the island of Zealand and Lake Malaren, which separates Zealand from the land to the north. The island of Zealand is one of the most fertile areas of Denmark, and serves as the modern-day location of Copenhagen. The general form of this myth is common in Scandinavian folklore (a king or god tells someone they can own the land they plow in a short amount of time) though the part about the oxen sons is obviously unique to the goddess.
Family Tree: Little history for Gefjun’s origins are given. As mentioned above, it is thought that she may simply be an offshoot of the goddess Freya, which would explain the lack of lineage in the myths.
Depiction: For the most part, Gefjun’s depiction is unremarkable. She has the look of a standard human woman with long hair and may be shown with her four sons in bull form. As with other harvest gods, she seems to be more prevalent in the narrative of myth than in static artistic renderings.
The Big Picture
- Harvest deities and death deities have significant connections in many different mythologies, both because the underworld is seen as the source of the earth’s bounty and because of the cycle of life and death represented by the planting year. This is especially true of Egyptian mythology, where Osiris oversees both death and agriculture, but connections exist in Sumerian and Greek/Roman mythologies, as well. Plants grow out of the same ground the underworld was thought to exist beneath, so it makes sense there’d be a perceived connection.
- Because may polytheistic religions were developed in the early years of their respective societies, harvest deities are consistently among the most important and revered gods. This may mean a connection between agriculture and wisdom (as with Egyptian and Sumerian mythologies) or may mean agriculture is associated with the highest-ranking god in the pantheon (as with Norse mythology). In many instances, the harvest god is credited with teaching the people how to farm or otherwise bringing “civilized” society into being (e.g. Demeter and Osiris).
- Even in mythologies where the gods don’t consistently have “familiars,” similar animals are associated with the gods of the harvest. Typically these are animals considered to be livestock, such as oxen, pigs, and boars. Snakes are also associated with select harvest deities; this is just a guess, but I would imagine it’s because snakes are often found in fields, where there are mice and other rodents the snakes like to eat.
- The appearance of harvest deities does not seem as important to their identity as it does with other gods. They are identified more by the presence of corn or grain, typically, than by a specific physical description. The physicality of harvest gods also doesn’t seem to be of a type. There are both males and females, and their family trees are more ambiguous.