Eleusinian votive relief

Eleusinian votive relief

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Archaeological Museum of Eleusis

The Archeological Museum of Eleusis is a museum in Eleusis, Attica, Greece. The museum is located inside the archaeological site of Eleusis. Built in 1890, by the plans of the German architect Kaverau, to keep the findings of the excavations, and after two years (1892) was extended under the plans of the Greek architect J. Mousis.

There is a collection of objects dating from the 5th century BC, when the reputation of the temple was panhellenic, and the number of believers who moved there in order to attend the ceremonies of the Eleusinian mysteries had increased significantly.

Many of the findings are associated with these ceremonies. The Votive piglet reminds the sacrifice of these animals for the purgation of the believers at Phaleron, which took place in some of the preparatory stages of the ceremonies, and the kernos, a ceremonial vessel which was used at the sacrifices and at the offerings made to the altars and the temples, during the return of the sacred symbols through the Holy Road from the Ancient Agora back again to the Sanctuary for the final initiation.

Among the most important exhibits of the museum are included: the monumental protoattic amphora [1] from the middle of the 7th century BC, with the depiction of Medusa's beheading by Perseus, the famous "fleeing kore" [2] from the archaic period, that probably comes from the architectural design of the Sacred House, the large headless statue of the goddess Demeter, probably the work of Agorakrito's school - a student of Pheidias-, and the Caryatid from the roof of the small Propylaea, bringing on her head the ciste, the container holding the sacred articles of the ceremony, with a relief appearance of the symbols of the Eleusinian cult, which are: the ear of grain, the poppies, the rozetes and the kernos.

The two most important findings of Eleusis have been transferred to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and at the Museum of Eleusis exist only their copies. The first is the relief of the 5th century BC, height 2.20 m, showing Demeter, the Kore and the King of Eleusis Triptolemos, who is preparing to teach agriculture to the world, according to the instructions of the goddess. The second is the clay table known as the Ninnion Tablet with a gable, dedicated by Ninnion, from the 4th century BC, with scenes from the ceremonies at the temple of Demeter, which its significance consists in the information that provides on the strict secret rituals of the Eleusinian mysteries.

In addition, the museum houses a full collection of pottery, dating from Middle Helladic Era (2000 or 1950-1580 BC) to the early Christian times, written tables, metal items, inscriptions and reliefs, including the important votive relief of Rheitoi, with Demeter, the Kore, Athena and an Eleusinian man, which at the bottom has instructions for bridging the lake of Rheitoi (Koumoundourou lake).

Eleusinian Mysteries

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Eleusinian Mysteries, most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece. According to the myth told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the earth goddess Demeter (q.v.) went to Eleusis in search of her daughter Kore ( Persephone), who had been abducted by Hades (Pluto), god of the underworld. Befriended by the royal family of Eleusis, she agreed to rear the queen’s son. She was, however, prevented by the queen’s unknowing interference from making the boy immortal and eternally young. After this occasion, she revealed her identity to the royal family and commanded that a temple be built for her into which she retired.

According to the Hymn to Demeter, the Mysteries at Eleusis originated in the two-fold story of Demeter’s life—her separation from and reunion with her daughter and her failure to make the queen’s son immortal. After Eleusis was incorporated, the city of Athens took responsibility for the festival, but the festival never lost its local associations.

The Mysteries began with the march of the mystai (initiates) in solemn procession from Athens to Eleusis. The rites that they then performed in the Telesterion, or Hall of Initiation, were and remain a secret. Something was recited, something was revealed, and acts were performed, but there is no sure evidence of what the rites actually were, though some garbled information was given by later, Christian writers who tried to condemn the Mysteries as pagan abominations. It is clear, however, that neophytes were initiated in stages and that the annual process began with purification rites at what were called the Lesser Mysteries held at Agrai (Agrae) on the stream of Ilissos, outside of Athens, in the month of Anthesterion (February–March). The Greater Mysteries at Eleusis was celebrated annually in the month of Boedromion (September–October). It included a ritual bath in the sea, three days of fasting, and completion of the still-mysterious central rite. These acts completed the initiation, and the initiate was promised benefits of some kind in the afterlife.

