Celestial Classics: Ceres

I’m leaving this full-size because – my word that’s a beautiful world. An approximated ‘true-colour’ image of the minor planet/absolutely massive asteroid that is also one of the most venerated Roman gods among the peasantry (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / Justin Cowart)

Ceres is, like Vesta, a hunk-of-stuff in the asteroid belt that generally falls into the dwarf-planet/minor-planet category. I think, more than Vesta, Ceres is planetised due to its closer orbit to the sun and is the largest object in the main asteroid belt. Indeed it is often considered a proto-planet, essentially a planetary embryo, giving us great insight into planetary formation.

It is also helped by the fact that it is round and thus sort-of planet shaped, whereas Vesta does have the profile of a potato. This will be mainly because it is size, the gravity of the place pulling its matter into a round shape but also due, I believe, to a significant impact that took place between Vesta and, likely, another asteroid – giving it a solid dent. Ceres, on the other hand, looks disturbingly like our own moon.

You will be unlikely to see Ceres with the naked eye, even at its brightest, but it does get within view of some decent binoculars or a passable telescope.

It’s mainly made up of muddy stuff, ice, rock and dust all combining. There is the potential it could have water, although it would likely be brine. One of the remarkable things about Ceres is has been seen to emit vapours, outgassing, a process more normally associated with comets.

As with Vesta, NASA’s Dawn probe (we talked about it in the Vesta article but if you missed it you can find mission details here) paid a visit to Ceres in 2015 to take some close-up shots and give us a better idea of why stuff in the universe does what stuff in the universe does. As a result we discovered craters and volcanoes, outgassing, different material properties at different parts indicating a different mineral make-up, and a lot of carbon compounds.

But you’re not here for that, are you? There’s only so many words you can dedicate to “This is a bit of rocky-icy stuff in space” you want to know why Ceres? Who is Ceres?

An earthy, lichen-coated Ceres contrasting against a pale blue sky. From Swaffham, Norfolk and put here simply so I could link you all to one of East-Anglia’s finest folk tales – The Peddlar of Swaffham! (Credit: © Copyright David Dixon CC-BY-2.0)

Ceres is the Goddess of the Kelloggs corporation!

That’s only a half-joke, she is a Roman Goddess of grain and agriculture, the protector or ruin of farmers and crop growers. She also has some domain over fertility and motherliness but, she’s basically the cereal queen.

The word ‘cereal’ itself derives from the very same roots as Ceres, potentially going all the way back to a proto-indo-european language root.

That means, like Vesta, Ceres is old. She may well have been an ancient part of worship by the time Romans got their hands on her, and like Vesta she is on the Dii Consentes, the 12 major Gods of the Roman pantheon. She is, in fact, the only agricultural representative there.

So in terms of origin story, do ya wanna get weird? Let’s get weird.

Ceres is an old god. The Romans, upon ‘adopting’ Greek culture – they basically stole it, associated Ceres with Demeter. Demeter is the Greek Goddess of harvest, agriculture, grain etc. all of the same sort of stuff as Ceres except that Demeter has been associated with the Anatolian cult of the Cybele. The Cybele, or Magna Mater (great mother) became a central cult figure in Rome around the time of the Punic Wars (Rome versus Carthage) when Roman history seemed to get superstitiously tied up with the Libri Sibyllini, the Sibylline books, purchased from a Sibyl by the last King of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus. These books allegedly spelled out all of Roman history and would be consulted many times when crisis hit the Empire.

So, somewhere down the road, old gods may have got so mixed up there is every potential the Romans were worshipping roughly the same one twice, in Ceres and the Cybele (or Sybil, or Cybil or Sybill…so many different spellings)!

A seated Ceres from National Museum of Roman Art of Mérida – She has lost her hands, but I’ve no doubt she would have had a sheaf of wheat in at least one of them! From around 1st Century CE. (Credit:Cynwolfe CC-BY-3.0)

Not that that mattered to the Romans, of course, they adopted a great many deities, associating them with their own (in what’s known as interpretatio Romana – or Roman interpretation) and with Greek ones, as part of their keeping populations placid during their imperial conquest. A sort of ‘we adopt your god, you adopt ours’ arrangement.

The Sybilline prophecies are, alas, a tale for another time.

Ceres is an important God for peasants like me, being as she is one of the few major agricultural deities she was also part of what is known as the ‘Aventine Triad’. The Aventine is one of the hills of Rome and the one most associated with the plebeian class, the plebs – poor people in other words.

