The Eleusinian Mysteries were rites of passage into the cult of Demeter, and her daughter Kore (later known as Persephone). They were held at the Sanctuary of Eleusis, but weren’t entirely unique in the ancient world. There were many mystery religions that came into favor during the Hellenistic era. They were called ‘mysteries’ precisely because their central rituals were kept secret from outsiders.
There was a trend during Hellenistic times of people desiring to return to worship of ancient chthonic deities; ancient to the ancients. The Eleusinian Mysteries may have stemmed from ancient Mycenean agrarian cults, which themselves might have evolved from yet older indigenous local cults. The chthonic deities were most often goddesses, with Demeter, and Kore being no exception. The power behind chthonic deities was based on their association with the cycle of fertility.
During the Hellenistic era, the fertility rituals associated with chthonic deities were reinterpreted as being salvation rituals. The power based on the cycle of fertility was not just among people, but with all aspects of life itself.
The mythology associated with the fertility cycle at Eleusis involved the god Hades’ abduction of Demeter’s daughter, Kore. The myths say she was taken to the Underworld through a cave, which is claimed to be at Eleusis. This cave came to be known as the Cave of Hades, known later to the Romans as the Plutonion. Kore’s abduction marked the start of autumn, followed by Kore’s periodic return to her mother in the spring; thus establishing the cycle of fertility.
In the Hellenistic era, this mythology was reinterpreted as a story about death and rebirth. A theme not unlike those held in other religions before, and after that era. Having been reinterpreted in this way, the goddess concerned gained control not only over the cycle of fertility, but also over the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
As noted, the mysteries in mystery religions were kept secret from outsiders; revealed only to initiates through prerequisite initiation rituals. The rituals themselves represented death, but not death in the physical sense. Instead, it was a death of one’s old way of life, followed by a rebirth as a devotee of the goddess or goddesses of whatever mystery religion they were being initiated into. In the case of the Eleusinian Mysteries, this would be Demeter, and Kore.
Initiation rituals were expensive, time-consuming affairs. So there’s little doubt that one’s willingness to undergo the process of initiation was a genuine one. Their rite of passage would begin with a period of personal preparation, which nearly always included some form of ritual purification in order to make one fit to enter into the company of the goddess(es). It often involved shedding ones clothes for new clothes, and an all night vigil the night before initiation.
This is not unlike preparations made by those who entered into roles of knighthood in Medieval Europe some many centuries later. Or to the preparations for ordination into the Christian tradition. There are many parallels in the centuries since (and centuries prior).
There was often a sacrifice made to the goddess (or god), and in the case of chthonic deities, the sacrifice was more often than not, a pig. It’s blood would be allowed to flow from the animal, down the altar, onto, and into the dirt. This was seen as allowing the sacrifice to make direct contact with the chthonic deity. Such sacrifices were generally followed by a public confession of faith. Again, parallels can easily be made to modern religions, but this isn’t to say there is a connection. The initiation process would culminate in a secret ceremony that included at its center, a revelation. At Eleusis, this would have been in the Anaktoron within the Telesterion. The revelation would have been some central cultic symbol seen by followers as an expression of the deity’s essential nature. I’ll come back to this shortly.
While mystery religions had secret rituals, they also had a distinctive public face. Again, not unlike some modern religions. Their public face was revealed through the performance of public rituals, and ceremonies. Not to undermine the mystique of mystery religions, but their purpose was almost certainly to publicized the religion, in order to gain new initiates.
These sort of public celebrations took place in a very festive atmosphere, making the religion appear fun, intriguing, and most welcoming. Sort of like saying, “Hey! The party is over here!” to outsiders who were almost certainly stuck in some sort of mundane routine of life. Celebrations included processions which were accompanied by music, singing, dancing, and even cursing, as we’ll discuss shortly.
