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Eleusinian Mysteries

Category: Mystic groups and systems

The Women of Eleusis, Jean Delville

The most influential and popular of the Greek mysteries were those of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, a town in Attica about 21 kilometers to the northwest of Athens.

Superficially it appears to be a celebration of the grain harvest, as it is based on the legend of Demeter and Kore.  It was believed from ancient times that the gods had favoured humanity by giving grain for food, so an early agricultural cult at Eleusis commemorating the sowing of grain and the harvest  - a sort of harvest festival – seems an obvious explanation, but the legend of Demeter and Kore is far more complex than an analogy about the grain harvest or the seasons. 


Many ‘experts’ will say that Demeter and Kore are personifications of grain: Demeter, the mature grain with maternal potency, and Kore, the newly planted grain of the autumn sowing.  But although they may be right in that that is one interpretation – many of the myths celebrated by the Greeks were multi-layered – there is a bit more to it than that.

Initially, before Athens took control of Eleusis, the mysteries of Demeter and Kore were conducted by an independent Eleusis, and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter was written before Athens took control. After Athens assumed jurisdiction of the Mysteries, however, Athenian interests predominated in the celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries.  Most of the information concerning specific features of the Eleusinian mysteries derives mainly from the mysteries as celebrated during the period of Athenian domination. So we have rather a mixed bag of evidence some of which may conflict.

The legend


The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is too long to reproduce here, but Sir James Frazer provides quite a good précis in the Golden Bough.

Sir James Frazer  - The Golden Bough

The youthful Persephone, so runs the tale, was gathering roses and lilies, crocuses and violets, hyacinths and narcissuses in a lush meadow, when the earth gaped and Pluto, lord of the Dead, issuing from the abyss carried her off on his golden car to be his bride and queen in the gloomy subterranean world.

Her sorrowing mother Demeter, with her yellow tresses veiled in a dark mourning mantle, sought her over land and sea, and learning from the Sun her daughter's fate she withdrew in high dudgeon from the gods and took up her abode at Eleusis, where she presented herself to the king's daughters in the guise of an old woman, sitting sadly under the shadow of an olive tree beside the Maiden's Well, to which the damsels had come to draw water in bronze pitchers for their father's house.

In her wrath at her bereavement the goddess suffered not the seed to grow in the earth but kept it hidden under ground, and she vowed that never would she set foot on Olympus and never would she let the corn sprout till her lost daughter should be restored to her.

Vainly the oxen dragged the ploughs to and fro in the fields; vainly the sower dropped the barley seed in the brown furrows; nothing came up from the parched and crumbling soil. Even the Rarian plain near Eleusis, which was wont to wave with yellow harvests, lay bare and fallow.

Mankind would have perished of hunger and the gods would have been robbed of their due, if Zeus in alarm had not commanded Pluto to disgorge his prey, to restore his bride Persephone to her mother Demeter. The grim lord of the Dead smiled and obeyed, but before he sent back his queen to the upper air on a golden car, he gave her the seed of a pomegranate to eat, which ensured that she would return to him.

But Zeus stipulated that henceforth Persephone should spend two-thirds of every year with her mother and the gods in the upper world and one-third of the year with her husband in the nether world, from which she was to return year by year when the earth was gay with spring flowers.

Terracotta group of two seated women, perhaps Demeter and
Persephone.  Myrina c. 100 BC. British Museum, London.

Gladly the daughter then returned to the sunshine, gladly her mother received her and fell upon her neck; and in her joy at recovering the lost one Demeter made the corn to sprout from the clods of the ploughed fields and all the broad earth to be heavy with leaves and blossoms. And straightway she went and showed this happy sight to the princes of Eleusis, to  Triptolemus, Eumolpus, Diocles, and to the king Celeus himself, and moreover she revealed to them her sacred rites and mysteries.

Blessed, says the poet, is the mortal man who has seen these things, but he who has had no share of them in life will never be happy in death when he has descended into the darkness of the grave.

So the two goddesses departed to dwell in bliss with the gods on Olympus; and the bard ends the hymn with a pious prayer to Demeter and Persephone that they would be pleased to grant him a livelihood in return for his song.

