The Rites and Festival of the Eleusinian Mysteries - by Taylor Mitchell

Key Terms:

  • Cult: worship of a specific deity (ie the cult of Dionysus worships Dionysus, etc.).

  • Eleusis: the polis (city) housing Demeter’s temple and where the festival’s processions ended. Approximately 14 miles northwest of Athens.

  • Epidaurus: polis (city) in the Peloponnese with the sanctuary of Asclepius (an important healing centre).

  • Epoptes: second-year initiates.

  • Kore: another name for Persephone. It means maiden or girl.

  • Mystes: first-year initiates.

  • Mystagogues: senior members of the cult.

  • Mystery cult: a secretive cult that promised initiates and members a better afterlife. One had to become an initiate to reap the rewards, however, almost anyone was welcome (no children, murderers or Barbarians).

  • Narcissus: a flower we now call daffodils.

The Eleusinian Mystery Cult

Mystery cults in antiquity were abundant; they made promises for a successful afterlife so long as members kept the secrets and they acted as an outlet for participants to deal with their mortality. Although members of these cults did not share the secrets, we do have some information on their operations, albeit very little. The lack of information we have on these mystery cults makes it easy to overanalyse our limited information and make assumptions. While we do not know very much about the inner workings, we have archaeological evidence and some literary sources to help us understand what may have happened to initiates and what compelled so many individuals to join this mystery cult. The Eleusinian mystery cult of Demeter and Kore (Persephone) was one of the most revered mystery cults in antiquity lasting for over a thousand years and, as a result, we have the most information on it in comparison to others. While this was an ancient Greek mystery cult, Romans did participate as well and even some Roman Emperors were known to be initiated.

General view of sanctuary of Demeter and Kore and the Telesterion (Initiation Hall), center for the Eleusinian Mysteries, Eleusis
General view of sanctuary of Demeter and Kore and the Telesterion (Initiation Hall), center for the Eleusinian Mysteries

The Myth

The cult and festival are associated with the myth of Kore’s kidnapping by Hades. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, we are told that Kore was picking flowers when she came across a beautiful narcissus. When she plucked the flower, the earth opened up and Hades snatched her into his chariot, carrying her to the Underworld. For nine days Demeter scoured the earth with burning torches in her hands. When she learned that Zeus gave their daughter to Hades to be his wife she avoided the gatherings of the gods on Olympus and disguised herself as a mortal. The goddess eventually settled in Eleusis in the house of Celeus, ruler of Eleusis, where she attempted to immortalize his newborn son by placing him into the fire nightly before being stopped by the boy’s mother. Demeter then demanded a temple and an altar to be built in Eleusis, to which Celeus immediately complied.


The Festival

The nine-day festival (nine days because that is how long Demeter grieved and searched for her daughter) that kicked off the mysteries started in late September with an invitation to all who wished to observe and celebrate the mysteries at Eleusis. Everyone was allowed to participate except for children, those who committed murder and barbarians, making this cult a central polis cult because worship was open to the entirety of the polis. The following day was called Halade Mystai (initiates of the Sea) because those intending to initiate went to the sea to wash and sacrifice a piglet as an act of purification. Day three of the festival concerned city officials rather than the initiates, this was the day they sacrificed to the Eleusinian goddesses: Kore and Demeter. Since this cult spans over a thousand years, some elements have been added much later than other elements. For instance, on the fourth day of the festival, there were sacrifices to Asclepius, the god of medicine. This element was added in honour of the god after a snake that was sacred to him was brought from his sanctuary in Epidaurus to Athens, the snake reached Athens during the mysteries celebration and was housed overnight in Eleusis.


Processions

Finally, there were two processions beginning in Athens and ending at Eleusis where individuals were initiated into the cult. The Eleusinian priests led the first procession with the priestesses carrying the hiera (sacred objects) in closed containers with ribbons. While we are not aware of what these sacred objects were exactly, we can infer that they were small and light because they fit into containers small enough to be carried throughout the 14-mile procession. Since there was no cult statue of either Kore or Demeter like in other cults, the hiera must have represented them in some way. The second procession was to bring the initiates to Eleusis, led by a man carrying a statue of Iacchus, who in myth was another Eleusinian god specifically associated with guiding the initiates. During this procession, bystanders mocked the initiates and once the initiates reached the sanctuary they danced for the goddesses before entering. The processions are one of the public aspects of the cult, as a mystery cult there were many private aspects reserved for initiates and the initiated, but the public aspect would have brought a variety of individuals together and it would have made initiating more appealing. At the height of these mysteries, there may have been several thousand initiates every year. It is unfortunate that there is not more information about what happened inside the sanctuary during initiation as it must have been quite appealing if thousands of people were participating.


Revealing the Secrets

The secrets of mystery cults were not revealed until during initiation, and the penalty for divulging these secrets was death. Secrecy was an aspect of many Greek cults, not just this specific mystery cult, so despite the name of the cult, secrecy was not what made it special. The purpose of secrecy would have been to keep the experience extraordinary. There are few literary sources for mystery cults and they took that death penalty seriously so we have very little information from them on the details. However, archaeological evidence of the sanctuary at Eleusis has revealed an abundance of information about its development and what may have happened inside. The archaeological record shows us that like most sanctuaries it contained multiple buildings associated with the cult and it was enclosed with a wall, however, there was neither a temple nor an altar. Instead, the altar was located just outside the sanctuary which seems to indicate that the Eleusinian goddesses were not offered animal sacrifices inside the sanctuary, possibly because initiates cleansed and sacrificed piglets prior to their arrival. On the day after entering the sanctuary the initiates would have drank kykeon (a mixture of water and barley (not beer), sacred drink of Demeter), possibly fasted and rested for that evening when the secrets would have been revealed. Many accounts of the mysteries mention the visual aspects and the experience of seeing the mysteries; Aristotle said that the initiates were not supposed to learn so much as experience.


Initiation

Initiates had to experience the mysteries twice to become full-fledged initiates, first as mystes, then the following year as epoptes. Mystes comes from the Greek word meaning “to close”, in this case in reference to their eyes, therefore first-time initiates were probably blindfolded in order to create a loss of sight and make the experience even more special. They were led by mystagogues. Epoptes means “the one who sees”, therefore the initiates were no longer blindfolded as of their second year in the mysteries. The hypothesized initiation process mirrored the myth of Hades’ kidnapping of Kore, the initiates played the role of Demeter in her search for her missing daughter. Initiates would have known the myth already so the initiation would have begun after the kidnapping, and they would have felt the suffering and despair of Demeter as they searched for her daughter blindly in the darkness. The finding of Kore is experienced by the initiates through a sudden light cutting through the darkness and a great sight of the mother and daughter reuniting. Obviously, the goddesses did not actually appear at this moment, but it still would have been a powerful and entertaining scene for members of the cult to experience.


Conclusion

The Eleusinian Mysteries were widespread throughout the ancient Greco-Roman world, indicated through the variety of participating citizens from multiple classes, and continue to be a fascinating piece of the ancient Mediterranean world today. As we continue to excavate the archaeological finds could lead us towards a more in-depth understanding of these cults. These cults remain much of a mystery (pun intended) to classicists but we know the experience and the promises they made to initiates must have been incredible for thousands of people to have continuously initiated for over one thousand years.

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