When the sun's heat had spent its greatest intensity upon the rock-strewn slopes of Hellas and her craggy shoulders lay fallow beneath the autumn trumpeting of cranes, men listened and prepared. The pulsing wings of the southbound flocks cast shadowed flutterings of winter across the parched soil and they knew the rains were near. They checked their yokes and harnesses, gathered in their foraging animals and made ready to plough. But before they lowered their wooden blades into the earth, they prayed to Demeter for a heavy crop of her sacred grain. Then, as now, they committed their precious seeds to the soil anxiously and with some foreboding, only to rejoice later when the harvest was good and to offer up their 'first-fruit' to 'the Sheaf-Bearing' goddess with the golden hair. Demeter, 'She of the Seed', crowned with ears of wheat; she who smiled upon the workers in the field and stood at the recesses of the greatest Mysteries.
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter suggests the arcane mystery of her nature through the tale of her daughter's abduction. It opens, "I begin to sing about the holy goddess, Demeter of the beautiful hair, about her daughter, Persephone of the lovely ankles, whom Hades snatched away", and goes on to reveal how the goddess gave forth the teachings that came to be known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Pluto (Hades), the Lord of the Dead, carried her off to be his bride in the gloomy shadows of the underworld. Her sorrowing mother tore off her harvest crown and vowed that corn (a generic term for all cereal grains) would never grow until her daughter was restored. So Zeus was compelled to command Pluto to disgorge his captive so that she might reside beneath the gaze of the gods for half the year before having to return under the earth each autumn. Thus appeased, Demeter made wheat sprout everywhere and taught the princes of Eleusis her secrets. In this beautiful myth mother and daughter are intertwined so as to obscure their natures and roles, but it is Demeter who gives forth the grain and Persephone who heralds its fecundation. Blended in mythical profusion with many goddesses of fertility, she is called σταχυώδης κούρη, 'the Wheat-Bearing Maiden', and is related to Isis, who is often depicted with ears of wheat on her head while holding the infant Horus. Both are related to Virgo, for they are virgin mothers, and their Indian counterpart, Kanya, is sometimes shown standing in an ark with a stalk of wheat in her hand. A direct connection between the worship of Demeter in the nine-day Eleusinian rites and similar observances in India can be discerned in the festival of Padmavati outside Bombay, where for nine nights during the bright half of the Aswin month (September-October) wheat is sown in earth spread before the goddess, who blesses its power of fertility. An echo of this is observed by Sicilian women who sow wheat in plates at Easter time. They place them in a dark enclosure until they begin to sprout, whereupon they are put on a sepulchre containing the effigy of Christ, who then rises from the dead. In some cultures maidens make gifts of sprouted wheat or bread to their husbands-to-be, so intermingling the desired bearing of fruit with the cycle of death and rebirth.
The ancient custom of placing wheat kernels in the grave was followed by mourners in diverse traditions, and in some places to this day the soul of the departed is made an offering of the grain. Peasant women in small Greek villages cook σιτάρι on the ninth day after the passing and place it in a flat pan with a cross of hulled almonds made upon it. All who wish the deceased well gather at his household and partake of the wheat on this day as well as on the fortieth day and thereafter on his death anniversary. In such cultures wheat is not handled carelessly, but is blessed, for it is the staff of life and follows even into death and regeneration. In some way, the secrets of Demeter remain constantly alive in the instinctive practices of simple and often very poor people. Sometimes these votaries still evoke her smile at harvesting time just as they continue to share her foreboding in the autumn when they put their meagre seed once more into the earth. As late as the nineteenth century, the Corn Goddess stood on the threshing-floor of Eleusis and ensured good grain to her worshippers. When she was carried away to Cambridge, where she now stands, the villagers lamented long and claimed a diminished harvest.
