How Can I Deal With Eleusis?
Article ID: 12467
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: August 24th. 2008
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How can I deal with the experiences of Eleusis? How can I manage the powerful emotions, which still swirl within me or contain the euphoric joy that pops and sparks in my heart like fireworks in July? It’s all I can do to keep from dancing around in my living room, giggling uncontrollably at my desk, or just shouting out with exuberance. Where does all this come from?
At this writing, I’ve just returned from Spring Mysteries Festival. This is an annual pagan festival sponsored by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church (www.aquatabch.org) out at Ft. Flagler on the north tip of Marrowstone Island in Puget Sound. This year was their 23rd festival and I have attended the last ten. It’s the most bang for the buck moving experience I can think of and it is easily as rich and new and exciting every time as any overseas adventure.
Eleusis, of course, was an ancient city in Greece, 12 miles west of Athens. Since before the days of the Trojan War or David and Goliath, Greeks would gather in the agora or town square of Athens every September. There the priestesses would announce the beginning of the mysteries of the rites of Demeter and pilgrims would follow them along the Sacred Way on foot, reaching Eleusis by nightfall. There they would dance, worship, and witness revelations that left them in much the same state as I am now. Citizens and slaves – even Roman emperors – journeyed to the site to experience the transformation that was offered there. Eleusis was the most important religious center of the ancient world until it was destroyed by the Goths and banned by the Christians.
Today Eleusis is called Elefsina. It is an industrial seaport and ship building city. It is home to the main Greek oil refineries and the Greek Air Force. The ruins of the ancient temples and other buildings associated with the rites of Demeter are not emphasized and indeed are not easy to find. They are still there, however, surrounded by a fence with a ticket booth and restroom at the entrance. It has been my great privilege to visit this sacred place twice. While the Greek Orthodox Church still shuns any connection to the rich pagan past of the Greek people, one can still see Euros stuffed between the cracks in the walls of the temples and fresh flowers at the altars. I hear now that school children even celebrate pageants on the pavement of the Telesterion these days although I am not sure how much these accurately reflect the rituals that used to be performed there.
As a matter of fact, no one really knows what went on at the rites of Demeter. They are loosely based on the myth of the abduction and return of her daughter, Persephone, which symbolizes the seasons of the year and the cycle of life-death-rebirth. Carl Kerenyi has written an exhaustive exploration of the rites in his book, Eleusis and even he acknowledges that there are more questions than answers. So we make no pretence at our festival that we are “recreating” the rituals that took place at Eleusis. What we do, rather, is try to recreate the feelings, the personal transformation – the “enlightenment” if you will – that inspired the Greeks for 2000 years when they made their pilgrimages to Eleusis.
Our mysteries take place in the raw beauty of the Pacific Northwest on the site of an old coastal defense fort, complete with barracks, gun batteries and dark scary underground bunkers. Bald eagles circle overhead and tame deer browse on the parade ground. Strong winds from three directions howl through the tall fir trees while the frigid waters of Puget Sound lash the shoreline beneath the cliffs. Bold Mt. Baker looms to the northeast and massive Mt. Rainier dominates the southeast. It is a fresh, exhilarating, and stunningly beautiful place to challenge our minds and souls.
As I try to deal with my experience of Eleusis, beauty is a good place to start. Beauty is where Blacksun went in his workshop on the fifth element, Spirit. (The other four elements are Air, Fire, Water, and Earth – but you already knew that.) As part of the festival, we have workshops on various topics and I usually lead one every year myself. Blacksun is a priest of the ATC and a person I’ve come to know as a friend and teacher. He has a load of wisdom to share behind his folksy, homespun manner and wisecrack humor. He advised us that one way to find Spirit is to look for beauty. Beauty is easy to find out here at Ft. Flagler in these surroundings. We were there during the spring equinox and we were even blessed by a full moon rising into the starry heavens on Friday night and a glorious sunrise the next morning, exploding from behind the Cascades. It gave new meaning to the term “Golden Dawn” (which, by the way, was a magical order founded in the late 19th Century.)
Beauty is also expressed in Love. The love that these pagan folk express for each other is genuine and tangible. This may seem surprising since many of us only see each other once a year and we follow many different pagan paths. Yet hugs and kisses, compliments and caresses, are freely given and accepted. All sexual orientations are much more open and included today than they were when I first came to the festival and even the actor’s scripts allow for multiple expressions of sexuality. Naturally, we do attract the same kind of energy as we put out. Those who come here in joy and openness, who set aside their egos and agendas – and who bring a sense of humor! – will be embraced with more love, appreciation, and respect than one normally gets in the mundane world or even in mainstream churches.
