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DEMETER

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the Mysteria

 October, 2012

The mysteries of Eleusis were devoted to the ‘Two Goddesses,’ Demeter the grain goddess and her daughter Persephone, locally called Pherephatta or just ‘the Maiden,’ Kore.  These mysteries were organized by the polis of Athens and supervised by the archon basileus, the ‘king.’  For the Athenians these were the Mysteries tout court,  and  the literary prestige of Athens that ensured their lasting fame.  Inscriptions and excavations in addition to literature and iconography provide abundant documentation.

The well-known myth depicts Demeter searching for Kore, who has been carried off by Hades, the god of the netherworld.  Kore finally comes back, if only for a limited period, to Eleusis itself; there the Athenians celebrated the great autumn festival, the Mysteria; the procession went from Athens to Eleusis and culminated in a nocturnal celebration in the Hall of Initiations, the Telesterion, capable of holding thousands of initiates, where the hierophant revealed “the holy things.” There were two gifts that Demeter bestowed on Eleusis: grain as the basis of civilized life, and the mysteries that held the promise of ‘better hopes’ for a happy afterlife.  These mysteries took place exclusively at Eleusis and nowhere else.

[AMC, pp. 93-4): We have only some piecemeal information about the details of mystery initiations, which, although it does not add up to form a satisfactory picture, still strikes the imagination with the charm of the fragmentary.  For Eleusis we have at least five sets of divergent evidence: the topography of the sanctuary; the myth of Demeter’s advent, as told especially in the Homeric hymn, a relief frieze with initiation scenes, known in several replicas; the synthema, “password,” as transmitted by Clement of Alexandria; and the two testimonies of the Naassene, which clearly pertain to the concluding festival.

The mysteries were eventually open to all who spoke Greek and who were not felons.  According to the Christian writer Tertullian:

“Those who wish to be initiated have the custom, I believe, to turn first to the ‘father’ of the sacred rites, to map out what preparations have to be made.” (Burkert, p. 11).

The Mysteries should not be regarded as religions per se; they were rather an optional activity within polytheistic religion, “comparable to, say, a pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela within the Christian system.” (Burkert, p. 10).

“Demeter, the story goes, when received at Eleusis, took the little child of the queen and put it in the fire of the hearth at night in order to make it immortal.  Interrupted by the frightened mother, she revealed herself and installed the mysteries instead.” (Ibid, p. 20).  The link between the two is underlined by the initiation of a “child from the hearth” at each festival. (p. 52).

“The first part of the initiation could take place at various times…above the Agora of Athens.  The first act was the sacrifice of a young pig.  Each mystes had to bring his piglet.  According to one description the mystes took a bath in the sea together with his piglet. He gives the animal in his stead to its death.  (Another source mentions that at the start of the Mysteria, all the mystai bathe together in the sea near Athens on a special day.) Myth associated the death of the pig with Persephone sinking into the earth…There follows a purification ceremony for which the Homeric Hymn has Demeter herself set the example.  Without speaking a word she sits down on a stool which is covered by a ram fleece, and she veils her head.  Thus reliefs show Heracles at his initiation veiled and sitting on a ram fleece, while either a winnowing fan is held over him or a torch is brought up close to him from beneath.  In ancient interpretation this would be purification by air and by fire…On the reliefs there follows the encounter with Demeter, Kore, and the kiste [small basket].  This probably points to the festival proper…The synthema gives information on successive stages of the initiation rites, yet in veiled terms such as one initiate would use to another to let him know he has fulfilled all that is prescribed: ‘I fasted, I drank from the kykeion, I took out of the kiste, worked, placed back in the basket (kalathos – the large basket), and from the basket into the kiste.’  There is an allusion in Theophrastus to the tools of working, of grinding corn, that early men ‘consigned to secrecy and encountered as something sacred,’ evidently in Demeter’s mysteries.  This indicates that mortar and pestle were hidden in the basket, the instruments, in fact, for preparing the kykeion.  This is a barley drink, a kind of barley-groat broth seasoned with pennyroyal.” (Burkert, Greek Religion, p. 286)

Later Christian charges that the kiste contained a phallus could be a case of taking the pestle for a phallus, which it resembles.  Or perhaps a phallus was used as a pestle.  In classical antiquity the identity of a child was believed to come exclusively from the male seed, with the mother only providing the fertile bed for the foetus’ growth.  This would place added religious emphasis on the phallus as the source of new life.

