The second lockdown put on hold many of our plans but there are still two things that will keep on growing, no matter how long we have to stay indoors; our hair and the grain in the fields. There is very little we can do about our hair (other than improvise at home) but farmers can always place their trust in divine intervention. Each year, on the eve of the celebration of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple (20 November), the women of Eleusis revive the festival of Panagia Mesosporitissa in the old church that stands on the hill above the sanctuary of Demeter.
The chapel of the Virgin Mary
The plain chapel of Panagitsa, as it is known by the locals, was first mentioned in a letter, written in 1794, but it seems likely that it was built much earlier. The bell tower was added in the 19th century. It is a wonderful testament to the centuries-long coexistence of different deities, all of which are called upon to support peasants at a crucial time during the agricultural year. In the fall, right after the early rains have fallen, the earth of Attica is ready to receive the grain seeds. The young shoots face many dangers. Lack of rain or an early frost will kill them. Farmers, unable to control the weather, turn to fertility and productivity rituals to protect the crop.
Lockdown in the fields
The farmers of the Thriasian Plain turned their prayers to the goddess Demeter, who taught them how to grow grain. The memory of the terrible famine in the year that the goddess mourned the loss of her daughter (when “many a bright grain of wheat fell into the earth…for nought”) remained indelibly stamped upon the collective memory. The fear of a second agricultural lockdown induced the ancient Eleusinians to adopt a series of rites to ensure divine cooperation. Women became the mediators between humanity and the gods. It was their duty to secure divine assistance through the offering of gifts at the appropriate festival.
Demeter and Mary
The departure of Demeter from Eleusis after the triumph of Christianity did not negate the farmer’s need for celestial support. Since the old gods were no longer able to perform their duty, people turned to the Virgin Mary and connected the agrarian cycle to the life of the Mother of God. The Queen of Heaven nourishes mortals and ushers in the salvation of humanity. She is, after all, the sacred vessel in whose womb Christ as the Bread of Life is conceived. The old pagan rituals acquired a Christian content and symbolism, without losing their basic community function.
The rituals of the Mesosporitissa festival are among the most charming survivals of ancient beliefs in a Christian context. Its revival is the result of the efforts of the Folklore Association of Eleusis “Adrachti” (spindle). On the day of the festival, the women of Eleusis gather a mixture of grain seeds and legumes (polysporia or “varied seed”) from the supplies available at home and boil them with grape syrup, pomegranate seeds, and currants in communal cauldrons provided by “Adrachti”.
As the sun sets, the women arrive at the church and offer the polysporia and baskets full of loaves of bread, 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”). Since the chapel is too small for all the offerings, the baskets accumulate outside. The officiating priest blesses the polysporia and one of the loaves symbolically, and then the women distribute the offerings to the participants in the hope of a prosperous year.
The intangible cultural heritage of Eleusis
In August 2020 the festival of Mesosporitissa was included in the Greek National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This is a great step in the effort to recognize, save and transmit to the future generations a tradition that preserves the unique experience of rural life in the Thriasian Plain.
The upheaval caused by the pandemic has also affected the festival, which will remain close to the public. But a tradition that survived the collapse of the ancient world and the sweeping changes of modernity has nothing to fear from a break. As long as farmers sow grains seeds (and hair grows longer), the women of Eleusis will continue to strive for a prosperous year for all. And the coronavirus be damned.