As I harvest my year this autumn, the experience that stands out for me most is my visit to the Valle dei Templi at Agrigento in Sicily in the spring.
Agrigento is an ancient pilgrimage site, at more than 2000 acres (3+ sections of land) probably the largest outside of Athens in Greek antiquity. A dozen temples run in a wide swath from east to west over a ridge that looks out over the Mediterranean sea on one side and the modern city on the other. The area was colonized by Greeks in the late 6th century BCE and many of the temples were built then, but many were built later and there is evidence that the rites of Demeter and Persephone were celebrated in the westernmost section as early as the 7th century BCE. Indeed the myth of the Mother and Daughter, of birth, nurture and separation is woven into the Sicilian landscape and coincides with the arrival of wheat in the region. In Sicily and much of the Mediterranean world, planting (death and germination of seeds) happens in the autumn, in time for the winter rains, while harvest happens in the spring. The rites of Demeter and Persephone also took place in spring (Lesser Mysteries) and fall (Greater or Eleusian Mysteries).
I spent two days at the Valle dei Templi. The first day I did not reach the western side until late afternoon. The eastern temples were so triumphalist, so impressive, engineered marvels of grand columns and arches, commemorating wars won and the labour of thousands of slaves, that I had to stop and look at everything. I took hundreds of pictures.
And then I crossed a bridge over a road and came out at the Fifth Gate, the area they call The Sanctuary of the Chthonic Deities. Chthonic meaning subterranean, underground, of the Earth. The Chthonic Deities are Demeter, Persephone and Dionysus.
At the Sanctuary, I came upon wild flowers, wild grasses, and only the scattered foundations of temples, small enclosures and the remains of old wells. I wandered and sat, wandered and sat until the middle of the evening, feeling hymns from the ground, feeling a presence, imagining women coming and going through the fifth gate at all hours, passing first by the row of craft workshops outside the gates where terra cotta votives were shaped and then climbing to the Hill of Temples with prayers and questions.
I returned on my second day to wander and wander again through the ruins of the Sanctuary. A wild and lonely place but also a place of joy. Small altars still stand, most with holes in the middle for offerings to the earth, a place for the clay bothros, cylinders, containers of so much longing, thanksgiving. Plant and animal sacrifices. Layers upon layers of prayers, dug into the earth with votives; archeologists have found statuettes of Demeter, Persephone, miniature clay body parts in need of healing, oil lamps everywhere. Evidence of rituals that connected the living world to the underworld and the world of the dead.
Today not much is known of the Eleusinian Mysteries except that initiates experienced a dramatic re-enactment of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. An ancient prophetess, Diotima, whose account of the Mysteries probably lives on in Plato’s Symposium, revealed one of its central teachings: that “the purpose of love is birth in the beautiful, both in body and soul.” From the same source, we know that birth in the beautiful for the initiates came through the experience of being loved and loving another human being. This experience was considered a direct experience of the divine. How that love was shown, we don’t know except that human birth and the Mother-Daughter relationship in all its stages were likely the models for it.
I sometimes think I may have caught strains of this birth in the beautiful in the singing of a Stabat Mater (Standing Mother) or walking in a procession with a Virgin’s bothros (crowned statue) or ascending to an underground sanctuary of a Black Madonna. In life passages, I’ve been shown the truth of this terrible beauty as a child in the near death of my mother. A couple of years ago, I witnessed this beauty in the funeral of a beloved and loving young woman and the grief of her family. I have had the privilege of being close by in the hours of labour before the birth of a niece. And just this year only understood with a dear friend’s passing that I was loved unconditionally. I wonder how much I have learned to return that love, that beauty? How much I have given birth in my life to other human beings? That is the call of the autumn Mysteries. To plant the seeds and to wait for rebirth.