The Mysteria proper are a major festival which has its fixed place in the calendar, in the autumn month of Boedromion.  The main public event is the great procession from Athens to Eleusis along the Sacred Way, a distance of over thirty kilometers.  This took place on the 19th of Boedromion.  Prior to this, on the 14th day of the month, the ‘sacred things’ had been brought from Eleusis to Athens.  (Greek Religion, p. 286)

“A name for mocking songs on such occasions is Iambos…Iambe was made into a mythical figure, a maid who was able to cheer up Demeter after her sorrow and fasting…During the procession to Eleusis grotesquely masked figures sat at a critical narrow pass just near the bridge…and terrorized and insulted the passers-by …Just as pomp and ceremony contrasts with everyday life, so does extreme lack of ceremony, absurdity, and obscenity,…By plumbing the extremes the just mean is meant to emerge…” (Burkert, Greek Religion, 104-5)

Another source mentions that such songs had as their aim the keeping away of spirits of infertility, for, as everyone knows, they are great prudes.

After the Iambe, when the procession had reached the boundary between Athens and Eleusis, when the first stars became visible, the mystai broke their fast. The procession arrives at the sanctuary.  The temples of emis and Poseidon, sacrificial altars, and a ‘fountain of beautiful dances,’ Kallichoron, could all still be visited freely, but behind them lay the gateway to the precinct which, on pain of death, none but the initiates could enter. (Ibid, p. 287)

The gates were open to the mystai.  We know that immediately beyond the entrance there is a grotto…It was dedicated to Pluto…whom the mystai thus approached.  The celebration proper took place in the Telesterion…built to hold several thousand people at a time, watching as the hierophant showed the sacred things…In the centre was the Anaktoron, a rectangular, oblong, stone construction, with a door at the end of one of its longer sides; there the throne of the hierophant was placed.  He alone might pass through the door into the interior of this building…The great fire under which the hierophant would officiate…burned o the roof of the Anaktoron…the roof of the Telesterion had a kind of skylight…as an outlet for the smoke.

Darkness shrouded the crowd thronged in the hall of mysteries as the

priests proceeded to officiate by torchlight.  Dreadful, terrifying

things were shown until finally a great light shone forth ‘when the

Anaktoron was opened’ and the hierophant ‘appeared from out of the

Anaktoron in the radiant nights of the mysteries’…Yet it was not

terror, but the assurance of blessing that had to prevail.  The

blessings of the mysteries are expressed in three ways.  The mystes

sees Kore, who is called up by the hierophant by strokes of a gong; as

the underworld opens up, terror gives way to the joy of reunion.  Then

the hierophant announces a divine birth: ‘The Mistress has given birth

to a sacred boy, Brimo the Brimos.”  Finally, he displays an ear of corn

in silence. (Ibid, pp. 287-8)

 

(Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, p, 24): [Quoting Plato, Republic 365a] “…purifications through joyous festivals …[that are good] both for the living and for those who died.” The two belong together because disturbances in the beyond are felt so grievously in this life; hence ritual that has the effect of eliminating grief and sorrow and establishing a ‘blessed’ status immediately has its repercussions on the other side.  This is why the deceased are imagined to join in the mystery festival, to continue blissful teletai [mysteries] in the netherworld…in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter..Persephone will release those who honor her through ritual.”

(Burkert, Greek Religion, 277-8): The special status attained through initiation is claimed to be valid even beyond death: the orgiastic festival of the mystai continues to hold in the afterlife…Yet if the chance of initiation has been let slip in this life, it is impossible to make up for the omission after death.  Impressive mythical images bring home this impossibility: Oknos, hesitation personified, is an old man who sits in Hades plaiting a cord which his ass immediately eats away.  The uninitiated are carrying water in sieves up to a leaking vessel, aimlessly and endlessly.”

(Burkert, AMC, 77): The Eleusinian mystai abstain from food, as Demeter did in her grief, and they end their fast when the first star is seen, because Demeter did the same; they carry torches, because Demeter lit them at the flames of Mount Aetna; [however,] …they do not sit on the well [as]…Demeter sat there, mourning for her daughter.  The hymn to Demeter makes the goddess perform what must have been part of the initiation ritual: sitting down on a stool covered with a fleece, veiling her head, keeping silence, then laughing and tasting the kykeion.”

In addition to being the seat of the mysteries of Demeter, Eleusis was also a great votive center. (AMC, 20) “…There are rich collections of votive objects from the site [Eleusis].  The favor of the Two Goddesses was not restricted to the mystery nights…Even healing miracles are not absent from Eleusis: a man who had been blind suddenly would behold the sacred exhibition; mysteries are to be ‘seen’ at Eleusis.”

