The Eleusinian Mysteries
The Eleusinian Mysteries, held annually in honor of Demeter and Persephone, were the most sacred and revered of all the ritual celebrations of ancient Greece. They were instituted in the city of Eleusis, some twenty-two kilometers west of Athens, possibly as far back as the early Mycenaean period, and continued for almost two thousand years. Large crowds of worshippers from all over Greece (and later, from throughout the Roman empire) would gather to make the holy pilgrimage between the two cities and and participate in the secret ceremonies, generally regarded as the high point of Greek religion. As Christianity began to spread, the Mysteries were condemned by the early Church fathers; yet the rites continued for hundreds of years more and exercised considerable influence on the formation of early Christian teachings and practices.
Our sources of information regarding the Eleusinian Mysteries include the ruins of the sanctuary there; numerous statues, bas reliefs, and pottery; reports from ancient writers such as Aeschylos, Sophokles, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Plutarch, and Pausanias--all of whom were initiates--as well as the accounts of Christian commentators like Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Astorias. Yet for all this evidence, the true nature of the Mysteries remains shrouded in uncertainty because the participants did, with remarkable consistency, honor their pledge not to reveal what took place in the Telesterion, or inner sanctum of the Temple of Demeter. To violate that oath of secrecy was a capital offense. (Aeschylos, for example, once had to fear for his life on account of coming too close to revealing forbidden truths.) For these reasons, scholars today must make use of circumstantial evidence and inferences, with the result that there is still no consensus as to what did or did not take place. Hence, we shall sometimes be forced to engage in the tentative weighing of alternative hypotheses, without always reaching definite conclusions.
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The Hymn to Demeter
The Hymn to Demeter [DOC], 495 verses in length, is the canonical work associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries. Although traditionally attributed to Homer, it was probably written somewhat later, in the seventh century BCE (Evelyn-White xxxvi). The hymn recounts the story of Demeter and Kore (the Maiden, i.e., Persephone), how they were separated when Hades snatched Persephone up in his chariot as she was gathering flowers in a meadow and bore her down with him to the underworld. The story continues that Demeter, disconsolate over her daughter's loss, searched all over the world for her in vain. Finally, with the help of Hekate and Helios, she learned of her daughter's abduction and discovered, besides, that it had been approved in advance by Zeus himself.
At this point, the narrative introduces a lengthy interlude (lines 95 to 300) to explain how Demeter came to Eleusis and established her cult there. At the same time, the episode establishes her credentials as the bringer of immortality to humankind: When the goddess realized the role of the other Olympians in her misfortune, she abandoned her divine form and set forth disguised as an old woman from Crete. Eventually she reached Eleusis and set herself down by an old well (the Maiden Well, which later figured prominently in the Mysteries), her heart overflowing with grief. At this point she was accosted by the four lovely daughters of Celeus, a local chieftain, who befriended her and introduced her to their mother, Metaneira. So impressed was Metaneira by the old woman's dignified bearing that she offered her the position of nurse for her own infant son. Demeter accepted, and under her care the child thrived marvelously well. What the mortals didn't know, however, was that Demeter was secretly treating the infant with a series of mystical practices. Every night while the palace slept she would anoint his limbs with ambrosia and then put him into the fire. The child might have become ageless and deathless had the procedure continued; but unfortunately, Metaneira spied on Demeter one night, and when the boy was put into the flames she screamed in fright. At this, the indignant goddess broke off the treatment, revealed herself in her full divine majesty, and demanded that a temple be built in her honor. There, she would teach the people her special rites. And with that promise, Demeter disappeared.
After the Eleusinians had built their temple to Demeter, she stayed there and pined for her daughter, refusing to rejoin the other gods on Mount Olympus. Moreover, she refused to make the seeds sprout in the dark earth, and all the world began to suffer famine. Even the gods suffered from the lack of gifts and sacrifices. Father Zeus sent Iris and other gods to intercede with her, yet Demeter would not relent. Finally, the king of the gods dispatched Hermes down to Hades, bidding the lord of the underworld to give Persephone up and return her to her mother. Hades reluctantly agreed, but first he contrived to make Persephone taste a small morsel of food--consisting of a single pomegranite seed--just enough to ensure, by a kind of divine symmetry, that she would always have to spend one third of every year with him (during the winter). And so Persephone was able to leave the underworld and return to the light, where she was reunited at last with her mother.
