The Day of the Mysteries: To Persephone

For generations now this mystery has been lost
that we long for: A Mother. Her Daughter.
The grain. The fruit. A cry in the night.
A light in the darkness. And a child, a boy.
Your mother’s son, or yours?

Daughter of the grain, wife of the shadows,
queen and savioress, your face is my mirror.
I am my mother’s daughter and my daughter’s
mother, my husband’s wife, my father’s duty.
I am my self, none other, agatha tyche, divine
juno, sovereign queen.

I pray to Persephone, daughter of the Mother,
queen of the underworld, goddess in two worlds.
I pray to Demeter, mother of an only daughter,
giver of the grain, the old woman who grieved.
And I pray to Iakkhos, the mysterious Child,
Son of two Mothers, Dionysus, Bacchus, Antinous.

A cry in the night. A light in the darkness. The grain.
The fruit. A mirror held by two goddesses. A boy,
a mortal, a god. Demophoon in the fire,
Triptolemus in the field, Antinous with a spear.
The mystery we have longed for. The whole
world holds its breath. The sacred way is opened.


The Day of the Mysteries: To Demeter

For years I turned my face from you and barred you from my door;
like my own mother’s, your picture was never on my mantel.
Each year I waited for Persephone to leave you
so I could talk to her privately in the house of Hades,
away from your winter chill and your endless demands for growth.
I kicked the fallen leaves defiantly and did not call you
at Christmas, to give you an invitation you would surely
have refused. When the earth began to stir again, I called
to Dana of the heavens, her river of stars snaking through
all the rivers of earth. I felt the earth’s age in my bones.
Like your daughter, I would never again be Kore.

And then one day, looking at the phone on which
my daughter never calls me, I saw my face
in your round bronze mirror and it was my mother’s face
and yours. The girl I helped to raise turned into a woman
I don’t know, with an unpronounceable name, who lives
in a house she doesn’t want me to visit in a place
I can’t get to. And I am alone. O Demeter, Demeter,
did you always know this would happen? Is there
a place for me in your kitchen, a cup of tea,
a piece of toast? The days are growing shorter,
the nights are growing cooler, and my daughter
never calls.

You keep using those words…

Before I wrangle with today’s topic, let me join with others in expressing my joy that the Supreme Court of the¬†United States has struck down the last ban against same-sex marriage and ruled that it is legal throughout the land. Let me join also with PSVL and others in saying that the struggle for marriage equality is by no means over: Celebrate today (and this weekend, if there’s a Pride festival in your area), and then let’s work on extending the right to legal marriage to people who don’t identify as either male or female, and then to people who wish to make marriage bonds involving more than two partners.

That said, today is another occasion when I am brought up short by the assigned topic of the meme. I am not really sure what is meant, so let me quote the meme and try to unpack my sense of the words:
Mysticism and Philosophy – Beliefs in truths that are believed to be intuitive or above normal understanding, as well as beliefs that are rooted in rational investigation and knowledge and how they work together. (transcendental/intuitive vs scientific/historic/practical).

The first thing that occurs to me is that there are some assumptions there about religion in general that relate specifically to the status of monotheistic religion in Western societies since the so-called Enlightenment, that is, since the scientific method began effectively to challenge the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. The idea that there is a conflict or a dichotomy between science and religion would probably have baffled medieval theologians and ancient pagan philosophers alike.

The second thing that occurs to me is that “mysticism” and “philosophy” are both words and concepts that had their origin in pagan, polytheist cultures, specifically that of Greece, and that the meanings of those words have diverged greatly from their original import in the dialects of ancient Greek. Like light passing through a prism and being bent into colors, a good many religious and philosophical ideas have passed through the prism of Christian re-interpretation and cannot easily be seen except as colored by centuries of Christian usage.

I know just enough about philosophy to know that, as Lord Peter Wimsey said of himself, I have not the philosophic mind. But I can speak a little of mysticism, perhaps, and so I shall.

