Birth and Rebirth in the Eleusinian Mysteries

There were 36 of us. We were in Naplion, a small and most beautiful village on the sea in Greece. It was some hours after we had left Eleusis and some eleven days after we had started the descent that is at the core of the Eleusinian Mysteries. This is how it is: rebirth requires descent; this is one of the mysteries. The ascent to another way of being, the ascent of transformation, cannot occur without disintegration, without the process of breaking down completely — being pulverized really, physically, emotionally, spiritually. If the container of self is not smashed, the vision cannot enter. The vision is the flash of light that re-organizes the self. Afterwards, if one is fortunate and graced by the generosity of the gods — one reconstitutes, or is reconstituted, according to the laws and principles of a new life, a new dimension, a new world, a new universe.

This was the month of Boëdromion, September, 1997, the third time that I had with my dear friend and colleague, theatre director, Steven Kent, led the re-enactment of the Eleusinian Mysteries in Greece. The first time was 1980 and it occurred after I had written a play, Dreams Against the State, which is based upon the Mysteries. Steven Kent had been the dramaturge and would direct the play a year later. After the play had been written, I looked at him like a woman possessed — which I was – and said, “She, Demeter, wants her Mysteries revived.”

We didn’t know then what these words meant. We knew that the Mysteries had not been enacted since 396 CE when they had been suppressed by the Christians. We knew that we were being called forth and we would try to answer the call. It took a year of study and research to re-imagine the Mysteries, to create a contemporary form that would be the equivalent journey of transformation, then to bring people to Greece in order to walk in the myth in the way that people had walked repeatedly for over fifteen hundred years.

Once we had enacted the Mysteries that first time, gifted by the presence, for a few days, of the noted archeologist, Marija Gimbutas, we knew that we had entered the domain of the sacred. We felt an obligation to keep the tradition alive. The second time we enacted the Mysteries we were joined as leaders by writer, healer Michael Ortiz Hill and the third time we were joined by actress, director, songwright, Michele George.

In recreating the Mysteries, we had to script a dramatic narrative that would explicitly link the rituals of the nine day event, this most sacred rite of the ancient world, with the myth of the Great Goddess, Demeter, and her daughter, the Kore, the innocent one, the one without a name, who was dragged down to the underworld by Hades, himself, but who, through her own ordeal, ultimately become Persephone, Queen of that realm.. The myth, though only implicit in the enactment of the Mysteries, is the narrative scaffolding that gives spiritual coherence to these ancient rites. Each person, through his or her active participation incorporated the story of the Gods, suffering the sorrow of Demeter and the ordeal of Persephone, enduring separation, loss, descent for the sake of transformation, for the sake of epopteia, of ‘having seen.’

We do not know how the mystes individually experienced the ‘rape’ of the Kore fifteen hundred years ago or whether they would have identified it as such. But each of the contemporary participants were aware of a kind of mythic or internal violation. One participant began wandering the streets of Heraklion and Athens trying to feed all the feral animals, looking in these moments like a beggar woman, herself, or like Demeter inconsolable in her loss of her daughter. Another began howling rage and grief for hours it seemed at a time, a third, a minister, yielded to public pressure and repeated a lewd joke over and over again as if caught in the bridge of jests, a fourth teetered between tears, terror and irritation, a fifth, unused to thinking in terms of synchronicity, spotted a hearse and a dead goat when we were talking about entering the realm of the dead, and another goat giving birth minutes later when we were talking about return. Another who had had second sight lost it as if according with the injunction to enter the underworld with the eyes closed while another found an oracle, the pythoness of Delphi, within herself and saw what others couldn’t see, and so on. One way or another each kore went through his or her own individual disintegration, and then after the vision, after epiphany, returned, but transformed, to his or her own individual and parallel universe, as Persephone had returned to the earth realm of Demeter transformed — reborn, we might say.

But even more than this was at stake when the Mysteries were practiced. When the mystes offered themselves up to the rite of initiation, the gods, as they do everywhere when carefully and consciously evoked, came forth and made themselves known. Persephone was said to have appeared. This was the epiphany. How that occurred we do not exactly know, for participants were prohibited to speak about it on pain of death, and also, the experience was ineffable, meaning it is impossible to put such an experiences into words. Still at the critical moment according to Plutarch, a flash of light, a fire issued from the sanctuary of Eleusis, “a great light burst forth, a fire blazed up.”