Cultic priests would carry sacred objects associated with the mystery religion, as a core of specially-chosen devotees (probably the most zealous) danced and sang around them while wearing vibrantly-colored costumes. Obviously to attract yet more attention to the spectacle. There’s little doubt such public displays caused quite a stir wherever they went, and this was the point. The procession from Athens to Eleusis along the Sacred Way was no exception.
Such processions often also included a recital of the central myth of the mystery religion in question, or sometimes even a reenactment of the central mythological story. The story almost always being about the death, and resurrection of the goddess or god associated with the primary deity. For the Eleusinian Mysteries, this would be Kore (Persephone).
This served to both remind the devotees of the cult of the central mystery and their own initiation experiences, as well as proselytize new recruits, encouraging them to become new initiates themselves. But it wasn’t simply this public expression of the festival/carnival atmosphere that attracted people to the mystery religions. The appeal of mystery religions was that they offered their devotees something unique from what traditional Hellenistic culture could offer.
This may come as a surprise to some moderns, but what made mystery religions in the Hellenistic world unique, was that they offered initiates a personal relationship with their chosen deity. Not unlike Christians who develop personal relationships with Jesus. Again, I want to emphasize this doesn’t assume a connection. In the ancient world, someone could join as many mystery religions as they wished, and form as many personal relationships with as many goddesses (or gods) as were available to them. This is quite different from Christianity.
At any rate, the personal bond created between devotees and their goddess(es), show that a person became a follower of a mystery religion by choice; usually on the basis of some sort of religious experience. Mystery religions emphasized the bond between goddess and the initiate. What followed was the initiate’s inward devotion towards their goddess, was then expressed in outward demonstrations of their devotion.
Mystery religions were groups that offered the individual salvation, but not salvation from death (e.g. the desire to be saved and live an everlasting life in heaven), rather, it was a salvation from the blind power of fate itself. Under the patronage of a powerful goddess, a person could rest assured that she would protect them from the ills of fate, or some aspect of the human condition in life.
With regard to the Eleusinian mystery religion, a devotee would feel protected, because just as the goddess Demeter overcame adversity and eventually regained her loved one (Kore) and returned home in peace, so too would the goddess protect her devotee during life’s wanderings and bring her or him home in peace. Home, in this sense, would be home to the goddess.
As noted above, the relationship established in any particular mystery religion was not exclusive. Initiates could become devotees in several different mystery religions at once; developing a close, personal bond between a number of patron goddesses (or gods).
While mystery religions achieved large popularity during the Hellenistic era, many of them were indeed quite ancient.. even to the ancients. The chthonic deities worshipped had long histories that predated the Greeks. Some weren’t even native to Greece, with the exception of Demeter, and Dionysus. But even they predated the Greeks, stemming themselves from much earlier times, and much earlier cultures. Here I’m thinking the Kaptarians (“Minoans”), and Mycenaeans.
As is the case with all gods both ancient and modern, there was an accumulation of attributes and powers over time. This effectively made gods and goddesses more cosmopolitan in a sense, which of course led them to lose much of their more ancient characterizations. Such thorough-going syncretism seems to be hallmark of deities stemming back even to religions of Mesopotamia, and Egypt.
Demeter, the goddess of grain and agriculture was one of the goddesses of the traditional Greek pantheon whose worship evolved over time into the mystery religion centered at Eleusis during the Classical period. It continued to evolve to some extent under the Romans, right up until Alaric’s invading army sacked the site in 396 c.e.
It was known as the Eleusinian Mysteries, so named because its core rites of passage were conducted at Eleusis. As noted above, the Mysteries were based on the myth of Demeter’s daughter, Kore, who was abducted by Hades and taken to the Underworld. Demeter fell into despair over the abduction, and wandered Earth in mourning. As the goddess of grain and agriculture, her despair led crops to go fallow. Indeed, according to the myth, all plants across Earth began to die.
