The Mysterious Eleusinian Mysteries

Conjuring up mystical images of secret initiation rites held under cover of darkness, the Eleusinian Mysteries had a reputation as a dark and dangerous festival.  In fact, it was surrounded by such an aura of deadly secrecy that the tragedian Aeschylus was nearly killed on stage just for referencing it. But what were the Mysteries really about? And what made them renowned? Demeter’s Rites of Eleusis better known as the Eleusinian Mysteries were noteworthy by their egalitarianism on the one hand, and their exclusivity on the other. Open to everyone free of “blood guilt” but exclusive only to those who were initiated in their secret rites. It was considered the most acclaimed of all religious festivals throughout the Greek world, like the all-female festival, Thesmophoria, the Mysteries honored Demeter, goddess of the harvest and her daughter, Persephone, queen of the underworld and were believed to have emerged as a masculine response to the Thesmophoria.

Restoration of the Eleusinian Sactuary (550 – 510 BC) at Eleusis showing the Pisistratan Wall and Telesterion. Model by J Travlos (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

The festival sprang from the myth which begins when Demeter’s daughter Kore is kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld—after her abduction Kore’s name changes to Persephone. Carrying a torch, Demeter searches nine days for her daughter and has adventures with mortals until she realizes her true strength lies in her fertility—so she stops the seasons. And the earth becomes a barren wasteland. Zeus pleads with Demeter to make the earth abundant once again but she will not relent until Persephone is returned to her. Zeus orders Hades to release Persephone. Hades adheres, but not before luring Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed. The mere act of eating in the underworld, binds Persephone to Hades for a few months each year. The myth is allegorical of agricultural renewal, from life to death and back again each year. Although agriculture played a part in the Mysteries, its role was greatly diminished in favor of the eschatological nature of Demeter’s story; that is to say issues regarding life after death. In the minds of the ancients, nature’s resurrection each year was emblematic of humankind’s immortality.

Pluto enthroned with a scepter and cornucopia. In front of him stand Persephone with a scepter and Demeter with a bowl and torch from Tegea. National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Athens, Greece (George E. Koronaios/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Thought to have predated the Greek Dark Ages (1100 BCE-800 BCE), the Mysteries reach back into the Mycenaean period (1600 BCE- 1100 BCE) yet the bulk of evidence about the festival dates from the Archaic period (800 BCE- 480 BCE). Although its foundations were in the Greek world it was celebrated throughout the Roman Empire and garnered near universal reverence up until the late fourth century CE when Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I proscribed the worship of any deities but the Christian father and son. But the Eleusinian Mysteries were more than a religious festival, it had become a civic festival where its renown in ancient Greece and beyond played a pivotal role in the region’s concept of cultural hegemony. What was so mysterious about the Eleusinian Mysteries? The answer can be found in the word itself. Novice initiates of the cult were called mystai and the accompanying ever-secret initiation ritual was called mysteria; participation in the secret cult was restricted to its initiates where initiation ceremonies played a key role in the sacred rituals.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were composed of both the Lesser Mysteries honoring Persephone and were observed in the spring and the Greater Mysteries, honoring Demeter and celebrated six months later in the fall in the month of Boedromion, now known as September-October—directly before the sowing season which heralded the Thesmophoria. As a preparation for the Greater Mysteries, a candidate could become a mystes or a novice initiate to begin his/her worship in the ranks of the Lesser Mysteries only to progress into the more enlightened Greater Mysteries once his/her initiation was complete. The initiation period is believed to have been a year, after which time the mystes or blinded one would  ascend into the hallowed ranks of epoptes or seer and be able to participate as a full initiate of the Greater or Epoptical (all seeing) Mysteries.

Remains of the Greater Propylaea, forming the main entrance to the Sanctuary (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

Though the most sacred of the rituals were celebrated in Eleusis—an agricultural town some twelve miles northwest of Athens—people  came from all over the Greco-Roman world into Athens to participate in the nine-day long event.  The procession from Athens to Eleusis was considered the most spectacular of all religious parades in the ancient world. In fact, the road between the two cities (called the Sacred Way) became so legendary that before the Romans arrived, it was the only road in all of central Greece that was not a goat path. The Mysteries had adherents from all over the Greco-Roman world but were celebrated locally—only  in Athens and Eleusis. Until the mid-sixth century BCE, Eleusis alone had control of its own cult but after it was conquered by  Athens, the Athenians assumed control making the Mysteries more renowned and transforming it from Demeter’s Rites at Eleusis into the celebrated Eleusinian Mysteries.

