Agricultural Saints, Gods, and Goddesses (10/30/2020)

Tomorrow is Halloween. This is when mythical creatures such as werewolves, zombies, and witches prowl the land. If we go way back in time, several thousand years, there was an era when mythical entities and religious leaders were associated with agriculture. In this Friday Footnote, Dr. Jim Connors from the University of Idaho will educate us about some real people and some mythical beings in agriculture.

Agricultural Saints, Gods, & Goddesses

Dr. Jim Connors
University of Idaho

Agriculture is both a science and an art.  For as long as humans have tilled the soil they have looked to a higher power for help with their planting, pest control, weather, and harvest.  They have asked for help with their livestock and land.  This Friday Footnote will look at the patron saints and deities who agriculturalists have enlisted to protect their endeavors.

St. Isidore

In the Christian faith, most people are familiar with patron saints for different activities.  One of the most well-known patron saints is St. Francis of Assisi who is called upon to protect all animals.  However, most people don’t know that there is actually a Patron Saint of Farmers and Crops: St. Isidore.  St. Isidore is often portrayed as a peasant with a sickle or spade in his hands and sometimes has an ox nearby and angels surrounding him.  The story of St. Isidore is very interesting.

Isadore never owned any land but worked as a tenant farmer on an estate outside Madrid, Spain.  He left the house early every morning to attend Catholic mass before arriving at the fields.  As he plowed or harvested his crops, he would pray.  His neighbors said they saw angels guiding his plow which helped him accomplish three times as much work as other tenant farmers.  Even today, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference encourages farmers to pray to St. Isidore and his wife, St. Maria.  Every year the conference presents the Isidore and Maria Award to a husband and wife who demonstrate integrity, religious faith, and good stewardship of the land.

Figure 1: St. Isidore

Other Catholic patron saints related to agriculture include:

Patron Saint Agriculture Area Feast Day
St. Anthony of the Desert Pigs January 17
St. Bridgid Dairy Workers February 1
St. Milburga Birds February 23
St. Walburga Famine February 25
Saints Perpetua & Felicity Cattle March 7
St. Anthony of Padua Donkeys, Asses, and Mules June 13
St. Rose of Lima Gardeners August 23
St. Giles Forests September 1
St. Notburga Field Hands September 14
St. Theresa The Little Flower Florists October 1
St. Francis of Assisi Animals October 4
St. Martin of Tours Horseback Riders November 11
St. Ambrose Beekeepers December 7

Demeter

Throughout ancient history, there have been numerous gods and goddesses related to agriculture.  Within Greek mythology, Demeter is the goddess of agriculture, fertile soils/land, fruit, grasses, and grains.  Demeter belongs to the tradition of earth-mother and comes from the Mediterranean part of the world.  She is commonly known as a fertility goddess.  Demeter is often depicted with a torch and stalks of corn or other grains.

The story of Demeter’s daughter Persephone introduces the story of life, death, regeneration, and the cycle of life.  As a result of being kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld, Persephone must remain there for six months of the year.  The other six months she can return to spend time with her beloved mother Demeter.  During the time Persephone is in the underworld, Demeter is sad and neglects her role of goddess of agriculture (fall and winter).  When Persephone returns to the earth Demeter rejoices and renews the agricultural growing season (spring and summer).

Figure 2: Demeter – Greek Goddess of Agriculture

Ceres

The Roman counterpart to Demeter is Ceres.  Ceres is the Roman goddess of agriculture, crops, fertile land, and grain.  Ceres is credited with giving the gift of agriculture to humankind.  Ceres was also considered the instructor of man in agriculture.  Ceres nurtured the infant Triptolemus, who matured into the first plowman and gave him the task of scattering grain about the world and diffusing the knowledge of agriculture.  While many in agriculture believe that Native American Squanto, a Wampanoag tribal chief, was the first agriculture instructor in the new world (Drache, 1996; Hurt, 2002), Triptolemus was the first ancient mythological agriculture teacher.

Ceres is included on the official seal of the State of New Jersey and statues of the goddess grace the State Capitols in both Vermont and Missouri.

Figure 3: Ceres – Roman Goddess of Agriculture – Statue atop the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, MO

 Pomona

Another well-known goddess related to agriculture is Pomona.  Pomona is a Roman goddess of fruit, fruit trees, and fruitful abundance.  Because of her association with fruit, she is often depicted in an orchard or holding a bowl of fruit.  As most will know, Pomona, California, home of Cal Poly – Pomona was named after the goddess.  The seal of the City of Pomona also includes a likeness of the deity.

Figure 4: Pomona, Roman Goddess of Fruit

Figure 5: Seal of the City of Pomona, CA

If you are a member of the Grange, you will recognize Pomona, Ceres, and Flora (see below) as the title of various Grange officers. These positions are held by women.

Agricultural Deities Around the World

Shennong

Within oriental tradition, Shennong is considered the Divine Farmer or Divine Husbandman.  He is the God-King of Chinese medicine and agriculture.  He is also known as Wugushen, the Emperor of the Five Grains which includes wheat, rice, millet, beans, and sorghum. Shennong is credited with creating a stable agricultural society in China by teaching the Chinese the art and practice of agriculture.  This includes the invention of farm implements such as the hoe, plow, and axe; irrigation, farmers’ markets, and taming oxen and yoking horses to assist farmers.  A depiction of Shennong with a hoe or spade is below.

