The Eleusinian Mysteries: An Unresolved Ancient Greek Puzzle
To this day the Eleusinian mysteries remains a subject enveloped by broken pieces of information, creating great controversy among historians who work under heavy assumptions while trying to puzzle out this ancient tradition. Complete details involving the rites and celebrations which took place during the mysteries were marked by a sworn oath of secrecy by the initiated and, therefore, vanished from our knowledge. In that respect, what do we know about the mysteries and what are the speculations involving it? Although modern Historians still argue about different aspects regarding this mystic ritual, some ideas are often accepted among them, which are understood by the testimonials of the initiated.
In Ancient Greece, the town of Eleusis, situated west of Athens, became the most important religious center of the pagan world during its time. According to the old belief and relates in the Homeric Hymn, Demeter (goddess of agriculture) stopped to rest at Eleusis during her quest for her daughter, Persephone, who was kidnaped by Hades. There, Demeter ordered a temple and altar to be built in her honor. After the joyful reunion of the goddess with the missing Persephone, she instructed the leaders of Eleusis in how to perform her rites. The cult, then, is believed to have been taught directly by Demeter herself.
Demeter with her daughter by her side. ( Public Domain )
Parts of the Rite
It is known that different levels of initiation took place in the cult, and that 3 categories of events existed: the dromena (the things which were enacted), the deiknumena (the things which were shown), the logomena (the things which were explained). The Eleusinian mysteries was broken down into two parts, happening at different times of the year: the 'Lesser mysteries', a preliminary initiation involving purification which would have taken place in the spring at Agrae (a suburb of Athens), and the 'Greater mysteries' in Eleusis, which would have taken place during the Autumn, in late September, for those who had been purified in the previous rite. The participants would have spent a number of days in Athens preparing for this second part of the cult. I must point out that the duration and frequency of these events remains subject of great debate among different historians.
View over the excavation site towards Eleusis and the Saronic Gulf. ( Public Domain )
A central part of the rite involved the drinking of a sacramental barley and mint beverage called 'kykeon'. It is suggested that the 'kykeon' might have been infused with the fungus ergot and possibly mixed with other hallucinogenic which would, then, produce a strong psychedelic experience, helping with the transformation of the initiates. After drinking the 'kykeon', the initiates entered the Telesterion, which resembled an underground theater, where the secret part of the ritual took place. Historians believe that this part of the rite was a symbolic re-enactment of the death and rebirth of Persephone.
Speculators on meanings
The meaning of the festivities is believed to revolve around the symbolic representation of Demeter's search for Persephone. A well accepted theory is that Demeter and Persephone symbolize life, death, and even immortality; that they gave the initiate confidence to face death and a promise of bliss in the dark domain of Hades. Whatever happened in the Telesterion, those who entered in would come out the next morning radically changed.
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According to studies done by George Mylonas, the popularity growth for this cult led to the expansion of the original temple of Demeter in Eleusis. In those days of antiquity, Mylonas states, "people from all over the civilized world, men, women, and children- free men or women unstained by crime- even slaves, aspired to be initiated into its mysteries and annually flocked to the sanctuary of Eleusis. Not only simple peasants but even the leaders of thought and politics were anxious to take part in the rites". But in order to participate in the Greater mysteries the initiates were required to have gone through the preliminary part of the ritual, as it was prescribed by Demeter.
Demeter, enthroned and extending her hand in a benediction toward the kneeling Metaneira who offers the triune wheat that is a recurring symbol of the mysteries ( Public Domain )
A famous Aristotle fragment commenting about initiates to the mysteries reports that those individuals become worthy not so much because they learn something new ('mathein') but because they suffer or experience ('pathein') something appropriate to the proceeding, as Nancy A. Evans explained. The main determining factor for the participation in this powerful experience was access to resources, as it was open to all people who were free of crimes. Each initiate needed to purchase piglets and needed to pay 15 drachmae to the priest to cover the costs of the great civic sacrifices on the first and last days of the festival. Gender, age, ethnicity, and civic status-citizen, metic or slave- played a different role at Eleusis than in virtually every other type of Pan-Hellenic cult experience.