Perched on a promontory overlooking the archaeological site of Eleusis stands a small church dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Panagia in Greek, meaning the All-holy One). It was first mentioned in a letter, written in 1794, but it seems likely that it was built much earlier. The bell tower was added in the 19th century. The church is famous for the festival that takes place on 21 November, to commemorate the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple. The feast day is known as Panagia Mesosporitissa and it is only then (and on the previous day, 20 November) that the church is open to the public. But it is the rituals that take place in the open air that make a trip to Eleusis on that day a must for anyone interested in Greek traditions.
To sow or not to sow? That is the question
Since the prehistoric period, farmers in Attica (where Eleusis is located) have sown their grain in the fall, right after the early rains have fallen. Mild and wet winters are perfectly suitable for barley, the traditional crop here, which requires plenty of water in the early stages of growth, but would wither and die in the summer heat. The sowing begins in the middle of October and lasts until the end of December. It is a time of anxiety for the farmer, since much depends on the weather, a factor over which he or she has very little control. A lack of rain will ruin the crop; an early, severe or prolonged, frost will kill the young shoots. Sowing is one of the most critical times of the agricultural year, and farmers feel a greater need for rituals (or even magic) to protect their fields and their future prosperity.
Deal or No Deal
The church calendar is intimately connected to the agrarian cycle. Most (if not all) modern religious festivals incorporate elements of fertility and increase. Christian saints play a role similar to that of ancient gods and goddesses. They receive a blood sacrifice or a bloodless contribution (in the form of food) and in return ensure the fecundity of the soil. The agricultural year is also closely associated with the biography of Virgin Mary. The Dormition (15 August) and burial of Panagia (23 August) mark the end of the agricultural (and liturgical) year, a period when the earth rests and awaits the “first rains”.
Virgin Mary in the Underworld
The Mother of God descends into the underworld, only to return in early autumn, when a new agrarian cycle begins. The church of Panagia in Eleusis is situated above the cave of Hades, the ancient Greek god of the dead. It is a potent reminder of life’s triumph over death. Her stay there is brief, for soon the fall rains come and the farmer prepares the soil for sowing. It is a laborious process, so by the time the church celebrates the entry of Panagia into the Temple, the farmers have sown approximately half their land. This is the origin of the feast-day’s name, since mesos means “middle”, and spora means “seed, sowing”.
A sea of bread
On the day of the festival, women boil a mixture of grain seeds and legumes, called polysporia (“varied seed”), and bring them to the church to be blessed by the priest. The main festival is celebrated outside the church in the early evening. The participants arrive carrying loaves of bread (some of them in baskets). The most characteristic form is the round holy bread known as prosphoro, which is a typical offering to the church, while other cakes are elaborate or sprinkled with icing sugar. The ancient Greeks also boiled a mixture of the edible plants they would sow, and offered it to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. The festival of the Mesosporitissa indicates that the Virgin Mary has assumed the role of patroness and comforter of the farmer at a time of critical need. The officiating priest ends up standing before a sea of bread and lighted candles. He blesses one of the loaves symbolically, and then the women distribute their offerings to all the participants, who return home full of hope for a good and prosperous year.