Mythic Wisdom: A Greek Author’s Perspective

Connecting the past with the present has always been a powerful experience for me, maybe because I live in a land rich in history. In this blog I am going to explore a variety of topics, which I find deeply meaningful: women’s roles, gender and sexuality issues, activism, goddesses and gods, etc. By examining myths, symbols, and archetypal figures, I feel that we gain a fresh perspective on our lives and society. Ancient history, art, and literature can become amazing sources of inspiration. By learning from the wisdom of the past, we can transform ourselves and the world we live in.

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Demeter, Gaia, and the Sacred Marriage

In my last blog post, "Demeter and the Birth of the Holy Child," I explored the connections between the Goddess of Agriculture, the Virgin Mary and the celebration of Christmas. Both Demeter and Mary echo the life-giving qualities of the Mother Goddess. Also, they are both associated with the age-old concept of the Sacred Marriage, the union between Earth and Sky. Demeter was impregnated by Zeus and Mary by Yahweh, both of them sky gods. This essay sheds light on the Sacred Marriage aspects of Gaia and Demeter.

 

Two stand foremost among humans:

Goddess Demeter—call her Earth if you like—

who nourishes mortals with solid food;

the other one came later, Semele’s son,

who discovered the liquor of the grape,

and brought it to mortals, giving

the poor fellows surcease of sorrow…[1]

Euripides, Bacchae

Strange as it may sound today, religion and food were once intimately connected. Ensuring adequate provisions for survival has been a major concern since the dawn of humanity. Since all food ultimately comes from the Earth, it came to be regarded as a generous Mother Goddess who nourishes her offspring, human or otherwise. As such, she had to be propitiated and thanked, in order to continue providing. It is barely stretching the imagination to think that rituals and offerings may have first been invented for this purpose.

It is well known that in the Greek tradition, the Earth Goddess, called Gaia (or Ge), is the “mother of the blessed gods and mortal humans,” the “all-giving” and “all-nourishing bringer of fruit,” as revealed in the Orphic hymn in her honor. She also appeared as Demeter, the Olympian goddess of agriculture, whose name can be interpreted as “Earth Mother” (Ge Meter).[2] She continued to represent Gaia’s bountiful aspects until the violent destruction of her cult in the late 4th and 5th c. CE.

Those who practiced the Orphic Mysteries sung a hymn which vividly echoes Demeter’s life-sustaining essence, her power to offer prosperity, happiness, and even health:

Deo, universal mother, goddess

with many names, venerable Demeter,

nurturer of children, source of happiness.

Wealth-offering goddess, nourishing the corn,[3] giver of all,

joyful in peace and in laborious work,

creating abundance in seeds and heaps of grain,

mistress of the threshing floor, with fresh fruit filled.

You dwell in Eleusinian holy vales,

delightful, lovely, nurturing all people,

you, the first who yoked the oxen to the plough

and offered mortals pleasant, happy lives.

Giver of growth, Bacchus’s companion in feasts,

splendidly honored, bearer of the torch.

Pure, delighted with the summer sickles,

chthonic yet manifest, favorable to all;

mother of good offspring, children-loving,

venerable, maiden who nourishes boys.

Yoking your chariot with serpent reins

dancing around your throne in bacchic frenzy,

mother of one, goddess with many children,

reverenced by mortals, many are your forms,

filled with flowers and sacred leaves.

Come, oh blessed one, pure,

with summer fruit,

bringing desirable order and peace,

joyful riches, too, along with our queen, Health.[4]

The Sacred Marriage

The Orphic hymn calls Demeter “mistress of the threshing floor,” “delighted with the summer sickles,”pregnant with summer fruit” revealing her intimate connection with the season of the harvest. Other descriptions, though, are unfamiliar and somewhat unsettling. She appears as “Bacchus’s companion in feasts,”yoking her chariot with serpent reins, dancing around her throne in bacchic frenzy.” This ecstatic image brings to mind the Maenads, worshippers of Dionysus, often half-naked, communing with the Divine as they released their sexual energy in unbridled dancing.

Such a portrayal seems strange at first, since Demeter is usually portrayed as a modest mother, her sensual aspects hardly appearing in myths. Yet her sexuality and her role as provider of food are closely interconnected. Hesiod narrates how she “was joined in sweet love with the hero Iasion in a thrice-ploughed field in the rich land of Crete, and bare Ploutos.”[5] Not surprisingly Ploutos means “wealth,” since in an agricultural society prosperity relies heavily upon the fertility of the earth.

As in many other myths, we can discern here the motif of the Sacred Marriage. A similar theme was repeated during the Eleusinian Mysteries, where the priest was said to cry out “Hye kye!,” while libations where being poured.[6] Hye means “rain!,” a command, a call to Zeus, who was once the lover of Demeter. Kye means “conceive!” This ritual cry revealed the notion that the Earth Goddess will be impregnated by precipitation, symbolizing the sperm of the Sky God. There is some evidence that the Hieros Gamos between the two was ceremonially re-enacted during the Mysteries at Eleusis although scholars debate this.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Telesterion.JPG

The Telesterion of Eleusis, where the Great Mysteries were held. Photo by the author.

The same concept is manifest in a fragment from the Danaids, a now lost play of the famous tragic poet Aeschylus. There Gaia, also called Chthon, is united with the Sky God Uranus:

The pure Uranus longs to mate with Chthon,
and Gaia, in love, marriage seeks
thus rain falling from the moist Sky
impregnates her and she bears for humankind
grass for sheep and the wealth of Demeter.[7]

The body of a woman and the body of the Earth seemed similar to the ancient mind: the one gave birth to human children, the other to plants. They both ensured the continuation of life. In Greece up to this day agricultural products are sometimes called gennimata, “things born” from the land.

 b2ap3_thumbnail_GC2-051-Motifs-of-Demeter-of-Roman-frieze.jpg

Ears of corn, symbols of Demeter. Roman relief in Eleusis. Photo by Melissa Gold.

NOTES

[1] Semele’s son is Dionysus—notice that he is identified by his mother’s name, not his father’s. The above verses are from Euripides’ Bacchae 274-281, translated by the author.

[2] Hesychius of Alexandria, Dictionary (Athens: Georgiadis, 1975), s.v. “Demeter.” Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, authors of the Great Dictionary of the Greek Language (Athens: Ioannis Sideris, s.v. “Demeter”), also mention this etymology, although they do not agree with it.

[3] The word corn is used here to mean “wheat.”

[4] Orphic Hymn 40 to Demeter, translated by the author.

[5] Hesiod, Theogony 969, translated by the author.

[6] Aristotle in Synesius, Dio 10.

[7] Aeschylus in the Danaids, fragment 43, quoted in Athenaeus 13, translated by the author.

Top image: Two female figures, probably Demeter and Persephone, discovered in the Telesterion of Eleusis. Middle of 6th c. BCE. Archaeological Museum of Eleusis. Photo by the author.

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Harita Meenee is a Greek independent scholar of classical studies and women’s history. Her graduate studies were in the field of archetypal and women’s psychology. She works as a writer, translator and editor while also being a human rights activist. Harita has presented cultural TV programs and has lectured at universities in Greece and the US. She is the author of five books, as well as of numerous articles and essays published in Hellenic and international anthologies and magazines.

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