Guest Author - Phyllis Doyle Burns
In the northern most end of the Saronic gulf in West Attica, Greece, ceremonies were held each year in ancient times for the initiates of the cult of Demeter and Persephone. There is evidence that as early as 1700 BC, the ceremonies and festival for the Mysteries were held at the site. The belief of the cult was that there was hope for life after death. A stalk of grain was used as a symbolism of life by opening the grain to show the seed within and to tell of its life cycle, birth, death, and rebirth. The rituals and ceremonies performed to initiate new followers of Demeter and Persephone are called the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The main theme of the introduction ceremony was the story of Demeter's quest to find her lost daughter, Persephone. These particular ceremonies were considered the most important of all celebrations in ancient times.
The mysteries had three cycles, or phases, which represented the mythological story of Demeter and Persephone. The abduction of Persephone by Hades was shown in ritualistic manner of the phases: The Descent, The Search, and The Ascent. This major festival of the Hellenic period eventually spread to Rome.
In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Keleos, King of Eleusina, was one of the original priests of Demeter, and one of the first people to learn her secret rites. In honor of Demeter, Keleos had a beautiful shrine built where he had a seat in the temple constructed for only her.
In ancient Greek mythology Demeter was goddess of the harvest, agriculture, and forests. She was the wife of Zeus, the supreme god, the Father of gods and men, god of Sky, Thunder, and Lightening. Demeter ruled from high above on Mount Olympus and reined over all that grew on Earth. Nothing on Earth grew unless it had Demeter's blessings and care. In the eyes of the gods, Demeter was most important for all life on Earth to flourish.
Persephone, goddess of Spring, was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Persephone was most lovely and all the gods wanted to court her, hoping she would choose to love one of them. Demeter did not want her precious daughter to become a servant to a god, for, although lovely and much sought after, Persephone had no great powers of her own and was not given any position of power by Zeus -- so her position had no stability and she was at the mercy of Zeus.
Demeter tried to keep her daughter safe from the gods that pursued her, so Persephone was taken far away to live in peace among meadows of flowers, gentle woodlands, and only quiet beauty surrounding her. Persephone's only companions were the nymphs who delighted in running free and safe in this paradise.
Yet Zeus had other plans for Persephone, with his nephew, Hades, Lord of the Underworld. A conspiracy between these two gods allowed for Persephone to be kidnapped and taken to the Underworld to become the wife of Hades, for he was so smitten by her beauty.
When Demeter found out where her daughter had been taken, she moved all things on Earth and threatened to let all plant life die. If all on Earth died, then the people would have nothing to offer to Zeus, nor would anyone survive. So, a bargain was made between Hades and Demeter. Persephone was allowed to spend Spring, Summer, and Autumn with Demeter on Earth. At the end of the harvest season, Persephone was to live out the winter months in the Underworld with Hades.
Every year, Persephone returns to bring in the symbolic rebirth and new beginnings of Spring.