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The Eleusinian Mysteries – Part 2 – The Process and Further Details

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

The Proceedings—Intitiates and Participants

We get most of our information from the remains of Eleusis’ sanctuary, interpreting sculptures, bas reliefs, and ceramic depictions of initiations and festivals, and we can’t always be sure we’re correct. Documentary evidence include testimonies by Christian critics such as Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Astorias, as well as reports by contemporaneous writers such as Aeschylos, Sophocles, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Plutarch, and Pausanias, all of whom were initiates.

To preserve ceremonial purity, the procedures had to be kept under wraps. If they had been disturbed, the contamination of those who were not ritually clean would have rendered them invalid. The god would become enraged, resulting in tragedy and misfortune. However, it should be noted that, while the proceedings were secret, they were held openly—that is, at recognized times and locations, and all members were aware of the terms of membership. Clandestine gatherings were forbidden in Rome.

Like the Freemasons, mystery religions have a system of initiation degrees. There were two levels of membership at Eleusis. The “mystes” (initiate) was the lowest level of membership, and many initiates were willing to stay there. The contents of the holy “kistai” (boxes) and the mystai’s initiation were among the mysteries. The mystai received early teachings and assistance from an experienced sponsor, or “mystagogos,” who was usually one of their acquaintances.

The Archon Basileus and four helpers are in charge of the celebration. The Hierophantes and Dadoukhos (Torch Bearer), for example, wore a long-sleeved tunic with ependutes at the hem and shoulders, a headpiece, and Thracian knee-boots. One or two long torches are carried by torchbearers.

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Initiation into the Mysteries normally involved at least four steps:

  1. purification

  2. acceptance of mystic knowledge via teachings or exhortations

  3. revelation of holy things where the initiate has to perform certain acts—the central feature of the rites— often some form of sacred drama

  4. sacrificing, crowning or garlanding and concluding festivities.

Earthly life was viewed as a test in which human souls were put to numerous challenges. The goal of initiation into the mysteries was to help the soul pass its tests so it might progress to a higher degree of existence and, eventually, immortality. After not less than a year in the lower level of fellowship, the more devout initiates advanced to the higher grade. An epoptes was a mystes who returned to Eleusis for entrance into the higher level.

The initiates were ordered to remain silent by an official herald in order for the Mysteries to commence. The mystai were introduced by a High Priest or Hierophant, a revealer of holy things, who presided over the most serious sections of the rites with the help of a priestess.

The inner sanctuary, the Anaktoron, where the sacred items, the Hiera, were stored, was only accessible to the hierophant. The priestess was most likely Demeter in a religious theatre depicting the goddess’s agony and desperate yearning for Persephone. A sacred wedding was also performed by the High Priestess with the High Priest.

The Hierophant’s two female helpers also took part in the proceedings. Lesser Priestesses, known as “bees,” were perhaps celibate attendants who carried the sacred objects in the stately procession from Eleusis to Athens and back. The torchbearer who purged impurities from people who had shed human blood was the deputy to the Hierophant. He also oversaw the Telesterion’s stage and lighting effects, which created such a magnificent atmosphere throughout the festivities. Another priest was in charge of the goddesses’ animal sacrifices.

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The Events Calendar of the Eleusinian Mysteries

The Mysteries of Eleusis had a complicated timetable, with activities spread out over nine days approaching the fall equinox in September. The calendar, on the other hand, was not set in stone because it began with a new moon. Each day had its own set of ceremonial activities that initiates were supposed to do in the correct order.

September 13th. Two boys on horseback journey to Eleusis the day before the festival to escort the Sacred Objects, which will be transported by wagon to Athens on the first day of the festival and welcomed at the shrine (Eleusinion). Ancient figurines of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone were most likely among the sacred objects.

The festival’s first official day is September 14th. The sacred artifacts were paraded from Eleusis to Athens on round kistai wrapped with purple ribbons, where they were ceremonially accepted and put in the Eleusinium. The two goddesses’ curator informs Athena’s priestess of their arrival, who pays her respects, but their names are too holy to be mentioned. They’d be back in five days.