The two festivals

Demeter Temple - Joseph Gandy, Temple of Ceres at Eleusis

The Mysteries appear to have started around 2000 BC and been held continuously until they were suspended in the 4th century AD.

As Christianity gained in popularity in the 4th and 5th centuries, Eleusis's prestige began to fade. Julian, the last pagan emperor of Rome, was also the last emperor to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries.  The Roman emperor Theodosius I closed the sanctuaries by decree in 392 AD. The last remnants of the Mysteries were wiped out in 396 AD, when Alaric, King of the Goths, invaded accompanied by Christians "in their dark garments, bringing Arian Christianity and desecrating the old sacred sites”.

The Eleusinian festival was celebrated each year in both Eleusis and Athens for nine days from the 15th to the 23rd of the month of Boedromion (in September or October of the Gregorian calendar).  Because the festival calendar had 12 lunar months, the celebrations were not strictly calibrated to a year of 365 days.

What, however, is not often recognised is the fact that there were actually two festivals based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone.  The first festival was for only women and it was the women who were the Initiates.  The second festival had far far more people  - men and women  - able to attend and to a large extent, they were there to bear witness to the powers the women had achieved through their initiation.

So in effect, the crowds of people who attended the second event were there to see what was possible from the first event.

Strictly speaking, the women only festival was called the Thesmophoria festival (October 11 - 13) but I have grouped it under the Eleusian Mysteries because the two are based on the same story.

Henryk Siemiradzki Phryne in Eleusus (1889).

The event

In the Eleusian Mysteries themselves, the initiates lived through the night in the ‘Telesterion’ of Eleusis.  Telesterion means "the Hall of the Initiates" and it was one of the primary centres of the Eleusinian Mysteries. At some point in the 5th century BC, Iktinos, the great architect of the Parthenon, built the Telesterion big enough to hold thousands of people. In about 318 BC, Philon added a portico with twelve Doric columns. It was destroyed by the Persians after the Battle of Thermopylae.

The Telesterion was the climax of the ceremonies at Eleusis. This was the most secretive part of the Mysteries and those who had been initiated were forbidden to ever speak of the events that took place there.  The secret was kept, so we know very little about the event.  But there are some useful sources that give us clues.

Already, however, we have some idea of the numbers involved.  This is not some intimate Dionysian ceremony, this involves thousands of people.

In the next quote you need to be aware that  Iacchus is an epithet of Dionysus.

Solving the Eleusinian Mystery – Carl Ruck


The pilgrims called upon Iakchos as they walked. It was he who was thought to lead them on their way: through him, they would summon back the queen Persephone into the realm of the living.

When at last they arrived at Eleusis, they danced far into the night beside the well where originally the mother had mourned for her lost Persephone. As they danced in honor of those sacred two goddesses and of their mysterious consort Dionysus, the god of inebriants, the stars and the moon and the daughters of Ocean would seem to join in their exultation.

Then they passed through the gates of the fortress walls, beyond which, shielded from profane view, was enacted the great Mystery of Eleusis………

Ancient writers unanimously indicate that something was seen in the great telesterion or initiation hall within the sanctuary. To say so much was not prohibited. The experience was a vision whereby the pilgrim became someone who saw, an epoptes. The hall, however, as can now be reconstructed from archaeological remains, was totally unsuited for theatrical performances; nor do the epigraphically extant account books for the sanctuary record any expenditures for actors or stage apparatus……

The Greeks were sophisticated about drama and it is highly unlikely that they could have been duped by some kind of theatrical trick, especially since it is people as intelligent as the poet Pindar and the tragedian Sophocles who have testified to the overwhelming value of what was seen at Eleusis.

The effects

Lawrence Alma Tadema

Overall the participants appear to have been utterly awestruck by the whole event.

Aristides the Rhetor, 2nd century A.D

what the initiate experiences is new, astonishing, and inaccessible to rational cognition……… Eleusis is a shrine common to the whole earth, and of all the divine things that exist among men, it is both the most awesome and the most luminous.

