On Triptolemus And Demeter, Soma And The Sacral Rites Of Life And Land

A foundational principle of Indo-European ritual is succinctly expressed in the Latin maxim – ‘Do Ut Des’ : “I Give So That You Might Give”. The Tale of Triptolemus might be thought to similarly simply express the truth of this utterance – although upon closer examination, its resonancies are anything but “simple”, especially when considered in the proper comparative Indo-European light! 

For those unaware, Triptolemus is a figure closely associated with both grain and the Goddess Demeter. There are varying accounts of Triptolemus’ origins and parentage, which – while interesting – we shall not concern ourselves with here. For now, it is enough to know that in most versions of the myth, Demeter is hospitably received and this leads to a boon being bestowed to Triptolemus. 

Straightaway, we can see another frequently encountered concept of Indo-European religion – that of the God as Guest, and invited and thence treated (in the archaic sense also – of offering something to, particularly sustenance) as such. 

The manner of the boon’s administration vary dependent upon the form of the myth being looked at. The Second Homeric Hymn to Demeter presents the occasion as Demeter wandering ‘dark-cloaked’ in the disguised form of an old woman following the loss of Persephone, calling Herself ‘Doso’ (Δωσὼ – that is to say ‘I Shall Give’), teaching Her Rites and “Mysteries” to Triptolemos – there regarded as a chief of the land in question (other recountings have Triptolemos as a child, a son of the couple who take Her in; Ovid specifies a ‘feast’ of milk (with dissolved curd), apples, and honey); whilst a young infant, Demophon, is fed on Her divine breastmilk, anointed with Ambrosia, breathed upon by Her (in at least one telling – that of Ovid, who appears to conflate Demophon and Triptolemus in this regard – there are ‘spells’ spoken thrice as well, that are beyond the ability of a mortal to utter; part of a series of actions beginning with Divine Breath, then the milk, then stroking the infant thrice, then the ‘Spells’, and then the Fire), and begins to become closer to divinity himself in consequence. Unfortunately, Demophon’s mother catches sight of the other part to Demeter’s child-care approach .. that of placing Demophon within a fire (interestingly referred to as the ‘Menos’ of Fire – ‘Menos’ being ‘(Active) Spirit’, ‘Passion/Desire’, ‘Power’, or ‘Violence’, etc.; therefore suggesting that this is ‘Alive Fire’ rather than mere mundane inflammation – in the manner of the PIE distinction between ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ fire with the former being divinely connected and underpinning ‘Agni’ etc.), and in her shock at seeing this raises vocal objection – thus causing Demeter to drop the child, with perhaps predictable results. 

However, all is not lost – and Demeter then states that She is going to teach Her Rites to the people; then re-assuming Her Divine Form. 

These Rites plausibly pertain to a few things – but in particular amongst them should seem to be the fertility of the land. For that is where the Homeric Hymn then proceeds. Demeter is wandering having lost Persephone, and so the lands are cursed with barrenness in Her Immense Grief. 

We are therefore unsurprised to find that in various other forms of the myth, Triptolemus is hailed as having Demeter’s Blessing, in the specific forms of a serpentine/dragon-drawn chariot, and the ability to sow seeds which shall germinate and restore vegetation’s abundance to the world. Whether this is due to a chieftain or noble figure having been taught the priestly aptitudes in question – or whether it is due to, as other tellings have it, Triptolemos being in effect adopted as a foster-son of the Goddess, the impact is the same. 

And now for the comparanda which unlocks the archaic Indo-European underpinnings of this myth.

Triptolemos is an intriguing term in terms of its etymology. There are two broad proposals – either it means Three War[riors] [Ptolemos – πτόλεμος], or it means Beater of Rinds/Husks [“Tripto(s) + Lemma [λέμμᾰ]”]. I am not sure that these terms are intended mutually exclusively, as we may see in process. 

