Ian Elliott October, 2012
The mysteries of Eleusis were devoted to the ‘Two Goddesses,’ Demeter the grain goddess and her daughter Persephone, locally called Pherephatta or just ‘the Maiden,’ Kore. These mysteries were organized by the polis of Athens and supervised by the archon basileus, the ‘king.’ For the Athenians these were the Mysteries tout court, and the literary prestige of Athens that ensured their lasting fame. Inscriptions and excavations in addition to literature and iconography provide abundant documentation.
The well-known myth depicts Demeter searching for Kore, who has been carried off by Hades, the god of the netherworld. Kore finally comes back, if only for a limited period, to Eleusis itself; there the Athenians celebrated the great autumn festival, the Mysteria; the procession went from Athens to Eleusis and culminated in a nocturnal celebration in the Hall of Initiations, the Telesterion, capable of holding thousands of initiates, where the hierophant revealed “the holy things.” There were two gifts that Demeter bestowed on Eleusis: grain as the basis of civilized life, and the mysteries that held the promise of ‘better hopes’ for a happy afterlife. These mysteries took place exclusively at Eleusis and nowhere else.
[AMC, pp. 93-4): We have only some piecemeal information about the details of mystery initiations, which, although it does not add up to form a satisfactory picture, still strikes the imagination with the charm of the fragmentary. For Eleusis we have at least five sets of divergent evidence: the topography of the sanctuary; the myth of Demeter’s advent, as told especially in the Homeric hymn, a relief frieze with initiation scenes, known in several replicas; the synthema, “password,” as transmitted by Clement of Alexandria; and the two testimonies of the Naassene, which clearly pertain to the concluding festival.
The mysteries were eventually open to all who spoke Greek and who were not felons. According to the Christian writer Tertullian:
“Those who wish to be initiated have the custom, I believe, to turn first to the ‘father’ of the sacred rites, to map out what preparations have to be made.” (Burkert, p. 11).
The Mysteries should not be regarded as religions per se; they were rather an optional activity within polytheistic religion, “comparable to, say, a pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela within the Christian system.” (Burkert, p. 10).
“Demeter, the story goes, when received at Eleusis, took the little child of the queen and put it in the fire of the hearth at night in order to make it immortal. Interrupted by the frightened mother, she revealed herself and installed the mysteries instead.” (Ibid, p. 20). The link between the two is underlined by the initiation of a “child from the hearth” at each festival. (p. 52).
“The first part of the initiation could take place at various times…above the Agora of Athens. The first act was the sacrifice of a young pig. Each mystes had to bring his piglet. According to one description the mystes took a bath in the sea together with his piglet. He gives the animal in his stead to its death. (Another source mentions that at the start of the Mysteria, all the mystai bathe together in the sea near Athens on a special day.) Myth associated the death of the pig with Persephone sinking into the earth…There follows a purification ceremony for which the Homeric Hymn has Demeter herself set the example. Without speaking a word she sits down on a stool which is covered by a ram fleece, and she veils her head. Thus reliefs show Heracles at his initiation veiled and sitting on a ram fleece, while either a winnowing fan is held over him or a torch is brought up close to him from beneath. In ancient interpretation this would be purification by air and by fire…On the reliefs there follows the encounter with Demeter, Kore, and the kiste [small basket]. This probably points to the festival proper…The synthema gives information on successive stages of the initiation rites, yet in veiled terms such as one initiate would use to another to let him know he has fulfilled all that is prescribed: ‘I fasted, I drank from the kykeion, I took out of the kiste, worked, placed back in the basket (kalathos – the large basket), and from the basket into the kiste.’ There is an allusion in Theophrastus to the tools of working, of grinding corn, that early men ‘consigned to secrecy and encountered as something sacred,’ evidently in Demeter’s mysteries. This indicates that mortar and pestle were hidden in the basket, the instruments, in fact, for preparing the kykeion. This is a barley drink, a kind of barley-groat broth seasoned with pennyroyal.” (Burkert, Greek Religion, p. 286)
Later Christian charges that the kiste contained a phallus could be a case of taking the pestle for a phallus, which it resembles. Or perhaps a phallus was used as a pestle. In classical antiquity the identity of a child was believed to come exclusively from the male seed, with the mother only providing the fertile bed for the foetus’ growth. This would place added religious emphasis on the phallus as the source of new life.