So Isis addressed the Hierophants, who taught that parts of the plant were the 'limbs' of Osiris scattered across the earth by nameless Great Ones. The immemorial Gupta Vidya teaches that the "Fruits and grain unknown to Earth to that day, were brought by the 'Lords of Wisdom' for the benefit of those they ruled - from other lokas . . ." Cycles of development ensued wherein the deep mysteries of the soul were impressed upon a source of nourishment for its living vessel. In this way, perhaps, a light-giving form of life was delivered into the world as Osiris, the Word made flesh.
Unlike all other grains which have been traced to their primogenital forms, wheat has never been found in an indisputably wild state. Botanists say that the genus Triticum or wheat is a member of the grass family and that the closest wild relative to bread wheat is Emmer, still to be found in an undomesticated state in parts of the Iranian plateau. But even they do not know what crossed with Emmer, whose kernels had the ability to fly off as they ripened, and brought about the development of a tighter, heavier variety whose ripened kernels fell straight to the ground. Without the attention of man, the heavier wheat with twenty-one instead of fourteen chromosomes could not survive. The husks of Emmer kernels open like wings and are carried by the wind to plots of exposed soil where they may eventually reproduce; but the bread wheat kernel has no such wings and must be broadcast by the hand of man in order to avoid exhaustion of the limited nutrients available in the soil immediately beneath the parent plant. It is one of the wonders of evolution that such a convergence of dependency and conscious understanding came about, and while many may casually speak of chance, the more thoughtful individual may wonder about the growth of perception in man and the effect it has upon the lower kingdoms in nature. Some may even see the subtle hand of the gods and their mode of working through available channels in order to uplift and cultivate the world.
One of the critical changes which has affected all forms of life on this globe was made by those people who first learned the art of the domestication and cultivation of grain. From that time the hunters and gatherers of the world began to diminish and their simple elementary way of life hovering so close to Nature's spirits began to wane. In their forests and deserts and icy reserves, cereal grain is not to be found, and they have fashioned their lives to maximize their ability to read the mute lips of the Great Mother's creatures and to learn the powers of the grasses and trees. The moment man began to mould, coax and manipulate even the smallest living thing, he was involved, perhaps without full comprehension, in gaining control over patterns and rhythms in nature and laying the foundation for what we call civilization. Accordingly, cereal and civilization developed hand-in-hand, for out of the domestication of the former arose the opportunity to control animals that could be fed with its surplus while being used for draft. The ability to do all this in one place led to full-scale urbanization and all the social, political and economic specialization that goes along with it. It has been said that the tale of wheat is the tale of man's achievement, and it would be pleasing to think that the course of this paired development had always been based upon noble principles. Agricultural improvements have often been made by men with 'cultivated minds' such as Jethro Tull of the early eighteenth century. Tull, educated at Oxford, left his mark in the world by inventing the seed drill and was coronated as 'the Morning Star of the Agricultural Revolution'.
Today, every implement ever developed for the ploughing, sowing, reaping and milling of grain is still used in some quarter of the globe. Many still use a single-furrow wooden plough drawn by mules or camels or cows, and cut their wheat with a hand sickle as people did ten thousand years ago. They bundle their harvest into sheaves and set them to dry before threshing. This threshing often involves the use of animals tethered to a central pole around which they walk while their feet crush the grain and separate the kernel from the chaff. Winnowing is done with long paddles used to throw the wheat up into the air and so permit lighter chaff to blow away. Sometimes αερομιλο - air mills - are used, so that the wind does the work of human hands and the heavy kernels fall to the stone floor where the precious wheat is gathered by hand and stored before being made into flour. The dweller of a highly industrialized society might therapeutically imagine the effort made year in and year out by millions of souls around the world who eke a meagre harvest out of narrow strips of stony soil. One hundred hours engaged in this oldest of methods is superseded by one hour with a combine-harvester. In some parts of the world women still use the hand quern, chanting songs while feeding the grain into the central hopper and turning stone upon stone for days at a time. Some have looked upon this way of life as cruel drudgery and have spoken of "the black-bread times, when the flour of all save the very rich was dark and filled with impurities. The black-bread times, when the peasant was overridden and crushed to the earth by his domineering and arrogant rulers." Sadly, ironically, life has revolved full cycle, and while the modern peasant at his plough dreams of industrialized liberation, the urbanized product of two centuries of intensive industrialization looks for black bread to restore his failing health and bequeath him with a slower, simpler life. The hand-in-hand development of grain and civilization has lost its balance, and the mystery of the golden kernel has still eluded modern man.