Things had gotten so bad that Zeus was compelled to intervene… sort of. He sent Hermes to deliver the message that Hades is to release Kore. While Hades agreed, he tricked Kore into eating the seeds of a pomegranate. The pomegranate was a symbol of marriage, and to eat its seeds when given by a man (or god) to a woman, was to be bound to him in marriage. While the myths don’t allude to this, nor has anyone in the thousands of years since, I can’t help but to elaborate on this story, much as I’ve done quite extensively in a book I’ve written that will be published this summer.
Zeus sent Hermes, a god whose attributes include trickery. Could it be that Hermes planted the seeds of trickery in Hades’ head? (pun intended of course.) Just a thought, but certainly not one to be conflated as being part of the mythology.
Now that Kore was bound to Hades in marriage, she was forced to remain in the Underworld with her new husband. With this unfair leverage, Hades agreed to a compromise, which allowed Kore, now known as Persephone, to return to her mother only part of each year. This time coincides with spring, the point being that her return brings spring because her mother’s joy returned life to the otherwise fallow lands.
I want to make a point of Kore’s name change, as I feel it is pertinent to the mythology, and something it seems is often overlooked. For example, Wikipedia simply states that Persephone was also known as Kore, and says little more on the subject. However, Kore roughly translates to English as “daughter”, or “maiden”, whereas Persephone roughly translates as something akin to “bringer of death”, or some interpretation thereof.
Clearly, there is nothing in the myths to suggest Kore, now known as Persephone was a bringer of death. Quite the contrary, as it seems her return to her mother indirectly brought life. But if we imagine Persephone’s forced return to the Underworld, and Demeter’s subsequent return to despair and the negative effect that despair had on the lands of Greece (and all the world for that matter), then we might better understand the meaning behind Persephone’s name. Her forced return, in effect, brought death to the lands, interpreted by the ancients as winter, with Persephone’s return to Hades occurring in autumn. And herein lies the cycle of fertility discussed above. Kore returns to Demeter in spring, remaining with her mother through summer, then is forced to return to Hades in autumn, where she remains through winter.
This myth is typical of stories across the ancient world that attempted to explain the fertility cycle. Consider, for example, the Mesopotamian myth of Innana and Demuzid (later known as Tammuz). Such myths tended to evolve into stories about death and rebirth, because the metaphor for the fertility cycle was a metaphor for the images of death and rebirth.
Demeter’s primary sanctuary was at Eleusis, where according to the mythology, she commanded a temple be built when Kore had returned to her in spring. It’s no surprise then, that Eleusis was the site of a much earlier agricultural cult, which itself included an autumn festival celebrating the sowing of grains. Later, there was a ceremony called the Thesmophoria, which was a festival celebrated solely by married women. The Thesmophoria took place over the course of three days during a month that we would most closely associate with October, perhaps late September.
During the Thesmophoria, married women would mourn Persephone’s return to the Underworld, much as Demeter had done in the myth. It seems the Eleusinian Mysteries have evolved out of these more ancient festivals; with the annual return of the growing season reinterpreted in the Classical period as a time of rebirth of all life, not just crops.
By the Classical period, both women and men joined in worship of Demeter, but traditionally, and elsewhere even in Classical times, celebrations of Demeter and Kore were celebrated exclusively by women. I’ve noted a very obvious trend of there having been more attention during the Neolithic towards goddesses, than gods. And while I’m no scholar, I’d presume this to have a lot to do with the fact women, in effect, created life through childbirth. I also imagine they worked the fields in the earliest days of agriculture, which contrary to popular belief, wasn’t a practice readily accepted by the ancients in lieu of hunting and gathering. And on that point, women were active participants in hunting and gathering, gathering grain.
And while images of women gathering grain in hunter/gatherer scenes at your local museum might show them hunched over pulling berries one by one from plants, we must also consider that they were out using brute strength and endurance to gather grain using a sickle. The sickle is a tool that has been around for thousands of years before the earliest known agriculture took root in the Fertile Crescent. This doesn’t suggest agriculture dates back thousands of years earlier than what is considered its beginnings (about 10,000 years ago is the current consensus), but to say the lands were rich with wild grains, so much so, that a sickle could be used to harvest them.
