Fall and The Eleusinian Mysteries

So this is the week of the historical Eleusinian Mysteries, which by my calculations started yesterday and will continue until Monday the 11th. The Hellenic Pagan group Hellenion has their monthly communal libation this Saturday, naturally to Demeter and Persephone this month.

Fall is upon us now. Although in the Wiccan Wheel of the Year fall starts at the beginning of August on Lammas, here in Missouri August is still summer. It is still hot. Now, the temperatures are finally cooling off. It was 47 degrees last night at its coldest. Out here on the hill, those more sensitive to the cold are starting to use their woodburning stoves. I am actually enjoying the coolness and will most likely not fire up the stove until October. I will need to clean it out sometime this month. The leaves have not begun to turn yet, but that cannot be far behind. It’s time to start preparing the homestead for winter. In the words of the Starks of Game of Thrones: Winter Is Coming.

Reposted from GMC: Demeter, September 2016

Let this sacred tale of mother and daughter, possibly the most powerful of all the classical myths, serve as an introduction to the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries, held in the last half of September, and to the Thesmophoria, which occurred shortly thereafter. This sacred and truly feminine myth delves deep into the earth, into nature, and into our psyches, drawing strength from ageless archetypes. This is a story of loss, grief, and suffering[1]

Of the Mysteries themselves we know very little, for the initiates kept their oaths of secrecy well. We know, however, much about the rituals that led up to the Greater Mysteries. The week-long Eleusinian Mysteries, held in late September or early October (again, a perfect “coincidence” with which God comes up for the God of the Month Club!), began with a gathering in Athens, as the prospective initiates prepared for the fourteen-mile walk to Eleusis. The sacred objects had been bought from Eleusis to Athens, to be shown to crowd of waiting celebrants, and to be escorted back to Eleusis by the hopeful initiates. They purified themselves in the salt water of the sea, and each initiate sacrificed a piglet they had bought to Demeter. Only then did they begin their long fourteen-mile walk along the Sacred Way to Eleusis, those chosen to carry the sacred objects leading the way.  They carried torches, as Demeter did in Her search for Persephone. But the tone was not one of mourning, but of joyous celebration.

demeter_ceres_greek_goddess_art_15_by_jynette_tignerIt is difficult for many of us today to imagine thousands of initiates, both male and female, slave and free, traveling weeks or even months, bearing the hardships of a lengthy and costly land or sea voyage, journeying from all over the Mediterranean world to pay homage to an exclusively female relationship, that of Demeter and her dear daughter Persephone. And it is beyond our experience to have a state supported holiday during which for nearly two weeks all work and business yielded… to the celebration of the Divine Feminine. Yet that is exactly what happened[2].

When they arrived at Eleusis, they participated in another ritual bath in the nearby river. When the first star of the evening rose, they began a two-day fast, just as Demeter did. Celibacy was mandatory, in sympathy for Demeter’s barrenness and loneliness without Her daughter.

The Mysteries themselves took place after this two-day fast. A building called the Telesterion had been built just for the purpose of the Mysteries, and it was not used in the rest of the year. It was a large, windowless hall that held thousands of people in rows of seats. As I said before, there is not much known of what happened here. We know that there were things said, things done, and things shown, and that the emphasis was on the things shown, but nothing really about what these things were. The only original sources to tell us what happened there were written by Christian authors in furious protests against Pagan religions, so what they had to say is obviously extremely suspect. There has been much speculation by many scholars, but little fact.

We do know that after the rituals of the Mysteries were concluded, the initiates walked into the nearby Rharian Field. There, “they repeatedly invoked Hue! Cue! (Rain! Conceive!). It was called the Mystical Formula… and the Neoplatonist Proclus reports that the Priest looked to the Heavens when calling the first word, and towards the Earth when calling the second[3].”

