Oedipus on a Pale Horse, Journey through Greece in Search of a Personal Mythology Novelsmithing, The Structural Foundation of Plot, Character, and Narration The Mysteries - Daughter of Darkness  Story Alchemy: The Search for the Philosopher's Stone of Storytelling 

Ancient Theatre - Delphi Ancient Theatre: Akropolis

(The two pictures above are of ancient theatres. The one on the right is that at the side of the Akropolis in Athens, the same theatre where Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides presented their plays. The one on the left is at Delphi, just above the temple of Apollo. The author took these pictures during his trip to Greece in the fall of 1993. To read a travelogue of his odyssey, click here.)

The first ancient text we’ll study is The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Demeter’s hymn is set at Eleusis, the ancient religious center for the Mysteries, and provides a glimpse of Gaia, the earth goddess, who forms the background for all Greek mythology and bears a special relation to the seven tragedies. Demeter's hymn concerns the special circumstances behind the first birth of Dionysus. Then we’ll progress to Dionysus, patron god of theatre as presented by Euripides in his play The Bacchantes.

Mt. Kithaeron as seen from Thebes

The marriage between Zeus and Hera occurred on top of a mountain, Mt. Kithaeron just outside Thebes where most of the tragedies we’ll read took place. But the marriage was a troubled one because of Zeus’ many adulteries, one of which was his liaison with Demeter. The result was the birth of Persephone, Demeter’s only daughter. The story of Persephone and her mother is one of the most important in all Greek mythology. We’ll study it in detail, since it will lead us directly to the patron god of theatre, Dionysus. Dionysus was the twice-born god, some say thrice-born, and the story of his life starts with the kidnap and ravishing of Persephone.

First on earth stands Gaia, the goddess Earth herself, and her most powerful manifestation, Demeter, goddess of all things that grow on earth. The earth goddess cult was in the background of all ancient Greek religion, and many scholars believe this is an indication of a much older religion and even of a more matriarchal society. 

The myth of the divine mother and daughter, Demeter and Persephone, is told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. This is just one of many hymns about the gods which were not actually written by Homer at all but were written close to the same time period. They were in the same epic style and for a long time the ancients believed Homer did write them, (thus the term “Homeric”) and upon discovering he didn’t, treated them with indifference. The hymns were probably used as preludes or “warm-ups” for the epic poems like The Iliad and The Odyssey as presented by the ancient rhapsodes. 

Demeter Sitting

Initiates to the Mysteries

In the Hymn to Demeter, Hades, god of the Underworld, kidnaps Persephone and takes her to his Realm of the Dead where he ravishes her and she becomes his wife. Demeter wanders the earth looking for her daughter but can find her nowhere. Finally, Demeter learns that Persephone has been kidnapped by Hades and that Zeus, Persephone’s father, permitted it. She demands Hades return her daughter to no avail. 

Discouraged, Demeter takes on mortal form and comes to Eleusis where she befriends the queen, Metaneira, and becomes the caretaker of her son, Demophoon. Demeter decides to make the child immortal. By night she puts him in the hearth flames and by day anoints him with ambrosia. But Metaneira catches Demeter in this act and screams seeing her child in the hearth. Demeter reveals herself as a goddess, and tells them to build a temple to her. 

Still consumed by grief for her daughter, Demeter won’t allow anything to grow, and the earth is consumed by draught. The drought threatens to destroy all mankind, and finally Zeus relents, requesting that Hades allow Persephone to return to her mother. This Hades does but first feeds Persephone a single pomegranate seed and because of this, Persephone has to return to Hades to be Mistress of the Dead for one quarter of each year. Following the joyous reunion of mother and daughter, Demeter introduces the people of Eleusis to her Mysteries where the initiation is held every fall thereafter. 

What to look for in the Hymn to Demeter:

Structure: Note the introduction and the ending. 

Setting: Note the physical details of Eleusis.

Note the lighthearted character of the narrative, the fact that the earth goddess herself, Gaia, caused the narcissus to grow and wide-pathed earth to yawn so Hades might kidnap Persephone. Then the whole earth laughed for joy. How might this indicate complicity in a divine conspiracy and to what purpose? 

Further questions to consider:

If we consider this Homeric Hymn an archetype of the feminine experience, how might it differ from that of the male experience? Is the female experience defined by issues related to marriage and fertility; the male quest, by war and adventure?

How does the Hymn define the relationship between mother and daughter? One of loss and reunion?

How does the Hymn define Is the relationship between father and daughter? One of remoteness and betrayal?

Toward the mother, the father is inconsiderate and domineering but yields in the face of the mother’s resolve. The father gives away his daughter without the mother’s knowledge, an arranged marriage. How could the poem be viewed as a metaphor for the institution of marriage in ancient Greece?

How might marriage ritual then relate metaphorically to the salvation of the soul? How does pregnancy and birth relate to the ancient Greek’s view of the salvation of the soul, which comes from the nativity scene in the Mysteries? 

How might Demeter’s putting Demophoon in the fire to make him immortal relate to Dionysus’ “fire-birth?” 

How might the constant complaining of the people of Eleusis about the suffering given to mortals by the immortals (“the yoke about their necks”) relate to the suffering of Dionysus?

At the end of the hymn, does Persephone appear angry over being kidnapped and ravaged? 

Does the hymn relate to undercurrents in marriage and family relationships in the modern world?

The Meaning of the Demeter Myth 

I’ll have more to say about Demeter’s Mysteries, but first I want to point out that the Hymn is the myth founding marriage in ancient Greece and Persephone’s experience was reenacted during each marriage ceremony. From the kidnap image, to the chariot and the pomegranate. Scenes from the marriage ritual have been depicted on vases since the 7th century BC. Some of these scenes are shown in the attached figures. Note that the husband-to-be clasps the bride’s wrist in a show of possession. 

