Ancient Greek Religion

The Eleusinian Mysteries: Demeter and her daughter Percephone

Classical Greece, Eleusis, near Athens, Greece.

Percephone has eaten a pomegranate seed and will have to return once more from the Land of the Dead. She will die and return again, time after time.

'First of all the sacred objects were taken from Eleusis to Athens,' said Miranda, sipping from her beer. 'Then the initiates all had to strip off and bathe in the sea, close to Athens itself. Everyone had to hold a little piglet as they dunked themselves under the water.'

'Ritual drowning?' asked Quintin. 'The Celts pictured the afterlife as a land that was reached by plunging yourself down into the depths of the sea, or through the waters of a lake.'

'Quite possibly, ‘cos the piglet was afterwards slaughtered,' agreed Miranda, 'and its blood was sprinkled over the initiate – who was then dead by association I should imagine; covered in the blood of a dead thing. All sounds a bit like a ritual death, doesn’t it? Then the initiates had to hang around for two or three days, like a corpse waiting to be buried, while those who had already been initiated went off to celebrate Asclepius, who had died and was brought back to life again.'

'Asclepius whom Ovid depicted as a snake?'

'The very one. And after the three days were up, they all congregated at the cemetery...'

'Ha! The cemetery!'

'...and walked the fourteen miles to Eleusis in a day, accompanied by sacred things and waving leafy boughs like the one Aeneas had to hold when the Sybil took him to meet his dead father in the underworld to watch all the Trojan souls waiting to be reborn into the new city of Rome.'

'Like souls trudging to Hades, then?'

'Yes, very good,' said Miranda, taking another sip of her beer. 'Then when they got to Eleusis they were given some hallucinogenic drug and shut up in a dark hall with flames and torches and screaming. They didn’t know what to expect, because no one had ever been allowed to tell them. So we don't know either. But:

'Aaaahhhh! Poor Percephone has been taken down to the realm of Hades! Demeter is distraught. They all feel as though they are part of the drama, helping Demeter to search for poor, dead Percephone. The story unfolds. The drug is working. They can see the real Percephone before them. God, the real Percephone! They are confused. Are they dead themselves? Pomegranate seeds appear. She has eaten a pomegranate seed and can return to the surface once again, but she will have to go once more to the Land of the Dead. She will die and return again, time after time. They are each given a pomegranate seed to eat themselves. A sacrement. Suddenly, the doors are opened. Everyone is free to go out into the rain, to smell the new growth, breathe the fresh air once more and see the brown earth turning green. Free and alive. The smell of roasting meat fills the air. Festivities. The initiation has passed its climax and they are new people. Thoughtful people. Chosen people. They have been initiated into the Mysteries. They have received the sacrament and will return again from the dead, like Percephone, again and again.' She took another sip of her beer.

The Eleusinian Mysteries, celebrated in Mycenaean Greece in the second millennium BC and possibly deriving ultimately from Minoan Crete. Celebrated in secrecy at Eleusis, near Athens, until the 4th century AD.

See for yourself

Eleusinian Mysteries – Wikipedia

Demeter – Wikipedia

Persephone – Wikipedia

Homeric Hymns – Wikipedia

Homer and Hesiod – Homeric Hymn to Demeter, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Project Gutenberg

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