The curious thing about the former proposal is that Ptolemos plausibly is from a Proto-Indo-European term – Pel – which has as its ambit of meaning, ‘push’, ‘press’, ‘pound’. Triptolemos, therefore, should mean something of the order of ‘Triple Press[er]’. Why is this pertinent? Because the etymology for the Vedic ‘Soma’ and Old Norse ‘Kvasir’ – effectively mean ‘That Which Is Crushed’, ‘That Which Is Pressed’. Indeed, Soma is produced via the application of the ‘Press-Stones’ to crush the stalks of the plant in question. This occurs in triple format – there are three daily Soma pressings/offerings; and likewise, we have three vessels for the Mead of Poetry produced of Kvasir. This would not appear to be coincidental. 

So, Triptolemos, therefore, would be the figure carrying out just such a triple-pressing. Which would plausibly form part of those Rites and Mysteries taught to Him by Demeter. Those rites which bring about life – and which may also underpin significant empowerment for the imbiber of an elixir, a milky elixir, made with honey, likewise. I specify ‘milk’ and ‘honey’ for we have met just such a brew repeatedly aforehand – bestowed by the Meliai [‘Ash-Nymphs’ – yet also with ‘Meli’ as in Honey as part of the designation] to nourish the infant Zeus, or the Etruscan presentation of Hercle (Hercules / Herakles) being ‘adopted’ by Uni (Juno – the Wife of the Sky Father), and nourished to the point of implicit effective apotheosis via Her Divine Breastmilk; or, of course, the attestations both numinous and numerous in the Vedas for Vak Aditi Saraswati, hailed as the Mother Cow, providing streams of milk (which are, intriguingly, correlate also with Speech Themselves, or perhaps ‘Awareness’; three that are found within our worlds, and a fourth which is beyond comprehension – perhaps not unlike the unintelligible/unrepeatable ‘Spells’ made use of by Demeter when bestowing milk which empowers Triptolemus), which resonate rather strongly with the Soma. 

This is exactly as we should expect, given the vitally important role of a romantic partner of the Sky Father deific in the production of Soma / the Mead of Poetry – Vak Saraswati in the Vedic understanding (co-operating with the Asvins, c.f WYV XIX 12), Gunnlod (a name itself derived from a ‘Crushing’ term in PIE, as we reviewed in ‘The Way of the Gun’ recently; the other half meaning ‘Hospitality’) in the Eddic. 

In terms of a proper comparanda, we can quite easily situate Demeter with relation to Vak – I have addressed this at some length in various of my other works, so shall not repeat it in great depth nor detail here. Instead, there is one particular portion of the Shatapatha Brahmana which sprang instantly to mind of obvious saliency for these mat(t)ers – 

SB IV 6 9:

“16 They sit down by their several dhishnya-hearths. Now, once on a time, the pith of Vâk (speech) wished to desert the gods who had won it; it tried to creep away along this earth, for Vâk is this earth: her pith are these plants and trees. By means of this Sâman they overtook it, and, thus overtaken, it returned to them. Hence upwards on this earth grow the plants, and upwards the trees. And in like manner does the pith of Vâk wish to desert these (sacrificers) who have won it, and tries to creep away along this earth,–for Vâk is this earth: her pith are these plants and trees. By means of this Sâman they overtake it, and, thus overtaken, it returns to them. Hence upwards on this earth grow the plants, and upwards the trees.

17 They chant verses of the queen of serpents; for the queen of serpents is this earth: through her they thus obtain everything. The prelude is performed by (the Udgâtri) himself, and the chant is not joined in (by the choristers), lest some one else overhear it. For he would cause (the performance) to be in excess were another to chant; he would cause an excess, were another to join in it; he would cause an excess, were another to overhear it: therefore the prelude is performed by (the Udgâtri) himself, and the chant is not joined in.”

