Ancient Athens

The Eleusinian Mysteries: Demeter and her daughter Percephone

Classical Greece, Eleusis, near Athens, Greece.

Percephone has to spend eight months in the sunlight with her mother and four months in the subterranean depths with her husband Hades each year.

It is late summer, the equinox has passed and the Sacred Way is crowded with people fleeing Athens for the coastal breezes and spiritual refreshment to be found at Eleusis. My feet are already sore and I have at least another three hours of walking ahead of me.

There are many who will testify that initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries is a life-changing experience. It is well-known that its revelations must not be divulged carelessly to a living soul. And for those who understand the mystery, the plays performed at the festivals of Dionysus by playwrights such as Euripides and Aristophanes seem perfectly capable of giving the game away, although the uninitiated never seem able to understand. But they whet the appetite of those with imagination and curiosity and cause them to seek initiation for themselves.

A hymn to Demeter that is nearly three hundred years old reveals the story of the goddess who is central to these mysteries. It describes how Hades, the brother of Zeus, wished to obtain Percephone, her daughter, as his wife. As a ruse, she was lured into a meadow where the earth opened up and she was swallowed into the ground. Her mother Demeter was distraught, as one might imagine. After searching fruitlessly for her daughter, Demeter came to the broad fields of waving wheat at Eleusis disguised as an old woman and there she stayed, bringing up a baby that she put into a fire every night and brought back to life again every morning. Yes, really!

But Demeter was discovered placing this child into the fire and in her renewed pain and anger, she revealed her divine self and refused to let the Earth bring forth green leaves in the rains of autumn and steadfastly declined to allow the renewal of any life after the scorching summer heat. The god Zeus, alarmed at this development, commanded Hades to relinquish Percephone. But Hades tricked Percephone into tasting food before she left, a pomegranate seed, thereby forcing her to acknowledge a mortal side to her nature. As a result, Percephone has to return every year to the underworld, an agreement whereby she must spend eight months in the sunlight with her mother and four months in the subterranean depths with her husband every year. And so she spends her existence travelling backwards and forwards between the underworld of death and the world of humans and animals, and the mysteries at Eleusis honour this.

There is much else that I would tell you, but I cannot.

The Eleusinian Mysteries. Mycenaean Greece. Second millennium BC–4th century AD.

Story fragment retold from: Homeric Hymns. Online Medieval and Classical Library. II. Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

references

Percephone – Wikipedia

Eleusinian Mysteries – Wikipedia

Homeric Hymns – Wikipedia

The Homeric Hymns – The Online Medieval and Classical Library

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