Remembering Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries

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The loss of the daughter to mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy. It was expressed in the religious mystery of Eleusis, which constituted the spiritual foundation of Greek life for two thousand years…

The separation of Demeter and Kore is an unwilling one; it is neither a question of the daughter’s rebellion against the mother, nor the mother’s rejection of the daughter… Each daughter, even in the millennia before Christ, must have longed for a mother whose love for her and whose power were so great as to undo rape and bring her back from death. And every mother must have longed for the power of Demeter, the efficacy of her anger, the reconciliation with her lost self.
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born

One definition of “myth” might be: “A once sacred narrative which has lost its original context.” Like the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwreck on the high seas, we encounter fragments of myth, such as in Hesiod’s Theogony, drifting about detached from their original cultural setting and so read them as curious stories, quaint remnants, or illogical accounts of the cosmos.

What is lost in such fragments is the original wholeness of mythos, symbol, and ritual within which the myth had its transformative power. For example, those who have not experienced the transformative power of the ritual of communion in the Christian tradition, where the symbol of the body and blood of Christ is received by the believer within the greater mythos of Christ’s sacrifice for humankind, may scoff. Yet the initiate may discover the love of Christ within the prayer and experience a grace that surpasses human understanding.

Christianity, arising among the mystical traditions of the ancient world, has been shown by scholars to share many features with other spiritual movements of its age, and, like them, at its inception it wasn’t a religion. Rather, like Greek religion, it “had no formal theology, no priestly class of interpreters of an authoritative, divine scripture.” Rather, it was “experienced through ritual and myth, and the myths (and, though sometimes more slowly, the rituals) were endlessly changed and reimagined for every generation.” Contrast the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas with the New Testament’s Gospel of John and you’ll get an idea of how profoundly the teachings of Jesus Christ were reimagined and changed within a couple of generations after his death!

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At the heart of Christianity, as at the heart of other ancient mystery traditions (for “mystery” read “mystical”) such as in the mythos of Demeter and Persephone, lay an experience. A communion with divinity where “initiates become temporarily detached from their regular environment and enter into a liminal experience in which the normal categories and hierarchies by which they define their world are sometimes terrifyingly blurred, transformed, or inverted. Finally, changed or renewed by this detachment from their cultural environment, they are reincorporated into it. The process is often described and experienced as a symbolic death and rebirth.”

This experience of transformation may seem remote, but as Joseph Campbell points out, even walking into a temple, mosque, or cathedral off of a busy city street can invoke this liminal experience of being momentarily lifted to a higher plane and then coming forth renewed, harmonized with a higher purpose than mere economic survival.

It is in such experiences, whether superficial such as the lunch hour visit to the temple, or profound such as undergoing an initiation within a spiritual tradition, that we come to fully appreciate how transformative to consciousness the intimate experience of the living symbol embedded in a functioning mythos, mediated by ritual, continues to be for human beings.

This is the power of myth and symbol.

The Christian mythos tells of a divine son who lived, suffered, and died as a mortal, who through his sacrifice profoundly altered the human worshipper’s relationship to God the father. The story is unique among the divine stories inherited from the ancient world in that, unlike in Hesiod’s Theogony or Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, its divine figure directly participates in the experience of human suffering. Jesus Christ knows the agony of birth and tormented death, gain and loss, disease, madness, abandonment and doubt, the hypocrisy and cruelty of those in power, exile… In this way, a divine intersection, an axis mundi between God and his worshipper was created through Christ. The Christian god has fully comprehended the human experience and out of that empathy arises deep compassion and forgiveness for humankind.

Contrast that with the brutal indifference of Zeus, who simply metes out to mortals their fates! According to Homer, Zeus bestows gifts to humankind from two jars. The lucky ones receive a mixture of good and bad. The unlucky ones receive an endless series of disasters. It took a stern heroism to shoulder your fate in the ancient world – and divinity was little help in the matter.

