Tuesday, 23 September 2008


"We have been given a reason not only to live in joy but also to die with better hope" - Cicero

Corn was a central image of the Rites of Eleusis. Quite apart from the obvious association of corn with fertility and harvest (the Mysteries took place in September, the time of the drawing in of the year's yield) it was also a symbol of the immortality of the Soul. When corn is laid out in the sun the stem or stalk withers and dies but the cornseed itself remains. Thus the Body dies but the Soul survives. Not only that but the seed can be sown and thus give birth to a new sheaf of wheat, beginning the process again. Thus the Corn Mystery points towards the possibility of either Resurrection or even Reincarnation. When we remember that Plato and Pythagoras believed in Reincarnation, as did the Orphic/Dionysiac Gnostics, that this was the idea of Immortality the Eleusis gave its Initiates an insight into becomes a possibility. For the Immortality the Rites offered was not of the flesh, but of the Spirit. The Initiate was able to face death with joy and hope, understanding the true nature of existence as being more than the material. Rather like the message of a certain religious teacher to come, the Eternal Life being offered by Demeter was not a literal one of the body but a vision of a spiritual existence that went beyond the mortal.

"Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." (John 12:24)

Another key image was the Moon, the heavenly body associated with Goddesses all over the world. Like the Moon, Demeter, whose name echoes the Greek and Roman words for 'Mother', wandered across the Earth in her grief. Also like the Moon, the Mysteries celebrated the Goddess in her Triple Form, in this case Demeter-Kore-Persephone, corresponding, traditionally, to the cycle Maiden-Mother-Crone. This is symbolised by the famous image of the full moon flanked by two crescents, one waxing, the other waning, demonstrating not only the eternal cycle of Nature but, like the imagery of the Corn, of Death and Rebirth. For even though the moon waxes, reaches fullness and then wanes before disappearing, it quickly reembarks upon the process again. Thus the Moon image of the Triple Goddess dramatises the relationship between Permanence and Mutability, or physical death and spiritual immortality. Although the Moon appears to die, it is always reborn. Indeed, it never really dies. Its disappearance is an illusion we perceive, just as death is. What is essential always remains even if it is hidden.

The Rites took ten days as the Initiates reenacted Demeter's ten days of mourning before the return of her daughter. According to legend, the Goddess quit the company of the Gods and taking on the form of a wizened old woman (Demeter as Mother becoming the Crone), wandered among humanity in search of Persephone. No-one could lift her spirits except for the chief maid of the King of Eleusis who was able to make her laugh with her dirty jokes. Demeter was take in by the King and, in return, she offered to give his son Immortality. This involved secret rites of her own, the chief of which was placing the child in fire each night, an image of purification familiar to many cultures. Unfortunately one evening the Queen of Eleusis stumbled across Demeter doing this and screamed in shock, not understanding what was going on. In her fury, Demeter stopped the process of giving Immortality to the child but out of the encounter the Eleusinian Mysteries were born. Although shrouded in secrecy, the one element which all commentators agree on about the ceremonies was a blazing light or fire in the Telesterion, or Inner Sanctum where the Initiates had the final vision which gave them an understanding of Immortality. It would seem reasonable to suppose, then, that the fire in which the young Prince of Eleusis was placed each night was the same fire that formed the centrepiece of the Mysteries.

Initiates, known as Mystai (from which we get the word Mystic), began their procession to the Temple of Demeter at Eleusis from the sea where they engaged in a ritual purification ceremony in the water. Prior to the procession, along which they carried branches or bacchoi, they had to drink a special potion known as the Kykeon which involved a mixture of barley, mint and water. What the significance of this drink was is not clear but it is thought by some commentators that it may have had hallucinogenic qualities thanks to fungus found on the barley. This is not to say that the Mystai spent the Rites tripped out, more that, like the indiginous cultures of south America, hallucinogens were regarded as part of the process of opening the mind to the Cosmos. Another interesting element of the Kykeon was that it was drunk out of a cup which each Initiate was given. Again, keen Jungians will spot a parallel with a certain other legend of a Sacred Cup out of which Immortality-giving liquid was drunk...

After the purification and the Kykeon, the Mystai processed to Eleusis, at each stage reenacting Demeter's journey. At one point, in emulation of the maid who made her laugh, they were required to shout out obscenities and dirty jokes. The Rites were clearly far from solemn in this respect, being as much a celebration of life as a means of transcending its limitations. At another point, the Initiates found themselves at the Virgin's Well, the sacred Well that Demeter was said to have sat at during her wanderings before making contact with the people of Eleusis. Sacred Wells are, of course, a universal phenomena all over the world with mystical significance for all cultures. Think of the encounter with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob's Well in John's Gospel, for instance, or the preeminence of Chalice Well at Glastonbury both before and after the arrival of Christianity in England. As an image of the source of life and the abundance of the feminine energy of Nature they are archetypal.

No-one knows for sure what the culmination of the Eleusinian Mysteries were. The vow of secrecy Initiates undertook was punishable by death, thus we can only guess. Nevertheless a certain amount of fragmentary hints have given us some kind of idea of what it may have involved. The Final Vision (sometimes called the Beatific Vision) was the culmination of the Greater Mysteries which the Initiates undertook only after they had completed the Lesser Mysteries which prepared them for the ultimate encounter with the Goddess. It is from this distinction between the Lesser and Greater Mysteries that later esotericists drew their deliniation of things like the Lesser Work and the Great Work. In the Rider Waite Tarot, for instance, the Chariot Card is associated with the completion of the Lesser Work. The potential of this card lies in whether the drawer of it recognises that the Lesser Mysteries are what they have achieved. If they understand this, then they are destined to move on to the Greater, which are contained in the Magician Card. If they don't and believe they have already reached their goal, the danger is that their destiny will be that of Icarus or Phaeton, who fatally overreached themselves.

When the Mystai passed beyond the Lesser Mysteries into the Inner Sanctum, they were literally stepping into the unkown, so complete was the vow of silence surrounding them. Would they encounter Demeter herself? The sense of excitement and fear must have been overwhelming. In the Inner Sanctum they would have encountered the High Priests and Priestesses of Eleusis. The belief is that the final ceremony took place in utter silence with an ear of corn presented to the Initiates before the Sacred Flames. In this atmosphere of stillness and reverence, the corn was cut before the audience and in the blazing fire the Final Vision was revealed. Given the descriptions we have of Spirits and Phantasms being seen it is thought that the Initiates had an experience of Persephone herself manifesting in the flames. At that moment Mother and Daughter were reunited in the Mystai's gaze. Demeter was seen as having lead the Initiates to Persephone, creating a Divine Union between them both. For a moment the Two became One, as the Goddess/Mother of our world was united with the Goddess/Daughter of the Underworld.. Persephone had risen from Hades and been reunited with Demeter. In that brief, cosmic moment, death had been transcended in the oneness of the Goddess and the veil between the two worlds had been passed through. Thus the Initiate understood the true nature of Death and Life, that they were in fact one, parts of an eternal process that went beyond human comprehension. That the experience was unforgettable and transforming is demonstrated in these words from Socrates quoted in Plato's PHAEDRUS:

"But then there was beauty to be seen, brightly shining, when with the blessed choir the souls beheld the beatific spectacle and vision and were perfected in that mystery of mysteries which it is meet to call the most blessed. This did we celebrate in our true and perfect selves, when we were yet untouched by all the evils in time to come; when as Initiates we were allowed to see perfect and simple, still and happy Spirits and Phantasms. Purer was the light that shone around us, and pure were we."

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