Localized, or regional shifts in climate could easily have been the impetus behind cycle of fertility cults, which I am suggesting here, could have their roots in pre-agricultural times of the Mesolithic. But again, I’m no scholar, and all I say should be considered quite speculative at best, and perhaps even wrong. But I digress.
When I visited the Sanctuary of Eleusis, I noted the size of the temple sanctuary. It is quite large, and I’d imagine could easily accommodate a few thousand worshippers at a time. I’m referring of course to the Telesterion, which dates to the Age of Pericles (450-425 bce). Eleusinian priests were preeminent among all priests, and in the days before the outwardly chauvinistic Classical period, I imagine priestesses of Eleusis were preeminent among all priestesses. Many priests from Eleusis were contracted out as advisors in the institutions, and reform ceremonies of other mystery religions. I’m certain the pay was substantial, and can’t help but to recall how priests since time immemorial have taken advantage of their positions for political and financial gain. Egyptian priests certainly were no exception.
Eleusis political history is unique among the original states of Greece. In mythology, the Eleusinian king, Eumolpus and the Kekropian king, Erechtheus went to war. Now many might be wondering where the hell Kekropia is. Kekropia, in mythology, was the original name of Athens. Named after its original mythological chthonic king, Kekrops. It was Erechtheus, by coincidence, who renamed the city Athens, after the goddess Athena, who during his rule, won a competition to become patron god of the city. She defeated Poseidon (pronounced Po-see-done with long “o” sounds) by gifting Kekropia with an olive tree; a much better gift than the ridiculous saltwater spring created by Poseidon. He must have been trying to be ironic I guess?
According to the myth, Kekropia, now Athens, took full control over Eleusis, with the noted exception of control over the Eleusinian Mysteries. These were to remain under the control of Eleusis, which illustrates the depth to which these Mysteries held prestige across the ancient world. It also very well may attribute to just how ancient its roots truly are. But again, I’m no scholar to make such claims.
According to Thucydides and Pausanias, Eleusis would eventually become an Attic deme, but unlike other demes, Eleusis was allowed to retain title of polis and coin its own money. This had everything to do with its sacred position in ancient society. Controlled with respect one might say.
But in 404-403 bce, a Spartan-imposed oligarchy known as the Thirty Tyrants took control of Athens under the extremely conservative leadership of Critias. Fortunately for Athens, they were ousted in short order after the Peloponnesian War. However, during their short bloody reign, or very soon thereafter, Eleusis took the opportunity to regain its full independence. This, however didn’t last for very long. By around 400 bce, Athens retook control of Eleusis.
Whether or not those behind Eleusis’ brief independence were punished may be lost to history. I imagine there were some consequences, but the reputation of Eleusis as a sacred city remained completely unscathed. This is quite evident by the fact that it was after Athens regained control (circa 400 bce) as when the Greater Mysteries of Demeter were celebrated. This of course included the new ritualized procession along the Sacred Way from Athens’ potters’ quarter, known as the Kerameikos, to Eleusis. Though to be more specific, the procession actually started from the outer Kerameikos, which lay outside the city walls where there once existed a cemetery.
But before we get to that procession, which was part of the Greater Mysteries, we ought first look at the Lesser Mysteries, because they preceded the Greater Mysteries by several months, and were in fact a prerequisite to participate in the Greater Mysteries.
The Lesser Mysteries took place in the Attic month of Anthesteria (roughly March). And as noted above, it was a qualification period for those who might be allowed to continue on to participate in the Greater Mysteries to be held several months later in the Attic month of Boedromion (roughly October).
Participants were to sacrifice piglets to Demeter, and as an ancient Chthonic deity, and as with the pigs sacrificed during the Greater Mysteries, the blood of the piglets was allowed to flow into the dirt below in order to make direct contact with the goddess. After the sacrifices were made, potential initiates would ritually purify themselves in the river Illisos, which at that time flowed as a tributary near Athens off of the river Kifissos on the Athenian Plain. The river is nearly completely channelled underground these days.
