The Mother’s Story: Ceres/Demeter
We often forget as women of a modern era that in the ancient world that as many 1 in a hundred women died from childbirth and as many as 30 infants died for 100 births. This meant that to embrace life women had to embrace the reality of death.
The Romans knew her as Ceres, the Greeks called her Demeter. No matter. They are different names for the the same goddess.
Demeter was the goddess of fertility. You might know her by another name “Mother Nature”. The daughter of the ancient primordial god Cronos (Saturn) and Mother Earth (Rhea) she along with her other siblings were swallowed by her father at her birth to prevent a prophecy that one his children would overthrow him as master of the world and heavens. Demeter was freed when Rhea betrayed her husband. At the birth of Zeus, who we call Jupiter, she swaddled a rock and fed it to her husband. She then raised the child in secret, and raised him to avenge her misery at the hands of her husband. Zeus freed all of his siblings, and Neptune and Pluto joined Zeus in overthrowing Cronus. Rhea’s boys thus split the seas, the underword and the heavens among themselves, but none of them could rule their mother, Earth. Demeter, as Rhea’s daughter, however, ruled the fertility of the earth itself. Demeter had one daughter, Persephone, also called Kore (maiden) with Neptune being Persephone’s father.
So Persephone was stolen from her mother by Pluto (Hades) with a wink a nod by her father and his brother, and no one would tell Demeter why her daughter mysteriously disappeared. Thus in a totally Plutonian manner, Demeter was betrayed by her family.
Demeter, unlike the other Olympian gods and goddess of the time, walked the earth and worked directly with the people. During her desperate journey to find her child she shared the gifts of wheat and corn with the people she met. While Prometheus brought fire, she was the civilizing force, bringing stable food sources to the subjects of the gods.
Eventually Demeter found where her daughter was and who had her. She appealed to Zeus to have Persephone returned. The jig up, Zeus was in a real situation. Pluto wouldn’t give up his bride, promising to let the dead lose on the living if Zeus tried. Zeus couldn’t upset the balance of power between Neptune, Pluto and himself which would only lead to another heavenly war. Zeus denied Demeter’s petition. Mother Nature responded in the only way she could. In her grief she failed to bless the fields of man, and famine came and humans starved. Men and women railed against the gods, blaming them for their troubles and would make no more sacrifices to the gods. Since Zeus could not intercede himself, he appealed to more ancient forces, the Furies, who declared according to their laws that Persephone could return if she did not eat any of the food of the dead. The question was of course, did Persephone belong in the world of the living or the dead? This was the crux of the mystery religion that revolved around Demeter and Persephone.
The Eleusian Mysteries
The worship of Demeter and Persephone was ancient, possibly predating Greek civilization as a redux of a similar Minoan cult and thought to be established 3,500 years ago.
But we should not omit to mention the very great benefaction which Demeter conferred upon mankind; for beside the fact that she was the discoverer of corn, she also taught mankind how to prepare it for food and introduced laws by obedience to which men became accustomed to the practice of justice, this being the reason, we are told, why she has been given the epithet Thesmophoros or Lawgiver. Surely a benefaction greater than these discoveries of hers one could not find; for they embrace both living and living honorably. (Diodorus Siculus V, 5)
The mysteries lasting two thousand years, were a major festival during the Hellenic era, later spreading to Rome. The name of the town, Eleusís, is a variant of the noun έλευσις, éleusis, arrival.
The rites, ceremonies, and beliefs were kept secret, as initiation was believed to unite the worshipper with the gods and included promises of divine power and rewards in the afterlife. There are many paintings and pieces of pottery that depict various aspects of the Mysteries. Since the Mysteries involved visions and conjuring of an afterlife, some scholars believe that the power and longevity of the Eleusinian Mysteries came from psychedelic agents.
Now the details of the initiatory rite are guarded among the matters not to be divulged and are communicated to the initiates alone; but the fame has traveled wide of how these gods appear to mankind and bring unexpected aid to those initiates of theirs who call upon them in the midst of perils. The claim is also made that men who have taken part in the mysteries become both more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before. And this is the reason, we are told, why the most famous both of the ancient heroes and of the demi-gods were eagerly desirous of taking part in the initiatory rite; and in fact Jason and the Dioscuri, and Heracles and Orpheus as well, after their initiation attained success in all the campaigns they undertook, because these gods appeared to them. (Diodorus Siculus V, 48, 49)
The initiates of the Eleusian mysteries were promised a land of plenty in the Underworld in which to spend eternity, the Elysium fields watched over by the daughter of Demeter, Persephone.
And those that have three times kept to their oaths,
Keeping their souls clean and pure,
Never letting their hearts be defiled by the taint
Of evil and injustice,
And barbaric venality,
They are led by Zeus to the end:
To the palace of Kronos [the ruler of Elysium]
As the story goes, because Persephone had eaten a few pomegranate seeds, (and more on that later) curiously a symbol of fertility, it was decided that she would spend the four months of the winter in the Underworld and the rest of the time with her mother. When she was in the Underworld however, she is said to watch over the humans in Hades care. Persephone was seen as a vital link between the world of the living and the dead. and the reason why the fields returned to fertility in the spring.
The mysteries themselves, though the exact nature of the rites are not known, celebrated the love of a mother for her child, the child’s death and the symbolic rebirth of the child in the reunion with her mother.