photo credit: Andreas Kamoutsis, CNN Greece

From Demeter to Mary

The simple, unpretentious church of Panagia Mesosporitissa is considered one of the most charming landmarks of Eleusis. On 20 November it will welcome the faithful women of Eleusis who will climb the stairs carved on the rock by the Romans to offer baskets full of loaves of bread (some of which are sprinkled with icing sugar), olive oil, and wine to the Virgin Mary. Most notable among these offerings is the prosphoro; this is a smaller round bread stamped on the top with a special seal that has the letters ICXC and NIKA (which stand for “Jesus Christ Conquers”). As the sun sets, the priest will exit the church and bless the loaves symbolically. Afterwards, the women will distribute the offerings among the participants and wish everyone a prosperous year.

In times of need

This unique festival is intimately connected with Eleusis and the timeless local tradition that unites the land with the female deity that protects farmers during the time of sowing. After the early rains have fallen in September, the earth is ready to receive the seeds. Farmers now constantly worry about the weather. Lack of rain or an unexpected frost may kill the young shoots and condemn the community to a year of dearth and famine. Planters need to appease the divine powers on which their future depends, but the task falls mostly on the shoulders of women, who visit the sacred sites with the appropriate gifts (usually a mixture of grains and seeds).

Women to the front

For millennia women have been associated with birth and nurturance as caring mothers. They hold in their hands the course of human life and are responsible for securing divine assistance through the offering of gifts at the appropriate festival. Folk traditions connect agricultural labour with seminal episodes in the life of a deity and entrust women with the role of emissary between mortals and celestial beings. 

The festivals of Demeter

The farmers of the Thriasian Plain knew they could depend on the goddess Demeter; after all, she was the one who taught them how to grow grain. The memory of the terrible year when the goddess with the beautiful garlands in her hair mourned the loss of her daughter and “many a bright grain of wheat fell into the earth…for naught” remained indelibly stamped upon the collective mind. The fear that the earth (“the nurturer of many”) would refuse once more to reveal the seeds, forced the ancient Eleusinians to adopt and faithfully keep a series of rites to ensure divine cooperation. The result was a sacred festival cycle with rites linked to crucial stages of the agricultural year (Proerosia, Thesmophoria, Haloa, Skira, Lesser and Greater Mysteries). These rites took place between September and June; in most of them, women played a significant (or even exclusive) role. 

Old wine in a new bottle

With the arrival of Christianity, the worship of Demeter in Eleusis came to an end, but the farmer’s need for assistance and protection remained undiminished. The heavy symbolism of grain and bread also survived intact. John the Evangelist reminded the faithful that “except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit”. As for bread, it became a symbol of the body of Christ.
In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, grain symbolizes the disappearance of life through death and the subsequent resurrection. In Christian iconography, the Virgin becomes the sacred vessel in whose womb Christ as the Bread of Life is conceived and baked. The Mother of the Saviour assimilates Demeter but elevates the natural cycle of grain to a spiritual journey from death to renewal and immortality. Much like Demeter, the Virgin nourishes mortal men and women and serves as an usher in humanity’s salvation.

Bibliography

Foley, Helen (1994). The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, Commentary, and Interpretive Essays, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Håland, Evy Johanne (2008). Women, Pain and Death: Rituals and Everyday Life on the Margins of Europe and beyond, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Jung, Carl & Kerényi, Carl (1969). Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Larson, Jennifer (2007). Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide, London: Routledge.

Yoshikawa, Naoë Kukita (1997). “From the ancient Grain Goddess to the Virgin Mary. Iconography of the Bake Oven in the Late Middle Ages”, The Profane Arts of the Middle Ages/ Les Arts Profanes du Moyen – Âge: Les stalles de Picardie, vol. VI (1), pp. 85-95.

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