In February, the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated in ancient Greece. These were as secretive as the Greater Mysteries, which took place in, it’s believed, September. What is known is that participants in the Lesser Mysteries sacrificed piglets and ritually purified themselves in the river Illisos.
Pale, beyond porch and portal,
Crowned with calm leaves, she stands
Who gathers all things mortal
With cold immortal hands.
–Charles Swinburne, The Garden of Proserpine
This is the time when old Hekate fetches the Underworld queen. When Persephone removes her robes, her golden brown mushroom cloak, her jewels mined from between the walls of Tartarus, her crowning wreath. When Hekate takes her hand and accompanies her to the Pool of Memory, where Persephone discards recollections of her regency and maturity, and prepares to return to maidenhood. She will reclaim her memories on the autumn journey home.
Hekate and Persephone will walk past Cerberus, then slowly, slowly Charon will row them across the river Styx. With her first step into the Upperworld, Persephone will transform into the Kore. The girl. Vernal and new. Green and misty. Yielding. Tender and temporary.
This is the time when Demeter, goddess of barley and bees, awakens. When she watches Kore stride faster and faster toward her. When her breasts express a torrent of nourishment that will feed the land and the fields will flourish.
Now mother and daughter embrace. Now Spring has arrived.
The bond between mothers and daughters is thought to have been one focal point in the Lesser Mysteries. The barest signs of Spring indicate the mother’s excitement. Persephone leaves her home, her duties, her womanhood in order to become a girl again at her mother’s side (and don’t we all revert to childhood in the presence of our mothers?).
Persephone is New Crop, First Fruit, bud and blossom. She arrives and in the Homeric poem, Hymn to Demeter, all that first day long, the sun shines as Mother and Daughter “bask in each other’s presence …, receive joy and give joy, one to the other.”
Persephone seems to have ruled equally with her husband Hades, pale King of Shades, a shady, shadowy character indeed. While Hades was virtually ignored in worship, and barely appears in myth, the Greeks raised temples to Persephone, as comforter to the dying, guide to the dead, and guardian of midwives (while Demeter was thought to protect mothers). It is said that her name was never to be revealed to those uninitiated at the Mystery celebrations; she was “the unspeakable girl,” spoken of in euphemisms. Sometimes she was called “Murder,” sometimes “Dread,” always “Mighty.”
The myth of Demeter and Persephone has offered the Western world ample interpretations about the relationship between mothers and daughters. The meanings of the myths seem unlimited. Persephone’s liberation from her mother creates the ground in which the season can flourish. Life, therefore, is stimulated and made potent.
When initiates — called mystai, many the maidens of Artemis — completed the Lesser Mysteries, they were eligible to witness the Greater.