The poem ends with an invocation of the two goddesses and a promise of rich rewards to their devotees, both in this life and the next:
Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom.... Right blessed is he among men on earth whom they freely love ... (lines 480-87, Evelyn-White 323)Participants
Only those who spoke Greek and had shed no blood (or had subsequently been purified) were eligible to participate in the rituals at Eleusis. Each new initiate, known as a "mystes," would receive preliminary instructions and guidance from an experienced sponsor, or "mystagogos," who was often from one of the leading families of Eleusis. A mystes who returned a second time to Eleusis for induction into the highest levels of esoteric knowledge was known as an epoptes.
There were also numerous priestly functionaries connected with the proceedings: The Hierophant, or High Priest, would preside over the most mysterious and solemn portions of the ritual. He alone had the right to enter the secret chamber of the Anaktoron, where the sacred Hiera, or cult objects, were housed. The High Priestess of Demeter would share with the Hierophant the primary responsibility for presiding over the Mysteries. It is thought that she would assume the role of Demeter in a sacred drama reenacting the goddess's anguish and desperate search for Persephone. Most scholars also believe that the High Priestess would join the High Priest in performing an ieros gamos, or sacred wedding of symbolic significance (see below). The Hierophantides were two chief female assistants of the Hierophant who played a major role in the drama and initiation ceremonies. The Panageis Priestesses, also known as "bees," were celibate auxiliaries whose precise function remains unknown. Possibly they played a role in carrying the Hiera in the stately procession from Eleusis to Athens and back again. The Dadouchos, second male in rank after the Hierophant, was the torchbearer, who played an important role in the initiations. He alone at Eleusis had the authority to remove the stain of impurity from aspirants who had shed human blood. He and his female assistant, the Dadouchousa, were probably also responsible for the lighting effects in the Telesterion during the ceremonies. The Hieorokeryx was the official herald, whose stentorian voice would call the initiates to silence in order for the Mysteries to begin. Finally, the Priest at the Altar would preside over the animal sacrifices and other offerings to the two goddesses.
The celebration of the Mysteries at Eleusis was an elaborate affair which took place over a period of nine days in the month of Boedromion (late September). For each day, there was a prescribed series of ritual actions that initiates were expected to follow in the proper order (Parke 53-72; Simon 24-35).
One day prior to the festival proper, a large crowd of participants would gather in Eleusis and proceed with much pomp to the sanctuary of Demeter in the Athenian agora. On the following day, 15 Boedromion, the actual festival would begin with a formal declaration in the agora announcing the event and inviting initiates to take part. From 16 to 18 Boedromion, the initiates would descend singly to the sea, each bearing a suckling piglet for purification and sacrifice. (Here the connection with the Thesmophoria, another ritual celebration of Demeter featuring a pig sacrifice, is most in evidence.) There would also be major sacrifices in honor of the city of Athens and other public institutions.
On the fifth day of the festival (19 Boedromion) the celebrants would proceed in formal procession from Athens back to Eleusis, bearing the sacred hiera as well as a statue of the boy-god Iacchos. The latter deity, who personified the shouts of exultation that the participants would periodically emit, was identified at least as far back as the days of Sophokles with Dionysos (cf. Antigone, vv. 1115 ff.). This identificiation constitutes prima facie evidence of a very significant connection between the Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries. Yet the point remains controversial (see below).
The initiates would then rest, purify themselves, and maintain either a partial or complete fast. It is believed that they would break their fast as evening approached by drinking a special beverage known as the "kykeon," consisting of meal and water mixed with fresh pennyroyal mint leaves (the same brew that Demeter drank, as recounted in the Hymn, lines 210-11). Obviously, the grain in the drink was a symbol of Persephone, the eternal goddess who dies, goes under the ground, and then comes back to life again.
Scholars disagree widely over the significance of the kykeon. Some have maintained that it must have had a sacramental character involving a communion with, or assimilation of, the spirit of the deity (Loisy 69; Jevons 365ff.). On the other hand, Mylonas doubts that it had any such "mystic" significance, although he acknowledges that the drinking of the kykeon was an "act of religious remembrance" involving "an observance of an act of the Goddess" (259f.). Even on this muted interpretation, the similarity to the Christian Eucharist is striking.
