Death & Initiation at the autumn equinox

The eight seasonal festivals of the modern Pagan year teach us about the great cosmic pattern, showing us the ebb and flow of energy in the manifest world and the spiritual truths which underlie them. At the autumn equinox we experience the death that comes before resurrection. This mystery is exemplified by the myth of Demeter and Persephone and the Rites of Eleusis, for as Cicero said:

For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called ‘initiations’, so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.

Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36

The best known story of Demeter concerns her search for her daughter Persephone and it is told in The Hymn to Demeter, attributed to Homer but probably written later in the seventh century BCE to explain the mysteries of Eleusis. It contains a lengthy interlude which explains how Demeter came to Eleusis and established her cult there. It shares the same themes as the Syrian myth of Aphrodite and Adonis, the Phrygian myth of Cybele and Attis and the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris in which a goddess mourns the loss of a loved one who personifies the vegetation which dies in winter only to revive in spring. d

According to the myth, Hades, the god of the underworld, conceived a passion for the maiden Persephone. With the collusion of his brother Zeus, he abducted Persephone as she picked blood red poppies in a meadow, accompanied by her nymph companions, and took her to dwell with him in his dark realm of the dead.

 

Knowing nothing of this, Demeter was distraught at the disappearance of her daughter, and disguised herself as an old woman called Doso to search the earth for Persephone.

Eventually, finding no trace of her missing child, she came upon the house of Celeus, king of Eleusis, and his wife Metaneira. Moved by the suffering they saw in the face of the old woman, they bade her be seated, offering her food and drink. However, she sat silently, refusing all nourishment. After much persuasion, she consented to drink a cup of barley meal mixed with water and mint (kykeon). She stayed at Eleusis, becoming the nurse of the king’s young son Demophoon. Under her care he grew as fast as a young god, for Demeter anointed him with ambrosia. Moreover, she planned to make him immortal by burning his mortality from him, placing him each night in the heart of a fire. Metaneira suspected that something strange was happening and kept watch one night. As she saw her son being plunged into the flames, she leapt forward and snatched the child from his nurse.  Demeter exclaimed that now, instead of being a god, he would be subject to the whims of death and moira (fate). She threw off her disguise and stood before the king and queen in her true, shining form, and asked that they should build her a temple at Eleusis.

Then the witch goddess Hecate, bearing a torch in her hands, went to Demeter, and confided that she had heard Persephone’s cries as she was abducted. She suggested that Demeter ask Helios, the sun god who sees all things, for news. Helios told her of Hades’ kidnapping of Persephone, and Zeus’ part in it.

Demeter retreated into her temple and remained there, brooding on her loss. The following year, no crops grew. The trees refused to yield fruit and the buds withered on the vine. An endless winter descended on the earth.

Zeus realised that the whole of creation was doomed unless Demeter lifted her curse and sent Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, to plead with her to relent. Demeter refused. One by one, all the immortals visited her but she remained unmoved by any of their entreaties. Zeus finally realised that there was no other remedy but to restore Persephone to her mother and sent Hermes into the underworld to fetch her. However, Hades was unwilling to lose his lovely bride and cunningly offered her a sweet pomegranate as she readied herself to leave. Now he knew full well that anyone who eats the fruit of the underworld is doomed to remain there. Thus it fell that though Persephone was allowed to visit her mother, she was now bound to return. Persephone could spend two thirds of the year with Demeter but the remaining third of the year must be spent with her husband, Hades. From that time Hecate was minister and companion to Persephone.

With Persephone’s return, the earth quickly began to recover. Spring came and the frozen buds blossomed, the earth became green and fertile once more. But when Persephone returns to the underworld, Demeter decrees that barren winter shall cover the earth, but when she emerges in the spring, the earth blossoms in joy.

