Saturday, 20 September 2008

DON'T DIS DEMETER: THE ELEUSINIAN MYSTERIES: PART ONE


"Blessed is he who, after beholding this, enters upon the way beneath the earth: he knows the end of life and its beginnings given by Zeus!" - Pindar

Should anyone tell you that Western culture is irremediably male-dominated, suggest they take a look at the Ancient Greeks. Spiritually, if not politically (and there has been discussion about that, recently), women were well catered for in the Greek pantheon. However powerful Zeus and the male Gods were, the female were just as potent. Artemis, Aphrodite, Hera - all gave a good as they got. Indeed, the focus of Hellenic Culture, Athens, fountainhead of almost all of European culture, had the Goddess Athena as its patroness. The Deity of Artificers, Warfare and, above all, Wisdom in its Divine Forms, no Greek Goddess was more revered by this great city as Pallas Athena. To see how she was able to coexist and operate with her favoured followers, one need only read Homer's ODYSSEY. Shekinah-like, she helps, guides and intercedes for Odysseus and his family against all the obstacles he encounters, arguing against Zeus to protect the wandering hero and, ultimately, guiding him back to Penelope, her earthly counterpart, for a Divine Marriage of their own. Pico de Mirandola, the great architect of mystical Renaissance Humanism, said in his ORATION ON THE DIGNITY OF MAN that Homer concealed the truths of Kabbalah in THE ODYSSEY. If Odysseus is the Kabbalistic Initiate, Penelope the earthly Shekinah and Athena the supernal (Binah), then the return of Odysseus to his Kingdom (Malkuth) to regain his Crown (Kether) through the reunion of the King and the Queen is, indeed, Kabbalah in a Toga. Its just a shame Odysseus wasn't Jewish... or at least if he was, he didn't look it...


Although political power was denied women in ancient Greece, religious/spiritual power was not. As High Priestesses of the different Goddesses, women were able to wield considerable influence culturally. Moreover, through the Goddesses women were able to explore and express their spirituality in a way as vivid as the men and, in the case of figures such as Artemis, in a way which specifically excluded men ie in a way which was exclusively female. If Aphrodite was the embodiment of feminine sexuality as a cosmic force, then Artemis was an expression of femininity in a form which did not need men. Hers was a private spirituality of childbearing, of girlhood, of coming of age. Artemis protected young girls, who ritually discarded their toys before her as they reached puberty and who processed in her ceremonies in the guise of bears, the animals most favoured by the Huntress. She also protected those who were shy and watched over women as they went through their gestation period. As a Goddess attached to the Moon, she was often identified with Isis. Indeed, Apuleius explicitly says so in THE GOLDEN ASS when the eponymous hero, having finally been transformed back into a human from a donkey, has his vision of the Goddess rising from the waves. Her Temple was at Ephesus and was so important the Romans agreed to let it stand as long as the Greeks renamed her Diana. It was also at Ephesus that she was represented by the famous multi-breasted Goddess of Nature that is so familiar to us today. Clever Jungians among you will think it no coincidence that Ephesus was where the Byzantines consecrated the doctrine of the Theotokos (the Mother of God) having identified it as the place where both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdelene died. And all this in spite of Paul having tried to spoil the day by putting sellers of souvenir statues of Artemis out of business by preaching the risen Christ there. Clearly the Goddess has a powerful presence in that now Turkish Mediterranean port...


Chief among the Cults of the Goddess for the Ancient Greeks, however, were the famous Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter, Kore and Persephone. Almost forgotten today, these were seen as being right at the heart of Greek culture and civilisation and reserved for the very blessed. So important were they that on the one occasion where they could not be carried out by the people of Athens owing to the city being besieged by the Persians, the citizens of that state were astonished to see a procession of Gods, Spirits and Immortals carrying them out. If the Eleusinian Mysteries were not performed, the harmony of the Universe would be shattered, with fatal consequences for Gods and mortals alike. When war threatened to disrupt them so high were the stakes that the Olympians had to step in to save the day.

