December 21 - January 31
Orphic Hymn to Persephone
Translation: Gwendolyn Taunton
Stones, Bones, and Underworld Thrones
The worship of Persephone along with her mother Demeter is ancient, complex and mysterious, though it is often referred to as a simple "agricultural fertility cult." What has come down to us through history and the classical writers tells the story of a mother who mourns the tragic abduction and rape of her maiden daughter, called Koré. Demeter's only daughter (in most accounts) is secretly bargained into marriage by her father Zeus to his brother Hades, King of the Underworld. Knowing Demeter would never agree to this union, Zeus instructs Hades to kidnap the girl while she is away from her mother picking spring flowers with her friends. At the appointed time, Hades bursts forth from the Underworld in his horse drawn chariot, snatching Koré and carrying her back with him through the gaping chasm in the earth. It is said that every being present in the area of the abduction was also carried into the Underworld, including the swineherd Eubouleus along with his pigs. This may be the reason the sacrifice of pigs is associated with Demeter and Koré.
Demeter roams the earth for months, ceaselessly searching for her daughter in despair. In her grief and anger she vows to halt all growth and fertility of the earth, demonstrating the mighty shadow of her power, and the land goes dark and fallow.
It is finally the goddess Hekate who finds Demeter and tells her what happened and where the girl may be found. When Demeter confronts Zeus demanding the return of her daughter in order to bring back the fertility of the earth, he concedes, directing Hades to let the girl return.
Before the exchange can happen however, Hades tricks Koré by giving her pomegranate seeds to eat, thus binding her to him in the Underworld. By this act she is transformed into Persephone.
Although Demeter is reunited with her daughter and the land grows bright and abundant once more, Persephone is obligated by the fateful pomegranate seeds to return each year to the Underworld. Here she spends the darkest months of the year, after the joyous summer months and the harvest season comes to a close, welcoming the souls of the dead, ruling over the riches of the earth, and when necessary, meting out justice to those who have perpetrated evil acts.
It is a titillating tale, but most likely a patriarchal veneer over the original cyclical mythos of the ancient mother/daughter fertility cult.
The most famous of all ancient mystery cults is that of the Eleusinian Mysteries: celebrating the worship of Demeter and Persephone, the cyclical renewal of life, and the mysteries of Death and what lies beyond its threshold. These rites were held sometime around the modern Gregorian month of September. Very little is known about what actually transpired in the Eleusinian rituals, but what is known (recorded by historians of the Bronze and Iron ages) is thought to have evolved from much older, perhaps even neolithic cults. It is believed to have included extensive purification rituals, ritual sacrifice, and possibly the ingestion of entheogens to induce altered states of consciousness or visions of the Otherworld, all in the service of fertility and supporting the natural cycles of life, growth, death and rebirth.
A lesser known festival, but perhaps even more sacred to the worship of the divine Mother and Daughter, was the Thesmophoria. Celebrated a few weeks after the Eleusinian Mysteries in the sacred festival cycle of grain (modern October/November), the Thesmophoria was unique in that it was orchestrated, performed and celebrated only by women, specifically the "citizen wives" (wives of male citizens) of the Greek world. Over the course of three days or more, the Thesmophoria included ritual purifications, fasting and solemnity in honor of Demeter's loss, the sacrifice of piglets and composting of remains for the fertility of the soil, followed by joyous celebration, characterized by bawdy humor and "ritual obscenity." This is a tradition sacred to Demeter, mirroring the antics of Iambe who cheered the goddess in her sorrow by joking and lifting her skirts.
The final day's celebration was called Kalligeneia (the Fair Born) and was intended to bless not only the fertility of the crops but the women themselves. The secrets of Thesmophoria were shrewdly guarded by the women who participated, so much so that contemporary writers told tales of misfortune, maiming, and death that came to men who attempted to infiltrate the festival, or even inadvertently stumbled into its sacred periphery.
The many nuanced layers of meaning associated with this festival and other mystery cult rituals are mostly lost to time, but the phenomena of women's secret magic endures.
In my mandala, Persephone is a goddess of transformation.
From bright Maiden of the Spring to the earthen Queen of Autumn, she deepens into her power as the seasons progress with the dark of winter. Her chthonic blessings permeate the crystalline caves and black flowing waters of the world below. She is the benevolent ruler of the souls of the dead, and at times the furious bringer of justice. She is a keeper of the riches of the earth along with her husband Hades, and can be petitioned for wealth and longevity.
Just when it seems the cold dark of winter will never end, Persephone bursts free of the Underworld with seeds of spring clinging to her light maiden's heels. The cracked earth of her throne falls away as she liberates herself of the weight of her marriage and soul-tending responsibilities. Her oil-black tresses loosen and release themselves from an ornately carved bone comb, falling in curls round her soft shoulders. The sunlight greets her joyfully, flushing her cheeks with petal pink, and wherever her feet fall upon the earth, wildflowers bloom. She is reunited with her mother, Demeter, and together they traverse the fields, orchards and forests bringing abundant harvests to the land and nourishment to the hearts of mortals.
Only the memory of a handful of blood-red pomegranate seeds will eventually bring Persephone full circle back to the gates of the Underworld. Returning to rest upon her rocky throne, she dons the splendorous crown of her office as the sun begins to wane toward the darkest night once again.
A Simple Ritual for Prosperity
In the fall, save a fresh pomegranate* and place it on your altar. Allow the pomegranate to desiccate naturally over the next few months, making sure it is in a warm, dry place with good air flow. Begin to think about the things you accrued over the course of the year that you no longer need or want. These might be physical items, opportunities, projects, or even emotional tides or conflicts. Make a list of what you can discard and compost into the fruitful soil of the future.
In late January, the pomegranate should be hard with a leathery skin. With a sharpie, write all the items on your list on the skin of the pomegranate. Prepare a hole in the earth, in your garden if you have one.
Say this incantation as you lay the pomegranate in the hole and cover it with the upturned soil:
Make sure to gather any of the physical items you may have listed and give them to charity or those in need—don't throw away unless there is no other option. This can include food that's been languishing in your pantry as well as any useful resources that can be given to food banks, homeless shelters, or your local Buy Nothing group.