At Eleusis (‘Advent’) Demeter taught Triptolemus (the brother of Demophoon) the principles of agriculture, which he taught others in turn, and this was how humankind learned how to farm, it was said. ‘I am Demeter, revered by all, the power most useful for gods and men,’ she said, according to the Homeric Hymn.

For two thousand years, the Mysteries of Eleusis were sacred, biannual rituals performed a few miles west of Athens in honour of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Large crowds of worshippers made the pilgrimage to the rites from all over Greece, and later from all over the Roman Empire.  It is possible that the mysteries evolved from an agrarian cult dating back to the Mycenaean period, and there are parallels with the cults of other grain and earth-mother goddesses of the Near East, such as Cybele and Isis.

Initiation was open to all, Greeks and foreigners (as long as they could speak Greek), men and women, freemen and slaves, only on the condition that they had not committed the sin of murder. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, King Celeus is said to have been one of the first people to learn the secret rites and mysteries of her cult and became one of its first priests, along with Triptolemus his son. Around 300 BCE, the state took over control of the Mysteries and they became controlled by two families, the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes. According to Plato, “the ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual (spiritual) good.”

In many parts of Greece the rites of Demeter and Persephone remained orgiastic, but in Eleusis they were celebrated as a spiritual mystery.  From February 1 to 3 the Lesser Eleusinian mysteries celebrated the return of Persephone from the underworld. The Lesser Mysteries took place in the month of Anthesteria (February) when participants would sacrifice a piglet to Demeter and Persephone and then purify themselves in the River Illisos. Afterwards they were called mystai (‘initiates’) and deemed worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries. Each new initiate would receive instructions and guidance from an experienced sponsor or mystagogos. A mystes who returned a second time to Eleusis for induction into the highest levels of esoteric knowledge was known as an epoptes.

Every fifth year for nine days from 23 September the greater Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated with October 4 marking the departure of Persephone to the underworld.[1] The precise nature of the mysteries is unknown since initiates were forbidden from writing or speaking of it, but an analogy seems to have been made between the resurrection of the corn and the return of Persephone from the underworld with the mystery of death and rebirth.

The first act was the bringing of the sacred objects from Eleusis to the Eleusinion, a temple at the base of the Acropolis. On the day before, the participants would gather in Eleusis and proceed with much pomp to the sanctuary of Demeter in Athens. On the following day the actual festival commenced with the Agyrmos (the gathering), the hierophants (priests or ‘those who show the sacred ones’) declared prorrhesis, the start of the rites, and carried out the hiereía deúro (‘hither the victims’) sacrifice. The halade mystai (‘seawards initiates’) began in Athens with the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron to purify themselves and sacrifice a suckling pig in honour of Demeter.

On the fifth day the celebrants went in formal procession from Athens back to Eleusis, swinging branches called bacchoi, bearing the sacred hiera (holy relics) as well as a statue of the boy-god Iacchos. At a certain spot along the way, they shouted obscenities in commemoration of Iambe (or Baubo), an old woman who, by cracking dirty jokes, had made Demeter smile as she mourned the loss of her daughter. The procession also shouted “Íakch’, O Íakche”’ referring to Iacchus.

Upon reaching Eleusis, there was a day of fasting in commemoration of Demeter’s fast while searching for Persephone. The abstinence was broken with a brew made from barley and water mixed with fresh pennyroyal mint leaves.  Some scholars have argued that this may have contained a psychedelic agent such as ergot, opium or hallucinogenic mushrooms which would heighten the initiates’ perceptions and explain the transformative experiences they had. Wasson proposed the mushroom Claviceps purpurea as holding the secret to the Eleusinian Mysteries:

The Greek ekstasis meant the flight of the soul from the body. I am certain that this word came into being to describe the effect of the Mystery of Eleusis. Can you find a better word than that to describe the bemushroomed state?” e

The Greeks called mushrooms the ‘food of the Gods’ (broma theon) and Porphyrius is quoted as having called them ‘nurslings of the Gods’ (theotrophos).

