The Eleusinian Mysteries (Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) were initiations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis in ancient Greece. They are the “most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece”.Their basis was an old agrarian cult, and there is some evidence that they were derived from the religious practices of the Mycenean period. The mysteries represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld Hades, in a cycle with three phases: the descent (loss), the search, and the ascent, with the main theme being the ascent (άνοδος) of Persephone and the reunion with her mother. It was a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spread to Rome. Similar religious rites appear in the agricultural societies of Near East and in Minoan Crete.
The rites, ceremonies, and beliefs were kept secret and consistently preserved from antiquity. For the initiated, the rebirth of Persephone symbolized the eternity of life which flows from generation to generation, and they believed that they would have a reward in the afterlife. There are many paintings and pieces of pottery that depict various aspects of the Mysteries. Since the Mysteries involved visions and conjuring of an afterlife, some scholars believe that the power and longevity of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a consistent set of rites, ceremonies and experiences that spanned two millennia, came from psychedelic drugs. The name of the town, Eleusís, seems to be Pre-Greek and it is probably a counterpart with Elysium and the goddess Eileithyia.
Eleusinian Mysteries (Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) was the name of the mysteries of the city Eleusis.
The name of the city Eleusis is Pre-Greek, and may be related with the name of the goddess Eileithyia. Her name Ἐλυσία ( Elysia) in Laconia and Messene, probably relates her with the month Eleusinios and Eleusis, but this is debated.
Demeter and Persephone
The Mysteries are related to a myth concerning Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility as recounted in one of the Homeric Hymns (c. 650 BC). According to the hymn, Demeter’s daughter Persephone (also referred to as Kore, “maiden”) was assigned the task of painting all the flowers of the earth. Before completion, she was seized by Hades, the god of the underworld, who took her to his underworld kingdom. Distraught, Demeter searched high and low for her daughter. Because of her distress, and in an effort to coerce Zeus to allow the return of her daughter, she caused a terrible drought in which the people suffered and starved, depriving the gods of sacrifice and worship. As a result, Zeus relented and allowed Persephone to return to her mother.
According to the myth, during her search Demeter traveled long distances and had many minor adventures along the way. In one she taught the secrets of agriculture to Triptolemus. Finally, by consulting Zeus, Demeter reunited with her daughter and the earth returned to its former verdure and prosperity: the first spring.
Zeus, pressed by the cries of the hungry people and by the other deities who also heard their anguish, forced Hades to return Persephone. However, it was a rule of the Fates that whoever consumed food or drink in the Underworld was doomed to spend eternity there. Before Persephone was released to Hermes, who had been sent to retrieve her, Hades tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds, (either six or four according to the telling) which forced her to return to the underworld for some months each year. She was obliged to remain with Hades for six or four months (one month per seed) and lived above ground with her mother for the rest of the year. This left a long period of time when Demeter was unhappy due to Persephone’s absence, neglecting to cultivate the earth. When Persephone returned to the surface, Demeter became joyful and cared for the earth again.
In the central foundation document of the mystery, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter line 415, Persephone is said to stay in Hades during winter and return in the spring of the year: “This was the day [of Persephone’s return], at the very beginning of bountiful springtime.” This fits with the Mediterranean change of seasons. As every Mediterranean farmer knows, nature from November to February is, basically, dormant.
Persephone’s rebirth is symbolic of the rebirth of all plant life and the symbol of eternity of life that flows from the generations that spring from each other.
However, a scholar has proposed a different version, according to which the four months during which Persephone is with Hades correspond to the dry Greek summer, a period during which plants are threatened with drought. This version, though, does not correspond with the Mediterranean abundance of fruit during the summer and the fact that there is no growth during winter.
Demeter, enthroned and extending her hand in a benediction toward the kneeling Metaneira, who offers the triune wheat that is a recurring symbol of the mysteries (Varrese Painter, red-figurehydria, c. 340 BC, from Apulia)
The Eleusinian Mysteries are believed to be of considerable antiquity. Some findings in the temple Eleusinion in Attica suggest that their basis was an old agrarian cult. Some practices of the mysteries seem to have been influenced by the religious practices of the Mycenaeanperiod and thus predating the Greek Dark Ages. Excavations showed that, a private building existed under the Telesterion in the Mycenean period, and it seems that originally the cult of Demeter was private. In the Homeric Hymn is mentioned the palace of the king Keleos.
One line of thought by modern scholars has been that the Mysteries were intended “to elevate man above the human sphere into the divine and to assure his redemption by making him a god and so conferring immortality upon him”. Comparative study shows parallels between these Greek rituals and similar systems—some of them older—in the Near East. Such cults include the mysteries of Isis and Osiris in Egypt, the Adoniac of Syrian cults, the Persian mysteries, and the Phrygian Cabeirian mysteries.
