There are many versions of the Mother and Maiden myth mostly seeming to be from a late period and to show the illustrious antecedents of later gods and ruling families. This essay will try to focus on what has always been the central core of the story of the Two- fold Goddess and how it remains relevant to women still. This is the mystery of womanhood, the mystery of birth. Only women give birth and historically it was often a perilous experience of pain and even death. Truly the veil between life and death was thin with souls moving readily between the two. This is the mystery of the two-fold goddesses of life and death. These mysteries and those of the childbed were places only women went and the mysteries could give instruction to young women.
The Mysteries of Eleusis, also known as the Thesmophoria, were held all over Greece by women only. Herodotus called it the Feast of Demeter. It is associated with the season of sowing and as in California the wet season. It occurred just prior to the full moon in October often designated as October 11, 12 and 13. October 11 was called the Downgoing and Uprising, October 12 was the Fasting and October 13 was the Fair-Birth. The secrets of these rituals were kept so well that little is known of the details of their content. We rely on vase paintings and bits and pieces of commentaries that appear in classical writers.
Kore who is also Persephone went away with Hades (Zeus of the Underworld, or in some versions as Zeus disguised as a snake). Demeter, the mother of Kore grieved great tears for the loss of her daughter and searched the world leaving the fields fruitless and barren. (Later this became called a rape and when the Dorians invaded Greece they assuredly killed the men and raped and 'married' the women. So that left the women to carry on as the conservers and teachers of tradition to the children.) Two gods watched the abduction, Helios and Hecate. Hecate told Demeter she had heard her cry; she is also known as Persephone's attendant, more of her later. Incidentally and continuously adhering to the story is that a swine herd named Eubouleus also went into the gapping cleft in the earth (known as a megara) through which Kore-Persephone had gone. (Could the Lord of the Otherworld have once been a caretaker of pigs?) His mother is called Baubo and also figures in a story associated with Demeter and lewd jokes designed to make her laugh out of her grief. Finally the Classical version of the story has Zeus interceding and getting Persephone returned for part of the year since she has eaten part of a pomegranate in the Underworld. The eating of the fruit also explains the paradox of how she can be both Queen of the Otherworld and Kore, the daughter.
The mystery of Eleusis can be taken in three parts to correspond with the three days of the rites, roughly into 1) the descent, 2) the fasting, and 3) the return. Shrines to Greek underworld-earth gods were usually natural clefts or trenches called megara. Kore, the swineherd and pigs all went down into a megara. As Kore went into a cleft with Plouton, we see traditions of pigs being thrown down into the "Chasms of Demeter and Kore." At the beginning of the rites, one ancient writer states that a voice called out to the pilgrims "To the sea ye mystics." There also seems to be evidence that this apparent purification rite applied to the piglets the pilgrims brought as offerings and they all bathed together. This also reminds me that Poseidon, the god of the sea, was originally a god of plants and a partner to Demeter. (He was later pushed aside by Zeus and Dionysus, a father-son pair.)
On the second day is the fasting. It is important to note that in many of the vase paintings the images of Demeter and Persephone look almost indistinguishable. Plutarch says that in Athens "the women fast at the Thesmophoria seated on the ground." A vase painting shows Demeter sitting on the ground with her knees up and open, approaching her are smaller people bearing gifts. Another vase painting is described as Demeter as sitting on the great mystery basket. Demeter is also described as sitting on the 'Smileless Stone' weeping. The pose of Demeter with her knees up and apart seems to be a pose for child birth. The great mystery basket may be a birthing chair. Instead of the woman on the basket being Demeter, I propose that it is Persephone giving birth. She has gone into the megara, has lost her maidenhood not by losing her virginity, but by becoming a mother. A woman with no child was known as a maiden at any age. The concept of virginity is much more important to a man who wishes to prove his paternity than to a woman who always knows who her mother was. The mystery of sex is important to both men and women, but the mystery of birth is more important to women, if only because it can be life threatening.
The story of Hecate as the attendant to Persephone and the one who heard her cry out makes good sense in this context. Hecate was the guardian of childbirth and escorted souls across the boundary between the Otherworld and the world of the living. Hecate was also knowledgeable in the use of drugs. Perhaps she brought the poppies associated with Persephone to ease her pain of delivery, as they eased the transition into death. Another herb associated with the mysteries was pennyroyal, an important component of the kykeon. Pennyroyal can bring on labor as well as cause abortion. Perhaps women learned herbs to help with planning the spacing of their children. Another plant (Agnas castus) was used to strew the couches of the fasting women and used to keep off snakes that might attack the women in their booths and to which they might especially be exposed. This is an odd custom, but might be symbolic of male intrusions during the Mystery Night. Jane Harrison suggests that the sacred objects that were laid down in the megara were representations of snakes; another possibility is that the objects represented genitalia. At some point during the mysteries the women used bad language to abuse one another and they made a contest of scurrilous jests. (This is reminiscent of the bawdy jokes that Baubo, the swineherd's mother used with Demeter.) While there may be much pain and weeping during childbirth, the enactment of it might include jokes about sex and genitals. If Hermes was represented at crossroads in a phallic form, then Hecate might have been represented like a Sheila-na-gig with a large vulva where a road branches or three roads meet. (However no female genitalia figures have been found in Greece.) Some authors mention that a priest and a priestess may have coupled in the dark during this second day.
The second day was a day of fasting. This did not mean no food, but no meat and certain other foods. The fasting women were able to eat grains and other 'gentle foods.' The kykeon was probably made with barley water or a thin gruel, pennyroyal (a mint), honey and perhaps some fruit. At the end of the rites of Eleusis the initiates declare, "I fasted, I drank the kykeon, I took from the chest, I put back into the basket and from the basket into the chest." The handling of the sacred objects was a part of the rite. Were the objects images of snakes, or genitalia, or a baby? There is a vase painting showing the torches of the Underworld near a box with a child in it and two snakes on either side of it. Another one of the quoted things said at the rites was "Holy Brimo, a child is born in fire." Hecate is also known as Brimo. The fire may have been the use of sterile techniques in childbirth. There is also the story of Demeter who was being the nurse for an ancestor of an aristocratic family. She tried to make the baby into a god or hero by passing him through the fire, but she was interrupted before she could complete the process.
On the third day aged pig remains were drawn up and mixed with seeds for planting. New-born pigs were a cheap and abundant sacrifice; another possibility could be that placenta were used as a magical fertilizer. The remains were apparently replaced by "those well-known images" of things unnamed. Archeologists have found a crypt containing swine bones and large marble statues of pigs in Greece. Megara are "underground dwellings of the two goddesses," a place where sacred objects are put down. The last day of the mysteries was of the fair-birth or fair-born. Kore was also known as the fair-born daughter of earth. She carried a thyrsis, a wand topped with a pine-cone. Fir and pine-cones were also put into megaras. The fair-birth was also involved with the sowing of grain.
The three seasons of the Greek year may correspond to the three days of the rite. Those who dwell in the West (the Greeks) were said to "call the Winter Kronos, the Summer Aphrodite and the Spring Persephone and from Kronos and Aphrodite all things take their birth." With the spring belonging to Persephone, it makes sense that she should return to the earth for that season. The pomegranate is her symbol and reason to be both in this world and the Otherworld. Down in the depths we find the miracle of birth and the brush with death. Deep within life is generated and pushed up. This is the initiation into life and death. Who is born like the grain that provides us with life? The great mystery is that Kore is born again from the mother who is both Persephone (the Transforming One) and Demeter (the Fruitful One).
This work is copyright The Witches Trine and Glenn Turner, 1995. All rights reserved.
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