Grain Some Knowledge: A Brief Look At The Big Eleusinian Relief

One of the things that makes the Big Eleusinian Relief so interesting is the fact that it is indeed so very big. 220cm tall and 152cm wide, the Big Eleusinian Relief is huge. Carved from the characteristic yellow marble of Mount Pentelicus and dating to 440-430 BCE, the Big Eleusinian Relief was famous even in antiquity. At least one Roman copy survives at the Met, dating from the early Imperial period.

The Relief itself depicts the chief deities of the Eleusinian Mysteries cult, Demeter and Kore, blessing a naked male youth identified as Triptolemus, son of the king of Eleusis, Keleos. The two goddesses stand on either side of the much smaller boy, Demeter on the left and Kore (also known as Persephone) on the right. Notice how Triptolemus clutches at the hem of Kore’s robe, almost as if he’s terrified. Demeter holds a kind of ritual scepter and appears to be handing something to Triptolemus whatever it might have been is impossible to say, although if the youth is indeed Triptolemus, an ear of grain would be a fair guess, especially considering what we know about the Eleusinian Mysteries. Triptolemus was said to have been taught the secret of agriculture by Demeter, a gift which he then spread across the globe in a winged chariot.

Unfortunately, what we know about the Mysteries isn’t much initiates–which included most, if not all, Athenians–were forbidden from recording or revealing the rituals that went on at Eleusis under pain of death. The Athenians took the Mysteries very, very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the mere rumour of a blasphemous ritual mocking the Mysteries having been performed by unidentified young men in 415 BCE caused so much public outrage that a reward was offered to anyone who came forward with information. Even slaves were offered this reward, which was indeed a strange occurrence, since their word was otherwise inadmissible in court without the use of torture to obtain a confession (even when acting as witnesses). Alcibiades, the general leading Athens’ forces on the (soon to be) disastrous Sicilian Expedition, was implicated in the blasphemy by his political rivals, sentenced to death in absentia, and ordered to return to Athens to face his punishment. What made the Mysteries important enough to justify pulling a general from his fleet mid-campaign? What secrets did the initiated learn?

Hippolytus of Rome, a 3rd century AD theologian, wrote in his Refutation of All Heresies, that the initiates are shown nothing more than a “green ear of grain reaped,” which is supposed to represent the eternal life promised by the Mysteries cult. This is the big secret (according to Hippolytus) corroborating the myth told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the Mysteries provide an escape from the depressing gloom of the Greek underworld through the ascent of Kore from Hades to Olympos. The ear of grain, the symbol of Demeter, represents the growth of springtime vegetation associated with Kore’s return from the land of the dead. This sacred grain and this secret myth (or rather, the understanding of the myth as a promise of protection in the afterlife), were all hidden from outsiders, and, despite the cult’s popularity (remember, the Romans bothered to copy the Big Eleusinian Relief), were never recorded by any true believers.

There is some debate over just what function the Relief might have served. Was it a votive offering? Was it a cult image? As a cult image, the Big Relief (an appropriate name, given the protection the cult offered to the initiated) would have been kept at the sanctuary of Eleusis and used to help explain the myths as well as glorify the goddesses. Votives were offerings presented by individuals for guidance/divine favour, or (as was usual in Greece) in exchange for some specific request (especially curse tablets). The expense and size of the Big Eleusinian Relief, the fact that it was copied some 400 years after its creation by the Romans, and the possibility that it depicts a scene strongly associated with the cult’s secrets, suggest that it was not a votive, but rather had cult significance. This is not the kind of thing you’re likely to lug to the temple in exchange for a favour. I hope to get a better look at the objects the goddesses are holding in their left hands, and what they might have been holding in their right.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Big Eleusinian Relief, here’s a bibliography.

Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies, Book V:

Gisela M. A. Richter. “A Roman Copy of the Eleusinian Relief.” The Metropolitan

Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 11, 1935, pp. 216–221. JSTOR,

Mysteries, Eleusinian

The mystery cult of the Eleusinian goddesses Demeter and Persephone was the most important Greek mystery cult. During its very long existence, the Eleusinian Mysteries influenced other cults and attracted and inspired countless ancient humans and gave them better hopes for their afterlife.



The Festival Name

The Eleusinian Mysteries was an annual Athenian festival celebrated in the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore outside the small city of Eleusis, about twenty-two kilometres northwest of Athens (see figure 1).