While some scholars believe these qualifying rituals took place in the courtyard of the Telesterion at Eleusis, it seems more likely to me these rituals would have been performed near Athens alongside the river Illisos. I doubt those who weren’t even qualified to be initiates would be allowed to enter the Telesterion at Eleusis, but I’m not a scholar, so take that with a grain of salt.
As I’ve opened this post by saying, mystery religion were all the rage during Classical Greece, with the Eleusinian Mysteries perhaps being the most popular. Given this fact, the Lesser Mysteries weren’t always able to accommodate the throngs of hopeful initiates, some of whom came from hundreds of miles away (perhaps further, so long as they spoke Greek).
Those who made the arduous journey to Athens to participate in the Lesser Mysteries, often arrived too late, or weren’t able to come at all due to familial and/or agricultural obligations back home. Afterall, the Lesser Mysteries took place near the start of spring.
As such, a law was passed in Athens in the year 215 bce, thus allowing those who were unable to participate in the Lesser Mysteries held during the month of Anthesteria (late winter/very early spring), to be allowed to participate in a second Lesser Mysteries qualification event (I hate to call it that, but that’s what it essentially was). This second chance at the Lesser Mysteries was held a month or so prior to the start of the Greater Mysteries in early fall.
Perhaps the Attic month of Metageitnion (roughly August). This not only shows just how popular this mystery religion was, but also how open it was to those who desired to become devotees to. The rituals of the Lesser Mysteries were called myesis, roughly translating to English as “to teach”. Once the rituals were completed, participants became mystai, or “the learned”, now qualified to participate in the Greater Mysteries.
The Greater Mysteries are best known for its procession from Athens to Eleusis. As mentioned, this procession took place in what would be considered late September/early October of each year; known to the ancients as the month of Boedromion (the third month of the Attic calendar). Rituals of the Greater Mysteries were called epopteia, roughly translating to English as “to initiate”.
The Greater Mysteries lasted for ten days. The first day sacred objects and chests were carried by young Athenian men from Eleusis along the Sacred Way to the Eleusinion, a temple dedicated to Demeter and Kore at the base of the Acropolis in Athens.
On the second day, priests would publicly announce the start of the sacred rites. This official public announcement was known as the prorrhesis. Something Wikipedia leaves out with regard to the second day, is that heralds would also announce that the rites were off limits to criminals and barbarians.
To be clear, barbarians did not mean non-Greeks. It very specifically meant non-Greek-speaking people. One could be a foreigner and allowed to participate, so long as s/he spoke Greek. The Mysteries were very inclusive for all intents and purposes. Greek-speaking men, women, foreigners, and even slaves (should their masters allow it) were allowed to participate.
It’s worth mentioning that Classical Greece was fraught with an often-brutal system of slavery imposed quite nonchalantly by the upper class; that portion of ancient Greek society we tend to revere without question to this day. I intend one day, time permitting, to write about the slaves of ancient Greece. Their unsung contribution to Greek society deserves attention, for it was profound. But I’m digressing here.. back to the mysteries..
On the third day, initiates ritually cleansed themselves at the Bay of Phaleron just a few miles southwest of the Acropolis. This wasn’t just a cleansing of the body, but a cleansing of the soul. A way of shedding the old ways of life, to enter a new life much in the same spirit as later Christian baptism, though it was more than a simple dunking. It was a careful, thoughtful bathing, though this isn’t to say the dunking ritual in Christian baptisms isn’t equally thoughtful. Merely to say there was a difference, I suppose, in technique.
On the fourth day, initiates began the Epidauria, a festival in honor of the healing god Asklepios, so named after his primary sanctuary at Epidauros (Epidavros). I welcome readers to watch my video of this ancient site by visiting my Arcana page, and clicking on the link titled, “Asklepion of Epidaurus”.