What distinguishes any Mystery religion, is that it is based upon mysteries. Its rites and practices take us deeper and deeper into the labyrinth or the underworld where we examine a series of unanswerable and awesome questions and, are, accordingly, altered by this willingness to enter and be worked upon by the elemental forces that live in the domain of the unknown and unknowable. This is not descending into chaos, though it feels chaotic when we are there. It is entering into domains that cannot be understood in the ways we generally seek and convey understanding. It is entering into worlds that operate by different laws altogether. Integrity is required and so we must be reconstituted; this is the way of transformation.

You may not know it to look at us afterwards and we will not have words for it no matter how hard we try, but we will no longer be who we once were. When we are together with citizens of the new world into which we have been born, we recognize this among ourselves. We speak another language. We see what we have not seen before. We enter into dialogue with the spirits of this other world. This is the way and means of initiation. To enter into the mysteries is to be initiated. And to be initiated is to be able to walk in an other dimension.

Kore is pulled down into the underworld. Ultimately, she loses her innocence, gains a name and a Presence. The name is Persephone, Queen of Hades.

This is what is not told in the myth: How did this transformation take place? What actually occurred during those three months in Hades when the innocent nameless one took on the Presence of the Goddess? What are the details of descent, deconstruction, and reconstitution? What do physicists imagine happens to someone who speeds through the worm hole from one dimension or universe to another? What happened to Christ in the three days before the resurrection? Where is the map of initiation that we must follow to shattering and breakdown before we are sufficiently transformed to emerge elsewhere? What is the process through which we are altered so that we can go through the door to the next world?

Time expands in the sacred, becomes infinitely slow, so that we can be altered. I do not remember how long we stayed in the final ritual of birth, rebirth and transformation. This was the equivalent of the eighth of the nine days of the Mysteries, when after walking from Athens to Eleusis, after fasting, sacrifice, purification, prayer, after making offerings, after being broken down through ridicule while crossing the bridge of jests, after the holy event of legomena, things said, dromena, things performed, and things shown, deiknymena, after drinking the kykeon, the sacred drink of the gods, one witnessed the ineffable and was transformed by it.

For us, it was also the culmination of the rites. We had been living the drama of preparation and descent for eleven days. We had just come from Eleusis although we could not stay over night as we would have done two thousand years earlier and where we had had to be discrete in the enactment of ritual. Constrained by the current laws of this world, we were permitted to walk only in the secular world; we were prohibited from enacting there what is required to open the door of myth.

Now the participants or mystes, the ones with eyes closed, gathered to recreate a comparable experience to that unknown drama which had, in the past, occurred in the Telesterion in Eleusis. But now, as was the case with the Eleusinian Mysteries themselves, we are forbidden to say anything more specific here, but that it was our intent to, simultaneously, recapitulate the ordeal of the Mysteries, retell the story of Persephone, and, to perform our own individual stories of descent and vision. We had the task of creating the vision, the flash of light from out of the dark earth of ourselves so that for an instant, for a the moment of epiphany, we would each see and became, the arrhetos koura, the “ineffable maiden,” the dark Queen.

It was inevitable as we re-entered the myth and the rituals, the moments of being dragged down, held captive, struggling for release and finally bursting forth in flames, the intense concentration of our particular individual agonies and ordeals, the disintegration and reconstitution that we each individually experienced, that we would become both “Brimo the queen of the dead giving birth in fire” and her mighty son, Brimos, and so, emerge like Dionysus, who is also central to these Mysteries, reborn, twice born.

That is we were new born and we were ancient. To fully negotiate the domain of Persephone, to carry the wisdom and insight of the underworld, to be able to live according to the dark vision of Hades is to be as old as it is possible to be. Yet to be suddenly reconstituted in this new plane is to be reborn, and to be reborn is to be new and innocent; it cannot be any other way.
At this point in the Mysteries, one begins the long climb back to the earthy realm of the Mother, of Demeter, carrying the old wisdom like a great fire, or a small seed that will be planted again. But the one who carries such insight and vision into Demeter’s world, can neither be the Kore, the innocent one, nor Persephone of Hades. And though the Eleusinian Mysteries are the rites of Demeter, the earth goddess does not, herself, descend into the underworld. There is only one who incorporates all the worlds at once: She is Hekate, the goddess of child birth and death, the old one who, it is said, led Persephone out of Hades and who, from then on, never left her side, following her in the endless cycle of descent and rebirth. Hekate, the old one, who is by her nature constituted around the Kore as a seed within herself. Hekate who mediates between and contains all the worlds at once. Hekate, the Three in One, the Triple Goddess incarnate. The constantly shifting dynamic, the co-existence and co-extension of all the realms, is Hekate’s esoteric and embodied domain.

The next day we had seemingly returned to a familiar world. We took showers and ate breakfast. We looked the same if you didn’t look too closely. We gathered together in a circle in order to tell a story that we could not have heard or understood until this moment, because we had to understand it with the intelligence of the new beings we had become. The old way of thinking had been obliterated. History had fallen away and myth constituted itself as the way of being and knowing of this realm.

