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Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries

Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries

The days have begun to shorten. High on Mount Olympus, Persephone prepares once again for her yearly descent to the Underworld.

How distinctly terrible this year has been. Empty streets and plazas, physical and emotional distance, unnatural orange skies and ash-choked air. And death, avoidable death by the hundreds of thousands, caused by cruelty, ignorance, and systemic violence. Even though I am doing my part, I feel powerless, afraid for my family, my friends, my future. I might have once had hope, but I have watched my country sink deep into denial, so there appears to be no end in sight.

So when something as familiar as the turning of the seasons is upon us, I find a strange sort of comfort and relief in it. It is a reminder that change is nothing new, and that humans have the incredible ability to adapt. We are resilient. We can accept and make change. We have always had to.

It is said that after the abduction of Persephone, Demeter searched high and low for her daughter, stopping to rest only in the city Eleusis, west of Athens. Disguised as an old woman, Demeter accepted an invitation to stay with the royal family. The lady of the house, Metaneira, had just given birth to a son, and was in need of a nursemaid. Still aching from the loss of her own child, the grieving goddess took to caring for the mortal boy.

Unable to cope with the thought of losing another baby, Demeter decided she would give the little one a gift, the greatest she could think of: she would bestow upon him the immortality of the gods.

The ritual she employed was to be kept a secret from the royal family. Every night, Demeter would anoint the boy with ambrosia of the gods, and after everyone else had fallen asleep, she would place the sleeping child into the flames of the hearth, where he lay unharmed as the fire slowly purged him of his mortality. The boy thrived, growing like a god, to the delight of his parents.

Unfortunately, Metaneira became suspicious, and stayed up late one evening to spy on her nursemaid. Upon seeing the woman place her son in the flames, Metaneira shrieked in fear, alerting the goddess of her presence. Enraged, Demeter revealed her divine identity and fled, leaving the child still mortal and forever dissatisfied, searching for the gift that he had almost been given.

The people of Eleusis built a lavish temple to appease fair-haired Demeter, and placed her altar on the rising hill. Forever after, they would gather yearly for a festival in honor of Demeter and Persephone, hoping to please the harvest goddess, that she might return and teach them the secrets of immortality. It is said that after reuniting with Persephone, Demeter returned to Eleusis to instruct them how to perform her rites. Thus was formed the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most famous, ancient Greek cult that was said to have discovered the godly secret of eternal life.

Today, their secrets are lost to time, as they were carefully guarded. What we do know is that any willing person could be initiated, which is surprising, given the social hierarchy at the time. Men, women, children and slaves could all offer themselves to the cult of Demeter. These initiates would go through rights of passage, which might have included purification in the form of bathing, fasting, and the descent into an underground temple, symbolically performing Persephone’s descent to the Underworld. The secret rituals that took place underground are yet unknown.

As the leaves turn over to feverish shades of red and yellow, now is a time of cleansing. Look hard on your mortal pains. Acknowledge your fear, regret, anger, grief that has sat too heavy on your heart, and then cast them into the flames of the hearth. Allow the smoke to carry it all away, and be reborn, again.