They're on my mind quite a bit lately. I just got back from a pagan festival which attempts to recreate the spirit and purpose of the original, if not the form. They can't recreate the form, you see. We simply don't know enough about it.
We know that there were Lesser Mysteries, held in another complex nearby, and that people had to attend the Lesser Mysteries before they could attend the Greater Mysteries. We know that the Mysteries had their roots in agricultural cycles, and centered around the myth of Persephone, Hades, and Demeter. We know that certain sacred objects (the Hiera) were shown to the initiates, although what they were is not known. We know that anyone could attend the Mysteries, man or woman, slave or citizen, Athenian or foreigner, so long as they spoke the Hellenic tongue and had not committed murder. We know that initiates took a fearsome oath to say nothing about the form of the Mysteries, beyond the ritual phrase, "Things were enacted, things were shown, words were spoken," dromena, deiknymena, and legomena. The punishment in Athenian law for violating this this was death, and the laws of the gods held worse punishments. (I can't tell you anything about the form of the ritual I attended because I have taken similar oaths, and while I won't be put to death, I wouldn't want to piss off my gods.)
What we do know, though, is something about the purpose of the Mysteries. It is ritual revelation or reassurance of continuance after death, to take away the fear of death.
The fear of death is basically the fear of ceasing to exist. I'm making a distinction here between the fear of death and fears of dying painfully or violently or alone or what have you. We're specifically talking about the fear of death itself. Many people experience this fear at some point in their lives, and most religions, philosophies, and other ways of thinking about the universe try to give people ways to deal with it, whether by guaranteeing life after death, or changing the focus to this life, or by choosing to accept and be satisfied or pleased with the idea.
The ancient Hellenes and Romans had Eleusis, among other things, and the Mysteries shown and stories told there. The broad outlines of the story of Persephone, Hades, and Demeter are pretty widely known, but there's a lot more detail to it than most people are aware of.
Demeter is the goddess of the grain, and when the world was young, the Earth always produced grain, all the year long. Demeter's greatest joy was in her daughter, Kore, whose name means simply Maiden.
Some say that Hades asked Zeus for the hand of Kore, and Zeus, knowing Demeter would never consent to her daughter going to live in the Underworld, told him to kidnap her instead. Some say that Hades looked up and saw Kore picking flowers alone and acted on impulse. Whether it was premeditated or not, he split open the earth before her as she picked poppies and iris and violets, and took her back with him to the Underworld.
Most people say that he swept her up and took her away without her consent, but others say that he convinced her to go with him of her own free will, convinced her to reach for the maturity she had never known as her mother's daughter. Some will even tell you that he raped her there in the meadow, but this is not so. It's a linguistic confusion, because the word rape (and its Latin forebear, rapere) originally meant to abduct, and the definition of violation came later.
Only two in all the world knew what had happened: Helios, looking down from the Chariot of the Sun, who saw what happened but could hear nothing, and Hekate, who heard it but could not see.
When Demeter learned that her precious daughter was gone, she sought high and low, through day and night, for her, seeking always. In her grief, she was known as Melaine, the Black Demeter, and Erinye, the Vengeful, and she would let nothing grow.
In her wanderings, Demeter came to Eleusis, to the house of the king, Keleus. She told the king's daughters that her name was Doso, that she was a Cretan woman whose daughter had been abducted by pirates, and that she wished to work in the household. They took her in, but every evening, when she was done with her work, she would sit by the hearth neither moving nor speaking.
In the house of the king was an old nurse, called Baubo or Iambe, who could not stand to see Doso in such pain, and she began to tell dirty jokes, and to dance suggestively, until finally Doso laughed out loud. After that, her heart was lightened, and though she still grieved for her daughter, she began to take more interest in the life of the royal family.
Now the king's wife, Metaneira, had a baby boy still in swaddling at that time, Demophon, and Demeter learned to love him. Out of love, and a fear of losing one she loved again, she began to feed him ambrosia, the food of the gods, and to lay him in the fire at night, to burn away his mortality. One night, two nights, she laid him in the fire, but on the third and final night, as she went to put him in the hearth, Metaneira woke and came out and saw it. Crying out, she snatched her baby to her breast, screaming for help.
Demeter, angry now, revealed herself and told the queen that her son would have lived forever, had she not interfered, but that now, while he would live a long life, he could not escape death. Then she left, and began again her long search.
By now it had been many months since Demeter had allowed the grain to grow, and the people had begun to starve, and the gods to worry. And it was during the famine that Demeter finally came across Hekate, who was on her own journey, and Hekate told her that she had heard the abduction, but had not seen the abductor, and suggested that Demeter speak to Helios, who saw all. Helios told Demeter that it was Hades who had taken her daughter from her.
Enraged that her brother should have taken her daughter from her, but unable to travel to the Underworld without his leave, Demeter went instead to Zeus, demanding that Kore be returned, or she would let the whole world starve to death. Zeus, alarmed at the thought, promised to get Kore back. So he sent Hermes to Hades, with the order to return Kore.