Likewise, we know which Gods and heroes were worshiped at Eleusis, the chief ones being, obviously, Demeter and Kore, “the Maiden”. They are often called simply “the demeter_reliefTwo Goddesses”. The second pair depicted was Persephone and Her husband Haides under His name of Plouton, “wealth”. Kore and Persephone are the same Goddess, in Her forms as Spring Maiden and Queen of the Dead, but these forms are so opposite that She was often split into two. The King and Queen of the Underworld were here called simply “the God” and “the Goddess”. Martin P. Nilsson, the author of Greek Folk Religion, observed that when it was obvious Who they were talking about, the Greeks tended to just say “the Goddess” or “the God” instead of names. So at Athens “the Goddess” meant Athena, and at Delphi Apollon was referred to as “the God.” At Eleusis, “the God and Goddess” are Haides-Plouton and Persephone. In addition, mortal heroes were added to the pantheon of Deities and spirits honored at Eleusis, which Nilsson elaborates on:

To each of these two pairs a hero is added, and so we get two triads: Demeter, Kore, and Triptolemos; and “the God”, “the Goddess”, and Eubouleus. They are seen on an Attic relief found at Mondragone near Sinuessa in Italy, with the addition of a seventh figure clad in a Dionysiac costume – boots and fawnskin. He is Iacchos. Iacchos is a personification of the Iacchic cry heard in the great procession which went from Athens to Eleusis in order to celebrate the Mysteries. The gay revels, the merry cries, and the light of the torches in this procession were reminiscent of the festivals of Dionysus, and the name of Iacchos suggested the second name of this god, Bacchos. So Iacchos was represented in the likeness of Dionysus. But he is a later creation, who owes his existence to the procession mentioned; that is to say, he cannot be older than the incorporation of Eleusis into the Athenian state, and he was created at the earliest in the sixth century B.C. There is no question of Dionysiac elements in the Eleusinian Mysteries at an early age, but we shall see that from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C., there was a certain mixing up of the Mysteries of Eleusis and the cult of Dionysus[4].

Triptolemos is barely mentioned in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter as one of several Eleusinian noblemen. Apollodorus is credited with saying that Triptolemos was one of the eldest Eleusinian princes[5], and that Demeter gave him a chariot drawn by dragons to help him spread the secrets of agriculture. The story was picked up by others[6]. Eubouleus is not mentioned in the original Homeric Hymn to Demeter at all, but is found in later sources. The story goes that he was a herdsman tending his herd of swine when Haides came to kidnap Persephone. When the earth opened up, his herd was lost as the pigs fell into the chasm. This myth likely came k26-1ploutosabout to explain why pigs were sacrificed to Demeter. Diodorus of Sicily actually said the Euboulos was a son of Demeter[7], perhaps meant symbolically. According to some, Demeter and Her mortal lover Iasion, when they lay together in a thrice-plowed field, She bore the Ploutos[8], the demi-God of agricultural wealth. This is pretty interesting, considering Plouton was another name of Haides. Also fathered by Iasion is Philometes-Bootes[9], the inventor of the wagon and plough. So although Persephone may be Demeter’s most beloved child, She had many children, most of them agricultural heroes and demi-Gods.

Demeter and Persephone, having defeated death and returned from the Underworld, offer hope of a better future. The Greeks believed that those initiated into the Mysteries had a better fate in the afterlife, bound for a more joyous place than gloomy Haides. This no doubt did much to spread the popularity of the Mysteries.

Aristophanes in The Frogs introduces a chorus of mystae in the scene which is laid in the underworld. …. The mystae dance and revel in a meadow strewn with flowers. This conviction of a happier lot in the Underworld, which filled the minds of the initiated, sprang from ancient roots, the world-wide idea that the other life is a repetition of this life.  The idea is found, for example, in the eleventh book of the Odyssey, which describes Odysseus’ visit to the underworld. The simple fact is that the initiated believed that they would continue to celebrate the Mysteries in the underworld, as Aristophanes and Euripides show them doing. Since the Mysteries were the most edifying event they knew of, such a conception of a future state formed the brightest possible contrast to the dark and gloomy Hades in which the Greeks believed[10].The most obvious interpretation of the myth of Demeter is one of seasonal change and of the harvest, with Persephone representing the seeds of the earth, which were stored in underground silos during the scorching summer months. 

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