As we have again previously addressed quite voluminously, in a substantive piece of similar naming to the figure – the Indo-European Mother Goddess has a Serpentine form. This is frequently associated with Vengeance (i.e. the restoration of Cosmic Order – She is the Active Enforcement Clause to the Divine Law, we may say; particularly when in Black, Furious format – as seen with Demeter Erinyes (the raging in a state of ‘Menis’ (‘Furor’, etymologically cognate with Sanskrit ‘Manyu’, upon Whom we have written quite extensively; also the term used to present the ‘Rage of Achilles’ in the Iliad) ‘dark’ form taken by Her following the abduction of Persephone – i.e. the period wherein the Triptolemus encounter occurs, perhaps explaining the pointed ‘Dark-Cloaked’/Shrouded descriptors in the relevant Homeric Hymnal), Devi as Kali, and Skadi (Wife of Odin, with a name suggesting ‘Shade’) making use of a serpent to punish Loki); however it is also pointedly associated with fertility of the land. Indeed, as applies the more general typological elements here – that of the upholding of the Divine Order (through righteous violence), and the restoration of life to the land … in Hindu understanding, we can find these as one and the same when we consider the example of Devi as Shakambhari – where She both conquers a demon army (irrigating the desiccated earth with rivers of their blood) and also restores the knowledge of the Rites to mankind, providing them with fruits and other vegetable matter that they may offer up as part of these, thus enabling the ‘gifting cycle’ upon which the rhythm of the cosmos depends, to resume and (demonic-disruption of same caused) drought and famine to come to an end. 

However, to address the Shatapatha Brahmana verses above – what we find is, again, quite clear in its resonancy with Greek myth pertaining to Demeter. There, too, we have Demeter engaged in a wandering away from Her Station with “the Deathless Gods” (this is repeatedly stated in the aforementioned Homeric Hymn), and there to do we have an ophidian association for the restoration of fertility to the land following a Divine assuagement/persuasion for Her to return to Them. However, rather than the actual serpentine form of Demeter which we find attested elsewhere in Greek myth, in the tale of Triptolemos it is the Dragon-drawn Chariot of Demeter which is relevant; bestowed to Triptolemos by Demeter that Triptolemus might fly forth across the land sowing grain and restoring abundance to the otherwise-barren earth. The relevant ‘Verses of the Queen of Serpents’ mentioned in the Shatapatha Brahmana there, pertain to a RigVedic Hymnal – RV X 189 – that is attributed to Vak, and likewise feature the empowerment of a figure to fly through the air rendering the world habitable again; in that case, with a particularly Solar saliency, correlated with the ritual fires of sacrifice, a (male) bovine, and the empowerment with Speech of a Bird … the animals in question, other than the Goddess as Cow, likely connoting the Sky Father deific. It is quite also apparent that the enaction of the relevant rites to Demeter, the construction of Her Temple in Eleusis similarly presage the (eventual) restoration of fertility to the land (albeit with this occurring in the Homeric Hymn following the restoration of Persephone to Her Mother; and with other sources placing this a-priori to Triptolemus being granted the Boons for Mankind in consequence). 

It almost goes without saying that there is quite a lot more we could feasibly suggest about just about all of the above, and at far greater length than we have already extolled. But there is another – perhaps brief – point I feel I should make.

Porphyry, a Neoplatonic and noted advocate for vegetarianism, includes the following passage in his ‘On Abstinence From Animal Food’ IV:

“We learn, therefore, that Triptolemus was the most ancient of the Athenian legislators; of whom Hermippus, in the second book of his treatise on Legislators, writes as follows: “It is said, that Triptolemus established laws for the Athenians. And the philosopher Xenocrates asserts, that three of his laws still remain in Eleusis, which are these, Honour your parents; Sacrifice to the Gods from the fruits of the earth; Injure not animals.” Two of these, therefore, he says, are properly instituted. For it is necessary that we should as much as possible recompense our parents for the benefits which they have conferred on us; and that we should offer to the Gods the first-fruits of the things useful to our life, which they have imparted to us. But with respect to the third law, he is dubious as to the intention of Triptolemus, in ordering the Athenians to abstain from animals. Was it, says he, because he thought it was a dire thing to slay kindred natures, or because he perceived it would happen, that the most useful animals would be destroyed by men for food? Wishing, therefore to make our life as mild as possible, he endeavoured to preserve those animals that associate with men, and which are especially tame. Unless, indeed, because having ordained that men should honour the Gods by offering to them first-fruits, he therefore added this third law, conceiving that this mode of worship would continue for a longer time, if sacrifices through animals were not made to the Gods. But as many other causes, though not very accurate, of the promulgation of these laws, are assigned by Xenocrates, thus much from what has been said is sufficient for our purpose, that abstinence from animals was one of the legal institutes of Triptolemus. Hence, those who afterwards violated this law, being compelled by great necessity, and involuntary errors, fell, as we have shown, into this custom of slaughtering and eating animals. The following, also, is mentioned as a law of Draco: “Let this be an eternal sacred law to the inhabitants of Attica, and let its authority be predominant for ever; viz. that the Gods, and indigenous Heroes, be worshipped publicly, conformably to the laws of the country, delivered by our ancestors; and also, that they be worshipped privately, according to the ability of each individual, in conjunction with auspicious words, the firstlings of fruits, and annual cakes. So that this law ordains, that divinity should be venerated by the first offerings of fruit which are used by men, and cakes, made of the fine flour of wheat.”

