Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Eleusis to Avalon

Harvest symbols at Eleusis

The Autumn Equinox is here and there is a full, waxy moon glowing above Toronto. In the city it is a bit difficult to feel a connection to harvest, our rural roots having been eclipsed long ago by fast, urban living.
In a small effort to reconnect with the earth and our western ancestors who were bound to it, I thought I’d mention a couple of traditions around what has for thousands of years been an extremely sacred time of year for many cultures. Of course, this is the time of year for Thanksgiving (earlier in Canada than in the USA) when we sit around the table en-famille and stuff ourselves like the turkeys that grace our tables. And wine, oh yes, and lots of it for the oenophiles among us. But where does all this come from? Not the pilgrims, I can tell you that.

Apart from this being the night when Summer gives way to Fall, when the length of day is equal to that of night, this time of year is also Harvest time. In ancient Greece it was the month of Beodromion and the festival Apollo, the time for one of the most sacred rites: The Eleusinian Mysteries. The Mysteries were of course, in honour of the Goddess Demeter who was associated with crops, fertility, harvest and the protection of marriage. The Mysteries also honoured Persephone, Demeter’s daughter who would go to spend half the year in the underworld with Hades. The time of harvest is associated with the death of agriculture and Persephone’s time away from her mother, the time Demeter would weep, wintertime.

Goddess Demeter
 "Queenly Demeter, bringer of seasons and giver of
good gifts, what god of heaven or what mortal man has rapt away
Persephone and pierced with sorrow your dear heart?  For I heard
her voice, yet saw not with my eyes who it was.  But I tell you
truly and shortly all I know...

(from Hesiod's Hymn to Demeter - Hecate to Demeter)

...But grief yet more terrible and savage came into the
heart of Demeter, and thereafter she was so angered with the
dark-clouded Son of Cronos that she avoided the gathering of the
gods and high Olympus, and went to the towns and rich fields of
men, disfiguring her form a long while."

(from Hesiod's Hymn to Demeter)

The cult of Demeter and Persephone existed for over one thousand years and Eleusis, one of the most sacred places of ancient Greece was where the highly secretive ceremonies would take place in September and October. Sparse details about the ceremonies include bathing in the sea, sacrificing a piglet (not a turkey!), various sacred, secret objects and a procession from Athens to Eleusis.

The site of Eleusis is itself an amazing archaeological site that is well worth the visit if ever you have the opportunity. Apart from the vast complex of temples, and other remains, you can see the cave where Persephone supposedly descended into the Underworld, a door to Hades. Facing the dark entrance is a well known as the “Tears of Demeter”, thus named because of the goddess’ weeping in that spot. All quite moving.

The Door to Hades

Let us not dwell too long in ancient Greece however, for our Celtic ancestors in Europe also revered this time of year. To the Celts, harvest time was also known as Alban Elfed (Welsh for ‘Light of Autumn’), and the Feast of Avalon (Feast of Apples) among other names.

To the Celts, this was the time of year when the acorns fell from the sacred oaks and the last sheaf of wheat was cut by a young maiden. It was a time of reverence and thanks for the Earth’s bounty, a time to harvest once more and to slaughter animals before the onset of winter. An offering of apples would often be placed on burials to symbolize rebirth, hence the Feast of Avalon, Avalon of course being the ‘land of apples’.

Glastonbury Tor - 'In insula Avalonia'
 Harvest time, to the Celts, also preceded the sacred festival of Samhain which marked the end of the light of summer and the beginning of winter’s dark. Again, the cycle of light and dark, birth and death is an ever present arch-type, a cycle of which our ancestors were keenly aware and for which they had a deep respect.

So, as we sit to our laden tables this autumn, perhaps we should tip a bit of wine to the goddess who wept for her daughter’s departure into darkness, for the end of light. When the harvest moon shines down on us in all its luminescence where we live in a world of concrete floors and steel girders, think on our forest and field-dwelling ancestors, those who looked up at that same moon for ages from the dark circles of their sacred groves and gave thanks for all they had.