Two Triumphal Arches spanned the East and West entrances of the road. On each side of the arches, bases were decorated with pine torches – attributes of Demeter and Persephone. Remains of the arch. (Images: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

Ostensibly, membership in the Mysteries was unrestricted, open to all men and women, slaves and foreigners alike—everyone ”free of the pollution of murder”—could  participate. Yet, there were some restrictions.  Although foreigners were welcome in the mysteries—initiates  had to speak Greek; “not being a barbarian” was a requirement.  This, however, changed when Athens assumed control of the rites lifting the Greek speaking requirement in order to promote the Mysteries across the Greek world and beyond. Might they also have lifted the blood guilt ban? Because militarism engulfed the region, soldiers were aplenty and encouraged to join the Mysteries, which they did with abandon. However, despite loosening their standards for some, during the fourth-century BCE, Athens made a change that would make it  more restrictive for others when it began requiring initiates to pay fifteen drachmas for the privilege of membership. Fifteen drachmas was equivalent to ten days labor—an amount that the poor or enslaved would likely have been unable to pay.

View from the Greater Propylaea of the Plutonion cavern and Gates to Hades and the Underworld (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

While the rituals were initially concerned with Demeter’s imparting gifts of fertility and the cyclical nature of creation, over time they tended to focus on the role immortality plays in the story.  Of the Mysteries, the poet Pindar (498 BCE – 436 BCE) opined: “Blessed is he who has beheld the mysteries, descending in the Netherworld. He knows the aim; he knows the origin of life.” To be sure, the main focus of the Mysteries was a happy afterlife, which initiates were promised. In discussing the difference in focus between the all-female Thesmophoria and the Eleusinian Mysteries Classica scholar, Marcia D. S. Dobson contends that the difference between the two cults could be based on gender, as women are closer to nature and therefore more accepting of death. She contends: “Because the male connection to the natural rhythms of life and death are not as immediate, a man experiences his mortality as a devastation of his individuality.” Rebelling against nature, men are at odds with the cyclical patterns of regeneration that the two goddesses represent hence the assurance of a happy afterlife helps them overcome this dissonance. But could it have been more than gender differences that played a part in the change of focus between the two festivals?  In fact, it was during the Archaic era when the Mysteries were in full swing that the attitude toward death and afterlife began to shift.

Child burial in a terracotta larnax in the West cemetery of the Sanctuary. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

Prior to this era, death was viewed as part of the natural order of things thus there was a resigned acceptance of its gloomy inevitability.  Over the course of time, however, people began disconnecting themselves from the cyclical patterns of nature; death became more personal and a greater anxiety about it ensued. Discussing changing attitudes toward death, Christiane Sourvinous-Inwood argues: “There was a shift in the attitudes in the Archaic period, from an acceptance of a familiar (hateful but not frightening) death, to the appearance of attitudes of greater anxiety and a more individual perception of one’s death, conducive to the creation of eschatologies involving a happy afterlife.” Alas, Elysian Fields awaited only those infrequent few who were bestowed with immortality by the gods. To be sure, until the Mysteries began to gain a foothold, afterlife for the ancients was a cheerless proposition. Regardless of achievements and position in life, kings and slaves alike could expect to spend eternity fluttering around endlessly in a shadowy underworld. Even Achilles, war-hero great and demigod in life, is reduced to an insubstantial shade in dusty death: “No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!  By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man–Some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead.” After all, if such a dismal destiny awaited a near god, what chance did an average bloke have? At long last, faced with the prospect of a happy afterlife, is it any wonder that the ancients were lining up in droves to become initiates in the Eleusinian Mysteries?

From the deep recesses of the Archaic era to enlightened Imperial Rome, the list of initiates reads like the who’s who of the classical era–indeed some of antiquity’s greatest names graced the ranks of the Mysteries. Reluctant as they may have been to share their secrets—after all, it was heresy—if not for their writing along with tendentious Christian zealots (whose accounts were less than reliable) the rites of the Mysteries would be lost for posterity. As it stands, because of its hallmark secrecy, of what the rites may have consisted is a topic under heated debate amongst the academic community.