(Burkert, AMC, 75): “The grief of Demeter ends with the return of Persephone, and ‘the festival ends with exaltation and the brandishing of torches.’ (Lactantius).

Bibliography

 

BURKERT, Walter, Ancient Mystery Cults, Cambridge, MA and London;

Harvard University Press, 1987.

_____________, Greek Religion, Cambridge, MA; Harvard University

Press, 1985.

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Demeter and Persephone
by

Cristina Paolicchi

(Paper submitted to Images of Women in the Ancient World: Issues of Interpretation and ..., Spring 1998)

      The goddesses Demeter and her daughter Persephone are among the lesser-known gods. Traditionally, Demeter has been known as one of the twelve main Olympians, but in practice she is usually ignored. This phenomenon is actually rather odd, since she and Persephone rule over the growth and death of the earth's vegetation.

      There are few myths associated with these two goddesses, but the ones that exist are quite important to the continuing flourishment of the earth. Apparently, in the beginning, there was no separation of seasons, just never ending good crops. To fully understand the greatness of the duties of these two 'minor' goddesses, it is important to learn about their history. How their lives impacted man and god alike was great. It even seemed that, for a time, the power of continuing health and happiness for man lay in the hands of Demeter.

      When her daughter was abducted and taken to the underworld, Demeter refused to nourish the earth, which in turn threatened the very existence of man. It was, in fact, "because Demeter abandoned her divine functions to look for Persephone, [that] the springs of fertility ran dry: vegetation languished, animals ceased to multiply, and the hand of death touched mankind," (see Works Cited: Note #1). It was not until after the great Zeus beseechedDemeter to return to her duties, that man was able to go on living. Before any of this happened, one must start at the beginning.

      In the beginning, there was the Great Mother Goddess Gaea. From her, sprung Uranus who became her son and mate. Together they produced CronusRhea, Coeus, Phoebe, Ocean, and Tethys. Uranus was the sky god and the first ruler of the Earth until his son Cronus, who was the ruling Titan, overthrew him, through the encouragement of his mother GaeaCronuscastrated Uranus, which either caused Uranus to die from the wound, or shamed him so much, that Uranus left the Earth forever. Cronus then united with his sister Rhea, and together they produced six children. However, according to a prophecy, Cronus would be succeeded by one of his children, so in order to keep himself in power, Cronus ate each of his children whole, right after they were born. At a certain point, Rhea, who had been very discontented about losing all of her children, decided to trick her husband. So when her youngest child, Zeus, was born, she sent him away to be raised by a mortal family, and gave Cronus rocks to eat instead.

      When Zeus reached maturity, he returned to Mount Olympus, overthrew his father and saved his brothers and sisters. These were Hestia, HadesPoseidonHera, and DemeterZeus tookHera as his wife, but had many lovers outside of his marriage. One of these was his sister Demeter, who by him, had Kore, later known as Persephone, the dying and reviving daughter.

      Demeter inherited many of her mother, Rhea's, characteristics such as being, "an earth-mother goddess, becoming the goddess of vegetation and fruitfulness, [and] especially corn. She represented the products of soils and seasons, and the generative forces that directed their abundance," (see Works Cited: Note #2). Demeter was the goddess of the harvest and she taught man how to grow crops. Traditionally, the first loaf of bread of the season was sacrificed to her. Demeter lived in the mountainous island of Sicily and was known as the protector of the fields.Demeter was also known as, "the fair haired earth goddess who blesses all phases of the harvest. She walks the furrowed fields dressed in green and displays her moods with feast and famine," (see Works Cited: Note #3).

      Demeter had a very close bond with her daughter Persephone. So when Hades abducted PersephoneDemeter became very depressed. There exist two stories, which tell of the abduction of Persephone.

      The following are two versions, telling of the abduction of Persephone:

  • In the more popular version, it is said that the God of the Underworld Hades, who is Demeter's brother, once saw Persephone and fell deeply in love with her. In order to win her over, Hades asked for help from his brother Zeus. Together they concocted a plan to trap Persephone. One day, "in the vale of Enna [where] there is a lake embowered in woods which screen it from the fervid rays of the sun, while the moist ground is covered with flowers, and Spring reigns perpetual," (see Works Cited) Persephone played with her companions. At a certain point, Persephone came across a 'cosmic flower' which, once she plucked it, the Earth opened beneath her and stole her into the Underworld. There, she became the wife of Hades and Queen of the Underworld. It is said that, "after much protest, Persephone came to love the cold blooded king of the underworld but her mother,Demeter, was consumed with rage and sorrow," (see Works Cited: Note #4).