Its local name, Mystēria, conforms to many other festival names in the Attic-Ionian calendar, such as Plyn-tēria (“Washing Festival”) or Anthes-tēria (“Flower Festival”) (thus the distinction between the festival name with a capital M and the generic noun). The underlying root is visible in the term mýs-tēs, the “initiate,” a noun derived from the verb mýō (that is a sigmatic stem*mýs-o whose /s/ remained preserved before the dental /t/), “to close” (one’s eyes), to which myéō “to initiate” is a not uncommon type of derivation. The noun mýstēs is first attested to in Heraclitus frg. B15 DK in the context of Bacchic mysteries (see also the gold tablet from Hipponion) it thus seems likely that the word was coined for any mystery rites, not necessarily first for Eleusis. Herodotus used the festival name as a noun for the rites of Samothrace (2.51), perhaps to denote rituals that reminded him of those in Eleusis.

The Athenian Festival

At the latest in the course of the 6th century ce (and at the earliest with the synoecism of Eleusis—the unification of all the tribes of Attica into a political entity under the authority of Athens), the Eleusinian festival was part of the festival calendar of Athens. In its well-documented form, it comprised several days in the early autumn month of Boedromion, starting on the 15th and culminating with the celebration in Eleusis on the 21st and 22nd and holding a concluding panegyris the following day or days. Whereas the ritual actions before the main celebration in Eleusis are well known, the ritual details of the core Eleusinian celebration were a well-kept secret.

Athens’s involvement with the festival started on Boedromion 13. On this day, a group of ephebes, the city’s adolescent warriors in full armour and with their distinctive black cloaks, marched out to a point on the notional border between Athens and Eleusis, where they were to meet the Eleusinian priesthood who in turn would set out the following morning with their sacred ritual objects (hierá) towards Athens the ephebes had the task to accompany them, as august visitors, on their way into the city. When they arrived, they deposited the sacred objects in the Eleusinion, the sacred precinct of Demeter and Kore above the agora, and the Eleusinian “Sacred Herald” (hierokḗryx) went up to the shrine of Athena on the Acropolis to announce the visitors to the patron deity of Athens.

The official start of the festival period for the initiates was Boedromion 15. The prospective initiates, presumably together with their already initiated sponsors (mystagōgós), assembled on the agora. Here, the hierophant addressed them, prohibiting the participation of people defiled by murder or unable to understand Greek: the former is a standard provision of purity when coming into contact with the divine the latter points to the importance of the spoken word in the core ritual. The following day, the initiates bathed themselves and a sacrificial piglet in the sea at Phaleron (day hálade mýstai, from what have been the ritual exhortation “to the sea, you initiates”). After the bath, the piglet was sacrificed and eaten, the last meal before a three-day fasting period, from Boedromion 17 to 19, during which the initiates were supposed to remain indoors. Boedromion 17 was also the day of the Epidauria, a festival in honour of Asclepius, in honour of the late arrival of the god from Epidauros for his initiation.

Boedromion 19 was the day of the procession from Athens to Eleusis. The initiates assembled on the agora and, with the Eleusinian priesthood leading, started their day-long walk towards Eleusis. At the Sacred Gate, the statue of the god Iakchos was brought from its shrine at the gate to be carried at the head of the procession. Iakchos is the personification of the ecstatic shout and other ecstatic experiences of the fasting initiates during their long march procession. As such, Iakchos was often identified with the god Dionysos. Pausanias (I 38.1–7) describes the processional road with its many sacred places where the procession stopped for worship along the way. Two bridges were important: the bridge over the river Kephisos (presumably the one near Athens, not its homonymous river near Eleusis) was the place of the gephurismoí, jokes by bystanders addressed to the more illustrious participants the other bridge, over salt-water Rheitoi near the coast, was constructed in 422 / 421 bce “so that the priestesses could carry the sacred objects in greater safety” (inscription IG I3 79). The latter was purposely built so narrow that no carriages could be used in the procession, “but one had to walk to the shrine” (IG I3 79). The initiates arrived in Eleusis at nightfall. There they must have broken their fast by drinking the kykeṓn, a mixture of water, barley, and mint that, according to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the Eleusinian queen Metaneira offered Demeter to break the fast during her grief for her daughter when she came to Eleusis in the guise of an old woman (vv. 206–211, clearly marked as a ritual action), and that the initiates brought with them in the procession, to judge from the picture of the Ninnion pinax, a votive plaque of the mid- 4th century bce that depicts the arrival of the initiates in Eleusis (see figure 2). 1

Figure 2. The Ninnion pinax, dated to the 4th century bce , is a votive tablet depicting the Eleusinian mysteries. The deities Demeter and Persephones receive a procession of initiates led by Iakchos.