Yet it was joy, exhilaration, that Tolstoy felt as he anticipated working his way across a golden field with sharpened hand scythe. He described this vividly through the aristocratic character of Levin in his novel Anna Karenina. His vision of man working with the wheat, cutting through the stalks as he cuts through all distinctions of class and privileged aloofness, is profoundly uplifting. As Levin approached the field, "the peasants came into sight, mowing slowly one behind the other, in a long line, each swinging his scythe in his own manner, some with their coats on and some in their shirts. He counted forty-two of them." When he began to work with them, the old man who had taught him the art of using the tool made room for him at the front of the line behind himself. The first furrow was the most difficult, and Levin struggled to keep up. "He thought of nothing and wished for nothing except not to drop behind the peasants and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing except the swishing of the scythes and saw the erect figure of Titus receding in front of him, the curved half-circle of the mown grass, the grasses' heads slowly falling in waves about the blade of his scythe." One senses in Tolstoy's passages a blending of human consciousness with a movement adapted over the ages to the realization of the fruits of a sacred cycle of growth, a movement, perhaps, which could awaken the sensitive observer to the analogy between the origin and characteristics of wheat and his own.
The frontal side of a kernel of wheat is creased or sutured, while the dorsal shell is smooth and convex beneath its layers of bran. Within the base of the kernel is the germ or embryo which is connected to the scutellum containing reserve food for the germination process. Between this and the epiblast lies a young plant already differentiated into rudimentary roots, stems and leaves. The stem has a short, cone-shaped growing point which produces new tissue by cell division and is sheathed in three or more leaves. When the seed is planted about three inches in the soil, the sheaths covering the roots and stem emerge from the opening below the embryo and the first root thrusts forth to be followed by two groups of two, making five seminal roots that grow out in all directions. The growing points on the roots slough off their outer cells as the root is renewed from within, and hairs and branches grow from these less vital tissues. The main shoot is accompanied by secondary shoots or tillers which die as they give their strength to the central stem. This hollow staff grows in sections, each new internode growing out of a sheath which falls away, and after the development of several nodes the head begins to appear. When the head appears, the plant has changed from the vegetative to reproductive state. Flowers on a head may vary in number from twenty to one hundred and are grouped in spikelets enclosed in a chaff. Each flower has three stamens (male organs) and a feathery ovary with branched styles (female organs). When the flower blooms, the chaff is forced apart by the inner swelling and the anthers containing the pollen push up and open to release their seminal granules onto the now exposed feathery styles. Their contact causes a tube to grow down into the ovary through which the sperm-containing pollen passes in order to unite with the female egg. The zygote thus engendered develops into an embryo and the surrounding tissues into the endosperm and bran, the completed golden kernel of Demeter's bounty.
The individual character of the wheat is conditioned by the quality of the seed, the nature of the soil and climatic variables, and it is subject to diseases and the attack of insects. The wheat of virgin soil is strong and hardy but plagued by pests less prevalent in older soils, whereas older soils, though less enticing to insects, need constant fertilization to support a high crop yield. The growth and structure of young wheat involves a building up of nitrogen compounds, later fleshed out with starch. If normal development is checked by any of these conditions, the kernels may appear prematurely fattened and lack strength, or they may shrivel for lack of fattening. The production of a beautiful, full harvest requires a beneficent convergence of many variables, including the watchful eye and intelligent hand of man. The sprouting wheat takes its energy from above and from below. From the seed-kernel it grows up toward the sun and it spreads down into the earth, so that its golden flowering under the beam of the life-source is fully dependent upon perfection in timing and balance in growth. The husbandry needed to assist this marvellous process is of the same nature as that which man can apply in the encouragement of his own life-giving flowering. The sun and the earth, spirit and matter, meet in the slightly buried seed.