Hades agreed, but he had given Kore a pomegranate from the groves in the Elysian Fields, the sacred fruit of the Underworld, and, knowingly or not, she ate some of the seeds, so that when she went to leave with Hermes, she could not.
Eager to resolve this dilemma, Zeus asked Rhea, Mother of the Olympians, to mediate the dispute, and Rhea's judgement was that for the few seeds she had eaten, Kore must stay part of the year in the Underworld and part with her mother above. And Kore married Hades, and became Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, who brought light to the shadows. And Demeter, happy to have her daughter back, but refusing to allow the grain to grow while Persephone dwelt below, went back to the royal family at Eleusis, and taught them to store the grain, so that mortals might not starve during the dead season.*
Now, you may have heard that Persephone ate six seeds, and so spent half the year in the Underworld, and so we have winter, but this is not the case. In Greece, it's summer that's the dead time, summer when the sun parches the earth and nothing grows, and autumn when the rains come and rejuvenate the earth, when the people plant again, when life is renewed; winter is the growing season, and spring is the harvest. (Living in Florida and being heat sensitive, I always identified with that, with the summer being a time of death and sickness.) The idea that Persephone's absence was during the winter was an adaptation of the story for northern climes, where of course that version is much more relevant to people's experiences.
Precisely how this myth is meant to lead to the revelation of continuance after death is not entirely known, and different attempts to recreate those mysteries find different ways of handling this, but it is often believed to be linked to Persephone herself, and the changes she wrought in Erebos when she became its Iron Queen, and the change she wrought in Hades himself, and the cycle of the harvest that Demeter taught the royal family, and the change that Demeter herself learned to accept and live in. Persephone is the Goddess of Transformation, and she changes everything she touches; Demeter is the Goddess of Growth, and what she touches thrives.
This was my second year, and so I became Epoptai, "one who has seen," an initiate of the Greater Mysteries. I have seen the Hiera, and the mysteries of the rebirth, and though I had experienced those revelations in other forms through other mysteries, I have still been changed by it. I'm very full of that change right now.
And now it is my duty to Demeter and Persephone to carry that growth and that change out into the world, and my duty to Baubo to dig deep and find buried things, and my duty to Hecate to make my choices for myself, and my duty to one other, whom I shall not name here, to recreate myself in joy and to transform my own madness.**
How can I do these things? I'm still thinking about that. I can make the choices, and the changes, in my life that I need to make, consciously and deliberately, and accept the new ones that come along; I can be more active at making changes and influencing choices on a wider level. I can celebrate women's bodies (also one of the lessons of Baubo) by creating art; I can support women's health issues, abortion rights, freedom of expression for controversial art, and other issues more actively. I can dig deep by addressing my own issues (some of which have already started to surface); I can address issues in other places that other people don't see, or ignore. I can find my joy, and I can continue to try to find ways to make my bipolar to work for me; I can work to bring joy to others, and I can support mental illness causes. I can both drink and serve good food and wine.
Work-life balance is another issue that the Mysteries have brought home to me. I need to fulfill my responsibilities, at work, at home, to my friends and family and pets, to my sweeties, to myself. I also need to find time to set those responsibilities aside, to dance and sing, and take joy in life. Demeter lived for, and through, her daughter Kore. She was a mother, first and foremost. When she lost Kore, she lost everything, and could not live. I must learn what she had to learn: not to live through others, not to define myself by my role, but to live for myself. It's the only way I can have enough of me to give to others.
I do not need to fear death any longer. I can release that. Then I only have to face my fears about living.
I started this piece weeks ago, but couldn't find a way to make the myth connect with other issues. Now that I have seen the Greater Mysteries, it's been a little easier.
The Mysteries are there. Everyone can -- and many do -- find Mysteries, not only in religion, but in botany, in biology, in physics, in mathematics. Anywhere there is a deep sense of wonder and revelation that cannot be expressed accurately with words, there is Mystery. Anyone who experiences a Mystery can learn from it. These are some of the Mysteries I have experienced, and some of what I have learned from them. But the Mysteries can be frightening in their own right, even as they conquer other fears, and I am afraid of some of what I may find as I work in the names of my gods.
*All of this is, of course, a great simplified version of the whole thing, and various people's research contradicts the research of others. Anyone interested in learning more about the Mysteries of Eleusis might want to check out Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter by Carl Kerenyi and Ralph Manheim and Mysteries of Demeter by Jennifer Reif, the latter of which is an attempt to recreate an Eleusinian liturgical cycle.
**Madness is, of course, a deeply problematic term for mental illness. However, here it has a specific religious meaning, a meaning I'm reluctant to go into detail about at this time. Those familiar with the Greek pantheon will probably be able to piece some of this together, and it's fine for anyone else to mention it, but it's not something I can talk about in depth in this context.
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