Knowledge about what happened once the initiates had entered the high walls of the sanctuary area through the propylon (see Propylaea) is very scanty. Archaeology suggests that the wide terrace in front on the telesterion played some role in preliminary ritual performances, but information is lacking, and the main rites were confined to the interior of the telesterion where the initiates stood or sat on the steps along the four interior walls (figure 3).

Figure 3. The remains of the telesterion in Eleusis.

The Hymn to Demeter enjoins absolute secrecy on those rituals Alcibiades and his friends were severely punished for having “danced out” the rituals (t5), and Livy tells about the execution of two foreign youth who by mistake ended up in the sanctuary during the initiation night. Despite this very serious prohibition to divulge the secret rites, many texts offer tantalizing bits of information about what happened. Key details come from a converted pagan cited by the polemical Christian writer Hippolytos of Rome. It proves impossible to reconstruct a liturgy from these disjointed fragments, although a few sources give some vague ideas. The password for the initiates stipulates the ritual steps: “I have fasted, drunk the kykeon, have taken from the chest, worked, put (it) into the basket and from the basket to the chest” (Clement, Protrepticus 2.21). The password as such confirms fasting and drinking the kykeon as the first steps but leaves scholars in utter darkness as to the rest, despite speculation. Two late Hellenistic reliefs from Rome and Torre Nova near Rome depict a similar progression from the well-attested sacrifice of a piglet after unreported purification to closeness with the two goddesses. The initiation hall contained at its centre a rectangular walled space with a floor of natural rock it remained carefully preserved in its original state and location during the several expansions and restorations of the hall. Scholars call it anáktoron, although Kevin Clinton, following Ludwig Deubner, questioned the correctness of the term and wanted to reserve anáktoron for the initiation hall. 2 It seems that not all texts are consistent, and telestérion may refer to the initiation hall, and anáktoron to its most holy part, also called ábaton (“inaccesible”). It must have played an important role in the ritual, and this is confirmed by the position of the throne of the hierophant at a right angle next to it.

In a famous fragment, Aristotle insisted that initiation did not teach (matheîn ti) but rather conveyed an experience (pathein ti) (Aristotle, Frg. 15 Rose) this experience was based on both seeing and on hearing. Texts that praise the initiation, starting with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (vv. 480–481), insist on the importance of seeing as the way to receive the initiation: “Happy is he who has seen this” (see also Pindar, Frg. 133 Snell-Maehler and Sophocles, Frg. 837 TrGF) and the hierophant is “He Who Shows the Sacred Things.” Later inscriptions praise the voice of the hierophant—and the architectural structure of the mystery hall with its density of interior columns leads one to think that hearing was at least as important as seeing. According to a writer cited by Hippolytus of Rome, at the high point of the rite, the hierophant—in utter silence—showed a cut sheaf of wheat. The same Hippolytos reports that the hierophant shouted, “The Lady has given birth to a Holy Boy! Brimo has given birth to Brimos!” (that is, as he explains, “the strong one to the strong one”) (Refutatio 5.40.8). Light and darkness were equally important for the ritual. Hippolytus writes that the hierophant showed “the great and unspeakable mysteries amongst a huge fire.” A lantern-like structure sat on the roof of the classical and postclassical building directly above the central sacred spot it must have functioned as a chimney for a fire inside this space. Darkness and the occasional light effect of torches structured the ritual, as Plutarch describes in another text where he compares the experience of a philosophical neophyte to those of an initiate (de progrediendo 10, 81DE): both move from fears in the dark to joy when the doors are opened among much light. In a fragment, Plutarch compares death to the experience of initiation that moves from “fright, trembling, sweat and terror” to “marvelous light” and the view of flowery meadows (Frg. 178 Sandbach). According to Apollonios of Athens, a gong was sounded during the nocturnal rite and “Persephone appeared in much fire” (FGH 244 F 10). This must have been a light effect generated by a sudden fire from inside the anaktoron Plutarch mentions the “huge fire” when they open the anaktoron (de progrediendo 10, 81DE).

