Thoughts on Plato & Demeter’s Mysteries at Eleusis

tetradrachm_of_syros_head_demeter_200_bce_bmfa

Plato’s Great Vision in Demeter’s Temple at Eleusis
Illustration: Portrait of Demeter: Tetradrachm of Syros, 200 BCE

“Plato tells us that beyond this ephemeral and imperfect existence here below, there is another Ideal world of Archetypes, where the original, the true, the beautiful Pattern of things exists for evermore. Poets and philosophers for millennia have pondered and discussed his conception. It is clear to me where Plato found his ‘Ideas’; it was clear to those who were initiated into the Mysteries among his contemporaries too. Plato had drunk of the potion in the Temple of Eleusis and had spent the night seeing the great Vision.”

from “The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries,” pp. 29-30, by R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Carl A. P. Ruck, Huston Smith (2008)
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Demeter & Persephone’s Gift of Mystic Riches

“Just as initiation at Eleusis transformed the individual so that he would achieve salvation in the afterworld, the initiation of the philosophic theôros [contemplative], Plato claims, purifies and transforms the soul and guarantees it a blessed destiny. Plato’s philosopher, then, has much in common with the initiate at the Mysteries: in both cases, the theôros ‘sees’ a divine revelation that transforms […the] soul.”

from “The Philosopher at the Festival: Plato’s Transformation of Traditional Theôria.” in Elsner and Rutherford 2005, p.176, by A. Wilson-Nightingale.
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Prayer for Riches: Outer & Inner Side

“[In] the concluding prayer of Socrates [in the Phaedrus] the philosopher asks Pan and the other gods of the place to give him mystic ‘riches’ (279b8-c3). The ambiguous language of the prayer is typical of mystery ritual: it makes full sense only for the initiated, whereas the uninitiated cannot understand it. So, ‘the other gods’ venerated at the river Ilissus are Achelous, Hermes, and the Nymphs, while for the initiate they are Demeter and Persephone. The requested ‘riches’ (c.f. plousios, 270cI) are twofold as well: they have an outer and an inner side, a material and a spiritual connotation, like the mystic wealth (ploutos) of the initiate described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.” [L-486-489]

from “Plato as Author: the Rhetoric of Philosophy,” p.183, by Ann N. Michelini (2003)
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Tablets of the Great Mother

“Plutarch restates the ancient idea which found early expression in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and reiterated by Plato in the Phaedo: those who arrive in Hades unitiated will wallow in the mud, while those intiated (into the Eleusinian mysteries) will dwell with the gods. The same notion is repeated time and again in the texts inscribed on gold tablets which accompanied mystai, Dionysiac or Orphic, to the grave and were believed to guide their souls on their last journeys. The change in the mustê’s destiny underwent so dramatic a change that it could be perceived as an apotheosis, ‘Once human, you have become a god’ [θεος εγενου εξ[.] ανθρωπoυ] is the inscription on one of the tablets.”

from “Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind: Descending Underground in the Search for the Ultimate Truth,” p.228, by Yulia Ustinova (2009)
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Persephone’s Spring Mysteries

“Modern science explains the changes of the natural world by the hypothesis of certain unconscious forces; and the sum of these forces, in their combined action, constitutes the scientific conception of nature. But, side by side with the growth of this more mechanical conception, an older and more spiritual, Platonic philosophy has always maintained itself, a philosophy more of instinct than of the understanding, the mental starting-point of which is not an observed sequence of outward phenomena, but some such feeling as most of us have on the first warmer days in spring, when we seem to feel the genial processes of nature actually at work; as if just below the mould, and in the hard wood of the trees, there were really circulating some spirit of life, akin to that which makes its energies felt within ourselves. Starting with a hundred instincts such as this, that older unmechanical, spiritual, or Platonic, philosophy envisages nature rather as the unity of a living spirit or person, revealing itself in various degrees to the kindred spirit of the observer, than as a system of mechanical forces.”

from “The Myth of Demeter and Persephone,” in “Greek Studies: a Series of Essays, pg. 96, by Walter Pater (1875 / 1920)
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On Spiral Symbolism — Metaphysical Realities

“The function of symbolism is to go beyond the ‘limitation of the fragment’ and link the different ‘parts’ of the whole or alternatively the worlds in which these parts manifest: these worlds are successive windings of the spiral. Each symbol is a link on the same ‘cosmic rhythm’ or different planes of reality. […] We, like Plato’s prisoners in the cave, can see merely the shadows of the real objects, which themselves are only the manifestations of the Ideas and Archetypes (or Immutable Essences). In other words, even the ‘originals,’ let alone the physical manifestation of nature, are but symbols of the metaphysical realities….”

from “The Mystic Spiral, Journey of the Soul, ” p. 10, by Jill Purce (1974)
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To See, Oneself, Directly — to See!