At what place in the world have more miraculous tidings been sung, and where have the dromena called forth greater emotion, where has there been greater rivalry between seeing and hearing?

In effect, they came away ‘wonderstruck’ by what they had lived through; according to some, they were never the same as before. The testimony about that night of awe-inspiring experience is unanimous.


Thrice happy are those of mortals, who having seen those rites depart for Hades; for to them alone is granted to have a true life there. For the rest, all there is evil. 

Plutarch of Chaeronea – Progress in Virtue [de profectu in virtute]

Just as persons who are being initiated into the mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting, and jostle against one another, but when the holy rites are being performed and disclosed the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence, so too at the beginning of philosophy: about its portals also you will see great tumult and talking; and boldness, as some boorishly and violently try to jostle their way towards the repute it bestows; but he who has succeeded in getting inside, and has seen a great light, as though a shrine were opened, adopts another bearing of silence and amazement, and "humble and orderly attends upon" reason as upon a god.

Diodorus Siculus – Library of History Book 5, 49-1


Now the details of the initiatory rite are guarded among the matters not to be divulged and are communicated to the initiates alone; but the fame has traveled wide of how these gods appear to mankind and bring unexpected aid to those initiates of theirs who call upon them in the midst of perils.

The claim is also made that men who have taken part in the mysteries become more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before.  And this is the reason, we are told, why the most famous both of the ancient heroes and of the demi-gods were eagerly desirous of taking part in the initiatory rite; and in fact Jason and the Dioskoroi, and Heracles and Orpheus as well, after their initiation attained success in all the campaigns they undertook, because these gods appeared to them.

from the great frieze

‘These gods appeared to them’.

So the effect was produced by them seeing someone who had been turned into a ‘god’ [or having a vision of gods], someone who had been given so called super natural powers – perhaps the power to heal, or prophesy or provide great wisdom, maybe even levitate.

All these enormous numbers of people had not had a spiritual experience, they were witnessing the end results of a spiritual experience, and just like those who heard Jesus speak were immediately converted, so were the Eleusian Mystery attendees.  For the Christians amongst you:

 And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
37 But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit.
38 And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?
39 Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.......
45 Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures,
46 and said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:

Every rebirth, annihilation or kundalini experience requires you to 'rise from the dead'.

The symbolic objects

Attendees of the Eleusian Mysteries were given a whole series of symbolic objects intended to convey to the participants the nature of the experience that had taken place to those who had become ‘gods’ – in fact mostly ‘goddesses’.

Near the end of the 2nd century AD Clement of Alexandria wrote a scathing attack on the myths and mysteries of the day.  He was a Christian and his description is thus not unbiased.  But in one of the rather odd twists of fate, because he does not respect the Mysteries and the need for secrecy, he divulges far more than other Greeks had done before.  So what does he say they brought ?

Lawrence Alma Tadema

Clement of Alexandria – Exhortation to the Greeks, 2.11-24; 12.118-20

And the formula of the Eleusinian mysteries is as follows:
I fasted; I drank the draught; I took from the chest;  having done my task,  I placed in the basket,  and from the basket into the chest.

Beautiful sights indeed, and fit for a goddess! Yes, such rites are meet for the night and torch fires, and for the "great-hearted"-I should rather say empty-headed people of the Erechtheidai, with the rest of the Greeks as well, "whom after death there await such things as they little expect." ……………

The mysteries, then, are mere custom and vain opinion, and it is a deceit of the serpent that men worship when, with spurious piety, they turn towards these sacred initiations that are really profanities, and solemn rites that are without sanctity. Consider, too, the contents of the mystic chests; for I must strip bare their holy things and utter the unspeakable. Are they not

Are they not also

These are their holy things! In addition, there are the unutterable symbols of Ge Themis,

  • marjoram,
  • a lamp [lantern],
  • a sword,
  • and a woman's comb, which is a euphemistic expression used in the mysteries for a woman's secret parts

What manifest shamelessness! Formerly night, which drew a veil over the pleasures of temperate men, was a time for silence. But now, when night is for those who are being initiated a temptation to licentiousness, talk abounds, and the torch-fires convict unbridled passions.


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