Thus, the testimonies about the ritual of the initiation night suggest the importance of sensual experience in the liturgy—of fire, the voice, and other sounds. According to Aristotle, what counted in this liturgy was “to experience” (patheîn), not to learn something (matheîn): the initiation rite did not convey specific points of theology and doctrine. The testimonies about the way Alcibiades and his friends revealed the Mysteries as a party joke talk about “dancing them out”—this again points to the key importance of a liturgy based on sensual impression. Such instruction was the prerogative of the texts such as the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the pseudepigraphical texts ascribed to Orpheus and Musaeus that could speak to a larger audience without violating the ritual prohibition of revealing the Mysteries.

The final verses of the Homeric Hymn are important in this respect. They praise the initiate for two gifts of Demeter and Kore: the gift of wealth in this life and that of a better life after death. Later texts give more detailed accounts that have reached us mainly through the choral songs of the initiates in Aristophanes’s Frogs. The underlying message is that, on the one hand, the initiation gave the initiates a special status that respected the subjection of humans under death, and that it created a familiarity and closeness of the initiate with the Eleusinian goddesses. Also emphasized in the story of the Homeric Hymn is the former message that Demeter was unable to make the Eleusinian baby prince Demophon immortal, because his mortal mother interrupted the goddess. The eschatological message is confirmed by the late Hellenistic images on an ash urn in Rome (Lovatelli Urn) and a chest for the ritual deposition of bones from Torre Nova near Rome—both objects connected with death and afterlife. Both depict the initiation of Heracles in three scenes and must go back to the same iconographic source. The first scene shows the well-documented sacrifice of a piglet by a priest (Figure 4).

Figure 4. A scene from the Lovatelli urn shows the sacrifice of a piglet by a priest during the initiation of Heracles to the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The second scene depicts the purification of Herakles by fire (Lovatelli) and air (Torre Nova) who sits on a stool that is covered with a ram’s hide: the stool is already mentioned in the arrival scene of Demeter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (vv. 195–198), whereas evidence for purification rites is otherwise lacking (figure 4). The final scene has him approach a standing Persephone and a sitting Demeter with a snake on her lap which Herakles touches. The ritual thus progresses from the well-documented sacrifice of a piglet to purification and final closeness to the two goddesses that must reflect the eschatological hopes of the initiates.

Other rituals events preceded and followed the Mysteria festival with its the initiation during the night of Boedromion 19. Sources often combine initiates (mystai) and epōptai, and it becomes clear that the epōptía, the “Looking Upon” or, perhaps better with another meaning of the preverb, the “Additional Vision,” is a higher degree of initiation. Information about its date and ritual form is not available. But since the Athenian law on the Mysteries from the middle of the 5th century bce (IG I3 6) provides for a sacred armistice in Boedromion for “mystai and epoptai and their followers and possessions,” it is likely that the epopteia was embedded in the main festival days. Besides the main or Greater Mysteria, there were Lesser Mysteria. The same Athenian law provides for a sacred armistice for the Lesser Mysteria in the winter month Gamelion and sets the fees to be paid by each initiate at the Greater and the Lesser Mysteria to several Eleusinian officials for ritual services (priestess of Demeter, Eumolpidai, Kerykes): presumably, a first stage of individual initiation took place at those mystery rites that are often connected not with Eleusis but with a shrine of the Mother in Agrai on the river Ilissos. Scholars also tentatively connected this first stage with the purification rites on the two reliefs Lovatelli and Torre Nova, but if the sacrifice of a piglet that precedes the purification scene belongs to the ritual of Boedromion, this is impossible.

A special case, finally, is the initiation of a “Boy from the Hearth” (pais aph’hestías), an Athenian boy, presumably of an aristocratic family, at the expense of the state. Again, information is sketchy at best, but it appears as if this boy would represent an entire class of young Athenians.

Officiants and Priests

The Eleusinian Mysteries were performed by a particular group of sacred officials who belonged to specific aristocratic clans. Besides lesser-known minor officials, there were four main officials who served for life and were elected from a narrow group of three or four aristocratic clans.

