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Triptolemus

by Dr Alena Trckova-Flamee, Ph.D.
Triptolemus between Demeter and Persephone, relief from Eleusina, National Museum Athens. According to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (anonymous text of the 7th century BCE) Triptolemos was one of the men who had great power and honor in Eleusis and was one of the chiefs among the people, protecting the city by their wisdom and true judgements. The Hymn also gives us the information that Triptolemos together with Diocles, Eumolpos, Keleus and Polyxeinus learned the mysteries and rites of the goddess Demeter.

The later tradition, spread out by the Athenians, connected Triptolemos with the first civilization in Eleusis, cultivating the grain, a gift of Demeter. Triptolemos is described as a son of Keleus, the Eleusinian king and his wife Metaneira, who welcomed in their palace the goddess Demeter, when she was mourning for her daughter Kore. Demeter equited for their kindness, so she gave to Triptolemos the ears of a corn and she taught him to cultivate the fields. Triptolemos became a teacher of agriculture over the whole world. He was bringing this knowledge on his winged chariot from one place to the other, while Demeter and Persephone took care of him during this mission. In the later myths Triptolemos became after his death the judge in the underworld.

The representation of Triptolemos became very popular and he was depicted on many Greek vases and inside reliefs, mainly during the Classical period. The oldest image of Triptolemos (dated from the 6th century BCE) exists on the black-figured amphora from Les Musées Royaux in Brussels. Triptolemos is sitting on his wheeled throne, keeping the ears of a corn, while one of his companions is following him and an other man is thanking him for his mission.

The story about Triptolemos was favorite mainly during the 5th century BCE. At this time he was pictured on many red-figured vases, which are exhibited in the collections of the British Museum in London, in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, in the University Library of Haifa and in many other places. Triptolemos appears as a young man, usually with a branch or diadem in his hair, often seating on a winged chariot, decorated with snakes. Between his attributes are a plate with corn, the ears or a scepter, which he is keeping in his hands. He is surrounded by the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. During the 4th century BCE Triptolemos is pictured on the red-figured vases in the narrative scenes together with the gods and heroes, connected with the Eleusinian mysteries. The most important and beautiful representation is a story about a small Triptolemos, standing between goddesses, on the great Eleusinian votive relief from the Classical period, which is exhibited in the National Archeological Museum in Athens.

The myth about Triptolemos was evoluting between the 7th and 5th century BCE. From the Classical period the story and its form get stabilized, as we can suppose from the literature and the great quantity of similar representations on the vases and reliefs.


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