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The "Homeric" Hymn to Demeter



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Background Information on the Hymn to Demeter:
The Eleusinian Mysteries

As you read the "Homeric" Hymn to Demeter, I urge you to consult the notes in the back of the book (pp. 72ff.) for elucidation. Note that the Hymn is not by Homer, but thought to have been composed 150-200 years later than the Iliad. At that time, apparently, the epic genre was on its way out; these Hymns were opening acts, designed to warm up the performers. They also served as devotional songs to deities the performers considered important, and usually described how the deity in question came to receive his/her powers or particular honors.

The Hymn to Demeter is designed, not as a general introduction to the importance of Demeter and Persephone, but as a literary aetiology of a particular festival: the Eleusinian Mysteries, ancient rites performed at Eleusis that were central to the cult of Demeter. In the poem, Demeter orders the Eleusinians to build a temple in her honor (lines 270-272); she then promises to establish rites that, if properly performed, will help propitiate her anger against the Eleusinians (lines 273-4). The rites to which she refers are what we now call the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The Hymn itself gives details only about certain preliminary rites that were performed at the gates of Eleusis, and culminates with a reference to the founding of the cult; the real Mystery, the rites that were performed inside by/for initiates only, could not be revealed to non-initiates. Initiates were sworn to secrecy, which is why we still know so few details about what specifically went on. (Anyone could become an initiate, provided s/he hadn't committed any murders and could fork out the 15-drachma fee.) What we do know is that The Eleusinian Mysteries (the most important of the widespread Greek mystery cults of antiquity) revolved around the Demeter/Persephone story, which played a role at every stage of the rites. The initiation rite itself (the secret one) seems to have involved fasting, drinking a beverage made from barley and pennyroyal, moving objects from a chest to a basket and back (it's hinted that said "objects" may have included items representing the human genitalia), splitting ears of corn (an obvious Demeter/fertility symbol), bathing piglets(!), exposure of the female genitals, and possibly a reenactment of the abduction of Persephone.

The point was to transform the initiate's state of mind utterly, so that s/he emerged a whole different person. Aristotle emphasized that this was accomplished not through learning but through mystical experience; i.e., the rite did not (probably) pass on any secret doctrine, but rather gave initiates a transformative experience. The central benefit was that the initiate overcame his/her fear of death; or rather, this fear was removed (permanently) by the rites. Not small stuff.

Apparently initiates also experienced death (not just the anticipation thereof, but the actual "experience" of being dead) differently from the uninitiated. Sophocles said "Thrice blessed are those who have seen these rites and enter into the realm of Hades [where everyone goes when they're dead, regardless of status]; for them alone there is life, for all others there is misery." Diogenes Laertios suggested that the uninitiated dwell in the mire of the Underworld, whereas initiates receive a special privilege (the word is "prohedria," meaning "a front seat" [at public events]), and live in the Isles of the Blest. Again, strong stuff (especially after the mortality-soaked epic we've just lived through)!

Study hints

I've provided the above in an effort to be helpful, so you know where the Hymn is coming from, what it's trying to explain. The information I've given, though, is relevant only to the motive for composing the poem; it is insufficient to explain the artistic constitution of the poem, which is what we're interested in. (It's unlikely we would glean any more clues about the Mysteries from the Hymn even if we tried, since generations of scholars have tried and failed). In your discussion contributions, therefore, please do not waste time analyzing the information I've given above! Rather, focus on taking apart the artistic design of the work.

Of course, "intertextual" questions that bring in the Iliad as well as the Hymn are now possible. If you decide to ask these, be careful not to make them too facile (e.g. "How is [insert one-word "issue" here] portrayed differently in the Hymn from in the Iliad?"). And remember to give the line citation that explains the textual motivation behind your question!

Here are some "issues" you may find to be fertile ground for a comparative analysis:
  -- death and mortality
  -- grief and anger
  -- withdrawal and return (withdrawal of an important character following a loss; return after initial refusal of embassies).
  -- parent/child relationships
  -- abduction

"Issues" you may like to explore in more detail within the Hymn itself:
  -- The poem is structured as a frame narrative (the abduction of Persephone) enclosing an inner narrative (Demeter in Eleusis). Why it is designed that way? How does it work? Do you see parallels between the two narratives? What do these add to the poem?
  -- At lines 405-40, we see Persephone acting as storyteller, narrating her own experiences in the Underworld. As literary scholars, we must always be instantly suspicious of such a move (character => narrator). Compare her account with that of the impersonal narrator (lines 4-21 and 334-74). Based on your comparison, what does the inclusion of Persephone's own words do for the poem?

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