The Ancient Greek goddess Demeter (Ceres to the Romans) was associated with the harvest and agriculture and was worshipped at her temple in Eleusis. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter tells us that the goddess has a daughter, Persephone or Kore, fathered by Zeus, who was abducted by Hades and forced to live in the underworld with her husband for part of the year. The story of Demeter and Persephone can be viewed as a nature myth—Persephone represents the seed, planted under the ground and fertilized by Zeus, that grows in the spring as the harvest and whose maturity is represented by Demeter herself. The story can also be viewed as an etiological myth whereby the seasons are explained—the months in which Persephone spends with her husband in Hades Demeter does not let anything grow and thus it is winter. Finally, the story of Demeter can be viewed as a charter myth that explains the origins for the rituals that take place during the Eleusinian Mysteries at the temple of Demeter.
During the autumnal celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were organized by the Athenian polis, there were rituals that involved fasting, a procession with sacrificial pigs, purification in the sea, and the consumption of a sacred drink. The nocturnal procession went from Athens to the Temple of Demeter at Eleusis where initiates would gather in the Hall of Initiations, the Telesterion, where the hierophant (sacred revealer) revealed the “holy things.” It was said that Demeter bestowed two gifts to her initiates: a stalk of grain and the mysteries that were said to hold a promise to a happier afterlife. The mysteries that took place at the annual celebration were kept secret by all participants.
In his essay, The Unspeakable Girl, published in English by Seagull Books and translated by Leland De La Durantaye and Annie Julia Wyman, Italian philosopher and author Giorgio Agamben begins with a discussion of the Ancient Greek word Kore. Agamben’s writing is challenging but of the few things I read so far, he begins with the etymology of important words, which makes his narrative, for me, more accessible. He writes:
The Greek term kore (masculine form: koros) does not refer to a precise chronological age. Derived from a root meaning ‘vital force’, it refers to the principle that makes both plants and animals grow (koros also means ‘offshoot’ in the botanical sense.) A kore, can thus be old, like the Phorcydes, called denaiai korai, the ‘long-lived girls’ and the graiai, ‘those with white hair.’ Aeschylus calls the terrifying avengers of blood crime Erinyes (or Furies), korai, as well as graiai palaiai pades (ancient children with white hair.)
Agamben concludes that “Kore is life in so much as it does not allow itself to be ‘spoken’, in so much as it cannot be defined by age, family, sexual identity or social role.” The philosopher uses this idea of Kore as the unspeakable for a further discussion of the mysteries involving Demeter and Kore that take place during the Eleusinian rituals. His thesis is that the mystery is not so much a sacred object that is revealed or an event that happens during the ritual, but a mystical transformation which the initiates experience that is unspeakable—not unspeakable in the sense that it is prohibited to be spoken about but in the sense that there is no language that adequately expresses the experience. Agamben cites and discusses key passages from Aristotle and Plato who describe the acquisition of philosophical knowledge as a mystic experience or initiation. Agamben concludes, “When she was abducted by Hades, Kore was ‘playing (paizousan) with the girls of Ocean’ (kouresi syn Okeanou; Homeri Hymnus in Cecerem 5.5). That a girl at play became the ideal figure for the supreme initiation and the completion of philosophy, the figure for something that is at once thought and initiation and thus unspeakable—this is the ‘mystery.'”
And why should the modern reader care about initiation into ancient mystery cults. This is, perhaps, my favorite part of Agamben’s argument; he makes this ancient thought and practice relevant to a 21st century audience: “Whether it be Lucius in The Golden Ass or Isabel Archer in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, the novel places us before a mysterion to which life itself is at once that which initiates us and that into which we are initiated.”
This Seagull edition also includes gorgeous paintings by artist Monica Ferrando as well as her translations of Ancient Greek and Latin text sources for Demeter, Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries.