The seasonal rituals of ancient goddess religions, based on the cycles of death and rebirth in Nature, offer a very different perspective from current patriarchal religious and scientific traditions. The ancient myths offer us stories of eternally returning, of renewable creative experience, personally and collectively.
On my first day in Athens I took the bus to Elefsina, a town about 18 kilometres northwest of the city. The bus moved slowly with the traffic along the ancient Sacred Way where people once walked in procession to celebrate the Eleusinian Mysteries. No one really knows what happened in the initiation rituals based on Persephone’s descent and return from the Underworld, but the rites were celebrated for thousands of years and were thought to keep the world in balance.
Today the Sacred Way is surrounded by urban development, and Elefsina is a major industrial area. Yet I could still imagine the sacred procession winding from Athens to Eleusis: initiates swinging leafy branches, singing, chanting, and shouting obscenities in commemoration of Baubo, the mysterious Greek goddess who was bawdy, fun-loving and sexually liberated. Baubo – a ‘daughter’ of the ancient Mother Goddess, Cybele – was celebrated for consoling Demeter with ribald jesting when the goddess was mourning the loss of Persephone.
The modern and ancient exist side by side in Greece – a kaleidoscope of images and impressions spanning millennia. It is easy to assume that modern life represents the pinnacle of civilisation, yet where is Baubo now?
Baubo has been degraded into over-sexualised images of women and girls. The obscenities that were once shouted in sacred play are now directed at women as aggression, hostility and violence. We have lost Baubo and so many of the myths and rituals that can connect us to ourselves, each other, and the world.
At the core of the Eleusinian Mysteries was the myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone. The maiden Persephone was picking flowers when she was seized by Hades and taken to the Underworld. Demeter searched but could not find her daughter. In her distress, she stopped tending the Earth. Crops failed, bringing famine and suffering. Zeus intervened and sent Hermes to retrieve Persephone from the Underworld. Mother and daughter were reunited, and the land flourished again. Each year the cycle repeated, Persephone descending and returning, symbolising the changing seasons and the eternal return.
It seems likely that the Eleusinian Mysteries involved initiates in symbolic enactment of Persephone’s journey. Symbolic enactment invites engagement and suggests a possibility of transformation. It can also be confusing and frustrating. Symbols are not static – the meaning of a symbol changes from person to person and across time and place. Enactment ensures that the experience is alive in the moment, and ritual enactment ensures a safe place to engage the mysteries.
There remains a mystery about what exactly took place at the Demeter Sanctuary at Eleusis, but it seems likely that the ancients incorporated symbol and enactment in an initiation process. Initiation always involves a crossing – from one stage to the next, from one identity to another. We like to think we can choose our crossings, but life has a way of choosing for us, and we are devastated by loss, shocked by betrayal, left anxious and fearful of change. The Eleusinian Mysteries offered the ancients a map for the journey.
Imagine yourself as an initiate. You may become Demeter, grieving unbearable loss and withdrawing from the world. Or perhaps you are Persephone, your life abruptly changed by forces outside your control. As you walk the path of initiation, guided by story and by those who have gone before, you encounter the Underworld of your own psyche and you are transformed.
Symbolic enactment takes us into and beyond our fears. We cross thresholds and return with sovereignty over ourselves. Persephone returns to the upper world, and she is also Queen of the Underworld.
In the modern world, we engage symbols through expressing our creativity, working with dreams, and attending depth psychotherapy. Just imagine how it would be to wake one morning knowing that today you will walk in procession from the city to a sanctuary by the sea, chanting and singing, shouting obscenities to Baubo, who laughs loudly and shouts right back. Imagine that today you will make offerings to Goddess and be guided through a ritual enactment of one of the great teaching stories, descending and returning transformed. Imagine…
I caught that bus to Elefsina to walk the marble paths of Demeter’s sanctuary. The seasonal rituals of ancient goddess religions, based on the cycles of death and rebirth in Nature, offer a very different perspective from current patriarchal religious and scientific traditions. The ancient myths offer us stories of eternally returning, of renewable creative experience, personally and collectively. I caught that bus to Elefsina to visit one of the places where the stories were born.
Dr Kaalii Cargill was on Goddess pilgrimage in Greece in 2015. Her PhD research explored ancient women’s mysteries. She and her husband, Andrew, run the Kairos Centre for mind-body healing, energy medicine and Soul Centred Psychotherapy, offering both training and personal healing, in Melbourne.
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