Demeter and Persephone, mother and virgin, symbolize the fall of spirit into matter. Being closely related to Virgo, their mythical role describes the link between the soul and the astral body. Thus we find Spika, 'the Ear of Wheat', in the constellation of the fecund Virgin who inhabits the most dense nebular region in the heaven - the incubator of the descending gods. It is this cycle of descent and ascent, death and rebirth, which lies at the core of the Mysteries. Gods and goddesses descended among men and taught them the mystical and practical secrets of grain. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that wheat played such a central symbolical role in the Eleusinian Mysteries. Of the elements that have come down to us from that carefully guarded rite, several provide important keys to understanding occult connections between the Divine Sowers, the seed and its harvest. These veiled mysteries were open only to initiates, but they welcomed men and women of all classes and conditions to prepare for such initiation and to participate in the nine-day ceremony which took place each autumn. Of special importance was the learning and worship of Triptolemus, the son of Demeter, who was said to have spread the golden seeds broadcast and taught to men her arts. Like Osiris and Hermes, he was the Judge of the Dead. A perfect balance marked the cycle of sowing and reaping, death and rebirth. Many were initiated into lesser degrees of knowledge concerning these things, but a few were guided forwards to the portals of the Epopteia during the month of Demeter. It is hinted that the ultimate revelation by the goddess involved the transformation of the Plain of Eleusis into a field of golden grain, and a sacred ear of wheat was shown by the hierophant to the privileged initiate. For thousands of years humanity was sustained and ennobled by such rites, and many were instructed by them. Pindar once wrote, echoing Sophocles and others, "Happy is he who, having seen these rites, goes below the hollow earth; for he knows the end of life and he knows its god-sent beginning." The sage Prospero invokes Ceres, Iris and Juno to confer upon the wondering Miranda and her beloved a sense of fruition, of the rhythms of nature and the most solemn duties of marriage. Demeter mourned Persephone's disappearance into the underworld of matter and death, yet the seed must be buried in the ground in order to spring up with higher life. So seeds are improved and better fruit produced. And thus it is that the virgin soul ever refines the astral matrix, striving to form a more perfect light-bearing vessel.
Those familiar with The Voice of the Silence may find that the beautiful verse quoted above from the Bible calls to mind the caution that "the pilgrim who would cool his weary limbs in running waters, yet dares not plunge for terror of the stream, risks to succumb from heat". In order to live one must be willing to die, to risk all, to take the meagre horde of seeds and to plant them in the earth, for there is no other way to increase the harvest. In this truth lies another mode of understanding the teachings from The Voice of the Silence and the Bible. If one covets his seed for himself and gives not some of his own sustenance to support another in need, then, like the heavy bread wheat, the seed will fall to the ground with the weight of greed and selfishness and die at the base of its parent stalk. But if one calls not the wheat one's own and if one aids in its widest possible distribution, it will strengthen and grow in ever new soil so that superior varieties will one day nourish even the disperser himself. "Give up thy life, if thou would'st live." Thus Great Teachers taught their disciples. "Give forth thy golden grain that others may live to become thy brethren." With great humility and gratitude one discerns that through the cultivation and dispersal of wheat, we are privileged to enact in the world a process that can be internalized, and in this way each emulates the sacrifice and bounty of the gods. Nature gives freely in her reflection of the divine archetypes. The Eleusinian Initiate comprehended this and gained his own place in relation to the Sowers, the seeds and the harvest as he gazed at the ear of wheat presented to him by the hierophant.