As Wikipedia notes, the Epidauria was essentially a festival within a festival, which included a procession leading to the Eleusinion at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. A great sacrifice was made, most likely a number of pigs (enough to feed the gathered masses I assume), because it was followed by an all-night feast known as the pannykhis.
As with all ancient sacrifices, the good-smelling smoke was for the gods, the good-tasting meat was for the people. Very clever. No doubt the precursors to the modern BBQ.
I further assume the festivities continued through the fifth day, which may have included a lot of napping I’d imagine, because the sixth day began the long walk to Eleusis itself. But don’t quote me on that (re: the fifth day).
As noted above, the procession began at the outer Kerameikos, the Athenian cemetery which I imagine had significance in that it represented death; Persephone’s forced return to Hades, and the fallow lands that followed Demeter’s subsequent grief.
The procession, as mentioned, continued along the Sacred Way, as the sacred items initially brought from Eleusis were now returned to the Initiation Hall, aka the Telesterion.
As the procession continued along the Sacred Way, there would be frequent outcries by those in the procession of “Iakche!”. Scholars are not entirely certain of its meaning, but it may have been an epithet for Dionysus, or possibly Iacchus. Though, it may too have simply been an outcry of faith fueled by one’s religious fervor.
Now I’m not entirely certain whether it was the initiates, heirophants in the procession, the priests, or outsiders who gathered along the Sacred Way to watch the procession. But obscenities were shouted with some frequency as well. This has been reported by several ancient sources.
These obscenities weren’t meant to be harmful. Quite the contrary. They were intended to be heard with light humor in commemoration of Iambe, a granddaughter of Hermes who according the mythology, upon seeing Demeter searching in despair for her daughter Kore in Attica, attempted to lift the goddess’ spirits by essentially cracking jokes, and dancing about to what would later be called the Iambic meter; thusly named after Iambe of course. How’s that for a run-on sentence eh?
Indeed, Iambe is the name behind the iambic style of poetry, a style I’ve incorporated into a coffee-table-type book. But I digress. Something I tend to do more often when writing about ancient mythologies, than I do when writing about science stuff.
At any rate, the public aspect of rituals associated with Demeter with regard to shouted obscenities along the Sacred Way, find parody in Aristophanes’ comedy, The Frogs. In this play, Dionysus, and his slave Xanthias, are in the Underworld. While there, they come across a procession of Demeter’s initiates.
The initiates make a series of execrations (curses) aimed at particular people, not unlike the execrations of criminals and barbarians made by the priests (and/or heirophants) on the second day of the sacred rites festivities, meant to exclude them from the festivals of Demeter and Kore.
In The Frogs however, the execrations are aimed instead at corrupt officials, people who like bad jokes, enemies of Athens, and no doubt by design of Aristophanes, at those who demanded fees from poets, and playwrights. Phooey on them!
Not to be confused with the fees Sophists demanded for their teachings; something that is now commonplace (e.g. private schools, and institutions of higher learning). I know, I’m digressing again.. but the business of education is, well, a business.
The devotees of Demeter and Kore in Aristophanes’ play, invoked Demeter and Iacchus, combining these invocations with requests for success in making the audience laugh through their often salacious comments on the citizenry. Again, the point was to cheer the downtrodden mood of Demeter, in hopes of restoring life to the lands, and by extension, all things breathing; including those who were at the butt of a joke.
So what of the rumor that initiates and devotees of the Eleusinian Mysteries were drugged up and hallcuinating?
The most prominent witness to the Greater Mysteries was a 3rd-century c.e. Christian writer known as Clement of Alexandria (Titus Flavius Clemens). He noted that initiations included a period of fasting, followed by the drinking of a beverage called kykeon.
There were all sorts of recipes for kykeon, much as there are many variations of certain drinks today. But Clement of Alexandria distinguished the kykeon taken at Eleusis as having been a mixture of water, barley meal, and a specific species of the mint family called pennyroyal. There is much speculation as to what psychotropic effects this drink may have had on those who took it, if any.