The Telesterion was the most sacred edifice of the Sanctuary, a roofed hall with eight tiers of seats on each wall where the initiates watched the Mysteries enacted. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

Nonetheless, while the rites themselves may be in contention, where the rites were celebrated is not. Characteristic of its great number of initiates, Demeter’s Temple, also called the Telesterion or initiation hall stood at a regal 51 x 51 meters. The largest public building in fifth century (BCE) Attica, the Telesterion was a roofed temple with seating for several thousand spectators on eight rising steps. Worth noting, unlike today’s religious structures which are places of worship where adherents congregate, Greek temples were built solely to house deities, in this way the Telesterion was a departure from conventional temples. Inside the Telesterion was its inner holy sanctum called the Anaktoron where the holiest of holy rites were performed.

The eight rows of tiered seats inside the Telesterion. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

In her 2002 article about the Mysteries, Nancy Evans likened the Telesterion to an indoor square theater which is an apt comparison as the main event was highly theatrical. Perhaps the renown of the festival had as much to do with theatrics as with eternal salvation. In fact, some posit that the works of the early tragedians—indeed the art of theatre itself—may have sprung forth by the spectacular stagecraft presented during the Mysteries’ rites.

The lead actor in the mystia was the head priest or the hierophantes which in ancient Greek means displayer of holy things.  In this life-appointed position, besides having to be from one of the original clans of Eleusis, it was imperative that the hierophant possess a melodious voice as singing played a considerable role in the rites. It is supposed that it was the hierophant who played the part of the all-important Triptolemus—the scepter-wielding youth—who appears between the twin goddesses in artwork from the era. Though Triptolemus played a minor role as Demeter’s priest in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, his part was greatly enhanced in the Mysteries when the mythological character would become famous for  introducing both agriculture and the Eleusinian Mysteries to humankind.

Triptolemus receiving wheat sheaves from Demeter and blessings from Persephone, 5th-century BC relief, National Archaeological Museum of Athens (Napoleon VierCC BY-SA 3.0)

Next in line to the hierophant was the dadouchos or torchbearer, also a hereditary thus appointed position that could last a lifetime. Because his role was torchbearer some posit that the dadouchos may have played the part of the cult-hero, Eubouleus. Although his character is not in the Hymn, in an Orphic rendition of the Demeter’s myth, an unfortunate swineherd by the name of Eubouleus and his swine were sucked into the gorge when the earth cleaved open and Hades abducted Kore. Although the Orphic version of the myth was subsequent to the Hymn, some contend that the Orphic myth may have reflected an even earlier tradition than the Hymn. Somewhere along the way, this humble swineherd informed Demeter of the whereabouts of Persephone.

View of the Plutonion cavern with the Temple of Hades in front, where Persephone was kept by Hades (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

In fact, Eubouleus had such a cult following that in some versions of the myth he is alternatively either the son of mighty Demeter herself or of the all-powerful Zeus. With no mythological foundation, another cult figure is Iacchus who is often identified with Dionysus (or Bacchus) and depicted as either the son of Demeter or Persephone. Worth noting, “Iacche” was a ritual cry that the initiates would shout during the procession along the Sacred Way.

Although there  were several priests below these ranks  there were only three noteworthy  priestesses;  one whose sole purpose was to honor the double goddesses and two additional priestesses called the hierophantides who represented the twin goddesses individually. According to Eleusinian scholar, Kevin Clinton, on the night of the mysterai  the two hierophantides were believed to have been decked out in full splendor to impersonate the twin goddesses and became the physical incarnations of Demeter and Persephone on earth.  Perhaps harking back to a tradition from Minoan Crete—where  Demeter had strong ties—when priestesses physically represented Ariadne, the great mother goddess.

Illustration depicting the Temple of Artemis Propolaia and Poseidon Pater. Artemis was worshipped as the daughter of Demeter and Poseidon. Site of the Temple of Artemis, an amphiprostyle Doric structure, built of Pentelic marble, with timber roof and terracotta tiles. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

But the twin goddesses were not the only deities represented in the Mysteries, since the Mysteries believed in the spiritual unity of all gods, two  important gods adopted by the Eleusinian priesthood were Dionysus and Heracles. Worth noting, the role of Dionysus as the son of Zeus would begin to supplant that of Persephone. Like Persephone, he was associated with fertility, died and was resurrected each year.  In fact, some espouse that it was the presence of Dionysus and his characteristic theatrics which gave the cult its flair for drama.

