Demeter: Goddess of the harvest and agriculture.
Persephone: Goddess of spring and the queen of the underworld.
Mystery Cult: Secret religious cults where participation was only allowed for initiates.
Sacred Way: The road from Athens to Eleusis followed by the procession.
Telesterion: The Initiation Hall at the sanctuary of Eleusis.
Copy of the ‘Ninnion Tablet’ which depicts initiates being led in a procession to the Mysteries and being received by Demeter and Persephone. The Ninnion Tablet is the only known representation of the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Athens, Archaeological Museum of Eleusis. Photograph author’s own.
What were the Eleusinian Mysteries?
The Eleusinian Mysteries were considered the most famous of all mystery cults of Ancient Greece. They were the initiation rites held c. 1600 BCE – 392 CE for the cult of Demeter and Persephone in Eleusis. The Mysteries are believed to have represented the abduction of Persephone in a cycle: Persephone’s descent, Demeter’s search, and Persephone’s ascent and reunion with Demeter. The specifics of what actually happened during the Mysteries is unknown as initiates were forbidden from revealing them on pain of death.
Demeter and Persephone
As the myth goes, Persephone was picking flowers when she was spotted by Hades, the king of the underworld, who fell in love with her and asked her father, Zeus, for permission to marry her. Zeus refused to either allowing or disallowing this request, emboldening Hades to abduct Persephone.
After nine days and nights of searching the earth for her daughter Persephone, Demeter reached Eleusis disguised as an old woman, where she sat grieving until she was met by the daughters of Celeus, the king of Eleusis. She attempted to immortalise Demophon, the son of the king, but was interrupted by the queen. Insulted by this, Demeter removed her mortal disguise and ordered the Eleusinians to build her a temple to sate her anger. Another of Celeus’s sons named Triptolemus told Demeter that he had witnessed a shrieking young girl being taken away on a chariot driven by black horses – the charioteer was undisputedly Hades.
Wrapped in her grief once more, Demeter refused to allow crops, fruits, or herbs to grow, swearing that the earth would remain barren until she and Persephone were reunited. This pushed Zeus to persuade Hades to return Persephone, but not before she had been tricked into eating a number of pomegranate seeds which meant that she must remain in the underworld. A compromise was quickly sorted after Demeter threatened to stop crops from growing for a third time, outlining that Persephone would spend three months of the year in the underworld and the other nine months with her mother. When Persephone remained with Demeter, she allowed all of the crops and plants of the earth to grow, but when she was residing in the underworld Demeter would let the crops and plants die, explaining the seasons and the cyclical nature of life. Once reunited with her daughter Demeter taught Triptolemus the art of ploughing and agriculture and instructed the Eleusinians in her worship, initiating them into her Mysteries.
There were two stages of initiation, the Lesser Mysteries, held in spring, and the Greater Mysteries which took place over nine days in September. Initiates to the Lesser Mysteries would make sacrifices to Demeter and purify themselves in the River Illisos. After this, they were considered worthy of initiation into the Greater Mysteries.
To open the Greater Mysteries Athenian priests would bring sacred objects from Eleusis to a sanctuary at the base of the Acropolis called the Eleusinion where they would remain for five days. After this the procession to Eleusis began, running the length of the Sacred Way – some 14 miles – and was led by two Eleusinian priestesses holding special items in preparation for the rest of the ceremony. They were followed by priests and initiates who would have carried torches, flowers, libations, and ceremonial vessels until they would have reached the Telesterion: the “Initiation Hall”.
After this, we cannot know what fully happened next, but it is thought that once reaching Eleusis initiates would rest by the well of Demeter and drink Demeter’s kykeon, a fermented barley drink that would have had a hallucinogenic effect. After this they would enter the Telesterion where the initiation rites are thought to comprise of three stages:
1. dromena (things done), re-enactments of Persephone’s ‘death’, search, and rebirth of Persephone.
2. deiknumena (things shown), the displaying of sacred objects.
3. legomena (things said), commentaries of the goddess’ adventures that accompanied the deiknumena.
However, our understanding of these elements is poor, and we cannot truly know what happened in these elements or even the order that they were undertaken. We do know that whoever experienced the rites were radically changed due to whatever happened within the Telesterion. To close the ceremonies on the last night the initiates honoured the dead by pouring libations from two plemochoe (a special vessel) in a symbolic act of fertilising the earth to allow for grain to grow and continue the cycle of life.
These rituals were based on a symbolic reading of the Demeter and Persephone myth which offered initiates a vision of eternal life with a reward in the afterlife. The cyclical nature of the Persephone myth was a promise to initiates that life did not end with death as there was no death, only transformation. It was believed that being initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries meant that the initiates had also been reborn. This was symbolised in one rite which involved raising a container of sheaves of corn from beneath the earth, as although the sheaves are dead, they contain seeds of new life.
Anyone who was anyone was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. And while the Mysteries began simply as a local cult it soon grew to become an institution, drawing thousands across Greece, including:
Peisistratos: A sixth century ruler of Athens who made the Mysteries an annual festival and encouraged citizens to attend.
Pericles: A statesman and general of Athens who led Athens from roughly 461-429 BCE.
Alcibiades: An Athenian orator and general who was (possibly) condemned and taken to trial for revealing secrets of the Mysteries in 415 BCE.
Plato: An Athenian philosopher during the Classical period who wrote in his dialogue the Phaedo that those who were initiated would ‘dwell with the gods’ (69: d).
Cicero: Roman statesman and orator who called the Eleusinian Mysteries the best and most sacred of all Athenian institutions and wrote that the Mysteries showed initiates ‘how to live joyfully [and] how to die with greater hope’ (Laws II. 14: 26).
Plutarch: A Greek philosopher and historian who wrote that being initiated into the Mysteries granted the knowledge that soul was ‘incorruptible and immortal’ (Hamilton: 179).
Hadrian: Roman emperor from 117-138 CE who participated in the Mysteries in 124 CE.
Antoninus Pius: Roman emperor from 138-162 CE. Ruins of his triumphal arch are still at Eleusis today.
Marcus Aurelius: Roman emperor from 161-180 CE. After the sack of Eleusis in 170 CE Marcus Aurelius rebuilt much of the site.
Julian: The last polytheistic Roman emperor ruling from 361-363 CE, and the last emperor to be initiated into the Mysteries.
While the Eleusinian Mysteries were once considered the most important of all of the ancient Greek religious cults, to us they have remained, for the most part, a mystery. As Christianity gained popularity in the 4th and 5th centuries, Eleusis’ reputation declined, and the Mysteries were banned by Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius in 392 CE. The site of Eleusis was sacked and destroyed four years later. Much of our knowledge of the secret rites is based on reconstructions from rare literary references and artistic representations such as the Ninnion Tablet, so we will likely never know how it was that the initiates worshipped Demeter and Persephone. All we can say for certain was that it was here where they were worshipped in a way like no other deities in ancient Greece, in a religious experience that changed the lives of those initiated and promised them rebirth and freedom from death.
Hamilton, E. The Greek Way. 1930.
Stuttard, D. Greek Mythology: A Traveller’s Guide from Mount Olympus to Troy. 2016.
Graves, R. The Greek Myths. 2017.
Mylonas, G.E. ‘Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries’, The Classical Journal 43(3), 130-146.
The Acropolis Museum. Eleusis. The Great Mysteries temporary exhibition: https://vimeo.com/436055332 .
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