  • The second version places the blame on Aphrodite. In this version of the story, it is said on the day in which the giants, Typhon, Briareus, Enceladus and others, were imprisoned under a mountain, they made such tremendous sounds that the earth shook with their breath. Hades, alarmed by the commotion, rose to the surface in order to ensure that his kingdom was safe, and that it would not be opened up to the light of day. At the same time, Aphrodite sat on Mount Eryx with her son Cupid and watched the God of the Underworld go. She then turned to her son and said, "My son, take your darts with which you conquer all, even Jove [Zeus] himself, and send one into the breast of yonder dark monarch . . . seize the opportunity to extend your empire and mine. Do you not see that even in heaven some despise our power? Minerva [Athena] the wise, and Diana [Artemis] the huntress, defy us; and there is that daughter of Ceres [Demeter], who threatens to follow their example. Now do you, if you have any regard for your interest or mine, join these two in one," (see Works Cited: Note #5). Thus, in this way, Hades fell in love with Persephone and violently removed her from the Earth.

      After the disappearance of PersephoneDemeter began to look high and low for her. Demeter became so distraught, that she wandered the earth for nine days; denying herself all forms of food, drink, or comfort. She was seen holding a burning torch in each hand. Basically, she had renounced her divine functions as a goddess of vegetation and fruitfulness. Here again, there are more then one telling of the story:

  • In one, it is said that after days of searching, Demeter sat down to rest at the Maiden Well until a man Celeus, and his daughter, came upon her. After some persuasion, Celeus convinced Demeter to be a guest in his home.Demeter soon became very fond of Celeus' infant son. So, while they ate, she mixed poppy seed juice in with his milk. Once everyone had gone to bed, she went to the boy and, through a secret initiation, attempted to make him immortal. As she placed him in some flames, which would be used to burn away his mortality, the infant's mother, came in and stopped the ritual. Demeter then scolded her for being so cruel as to not let her finish the transformation, but stated that, nonetheless, the infant would be a useful son. She bestowed upon him the duty of teaching man how to use the plough and work the land. Later on, after the boy, named Triptolemus, grew up, Demeter took him away in a winged chariot drawn by dragons and gave him knowledge about agriculture. Upon his return, Triptolemus built a magnificent temple to Demeter in Eleusis, which was later used to perform the various secret rituals of worship under the name of the Eleusinian mysteries, which Demeter founded.

    Image of Persephone, Hades, Zeus, and Demeter.

  • In a slight variation of this same story, it is said that Demeter disguised herself as an old, haggardly dressed woman. She came upon the house of the great King Celeus (notice that the name is the same, but the social level has changed) at Eleusis, and there was greeted with great honor. The Queen Metaneira offered the disguised Demeter a chair, but she refused. Only when the cheerful servant Iambe placed a silvery ram's fleece on the chair, did Demeter sit down. She was then offered something to drink, but again, she would only accept some barley water from the servant Iambe, who made her feel happy for the first time in a long time. This act is symbolic of communion; as commemorating the sorrow of the goddess. The drinking of the 'potion' is one of the most important rituals in the Eleusinian mysteries. Then Queen Metaneira bade Demeter to take her son Demophoon to her breast and to nurse him. She too, however, stopped the immortalizing ritual which Demeter was to perform. Demeter once again scolded Queen Metaneira for her cruelty. Then Demeter released herself from her disguise, and stood in the palace in all of her splendor. King Celeus proclaimed that a temple should be built in honor of the great nurturing goddess, where many top secret rituals would be performed in her honor.

    • These two versions of the story very much resemble one of the stories of Isis, when she attempted to change the infant son of the Queen Astarte into an immortal. There, too, the boy's mother stopped Isis from completing the ritual. Also, the image of Demeter's 'search' for her daughter is similar to that of Isis 'searching' for the body-parts of her husband-brother Osiris (see Works Cited: Note #6)

  • In yet another version of the story, it is said that on the tenth day, Hecate came to Demeter and informed her that Persephone had been kidnapped. When Demeter asked her by whom, Hecate responded that only Helios, the Sun, which sees all things during the day, would be able to answer that question. So Demeter went to Helios and demanded the name of her daughters abductor. Helios responded that it had beenHades, and also mentioned that he thought that Persephone could have done worse. Demeter was not comforted by this information and continued to wander the earth in misery.

