In ancient Greece, there existed certain mystery religions that operated so secretively that only the initiates knew what really went on. Of these, the most famous were the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Initiates were forbidden by Athenian law from disclosing the secrets of the Mysteries. Those who disobeyed were severely punished. Consequently, all took a vow of secrecy. The Eleusinian Mysteries have puzzled scholars for nearly two millennia. Here’s what we do know.
What Were the Eleusinian Mysteries?
The Eleusinian Mysteries were ancient rites offering spiritual enlightenment and a deeper connection with the divine, particularly the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. They symbolized the cycle of life and death, promising initiates insights into the afterlife and alleviating the fear of mortality. These Mysteries also served to strengthen community bonds and impart moral teachings, playing a crucial role in the cultural and spiritual life of ancient Greece.
While today we might look at them with skepticism, at the time, they were held in high esteem. Writers like Plato and Cicero praised them.
To contemporary Greeks and Romans, the Mysteries were held in high esteem and considered a profound and essential part of religious life. And no greater example exists of how esteemed the Mysteries were than this quote from Cicero, who, in his work “De Legibus,” says to the people of Athens,
“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 means of them we have been brought from rustic savagery to a cultivated and refined civilization; the rites of the Mysteries are called initiations and in truth we have learned from them the first principles of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily but also to die with a better hope.”
Demeter and Persephone – Origins of the Mysteries
To understand the Eleusinian Mysteries, we have to know the Demeter myth. The origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries trace back to the tale from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a collection of 33 hymns that celebrate individual Greek gods.
The author of this text is unknown. It’s only called Homeric because the hymns follow the same style as the Iliad and Odyssey, and not because Homer wrote them.
The Hymn in question tells the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, also called Kore. The story begins when Persephone is abducted by her uncle Hades, god of the underworld, with the permission of her uncle slash father, Zeus. The goddess of agriculture and harvest, Demeter is distraught over her daughter’s disappearance, and searches the entire world for her.
During this search, she journeyed to Eleusis. While there, Demeter, in disguise, was welcomed by the royal family of Eleusis and took on the role of caring for the queen’s young son. Demeter becomes attached to the boy and wants to make him immortal. However, her plans to make him immortal were accidentally thwarted by the queen. After this incident, Demeter reveals her true identity to the royals and instructs them to build a temple in her honor, where she then takes refuge.
Ultimately, the story resolves with a compromise facilitated by Zeus: Persephone would spend six months of the year with her mother on earth. During that time, the earth would be fertile and bountiful (spring and summer).
She would spend the remaining part of the year with Hades in the underworld, during which Demeter would grieve, and the earth would become barren (autumn and winter). This story explains the changing seasons. But it also emphasizes the mother-daughter bond and is an allegory for the agricultural cycle.
Events that Inspired the Eleusinian Mysteries
The Hymn to Demeter tells us that the Eleusinian Mysteries were inspired by two major events in Demeter’s life:
First, her painful separation from and joyful reunion with her daughter, something that was reenacted during the Eleusinian Mysteries. This was important because this cycle of abduction, search, and eventual reunion aligned with the Mysteries’ themes of life, death, and rebirth, which in itself aligned with the agricultural cycle of planting, growth, and harvest.
And second, her unsuccessful attempt to grant immortality to the queen’s son. This symbolizes the transformative power of the divine and the potential for rebirth and renewal, themes central to the Mysteries.
The Structure of the Eleusinian Mysteries
The Eleusinian Mysteries were divided into two stages: the Greater and the Lesser Mysteries.
Basically, the Lesser Mysteries were the lead up to the Greater Mysteries and took place every spring between February to March at Agrai near Athens.
We don’t have specific details about what exactly happened during the Lesser Mysteries. Still, scholars speculate that they involved symbolic acts of purification, such as cleansing oneself in the river Ilissos.
Those who completed the Lesser Mysteries were then ready for The Greater Mysteries. They were deemed mystai, or initiates, ready to witness the secrets to come.
The Greater Mysteries were the more important of the two. They were celebrated in autumn in Eleusis, between September to October. It started with a grand procession, where the participants solemnly traveled from Athens to Eleusis. A truce would be called so that pilgrims could travel safely to Eleusis.