Some scholars argued that the Eleusinian cult was a continuation of a Minoan cult, and that Demeter was a poppy goddess who brought the poppy from Crete to Eleusis. Some useful information from the Mycenean period can be taken from the study of the cult of Despoina, (the precursor goddess of Persephone), and the cult of Eileithyia who was the goddess of childbirth. The megaron of Despoina at Lycosura is quite similar with the Telesterion of Eleusis, and Demeter is united with the god Poseidon, bearing a daughter, the unnamable Despoina (the mistress). In the cave of Amnisos at Crete, the goddess Eileithyia is related with the annual birth of the divine child, and she is connected with Enesidaon (The Earth Shaker), who is the chthonic aspect of Poseidon.
At Eleusis inscriptions refer to “the Goddesses” accompanied by the agricultural god Triptolemos (probably son of Ge and Oceanus), and “the God and the Goddess” (Persephone and Plouton) accompanied by Eubuleus who probably led the way back from the underworld. The myth was represented in a cycle with three phases: the “descent”, the “search”, and the “ascent” (Greek “anodos”) with contrasted emotions from sorrow to joy which roused the mystae to exultation. The main theme was the ascent of Persephone and the reunion with her mother Demeter. At the beginning of the feast, the priests filled two special vessels and poured them out, the one towards the west, and the other towards the east. The people looking both to the sky and the earth shouted in a magical rhyme “rain and conceive”. In a ritual, a child was initiated from the hearth (the divine fire). The name pais (child) appears in the Mycenean inscriptions, It was the ritual of the “divine child” who originally was Ploutos. In the Homeric hymn the ritual is connected with the myth of the agricultural god Triptolemos. The goddess of nature survived in the mysteries where the following words were uttered: “Mighty Potnia bore a great son”. Potnia (Linear B po-ti-ni-ja : lady or mistress), is a Mycenaean title applied to goddesses. and probably the translation of a similar title of Pre-Greek origin. The high point of the celebration was “an ear of grain cut in silence”, which represented the force of the new life. The idea of immortality didn’t exist in the mysteries at the beginning, but the initiated believed that they would have a better fate in the underworld. Death remained a reality, but at the same time a new beginning like the plant which grows from the buried seed. A depiction from the old palace of Phaistos is very close to the image of the “anodos” of Persephone. An armless and legless deity grows out of the ground, and her head turns to a large flower.
According to Mylonas, the lesser mysteries were held “as a rule once a year in the early spring in the month of flowers, the Anthesterion,” while “the Greater Mysteries were held once a year and every fourth year they were celebrated with special splendor in what was known as the penteteris. Kerenyi concurs with this assessment: “The Lesser Mysteries were held at Agrai in the month of Anthesterion, our February… The initiates were not even admitted to the epopteia [Greater Mysteries] in the same year, but only in September of the following year.” This cycle continued for about two millennia. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, King Celeus is said to have been one of the first people to learn the secret rites and mysteries of her cult. He was also one of her original priests, along with Diocles, Eumolpos, Polyxeinus and Triptolemus, Celeus’ son, who had supposedly learned agriculture from Demeter.
Under Peisistratos of Athens, the Eleusinian Mysteries became pan-Hellenic, and pilgrims flocked from Greece and beyond to participate. Around 300 BC, the state took over control of the Mysteries; they were controlled by two families, the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes. This led to a vast increase in the number of initiates. The only requirements for membership were freedom from “blood guilt”, meaning never having committed murder, and not being a “barbarian” (being unable to speak Greek). Men, women and even slaves were allowed initiation.
To participate in these mysteries one had to swear a vow of secrecy.
Four categories of people participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries:
- Priests, priestesses, and hierophants.
- Initiates, undergoing the ceremony for the first time.
- Others who had already participated at least once. They were eligible for the fourth category.
- Those who had attained épopteia (Greek: ἐποπτεία) (English: “contemplation”), who had learned the secrets of the greatest mysteries of Demeter.
The priesthood officiating at the Eleusinian Mysteries and in the sanctuary was divided in to several offices with different tasks, composed by both men and women.
The outline below is only a capsule summary; much of the concrete information about the Eleusinian Mysteries was never written down. For example, only initiates knew what the kiste, a sacred chest, and the calathus, a lidded basket, contained.
Hippolytus of Rome, one of the Church Fathers writing in the early 3rd century AD, discloses in Refutation of All Heresies that “the Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites, likewise display to those who are being admitted to the highest grade at these mysteries, the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: an ear of grain in silence reaped.”
There were two Eleusinian Mysteries, the Greater and the Lesser. According to Thomas Taylor, “the dramatic shows of the Lesser Mysteries occultly signified the miseries of the soul while in subjection to the body, so those of the Greater obscurely intimated, by mystic and splendid visions, the felicity of the soul both here and hereafter, when purified from the defilements of a material nature and constantly elevated to the realities of intellectual [spiritual] vision.” According to Plato, “the ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended, … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual [spiritual] good.”
The Lesser Mysteries took place in the month of Anthesteria – the eight month of the Attic calendar, falling in mid winter around February or March – under the direction of Athens’ archon basileus. In order to qualify for initiation, participants would sacrifice a piglet to Demeter and Persephone, and then ritually purify themselves in the river Illisos. Upon completion of the Lesser Mysteries, participants were deemed mystai(“initiates”) worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries.
For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called “initiations,” so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.
Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36
The Greater Mysteries took place in Boedromion – the third month of the Attic calendar, falling in late summer around September or October – and lasted ten days.
The first act (on the 14th of Boedromion) was the bringing of the sacred objects from Eleusis to the Eleusinion, a temple at the base of the Acropolis of Athens.
On the 15th of Boedromion, a day called the Gathering (Agyrmos), the priests (hierophantes, those who show the sacred ones) declared the start of the rites (prorrhesis), and carried out the sacrifice (hiereía deúro, hither the victims).
The seawards initiates (halade mystai) started out in Athens on 16th Boedromion with the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron.
On the 17th, the participants began the Epidauria, a festival for Asklepios named after his main sanctuary at Epidauros. This “festival within a festival” celebrated the healer’s arrival at Athens with his daughter Hygieia, and consisted of a procession leading to the Eleusinion, during which the mystai apparently stayed at home, a great sacrifice, and an all-night feast (pannykhís).
The procession to Eleusis began at Kerameikos (the Athenian cemetery) on the 18th, and from there the people walked to Eleusis, along the Sacred Way (Ἱερὰ Ὁδός, Hierá Hodós), swinging branches called bacchoi. At a certain spot along the way, they shouted obscenities in commemoration of Iambe (or Baubo), an old woman who, by cracking dirty jokes, had made Demeter smile as she mourned the loss of her daughter. The procession also shouted “Íakch’, O Íakche!”, possibly an epithet for Dionysus, or a separate deity Iacchus, son of Persephone or Demeter.
Upon reaching Eleusis, there was an all-night vigil (pannychis) according to Mylonas and Kerenyi. perhaps commemorating Demeter’s search for Persephone. At some point, initiates had a special drink (kykeon), of barley and pennyroyal, which has led to speculation about its chemicals perhaps having psychotropic effects.
Inside the Telesterion
On the 19th of Boedromion, initiates entered a great hall called Telesterion; in the center stood the Palace (Anaktoron), which only the hierophants could enter, where sacred objects were stored. Before mystai could enter the Telesterion, they would recite, “I have fasted, I have drunk the kykeon, I have taken from the kiste (box) and after working it have put it back in the calathus (open basket).
It is widely supposed that the rites inside the Telesterion comprised three elements:
- dromena (things done), a dramatic reenactment of the Demeter/Persephone myth
- deiknumena (things shown), displayed sacred objects, in which the hierophant played an essential role
- legomena (things said), commentaries that accompanied the deiknumena.
Combined, these three elements were known as the aporrheta (“unrepeatables”); the penalty for divulging them was death.
Athenagoras of Athens, Cicero, and other ancient writers cite that it was for this crime (among others) that Diagoras was condemned to death in Athens; the tragic playwright Aeschylus was allegedly tried for revealing secrets of the Mysteries in some of his plays, but was acquitted. The ban on divulging the core ritual of the Mysteries was thus absolute, which is probably why we know almost nothing about what transpired there.
As to the climax of the Mysteries, there are two modern theories.
Some hold that the priests were the ones to reveal the visions of the holy night, consisting of a fire that represented the possibility of life after death, and various sacred objects. Others hold this explanation to be insufficient to account for the power and longevity of the Mysteries, and that the experiences must have been internal and mediated by a powerful psychoactive ingredient contained in the kykeon drink (see Entheogenic theories below).
Following this section of the Mysteries was an all-night feast (Pannychis) accompanied by dancing and merriment. The dances took place in the Rharian Field, rumored to be the first spot where grain grew. A bull sacrifice also took place late that night or early the next morning. That day (22nd Boedromion), the initiates honored the dead by pouring libations from special vessels.
On the 23rd of Boedromion, the Mysteries ended and everyone returned home.
In 170 AD, the Temple of Demeter was sacked by the Sarmatians but was rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was then allowed to become the only lay person ever to enter the anaktoron. As Christianity gained in popularity in the 4th and 5th centuries, Eleusis’s prestige began to fade. The last pagan emperor of Rome, Julian, reigned from 361 to 363 after about fifty years of Christian rule. Julian attempted to restore the Eleusinian Mysteries and was the last emperor to be initiated into them.
The Roman emperor Theodosius I closed the sanctuaries by decree during the Persecution of pagans in the late Roman Empire about 30 years later, in 392 AD. The last remnants of the Mysteries were wiped out in 396 AD, when Arian Christians under Alaric, King of the Goths, destroyed and desecrated the old sacred sites. The closing of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the 4th century is reported by Eunapius, a historian and biographer of the Greek philosophers. Eunapius had been initiated by the last legitimate Hierophant, who had been commissioned by the emperor Julian to restore the Mysteries, which had by then fallen into decay. According to Eunapius, the very last Hierophant was a usurper, “the man from Thespiae who held the rank of Father in the mysteries of Mithras“.
According to historian Hans Kloft, despite the destruction of the Eleusinian Mysteries, elements of the cult survived in the Greek countryside. There, Demeter’s rites and religious duties were partially transferred by peasants and shepherds onto Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki, (8th October) who gradually became the local patron of agriculture and “heir” to the pagan mother goddess.