The groom then takes the bride aboard his chariot for the procession to his home where they both will live. Also note the torches carried by the bride’s mother as she follows the marriage procession, much as did Demeter searching for her daughter.   

All women were viewed as manifestations of the earth goddess. That’s why fathers recited the words, “I give my daughter to you for the plowing of legitimate children,” when giving away their daughters. But the daughter was more on permanent loan to her husband than his property. She had a dowry that had to be returned if they divorced. Modern marriages join two people as one for eternity, but that wasn’t true in ancient Greece. 

Marriage to the ancient Greek also carried with it the connotation of death for the maiden. As Persephone descended into Hades’ realm to be married, so all maidens underwent a ritual of symbolic death before marriage. This is termed, “marriage to death,” and is a theme we’ll see many times in the tragedies we’ll be reading. Since Demeter and Persephone are one and the same goddess, part above, part below, so women also existed in this state. Women bring people into the world, just as seeds planted in Gaia spring forth new life, and women are also responsible for the dead, since the dead are reunited with mother earth. Women mourned and prepared the dead for burial. This was their god-given duty as manifestations of Gaia. But it went even beyond this. The Mysteries were the gateway to the afterlife, and this gateway was Demeter/Persephone. Women’s bodies constitute a living metaphor for the relationship between this world and the afterlife.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were based on the Hymn and constituted that part of the ancient Greek religion whereby they attained everlasting life. Those who were initiated into the Mysteries would, following death, join the gods in the Elysian Fields, the Isle of the Blessed. The Mysteries were the most important religious rites practiced in Greece during antiquity. The ancients believed the existence of Greece depended on them and that they held the entire human race together. The word “mystery” comes from the ancient Greek word musthrion, meaning a religious truth revealing a connection between the worlds of mortals and immortals known only by revelation and never fully understandable by mortals.

The Mysteries were a sixteen-day ceremony starting in Athens and involving many sacrifices. During the last two days the initiates formed a procession from Athens to Eleusis where they danced and attended a gigantic feast. The following evening the initiates, who sometimes numbered in the thousands, attended the initiation, which consisted of wandering in the dark blindfolded, drinking a sacred decoction of pennyroyal and barley and witnessing the epiphany. 

The intriguing debate continues among scholars as to what actually took place during the epiphany. It was kept secret under penalty of death, but many believe it concerned the birth of a divine child, a nativity scene with the presentation of a divine mother, Persephone, and her newborn son, Dionysus. We do know that the high priest, the Hierophant, sounded a gong to summon Persephone from the Underworld and that blinding flashes of light, visible for miles around, flooded the interior of the Telesterion, the sacred building used for the ceremony. Archeologists have found fire marks on the terrace dating back to Mycenaean times. Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue, describes the impact of the epiphany on the initiate:

… then were we all initiated into that mystery which is rightly accounted blessed beyond all others; whole and unblemished were we that did celebrate it, untouched by the evils that awaited us in days to come; whole and unblemished likewise, free from all alloy, steadfast and blissful were the spectacles on which we gazed in the moment of final revelation; pure was the light that shone around us, and pure were we, without taint of that prison house which now we are encompassed withal, and call a body, fast bound therein as an oyster in its shell. 

This then is the result, the impact on the individual of initiation into the Mysteries, and the description comes from one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Socrates through the writings of Plato. From Pindar the early 5th century BC poet, we have the following:

Blessed is he who hath seen these things before he goeth beneath the hollow earth; for he understandeth the end of mortal life, and the beginning of a new life given of god. 

Further discussion of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter:

Note the lighthearted character of the narrative, the fact that the earth goddess herself, Gaia, caused the narcissus to grow and wide-pathed earth to yawn so Hades might kidnap Persephone. Then the whole earth laughed for joy. All this indicates complicity in a divine conspiracy to work in favor of the daughter so that she might become Mistress of the Underworld. The tone of the poem is one of bemusement, of tragic necessity. The conspiracy lacks sinister intent.  

But Demeter’s grief is more convincing. Though the rest of the world seems resigned to Persephone’s kidnap and ravishing, Demeter and Persephone are too close to the action to have perspective on it. What then is going on here?

The Greeks in their Homeric Hymns and tragedy pick up the non-literal part of our lives, the subterranean current of life we call the mythical element. An inscription was found on the island of Delos, which stated that Demeter and Persephone, the Kore, were one and the same goddess. Some scholars believe the epiphany of the Mysteries of Eleusis, upon which this hymn is based, was in part the revelation that Demeter and Persephone were one goddess. Persephone’s descent into the Underworld is a sort of death but points out that the goddess exist both on earth and within the earth, the Underworld. We also know that those who were initiated were destined, after death, to go to the Elysian Fields where they passed away eternity in the presence of the gods. This pathway to the afterlife was Demeter, one aspect of her in this world and the other aspect in the next.

This is reminiscent of the ritual all girls went through before they were married, a marriage to death. They participated in a ritual where they sacrificed a lamb that represented themselves as a maiden. The lamb’s death was symbolic of their death as a maiden, a kore, and the only life left to them was that of a young woman. All women were the physical manifestation, a metaphor, of the earth goddess.  

The point I would like to make is that, since Demeter and Persephone were one goddess, Demeter’s search for her daughter was in fact a search for herself. The “search for self” is central to another famous myth, that of Oedipus, and may indeed be central to all human existence. When we encounter this myth later on, we’ll have the opportunity to compare the two and see what myth tells us about the essential difference between men and women. Women’s search for self [as a part of her dual nature] is the quest for eternal life. Men’s search [as also a part of his dual nature] is for a murderer.

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