Iambe was the daughter of Pan and Echo and granddaughter of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. She was from Thrace but became a servant of King Celeus in Eleusis. According to Apollodorus and Nikander, Iambe was a talkative old countrywoman. When Demeter arrived at the palace, Queen Metaneira offered her the splendid chair on which she was sitting, but “the giver of splendid gifts” refused to sit down. At that awkward point, Iambe, “the one who knows what is worth caring about and what is not, set down for her a well-built stool, on top of which she threw a splendid fleece”. Demeter accepted the humble seat and sat without uttering a sound. She refused to eat or drink and spent her time yearning for her daughter. Iambe came to the rescue for the second time. Since she knew “what is dear and what is not”, she started telling jokes, probably of an obscene nature, that made the grieving goddess laugh. The obscenity, of course, was ritual obscenity that made fun of its targets to provoke laughter and promote fertility.
Iambe’s name links her to an iambic poetic tradition since iambos was a metre used for obscene abusive poetry. The tradition founded by this wise servant survived throughout the Eleusinian Mysteries, where the shameful language was common, especially during the procession from Athens to Eleusis. Bystanders on the bridge of the Cephissus River made insulting jokes to the initiates, while women sitting in carriages made fun of each other during the procession.