The head official was the hierophant, a title to denote “Him Who Shows the Sacred Things.” He belonged to the clan of the Eumolpidai whose eponymous hero was Eumolpos (“He Who Sings and Dances Well”), and he was elected for life. The hierophant was the chief official of the Mysteries and their interpreter and spokesman in the Athenian state. He stood out in Athens already by his elaborate attire: a knot of hair on the neck, a special headband, and an elaborate dress that was said to have inspired Aischylos (a native from Eleusis) to his theatrical costumes (Athenaios 1.12, 21E). Inscriptions extoll the quality of his voice, and scholars have identified a few of his ritual utterances. In the course of the Hellenistic epoch, the sacrality of his person was growing so much that he lost his personal name once he was elected to his function according to a Christian source, he became so far removed from the world that he was “not castrated but made an eunuch and removed from an bodily procreation by the use of hemlock” (Hippolytus, Refutatio 5.8.40).

The second-most important official was the dadouchos or “Torch-bearer” from the clan of the Kerykes that, together with the Eumolpidai, oversaw the administration of the Eleusinian sanctuary (Aristotle, Constitution of Athens 39.2). He too was elected for life and resembled the hierophant in public attire. His importance reflects the key role of fire and darkness during the mystery rites, but unlike the hierophant he could not enter the anaktoron. The third male official was the hierokeryx or “Sacred Herald,” elected for life and also from the clan of the Kerykes. As any herald, his duties were mainly those of vocal communications during the ritual, but like the hierophant and dadouchos he was also involved in the pre-liminary initiation of candidates (IG I3 6).

Then there was the priestess of Demeter (later also called the priestess of Demeter and Kore). She came from the clans of Eumolpidai or Philleidai, was elected for life, and had her own “sacred house” near the sanctuary. Unlike her male colleagues, she was politically connected with the polis of Eleusis this points to an old connection of the sanctuary of Demeter and her local cult with the township of Eleusis. She was only marginally important for the secret rites. According to the accusations against Alcibiades’s divulgation of the Mysteries during a party in 416 bce , the imitation of hierophant, dadouchos, and hierokeryx was enough to “imitate and show” the secret rites (Plutarch, Alcibiades 22.3 see also Andocides, De mysteriis 11 and 16). Their performance alone constituted the core of the nocturnal initiation.

Historical Development

The sanctuary of Demeter and Kore in Eleusis was situated on the Southeastern slope of the Eleusinian acropolis hill, well outside the settlement (see figure 1). This position is common for sanctuaries of the Two Goddesses and is repeated in the Athenian Eleusinion that is built halfway up the hillside above the agora, and at the shrine of Demeter in Priene high above the settlement at the foot of the acropolis cliffs. This suggests that the shrine began as a shrine and probably as the Thesmophorion of the small township of Eleusis before an incorporation of Eleusis into Athens. Yet it is not easy to reconstruct a plausible development that would account for the transformation of a women’s cult in a Thesmophorion into the later mystery cult that was open to both genders.

Mylonas reconstructed a small Bronze Age ritual building from some late Bronze Age walls that he excavated under the later telesterion. 3 This reconstruction led him to assume a Bronze Age origin for Eleusinian cult and its (archaeologically unattested) continuity into the Geometric Age, with the anaktoron, the immovable central room that is attested to since the Solonian building, marking the place of the Bronze Age shrine. There are no other indications for a Bronze Age date of the Eleusinian cult, and Pierre Darcque’s detailed analysis of the excavation reports concluded that Mylonas’s reconstruction was inadmissible: Mylonas selected from a much larger number of walls the ones that suited his reconstruction. 4 There is no clear Bronze Age trace of cult buildings in Eleusis.

The documented history of the Eleusinian cult begins in the Geometric Age. The earliest buildings after the Bronze Age are two apsidal structures of Late Geometrical date, one under the later temple of Artemis Propylaia just outside the later sanctuary, the other one reconstructed by Mylonas from a wall under the later telesterion terrace. The location and the fact that Geometric shrines are often apsidal led him to the assumption that we deal with the oldest Post-Bronze Age mystery shrine at a time when Eleusis was still independent from Athens. 5