Then the initiates entered a great hall called Telesterion, in the centre of which stood the Anaktoron (‘palace’), which only the hierophants could enter, where the sacred objects were stored. Before mystai could enter the Telesterion, they would recite, “I have fasted, I have drunk the kykeon, I have taken from the kiste (‘box’) and after working it have put it back in the kalathos (‘open basket’)”. Clement of Alexandria wrote that they had to utter the words “I fasted; I drank the kykeon; I took from the kiste; having done my task, I placed in the basket, and from the basket into the kiste”.f

What happened next is not known. The spoken words were followed by secret rites carried out in silence, completing the first part of the initiation. The second phase of the initiation was a spiritual experience. Aristotle commented: “The initiates were not meant to learn anything, but rather, to experience certain emotions and moods.” g  However, based on the statements of Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, it is thought that the Mysteries comprised of three main elements:

The first was called dromena (‘things done’), a dramatic re-enactment of the Demeter/Persephone myth, perhaps with the participants searching for Persephone through passages representing the underworld, followed by the joyful moment of her resurrection shared by the initiates who had shared her experience.

The second element was the deiknumena (‘things shown’), during which the hierophant displayed sacred objects. It is not known what these were, but various theories have suggested wheat ears, bread, a stylised phallus and pudenda, a golden serpent, an egg or seeds sacred to Demeter. The Church Father Hippolytus, writing in the early third century, said that

The Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites, likewise display to those who are being admitted to the highest grade at these mysteries, the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: an ear of corn in silence reaped.”

The Roman Varro interpreted the whole of the Eleusinian mysteries as relating to the corn which Demeter had discovered and to Persephone who, he said, signified the fecundity of the seeds, stolen away by Hades and detained in the underworld. Augustine reported that Varro continued:

“…that many things were taught in her mysteries which had no reference but to the discovery of the corn.” h

The third century Roman theologian Hippolytus of Rome also said that the most complete epoptic mystery was an ear of cut-wheat and wrote that:

“At night in Eleusis, (the Hierophant) appearing in the midst of many fires, proclaims the great and secret mystery, saying, ‘The Holy Brimo has borne a sacred child, Brimos, that is, the mighty has borne the mighty”. i

Finally came the legomena (‘things said’), commentaries that accompanied the deiknumena. Combined, these three elements were known as the apporheta (‘unrepeatables’) and the penalty for divulging them was death. It was for this crime (among others) that Diagoras received the death penalty, while the tragic playwright Aeschylus was allegedly tried for revealing secrets of the Mysteries in some of his plays, but was acquitted.

Following this section of the Mysteries was the Pannychis, an all-night feast accompanied by dancing and merriment. The dances took place in the Rharian Field, rumoured to be the first spot where grain grew. A bull sacrifice also took place late that night or early the next morning. That day the initiates honoured the dead by pouring libations from special vessels, the consecrated liquid flowing in the eastward and westward directions.

The initiates (probably exhausted at this point) would then return to Athens singly or in small groups. There does not appear to have been any organized procession; this was a time for reflection and meditation. Sophocles spoke for the initiates when he said:

Thrice happy are those of mortals, who having seen those rites depart for Hades; for to them alone is granted to have a true life there. For the rest, all there is evil.”

 In 170 CE, the Temple of Demeter was sacked by the Sarmatians but was rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius who was then allowed to become the only lay person to ever enter the anaktoron. Julian, the last Pagan emperor of Rome, was also the last emperor to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. With the growing dominance of Christianity Theodosius I decreed that the sanctuaries should be closed in 392 CE. With the invasion of the Christian Goths four years later, the old sanctuaries were destroyed.

© Anna Franklin, excerpt from Autumn Equinox, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books

 

[1]           (Demeter’s other festivals were 13th and 24th December, while the twelfth day of the waxing moon and the second day of the waning moon were sacred to her.)

 

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Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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