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The Eleusinian Mysteries – Part 1 – The Basics

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

In Ancient Greece, large and popular celebrations were held twice a year, at the time of sowing and reaping, to honour mother and daughter, the spirits of barleycorn and love, and the queen of the dead.

The Eleusinian Mysteries in Greece were the oldest and most prestigious of all ancient Mediterranean festivities.

From Mycenaean times until around 400 AD, the city of Eleusis, 15 miles (25 km) west of Athens, held the Greater Mysteries every September in honor of Demeter and Persephone. The Lesser Mysteries, or preliminary rituals, were celebrated at Agrae in the spring. The fact that they were held in September implies that they originated as a harvest festival. However, subsequent initiates who understood the ceremonies as referring to the soul rather than barleycorn were unaware of the original rationale. The month commencing in mid-September was called Demetrion after Demeter in various Greek kingdoms, however it was termed Boedromion at Athens.

Zeus, the Greek high deity (Dyaus Pitar, Jupiter), was married to Hera (Juno), but in Greek mythology, another mother goddess, Demeter, is on the same level as Hera and was far more popular. The Demeter religion is most likely not native Greek, but rather a product of Thessaly or Thrace, regions to the north. Homer mentions pre-Dorian Demeter temples at the Thessalian cities of Thermopylae, Pyrasos, and Pherai, and etymology links several Demeter rituals terms to pre-Hellenic languages from the north. However, a deity named “Dameter” occurs on Linear B tablets dating from around 1200 BC from Pylos.

If Dameter is Demeter, the religion may have already been prevalent in the Aegean at such a young age, and there are significant parallels to grain deities elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. “Meter” is a Greek word that means “mother,” and “De” is an Indo-European word that means “god.” The only deity in Crete was the mother earth goddess, and Greek poets said that Crete provided them with their “mysteries.”

Demeter had to be accepted into the Olympic family by the Greeks. Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, was also required to be accepted. Of course, they made her Zeus’s daughter by Demeter and the wife of Pluto, the king of the underworld. But it’s her “descent into hell” that we’re most interested in.

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Myths and Legends of the Eleusinian Mysteries

Christians believe that the narrative of death and resurrection was created by ancient mankind and is unique to their own Church. By the seventh century BC, the Eleusinian Mysteries became connected with the belief that Pluto (Hades), the deity of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone (Kore or Cora, the maid). The symbolic narrative is told in the Hymn to Demeter, a nearly 500-verse poem formerly considered to be written by Homer. Demeter would never approve to her going below, so Zeus advocated carrying the celestial maid away by force. As Persephone was collecting flowers in the meadows one day, Pluto abducted her and brought her down to the underworld with him. She had, in a nutshell, died.

Demeter, distraught at the loss of her daughter, searched the entire planet in weeping in vain for her daughter, much as Isis sought Osiris, Ishtar sought Tammuz, and the women sought Christ. Hecate and Helios finally assisted her in recognizing that Hades had abducted her and that Zeus had sanctioned the act. As a result, she irritated Zeus to the point where he had to tell Pluto to give her up. Pluto consented, but the frantic lover had Persephone eat a pomegranate, which, according to Greek mythology, turned her into a permanent resident of the underworld. Zeus made a deal with her, requiring her to spend half of the year underground and the rest above ground with Demeter.

Demeter arrived to Eleusis to establish her religion as the bringer of immortality to humans, according to the poem. When the goddess discovered the other Olympians were to blame for her tragedy, she took on human form and set forth as an elderly woman from Crete. She eventually arrived in Eleusis and sat beside an ancient well (the Maiden Well of the Mysteries), her heart heavy with sadness. Celeus, a local chieftain, befriended her and presented her to their mother, Metaneira, who was so taken by the old woman’s dignity that she appointed her as the nurse to her infant son.

The kid flourished in Demeter’s care because she bathed his limbs with ambrosia and threw him into the fire every night. The goal was to make the mortal kid eternal, but Metaneira came across Demeter one night and screamed in terror when she witnessed her throwing the son into the flames. Demeter arrived as a goddess and promised to reveal the secret of immortality provided people constructed a shrine in her honor, after which she vanished. Isis, the Egyptian deity, had a similar experience in the narrative.