September 16th. The novitiates prepared themselves in the Athenian agora for three days. The mystai congregate in the agora, having been inducted into the Lesser Mysteries in February. To guarantee that they had been initiated into the Lesser Mysteries, names appear to have been adopted. They had to be Greek (or later Roman), over a certain age but still youthful, ritually pure and “pure of hand,” that is, free of bloodshed, and then clean of soul. The Herald advised them to withdraw if they were not ready or deserving of the initiation. They “must have lived well and justly,” he stated, adding that they must have “a soul cognizant of no evil.” Those suffering from blood guilt or other forms of defilement are cautioned to stay away. The mystes spends the rest of the day doing spiritual activities that his or her mystagogos has prescribed.

The following day is set aside for cleansing. Individually, the mystai cleaned themselves by strolling out to the seaside with a Demeter-sacred sucking pig. They entered the water with their piglet on the command “Seaward Initiates!” to wash themselves clean in the sea and therefore cleanse themselves and the offering with salt water. The pig was sacrificed to the goddess in the evening, and its blood was sprinkled over the mystes. The pork would be prepared as part of a feast. The ceremony is identical to that of the Thesmophoria at this time. There were also sacrifices in honour of the city of Athens and other public institutions.

The mystai huddled indoors on the penultimate preparatory day to psychologically prepare for the big rituals. Others organized a celebration to honor the deity Asclepius and his daughter Hygieia (Health), who took part in the Eleusinian initiation.

September 19th. The mounted youths, the mystai, their mystagogoi, epoptai, and the hierophants respectfully accompanied the Hiera back to Eleusis, beginning at the shrine of Dionysos (Iakkhos) and headed by the shrine priest. The marchers are joined by musicians who make announcements along the route. Mystai wore myrtle garlands and carried bundles of myrtle stalks tied together with wool. They also wore a bundle connected to a pole to carry their things.

The mystai and acolytes led the procession along the sacred path, carrying an effigy of the boy deity Iacchos (Dionysos), represented as a torch-bearing youngster. The Eleusinian mysteries and Dionysos’ mysteries must have had a close relationship. A piece of yellow wool is connected to the right hand and left leg of each mystes at one point. They are ritually mistreated in other places. The procession did not conclude until after dusk since each of the numerous shrines along the road had to be visited, and the final portion of the procession was by torchlight, with Demeter searching for Kore (her stolen daughter, Persephone) by torchlight. Demeter is presented with an earthenware dish containing several little cups with modest gifts of the earth’s fruits (such as grain, peas, beans). Then came the mystai’s revels with their deity. The planning was supposed to start the next day.

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The mystai then slept, purified themselves, and fasted for the following few days. They broke the day’s fast by sipping a special brew known as the kykeon, a communion drink, as dusk approached. The goddess in the mystery play sips from a cup at one point. The votaries followed suit. Because the Hymn of Demeter claims Demeter did not drink wine, the drink would have been beer, probably admixed with cornmeal and fresh pennyroyal mint leaves, the same brew that Demeter drank, according to the Hymn. The grain in the drink was obviously a representation of Persephone, the everlasting goddess who dies, descends into the earth, and then rises again. The goddess’s body was symbolized by the maize or barley from which it was formed, and the mystai would have become one with her.

It was clearly sacramental in nature, involving contact with or absorption of the deity’s spirit, and, like the Christian Eucharist, was an act of religious recollection, simulating an act of the Goddess. The symbolic resemblance to the Christian Eucharist is undeniable, and it might be much larger if we knew more about Dionysos’ participation in all of this. If there was some form of communion with Dionysos that included a libation of a cup of wine, we would have had the bread and wine communion from the beginning of history. The priest broke bread and poured a cup of wine for the initiates in the nearby Samothracian mysteries, just as Christians do, but the meaning of the god’s body and blood is less obscured than in Christian communion because of the clearer link with the vegetative god of the vine and the vegetative goddess of the corn.

September 22nd. The initiation, which lasted all night, took place in a locked structure known as the Telesterion (Initiation Place). The Anaktoron, the “Holy of Holies,” is located in the middle and is only accessible to Hierophantes. Things Said, Things Done, and Things Revealed were all part of the proceedings.