View of the Sanctuary, with the Roman court with rectangular marble slabs, where the faithful gathered to observe the procession from the Sacred Way from Athens. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

The drama began in Athens on the 14th of Boedromion then made its way to Eleusis on the 19th beginning the spectacular twelve-mile  procession along the famed Sacred Way. Amid the sounds of singing and rejoicing, the cacophony must have been deafening as several thousand passionate initiates—and non-initiates alike—came together on the packed Athenian thoroughfare for the celebrated parade. Known for its egalitarianism, all walks of life were represented—from  citizens to courtesans, magistrates and masons alike joined the parade, after all, everyone—free  of blood guilt—could  be an initiate. Once in Eleusis, the initiates spent the day fasting and mourning by mirroring  Demeter’s behavior in the Hymn when she was grieving for her daughter. The evening of the 20th marked the first time in the festival that the mystai entered Demeter’s sanctuary where the Telesterion was housed. The  most sacred of all nights is known as the scene of beholding and  is believed to have been on either the 20th or the 21st (or perhaps both) when the nocturnal rites or teletai and the sacred drama or mysteria were performed. Once the mystai were initiated into the ranks of the epopteia (the seeing)—the  highest degree of initiation—they could take off their blindfolds to behold the mysteries.  While much of what they witnessed remains under wraps—one thing is certain—fire played an enormous role in the rituals.

Site of the Sacred House of the priestess from the family of Eumolpidae, personifying the goddess and holding the role for life. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

In ancient Greece, fire was a means of communicating between the mortal  and immortal realms; the smoke from sacrificial fires rose to the celestial  heavens as a means of placating the deity or deities for whom the sacrifice was intended.  But aside from exchange between the mortal and immortal realms, fire was often used in Greek mythology as a means of immortalizing humans. In the Hymn, Demeter attempts to immortalize the infant Demophoon by glazing him with ambrosia and burning him in the fire each night “as if he were a smoldering log.” The thinking is that because Hades took a daughter from Demeter, she would take a mortal—or, better yet, all mortals—from  the lord of the underworld’s thriving enterprise.  When Demophoon’s mother, Metaniera, comes upon Demeter incinerating her son in the family hearth, she screams—as  any mortal mother might. The screams, however, disturb the ritual and the mighty Demeter, incensed at the foolhardiness of mortals, tosses Demophoon—like  kindling—to  the ground. In her rage she sentences the infant—and  by implication, the rest of humankind—to  a life of mortal mediocrity. Behold the Eleusinian Mysteries—formed  as a compensatory action to placate the anger of the goddess on the one hand and to graciously accept her gift of immortality on the other.

A votive plaque known as the Ninnion Tablet depicting elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries, discovered in the sanctuary at Eleusis (CC BY-SA 2.5)

While what was revealed at the mysteria remains a mystery there are some theories about what may have transpired.  Although the hierophant’s voice played an integral role in the rites, above all, the Mysteries were a visual experience. Literary artifacts abound—from  pagan and early Christian chroniclers alike—about  the remarkable sights within the Mysteries.  Even the names of the sacred actors in the secret cult are emblematic of this. Hierophant signifies “revealer of scared objects,” while the two levels of the initiates: myste and epoptes indicate “one whose eyes are closed” and “the seers” respectively. Yet, of all the sights, the one that was so impressive it would remain with initiates for the rest of their lives was the phenomenal light they were to have witnessed during the sacred drama. In fact, pyrotechnic expertise was characteristic of the Mysteries.  In his treatise On the Soul Plutarch reminisces: “But then one encounters an extraordinary light and pure regions and meadows offer welcome, with voices and dances and majesties of sacred sounds and holy sights.” This “extraordinary light” has been described by  ancients before and after Plutarch as the famous “fire of the mysteries.”