    As if her problems were not enough, it was during this time that her well-known rivalry against her brother Poseidon originated. Poseidon, seeing Demeter in such a weakened state decided to take advantage of the situation and rape her. In order to escape him, Demeter turned herself into a mare and hid among the horses of Oneus at Oncieum in Thelpusa. Poseidon found her, however, and mated with her as a stallion. Deeply ashamed, Demeter retreated to a cave on Mount Elaeus near Phigalia. There she gave birth to a daughter, Despoena (who is considered to be the counterpart ofPersephone) and a black stallion named Areion.

      Even though Demeter had been informed as to whom the abductor was, she continued to mourn her lost daughter. Since, Hades was out of her reach, Demeter placed the blame on the earth. Then, the fountain Arethusa spoke to Demeter and told her not to blame to earth for its wrongdoing, for it opened unwillingly to the Underworld. At that point, Zeus decided to resolve the situation (possibly as a form of redemption) by sending his messenger Mercury to demand Persephone from HadesHades agreed, but only under the condition that Persephone had suffered as much as her mother, and had thus abstained from food and drink. Unfortunately, Persephone had indeed sucked the sweet juice from three pomegranate seeds and thus a compromise had to be made. It was then decided that Persephone would spend two-thirds of the year with her mother, and one-third, as the queen of Erebus; the powerful bride to the monarch of the realm of the dead.

      And so it was that Demeter got to be reunited with her daughter, Persephone for eight months out of the year. Still . . . Demeter was not a very forgiving goddess (who could blame her) and still to this day, she allows the earth to go barren during those months in which Persephone resides with her husband. Nevertheless, even thought these two goddesses have been pushed, pulled, shoved, tugged, and finally, ignored, they are still remembered whenever the seasons change.

Analysis of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter

      In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Homer speaks of the abduction and return of Persephone.

  • Persephone picks a 'cosmic flower' and it abducted by Hades, with her father Zeus' consent

  • Demeter rests at the 'Maiden Well'
    • She goes to the house of King Celeus
    • She breaks her nine-day fast by drinking barley-water, given to her by the servant Iambe
    • She attempts to make Demophoon immortal, but is stopped by his mother Queen Metaneira
    • A temple is built for her by King Celeus
  • Persephone is returned to her mother
    • Demeter causes famine across the land
    • Mother and daughter reunite but only for a limited amount of time
    • Demeter initiates leaders of Eleusis, namely Eumolpus and Triptolemus

Feminist Interpretations of the Abduction of Persephone

  • Coming of age for women: Freudian View
    • Persephone is 'given' to her Uncle by her Father
    • Is eventually allowed to visit home
    • Eats pomegranate seeds which represent sexual knowledge and maturity
    • All problems are solved and everyone accepts their new roles

The Eleusinian Mysteries:

      The Eleusinian Mysteries are probably some of the best kept secrets in Greek ritualistic mythology. The mysteries were founded by Demeter, who created the order as a rememberance of her lost daughter. The sacred attendants to these mysteries included:

  • the Hierophant
  • the Priestess of Demeter
  • the Herald, and
  • the Torch-Bearer (representing Demeter's wanderings about the earth)

The Mysteries are divided into two sections:

  • The first are the Lesser Mysteries. These are done in preparation for the Greater Mysteries:
    • The purification of water and its subsequent use in sacrificing a pig
    • The purification by fire and air, while seated on a ram's silvery fleece

  • The second are the Greater Mysteries. These are held once a year in September and October
    • Only people who have sworn an oath to the order are allowed to attend due to its secrecy
    • The festival lasts nine days, during which, all parties must fast
    • The people involved go through a series of rituals which include, fasting, breaking the fast with barley-water, traveling from Athens to Eleusis and back again, and revealing sacred objects and reciting secret hymns in the temple of Demeter at Eleusis (see Works Cited: Note #7)

Works Cited

  • Click below to view the web sources for each note:
    • Click here for Note #1
    • Click here for Note #2
    • Click here for Note #3
    • Click here for Note #4
    • Click here for Note #5
    • Click here for Note #6
    • Click here for Note #7

This page has been designed by Cristina Paolicchi for the Images of Women in Ancient Art class, taught by Professor Witcombe. This class was offered as an Honors course at Sweet Briar College during the Spring 1998 semester. If you have any questions about the Honors Program or anything having to do with this page, feel free to contact us.

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