“As Aristotle wrote when describing the sights one viewed at the Eleusinian Mysteries, “to experience (physically) is to learn” (pathein mathein [παθείν μαθεĩν] fragment 15). Vision was central not simply to the learning experienced at the Mysteries, but also to such institutions as the Athenian drama that reached its height in Plato’s youth. Even the word theory, which for us today has the most abstract and disembodied meaning, in the fourth century [BCE] had quite a concrete meaning: it meant to travel as a pilgrim to a religious site to see (theaomai) things related to the gods and to the sacred realm.”

from “Diotima and Demeter as Mystagogues in Plato’s Symposium” (in Hypatia, Volume 21, Number 2), p. 19. by Nancy Evans (2006)
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Synthesis: Recollection of “Archetypes” Initiates the Mysteries

“One must needs understand the language of Forms, collecting many sense impressions into a unity […] and remembering a knowledge we beheld aforetime. […] Whoever employs such memories rightly is always being initiated into perfect mysteries and alone becomes truly perfect.”

from the “Phaedrus / Φαῖδρος”
(sec. 249 b-c), by Plato (ca. 370 BCE)
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Seeing Persephone

“When the Hekate of our Hymn reports to Demeter and Demeter to Helios what they know of the abduction of Persephone, they both tell of receiving information by ear but having failed to see what happened. Later, when Demeter proffers her demand that Persephone be returned to the surface of the earth, she swears to withhold the fruits of the earth until she has seen her daughter with her own eyes. […] Visual clarity is an ideal and influences the way many [ancient] Greeks think about reality. […] For Plato, what is real in an object is its eidos, translated sometimes as form and sometimes as idea, but essentially it is the surface of an object, whose visual form can then be grasped as an idea, a concept. […] The culminating rite of the Eleusinian Mysteries is called the Epopteria which means the things that have been seen. […] What Demeter demands of the gods will be fulfilled in the presence of the participants of her rite — her daughter must be seen as she emerges from the darkness of the underworld.” [L-409]

from “Persephone Unveiled: Seeing the Goddess and Freeing Your Soul,” p. 30, by Charles Stein (2006)
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More on the meaning of Anodos

Meanings of ἄνοδος [ἄν-οδος, anodos, “way up”] include, e.g., the ascent to the acropolis at Athens, also a celebration on the first (or second) day of Demeter’s Thesmophoria — also refers to a journey inland, to ascend from the sea, and metaphorically (Plato) return of a being to its true self or original source = enlightenemnt.

~ see Thesaurus Linguae Graecae
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Gender Issues in Greek Literature, Plato, Demeter and Sappho

“Classical literature, far more explicitly than much later Western literature until the 19th century, virtually begs us to ask questions about gender. Plato and Aristotle confronted such issues directly. Most Greek comedies and tragedies commonly taught put gender at the heart of the plot and allow their female characters to challenge male authority and assumptions. […] What is largely missing, however, is a female perspective that could provide a glimpse of what ancient women meant to each other and the concerns that were of the greatest significance to them. Although we have very little to go on in this respect, the fragments of the poet Sappho have of late been successfully taught in translation to a broad general audience. In my view the text that can best supplement Sappho in putting the experience of ancient women and its symbolic importance into some perspective is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.”

from “The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Translation, Commentary and Interpretive Essays,” p. xi, by Helene P. Foley (1994)
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Ancient Greek Hymn to Demeter
English & Ancient Greek, Illustrations, Commentary

Hymn to Demeter: Connections with Sappho as Author

sappho_lyre_delaunay
Illustration: Sappho Kissing her Lyre, by Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891)

Ancient Greek Hymn to Demeter (7th c. BCE):