I expect any effects would have been mild at best, perhaps enhanced by the fact those who drank it had fasted prior to taking it. However, even mild effects can have profound psychotropic results when placebo is taken into account. I can think of no stronger placebo effect, than that driven by religious fervor.
While Clements of Alexandria confirmed there was some ritualized manipulation of sacred objects at Eleusis, the details are lacking. This probably has to do with the fact that revealing the mysteries to outsiders was punishable by death.
All that is known for certain, that I’m aware of anyway (which isn’t saying much), is that rites performed within the Telesterion included the dromena, the deiknumena, and the legomena. And while this sounds profound, what these tell us is that things were done, shown, and said. That’s it. Quite underwhelming bit of information there. Thanks whoever revealed that bit of fluff to us. :/
With regard to a death sentence for those who revealed any aspect of the mysteries, we can look to the playwritght, Aeschylus. He was put on trial for allegedly revealing the mysteries through his plays. He was, however, later acquitted. But this shows that even those with some fame weren’t immune to the punishment. Imagine if such were the case today; where fame wasn’t veritable plot armor in life. But I digress, yet again.
Consider one of my favorite ancients, Diagoras, also known as the Atheist of Melos. He too was tried, and unlike Aeschylus, he was condemned to death for revealing the mysteries to a shocked crowd of onlookers. Why were they shocked? Glad you asked! Because he had supposedly taken a wooden statue of the demi-god Herakles, broke it into kindling-sized firewood, and used it to start a fire over which he cooked a pot of lunch-time lentils. The point of course being, that it was nothing more than a piece of wood, whose function was no better than any other piece of wood laying around. What a guy!
At any rate, Diagoras proceeded to eat said lentils while allegedly revealing the mysteries to the crowd of shocked onlookers. Though condemned, he was ultimately exiled instead. This suggests to me that he was guilty not of revealing the mysteries, but of being disrespectful to the gods. Impiety, as many reading this will recall, was, at least in part, the death of Socrates. It seems the shocked onlookers told a fib or two to get my friend Diagoras in trouble.
At any rate, I like Diagoras, much as I like Diogenes for quasi-similar reasons to do with the shunning of those things that seem to continue to awe society (and social media) to this day. But again, I digress. Why do I keep doing that?!
So what was the ultimate revelation initiates were exposed to under the roof of the Telesterion? Another great question, thank you for asking… Some scholars believe the ultimate revelation that completed one’s initiation into the mystery religion of Demeter may have been a head of grain. Before we sigh and say, “that’s it?!”, let us consider it more carefully; tis grain was observed in complete silence.
While it might seem somewhat underwhelming, it’s important to realize this head of grain was understood within context of the initiation to have revealed the essential nature of all life. To further the profoundity of its symbolism, the Priestess who resided for life at the Sacred House (which you will see in the video below), acted to personify Demeter (and Kore as necessary) during this revelation. Silence, a revelation realized in a tangible symbol, and the personification of a goddess make for a powerful combination.
As such, the ritual not only initiated new members into the cult, but also enlightened them. They would forever see things in a new light. I’d compare this to modern times, such as the newly-baptized Christian who rises from the water to see their situation in life from an entirely new perspective. So too was the effect on initiates at Eleusis I imagine. That head of grain represented the cycle of life itself.
I imagine there is some psychological effect to staring at an object in complete silence, in a large hall filled with people. Perhaps at first the practice might seem awkward, but as the silence extends itself in time, the object under observation gains a certain mystique. A level of subconcious importance. I’m not certain, but believe there may be some modern social experiments conducted at the peer-review level that might support this.
At any rate, the mysteries officially continued until they, along with all other pagan practices, were outlawed by a Roman Christian Emperor, and passed into history upon the sacking of Eleusis by Alaric’s invading army.
Below are some footage I took while visiting the site. The video defaults to a low-resolution format, so consider clicking the gear icon in the lower-left of the video to change the resolution to 1080p HD for best quality. Thanks for reading this (if anyone)..