Yet there was an exception, the Eleusinian Mysteries, which, as in the Christian mythos, arose, according to Helene Foley, from “an usually sustained encounter with mortality” by divinity, one in which “a permanent and beneficial modification of the relation between divinity and humankind” was established.

Unlike the Christian mythos, however, which revolves around the father and son, the initiate’s path from fear and confusion to enlightenment in the Eleusinian mysteries arose from profound identification with the female experience of two goddesses. The happiness, in this world and the next, given to the initiate came from nurturing adoption by the feminine divinities Demeter and Persephone.

Let us look, then, at the mythos, symbol, and ritual of the Eleusinian mysteries.

Archaic Greek culture, which in the pages of Homer’s great epic poems is given a startlingly vivid, naturalistic depiction, had an extremely dim view of the afterlife.

In their heroic perspective, all humans were fated to die and their depleted souls, possessing only identity and image without the animating powers of voice or vitality, would transmigrate to the realm of Hades and exist there as burnt-out wraiths, fluttering ghosts. Not an attractive prospect. When Odysseus visits the Kingdom of the Dead, he offers blood to the spirits of the dead and watches how the spirits flow up out of Hades:

The dark blood flowed in – and up out of Erebus they came,
Flocking towards me now, the ghosts of the dead and gone…
Brides and unwed youths and old men who had suffered much
And girls with their tender hearts freshly scarred by sorrow
And great armies of battle dead, stabbed by bronze spears,
Men of war still wrapped in bloody armor – thousands
Swarming around the trench from every side –
Unearthly cries – blanching terror gripped me!

Frozen in time, unrecycled, like dead batteries, burdened by memory and image but without the spark of warm animality, the deceased were stuck in an existential dead-end.

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In response, Greek mythos developed an escape from the prison house of the dead: the initiation into the mysteries celebrated at the shrine of Demeter in Eleusis. There the power of the transformative symbol of Persephone, resting inside a living mythology, was given a working ritual that functioned for some 2,000 years until the sanctuary was closed by Christian emperor Theodosius in 392 A.D. and then the temple sacked and destroyed by the Arian Christian hordes of Alaric the Goth four years later. During its long life, the mysteries were open to all – slave or aristocrat, female or male, foreigner or native – as long as the initiate spoke Greek and had not committed murder. The list of the initiates includes nearly all the prominent figures of the ancient world: Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Cicero… Given the profound influence of these ancient figures, we might imagine the Eleusinian mysteries as the hidden cradle of the Western tradition.

Remains of Temple at Eleusis

The exact details of the mysteries, considered holy in the memory of the ancient Greeks, were never recorded, but based upon archaeological remains, historical writings, and the myth of Demeter and Persephone as recorded in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (ca. 700-600 BCE), it is possible to attempt a reconstruction of the celebration of this ancient myth.

The bare bones of the tale runs thus:

It begins with the vivid, heart-wrenching account of the abduction of Demeter’s Daughter, Persephone, by Hades god of the Dead – an act set in motion by Zeus, father of Persephone, himself.

We first encounter the Kore (Persephone has yet to be given her name) gathering flowers on the Nysian Plain, in a meadow sacred to Dionysus. While we do not know their exact species, we do know that the roses, crocuses, violets, irises, and hyacinths the maiden was gathering were considered psychoactive drugs by the ancients.

Persephone, that fact alone suggests, is not an innocent lass gathering a mere bouquet. She is, as most women in cultures still rooted in their hunting and gathering past something of a pharmakeus – a healer, a witch, an initiate into women’s mysteries.

The Earth mother Gaia, according to the Homeric Hymn, is instrumental in setting a trap for Persephone. Again, there is a strong hint of an underlying tradition of shamanic initiation: The bait was a plant of great otherworldly potency—the narcissus, “a flower wondrous and bright, awesome for all to see, for the immortals above and for mortals below. From its root a hundredfold bloom sprang up and smelled so sweet that the whole vast heaven above and the whole earth laughed, and the salty swell of the sea.”

