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Chapter 14: Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries

We have seen again and again variations on the theme of the dominant earth goddess and her subordinate male lover, who dies and is reborn to assure the resurrection of the crops and of the souls of mortals. Demeter's name may mean “earth-mother,” but her myth and that of Persephone introduces a startling and drastic variation of this eternal and universal archetype. Its sexual blatancy is replaced by a more refined and purer concept of motherhood and the love between a mother and daughter. In this guise, the mother goddess and matriarchy sustained their dominance in the ancient world.

Details of the myth continually challenge the patriarchal power of Zeus. The abduction of Persephone ordained by the supreme god so that Hades may have a wife and the Underworld may have a queen. This is depicted not as a divine right but a brutal rape, seen from the point of view of Demeter, who will not accept the status quo and is mighty enough to modify it.

The Eleusinian mysteries became the one universal mystery religion of the ancient world before Christianity. Worship began in Athens and Eleusis, but eventually participants came from all over the Hellenic world and the Roman empire. Its initiates included men, women, children, and slaves. George E. Mylonas, the excavator of the site at Eleusis (Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Princteon: Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 284–285), observes that the rites at Eleusis, for some two thousand years “satisfied the most sincere yearnings and deepest longings of the human heart.” Among the many illustrious Greek and Romans he elicits to confirm the nobility and humanity of Demeter’s worship, is the learned Cicero, who maintained “that Athens has given nothing to the world more excellent or divine than the Eleusinian Mysteries.”

The Homeric Hymn and the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Homeric Hymn is our most important evidence for the Eleusinian Mysteries. Unfortunately it can not divulge the secrets that were only known by the initiates. Yet details in the myth as told in the Hymn (MLS, pp. 336–346) suggest some of the rituals and the religious emotions evoked.

  • Hades’ violent and secret abduction of Persephone.
  • The miraculous flower that deceives Persephone.
  • The desperate search and fasting by Demeter, carrying flaming torches, for nine days.
  • Demeter learns the truth on the tenth day.
  • Demeter’s arrival at Eleusis at the Maiden Well.
  • Demeter’s disguise as the old woman Doso, and her story.
  • The dress of Demeter, a veil and a long dark robe.
  • The friendly reception of Doso by the four daughters of Celeus.
  • The acceptance of Demeter into the house of King Celeus.
  • The jests of the servant Iambe.
  • Demeter sits only on a special chair, covered with fleece.
  • Demeter institutes the drink (kykeon) for ritual communion.
  • The parable of the nursing of Demophoön.
  • The miraculous transformation of Doso into magnificent Demeter.
  • Demeter’s continued grief and the famine that she causes.
  • Zeus and the Olympians, including Hades, brought to terms.
  • Persephone’s eating of the pomegranate; a taboo and its consequences.
  • The emotional reunion of mother and daughter.
  • The friendship of Hecate.
  • The miraculous and wondrous restoration of the earth's fertility.
  • The establishment of the Eleusinian rites with the temple, through the personal directions of the great goddess herself.

Through compromise, both the will of Zeus and the will of Demeter are accomplished. Demeter shares the love and the person of her daughter with Hades; Hades has his wife; Persephone attains honor as queen of the Underworld; the mystic cycle of death and rebirth is explained by a myth accommodating a specific matriarchal religious ritual, promising joy in this life and the next.

Demophoön. The parable of Demophoön is particularly significant. Nursed and cherished by Demeter, he flourished like a god and would have become immortal, his gross mortality burned away in the fire, if only Metaneira, who did not understand the rituals, had not interfered. If we are nourished by Demeter's truth and become initiated into her mysteries, we too shall find joy and redemption through the same love and devotion of this holy mother, lavished not only upon Demophoön but also her lovely daughter.

Matriarchy was very much alive and well in the patriarchal world of the Greeks and the Romans.

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