As to the composition of the drink, it is generally agreed that it can have had no alcoholic content, since the Hymn expressly states that Demeter did not partake of wine. Yet it has been suggested that there might have been an admixture of some other intoxicating ingredients. Joseph Campbell, for example, has speculated that the grains of wheat may have contained small quantities of ergot, a natural hallucinogen often occurring in cereal products (video: "From Darkness to Light"). This hypothesis is rendered less plausible, however, by the extremely volatile character of ergot infections (as in Saint Anthony's fire), which would have been difficult if not impossible to control safely.
When the mystai entered the sacred precincts of the Telesterion, they may have been required to utter a special, formulaic password, or "synthema," to confirm their readiness to participate in the rites. Clement of Alexandria has reported the contents of such a synthema as follows: "I fasted; I drank the kykeon; I took from the kiste [a cylindrical reliquary]; having done my task, I placed in the basket, and from the basket into the kiste" (Protreptikos, II, 18; Loeb 43). These obscure, but suggestive words have given rise to a plethora of imaginative interpretations; yet scholars are divided about the reliability of Clement's testimony.
What next transpired in the ceremonies remains hidden behind veils of piously enforced secrecy. Most scholars believe, on the basis of testimony from Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, that the Mysteries comprised three main components, known as the deiknymena ("things shown"), the legomena ("things said"), and the dromena ("things done"). We have already discussed aspects of the first two and will return to them again later. As for the dromena, these are believed to have included a ritual reenactment of the story of Demeter and Persephone, including the latter's abduction by Hades; Demeter's grief; her long, desperate search throughout the world for the departed goddess; the anguish of all living creatures as famine and death engulfed them. Very likely the initiates gained a sense of direct participation in Demeter's travail by searching with her and calling for her daughter in the same hallowed precincts which, according to tradition, actually witnessed these events. Then finally, perhaps illuminated in a sudden blaze of torchlight, there would have been the joyous moment of Persephone's resurrection, as she emerged from the underworld and returned to the loving arms of her mother. The dramatic intensity of this pageant, heightened (in all probability) by music and chanted invocations of the gods, would surely have created an awe-inspiring spectacle, whose memory the initiates would cherish for the rest of their lives.
Foucart has proposed, on the basis of a passage from Plutarch (cited by Themistius and preserved in Stobaeus), that in addition to representing the separation and reunion of the two goddesses, the Mysteries may also have led the initiates through gloomy infernal regions, with horrible images and ghostly shapes in order to recreate a grim foreshadowing of what awaits the uninitiate (Stobaeus, "Agra" 107). Then, as Foucart also suggests, subsequent representations of a blissful afterlife in the company of the goddesses and other initiates would have produced a profound sense of relief and spiritual rebirth (392ff.). Other researchers have objected to this scenario on the grounds that the ruins at Eleusis include no remains of a stage installations, underground chambers, or any theatrical machinery such as would have been necessary in order to render the experience of a trip to the underworld (Noack 236ff.; Mylonas 268). Yet the absence of full-fledged stage equipment surely does not preclude the possibility of dramatic representations in some manner of an "underworld"--achieved through a judicious use of darkness, sound, and atmosphere. (Besides, a great deal could have been done with wooden props and settings, which of course would since have disappeared.) Foucart's hypothesis, though speculative, cannot be ruled out.
Interestingly, Wilamowitz and Kerényi have used the same argument about the absence of theatrical installations, underground chambers, and so on to contest even the prevailing theory concerning the enactment of Demeter and Persephone's story. According to these scholars, the supposition that the dromena at Eleusis took the form of a stage-play is absurd (Wilamowitz 481; Kerényi 141). But this is not to say that they would necessarily deny the occurrence of any dramatic representations whatever. Instead, Kerényi proposes (134) that the dromena may have been a sacred dance, perhaps similar to the labyrinthine rope-dances that were performed on the island of Delos. By means of stylized gestures and ritual moves in which the initiates themselves participated, it would have been possible to evoke a profound, even trance-like sense of union with the divine.
