Our Philosophy class of 2019 read the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter” and went to Elefsina – a town 20 kms away from Athens – to hear and see all about the ancient greek goddess Demeter and the Elefsinian Mysteries/Rites dedicated to her.
….And the myth goes like this: Demeter, the goddess of fertility and the fruitfulness of the earth, had a daughter named Persephone. One day, while her beautiful daughter was happily picking flowers in a field, the ground opened up, in front of her, and Hades emerged, the king of the Dead, riding his chariot. He abducted Persephone and took her to the underworld to become his wife.
Upon learning of her beloved daugther’s abduction, Demeter entered the world of mortals and disguised as an old woman looking for her. She arrived in Elefsina where she befriended the royal family and agreed to rear the king’s only son. In secret, she raised the boy so that he would eventually become immortal and eternally young, but she was prevented by the queen’s unknowing interference. Demeter then, cast off her disguise as an old woman, appeared in all her glory as a Goddess and demanded that a temple be built for her in Elefsina, outside the palace. The temple was built the next day.
Sitting in her temple, Demeter continued to rage on her stolen daughter. Her grief was such, that that year, none of the seeds grew in the fields and humankind was in danger of starvation. Zeus, offered her all types of gifts, but Demeter was obdurate: she would not allow the crops to grow until she was reunited with her daughter.
Zeus then sent for Persephone to come from the underworld. Before she did though, Hades forced her to swallow a few pomegranate seeds so that he would still have some claim on her. Like that, the story goes, Persephone would have to spend part of the year with Hades and the rest above ground reunited with her mother. ….And so, this explains the exchange of the seasons and the circle of the seeds: in the cold months, Persephone lives under the earth but when spring comes, the world rejoices as she and vegetation return to life! But above all, the myth reflects the concept of tranformation and the cyclical nature of life: one’s existence did not end with death because there was no death; there was only change from one state of being to another!
Based on this two-fold story of Demeter’s life – her separation and reunion with her daughter and her failure to make the queen’s son immortal – the Rites/Mysteries of Elefsina were established and celebrated annually.
The participants, walked the Sacred Way from Athens to Elefsina and re-enacted Demeter’s search for her lost daughter. The rituals were so important, that this Sacred Way was the only road (no goat path) in all of central Greece; everyone who was “anyone” was an initiate of the mysteries. The rituals were done in absolute secrecy and the initiated, were sworn on pain of death if they would disclose the details of the rituals; no wonder, we know very little as to what exactly they entailed.
What we know though is that those who participated in the mysteries where forever changed for the better and they no longer feared death. Oh! And how I wish I could have lived in antiquity (just temporarily!) to be initiated in the Elefsinian Mysteries and learn the secrets of life 🙂
P.S: Elefsina will be the cultural capital of Europe in 2021. That gives you enough time to plan your trip 🙂