Votive relief of Demeter on the throne (left) and Kore holding torches, found west of the Greater Propylaea. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

In a mimesis of Demeter carrying the torch in search of Persephone, torches were used in the rites, not only great torches carried by the torch-bearing dadouchos and  the hierophant but by the initiates as well. In fact, Clinton posits there is  evidence to suggest that the extraordinary light could have come from the fire of over a thousand torches held by the initiates: “The passage by Himerius informs us that the extraordinary light was furnished by torchbearers…probably at least a thousand torch bearers, standing not sitting.”  He goes on to add that the torches carried by the initiates were far more dramatic—perhaps  bigger and more imposing—than  those carried by adherents of other cults hence the notoriety of the “fires of Eleusis.”

The thousand torches, however, were not the only light show to which the ancients were referring. Making gods appear was another hallmark event for the Mysteries. Written in the 3rd century CE about the hierophant Apollonius, he cries: “O initiates, you saw me then appearing from the Anaktoron in the bright nights…”  Living up to his title, it was the hierophant’s main task to display sacred objects which in the holiest of holy mysteria were the twin goddesses themselves—in  all their radiant splendor. Ascending  in full voice, the hierophant emerged from the Anaktoron for the scene of beholding to reveal the spectacularly colossal goddesses to the thousand torch bearing and thousands more non-torch bearing initiates. For the grand finale of this sacred drama, the goddesses came alive—Persephone  “Mistress of Fire” rose from the land of the dead to join Demeter in her earthly domain. At long last, mother and daughter are reunited; humankind is saved.

Relief of Demeter in her horse drawn chariot with her daughter, Persephone, and with rampant horses flanking the chariot (CC BY-SA 3.0)

No longer just slabs of stone-cold marble, instead, rising to celestial prominence Demeter and Persephone looked for all the world like living  goddesses—they were colorful, they were polished, but most of all they were illuminated. “Beauty blazing out,” is how Plato describes the goddesses in Phaedrus. With their blindfolds freshly removed, the thunderstruck initiate’s first sight was of the glowing goddesses—indeed, such a dramatic spectacle might have rendered even the most stalwart of skeptics speechless. It is posited that  illuminating the statuary was created by placing fiery candles in the hollowed-out interiors of the statues. After the light festival, did the sacred actors emerge accompanied by music and dancing to celebrate the reunion as some contend? Were hallucinogenic drugs involved in the rites as many posit?  Alas, the view is often murky looking back over a span of thousands of years. On the following day, festivities continued and sacrifices were made in the public courtyard for the community at large because even the uninitiated celebrated the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Returning to Athens. Part of the north Roman court pediment with a bust of probably Marcus Aurelius on the tympanum. (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

Their revels now ended, on the 23rd the initiates began the journey back to Athens concluding the 9-day long festival—until the mystery began anew the following year. Practiced for over two thousand years, the Mysteries had become the largest and most celebrated of all religious cults in the Greco-Roman world. In 392 CE Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I issued a comprehensive decree prohibiting pagan worship in favor of a burgeoning new religion that preached equality, promised a happy afterlife, and included worship of a god whose son died and was resurrected so that his followers would have everlasting life.  In a sense, the Mysteries live on.

Published in Ancient Origins Magazine

Reference List

Burkert, W. 1985. Greek Religion. Harvard University Press.

Carus, P. 1900. The Greek Mysteries, A Preparation for Christianity. The Monist, Vol.11, No. 1.

Clinton, K. 2004. Divine Epiphanies in the Ancient World. University of Illinois Press, Vol. 29.

Dobson, M. 1992. Ritual Death, Patriarchal Violence, and Female Relationships in the Hymns to Demeter and Inanna. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Vol. 4, No. 1.

Evans, N. 2002. Sanctuaries, Sacrifices, and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Brill. Vol. 49, No. 3.

Foley, H. Editor 1994. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Princeton University Press.

Homer, 1996. The Odyssey. Trans Robert Fagles. Penguin Books.

Keller, M. 1988. The Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone: Fertility, Sexuality, and Rebirth. Indiana University Press, Vol. 4, No. 1.

Mylonas, G. 1947. Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Classical Journal, Vol. 43, No. 3.

Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 2003 “Aspects of the Eleusinian Cult.” In Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient  Greek Secret Cults. Routledge.

Tully, C. 2012. “Demeter’s Wrath: How the Eleusinian Mysteries Attempted to Cheat Death.” In Memento Mori: Magikal and Mythological Perspective on Death, Dying and the Underworld. Avalonia.

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