Figure 6: Shennong, Chinese God-King of Agriculture

The following is a list of numerous deities from other countries and different religions around the world. Some have been previously been mentioned

Goddess Origin
Demeter Greek goddess of agriculture, fertile soils/land, fruit, grasses, and grains. Presided over the cycle of life and death.  Created the rose.
Ashnan Mesopotamian goddess of grain.
Dagon Assyro-Babylonian god of grain and fishing
Nidaba Sumerian goddess of the harvest.
Niki “Great Lady” or “Fruitful” was the Phoenician goddess of orchards and fruit.
Emesh Sumerian god of vegetation and the abundance of the earth.
Nisroch Assyrian god of agriculture.
Enkimdu Sumerian god of farming.
Osiris Egyptian god of the underworld and rebirth. Responsible for granting life that supported vegetation, grain, and the flooding of the Nile.  Depicted as a pharaonic man with green skin.
Heqet Egyptian goddess of fertility.  Associated with the germination of grain crops.  Depicted as a frog sitting upon a lotus.
Renenutet Egyptian goddess of nourishment and the harvest.  Depicted as a cobra or a woman with the head of a cobra.
Dionysus Greek god of grapes, wine, and winemaking.
The Seasons Also known as Horae, were goddesses of the seasons and natural portions of time.  Presided over the fertility of the earth.
Persephone Daughter of Demeter.  Greek queen of the underworld.  Her movement to and from the underworld is representative of the new plant growth in spring and the death of vegetation in the winter.  She is associated with spring and the seeds of fruit.
Terra Roman primordial personification of the earth.  Presided over the productivity of farmland.
Vertumnus Roman god of the seasons, change, plant growth and fruit trees.  He is closely associated with Pomona.
Annona Divine personification of the grain supply in ancient Rome.  She was connected to and often depicted with the goddess Ceres.
Consus Roman protector of grains and storage facilities.  He was represented by a grain seed.
Puta A minor Roman goddess who presided over the pruning of trees.
Ceres Roman goddess of agriculture, crops, fertile land, and grain. She is the Roman counterpart to the Greek goddess Demeter.
Pomona Roman goddess of fruit, fruit trees, and fruitful abundance. She is closely associated with Vertumnus.
Faunus Half-goat god of forests, fields, plains, and cattle. Often associated with the Greek god Pan.
Lympha Roman goddess of fresh water.  Often included among agricultural deities due to the significance of water to agriculture.
Flora Roman goddess of flowers and spring.
Acan Mayan god of wine.
Axomamma Incan goddess of potatoes.
Chicomecoatl Aztec goddess of agriculture during the Middle Culture period. Called “Goddess of Nourishment,” a goddess of plenty and the female aspect of corn.
Pachamama Incan fertility goddess who presided over planting and harvesting.
Sara Mama Incan goddess of grain.
Xipe Totec Aztec god of life-death-rebirth, agriculture, vegetation, spring, and the seasons.
Xochipilli Aztec god of beauty and flowers.  His name contains the Nahuatl words xochitl (flower) and pilli (prince).  Thus his name means “Flower Prince.”
Kokopelli God of agriculture, fertility, and trickery worshipped by the Native Americans of the Southwest United States.
The Dagda Important Irish mythology. He was a father-figure and protector of the tribes. He was a god of agriculture who possessed a harp that could, when played, put the seasons in order, ever-producing fruit trees
Freyr Norse god highly associated with farming and weather.
Gefjon Norse goddess of plowing and fertility.
Žemyna Lithuanian mother-goddess of agriculture, fertile earth, and nourishment.
Jarilo Proto-Slavic god of vegetation, fertility, spring and the harvest.
Mat Zemlya Literally Mother Earth is the collective term applied to a number of Slavic deities devoted to plants, growth, birth, creation, and patrons of field works.
Sucellus Sucellus or Sucellos was the Celtic god of agriculture and forests.
Ukko Finnish and Estonian god of sky, weather, crops and other natural things.
Dan Petro Caribbean or Voodo – Dan Petro is the loa who protects farmers.
Azaka Medeh Voodoo loa who presides over the harvest.
Mbaba Mwana Waresa Zulu goddess of the rain, rainbows, and agriculture.
Dewi Sri Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese goddess of rice and fertility.
Hoori God of cereals and grains in Japanese mythology.
Pa-cha Chinese god who protected farmers against locusts.

Conclusions

The history of agriculture around the world goes back millennia. The importance of agriculture transcends time and location. Throughout history, agriculture has played an important part in community, religious, and cultural development.  Farmers and agriculturalists have long looked to religious and mythical figures to watch over them and their agricultural endeavors.

Suggested Activities

Select a patron saint or other agriculture deity that is most associated with agriculture in your area.  Research that deity and develop a short presentation or display describing their protection for agriculture.

Interview a Catholic priest or a Christian clergy member about patron saints related to agriculture.  Research the life and feast day for that patron saint.

Use your school library to read about Greek and Roman mythology.  Study the lives of Demeter or Ceres and their relationship to agriculture, land, crops, and seasons.

References

Ancient Origins (2017, March 22). Shennong: The god-king of Chinese medicine and agriculture. https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/shennong-god-king-chinese-medicine-and-agriculture-007760

Catholic Rural Life (n.d.). Isidore and Maria, Patron saints of farmers. https://catholicrurallife.org/resources/spiritual/isidore-and-maria-patron-saints-of-farmers/

Drache, H. M. (1996). Legacy of the land: Agriculture’s story to the present. Danville, IL: Interstate.

Hurt, R. D. (2002). American agriculture. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press.

Kravitz, D. (1976). Who’s who in Greek and Roman mythology?  New York: Crown Publishers.

Matyszak, P. (2010). The Greek and Roman myths: A guide to the classical stories. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Whittington, J. J. (1950). A study of the Roman agricultural deities as portrayed by Horace, Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus, and Vergil. [Unpublished master’s thesis]. University of Southern California.