The youngest member of our group, Colleen, whose name, incidentally means girl, had been planting seeds of sacred corn that we had brought to the ruins of Eleusis which are located in an area so environmentally polluted by industry that it suffers a shockingly high incidence of birth defects. Colleen Wimmer, was, like the rest of us, also praying for rain in a time of drought. Hye Kye, Rain, Be Fertile, are final incantations which mark the end of the Mysteries. [In 1980, our prayers, had, in a dry season, been answered with rain.] Colleen was with a friend, an archeologist, Constance Piesinger, who has worked in the Middle East and whose current interests take her passionately to unearthing the presence of the Goddess in all her manifestations. They were performing this ritual in the ruins of the Telesterion, the ancient temple, the holy of holies, exactly where the final mysteries had been enacted and the epiphany of the Goddess had occurred. A seed fell between the stones and Colleen reached for it because each seed was precious and we were trying to enact of miracle of rejuvenation, of rebirth, let us say. She reached down between the stones and brought up the seed and a small piece of pottery. Constance knew immediately that it was old. Very old. It seemed not to be a shard, but something intact. Something, but what? Constance would not dare say.

We brought it to the resident archeologist who, engaged in another conversation, wearily assured us that nothing was going to be discovered in Eleusis. Everything which was to be discovered had been long ago been discovered by teams of archeologists who had scoured the area. Accordingly, she did not object to us using the piece of pottery in our closing circle; we passed it from hand to hand with seemingly benighted, most innocent veneration. It was when we had almost completed the circle, that the archeologist named for the one of the muses, the ‘beautiful voiced, Calliope, interrupted us and asked to see the piece. Holding it reverently in her hands, she cried out in joy and disbelief that we were in the presence of a miracle, a word she was not given to using. And we, she insisted, with our rituals, had called the miracle forth.

It was a votive figure from the very first years of the celebrations of the Mysteries. It was an icon of Persephone that had been brought to Eleusis as a gift to the Goddess by mystes like ourselves. A goddess brought to the Goddess as an offering, as a ritual of gratitude and invocation. The appearance of the Goddess in the form of a small figure exactly at the place where the Goddess had been known to appear for at least 1500 years. The appearance of the Goddess at the sacred site at the moment when we had begun the enactment of the last moments of the Mysteries – the appearance of the Goddess, just as the Goddess was said to appear when the Hierophant would have displayed ineffable things.

We had enacted the Mysteries. We had followed the demand of Demeter, who, after the return of her daughter to the realm of earth, gave three gifts to the world: instruction in the sowing of grains, and the injunctions that her temple be built and that the Mysteries be practiced. And this is what occurred: the Goddess appeared. As it had been in the past, it occurred again. Vision. Revelation. And so we were initiated. And so we were reborn. And so we were altered. And so we began to live in the other world where the Gods and the humans often walk on the same path, speaking with each other.

This is the story, but what it means can only be known by those who lived it out. The story that unfolded in the secular world is of another nature altogether from the revelation of the mythic realm. On the deepest levels, this story can be understood only by those who have been reborn, that is born into a realm constituted from the reality of such events. According to physicists, the vision of our three or four-dimensional world would be quite different to the invisible beings who might inhabit the fifth, the sixth, the tenth or the 22nd dimension. We think we see things as they are, but we cannot see what can be seen from other dimensions. And we cannot see that we cannot see; we cannot imagine it.

Initiation is a two-fold act. Risking everything, we step forward toward the gods and so the gods step toward us. The second time we had re-enacted the Mysteries, we were returning on the bus to our hotel during a surprising and unseasonable rain storm at the very very end of our pilgrimage; I was reading the earlier mentioned passage from Plutarch about a flash of light emerging from the darkness when a flash of lightning struck a haystack which burst into flames streaking upwards. The light of one world entering another, the fires joining while we were, accordingly, illuminated.

Psyche, after extraordinary trials including descending into the underworld, opened the vial containing the secret of Beauty she had beseeched from Persephone on behalf of Aphrodite and swooned away only to awaken in another realm, among the immortals, the bride of Eros who had pitied and rescued her. Her swooning, her death here, so that she could be reborn elsewhere. Over there. In that other dimension where the gods live.

It was said that those who once enacted the Mysteries would gain their immortal souls in this world and in the next. To gain a soul is to gain the ability to walk in two worlds, to be admitted to that other dimension inhabited by the gods. The only way across is the arduous and mysterious path of dying to what one was and is so that one can be reborn.