Published September 25, 2007 by
During times of mourning, the Naenia, or lamentation song, was traditionally sung to the accompaniment of a single flute. It was similar to a chant with several phrases repeated over and over again. Naenia, also the Goddess of Funerary Lamentations, had a little temple near one of the gates leading into Rome. Dance, considered an invention of the goddess, had a place in many religious festivals from joyous occasions and fall holidays to times of mourning. The Etruscans especially danced at their funerals. A dance of mourning featured women and men moving to music and song in a slow procession. As they moved, they showed the gesture of mourning, a hand held before the face or touching the forehead.
We share something in common with those who lived two or three millennia ago-we all experience loss. Different cultures, different religions, different eras all reflect a diversity of responses to loss. Today for example we might send an arrangement of flowers or a sympathy basket. A reenactment of the myth of Ceres and Persephone by participation in the ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries provoked a personal encounter with the goddesses, who offered hope, faith, and strength to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The ancients looked to the power and mystery of the Divine Feminine for comfort and guidance through loss and the somber days of September.
A Libation to the Dead
The Romans honored their dead and those spirits who dwell underground by making a libation, an offering that the earth drinks. Often, a permanent libation hole was dug into the ground near family tombs to serve as a gateway to the dead spirits. The family would then make libation, using wine, or honey throughout the year to deceased relatives.
Mourning and Searching
We humans are bound to the earth in the natural cycle of life and death, really no different than the plants and animals-something that we easily forget, but can never avoid-for the dead return to the earth and the womb of the Mother. And we search for answers and reasons. For the initiates, the September rites of Ceres and Persephone described a ritualized time of mourning and searching.
We can never know what exactly the thousands of initiates in the September rites were seeking or what they experienced with days of fasting, a demanding fourteen-mile walk, purifications, fatigue, fear, and anticipation of the unknown. We can be assured that every man and woman was personally committed to experiencing the ritual, which involved physical and emotional hardship and demanded spiritual courage. This was a quest, a search into the deeper mysteries of the inner self.
Our knowledge is scant and suspect, since few have spoken of what actually occurred in the Telesterion, the building that housed the rites. Clement of Alexandria, a Christian and initiate, tells us, "I fasted, 1 drank the kykeon, 1 worked, and deposited in the basket and from the basket into the chest. Kykeon was a drink of barley, water, and herbs that some suggest contained traces of barley mold (ergot), a substance similar to LSD.
We can infer, however, that a visionary state was induced from days of fasting and little food followed by a fermented beverage. But just what vision did the initiates behold? Did they find what they were seeking? The grieving and searching process was an integral part of the weeklong rite, and this experience marked a profound transformation in the lives of many men and women.