Eleusinian Mysteries were one of the initiations that held for the cult of Demeter & Persephone each year, and it is based at Eleusis's Panhellenic Sanctuary in ancient Greece. In Greek, it is called Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια. People consider these the most popular secret religious rites of ancient Greece. While the basis was an old agrarian cult, these were derived from the Mycenean period's religious practices.
From the Mysteries, we got to know about the myth of the abduction of Persephone, where the king of the underworld, Hades, abducted her from her mother Demeter. The myth of her abduction was represented by Mysteries in a cycle with three phases: descent (loss), search, & ascent.
The major theme was her ascent and reunion with her mother. At the time of the Hellenic era, this one was a big festival. Later, this festival spread to Rome. You can find similar religious rites in the agricultural societies of the Near East & in Minoan Crete.
Ceremonies, rites & beliefs were kept secret which was preserved consistently from antiquity. The rebirth of Persephone was the symbol of life's eternity for the initiated. The eternity of life flows from generation to generation. They believed that they could have gifts or would be rewarded in the afterlife. Several paintings and pieces of pottery depict different Mysteries aspects.
As the Mysteries involved visions of an afterlife, its power & longevity was believed to come from psychedelic drugs. The Mysteries is a consistent set of rites, ceremonies & experiences. While the name of the city Eleusis seems to be pre-Greek, it is probably a counterpart to Elysium & the goddess Eileithyia.
The oldest Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece were celebrated yearly for at least 1000 years until 329 CE. This city is 14 miles from Athens, whereas the festival began in early September in Eleusis which was called the most mysterious of the ancient Greek world. Its multi-day rites were closely related to the myth of Persephone and her mother. They have a sacred story where they are separated and joyfully reunited that has served as catalysts for the initiates' spiritual enlightenment.
What is the Myth Behind the Eleusinian Mysteries?
The mention of Demeter, an Olympian goddess, by Homer was not often. In fact, he rarely mentioned Demeter. The roots of her story were the beliefs of early agrarian people on Mother Earth which can bring everything to life and nourish them. In the world of Greek, the notion was still vivid now. Aeschylus was one of the Greek authors whose play The Libation Bearers recaptured the notion.
As her mother was the goddess of agriculture, she with her cult, stood in the practices' centre which was related to the Earth and the Grain Mother. The Homeric Hymn talks about the high disorientation and stress that her mother experienced after the disappearance of her daughter Kore whom Hades abducted to the underworld.
After getting distraught, Demeter stopped nurturing the natural world. That's why Zeus needed to interface and ordered Hades to release Kore. But Kore did something else that bound her to the underworld forever. Hades gave her a pomegranate seed. Once someone eats something in the underworld, they are bound to stay. Kore must now spend half of her life in the underworld with Hades. That's why she was called Persephone, especially after becoming the goddess of the dead & the wife of Hades.
If someone wanted to join the mysteries, they needed to swear a vow of secrecy. There are four categories of people who were able to join in the Eleusinian Mysteries:
- Priests, priestesses, and hierophants
- Initiates who undergo the ceremony for the first time.
- Those who previously joined at least once — were eligible for the final category.
- People who previously attained épopteia (Greek: ἐποπτεία) & learned the secrets of the Demeter mysteries.
It was categorized into many offices with various tasks. There are 6 priest categories officiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries:
- Hierophantes — an office inherited within the Eumolpidae or Phileidae families.
- High Priestess of Demeter or Priestess of Demeter and Kore – It refers to an office that is inherited within the Phileidae or Eumolpidae families.
- Dadouchos – Hence, men were seen serving as torchbearers. It was the second-highest male role after Hierophantes.
- Dadouchousa Priestess – a female priestess who helped the Dadouchos. It also indicates an office that was inherited within the Phileidae or Eumolpidae families.
- Hierophantides – It indicates two married priestesses where one was serving Demeter, and the other was serving her daughter named Persephone.
- Panageis ('the holy') or melissa ('bees') – refers to a group of priestesses living a life secluded from men.
The offices of Hierophant, High Priestess, and Dadouchousa priestess belonged to the Phileidae or Eumolpidae families. This Hierophant and the High Priestess had equal ranks. Impersonating the roles of Demeter and Persephone during the mysteries was the job of the High Priestess.
Rituals Before the Start of the Mysteries:
The narrator of the founding story for the Mysteries is Homeric Hymn. Disguised as a human, Demeter came to Eleusis to find her daughter. The town accepts her as a nurse. Once Demeter came there, she felt obliged because of its hospitality. After that, Demeter shares her secret rites, becoming the central theme of the Eleusinian Mysteries. However, it was not easy to initiate the rites. Participants needed to prepare for at least half of the year or more and nurture themselves spiritually so that they can embrace the secret revelation.
Before the beginning of the Mysteries in early September, the priestesses of Demeter, with her daughter, commenced, and both walked together towards the temple of the Goddess in Athens. Both carry a basket containing Demeter's sacred objects on their heads through the Sacred Way that has connected Athens to Eleusis. According to the scholars, 2-3000 initiates came to the Agora on the first day. Athenian law forbade them from disclosing the Mysteries' secrets. People disobeying these get punished with the death penalty.