The mystai saw Demeter and Kore’s holy drama, in which Kore dies and is resurrected. The gods are represented by the Hierophant, the Hierophantis (High Priestess), and the Torch Bearer. Kore (Persephone) is kidnapped, Demeter, the Great Mother, seeks and mourns as all of life suffers, and eventually the daughter is finally returned. The environment was modest, with no complex staging or scenery, yet costuming and lighting were used to create a mystical impression. Persephone came from the underworld and returned to life, illuminated by a sudden flash of torchlight, the dramatic intensity heightened by music and sung invocations. Demeter’s gladness at Persephone’s restoration is shared by the mystai. The sight must have been breathtaking.

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The mystai were given a pass word as they entered the Telesterion to affirm their preparedness to engage in the ceremonies. They said, according to Clement of Alexandria:

I went without food for a day. The kykeon was consumed by me. I drew something from the reliquary. After completing my duty, I placed it in the basket and then into the reliquary from the basket.

They raise their heads to the sky and shout “rain,” hue, before addressing the land and saying “conceive,” kue, indicating the ritual’s agrarian roots once more. The words Hue, Kue were scribbled on a wall beside Athens’ dipylon entrance for all to see. Finally, the Hierophant concludes his remarks. It was known as the “Logos” or “Word”!

They were then shown cult artifacts. The Hierophant went inside the Anaktoron by himself and emerged with the Hiera, the Holy Things or relics of Demeter and Persephone, most likely antique goddess sculptures, definitely sanctified by Demeter herself. The higher initiates saw a holy marriage rite, a Hieros Gamos, between the Hierophant and the Hierophantess, in which the divine Brimo was declared to have given birth to a sacred child, Brimos. This is what the Christians attempted to portray as sexual. In the third century, Hippolytus of Rome writes:

The Hierophant, coming in the midst of numerous lights late at night at Eleusis, reveals the profound and secret mystery, “The Holy Brimo has produced a sacred child, Brimos.”

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Brimo was Demeter’s moniker, which meant “mighty” or “furious,” and was given to her as retaliation for Zeus’s involvement in the theft of her daughter. As a result, Hippolytus’ statement in Greek implies that the Feminine Mighty One has given birth to the Masculine Mighty One. Iacchos, the newborn Dionysos, whose statue was carried on the pilgrimage from Athens to Eleusis and who, according to Orphic legend, was the offspring of Persephone and Zeus, would have been the child.

Finally, they were shown an ear of corn reaped in quiet, a remnant from a previous period when the Great Mother was a corn deity, symbolizing the soul’s revival after death. The orchestra must have accompanied the whole performance, and the music would have given the timing that allowed the torches to be lit and extinguished in time. Even the mystes’ garments are now considered sacred and are kept as personal holy things. The mystai would never forget this day.

The significance of the fires recorded by Hippolytus, for example, is not acknowledged by any later observer. The goddess bathes the kid in fire in the tale, and it’s hard to believe that this was not a major component of the ritual. It was part of the initiation because, according to legend, it rendered the kid eternal, which was the apparent objective of the rite. In one case, a Brahmin priest named Zarmaros accepted the initiation in Eleusis in 31 BC as a messenger from King Poros of India to the emperor Augustus, and it is stated that he stepped straight into the fires, causing shock. He seemed to anticipate to have to go through the flames, something he might have done before, but possibly when they were a little less ferocious for the mystai.

It is reasonable to assume that the Eleusis processes included some type of fire ordeal. People who muster the bravery to do so gain enormous strength and self-confidence as a result of the experience. Plato had previously portrayed the underworld as a raging lake of flames and boiling muck, and the Persian conception of the wicked’s fate was that they would be burnt in flames while the good would be rescued.

Furthermore, according to Aristotle, the initiates were not required to learn anything from the rites, but they were required to suffer. Apuleius, speaking of Isis’ Mystery tradition, claims that in order to be initiated, he had to journey through all four elements (the four Platonic elements, earth, air, fire, and water). They cleanse you with burning sulphur, according to Servius. The mystai will have been spiritually prepared by the mystagogues, as well as physically prepared to follow the Hierophant across hot stones. They’d know they’d been purified and were no longer in danger, and all they had to do now was stay upright to join the goddess in eternity.

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