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Such description overleaps the botanical to evoke the pure realm, the psychoactive properties, that even its scent exudes! This indigenous relationship to plants as doorways into other realms is what ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes meant when he spoke of the “resident divinity” of a plant. Persephone reached to pluck the narcissus, whose heavily weighted blossoms disguise the fact that in them lies death: Hades and his horses lurk within its molecular radiance, waiting to break apart the veil between the worlds and abduct Persephone into his realm.

Lord Hades, with his deathless horses… seized her,
Unwilling, lamenting, screaming,
calling for help from Her Father!
The peaks of the mountains echoed
and the depths of the oceans rang
With the immortal voice of the Daughter—
and Her Holy Mother heard her!

Bernini Hades Abducting Persephone page 16

Casting a dark cloak on her shoulders, Demeter sped like a bird over the dry land and sea, searching for Persephone, but no mortal or immortal would give her an accurate account, no bird of omen came to her. For nine days, with blazing torches in her hands, Demeter roamed the earth. Finally Hekate, goddess of magic, brought her to the palace of the sun god Helios, whose “rays look down through the bright air on the whole of the earth and sea,” and from the sun god Demeter learned the truth.

Anguish more bitter and cruel
now struck the great heart of Demeter,
Her rage against Zeus erupted,
against the storm-clouded Son of Kronos.
She abandoned the assembly of Gods
and heights of Mount Olympos
To live in human cities and fields,
hiding her beauty for a long time.

Hecate William Blake page 16

Disguised as an old crone, Demeter arrived in the city of Eleusis wasted by grief. There she was kindly received as a nurse into the royal household of Keleus and Metaneira and asked to nurse their new son, Demophoon.

In the goddess’ interactions with the human culture of Eleusis a divine web begins to be spun, sacred ritual begins to be laid down by Demeter’s holy activity that her initiates would in time follow as a way of prayer, much as Catholics still walk the Stations of the Cross in order to contemplate the inner meaning of the Passion of Christ.

This passage from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter can be read as indicating ritual actions which Demeter taught by her own example.

And Demeter, Bestower of Seasons and Bright Gifts, would not sit down on
The glistening chair, but waited unwilling, her beautiful eyes downcast,
‘til thoughtful Iambe brought Her a low bench and threw a silvery fleece over it.
Sitting down, Demeter drew Her veil across Her lovely face with Her hand,
And stayed there on the bench, grieving silently, not speaking to anyone
By a single word or gesture, unsmiling, tasting neither food nor drink.
She sat longing, consumed by desire for Her finely adorned Daughter,
Until thoughtful and wise Iambe joked with the holy Lady,
With bawdy stories making Her smile, and laugh, and have a gracious heart.
And ever after, Iambe’s ribald humor brought delight to the Goddess’s rites.
Metaneira brought Her honey-sweet wine, but the Divine Lady refused it,
For it does not accord with sacred custom to drink such wine at this time.
Demeter asked to be given instead, barley and water freshly boiled,
Mixed with soft pennyroyal—a mint sweetened brew to end Her fast.
Metaneira made the kykeon as asked, she gave it to the Lady to drink,
And the Great Goddess Deo [Demeter] received it in affirmation of Her rites.

As Mara Lynn Keller comments, “Reading this passage, we can also imagine the initiate sitting in the dark temple at Eleusis at the beginning of the Nights of the Mysteries, veiled, fasting, silent, identifying with Demeter in her grief and anger, missing her lost child, the loss of love and happiness, of life itself.”

Much as would any mother bereft of her child in such circumstances, Demeter adopts Demophoon to temporarily fill the void in her heart, assuring the boy’s mother Metaneira, “I will raise him, nor do I expect a spell or the Undercutter to harm him through the negligence of his nurse. For I know a charm more cutting than the Woodcutter; I know a strong safeguard against baneful bewitching.”

