What happened at the Mysteries (which in Greek means ‘initiation rites’) is itself mysterious. Because the mystes (initiate) was forbidden on pain of death from revealing what went on, no firsthand account survives, so we must reconstruct the rituals and their meaning from oblique references in literature and representations in art.
The Mysteries were open to men and women, free and slaves. There were two stages of initiation. The first, the Lesser Mysteries, were held in spring in the month of the Anthesteria (‘Feast of Flowers’, roughly February/March), originally at Eleusis but from the fifth century bc at Athens. These were said to have been inaugurated by Demeter especially for Heracles, to purify him from his blood-guilt after massacring the Centaurs. At them, neophytes each sacrificed a piglet to Demeter and Persephone and ritually cleansed themselves in the River Ilissus. The subsequent rituals, a mixture of hymns, dances and instruction, helped to make sense of what would be experienced eighteen months later in the Greater Mysteries at Eleusis (it being forbidden to be initiated into both in the same year).
The Greater Mysteries took place over nine days in September and were marked by a sacred truce, which allowed participants to make the pilgrimage to Eleusis in relative safety. First, priests accompanied by young Athenian men, newly enlisted in the army, carried sacred objects in procession from Eleusis to Athens, where they were temporarily housed in the Agora in a building called the Eleusinion. The next day, participants flocked down to the sea, purified themselves by washing in the water, and each sacrificed a piglet – perhaps in the belief that the creature would absorb their sins. Three days later, initiates clothed in sumptuous robes, their heads crowned with myrtle leaves, processed from Athens the 22 km (14 miles) to Eleusis. Many danced, told ribald jokes (recalling the jokes that Iambe told Demeter) or sang hymns to Iacchus, whose wooden statue was carried in front of the procession. Iacchus was an embodiment of Dionysus, god of the grape, who already by the early fifth century bc shared the Mysteries with Demeter and Persephone. The sacred communion of bread and wine has a lengthy pedigree.
The Eleusinian Mysteries Photo Gallery
Initiation ceremonies took place two days later. Having fasted, sacrificed and purified themselves, neophytes, dressed in new clothes, entered the Telesterion, the Hall of Mysteries, a huge, many columned building, which underwent several major enlargements throughout its history. What happened next we cannot tell, but it is likely that initiates first drank Demeter’s kykeon (the cocktail of fermented barley and pennyroyal), to enhance suggestibility and produce hallucinations. Lit by torches, and enlivened by lavish costumes designed by the theatrical impresario Aeschylus (born at Eleusis in 525 bc), the ceremony probably involved a sacred drama (based on the events in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter) in which initiates participated. It may have begun with a re-enactment of the search for Persephone, a great gong reverberating each time she was invoked by name, and ended with the goddess’ epiphany, when the inner sanctum’s doors were opened to reveal her bathed in blazing light.
Plutarch reveals something of the atmosphere
Initiates into the Mysteries crowd together at the start in a pandemonium of jostling and shouting; but when the sacred ritual is being performed and the time comes for the revelation, they are at once rapt in silent attention. The same is true of philosophy. In the early stages, you will see a great multitude, much talk, much confidence, as some people roughly and aggressively compete for the good reputation it accords; but whoever has reached his goal and seen a great light – as if the sanctum had been opened – takes on another demeanour entirely, one of silence and awe.
The goddesses of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Demeter and Persephone, flank the young prince Triptolemus on a marble relief from Eleusis, c. 440 bc.
Elsewhere, he writes of how initiation closely resembles death. At first there is confusion, then terror, shivering and trembling, before, at the blazing of a wondrous light, the traveller arrives in lush pastures, where dances are performed and sacred revelations seen.
The most sacred revelation seems to have involved raising a casket containing sheaves of corn from beneath the earth. Although cut, and therefore dead, they contained the seeds of new life. As the accompanying liturgy may have proclaimed, the initiate, who through his or her experience had passed on to a higher spiritual plane, would similarly be reborn after death. This made the Mysteries extremely potent, and many Greeks, including philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato, believed in the transmigration of souls into many bodies, both human and animal. In John’s Gospel, Christ uses the same Eleusinian metaphor to foreshadow his own forthcoming death and resurrection to ‘certain Greeks’ in Jerusalem for the Passover: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. ’ Initiates spent the final day feasting and performing rites in honour of the dead. Then they returned home, reflecting perhaps -in the words of an inscription discovered at Eleusis – that ‘the blessed gods have bestowed on us a beautiful mystery. For mortals death is to be feared no more: rather, it is a blessing.’
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