It would be tempting to simply write this off as a very late (circa 3rd century A.D.) philosopher with an agenda putting words in the mouths of far more ancient figures in a bid to claim legitimacy for his preferential provisions. Yet I am not entirely sure if that is the case. For other than the potential that the remarks of other authorities of antiquity upon this subject are as he suggests them to be, there is a curious resonancy with the ritual substitution formulas found in the Shatapatha Brahmana. These would date from at least a millennium prior to when Porphyry was writing in their codification (and various elements in said text are demonstrably of far greater – indeed, PIE Urheimat – antiquity, as we have covered elsewhere), and set out a schema whereby animal (or, for that matter, human) sacrifice can be substituted for with alternative edible offerings. It is partially upon this basis that we today, as Hindus, are fine in offering baked goods and fruits. Part of the implicit logic for this form of offering in the Brahmana itself, is that the ‘energy’ of sacrifice has grown up in the form of crops and may therefore be re-offered to continue on the next phase of the cycle – it is energy which has ‘gone into the earth’, and which has come back up again via “digging” which produces the aforementioned crops in question. In other words – it is of specific importance as applies ensuring the fertility of the land and natural abundance of consumable vegetation. 

The supposition that this may, therefore, preserve an archaic PIE traditional understanding is likely to run into the immediate objection that so far as we know the Proto-Indo-Europeans were not large-scale plantation farmers. Which is often misinterpreted by many as the archaic Indo-Europeans not being farmers at all – presumably because this does not fit comfortably with a reductionist ‘headcanon’ about steppe pastoralists as a sort of raiding, hunting, and assumedly barely-even-omnivorous “barbarian” pastiche. While some of the (later) Classical corpus of texts around Triptolemos make an interesting point about his boon of agriculture being unavailable to the Scythians (and/or potentially Thrace) due to an incident in which Triptolemus or one of the Dragons drawing the chariot was attacked by a barbarian king … this contrasts rather heavily with the evidence available to us that Scythians did, in fact, know how to farm, consumed cereals, and were even exporting significant quantities of grain to Greece many centuries before these later texts had been written (which, when placed alongside the name of the supposed Scythian king in question, leads me to suspect that at best this is a symbolic representation for something else, that has become misunderstood, misinterpreted, and therefore misapplied). Further, the fact that we have an array of Proto-Indo-European terms shared among both East and West branches of its descent for not only various agriculturally derived edibles (including quite specifically grains and cereals) but also the actual mechanics entailed in their production (featuring sowing, ploughing, threshing, chaff, etc.) … would appear to rather strongly suggest at least some active facility with agriculture (notwithstanding the saliency for non-IE substrate contributions about particular elements where these later-encountered non-IE populations may have held competitive advantage – for example, the potentially BMAC-origin terms for ‘irrigation channels’ encountered in Indo-Iranian and Tocharian) ; and there is also the again demonstrable fact that we have mythic/religious concordancies in multiple Indo-European descendant populations for ritual and mythic occurrences of significant import for agriculture. Even if agriculture were left largely out of the equation, I see no reason to suspect that the earthy abundance of consumable foodstuffs sourced from plants should have no space within the archaic Indo-European world view – nor, therefore, their devotional framework of tangible applications. 