Here again, we see Demeter coming “as close to the human tragedy as divinities can.” Out of love for the little boy, “she took the child to her fragrant breast with her divine hands,” and began a mysterious alchemical process we first find in the mythos of ancient Egypt: Demeter will make Demophoon immortal by refining away his impurities in fire.
He grew like a divinity,

Eating no food nor sucking at a mother’s breast;
For daily well-crowned Demeter anointed
Him with ambrosia like one born from a god
And breathed sweetly on him, held close to her breast.
At night, she would bury him like a brand in the fire’s might,
Unknown to his parents. And great was their wonder
As he grew miraculously fast; he was like the gods.
She would have made him ageless and immortal.

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Yet, as do so many of our mortal agendas, her plan goes awry. Metaneira, spying upon Demeter, witnesses the goddess inserting her child in the glowing embers of the fire and, not surprisingly, is panic-stricken. Demeter snatches the child from the flames, and reveals her divine nature by saying:

“You are incurably led by your folly.
Let the god’s oath, the implacable water of Styx, be witness,
I would have made your child immortal and ageless
Forever. I would have given him unfailing honor.
But now he cannot escape death and the death spirits.
Yet unfailing honor will forever be his, because
He lay on my knees and slept in my arms.
For I am the honored Demeter, the greatest
Source of help and joy to mortals and immortals.
But now let all the people build me a great temple
With an altar beneath, under the sheer wall
Of the city. I myself will lay down the rites so that
Hereafter performing due rites you may propitiate my spirit.”

Demeter then reveals her true form to Metaneira:

Thus speaking, the goddess changed her size and appearance,
Thrusting off old age. Beauty breathed about her and
From her sweet robes a delicious fragrance spread;
A light beamed far out from the goddess’s immortal skin
And her golden hair flowed over her shoulders.
The well-built house flooded with radiance like lightening.

Metaneira and her maidens were terrified, and after Demeter vanished they prayed all night, seeking to appease the wrath of goddess. In the morning, the king was informed of Demeter’s command. Construction began immediately upon a rich temple and an altar upon the rising hill above the town. When completed, Demeter entered there and “remained sitting apart from all the immortals, wasting with desire for her deep-girt daughter.”

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Demeter then retaliates against Zeus and the gods of Olympus by withdrawing her fertility from the earth.

She ordained a terrible and brutal year
On the deeply fertile earth. The ground released
No seed, for bright-crowned Demeter kept it buried.
In vain the oxen dragged many curved plows down
The furrows. In vain much white barley fell on the earth.
She would have destroyed the whole mortal race
By cruel famine and stolen the glorious honor of gifts
And sacrifices from those having homes on Olympus.

As a result, Zeus capitulates and sends Hermes to fetch Persephone back.

Yet Persephone remains the Kore in the narrative, the maiden without name, until this juncture. Her initiation is not complete – and she cannot return to Demeter the innocent lass that she was before her abduction into the realm of death. Just as Demeter breaks her fast by drinking the kykeon described above, Persephone eats pomegranate seeds slipped to her by Hades. This is a formal sealing of their union, because the Fates have declared that anyone, mortal or immortal, who eats the food in the land of the dead is bound to Hades.

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Read symbolically, according to Helen Foley, while “Demeter’s kykeon links her with the life of bread eaters on earth… Persephone’s eating of the seed that appears to bleed symbolizes her commitment to her marriage and the world below.”
Persephone returns with three gifts from Hades:

When you are there at the side of your dark-robed mother
You will have power over all that lives and moves,
And you will possess the greatest honors among the gods.
There will be punishment forevermore for those wrongdoers
Who fail to appease your power with sacrifices
And performing proper rites and making due offerings.

Following the mother and daughter’s tearful reunion, Persephone discloses her eating of the pomegranate seeds and so the gods establish that Persephone must now “spend one-third of the revolving year in the misty dark, and two-thirds with her mother and the other immortals.”

