My sister Patti’s cottage sits on a hillside thickly braided with pines and deciduous trees. It could be a fairy tale forest, but this is no time for tales. Sitting here on the deck we cannot see the sand shore, but gaze beyond the tops of trees to where Lake Huron shivers in silver light. It’s the Summer Solstice of 2014. If we look to our right up through the tallest branches, we see the sky blushing from soft blue to delicate pink, deepening to rose madder, mirroring our thoughts, fading with longest day into night.
But this is not where the story begins. Come back with me to early May, 2014, to Greece. Stand with me on stones that predate the Christian era in an open theatre-like space in Eleusis, twenty kilometres beyond Athens. The grey rocks around us sprout blood red poppies, fiercely alive, dancing in the cool breeze, nourished by no visible earth.
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, spent 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.
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, plays Demeter.
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 myself that no longer serve me, 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.
Eleusis is the first of many journeys into the myths, the wisdom, the mysteries of ancient Greece. As the days unfold, I come to know the truth of words I found during a Canadian Authors’ poetry workshop in Ottawa before I travelled to Greece.
This poem was composed of lines chosen at random from several different books of poetry.
Greek light startles
the warm appreciation of one being for another
every life long or short is a pilgrimage
under the wide and starry sky
sea salt scouring my body
old skins shed
kindled by the tangelo sun
ignite into life
On the long journeys across mainland Greece the poem unfolds for me like a prophecy, except for the “warm appreciation”…
As our bus moves with the surprising grace of a large elephant, skimming edges of cliffs that hover above olive groves and waters of an impossible turquoise, we pass the time creating poetry, reading it aloud to our companions over the microphone.
The young man with the young name, Josh, exudes the relaxed arrogance that only the young can carry off with charm. His poem is a mockery of the ancient archaeological sites, the stunning beauty, the fairy tale wonder that others have been praising.
I whisper to my companion: “That young man needs to be broken open!”
Ever-confident, Josh takes the mike the following day to chide us for our comments on his frequent cigarette breaks. Yes, he knows we care about him, but he’s serving notice that our advice will only deepen his determination to continue smoking.
When, on the third morning, Josh again takes the mike, I’m fuming without the help of cigarettes.
“I had a dream last night,” he begins. “A friend came into my dream, talking really fast. He was really excited, with something important he needed to tell me. I couldn’t make out what he was saying.
” When I woke up there was a text message. My friend had died overnight in an accident. Then I understood what he’d been trying to tell me: It’s so much easier on this side. All the pain, all the suffering is only while we are alive. But afterwards, everything is good.”
Greek. Light. Startles.
Later that morning, as we’re walking down the stony hillside path towards the ruins of the Temple of Athena, I encounter Josh. No words come to me as our eyes meet, so I reach out to hug him. He holds me with a gentle strength, as though I were the one needing comfort.
“It’s OK,” he says. “Really. I’m OK with this. It’s a gift.”
It’s not a text message but a phone call that wakens me in my home in the Ottawa Valley, the day following my return from Greece. My sister, my beloved Patti, has had a return of cancer. There is no medical hope. She has perhaps three months to live.
So that’s why I’m here with her on the deck of her cottage, her holy sacred place, on the Summer Solstice. Why we are caught up in the beauty of the sunset. Why we have so few words.
Patti speaks quietly.” I’m afraid. What is death like?”
I say, “Let me tell you about Josh, the young man I met on our Greece Tour.”