The Eleusinian Mysteries and the abduction of Persephone

by Zvezdana Filipović

  Near Athens, there lies a small city of Eleusis that hides many mysteries, now mostly forgotten. Once, the city held the most sacred of religious rights known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. The ceremonies were held in honour of two goddesses: Demeter and Kore[1]. A significant number of people in ancient times attended the rights, yet we, like most Greeks of that time, know pretty little about them, which is why we name them mysteries. The precious little we know about them is that they were tied to the myth of abduction; the essential part of the celebration was reuniting the mother and daughter. In the next part, the author would like to present you with the story behind the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The story

  It is said that the goddess Demeter has a kind soul and rarely exudes temper, yet the entire world felt her wrath and grief at the time of her daughter’s disappearance.

  It was a rare occurrence for the king of the underworld to glimpse the lands above. In one such rare moment, he saw young fair maiden picking flowers in a meadow. Soon he was enamored with her and went straight to Zeus to ask for her hand. Fearing the wrath of his older brother, Zeus couldn't say no to the union; unfortunately, he was afraid that Demeter wouldn't agree to any such proposal, so he answered: “I shall neither agree nor disagree with your proposal.”  This encouraged the Lord of the dead to take her by trickery, so the ground split open beneath Kore’s feet and the lord of the dead emerged in his black chariot; swiftly taking her into his arms, he dragged her to the depths of the underworld. It seemed as if no one but the meadow’s flowers saw this dreadful affair, as Hecate only heard two words: “Abduction, abduction!”. And all was silent.

  Demeter searched restlessly for nine days. On the tenth day, she arrived at the city of Eleusis, where king Celeus and his wife Metaneira treated her with utmost hospitality. Many unfortunate deeds happened during Demeter's stay in the palace, among which are the deaths of the kings to eldest sons, but beneath all that sorrow, the goddess found a clue about her daughter's disappearance. Nine days ago, a sheepherder in the pastures on the outskirts of the city saw the ground open where his herd was grazing. “A tall figure emerged, mistress, all black it was. With no face I could see, he took the maiden and was swallowed by the ground again. Horses and all.”

  Now, armed with evidence, the goddess went, with Hecate, to Helios. It is well known that Helios sees all that transpires in all realms above the ground. So the two made him confess what he must have seen. That indeed was Hades who, with Zeus's knowledge, took the girl for himself. Enraged, Demeter wouldn't come to Olympus. Instead, she went walking among valleys and meadows, bidding trees never to bear fruit again. Ashamed of himself, Zeus sent one messenger after another to plead for forgiveness and asked the goddess to accept his gifts. But she would not return to Olympus, and she vowed never to let another sprout rear its head from the earth until her daughter was brought to her.

  Thus, Zeus had no choice but to send Hermes to the underworld with a message for Hades: “If you do not restore Kora, we are all undone!” And one last message was sent to Demeter: ” You shall have you, daughter, for yourself, on the single condition that she hasn't tasted the food of the dead.”

  Since her arrival to the underworld, Kora has not tasted not even a single crumb of bread. The sly king of the underworld said to her in a gentle tone: “Child, I see that you are unhappy here, so I shall let you return to your mother.” Then just as the lady was about to take the hand of Hermes, who was to lead her back, a gardener of Hades spoke. “Having seen lady Kora pick the pomegranates from your garden, my lord, I am ready to bear witness to that she has tasted seven seeds of the fruit of the dead.” Hades laughed maliciously as he sent the company on their way.

  When Demeter heard of what transpired in the realm of the dead, she was unwilling to lift the curse upon the land. Zeus called upon the mother, Rea, to aid him in negotiations with Demeter. And so it came to pass that an agreement was stuck. Kora will dwell in the underworld as Persephone, the queen of Tartarus and wife of Hades, for a period of three[2] months. As for the rest of the year, she will be known as Kore, the daughter of Demeter. Demeter finally agreed to this and upon leaving, Eleusis instructed Celeus in the mysteries of worship.

[1] Kore: later known as Persephone

[2] Some versions of the myth state that it was three mounts; others state that it was six.