Yet their reunion is full joyful! As the poet describes it,

Then all day long, their hearts in communion, in this blessed presence,
Embracing and full of love, finally relinquishing sorrow,
Happy at long last together, held close in each other’s arms,
Each receives joy from the other, each gives joy in return!

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Demeter, reconciling herself with the sacred character of her daughter’s relationship to Hades, restores fertility to the earth. She then goes to the leaders of Eleusis and

…taught her Mysteries to all of them, holy rites
that are not to be transgressed, nor pried into, nor divulged.
For a great awe of the gods stops the voice.
Blessed is the mortal on earth who has seen these rites,
but the uninitiated who has no share in them
never has the same lot once dead in the dreary darkness.

What, then, was seen in these rites? What little we know about the actual content of the sacred rite is it culminated in the Mysteriotides Nychtes, the Nights of the Mysteries. The initiates, called mystai, together with their teachers, called mystagogoi, entered the Telesterion, as the Hall of Completion in Demeter’s temple was known. Then, according to ancient accounts, inside Demeter’s earthly home, fragrant with incense, things were said (logomena), enacted (dromena), and seen (deiknymena).

Probably the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (or a similar hymn) was chanted by the Priestess of Demeter. Portions of the sacred drama of the Mother and Daughter may have been reenacted by initiates along with the priestesses and priests. Then the kykeon drunk by Demeter above, a communion drink made of boiled barley water and mint (which some scholars speculate was infused with the psychoactive fungus ergot, molecularly akin to LSD, which would have significantly heightened the experience of the participants), made the rounds. With the sounding of a great brass gong, a great fire blazed forth inside the temple and the highest stage of initiation—the epopteia, a vision, a special state of seeing—was received. Most likely the vision was of Persephone herself.

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But we don’t know. We are, however, given some insight by ancient authors, such as when Plutarch, drawing on the experience of the mysteries, describes the soul at the moment of death.

The soul suffers an experience similar to those who celebrate great initiations. . . . Wandering astray in the beginning, tiresome walkings in circles, some frightening paths in darkness that lead nowhere; then immediately before the end all the terrible things, panic and shivering and sweat, and amazement. And then some wonderful light comes to meet you, pure regions and meadows are there to greet you, with sounds and dances and solemn, sacred words and holy views, and there the initiate, perfect by now, set free and loose from all bondage, walks about, crowned with a wreath, celebrating the festival together with the other sacred, and pure people, and he looks down on the uninitiated, unpurified crowd in this world in mud and fog beneath his feet.

As well, in the fifth century BCE, the Greek lyric poet Pindar wrote of the experience of the initiated who pass on to the Elysian Fields:

…near them blossoms a flower of perfect joy.
Perfumes always hover above …
From the frankincense strewn in the deep-shining fire of the gods’ altars.
Happy is he…having seen these rites…;
for he knows the end of life and he knows its god-sent beginning.

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In the fourth century BCE, Plato alluded to the culmination of the Eleusinian Mysteries as where one received a vision into the “vast sea of beauty”:

But at that former time they saw beauty shining in brightness, when, with…a blessed company…they saw the blessed sight and vision and were initiated into that which is rightly called the most blessed of Mysteries, which we celebrated in a state of perfection, when we were without experience of the evils which awaited us in the time to come, being permitted as initiates to the sight of perfect and simple…and calm and happy apparitions, which we saw in the pure light…. Beauty shone in brilliance among those visions.

In sum, we can see how the mythos of the Mother and Daughter, the symbol of Persephone, Queen of the Dead, and the ritual practiced in the Mysteries at Eleusis created a container for a transformation of consciousness powerful enough to free the initiate from Hades. As Aristotle put it: “The initiate does not learn [mathein] something but is made to experience [pathein] the Mysteries and change his or her state of mind.”

Indeed, so potent were the blessings of these initiatory experiences, the garments of initiates “were later used as swaddling clothes for newborn babies.”