The Experiences of the Initiates During the Mysteries:
As per the myth, Demeter looked for Persephone in agony for nine days. Just like this, the set of rites took 9 days to get completed during the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the first five days, several things were performed like a series of purification Eleusinian Mysteries rituals, fasting, animal sacrifices, possibly piglets & sacred offerings to Demeter.
Grand Procession took place on day five. While the priestess of Demeter and her daughter who have carried sacred baskets on the previous day, started their walk with plenty of initiates behind them. The mass started walking from Athens to Eleusis on foot along the Sacred Way.
But the Mysteries become less clear once Demeter arrives at the sanctuary. Then, the initiates wander in the dark outside and are confused when Kore is lost. After that, they entered Telesterion, the temple of Demeter. This temple was the largest closed building in the ancient Greek world. What happened in the Eleusinian Mysteries after this is undiscovered.
Hallucinogenic Drugs & Rape as Part of the Mysteries:
It is essential to know that the temple was almost dark at this time, only some small fire pits were set in the center. People jostled there to secure a good position as the large building had massive columns obstructing their view. Then, all people were silent and experienced issues like fasting, and identified the grief of Demeter.
Kykeon was an Eleusinian Mysteries drink that the initiates were served. Although several articles say that it had hallucinogenic substances, the idea is opposed by a lot of scholars due to a lack of evidence. Some accounts from old sources indicate that Mysteries involved visual performances — these are things that were said, shown, and done in spite of the secrecy. The acts were connected to a small room within the temple Telesterion, near the fire pits. Initiates were not allowed to enter the sacred room because it was for priests & priestesses, who came out eventually to perform the secret revelation.
Even a few scholars speculate that secrets talk about a real murder or rape of a maiden, making the abduction and rape of Kore more dramatic. Her capture was a sign of her death and indicated that she was dead & had transitioned into Persephone.
If you want to know about the view of what the initiates witnessed, you only find the people's reports where they were mentioned as being in complete shock during the Mysteries. Several initiates said that they got changed because of the experience, the result of which they did not have any fear of death. Day nine was called The Return when all walked back to Athens. The close of the festival was marked by their arrival in Athens.
What Did the Ancient Authors Think About Demeter & Eleusis?
It was the Greek poet Hesiod who wrote about Demeter in the 8th century BCE. The name of his poem is Theogony, where you can see the mention of Demeter is only in three lines. After a century, people got more information regarding the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.
Based on the account, Persephone was in a meadow and picking up iris & hyacinth blossoms. All of a sudden, Hades came out of the earth on his chariot with immortal horses and took her away against her will. It was the only time when he came out of the underworld. Her mother heard the cries of Persephone.
But she didn't know where her daughter went. No one told her the truth, neither gods nor mortals. Then, she began her nine-day agony and continued until she reached Eleusis city. This town welcomed her as an old lady looking for Persephone, her lost daughter. However, she came out of her disguise. Then, she changed her size as Gods were bigger than their life-size. According to the instructions of Demeter, they built her a great temple, and she wanted to keep it secret. Later, she united with Persephone near Eleusis.
Sophokles, Herodotus, Aristophanes, and Plutarch, are the old writers who mention the Eleusinian Mysteries festival as they all participated there once. However, it is still an intriguing secret of ancient Greece. The reason is that initiates didn't disclose any details like what happened in the Telesterion and the inner sanctum. Therefore, scholars need to use some accounts & construct tentative hypotheses without any consensus.
Is Demeter Still Alive?
Mircea Eliade, a Romanian professor of history and religion, from the University of Chicago, wrote a book, The History of Religious Ideas, where he mentioned a cold day during the 2nd World War in February 1940.
A bus which was full of passengers was making a journey from Athens to Corinth but experienced some problems in the middle. It stopped for an old lady who realized that she didn't carry money to pay after riding on the bus. Therefore, she was asked to leave the bus. Once she left, the engine stopped working. Later, it started when she arrived again. Then, she disappeared into the air. Many newspapers reported her as Demeter.
Eleusinian Mysteries was the most important ritual site in ancient Athens. The special thing about Eleusis is that nobody revealed the secrets though thousands of initiates took part in it for many centuries. This town was a chatty place where all seemed to have been up for discussion, dissection, polemic and comic ridicule.
There is also a reason why all are silent. If someone speaks about the ritual, they are punishable by death. A story about the dramatist Aeschylus said that he revealed the truth in his plays about the Mysteries, because of which he was prosecuted, but later, he was found innocent.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q. What happened at the mysteries at Eleusis?
The set of rites took 9 days to get completed during the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the first five days, several things were performed like a series of purification rituals, fasting, animal sacrifices, possibly piglets & sacred offerings to Demeter.
Q. What are the great Eleusinian Mysteries?
The Greater Eleusinian Mysteries referred to a set of rites that are surrounded by a big festival where you can find many ties to the tale of Demeter & her daughter.
Q. What was the Eleusinian Mysteries ritual?
It was celebrated from September to October each year. In the Eleusinian Mysteries ritual, people were seen performing a ritual bath in the sea, 3 days of fasting, and it includes completion of the still-mysterious central rite.