It’s that time of year—fall equinox, colder days, longer nights, harvests, booths, leaves changing, etc.—when the mind turns to the connections to ancient ancestors by way of timeless ritual traditions which celebrate nature’s tireless, harmonious cycling.
The best known of the ancient mystery rites, unquestionably, are the Eleusinian Mysteries. For approximately two millennia, the small town called Eleusis, not far from Athens, was the site of a temple where the myth central to pre-Hellenic Greece’s spiritual understanding of autumn was imparted to initiates. That myth, of course, was the story of how Persephone came to live her dual life, dividing her time between the underworld and Mount Olympus. It is an allegory of the change of seasons, like most sacred stories key to the ancient mysteries.
You probably know the general story of this myth, but here it is with some detail, courtesy of Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths: Demeter (meaning Barley Mother), the goddess of the cornfield, with Zeus, bore a daughter named Core (meaning Maiden), and the two were very close. Hades, god of the underworld, fell in love with Core and asked her father/his brother, Zeus, for permission to marry her. Zeus, fearing Demeter’s reaction if he consigned their daughter to the underworld, declined either to grant or deny this request; Hades interpreted the ambivalence as a favorable decision. While making a rare visit above ground, Hades found Core one day while she picked flowers in a meadow, abducted her, and hastily raced his chariot back to the world of the dead.
Foregoing rest and refreshment, Demeter searched for her daughter for nine days and nights. After some investigation, she learned the truth: that Hades had absconded with Core, hereafter named Peresphone (meaning She Who Brings Destruction), to the underworld. Armed with the facts, Demeter was so angry and despondent that she continued to wander the earth, forbidding agriculture to grow. Mankind was at risk of extinction. Zeus made repeated entreaties to calm Demeter and to restore life to the trees and grain, but she was relentless. Messenger god Hermes brokered the deal: Peresphone may return to the world of the living on the condition that she has not yet tasted the food of the dead.
It was at Eleusis (meaning Advent) where Peresphone and Demeter were reunited, but it was revealed that the daughter had eaten seven seeds of the pomegranate—that fruit so prevalent and so symbolic in so many myths and faiths—while in the underworld. Because of this, Peresphone would not live her life above ground, and because of Demeter’s refusal to retract her curse upon the land, her daughter would not be sent to live in the underworld either. The commonly understood compromise consisted of Peresphone dividing her time equally between life above ground and life below ground denoting, respectively, the warm weather months of abundance and the cold weather months of deprivation and death. (The classical understanding of this schedule puts Peresphone in the underworld for only three months a year.) Placated, Demeter prepared to return home, but first initiated several of her allies, who had aided in the search for Peresphone, into her mysteries and worship. One of these, Triptolemus, son of King Celeus, was sent around the world to teach mankind the art of agriculture.
|Triptolemus receiving wheat sheaves from Demeter, and blessings from Persephone, in this 5th Century BCE relief on exhibit at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Click to enlarge.|
I won’t bother repeating the sparse information on the orgiastic doings of the Eleusinian Mysteries, but there is a brief sketch of the ritual published by John Michael Greer in his The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies and Hidden History. Excerpted:
“Initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries involved a strict process that took more than a year and a half to complete. Candidates first took part in the Lesser Mysteries, the Myesis, which was celebrated in February each year on the banks of the Ilissos River near Athens. Each candidate sacrificed a pig to the gods, bathed in the icy waters of the Ilissos, and received instruction in the myth of Demeter, the goddess of the earth, and her daughter Persephone….
“After the Lesser Mysteries, candidates had to wait until September of the following year before they could take part in the Greater Mysteries, called the Teletai. These rites formally began on the 14th of the month of Boedromion, when priestesses from Eleusis came to Athens carrying baskets. The baskets contained sacred objects that were stored in the Eleusinion, a temple in Athens; what those objects were, nobody knows. Candidates began fasting on the 10th, and on the 16th they marched in a procession down to the sea to purify themselves in its water, then went into seclusion for the next two days.
“At dawn on the 19th, the candidates gathered at the Painted Porch in the central marketplace of Athens, donned myrtle wreaths, and formed a procession with the priestesses and their mysterious baskets. They left Athens by the Sacred Gate and proceeded along the Sacred Road toward Eleusis. At a bridge they met priests who gave each of them a carefully measured portion of a beverage called kykeon (meaning The Mixture), containing water, roasted barley, and pennyroyal. At a second bridge, another detachment of priests tied a thread to the right hand and left foot of each candidate. Finally, around sunset, the procession reached Eleusis and marched by torchlight into the sacred precinct. They entered the Telesterion, where the Hierophant, the chief priest of Eleusis, sat on his throne just outside the entrance to the Anaktoron.
“It is at this point that most of the surviving sources fall silent....
“According to Clement of Alexandria, a Christian writer from the fourth century, initiates of Eleusis had a special password, the synthema: ‘I have fasted, drunk the kykeon, taken things out of the large basket, worked with them, put them into the small basket, and then back into the large basket.’ Comments from many initiates indicated that whatever they saw within the Telesterion freed them from the fear of death—a point that merely deepens the mystery that surrounds Eleusis.”
Where was I going with this? Yes! Brooklyn.
On Friday night, Observatory in Gowanus will host a ritual workshop led by Pam Grossman. From the publicity:
You must RSVP to phantasmaphile(at)gmail.com if you’d like to attend, as space is limited.
Persephone’s descent into Hades, and Demeter’s subsequent mourning, were celebrated in late September in ancient Greece via a 9-day long series of elaborate rites called the Eleusinian Mysteries. Though relatively little is known about these rituals to this day, they mirrored the changing of the seasons, and allowed initiates to reflect deeply upon the cycle of birth, death, and resurrection.
So shall we celebrate this time when the world turns dark and our thoughts turn inward. This evening will be filled with myth, ritual, and meditation to prepare us for the colder months. We will journey to the underworld, and return with messages to help guide us in the coming seasons. Themes will include harvesting, giving thanks, honoring shadow, and letting go.
- Any altar objects you like. These can be decorative (Thanksgiving and autumnal décor of any kind is welcome), and/or personal objects which you’d like to have charged
- A candle and holder
- A cushion, pillow, or fabric, as we will be sitting on the floor (chairs will be available for those who need).
Note-taking is welcome. This workshop is open to men and women, novices and advanced practitioners alike.
Her writing has appeared in numerous mediums, including The Huffington Post, MSN.com, the Etsy blog, Sciences Occultes magazine, and various Fulgur press publications. As a featured guest on The Midnight Archive web series, Expanding Mind radio, and the C-Realm, Psychonautica, and Labyrinth podcasts, she has discussed the role of magic in contemporary life. Her group art shows, Fata Morgana: The New Female Fantasists, VISION QUEST, Alchemically Yours, and Sigils & Signs have been featured by such outlets as Art & Antiques Magazine, Boing Boing, CREATIVE TIME, Time Out New York, Reality Sandwich, Juxtapoz, Arthur, 20×200, UrbanOutfitters.com, and Neil Gaiman’s Twitter. She is a co-founder of Observatory, where her programming aims to explore mysticism via a scholarly yet accessible approach.