ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE
Demetra is a panhellenic deity whose origins are either Egyptian [Isis] or purely Greek. There is no unanimous agreement on this point. Her worship first makes its appearance in the plain of Thessaly from whence it spread to all Greek cities and colonies. In art, she is depicted as fairhaired and beautiful, and in the hymns she is described as a goddess of unsurpassed benevolence. [pp. 36-37]
[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]
Demeter is mother--earth mother, elemental mother, raging mother, grieving mother, adoring mother, clinging mother. It is impossible to think of her except in relationship to Persephone, her daughter. In most ancient sculptures of Demeter and Persephone, they are seen looking deeply into each other's eyes, and the secret they share through their penetrating gaze is at the heart of Demeter's myth. 'Every mother contains her daughter in herself, and every daughter her mother, and every woman extends backwards into her mother and forwards into her daughter.'
'Demeter and Kore, mother and daughter, extend the feminine consciousness upwards and downwards--and widen out the narrowly conscious mind bound in space and time, giving it intimations of a greater and more comprehensive personality which has a share in the eternal course of things . . . . ' [C. G. Jung]
The myth of Demeter and Persephone is one of the richest, most profound and most moving in all Greek mythology. Persephone, who is also known as Kore, which in modern Greek still means daughter, is playing with her friends in the field, innocent and carefree, when she suddenly comes upon a narcissus 'awesome to behold for both gods and men'. As she reaches to pick the flower with the intoxicating scent, the earth opens beneath her and, resisting and weeping, she is carried off to the Underworld by Hades. 'And the mountain peaks', the Homeric Hymn tells us, 'echoed with her immortal voice, and the depths of the sea, and her noble mother heard her. A sharp pain seized her heart.' She tore the diadem from her head, covered herself in dark sheets of mourning and for nine days and nine nights she wandered the earth without eating, drinking or bathing, in search of her daughter.
. . . And forth again
Among the wail of midnight winds, and cried
'Where is my loved one? Wherefore do ye wail?'
And out from all the night an answer shrill'd,
'We know not, and we know not why we wail.'
I climb'd on all the cliffs of all the seas,
And ask'd the waves that moan about the world [p. 178]
'Where do ye make your moaning for my child?'
And round from all the world the voices came,
'We know not, and we know not why we moan.'
'Where? and I stared from every eagle peak.
I thridded the black heart of all the woods,
I peer'd thro' tomb and cave, and in the storms
Of autumn swept across the city, and heard
The murmur of their temples chanting me,
Me, me, the desolate mother! 'Where?' - and turn'd,
And fled by many a waste, forlorn of man,
And grieved for man thro' all my grief for thee, -
The jungle rooted in his shatter'd hearth,
The serpent coil'ed about his broken shaft,
The scorpion crawling over naked skulls; -
I saw the tiger in the ruin'd fane
Spring from his fallen God, but trace of thee
I saw not; and far on, and following out
A league of labyrinthine darkness, came
On three gray heads beneath a gleaming rift.
'Where?' and I heard one voice from all the three,
'We know not, for we spin the lives of men,
And not of gods, and know not why we spin!
There is a Fate beyond us.' Nothing knew.
On the tenth day, Hecate, who had also heard Persephone's cries, came to Demeter and together they went to the god Helios, the sun, who told them that it was Zeus who, with the help of Gaia, the Goddess Earth, produced the narcissus with a hundred heads that beguiled Persephone; it was he who gave her to Hades, his own brother, for his wife.
. . . Then I, Earth-Goddess, cursed the Gods of heaven.
I would not mingle with their feasts; to me
Their nectar smack'd of hemlock on the lips,
Their rich ambrosia tasted aconite.
That man, that only lives and lives an hour,
Seemed nobler than their hard eternities.
My quick tears kill'd the flower, my ravings hush'd
The bird, and lost in utter grief I fail'd
To send my life thro' olive-yard and vine
And golden-grain, my gift to helpless man.
Rain-rotten died the wheat, the barley spears
Were hollow-husk'd, and leaf fell, and the Sun,
Pale at my grief, drew down before his time
Sickening, and Aetna kept her winter snow.' [p. 180]
The goddess who brought plenty to men was now letting everything wither and die and, withered herself, she spent her days as a nursemaid at the palace of the king of Eleusis. In her grief and rage she would have wiped out the whole race of men had Zeus not interceded. First he sent Iris to implore her to return to Olympos and restore fertility to the earth, then he sent out 'every one of the blessed gods', and when all had failed to move her heart, he finally relented and sent Hermes to Hades to tell him that he must let Persephone return to the daylight world. As they were parting, Hades offered her a pomegranate seed to eat, and Persephone, who so far had eaten nothing in the Underworld, took the seed and ate it. To eat food in the Underworld meant that you had to return, and from that time and for all eternity, Persephone had to spend one third of the year in misty darkness with Hades. The rest of the year's cycle she would spend with her mother and the immortal gods--and the earth would bloom with fragrant flowers and all fruits and grains and crops. 'Everywhere her energy was stirring, pushing, bursting forth into tender greenery and pale young petals. Animals shed all fur and rolled in the fresh, clean grass while birds sang out: "Persephone returns! Persephone returns!" But for one third of the year's cycle everything would be bare and fallow and bleak.'