Arguments for Sappho as Author

“According to Ann Suter, a woman may have composed this anonymous hymn. The focus on Demeter’s power, Persephone’s coming of age, and the mother-daughter relationship, as well as the de-emphasis of Zeus, may point in that direction. We know that female poets [during the 7th-6th c. BCE], such as Sappho and Korinna, composed dactylic hexameter verses. In examining the Hymn to Aphrodite, Richard Janko notes a number of verbal parallels between its opening and Sappho’s epicizing narrative of the wedding of Hektor and Andromache. Korinna says she reworks ‘stories from our fathers’ time’ and sings of ‘heroes male and female.’ It is possible that other women composed hymns or epic verse, although their performance venues certainly would be more limited than those for traditional bardic poetry.”

from “The Homeric Hymns, Translation, Introduction & Notes,” p. 11,
by Diane J. Rayor (2004)
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Ann Suter: on The Female Poet of the Hymn to Demeter

“Until now, most work on female authorship in the ancient world has been on lyric poets, for the excellent reason that very little in other meters by women has survived to us. But we know that women composed in other meters; we know that they composed in the epic hexameter. We know that women entered musical competitions, and we know that they composed for performance at women’s festivals and for the cults of goddesses. There is, in short, no a priori reason why a woman should not have composed the HDem.
[…]
“Richardson notes as well, that ‘[m]any words and forms are found in the Hymn which do not occur in Homer, Hesiod, or other early epic (Hymns, Cycle, inscriptions, etc.).’ He lists peculiarities in diction, formulae, forms, usage, and the treatment of the digamma. Could this wide-ranging difference from its companions in Archaic hexameter indicate that the Hymn is part of a separate female tradition, another strain of the oral tradition? Skinner suggests the possibility of such a female poetic inheritance in the lyric tradition, and O’Higgins one for iambic poetry. There perhaps existed such in the hexameter tradition also, if the HDem. is any guide.
[…]
“It has long been noted, but never explained, that there are no clear and unambiguous references to the Hymn in literature until the post-Classical period, ‘no direct mention of the Homeric Hymn and scarcely anything which can reasonably be identified even as a reminiscence or echo of it’ in classical literature. Likewise, the myth of Persephone’s abduction and Demeter’s wanderings in search of her seems unknown to Attic vase painters until the second half of the 5th century, and even then, references seem to be to a version different from the Hymn’s. If the Hymn, and the core story upon which it is based, were the work of women, and performed only at all-women’s festivals, it is quite understandable that it would not be readily available to the eyes and ears of a male public and included in their artistic productions, especially given its depiction of Zeus.”

from “Beyond the Limits of Lyric, The Female Poet of the Hymn to Demeter,”
by Ann Suter, Kernos 18 (2005)
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More Signs of Sappho as a Possible Author for the Hymn

“[A]fter Demeter has instructed the men of Eleusis in the establishment of the Mysteries, she and Persephone go to Olympos “for the company of the other gods. There they dwell beside Zeus” who is (still) delighting in his thunder (L-484-485). The poet then praises the goddesses, invokes them once more, and asks for their gifts in return for her song. This ending is an excellent example of what Skinner [in Greene, “Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches,” 1996] describes in Sappho: “In none of these texts does Sappho close her eyes to the ontological reality of the masculine order. She recognizes it, as a prior and controlling presence, but still avows the ethical superiority of her nonnormative subject position, her radically woman-centered approach to existence.”

from “Beyond the Limits of Lyric, The Female Poet of the Hymn to Demeter,”
by Ann Suter, Kernos 18 (2005)
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Sappho as “Myth-Weaver”

“According to Maximus of Tyre (Greek, 2nd. c. A.D.), “Socrates called love a Sophist, Sappho a myth-weaver (μυθόπλοκος).” ~ (Sappho, Fragment #188)

from Greek Lyric: Sappho and Alcaeus, edited and translation
by David Campbell (1982)
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Female Sexuality as a Cosmic Force

“The most striking feature of this myth is the way it reinforces the idea of sexuality as a cosmic force by associating it with two goddesses and portraying it as a world-shattering power. Agricultural fertility, and potentially human life, is temporarily destroyed by Demeter’s mourning and Persephone’s annual disappearance from and return to the earth is also linked with the cycle of vegetation.”