In 1900, before the potential of the North American yield was understood, there were numerous 'wheat-famine prophets'. As opportunities were grasped, Americans promised to feed the world and Europeans dreamed of relief for their weary and heavily exploited soil. George Washington had prided himself on raising wheat on his farm; when immigrants crossed the prairie in the 1800's, wheat was foremost in their minds. They ate it on the way west and, if possible, saved some for planting when finally they arrived at their destinations. But though much has been traded and sometimes given freely, the world has yet not been fed. Farmers are encouraged to let their fields lie fallow while people struggle to sleep on painfully empty stomachs in many places in the world. The free-flowing grain of Demeter has been cornered, hoarded, black marketed, wasted and in every way prostituted. In the "black-bread times", peasants who knew and worked with its mysteries were exploited and their budding soul-intuitions trammelled upon the soil which was not their own. In ancient times women were the universal millers of wheat, but with growing civilization mills were set up and controlled by the state or, as often as not, by the church. Embittered slaves and convicts were used to grind wheat into flour in Rome, and the medieval church forbade the individual use of querns so that people would be forced to bring their grain to the ecclesiastical mills for grinding. Although uprisings were common, both church and state succeeded in suppressing the use of private querns in Europe for over seven hundred years.
In India, owing to historical, social and political factors reflecting an extraordinarily complicated set of karmic variables, peasants often work plots of land less than three acres in size, chopped up into separated odd-shaped parcels. The soil is lacking in nitrogen; flooding and erosion problems are compounded by the distrust caused by absentee landlords and local money-lenders who always find a needy clientele. The glory of the harvest is small and fugitive, and much is lost to those who toil not and know nothing of the purity of newly sprouted grain or the joy in its gleaning. The factors working to frustrate the maximization of the wheat potential are manmade. This was dramatically illustrated as recently as 1965, when Norman Borlaug and his associates attempted to ship massive quantities of high-yield wheat strains from their successful programme in Mexico to India and Pakistan. The original seed from Mexico reached shipside in Los Angeles only a few hours before sailing schedule because the truck convoy transporting it had been almost hopelessly caught in traffic snarls caused by the Watts racial riots. The seed for both countries was at sea when war broke out between India and Pakistan, and trans-shipment of it resulted in its late arrival for planting. Partially due to this, the seeds underwent poor germination, followed by two consecutive years of the worst drought both areas had suffered in decades. Perhaps the drought had little to do with collective human consciousness, but it is difficult to exclude the effect of the latter when considering some of the other quite remarkable hurdles that the Green Revolution had to overcome in trying to root itself in Asia.
The term 'revolution' in this instance is not an exaggeration, for there are areas in Mexico where production of the new, more compact strains has increased by seven hundred per cent. This was done within twenty-two years of experimentation through cooperation, hard work and growing trust. Scientists became workers in the fields and farmers were respected as equals who learned and shared the results of their own findings. Great hope replaced the heavy blanket of fatalism which shrouds the perceptions of poor farmers everywhere in the world. The creative mind of man had again converged with the plastic potency of the genetic constitution of wheat, and their harmony brought forth much fruit. But human cooperation is always a prerequisite. Soil fertility is the most limiting factor throughout the world, and fertilizer must be made available. New water resources - such as the vast subterranean groundwater in much of India - must be tapped. Government officials must have an intimate knowledge of agriculture in order to aid in every way the maintenance of such a delicate and complex process. New varieties of wheat must be developed continually to withstand the ever-evolving strains of new diseases and pests; when a change of one factor affecting crop production is introduced, it is necessary to manipulate other factors in order to capitalize on the potential breakthrough in yields. Today, millions of farmers in India have faith in chemical fertilizers, and yet the political system supports no programme to ensure its supply. So, it circulates on the black market while the bureaucratic paperwork of service organizations multiplies. There must be cooperation at all levels of a society for men to bring forth the potential of wheat, and there must be a genuine commitment to universal brotherhood for its nourishment to be shared around the globe. Wheat tests this commitment, and unless people everywhere can freely cultivate its bounty, religious claims and political ideologies are no better than sounding brass.