To bring things back to the aforementioned Shatapatha Brahmana ritual understanding – the specific place where it is given tangible expression to which I am referring (SB I 2 3), has it immediately after a rite of penitence for the act of Brahmanicide carried out by Lord Indra and Trita Aptya (Who actually does the deed, upon Indra’s behalf), that being the killing of Trisiras (the Three Headed – see various of my previous works for more details, in particular the “On The Indo-European Typology Of Iolaus – Third Dragon-Slayer”). I mention this in part due to the fact that the Brahmanicide (Brahmahatya) – as a direct offence against the immanency and saliency of Rta (Cosmic Order) here within this universe of ours – is accompanied by a terrifying female personification, black in visage, rising up out of the Earth to pursue the perpetrator and drive them to quaking madness in the manner of a Greek Erinyes; hence the necessity of the expiation rites to remove the imprecation of this most grievous Sin. Demeter Erinyes, Whom we have implicitly previously met earlier in this piece when She is out wandering in ‘dark-cloaked’ and Menis [‘Fury’] visage following Her circumstances viz. Persephone – is quite strongly resonant with this understanding for reasons which ought be obvious (and which I had earlier examined in ‘The Queen of Serpents – The Serpentine Figure of the Indo-European Earth Mother’ … inter several alia). It may therefore be less than coincidental that we find a resonancy between ritual elements involved in propitiating the fearsome Black Avenging Form and turning the emanation of ‘Death’ (back) to ‘Life’ in each of these Indo-European mytho-religious spheres. Certainly, it is not hard to see how Trita Aptya [‘Third, Son of the Waters’; with the ‘Third’ in question potentially being the ‘Third Pressing’ of the daily rites] might possibly have some shared derivation with relation to Triptolemos, the Son of Oceanus [a parentage attested in a number of Classical sources – in amidst, to be sure, others], particularly given the role of both figures as Priest(s). However, these potential linkages are somewhat tangential, and I do not wish for them to obscure the far more substantive coterminities which underpin the actual major thrust of my analysis viz. Triptolemus in proper (broader) Indo-European situation. 

To return to that, then – what can be quite safely stated is that the mythology around Triptolemos presents us with a number of elements easily recognizable through the lenses of Vedic comparanda to therefore (due to their co-occurrence amidst the Greeks and Romans) be of archaic, even Proto- Indo-European origination. A situation perhaps surprisingly unimpeded by the somewhat mutually internally contradictory details of the various Classical accounts of the figure – they agree enough, about enough, that a typology is evident built around a few core details; and even those points they do not agree upon, various of the more prominent ones we can likely connect either to each other or to, again, broader Indo-European understandings. 

As we have seen – the very name of ‘Triptolemos’ itself connotes something resonant: ‘Three-Press[ing]’ , ‘Third-Press[ing]’ – as akin to the other understandings in amidst the Vedic and Eddic Indo-European contexts, where three is the number for ‘That Which Is Pressed’ (Soma / Kvasir) with remarkable consistency. As we have also seen, the utilization of the Divine Milk of the Mother Goddess (in symbolic ‘Cow’ form or otherwise) in the course of nourishment and empowerment of a person (with this ’empowerment’ potentially also entailing the faculty of speech or specific facility with a pious, operationalizable form of sacred speech) should be likewise regarded as indelibly Indo-European, particularly given its strongly evident conceptual overlap with the ‘milk and honey’ understanding for the more ‘manufactured’ ’empowering elixir’ produced via the ‘pressed’ stalks of the certain plant. We have also observed that the Mother Goddess may bestow not only Her Milk, or the secrets to the provision of potions remarkably similar to same, but also broader ritual understandings and operational procedures – make a man a Priest, in effect [and certainly, there is at least one – vitally important – line of Shruti where this is directly stated to be the case). With these ritual operationalizations plausibly including those intended to placate the Goddess (encouraging Her to return Home) and facilitate the re-fertility of the formerly-teemingly-abundant earth with vegetative growth, featuring a certain ‘draconic/serpentine’ association for said Mother Goddess in this specific context as well, likewise. 

Even despite the … multifaceted state of the Classical corpus when presenting the myth of Triptolemus , it is difficult to deny the overt unity of essence on show here in broader Indo-European terms. 

Hail Triptolemos ; Hail Demeter 

Jai Vak Devi ! 

One thought on “On Triptolemus And Demeter, Soma And The Sacral Rites Of Life And Land

  1. Pingback: On Triptolemus And Demeter, Soma And The Sacral Rites Of Life And Land – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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