She lingered in Eleusinia when the Eleusinians finished their temple to Demeter, pining for her daughter and reluctant to join the other gods on Mount Olympus. Furthermore, she refused to allow the seeds to develop in the dark dirt, resulting in a worldwide famine. The gods, too, were affected by the paucity of gifts and sacrifices. Iris and other gods were dispatched by Father Zeus to intervene on Demeter’s behalf, but she refused.

Finally, the gods’ monarch dispatched Hermes to Hades, requesting that the lord of the underworld relinquish Persephone to her mother. Hades grudgingly consented, but only after making Persephone consume a little amount of food—a single pomegranate seed—just enough to assure that she would have to spend one-third of every year with him throughout the winter, thanks to divine symmetry. As a result, Persephone was able to escape the underworld and return to the light, where she was reunited with her mother for the first time.

The public Eleusis ceremonies have received a lot of attention, but the hidden initiations are still a mystery. A mystery is a ceremony that is kept hidden from everyone except those who have been initiated. Because breaking the vow of silence was a grave offense, initiates remained quiet about what happened in the Telesterion, the Temple of Demeter’s primary initiation chamber. If there was anything written down, it was destroyed by the conquering Christians. As a result, current researchers know so little about them.

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Ties with Egyptian Traditions.

The discovery of Egyptian figurines and tiny objects at several Mycenaean sites, as well as claims by ancient authors like Herodotus, point to a relationship between the Greek and Egyptian Demeter cults.

Plutarch describes the tale of Isis in Isis and Osiris, and parts of the cult of Demeter recorded in the Hymn to Demeter are very similar. Both have newborn princes who are soon to be immortalized by the goddess.

Isis or Demeter did the journeying? There have been no Egyptian artifacts discovered from the time when the Eleusinian mysteries appear to have begun, yet Greek colonists were in Lower Egypt before 700 BC. Of course, Isis was an ancient Egyptian Goddess, but she may have inherited characteristics from a similar fertility goddess introduced to Egypt by the Greeks in the seventh century.

From around the seventh century BC, the Eleusinian mysteries drew a large number of initiates to Athens, and Homer’s epics show that even then, Greeks thought that the Eleusinian rituals promised the initiates bliss beyond death. The residents of Athens embraced the Mysteries of Eleusis as an element of the state worship, after which other Greek cities were included under Pericles’ reign, and afterwards everyone who could speak Greek and had shed no blood or had been purified.

Other mystery religions followed a similar pattern, with each having its own unique deity or goddess that bestowed particular favors on votaries, promised to watch over them after death, and even offered them a sort of divinity in the form of immortality. Samothrace, Cyprus, Crete, and many other places had annual celebrations in honor of a goddess of grain and the annual regeneration of life. Every eastern religion had a god who struggled, died, and then triumphed. The initiate was asked to partake of the god’s body and therefore obtain spiritual immortality in each. Christianity was the last and only survival of these Eastern Mysteries. The Christians were able to eradicate these ideas until in the sixth century AD, when paganism was finally destroyed.

From the seventh century BC, Greek city states on the west coast of Asia Minor worshipped the cult of the Phrygian goddess Cybele. This initially foreign goddess of nature and fertility was early identified with Rhea or Demeter herself, and was known to the Greeks as the Great Mother, or simply as Meter. Some argue that Demeter and Cybele were just different names for the Great Mother, who was venerated across Greece under many titles. An ancient inscription at Pylos recalls yearly festivities in honor of a pair of deities dressed in a veil, who were taken down to the sea for washing and cleansing in a ceremonial procession with much pomp and seriousness.

The “Thesmophoria,” which honored the goddess as “law-bearer,” was observed by women only in late October across Greece, and was similar to the Eleusinian Mysteries. They included a pig sacrifice, which was the customary offering to earth’s gods and goddesses, with the Greeks connecting pigs with fertility. It was thought that mixing their meat with grain seeds would boost yields. Fasting and purification, a ritualized trip into the underworld, and bringing life out of dead were all part of the festivities. The Eleusinian Mysteries entailed mystai washing and sacrificing Demeter’s holy pigs. The Eleusinian Mysteries and the Thesmophoria are most likely related.

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