I was most touched by small boy named Donny. Donny is a quiet child with short hair and thick glasses and he must be about ten years old. I remember seeing him here last year. The first night when I was standing in line at the cafeteria for supper, little Donny walked over to me out of nowhere and gave me a silent hug, then he went back to his table. It was as if he just wanted to say “I love you”, although we were strangers to each other. What a sweet gesture – so honest and unashamed. It was like that everywhere – men and women and children all loving together in one family.
As much as we need to be loved, we need to be needed as well. The Olympian gods and goddesses need the people every bit as much as the people need the gods and goddesses. We close circle with the words: “May the gods preserve the Craft as the Craft preserves the gods!” We need to be needed by each other, too. Part of our job here is to discover where we are needed, where we fit. We have work duties to perform in the kitchen, at the shrines, and for cleanup and everybody pitches in willingly for the most part. We reach beyond our own assumptions to accommodate multiple disabilities or the dietary restrictions of others. We place ourselves at service to others as they stumble along their own spiritual paths. We appreciate the time and effort that others put into workshops, acting, cooking, and other services to make the festival a success. I come away realizing once again that every person on this planet, including me, is necessary in some way for the success of the whole. Every person has his or her unique gift to offer.
Perhaps the most powerful element for me at Spring Mysteries is its tribal nature. We know the same songs. We share the same mythologies. We wear similar clothing and jewelry. We use many of the same magical tools and while our individual religious practices vary all over the map, we know and respect the practices of others. Paganism is not a faith-based religion, after all. We don’t have one single Koran, Torah, or Bible that we claim to hold the whole truth and the only truth. Ours is an experience-based religion and everyone has their own collection of experiences and frames of reference. How could any of us proselytize to someone else when his or her experience base is different than our own? How can anyone say his or her religion is “better” than someone else’s? For this reason we respect each other as equals and willingly participate with each other in rites that we would not normally do that way in our own practice.
As a Dianic priestess, I do not believe in gods or goddesses per se nor do I make use of gender polarity to raise my energy. Yet, I willingly join in rituals that use these symbols to share in the energy and joy of my friends. That alone is worth the effort and there is always more to learn and more experiences to add to my own. This year I even participated in a sky clad ritual. Sky clad means naked and, yes, it’s coed. Trust me, in March it’s not about sex – it’s about not freezing!
Tribalism addresses a primordial human need to belong. Some fill that need with their FOO – their Family Of Origin. For others it is their FOM – Family Of Marriage. Most of us, however, need more belonging than either a FOO or a FOM can provide, which is why we have sports fans who identify with each other through their support of a team, school reunions for those who identify with each other through their shared academic experience, and all kinds of clubs, Masonic lodges, ya-ya sisterhoods, church groups, etc. Belonging to a group reinforces our own sense of being, place, and purpose.
Tribalism expresses itself in many ways at the festival, both sublime and profane. Once, on our way to the sea to throw in our offerings, we spontaneously broke out in chant. It quite naturally evolved into a four part harmony with voices rising and falling into their patterns – this among 280 people who see each other only once a year and half of them being here for the first time. Another example was while we were standing in line to enter the theater. We spontaneously huddled into a Borg collective and assimilated other people. All the while we were singing songs from Rocky Horror Picture Show!
Finally, there are the Mysteries of Demeter themselves, which are always quite powerfully presented and always new and challenging every year. It would do no good to attempt to explain them to the uninitiated because they have to be experienced to be attained. Even though this year is my tenth return to Spring Mysteries Festival, I am still growing and deepening in my appreciation for the spiritual values that underlie these mysteries. I’m not that much impressed by Greek deities, or by any deities for that matter, but the performances here really do drive home some profound truths, fundamental to being human and divine in ourselves. I come here open to receive and I leave well filled!
This is quite a handful of emotions to deal with after four days of intense emersion – Beauty, Love, Being Needed, Belonging, and Enlightenment. It is difficult to step back into the mundane world to deal with work, taxes, recession, a criminal government and the news that the 4, 000th soldier has been killed in Iraq. All I can do is get it down in writing so if I have to turn my attention to these other things, I will not lose the wonderful memories I gathered on the tip of that small windy island in a remote corner of this amazing universe.
Janice Van Cleve
Location: Seattle, Washington
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Bio: Janice Van Cleve is a pagan priestess in the Dianic tradition of Wicca. Her experience at Spring Mysteries XXIII was much enhanced by scoring a private room all to herself and an excellent purchase in the Temple of the Goddess VISA. Copyright 2008.
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