If the simple farmer of the world could participate in sensitive dialogues with scientists, poets, politicians and agro-businessmen, he might find the means of communicating his inner knowledge. Possibly, he has not consciously thought of the similarity between the growth of the roots and that of his own child, even though his folk sayings cover everything from 'little sprout' to images of 'the Grim Reaper' and suggest that many such connections have been made. Perhaps someone who had observed the process of germination by watching an accelerated film might wonder about the sutured kernel and be reminded of the fontanelle of the human cranium. Some dreamer, aware of ancient beliefs, might speculate upon the five roots that radiate out into the soil like a star and remember the shape of man in the world. An intuitive artist or scientist might observe the emerging sprout as it reaches out of the earth towards the sun with its cone-shaped growing point, and even recall that the pineal gland is cone-shaped and that the ancient Aryans viewed it as the seat of the Third Eye. The simple farmer, acquainted with such thoughts, might then be inspired to recount the old story of the virgin goddess holding the spike of wheat and ascending to the centre around which the sun revolved, and so heralding the end of a great cycle.
A wandering seer who heard all this might remind those gathered that man grows in spiritual knowledge like the internodes of the stem which grow out of sheaths that are sloughed away. And, as the group meditated together, they might all realize that each measure of growth is marked by the dying of secondary shoots which surrender their strength to the main stem. They could recall the decisions made in a lifetime which contributed to the development of the central line of their lives and they might wonder what fruit it will bear. The scientist in their midst, who knows that all the varieties of wheat are composed genetically of multiples of seven chromosomes, may reflect upon the words of the sage who speaks of seven nodes on the hollow staff symbolizing the basic seven principles of man and the universe. The perceptive might ponder the fact that each wheaten flower produces three male organs which perform the job of pollination - "like an over-arching Triad". And, after much discussion and open-minded assimilation, these men might become collectively aware that they stand on the threshold of an insight which spans all their various perspectives, renders meaningful all their separate and particular experiences, and blends them all into a larger vision.
With concentrated effort, while not failing to tend carefully their fields, men might even become inspired to see the hollow stem of wheat as a narthex such as that nodular rod in which Prometheus secreted the fire stolen from the gods. They could see it as the caduceus, a laya rod which grows at the beginning of every manvantara and is the neutral point balancing in undulating currents the forces of good and evil. They might perceive that it channels the solar ray down into the earth and charges the lunar vegetation in its upward growth. As they themselves in their joint focus slough away outgrown sheaths, they can contemplate the head of the grain and see in it the fruits of Hermes, 'the Logos Spermatikos', which will ripen, flower and fill with light. In the rhythm of their meditations they might recognize the sacred alchemical process echoed in the movement experienced by Levin as he worked alongside the peasants on his estate. For Tolstoy wrote that the longer he went on mowing, "the oftener he experienced those moments of oblivion when it was not that his arms swung his scythe, but that the scythe itself made his whole body full of life and conscious of itself, moving after it, and as though by magic the work did itself, of its own accord and without a thought being given to it, with the utmost precision and regularity. These were the most blessed moments."
If Levin had communicated his experience to the men with whom he worked, they might have laughed at his need to do so, but they would have recognized his words as part of the truth of their lives. If they had sat together with others who had been pondering the analogous nature of wheat and man, they might have affirmed that though the crop production and the mode of life in a traditional agriculture are at an equilibrium, it is one which persists at a very low level. They might have rejoiced to hear Dr. Borlaug comment, if he had also joined their company, that "The peasant farmer is an artist. He extracts a meagre subsistence living from the soil under conditions in which scientists, bureaucrats and politicians would starve." At this point, the increasingly large assembly might well remain silent for a spell, deeply moved in contemplation of the tragic imbalances which distort and clog the central work of both wheat and man. Having entered thus far into their cooperative vision, they might now look into each other's eyes and vow to do all in their power to slough away their lesser desires and to pour their strength into that central channel within themselves that will bear the head of the best fruit they can possibly produce. And having learnt the lesson of sacrifice exemplified by the Sowers and the wheat itself, they could vow to do this on behalf of each other so that all may reap the divine harvest.
O Beloved Sower,
Hermes, September 1978