Since the far more authoritative Capitoline Hill had their own triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; the Aventine adopted their own, Ceres, Liber and Libera.

Relationships between the three Gods are contested, with some claiming Liber, the male god, had liasons with both Ceres and Libera, both female. Some claim Liber is Ceres’ brother and Libera his wife. Either way they are basically the gods of food and wine.

You can really tell a culture is going somewhere when on one hill the wealthy can establish a triad of power and protection whilst on another the workers can establish a triad of food and drink!

Liber (right) and Libera (left) depicted on a denarius from around 78BCE. (Credit: Otto Nickl CC-BY-4.0)

This is an old association, too, dating back to not long after the establishment of the republic in the 4th century BCE. Possibly related to the ‘Struggle of the Orders’ or whatever event caused the Plebs to be given legal powers.

This association also makes her a protector of law, especially laws for plebeians, including the Lex Sacrata, that first established plebeian rights and the Lex Hortensia of 287BC that extended them. The decrees of the senate (senatus consulta) were taken and placed within the temple of Ceres and, Livy tells us this is, basically, so consuls couldn’t fuck with them!

Ceres’ temple, then, is associated with the Aventine, apparently the one in Rome was built near there and in view of the Circus Maximus – The massive race-track for horse racing, chariot racing and other games, in the valley between the Palatine Hill and the Aventine Hill.

One of the features of her annual Cerealia, held mid-late April (and thus associated with May-Day, 1st of May in our other article today about Tess of the d’Urbervilles) would be races at the Circus Maximus and according to Ovid they would absolutely torture foxes by attaching lit torches to their tails and letting them run around in pain for some reason.

I would jest about what quaint ancient barbaric customs these people have but there are people in the government of my country who think torturing foxes is also a fun thing to do so I can’t argue much for the advancement of human so-called ‘civilisation’ in 2,000 years, can I?

A panoramic view of the Circus Maximus in Rome in the ruins it is today. It was once the largest stadium in Rome, possible the world! The buildings over to the right hand side are the remains of the ‘House of Augustus’ – The house on the Palatine from which all future palaces would derive their names. I believe it was Domitian who had a lot of work built up there specifically so he could watch games at the Circus from the palace. (Credit: Peter Clarke CC-BY-3.0)

As Vesta before her had protected virginity and chastity, Ceres, Goddess of fertility, naturally protected the transition to womanhood and motherhood. In a strangely sensical association given that Vesta was protector of virgins associated with flying dicks of fire, this one just make sense.

There’s so much to Ceres but I will begin the end with the notion of the Mundus. The Mundus Cerialis, or Ceres’ World – was a pit, in which tribute, usually grain, would be thrown both to the Goddess herself but also for her to allow access to this tribute from the underworld. She was, effectively guardian of the portals to the underworld. On certain days this portal would be opened, tribute given, but also the souls of the dead could come up and see the world of the living again. Stories about it come to us from Plutarch, Festus, Macrobius and others.

I ended with that weird pouring out of libations mixed with Halloween ceremony because I think it provides one of the most profound insights into polytheistic traditions. That which we arbitrarily celebrate for the sake of saints, was to the Romans very real.

The Vmbilicvs Vrbis Romae – The belly-button of the city of Rome. Often associated with the Mundus, this may well have been where the spirits of the dead, Di Manes, would have escaped for their night in the above-world. That mysterious figure in orange, to the left of the image, may very well be a spirit of a departed Roman, come to enjoy the finery of baseball caps and jogging bottoms in our modern world. Or they may just be a tourist. (Credit: Karlheinz Meyer CC-BY-EVERYTHING)

Ceres, as God of Grain, literally was a portal to the underworld if she wanted to be. All she had to do was give you a bad harvest.

Not only is her fertile earth the soil in which your grain will grow, but it is the final resting place of many bodies, animal and man.

She stands on the cusp between life and death in almost as literal a fashion as you could imagine and, to this day, we still pour out libations, we still toast our spirits, and we still make offerings. Christianity has never helped us escape the pagan.

Now, this is where we shall finish but scholars of classical mythology will be screaming at me “You didn’t even mention Proserpina, her daughter who she was eventually in a joint cult with!”

That’s because whilst Vesta and Ceres are easily noticeable asteroids in the main asteroid belt, Proserpina, Ceres’ daughter, sits out there too. We’ll get to her. I feel she has a tale deserving of detachment from her mother’s!

Missed our previous Celestial Classics?
Read the Introduction here,
or
find out about the asteroid, and Goddess, Vesta here.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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