Commentary,  Writer's Life

Ode to a Grecian Spring

Red poppies and chamomile.

Many countries celebrate May First as International Labor Day, but it’s more commonly referred to as Protomagia throughout Greece. Literally, the first day of May.  It all started with the ancient Greeks who honored the Greek Goddess Maia, who was somehow related to a Roman goddess of fertility. Festivals and parades abound. The locals go out to the country to gather wildflowers or attempt the season’s first swim. This year it fell on a Monday, and being a major holiday, Athenians decided to enjoy a long weekend. Even the land celebrated; the countryside overflowed with flowers.

Arriving in Athens later than expected on Friday, we barely had time for a quick shower and change of clothes before walking uphill to our Welcome Dinner at the Cave of the Acropolis restaurant (I swear all of Greece is uphill).  The traditional meal started with a Greek salad, spinach pie, zucchini fritters, and some fried cheese. Totally sated by the appetizers, I could have passed on the chicken souvlaki and dessert, but I didn’t. Airline food (or the lack of it) for the last thirty-six hours had made me ravenous. 

Saturday we climbed the Acropolis and toured the modern Acropolis museum. Traditionally, tourist season starts in late May or early June. Someone forgot to tell the cruise ships. Although we got an early start, within an hour we were surrounded by passengers from three cruise ships who had made a day excursion to Athens. Social distancing an impossibility, we stood shoulder to shoulder with folks from all over the world. To call it crowded does not suffice. But more on the Acropolis later.

We decided to follow the locals out of town to The Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis on Sunday. For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Kore and her mother, Demeter, I give you a brief synopsis.

Demeter, the Greek goddess of nature and the harvest had a beautiful daughter named Kore. The god of the underworld, Hades (Pluto to the Romans), kidnaps and, perhaps, ravishes her. In deep despair, Demeter searches the Earth for Kore but cannot find her. Disguised as an old woman, Demeter stops to rest by a well in the city of Eleusis. She becomes a nursemaid to the son of the city’s Queen and initiates rites to make him immortal by baptizing him in fire each evening. The Queen finds out and upon seeing her son in flames threatens Demeter. The goddess throws off her disguise and is only mollified by the Queen’s promise to build a temple in her name. In return, Demeter teaches the son the art of agriculture.

However, Demeter still mourns her daughter. Crops fail, the people starve, and tributes to the pantheon of gods tank. Zeus, the head Greek god,  voices his displeasure about this turn of events. He persuades Hades to return Kore to her mother. But a problem exists.  Kore (Greek for maiden) becomes Persephone (she who brings doom). While in Hades she ate some pomegranate seeds.  Tradition states that any who eats while in the Underworld must remain there forever. Zeus wants to bend that rule and increase the tributes. So they make a deal. Persephone may reunite with her mother on Earth for half the year, but she must return to the Underworld for the other half. Agriculture thrives while she and her mother are reunited, and crops die while Persephone resides in the Underworld. And thus, we have the reason for the seasons. (Clever Greeks!)

Many cults arose in this area of Greece promising initiates that death does not represent the end, but should be embraced as part of the cycle of nature. The Eleusinian Mysteries reenacted the story of Demeter and her daughter. Rebirth awaited those who completed the proper rituals. The cult lasted almost two millennia, from approximately 1450 BCE to 392 CE. Each fall pilgrims would make the seven-mile journey from Athens to Eleusis to undergo secret rituals. Socrates, Plato, Cicero and Plutarch are only a few of the more famous adherents of this particular sect.

Entrance to Pluto’s Stairway to the Underworld.

The photo shows what is called Pluto’s Cave and represents the entrance to the Underworld. Persephone emerged each spring to bring plants back to life on Earth, and all died each autumn as she returned there. Without understanding the story of Demeter and Kore, the Sanctuary itself looks more like a pile of grey rubble with poppies and chamomile flowers adding a dash of color. A recently opened museum high on a hill displays Eleusis’s best archeological finds, which are impressive. 

Our group arrived early and we had the place to ourselves. But by the time we left to find some lunch, the lines at the entrance were long, and a parking spot became a rare find. Noon is much too early for lunch in Greece unless you bring your own. Fortunately, dinner awaited us upon our return to Athens. Rocket salad with raisins, almonds, raspberry sauce and goat cheese, Gruyere wrapped in kataifi pastry (very fine vermicelli-like threads) with pistachio nuts and honey, and French Fries double fried in olive oil and slathered in staka cream (a type of clarified butter produced from sheep’s milk). Decadent and delicious! Then orzo pasta with seafood and Lemon Armenoville for dessert. After two glasses of wine, I don’t remember much about the entree or dessert. As far as calories go, all I can say is it’s a good thing we walk uphill a lot.

We still had the official Monday holiday with promises of strikes, demonstrations, and city unrest ahead of us. But that story will have to wait for another day.

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