To most people nowadays, the word “mystic” means someone who has had a sort of experience of the Divine which is not easily talked about, if at all, and which seems or sounds a bit like a warm, bright, fuzzy feeling about the goodness and oneness of the All. In various schools and eras of Christian theology, mysticism might mean a dangerous tendency to over-emotionalism, found especially in pious women, or a level of experiencing reality, a participating in heavenly reality during earthly life, or a specific stage in a carefully laid out program of spiritual progress that was presumed to be universal. But in the ancient Mediterranean world, a mystic was simply a person who had undergone a Mystery. You could be initiated into the Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis, or into the Mysteries of Mithras if you were a man, or into other mysteries, lesser known. The Easter liturgies of the Church in Jerusalem in the fourth century C.E. are recognizably a mystery initiation in their structure: The newbie Christians are exposed to lights, songs, symbols, tableaux that are only explained later, in the light of day, over the course of Eastertide, and they partake for the first time of the holy meal that gives communion with the Lord. Mysteries were everywhere, and like Muslims on hajj, people gained initiation and generally just went back to their ordinary lives, but changed.

In pagan and polytheist traditions, there need be no conflict between religion and science, nor between mysticism and philosophy. There were mystics among the philosophers, philosophers among the mystics. We don’t have to give up our day jobs, stop watching all our favorite tv shows, and retire to a cave in order to be devout worshippers of the gods, nor do we have to turn off our critical minds, refuse to vote or vote a certain ticket, or try to resurrect a long-dead culture. We can enter the Mysteries of the Gods and see what is shown us and then go back to our ordinary lives, just as Hadrian and Antinous were initiates at Eleusis and then went back to being Emperor and favorite, friends and lovers.

Do you have the map?

It’s funny that the afterlife is the subject of so many jokes. I’m tempted to say that if I had a dollar for every New Yorker cartoon that ever dealt with heaven or hell, I’d have enough money to buy the magazine as its publisher. Hell never seems too bad in those cartoons, nor heaven too much fun. And jokes about three people arriving at the gates of heaven simultaneously and not having the experience they expected are as numerous as the curious phenomenon that people seem to die in threes.

21st-century American culture doesn’t seem to take death very seriously. It doesn’t think about the people dying overseas thanks to its drones and bombers, or the black men and women shot by police on the flimsiest pretexts, or the elders dying alone in overheated apartments or bland nursing home rooms, or the citizens suffering from cancer, AIDS, depression, PTSD, and all the other ailments mortal flesh can acquire and unable to get adequate health care because they can’t pay for it. We don’t want to think about unpleasant things like that. If a certain type of fundamentalist Christian is convinced that everyone except their fellow churchgoers is headed for hell, a certain type of liberal Christian is convinced that Jesus’ teachings were all about living a good life right now, using your wealth wisely, treating people well, being grateful for your blessings.

The fact is that religion has always been about what happens when you die. It’s also about living well while you’re alive, maintaining good relationships with the gods and spirits, doing well by your neighbors, cultivating virtue, but the afterlife is never far out of sight. A number of religions have bequeathed to us manuals for navigating the experience of death, starting with the Egyptians. They buried texts with their honored dead and painted pictures of the afterlife on the walls of tombs; we call their instructions The Book of the Dead, but they called the process Coming Forth by Day. If you were properly mummified and entombed with the proper instructions, you could pass through the dangers of the afterlife and experience a happy ever after.

Tibetan Buddhism produced a text that Westerners also call the Book of the Dead, but its editors called Instructions on Hearing in the Between. Tibetan Buddhism regards death as a process which is by no means over when the heart has apparently ceased to beat and the breath to move. Instructions for navigating the confusing, frightening appearances of the bardo, the space between life and rebirth into another life, can be read to the dead and dying to help them through it into a good rebirth, favorable to attaining enlightenment.

The Orphic tablets of ancient Greece amount to much the same thing, a map of the post-mortem territory marked with what to avoid and which roads to take. You must make sure to drink of the right spring, not the one that will wipe out your memory of the life left behind. People flocked to Eleusis year after year because they wanted the advantage the Mysteries gave them, a pre-mortem introduction to the Queen of the Dead and the process of eternal life.

When my father-in-law died, I read appropriate prayers from the Book of Common Prayer but also selections from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I sang at his funeral and toward the end, as we performed the Kontakion for the Dead from the Russian Orthodox liturgy, I felt his transition away from us. He passed through the gates that the “In Paradisum” mentions, and they closed behind him. He was no longer in this world.

