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The Eleusinian Mysteries: The Cycle of the Seasons

The Eleusinian Mysteries was one of the earliest, longest lasting, and most popular cults. It went on for a thousand years, and among its number were the likes of Emperor Augustus. In Greek times, the mysteries took place in Eleusis, but when the Greeks were conquered and Mystery Religions were taken up all over the world, it obviously was no longer restricted. The Eleusinian Mysteries reenacted and celebrated the story of Demeter and Persephone (Brown).

Demeter was the goddess of harvest, and Persephone was her daughter. Persephone was abducted by Hades and dragged into the underworld; he intended to make her his bride by hook or by crook. Distraught, Demeter wandered the world in search. Upon discovering what happened to her daughter, Demeter made an icy frost come across the land, and she would not let the world renew itself. Deciding this business had gone on long enough, Zeus struck a compromise between Hades and Demeter: Persephone must spend four months each year with Hades in the underworld, but during the remainder of the year, she could stay with her mother.

The Greeks would reenact this story primarily with women. The actual performance was withheld from the public, but everyone could come from all around to watch the procession to the sea to bathe the candidates or the procession's march from Athens to Eleusis. "The participants hoped to obtain a 'better lot,' a more glorious immortality in the next world, this apparently not a reward of virtue, but rather by assimilation of resurrective powers" (Noss 49-50).

Riley says that upon initiation, the initiate was presented with an ear of grain, a symbol representing life, death, and rebirth. By growing close to Demeter, one might get her to exercise this power over birth and death (146). Riley also points out how fundamental this symbol was to Christianity as well: Jesus says, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains that and nothing more; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest" (John 12:24 REB). Echoing this idea, speaking to deniers of the resurrection, Paul says, "The seed you sow does not come to life unless it has first died; and what you sow is not the body that shall be, but a bare grain, of wheat perhaps, or something else" (1 Corinthians 36-37 REB).

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