Her presence can guide us in darkness, embrace us fill us. Yet our experience of the Sacred Feminine Presence is fragmentary at best. In these reflections on the Sophia I offer glimpses: hints of her loving presence in ancient stories, rituals and prayers, in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, as well as in the gnostic gospels. There are sacred sites throughout the planet that honour her. In earlier writings, I have encountered this presence in Ireland and in Egypt. Today I share with you a visit to the sacred site of Eleusis in Greece during a study tour led by Jean Houston in May of this past year.
Try to take this in. We are standing on stones that predate the Christian era, in an open theatre-like space in Eleusisis, twenty kilometers beyond Athens. Our Greek guide, Calliope, tells us that this is where the initiates, who came here to take part in the annual religious rites known as the Eleusinian mysteries, would have gathered. Unlike us, they would have undergone a ritual cleansing in Athens before beginning the walk to Eleusis. Along the route, known as the Sacred Way, they would have paused to place offerings in tiny cavern-like openings in the rocky outcrops beside the road. Crowds would have gathered to watch their progress.
At Eleusis, there would have been a welcome, some explanation of the ritual that would follow, a telling, perhaps even a re-enactment, of the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.
Demeter, corn goddess, giver of the earth’s abundance, weeps for her daughter, Persephone, who has been seized by Hades, god of the underworld. Her grief and rage at this loss are so terrible that she tells Zeus she will wither the earth’s food crops until he forces his brother god Hades to send Persephone back to her. Only when the earth’s plants wither, threatening starvation, does Zeus give in. A truce is agreed upon: Hades will release Persephone for half of each year, but she must return again to the underworld. It is the myth of the seasons, of the maiden who returns after each barren winter bringing spring’s abundance.
Though the story has survived, the details of the ritual have never been discovered. The initiates who took part in what we know as the Eleusinian Mysteries were bound to secrecy under pain of death. The Mysteries began in Greece around the first millennium before Christ and continued, spreading into the Roman Empire, until the 4th Century of the Christian Era.
It is believed that the ritual, based on the Demeter /Persephone story, had a three-part theme: the descent (loss), the search and the ascent. Following their arrival in Eleusis, the initiates would have rested, then had a day of fasting to honour the grief of Demeter. The ritual would follow. Calliope points to the earth beneath our feet, telling us that the initiates would descend underground for the ritual. Its focus was the overcoming of any fear of death, though how this was enacted is unknown. But as the ritual was drawing to a close, light would have begun to seep upwards from the underground. Soon after that, the initiates would emerge, radiant with their experience.
The day before our journey to Eleusis, Jean Houston had prepared us for the experience by speaking of the Greek understanding of the need to “die before you die”. As we travelled by bus, Jean led us in a visualization/meditation. We were invited to imagine ourselves entering the underworld, being clothed in earth, masked by earth, resting in death….then asking, “What are the aspects of ourselves that no longer serve us, serve life?” These we name and allow to die…. We remove the mask of earth that covers face and body. We emerge, freed to live more fully, more joyously, set free from the burden of those behaviours, those needs, those fears, that have kept us captive. We rise: quiet, composed, centred, unafraid, ready to love.
Now Calliope directs our gaze upward. High above us sits a small Christian/ Greek Orthodox church. Calliope tells us that a Church dedicated to Mary often hints at a pagan temple to the goddess beneath it. Our guide goes on to say that Christianity in Greece has blended many of the older pagan rituals into itself. On the Feast of the Presentation of Mary, November 21st, there are rites celebrated in that little church dedicated to Mary that contain some aspects of the more ancient Mystery rites.
After Calliope’s introduction, we move further into the site to an ancient cave, its dark mouth appearing to us like an opening to the underworld. Here members of our group have been invited to enact the story of Demeter and Persephone. Peg Rubin, an actor of immense power, co-leading this journey with Jean Houston, plays Demeter. As she pours out her grief for lost Persephone, I am suddenly weeping. Not for Demeter, but for the woman whom I heard interviewed on CBC Radio shortly before l left for Greece. The mother of one of the school girls abducted in Nigeria, she was speaking through a translator of her unbearable grief. Demeter’s words are a cavern taking me into the grief that shrivels the planet today, all the lost daughters, all the grieving mothers living on this earth.
There is a thread, a ribbon of blood-red, that runs through the ancient myth of Demeter and Persephone, through the Eleusinian mysteries, through Mary mother of the Christian era, into our time when our planet’s need for mothering is greater than ever. By whatever name we know her, however we cry out to her, this presence awaits us, runs towards us, arms outstretched.