Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Eleusinian Mysteries

Most of you know that I am traveling most of this summer.  For the last several days, I have been in Greece.  I will write up all of my experiences when I have time (if you're my IRL friend, follow along on facebook!)   Today, however, my experience was so profound that I wanted to write about it while it was still fresh.

First, to answer the most common question I am getting:  It is very safe here.  There are very long lines at ATMs and sometimes they are out of cash.  We have been advised not to use an ATM alone at night (which seems like generally good advice) but other than that, all is ok.  Greek citizens can only take out 60 euros per day, but accounts on foreign banks are still fine.  Tourist places still take credit cards, but some want cash.  I am more eager to spend than I usually would be; I am so worried and sorry for all my Greek friends; things are tense.  However, for tourists, things remain very much as normal.  If you are thinking about coming to Greece, don't let this scare you off!

A brief summary of my trip so far:  I got into Athens Sunday evening after a long unpleasant trip.  I met up with my group (of pagan friends and new friends), and the next day we went to the Acropolis.  It was a difficult climb for me in the heat, but well worth it.  Athena is very strong there.  We then went to the National Archaeological Museum, where I had quite a moment with a Kriophoros statue. (TONS of photos on facebook)

The next day, we went to the Agora, including the Temple of Athena & Hephaestus.  It was cool, but not my favorite thing so far. (photos on facebook)

Today, we went to Eleusis, seat of the Eleusinian Mystery Cult, the most famous of the ancient mystery cults.  The mysteries began as an agricultural fertility cult centered around Demeter, as early as 1500 BCE.  In fact, Demeter, whom I never cared for as a child, but who comes closer and closer to me as I grow, is among the oldest of the Greek gods; her name appears in the Linear B tablets.  Eleusis is an ancient "satellite" of Athens; its about 20 km north of the city.  In addition to being a sactuary of Demeter, the Great Goddess of Grain, Eleusis also is sacred to both her daughter Persephone and Persephone's husband, Hades.  If you don't know the myth of Hades and Persephone, then (1) I can't imagine you read this blog, and (2) Go read it before continuing.
Demeter, called "St Dimitra" by locals.  This statue
was still venerated in 1803, when it was looted
by the British.  At that time, Eleusis was
among the most fertile farm land in Greece.
After the statue was removed, it rapidly devolved
into a polluted industrial wasteland

Eleusis is the first ruin we've been to that isn't over-run with loud tourists.  (I understand that I am also a loud, obnoxious, hypocritical tourist.)  Our guide says that most tours don't go at all, and she was happy to take us, because she really likes it.  It was amazing to be able to walk among the ruins, clambering over them (respectfully!) like I imagined.  The Acropolis was very heavily controlled, with guards EVERYWHERE (although it is possible that there were extra because of the current situation).  Having grown up in a tourist spot (I was briefly a guide, in fact), I always appreciate going places that are further "afield".

I was busy BEING there, so I didn't take a lot of pictures at Eleusis, but this site has REALLY extensive photos and a map.  You can see a few of mine below, and a couple more on facebook.  When you first enter into the site from the processional road from Athens (which was more or less the route we took, although we came by a large pink bus.) you are in the outer courtyard, where non-initiates gather.  In this area are several shrines to a variety of gods; I spent some time with Artemis and with Papa Poseidon, the gods of my youth.  

After that, you then (if you don't walk "through walls" that aren't there any more) pass through three large gateways, about 6 steps apart.  These gates were open only to initiates of the mysteries.  I did this very intentionally and slowly, trying to really enter into the mysteries, to find an initiation.  

To this day, we do not really know the exact content of the rituals of Eleusis, but their central promise was to free the initiate from the fear of death.  Before entering into the Eleusinian rites, initiates fasted and then consumed a fermented barley potion called the kykeon.  Some people think it was entheogenic, however the expert of our group says that it was made with pennyroyal and perhaps wormwood, and induced near-death experience.  Pennyroyal is only moderately toxic to adults, but fatal to fetuses and infants.  It's most common medicinal use is as a parasite killer and abortificant, but it is also used to induce menstruation in women whose period in delayed for some other reason.  It is a plant I grew and worked with as a young woman.  She is a beautiful plant, with spikey purple flowers, but a difficult teacher.

In any case, after you pass through the gates, the next thing to your immediate right is the Plutonion, the abode of Hades.  In days of old, there was a temple building, but only priests were permitted within it.  walking around the temple, and up a slowly ascending curved staircase, you are faced with a shallow cave, really just an overhanging rock shelter, soot black on the top.  I assume that it was this that was the most original sacred site.  I have never been at a more powerful location.  Legend says that it was here that Persephone returned to Earth from Below, a true entrance into the underworld.  It looks far less impressive in the photos than it was to me, but this is a true Place of the Old Powers, an entrance into the Womb of the Earth.  

As you enter in from the staircase (left), the first thing you see is the altar/opening where several visitors before us had left flowers and pomegranates.  We also picked wild flowers and laid some, and we poured out water.  I have been taught that, because our modern water is so clean and so pure, it is the most wonderful offering, an acceptable substitute for any other gift.  Many people sang here as well.  I waited for the others to finish here, because I wanted to spend some time.  After connecting, I poured out some water, and then put my finger in the mud, and drew a gritty red line from my hairline, down my forehead and nose, down my chin, and as far into my cleavage as my clothes allowed.  I felt the need to do so before entering into the underworld, which I did through this opening.  Even now, as I look at the picture, I can see a face staring back at me from this cleft in the body of the world, beckoning me back.

After that, there is a larger depression, with a shallow shelf, about 5 feet off the ground, and about 4 feet deep.  The photos below don't really give a good sense of it.  The darker parts are exposed veins of black marble running through the surrounding (lime?) stone.

After standing for a while under the rock hang, I felt the need to enter deeper.  I crawled up to the shelf.  My group left, to continue up the hill to the sacred place of Demeter at the top of the hill.  I stayed.  For about half an hour (maybe longer?), I lay in the underworld.  I put (2 euro) coins on my eyes.  I sobbed hysterically.  And then I quieted.  And then my body decayed, and my skeleton rotted away to dust, and I entered into the underworld.  I cannot yet really tell you what happened while I was there.  It's still too fragile to be made literal, but if I can, I will tell you about it later.  It was probably the most profound religious experience I have ever had.  

Eventually, I came back to myself, and I climbed down.  I sat in the sunshine and rapidly drank almost a liter of lukewarm water.  I then retreated to the shade, and braided wheat straws.  By that time, the rest of my party was coming down the hill.  I am hoping I will have a chance to return to Eleusis on this trip, but I do not think I will be able to.  I will come again.

I later discovered that, while I was in the cave, I began to menstruate, which is symbolically cool, but logistically irritating.  My birth control is supposed to prevent this.  UPDATE:  I menstruated, after that, for nearly 6 weeks.  My doctor said it was a reaction to the birth control, but I think not.  Not only for mystic reasons, but because I've been on depo provera for more than a decade, and that's never happened before.  I think I was cleansed, at Eleusis, of my fear of death, and I bled out the last of a compact I made long ago.  I cannot tell you too much about it, but I gave away my future children (which I was happy to never have) to one who could not conceive, and received something very precious to me, but unwanted by her, in return.  

More on Eleusis here and here.

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