The myth ends with Demeter teaching the rulers of Eleusis her rites and her mysteries that for a thousand years were celebrated in deep secrecy as the ultimate revelation of the spiritual life of antiquity. The fertility goddess and earth mother of the myth's beginnings has been transformed by the end into the goddess of the highest mysteries of man's divine nature. Grain, and especially corn, is Demeter's earthly gift, but the grain that sinks to the earth and returns points beyond itself to a universal symbol actualized through the sacred gift of the Eleusinian Mysteries: man's death to his mundane self and his rebirth in his divine essence. 'Verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
In becoming the goddess of the highest esoteric mysteries, Demeter, far from denying the concrete, material world over which she rules, adds another dimension of significance to it and spiritualizes it. This dimension is personified in the myth of Hades, the god of the Underworld, the god of the unconscious. And nature, in the form of the older Earth Mother, Gaia, recognizes the necessity for the violent abduction that will connect the upper world with the unseen and the invisible and conspires with Zeus and Hades to bring this about by growing the glorious narcissus that seduces Persephone.
So long as Demeter Resists the depths, she grieves and rages and withers. When she can finally accept the deeper reality that lies beneath the surface, [p. 183] the depth potential as 'a seed in each moment of life', the earth blooms and rejoices, and out of her festivals of agriculture and the changing of the seasons and her own wanderings and pain, the Eleusinian Mysteries are born.
They were divided into the Greater and the Lesser Mysteries, the Lesser held in the spring, the Greater in September. The greater Mysteries lasted for nine days, the nine days of Demeter's wandering and grief. The initiates' procession from Athens to Eleusis, the fasting, the sacred pageant dealing with the story of Persephone's abduction, the period of withdrawal and purification, were all re-enactments of the myth symbolically experienced by each initiate. The sacred marriage in which the rites culminated was the union of the earth with the divine, the material with the spiritual; it led to the birth of the divine child who is the 'whole'--the redeeming symbol through which are reconciled the warring opposites of love and rage, earthliness and spirituality, rootedness and wandering, hiddenness and openness, life and death.
Demeter's quest for her lost child is, on another level, her longing for the divine child that is symbolically born at the end of the Eleusinian Mysteries--the divine child within, that we desperately need to reconstruct the lost wholeness in ourselves and end the pain of separation that is part of our incarnation on earth. Whether caught in our busy world of activity like Demeter, or in the surface life of a playful paradise like Persephone, life demands that we be shaken into awareness. And it will use anything, the myth tells us, including abandonment, rage and loss, to move us in the direction of the inner world and steer us into consciousness and wholeness.
The call to reunite ourselves with the lost child within, the lost maiden--what Jung called the 'anima' --can no longer be stifled. Sometimes in the strangest guises, it is nevertheless everywhere in evidence. In the musical Hair, the refrain of the song Donna ['Oh Donna, Oh Donna, Donna/Looking for My Donna'] evokes the yearning for a 'once upon a time' sixteen-year-old virgin called Donna. 'It is as if the virgin calls us to ourselves, to be true to something within ourselves which cannot be shared with others.' It is a call in the middle of our ephemeral, fragmented lives to connect with the virginal, childlike part of ourselves through which we can participate in the eternal course of life. Our defence against the divine depths leads to the grieving and the raging that form such a large part of Demeter's myth and of modern life. And until there is acceptance and understanding, suffering feeds upon itself and all sense of essence and significance is lost.
This defensive clinging to the upper world, to the surface world of activity, is Demeter's negative aspect. It also manifests itself as clinging possessively either to a child or to whatever has been nurtured like a child, whether it is an institution, a project or an idea. Demeter, in her smothering, witch's aspect, would rather destroy what she has given birth to than let it develop independently of herself. In her positive aspect as the elemental mother and the 'eternal feminine leading above', Demeter embodies the highest mysteries of man's nature and the alternating cycles of plenty and fallowness contained in nature and in human nature--in the change of the seasons, in all human activity, and in the ebb and flow of our emotional and spiritual lives. [p. 185]
The Kistophoros Caryatid, c. 30-25 BC. On her head she supports a sacred basket decorated with wheat and poppies.
' . . . and bless
Their garner'd Autumn also, reap
Earth-mother, in the harvest
hymns of Earth
The worship which is Love . . . . '
[Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]
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