from Sappho’s Immortal Daughters
by Margaret Williamson, p.112 (1993)
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Sappho, Aphrodite and Demeter’s Mysteries

“In poem (fr. 2) Sappho summons Aphrodite to her temple in a grove of apple trees. In this shrine the goddess is asked to ‘pour gracefully into golden cups nectar that is mingled with the festivities.’ […] What is remarkable is the claim of these young women also to be ‘companions’ of Aphrodite and the degree of intimacy suggested by the goddess pouring nectar for them. […] One may…compare the figure of Demeter, who in the Hymn to Demeter serves as a nurse to the mortal child Demophoôn. Foley (1993, p.88) observes that this humanizes the goddess and prepares for her role in the Mysteries.”

Making Silence Speak: Women’s Voices in Greek Literature and Society,
edited by André Lardinois, Laura McClure, (2001, pp 77-78)
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Gender Issues in Greek Literature, Demeter and Sappho

“Classical literature, far more explicitly than much later Western literature until the 19th century, virtually begs us to ask questions about gender. Plato and Aristotle confronted such issues directly. Most Greek comedies and tragedies commonly taught put gender at the heart of the plot and allow their female characters to challenge male authority and assumptions. […] What is largely missing, however, is a female perspective that could provide a glimpse of what ancient women meant to each other and the concerns that were of the greatest significance to them. Although we have very little to go on in this respect, the fragments of the poet Sappho have of late been successfully taught in translation to a broad general audience. In my view the text that can best supplement Sappho in putting the experience of ancient women and its symbolic importance into some perspective is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.”

from “The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Translation, Commentary, Interpretive Essays,” p. xi, by Helene P. Foley (1994)

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Ancient Greek Hymn to Demeter
English & Ancient Greek, Illustrations, Commentary

Transcendent Wisdom in the Hymn to Demeter

prajnaparamita_transcendent_wisdom Illustration left: Prajñāpāramitā, Singhasari, East Java

Transcendent Wisdom (Intuitive Understanding) is an idea personified in Buddhism as a buddha-like goddess named Prajñāpāramitā, illustrated left, seated in a lotus position. She is similar to the Greek goddesses who incarnate various archetypes, for instance, Aphrodite, who personifies the archetype of Love.

What is the intuitive meaning of the Goddess Demeter — her transcendent wisdom — what are the values or concepts Demeter personifies in the ancient Greek understanding? First and foremost she represents her name literally, Demeter — God the Mother, as both Mother Nature and the protector of nature, because her seed, her daughter, Persephone, represents the life energy, the Viriditas (as Hildegard of Bingen calls it) the greening of the Earth in Spring.  And thus it is this very life spring Demeter seeks to rescue and protect throughout the Hymn. In modern times, Demeter represents the ecological idea of conservation of the fecundity of all life on Earth.

In order to journey into the deeper meanings of the Greek goddesses, here primarily Demeter and Persephone, we first need to conceive this whole idea of the personification of ideas, which we can only do intuitively.  In other words, we don’t have a scientific measuring rod, it just seems intuitively possible that an idea could be personified in the form of a mythological being.  It can happen also in our daily lives that we undergo experiences which teach us intuitively the meaning of an archetype.  For instance, if we are set free from a difficult situation, we thereby get to know what Freedom is, and in that sense we incarnate freedom directly into our life experience, not only by way of intellectual reasoning.

As we journey through the Hymn to Demeter, we find the author has included a variety of archetypes personified by the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, including differing perspectives as regards what they represent as mother and daughter together, in contrast to what they personify separately as individuals. With Persephone at her side, Demeter is the Great Mother, for instance, but in ancient Greece she also represented grain and the great harvest. Demeter demonstrates enormous ability in the Hymn to dialogue with women as equals, and to unite with and to work with them individually and in groups.  These women include, in their order of appearance:  Persephone, Hecate, Callidice, Cleisidice, Demo, Callithoe, Metenaira, Iambe [Baubo], Iris, and Rhea. The Hymn to Demeter must be making a statement of some kind as regards female solidarity or what we would name as feminism.  Is Demeter, then, a feminist? Yes, very definitely, it is part of her persona, even including the anger she must tap into and transform in order to make a lasting change for the good.

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Ancient Greek Hymn to Demeter
English & Ancient Greek, Illustrations, Commentary