The power of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the reason why they were so important, was that they conferred upon the Initiate Immortality. For this reason they were kept utterly secret, lest their nature fall into the hands of the profane. Those who took part were obliged to swear never to reveal any detail on pain of death. Initiates included Plato, Socrates, Pindar, Cicero, Hypatia and all the Roman Emperors, including Marcus Aurelius himself (again, a measure of the importance the Rites had to the ancient world) but they were also open to non-celebrities and ordinary people, women as well as men. Given the feminine nature of the Deities involved women could hardly be excluded. Indeed, in all likelihood the original Initiates probably were entirely women.

The Rites followed the story of Demeter's loss and recovery of her daughter, Persephone. Legend has it that, in collusion with Zeus, Hades (Pluto, or Dis in his Roman form, hence the title of this post) abducted and raped the beautiful Persephone, taking her off to his Underworld Kingdom to be his Bride. Demeter, unable to find out what had happened to her daughter, went into deep mourning as she searched in vain for her. Eventually Helios, the Sun God, revealed to her what Hades had done and, in her rage and pain, she withdrew her energies from the Earth, causing a blight to fall upon it and refusing to lift this curse until Zeus ordered Hades to return Persephone. The impasse continued until Zeus could take no more and agreed to allow Demeter audience with the King of the Underworld. An agreement was struck whereby Persephone was allowed to return to her Mother but only on the condition that she took nothing with her from Hell. Demeter agreed to this condition, but in doing so fell into Hades' trap. For unbeknownst to her, Hades had persuaded Persephone to eat a single pomegranate seed during her stay. Unable to return it, Persephone was forced to remain in the Underworld for a third of the year while for the rest of the time she could return to her Mother. Thus the seasons were born. While Persephone was in Hades, Demeter's pain meant winter dwelt upon the Earth. But when she was able to return, around the time of our Easter, spring and summer came with her, as Demeter was joyously reunited with her child...

2 comments:

Daniel Yates said...

I have often felt that some form of spiritual understanding of the seasons is integral to a persons harmony with their surrounding environment. Neo-paganism does offer this to a great extent but is still lacking in many areas as the emphasis has shifted in the last few decades to more high magick ritualistic practice than grass roots study the wheel.

What is of concern to me though is the new developing popular concept of the seasons. It appears that your average Joe is so out of sync with the seasons it is mind numbingly annoying. MID-winter is toted by the television as the beginning of winter and people then take that as a given. More disturbingly is what I see on children's television. In about 6 weeks time from now cbeebies will start their autumn watch season of programmes. The programmes are very good in themselves, educating children about their local woodland and animals, but it does give a very wrong perception of when autumn is seeing as it starts in October according to them...

Regardless of religious inclination I believe that educating our children about the seasons can be an enriching and rewarding thing to do - for those of us that are pagan, it gives us a great way to introduce our children to the various mysteries.

Pegasus said...

I'm in total agreement with you, Daniel. It all comes from the fact that we now live in a primarily urban society where the seasons can more or less be ignored. When you live in the country learning to live with the natural rhythms of nature is taken for granted but in cities, night can be day thanks to lighting and winter can be warm and summer cool thanks to central heating and air conditioning. It all plays to our sense of immortality and defiance of our own natural being. The effect is to deracinate ourselves completely from the cycles of nature which, unfortunately, deracinate us from ourselves. You remember how over the last few years we have barely had a summer in the north? After eighteen months of rain and extended winter/autumn, everyone started feeling depressed and miserable. The cause was that our body rhythms were out of whack because we had missed the sun. Another reminder that we are natural beings with a holistic relationship with our environment.

All religions have festivals plugged into the natural cycles of the year. Persephone's return to the world coincides with Easter, Hannukah coincides with the turning of the Light. But if we cut ourselves off from our natural selves we lose. Its another sign of how out of tune we are with Reality. When we went industrial we started raping Demeter. After a while she was bound to get pissed off and start hitting back. This is why, once again, knowledge of our spiritual inheritance through legends and myths is so important. Past spiritualities sprang out of our relationship with the world around us. Thus they tell us great truths about who and what we are. Science has told us for too long that we are invincible, that we can subjugate, control and manipulate nature. And look where it has got us. We need to listen to the Old Wisdom a little bit more...