Eleusis & the Mysteries of Demeter & Persephone

Haides, who rules so many, harnessed his immortal horses to the golden chariot. Persephone climbed on board and beside her Hermes took up reins and goad, and they galloped out of the courtyard. Swiftly they came to the end of the long road. Neither sea nor rivers nor tall-grassed valleys held back the deathless horses – no, nor high mountains either – but they cleared them all on their path through the soaring air. [Reaching Eleusis,] Hermes reined in the horses near the temple, fragrant with incense, where fair-garlanded Demeter was living. When she saw them, she ran out as a maenad runs through dappled woodland on the mountainside. And when Persephone saw her mother’s lovely eyes, she leapt down from the chariot and ran towards her, throwing her arms around her neck, embracing her. And at Eleusis, the life-bringing bosom of the earth soon in the springtime wheat fields would rustle with long ears of corn and the fertile furrows would be thick with wheat-ears to be bound tight-close in sheaves.

Homeric Hymn to Demeter, 374-89; 450-56

For most of its history, the plain around Eleusis has been luxuriant. From the rocky outcrop rising low above the sanctuary, the pure air loud with birdsong and the shrilling of insects, a visitor could once gaze across the sparkling bay towards the pale blue hills of Salamis, and far away the Peloponnese, its jagged mountains shimmering in haze. Inland, gold wheat fields stretched from the surrounding mountains to the sea, while by rutted farm tracks crocuses, anemones and irises splashed a raucous dance of colour.

Eleusis & the Mysteries of Demeter & Persephone Photo Gallery

No longer. Today the environs of Eleusis are an industrial inferno. Choking fumes rise from chemical factory chimneys, and flames from the burn-off of oil refineries; container ships and tankers loll at anchor in the bay; unlovely modern warehouses and showrooms, offices and houses sprawl across the concrete plain; and a constant whine of traffic screams from the motorway to Athens. Yet somehow the sanctuary still manages to preserve some vestige of its dignity, its sense of wonder, its lost identity as the site of perhaps the most transcendental of all rituals of the ancient world, the Eleusinian Mysteries, inexorably linked with the myth of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone.

Demeter & Persephone

Demeter was the archetypal mother goddess. (Even her name proclaimed her status: ‘metef means ‘mother’, while the prefix ‘de may be connected either to the Cretan word for barley (dea) or to de, the Doric word for ‘earth’.) Hers was the fertile plough-land, which, so Greeks believed, the sky-god Zeus impregnated with his rain to help produce rich crops or flowers. Zeus impregnated his sister Demeter more conventionally, too, and to them was born a daughter, Persephone (‘Death-Bearer’), whose name was so taboo that many called her simply ‘Kore’, ‘Girl’.

Haides, god of the Underworld, was not discouraged by his close blood relationship with Persephone (he was doubly her uncle) and he resolved to abduct and marry her; he even persuaded Zeus to help him. Their plans came to fruition one dewy morning as Persephone: ‘leaving her mother played with Ocean’s daughters, picking flowers across a springy meadow – roses, crocuses, delightful violets; and irises, and hyacinths. And narcissus, too..’

It was this narcissus, placed there by Zeus and with a hundred scented heads, that was her downfall. As Persephone leant down to pluck it, the earth gaped open. Haides in his golden chariot rose up; he snatched the girl and, as she piteously called on Zeus to save her, galloped with her back into the Underworld.

For nine days and nights, in which she neither ate nor drank, Demeter wandered the earth searching for her daughter, demented, a flaming torch in each hand. At last she learned what had happened from Helios and stormed out of Olympus: ‘to wander the cities and fine works of men, tearing her cheeks incessantly. No man who saw her recognized her, nor any deep-bosomed woman, until she came to the house of wise Celeus, who ruled Eleusis, fragrant with incense.’

Hermes runs beside the chariot as Haides abducts Persephone, in a mosaic recently found in a Hellenistic tomb at Amphipolis.

It is here at Eleusis that the rest of the myth is set. Disguised as an old woman, Demeter sat grieving by a well until Celeus’ daughters saw her, pitied her and brought her to the palace. While their servant, Iambe, cheered her up with bawdy jokes, they placed her on a chair draped with a sheepskin and persuaded her to drink a kykeon, a heady cocktail of fermented barley and pennyroyal. Uplifted, Demeter agreed to work for Celeus’ household as nurse to his young son, Demophoon. She even tried to make the boy immortal. By day she anointed him with ambrosia, breathing her divine spirit into him, while each night, to secure her magic, she thrust the child into a blazing fire. When his mother witnessed this, she cried out in distress – at which Demeter, offended, renounced her duties and revealed her true identity. Then she ordered the people of Eleusis to build her a temple.

With nothing to distract her, Demeter gave herself over once again to longing for Persephone. The Homeric Hymn describes her:

Growing weak with yearning for her deep-bosomed daughter. And for mankind she brought a cruel distressing year across the all-sustaining earth: the soil refused to send forth grain, for richly garlanded Demeter kept it concealed. In vain the oxen pulled the curved ploughs in the field; in vain was the white barley sown. She would have exterminated all the peoples of the earth with painful famine and robbed all the Olympian gods of the honour of man’s sacrificial offerings, had not Zeus noticed and acknowledged it in his heart.

Moved by self-interest, Zeus persuaded Haides to return Persephone, but, before he did, the god of the Underworld enticed her to eat a pomegranate seed ‘with the sweetness of honey’. It was a ruse, and one which Demeter suspected, for no sooner had she and Persephone been reunited than she asked her daughter:

My child, when you were beneath the ground, did you eat anything? If you did not, then, now that you’ve returned from vile Hades, you can stay with me and your father, Zeus the storm-gatherer, whom all the immortals honour. But if you did eat, you must return into the depths of earth to live there for a third part of each year, and with me and the other gods for two thirds. Whenever the earth blossoms with all species of sweet-scented flowers, you shall rise up once more from gloomy darkness, a miracle for gods and mortal men.

And so it was, and so it has been ever since: in the Greek summer the scorched earth lies barren, only returning to life with the coming of September. In gratitude to the Eleusinians, Demeter taught their prince, Triptolemus (whom she had also nursed), the art of ploughing, and initiated Celeus and his sons into her Mysteries, ‘which must not be infringed or disregarded or divulged, because the greatest piety before the gods restrains the tongue. Blessed is that mortal living on the earth, who has witnessed them; but for the uninitiated another fate entirely waits, withering in gloomy darkness.’

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