Yet another controversy concerns the question whether or not an ieros gamos, or Sacred Marriage, also featured in these rites. There are three or four pieces of circumstantial evidence, most of them originating in the statements of early Christian Fathers, which have been used to infer the existence of an ieros gamos: (1) According to Clement of Alexandria, Demeter was sometimes referred to as "Brimo" (the Mighty, the Raging), on account of her anger toward Zeus (Protreptikos II, 14; Loeb 35). (2) Hippolytus of Rome (third century) reports that "At night in Eleusis, [the Hierophant] appearing in the midst of many fires, proclaims the great and secret mystery, saying, 'The Holy Brimo has borne a sacred child, Brimos,' that is, the mighty (f.) [has borne] the mighty (m.)" (Philosophoumena V, 38-41; Migne 3150). (3) Asterios of Amaseia (fourth century), in a diatribe against the pagans' barbaric and obscene rituals, asked the following rhetorical questions: "Are not the height and culmination of your religion those Eleusinian Mysteries, whose vanities the people of Attica, and indeed all Greece, gather to celebrate? Is there not in that place a dark underground chamber [katabasion], where the Hierophant meets with the High Priestess alone? Are not the torches then extinguished, and do not the vast multitudes believe it is for their own salvation--what those two do together in the darkness?" (Asterios, in Migne 324) (4) In his commentary on Plato's Timaeus, Proklos Diadochos (fifth century) recounts the following: "In the ceremonies of Eleusis they would cry, raising their eyes to the heavens, 'rain' [hye], and then, lowering them to the earth, 'be fruitful' [kye]" (Timaios 293C; Festugiére 34).
On the basis of this evidence, many investigators have concluded that some form of Sacred Marriage probably took place at the Mysteries, and that this ceremony culminated in the symbolic birth (or rebirth) of a son. There are various proposals as to who that child might have been: possibly Iacchos, the tutelary deity whose statue accompanied the dual goddesses on the pilgrimage from Athens to Eleusis; Ploutos, the god of wealth who sprang, according to Hesiod and Homer, from the union of Demeter and the mortal Iasion of Crete; Dionysos-Zagreus, a Cretan deity, who according to Orphic tradition was the offspring of Persephone and Zeus; Triptolemos, an early prince of Eleusis much represented on vases and urns; or even Persephone herself. Perhaps, indeed, the "child" represents a mystical merging and identification of all these together.
Mylonas, however, followed by Brumfield, denies that any Sacred Marriage, or any birth of a Sacred Child, took place (Mylonas 270, 311 ff.; Brumfield 203). Mylonas's arguments are too complicated to discuss here in detail, but in essence they are: (1) that Clement mixed up and confused elements from Phrygian, Orphic, and even Alexandrian cults with the Eleusinian Mysteries (288-305); (2) that Hippolytus could not have had any information about what was actually said in the most esoteric ceremonies at Eleusis, hence he filled in the gaps in his knowledge with plausible-sounding phrases of his own invention (305-10); that Asterios came too late in history to have had any reliable data available, and besides he was writing for an audience that also lacked first-hand knowledge (311-15); that the words alleged by Proklos to have been an unutterable secret ("hye, kye") could not possibly have been, since they were inscribed for all to see on a well beside the Dipylon gate of Athens (270, 310). Mylonas's primary concern throughout his book is to avert what he conceives as the "error" of theokrasia, the intermingling of distinct deities and religious traditions. Whether this is always an "error" may, however, be open to question--a question to which this article will return below.
In any case, after the performance of the dromena, the Hierophant would withdraw alone into the Anaktoron (the sacred, secret chamber of the Telesterion) and reemerge with the Hiera, those most mysterious and holy relics of Demeter and Persephone. In the full splendor of his sacerdotal dignity, he would reveal these to the initiates, who doubtless accepted them as objects that the two goddesses had personally consecrated and passed on to humankind. This culminating moment of the Mysteries was surely that which inspired the profoundest feelings of awe. Yet we have no idea today what the contents of the Hiera actually were. Theories have ranged from stalks of cut wheat, serpents, specially blessed bread, a stylized phallus or female pudendum (or both), ancient Mycenaean artifacts, or neolithic statuettes. In the final analysis, what the Hiera physically were is perhaps less important than how they were presented and the spirit in which they were received.