1. The Initiates
Anyone could take part in the rituals, whether men, women, children, or slaves. At its peak, up to 3000 initiates could be received at a time. There were only two conditions for entry:
One – every initiate, even foreigners, had to understand Greek. Two – initiates couldn’t have blood on their hands, that is, if you had committed murder, you couldn’t take part in the Mysteries.
The procession to Eleusis was likely a festive and lively event, with participants carrying sacred objects. Upon arrival in Eleusis, the participants would offer sacrifices, probably of barley, as Demeter was the goddess of grain.
Next, the initiates would observe a day of fasting, broken only by drinking kykeon, a drink that was made of barley, water, and herbs. Kykeon was an extremely important part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, so let’s take a moment to talk about it.
While it was a common drink, the kykeon used for the Mysteries was significantly different. It had psychoactive properties, most likely caused by the parasitic fungus known as ergot, which grew on the barley. Ergot can be a highly effective psychedelic drug, similar to LSD. Recent archeological evidence has found ergot in ceremonial cups and even in the dental calculus of a 25-year-old male at Mas Castellar, a site associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries.
All this to say that the drink the initiates had during the Mysteries might have chemically enhanced their experiences and taken them into an altered state of consciousness. This could explain why many initiates later reported profound transformation and mystical experiences.
3. The Telesterion
After this, the initiates would then be led to the Telesterion, the Hall of Initiation, and the central location of the Mysteries. What happened next in the Telesterion has always been shrouded in secrecy. Things were said, shown and done, but the exact nature of these rites remains unknown. Initiates were exposed to intense and possibly frightening experiences.
Some theories propose that these experiences might have included a symbolic reenactment of violence, such as a murder or assault of a maiden, to portray the abduction of Persephone. However, there is no definitive archaeological evidence supporting such dramatic enactments.
This phase was the climax of the Mysteries, where the initiates became Epoptes, a word that translates to those who have seen. They would have experienced the core Mysteries and the sacred truths. After this, the festival wrapped up on the ninth day because Demeter searched for her daughter for 9 days. Everyone walked back to Athens, known as the ‘Return’, marking the end of the event.
Those who had taken part would say that they had been transformed and their fear of death removed.
Views of Later Christian Writers
The only fragmented clues we have of the Eleusinian Mysteries come from later Christian writers. And as expected, they criticized these rituals as pagan practices. The Christian writers looked at the Eleusinian Mysteries with suspicion and disapproval. They wrote about them as misguided, morally corrupt, and dangerous rituals.
This was part of a more systemic approach to discourage traditional pagan practices and to spread Christianity instead. But did these writers have a point? Maybe. As Christianity took over the Roman Empire, the Eleusinian Mysteries gradually declined.
Many pagan temples were destroyed, including the Telesterion at Eleusis. In the 4th century A D, emperor Theodosius I prohibited pagan rites, and that was the end of the Mysteries.
The Legacy of the Eleusinian Mysteries
After their decline, the Eleusinian Mysteries continued to hold a significant influence on Western culture and thought. They may have influenced early Christian rituals and symbolism. For example, there are parallels between the Mysteries and Christian sacraments in terms of:
- Transformative experiences
- Promises of a better afterlife
- Ritual purification
- The consumption of sacred substances
- Themes of death and resurrection
In modern times, the Eleusinian Mysteries have been revisited by neo-pagan and New Age movements. They have incorporated aspects of the Mysteries, such as the celebration of seasonal cycles and veneration of the mother goddess.
Philosophers, artists, and writers have all pondered on the Mysteries and been influenced by their works. Some examples include Raphael’s “The Rape of Persephone” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy”
The Eleusinian Mysteries Today
So, today, when we think about the Eleusinian Mysteries, there’s debate about the nature of these rites. Were they dark and dangerous, or simply symbolic and metaphorical? Did the later Christian writers blackwash them, or were they revealing the dangerous truth? The secrecy of the rites adds to their mystique, but was this secrecy simply to preserve the sanctity and the power of the experience or to hide sinister acts?
We don’t really know, and that’s the tragedy of it.
The Eleusinian Mysteries remain mysterious and intriguing rites. Even today, they pique our interest and influence modern culture in various ways.