The Mysteria proper are a major festival which has its fixed place in the calendar, in the autumn month of Boedromion. The main public event is the great procession from Athens to Eleusis along the Sacred Way, a distance of over thirty kilometers. This took place on the 19th of Boedromion. Prior to this, on the 14th day of the month, the ‘sacred things’ had been brought from Eleusis to Athens. (Greek Religion, p. 286)
“A name for mocking songs on such occasions is Iambos…Iambe was made into a mythical figure, a maid who was able to cheer up Demeter after her sorrow and fasting…During the procession to Eleusis grotesquely masked figures sat at a critical narrow pass just near the bridge…and terrorized and insulted the passers-by …Just as pomp and ceremony contrasts with everyday life, so does extreme lack of ceremony, absurdity, and obscenity,…By plumbing the extremes the just mean is meant to emerge…” (Burkert, Greek Religion, 104-5)
Another source mentions that such songs had as their aim the keeping away of spirits of infertility, for, as everyone knows, they are great prudes.
After the Iambe, when the procession had reached the boundary between Athens and Eleusis, when the first stars became visible, the mystai broke their fast. The procession arrives at the sanctuary. The temples of emis and Poseidon, sacrificial altars, and a ‘fountain of beautiful dances,’ Kallichoron, could all still be visited freely, but behind them lay the gateway to the precinct which, on pain of death, none but the initiates could enter. (Ibid, p. 287)
The gates were open to the mystai. We know that immediately beyond the entrance there is a grotto…It was dedicated to Pluto…whom the mystai thus approached. The celebration proper took place in the Telesterion…built to hold several thousand people at a time, watching as the hierophant showed the sacred things…In the centre was the Anaktoron, a rectangular, oblong, stone construction, with a door at the end of one of its longer sides; there the throne of the hierophant was placed. He alone might pass through the door into the interior of this building…The great fire under which the hierophant would officiate…burned o the roof of the Anaktoron…the roof of the Telesterion had a kind of skylight…as an outlet for the smoke.
Darkness shrouded the crowd thronged in the hall of mysteries as the
priests proceeded to officiate by torchlight. Dreadful, terrifying
things were shown until finally a great light shone forth ‘when the
Anaktoron was opened’ and the hierophant ‘appeared from out of the
Anaktoron in the radiant nights of the mysteries’…Yet it was not
terror, but the assurance of blessing that had to prevail. The
blessings of the mysteries are expressed in three ways. The mystes
sees Kore, who is called up by the hierophant by strokes of a gong; as
the underworld opens up, terror gives way to the joy of reunion. Then
the hierophant announces a divine birth: ‘The Mistress has given birth
to a sacred boy, Brimo the Brimos.” Finally, he displays an ear of corn
in silence. (Ibid, pp. 287-8)
(Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, p, 24): [Quoting Plato, Republic 365a] “…purifications through joyous festivals …[that are good] both for the living and for those who died.” The two belong together because disturbances in the beyond are felt so grievously in this life; hence ritual that has the effect of eliminating grief and sorrow and establishing a ‘blessed’ status immediately has its repercussions on the other side. This is why the deceased are imagined to join in the mystery festival, to continue blissful teletai [mysteries] in the netherworld…in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter..Persephone will release those who honor her through ritual.”
(Burkert, Greek Religion, 277-8): The special status attained through initiation is claimed to be valid even beyond death: the orgiastic festival of the mystai continues to hold in the afterlife…Yet if the chance of initiation has been let slip in this life, it is impossible to make up for the omission after death. Impressive mythical images bring home this impossibility: Oknos, hesitation personified, is an old man who sits in Hades plaiting a cord which his ass immediately eats away. The uninitiated are carrying water in sieves up to a leaking vessel, aimlessly and endlessly.”
(Burkert, AMC, 77): The Eleusinian mystai abstain from food, as Demeter did in her grief, and they end their fast when the first star is seen, because Demeter did the same; they carry torches, because Demeter lit them at the flames of Mount Aetna; [however,] …they do not sit on the well [as]…Demeter sat there, mourning for her daughter. The hymn to Demeter makes the goddess perform what must have been part of the initiation ritual: sitting down on a stool covered with a fleece, veiling her head, keeping silence, then laughing and tasting the kykeion.”
In addition to being the seat of the mysteries of Demeter, Eleusis was also a great votive center. (AMC, 20) “…There are rich collections of votive objects from the site [Eleusis]. The favor of the Two Goddesses was not restricted to the mystery nights…Even healing miracles are not absent from Eleusis: a man who had been blind suddenly would behold the sacred exhibition; mysteries are to be ‘seen’ at Eleusis.”
(Burkert, AMC, 75): “The grief of Demeter ends with the return of Persephone, and ‘the festival ends with exaltation and the brandishing of torches.’ (Lactantius).
BURKERT, Walter, Ancient Mystery Cults, Cambridge, MA and London;
Harvard University Press, 1987.
_____________, Greek Religion, Cambridge, MA; Harvard University