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Ancient Rituals of September

Published September 18, 2007        by Nicole

Ancient farmers were advised to paint the wine jars with pitch, pick apples, and loosen the soil around the roots of the trees. At the equinox, the farmers were to cut straw, harrow the ploughed land, and gather in fodder.  September, when the summer growing season is over and the gift of fall harvest nears completion, is a month of endings. Although many days remain sunny and warm, the intense heat of summer is past and the first cooler days appear, as the sun continues its six-month journey toward the winter solstice and the hours of light are noticeably shorter approaching the equinox. A few leaves turn brown and fall from the trees, harbingers of the glorious, but so brief, display of nature's magnificent color before the dull tones of late fall and winter set in.

In the Roman rustic calendar, September represented a quiet time for the busy farmer with the winding down of the harvest, for the summer fresh fruits and vegetables had been picked and the sheaves of grain had been cut down. In the countryside, September was a time for Thanksgiving. Wine or honey mixed with milk was poured directly into the ground as libation, and spontaneous dances and songs were offered to Ceres for a bounteous harvest by oak-leaf crowned young men and women. September was also the month of grief and the time to mourn the loss.

In the agrarian calendar, the jubilation brought on by a bounteous harvest of summer crops now gave way to a sadness and preparation for the end. September is a month to acknowledge the end, and it is a time for closure. Yet this too is only part of the natural cycle. As in August, powerful goddesses prevail this month, but with a difference. The goddesses of September do not strike out, but instead serve as reminders of the eternal life cycle. These goddesses offer hope and restore faith.

The story I am about to tell has been retold and reenacted for thousands of years at countless secret rituals to the Greek goddess Demeter or Ceres, her Roman counterpart. There was a time long ago when men and women attended the rites to Demeter in September, marching from Athens to the small town called Eleusis, some fourteen miles northwest of Athens. What was it that drew them for the week long ceremony? What compelled them to take part in this ritual, the most famous mystery of the classical world, a rite no initiate could ever discuss openly for fear of death? We cannot answer that question with any certainty; we can only infer. Because this was a very solemn rite and the initiates took their oath seriously, no reliable source exists to describe the events in any detail. Thus, the rites of the Eleusinian Demeter have remained enigmatic-a mystery-for nearly three thousand years.

Let this sacred tale of mother and daughter, possibly the most powerful of all the classical myths, serve as an introduction to the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries, held in the last half of September, and to the Thesmophoria, which occurred shortly thereafter. This sacred and truly feminine myth delves deep into the earth, into nature, and into our psyches, drawing strength from ageless archetypes. This is a story of loss, grief, and suffering, and it is appropriate for September.

Originally an oral poem, the myth of Ceres and Persephone was written down sometime between 650 and 550 B.C.E. by an anonymous Greek bard. The version you will find here is Roman; it begins in Sicily near the modern town of Enna and was composed by Ovid in the first few years of the common era.