A symbolon was an object meant to recall some aspect of a mystery cult to an initiate. The object was often ordinary, but it became embued with extra meaning through its ability to recall and symbolize either the underlying myths associated with the cult, or an aspect of the initiation process.
Our primary symbolon is the kantharos, an ancient Greek drinking cup. The Greeks had many different shapes for drinking vessels, but the kantharos is closely associated with the symposium, or the elite male drinking party, and as a symbol of the god Dionysos and/ or initiation into his mysteries.
Image: Apulian red-figure kantharos, ca. 325 - 300 B.C. Attributed to the Painter of Bari 5981, height with handles 11 in. (27.9 cm), Metropolitan museum of art, Rogers Fund, 1906, AN 06.1021.233, open access image.
By extension, it's associated with this shape, the krater - a large vessel for mixing wine and water (ancient Greek wine was fresh and strong; it was a mark of civilization to the Greeks to know how to drink in moderation, and always to cut one's wine with water).
Image: Attic red-figure bell-krater, ca. 440 B.C. Attributed to the Persephone Painter, ca. 440 B.C. H. 16 1/8 in. (41 cm); diameter of mouth 17 7/8 in. (45.4 cm), Metropolitan museum of art, Fletcher Fund, 1928, AN 28.57.23, open access image.
This was the mystery cult par excellence, the cult of Demeter and Daughter (Kore) at Eleusis, which in the classical period was a part of the polis of Athens. Depicted on the krater to the left is a scene of the return of Persephone (Kore) from the underworld and her joyful reunion with her mother in the springtime meadow, with Hermes psychopompos (leader of souls) guiding her way with his caduceus, and Hekate with the Eleusinian double torches. This is the moment of revelation, of the culmination of the mysteries - the return of spring to the meadow after the winter of death, and all that this promises to the initiate.
RED POPPY: These gorgeous blooms spring up naturally in the fields all across the Mediterranean at the onset of spring. It's easy to see why this timing made the flowers a perfect symbol for the return of the goddess Persephone from the underworld. The bright red color was also suggestive of the relationship between blood, death, and fertility - particularly for women - and what's more, the flowers pop up on the edges of the cultivation and in the fields of Demeter, Persephone's mother - only these blooms are wild and untamed, a perfect symbol for a girl not yet sacrificed to marriage. The interplay of cultivated wheat and wild blood-red poppies is itself symbolic of the relationship between the mature mother and the daughter just reaching the age for marriage and childbirth. We believe it is this red flower and not the opium poppy which is a prominent symbol of the mystery cult dedicated to Demeter and her daughter, the Eleusinian mysteries.
This one's a longer story; suffice it here to say that the beautiful youth who succumbed to his own charms and transformed into a white and yellow flower (according to Ovid, anyway) is associated with scrying, lecanomancy, evil-eyeing, and is an iconic image of the dangers and the allure of natural places. Its scent is literally intoxicating, making it no surprise that the flower's name is associated with the root word narke (numbness, torpor) from which we get our term narcotic. Perhaps that's not so different from the forgetfulness offered by Helen's nepenthes pharmakon. But we've chosen it to complete our trio of symbola for another reason: it's the flower created by Hades as a "delightul toy" (athurma) to lure away Persephone from her companions in the meadow and enchant her. It's the original symbolon, in other words - the reminder of Persephone's own initiation - she who is the queen of mysteries. Without being initiates ourselves, what exactly the narcissus symbolizes we will never know - except that surely it combines a reminder both of the terrors of the initiation process and of the beatific revelations that it promises. We can observe, however, that in Walter Crane's great pre-Raphelite painting of the abduction of Persephone, he's cleverly suggested a similarity between Persephone herself and the narcissus she is picking - she is dressed in white with a saffron yellow robe trailing on the ground, just as the flower is white with a ring of yellow. A crocus-yellow peplos or girl's fancy dress robe was closely associated in Greek myth with girls just reaching marriageable age - i.e. girls "in the meadow."
IMAGE: Walter Crane (1845–1915), The Fate of Persephone (1878), oil and tempera on canvas, 122.5 × 267 cm, Private collection. Public domain image curtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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