As the festival wound down, the participants would dedicate special services in honor of the dead. Ritual libations would be poured on the ground, the consecrated liquid flowing in the eastward and westward directions. The initiates (probably exhausted at this point) would then return to Athens singly or in small groups. There does not appear to have been any organized procession. This was a time for reflection and meditation.
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Concluding Comments and a Final Proposal
We have seen that the paucity of hard data about the Mysteries at Eleusis is counterbalanced by the wealth of speculative theories and hypotheses. At the risk of adding to the latter, it is worth considering the possibility that perhaps there was no unitary set of "secret" teachings at all, but rather a developing series of esoterica.
It is well known that the Mysteries continued for almost two thousand years, during which time the Greek world evolved tremendously in both intellectual and religious aspects. This period saw the transition from the traditional polytheism of Homer and Hesiod, through the beginnings of scientific philosophy in Thales, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, and others, to the pinnacles of philosophical monotheism represented by Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. Similar transformations also occurred in the realms of literature, art, and historiography. It would be unreasonable, therefore, to deny that there could have been corresponding changes within the sacred precincts of the Telesterion as well. We know that the greatest intellects of the ancient world testified repeatedly to the salvific power of participation in the Mysteries--why then assume that those secret rites and teachings would not also have adapted to the times, so as to contain allusions to the deepest spiritual insights of which their devotees were capable?
To be sure, the outward phenomena of the rituals probably retained a remarkable consistency of form throughout the millenia of their practice, for this conservative tendency is characteristic of archaic religions in general. Yet the interpretations given to the ritual performances by the participants themselves may well have undergone substantial modifications over time. In particular, it seems not unlikely that a proclivity toward syncretism and theokrasia could have fused with philosophical speculations from about the fourth century BCE onwards, leading to a new type of religious mysticism and perhaps even containing intimations of monotheism or pantheistic monism.
It would be going too far to push this line of inquiry further, since there is no concrete evidence to support it. Yet there is cause to wonder whether the esoteric teachings of the Eleusinian Mysteries may not have helped in such a manner to prepare the way for the dawn of the Christian age.
Note: The author would like to thank Shirley J. Schwarz and Patrick M. Thomas, both in the University of Evansville's Department of Archaeology and Art History, for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. They pointed out several mistakes and misleading statements, which have since been corrected. Moreover, they gave invaluable assistance in identifying some of the recent discoveries and bibliographical sources that shed new light on this ever-expanding topic. Responsibility for any remaining errors in the present article rest, of course, entirely with the writer.
[Note: For a good annotated bibliography of the scholarly literature, see Eliade, below, 458-64. For a comprehensive listing of iconographical materials, see Beschi, 848-84. For an extensive collection of links to other World Wide Web sites pertaining to Eleusis, see Martin.]
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Beach, Edward A., "The Eleusinian Mysteries," in The Potencies of God(s): Schelling's Philosophy of Mythology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994: 238-44.
Beschi, Luigi, "Demeter," in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae. Zurich/Munich: Artemis Verlag, 1988. Vol. 4: 844-92.
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Proklos Diadochos, "Généalogie des Dieux," in Commentaire sur le Timée, French trans. A.J. Festugiére. Paris: J. Vrin, 1968. Vol. 5.
Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von, Einleitung in die Philosophie der Offenbarung, in Sämtliche Werke. Stuttgart/Augsburg: J.G. Cotta'scher Verlag, 1856-61. Vol. 13.
Schmidt, Margot, "Beziehungen zwischen Eros, dem dionysischen und dem 'eleusinischen' Kreis auf apulischen Vasenbildern,"in Images et Société en Grèce Ancienne. l'Iconographie comme Méthode d'Analyse. Actes du Collogue international, Lausanne 8-11 février 1984. Lausanne: Université de Lausanne, 1987: 155-67.
Simon, Erika, Festivals of Attica: An Archaeological Commentary. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
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Stoabeus, Joannes, Anthologium, ed. A. Meineke. Lipsiae: Teubner, 1860-64. Vol. 4.
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Edward A. Beach