We all die. We probably do not all have the same destination after death. But most religions say we have some sort of continued existence, whether rebirth into another life, happiness in the company of a deity, punishment for heinous transgressions, or just shadows drifting, half-remembering and half-forgetting the lives we led. If you want to be sure of what’s coming, live well now, and learn the mysteries as soon as you can–get the map, the keys, the passwords to the afterlife in your tradition. I think my father-in-law is with Jesus. I’d like to join Antinous on his Boat of Millions of Years. It has a sort of Star Trek resonance: We’ll boldly go where mortals cannot go alone.

Sacred Nights: Antinous in the Underworld

I don’t have any music to offer you today, not yet. Unfortunately, when I think of death, funerals, the afterlife, my musical associations come from my Anglo-Catholic background; I think of the traditional Requiem Mass texts, and of musical settings from Gregorian chant to Faure to compositions by my ex-husband and by a friend of ours. If I could, I would offer you my friend’s setting of the Offertory, inspired by traditional Irish music as well as plainsong; these words with his music echo in my mind:

libera animas omnium fidelium defunctorum
de poenis inferni
et de profundo lacu.
Libera eas de ore leonis
ne absorbeat eas tartarus,
ne cadant in obscurum;
Sed signifer sanctus Michael
repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam,

“Deliver the souls of all the faithful departed/ from the pains of hell/ and from the deep lake./ Deliver them from the lion’s mouth,/ let them not sink into Tartarus/ nor fall into obscurity,/ but let St. Michael the standard-bearer/ lead them into the holy light….”

I have been thinking a lot lately about the afterlife, and about the descriptions of our mortal fate across various cultures and traditions. What strikes me is that there is actually a certain amount of commonality, a broad pattern. In most traditions, the dead may go to a place of peace and happiness, or to a place of punishment for ill deeds, or to a place where they are forgotten. Dante, for example, gives us vividly the heavens and the empyrean Rose, the horrors of hell, and the noble but sterile peace of Limbo, where Virgil and the other virtuous pagans go. His purgatory leads on to the experience of heaven, and the dead there are not forgotten, though they fear to be; they continually bid him to pray for them and promise to pray for the living.

What has struck me recently, though, is the idea that in most traditions prior to Christianity, the destiny of most human beings is neither beatification nor punishment, but oblivion, forgetting and being forgotten. Without performing certain rites, the dead forget who they are and all they have known; without being honored by their descendants, they dry up and blow away like old leaves. The human being breaks down not just into body and soul, but a body composed of the elements and a soul of multiple parts. Some parts of the soul are re-absorbed into the cosmos; some reincarnate; some experience an afterlife in which the earthly ego and personal history may or may not be maintained.

It seems to be possible to control what one’s post-mortem fate will be, and not merely by choosing to act virtuously and eschew evil. The ancient Egyptians relied on the rites of mummification and the instructions of Coming Forth by Day, known to us now as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Tibetan Buddhists have their own “Book of the Dead”, the Instructions for Hearing in the Bardo, as a guide for the ordinary practitioner; the advanced yogin becomes capable of choosing the place, time, and circumstances of rebirth, as do the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, and the other tulkus.¬† For the Greeks, and to some extent the Romans (being influenced by the Greeks), death was oblivion for most. An exceptional person, a hero, might go to the Elysian fields; a person who had committed vile acts would be tormented in Tartaros. Someone who was neither, however, might escape the fate of forgetting by entering the Mysteries at Eleusis.

Antinous was an initiate at Eleusis, as was Hadrian. This day commemorates his passage into the land of the dead as one who had Seen, who had already met Persephone and was known to her. Yesterday’s sense of tragedy and loss is muted a little by our knowledge that he is not lost; he will not fall into shadows, nor sink into Tartaros, but the great caduceus-bearer Hermes will lead him to the Queen of the Underworld.

The words of the Offertory in the Roman Catholic Requiem are very old, probably older than the better-known Dies Irae and its fear of the last judgment. Michael the standard-bearer, the signifer, is perhaps not so different from Hermes the Psychopomp, leading souls with his caduceus. I hope to enter the Mysteries of Antinous, that after my death, I may be led into the presence of the Beautiful God, the Bithynian Boy, who will recognize me as one of his own, and I will neither forget nor be forgotten.