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The Eleusinian Mysteries: Demeter’s Secret And Sacred Rites

The Eleusinian Mysteries: Demeter’s Secret And Sacred Rites

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Conjuring up mystical images of secret initiation rites held under cover of darkness, the Eleusinian Mysteries had a reputation as a dark and dangerous festival. In fact, it was surrounded by such an aura of deadly secrecy that the tragedian Aeschylus was nearly killed on stage just for referencing it. But what were the Mysteries really about? And what made them renowned? Demeter’s Rites of Eleusis better known as the Eleusinian Mysteries were noteworthy by their egalitarianism on the one hand, and their exclusivity on the other. Open to everyone free of “ blood guilt ” but exclusive only to those who were initiated in their secret rites. Considered the most acclaimed of all religious festivals throughout the Greek world, like the all-female festival, Thesmophoria, the Mysteries honored Demeter, goddess of the harvest and her daughter, Persephone, queen of the underworld and were believed to have emerged as a masculine response to the Thesmophoria.

Restoration of the Eleusinian Sactuary (550 – 510 BC) at Eleusis showing the Pisistratan Wall and Telesterion. Model by J Travlos (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

Restoration of the Eleusinian Sactuary (550 – 510 BC) at Eleusis showing the Pisistratan Wall and Telesterion. Model by J Travlos (Image: Courtesy Micki Pistorius)

The Legend Of Demeter And Persephone

The festival sprang from the myth which begins when Demeter’s daughter Kore is kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld—after her abduction Kore’s name changes to Persephone. Carrying a torch, Demeter searches nine days for her daughter and has adventures with mortals until she realizes her true strength lies in her fertility—so she stops the seasons. And the earth becomes a barren wasteland. Zeus pleads with Demeter to make the earth abundant once again but she will not relent until Persephone is returned to her. Zeus orders Hades to release Persephone. Hades adheres, but not before luring Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed. The mere act of eating in the underworld, binds Persephone to Hades for a few months each year. The myth is allegorical of agricultural renewal, from life to death and back again each year. Although agriculture played a part in the Mysteries, its role was greatly diminished in favor of the eschatological nature of Demeter’s story; that is to say issues regarding life after death. In the minds of the ancients, nature’s resurrection each year was emblematic of humankind’s immortality. 

Pluto enthroned with a scepter and cornucopia. In front of him stand Persephone with a scepter and Demeter with a bowl and torch from Tegea. National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Athens, Greece (George E. Koronaios/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

Pluto enthroned with a scepter and cornucopia. In front of him stand Persephone with a scepter and Demeter with a bowl and torch from Tegea. National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Athens, Greece ( George E. Koronaios / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Mysteries At Eleusis

Thought to have predated the Greek Dark Ages (1100 BC-800 BC), the Mysteries reach back into the Mycenaean period (1600 BC- 1100 BC) yet the bulk of evidence about the festival dates from the Archaic period (800 BC- 480 BC).

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Mary Naples ’ master’s thesis: “Demeter’s Daughter’s: How the Myth of the Captured Bride Helped Spur Feminine Consciousness in Ancient Greece,” examines how female participants found empowerment in a feminine fertility festival. Visit www.femminaclassica.com 

Top Image : Demeter (left) handing ears of wheat to Metanire, the queen of Eleusis ( Public Domain )

By Mary Naples

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