The probable incorporation of the city of Eleusis into Athens in the 7th century made the Mysteria an Athenian festival. It might well have been the immediate reason for the composition of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter with its praise of the ritual and its afterlife promises. 6 It also led to a radical reconfiguration of the shrine at the time of Solon, with a first rectangular telesterion (see Eleusis’s plan). During the following two centuries, this central shrine was enlarged three times, with the anaktoron remaining unmoved in the position it already had as the abaton of the Solonian temple. A Peisistratean reconfiguration developed the concept of a square building with interior steps along three of the four walls. This basic ground plan is then repeated, on a larger scale, in the much larger Periclean telesterion which would remain the place of the main mystery ritual for the rest of antiquity Vitruvius names Iktinos, the main Periclean architect, as its author, and adds that at the end of the 4th century , under Demetrius of Phaleron, a front with its traditional outer columns was added (De architectura 7, praef. 12 see also Plutarch, Pericles 13.7). A short-lived Cimonian predecessor shrine, built after the destruction of the sanctuary by the Persians in 480 bce , had returned to a rectangular plan that, however, could not convince the Athenians: the rectangular shape, canonical for Greek temples, must have offered much less viewing space to the participants of the rite than did the square layout. The sanctuary also contained the well that was already important in the Hymn and the cave where Hades returned to the underworld. The Peisitratean sanctuary opened with an impressive propylon towards a large space outside the sanctuary walls with the small temple of Artemis Propylaia.

It also was in the Peisistratean epoch that the myth of Eleusis as the birth place of agriculture was developed out of the earlier version of the Homeric Hymn, according to which Demeter stopped and then restarted the fertility of the fields, not the least of the Rharian Field outside of Eleusis, to blackmail the Olympians into restoring her daughter to her. This change follows from the sudden appearance of an iconography of Triptolemos on black-figured vases from the later 6th century bce that depict him with ears of corn in a flying chariot drawn by snakes and sent off by the two goddesses (see figure 5) a fragment of Sophokles Triptolemos (Frg. 597 Radt) suggests that this must have been his mission to distribute agriculture to all of humanity.

Figure 5. Attic red-figure dinos attributed to the Syleus Painter, about 470 bce The vase depicts Triptolemos in a winged chariot setting off to spread knowledge of the cultivation of wheat. Demeter and Kore surround the youth.

In the context of the Athenian expansionism after the Persian Wars, this was combined with sophistic cultural theory and turned into the claim that Athens as the birthplace of agriculture was the birthplace of human civilization, succinctly expressed by Isocrates (Or. 4.28) and echoed by Cicero (De legibus 2.36). This claim led the Athenians to ask for a tribute in kind from all Greek cities (IG I3 78 in 422 bce 7 they even built silos in the Eleusinian shrine.

Rome’s takeover of the Greek world opened the Eleusinian Mysteries to the Roman elites whose bilingualism qualified them for initiation (similarly, Republican Romans were already initiated in Samothrace, IG XII:viii, 173 and 176 , bce ). Both Cicero and his friend T. Pomponius Atticus were Eleusinian initiates (De legibus 2.36), and Cicero cites a verse by an unknown Republican author according to which “people from the most distant regions” were initiated (De natura deorum 1.119). The crisis between Sulla and Nero does not seem to have affected Eleusis very deeply, although Nero “did not dare to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries from which the voice of the herald keeps away ungodly and criminal people” (thus Suetonius, Nero 34.4). Other emperors were initiated, not the least Marcus Aurelius, who did it, according to the (not always reliable) Historia Augusta, “in order to prove his guiltlessness” (Capitolinus, Septimius Severus 27.1). Restoration work in the sanctuary, not always easily dated, went on during larger parts of the 2nd century ce , and the Panhellenes erected a slender triumphal arch “for the Goddesses and the Emperor” (presumably Trajan, IG II² 2958). Restorations were much needed and swiftly done after the barbarian Kostovoks destroyed part of the shrine in 170 ce , without nterrupting the annual succession of the ritual, thanks to the then hierophant (IG II2 3639). In c. 220 ce , the Athenians decreed ampler participation of the armed ephebes in the procession to Eleusis “to avoid an interruption and a neglect of traditional religion” (IG II2 1078).

The decline set in during the 3rd century ce and especially after the legalization of Christianity under Constantine. It is unclear when the last mystery rituals at the sanctuary were given up. Julian still used the present tense when writing about Eleusis (In Deorum Matrem 13), as did Asterius of Amaeia later in the century. But after the Goths of Alaric had destroyed the sanctuary walls in 395 ce , no repairs were made: this must mark the end of the cult.

Importance and Influence of the Eleusinian Mysteries

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter praises the Mysteries for what the intimacy with the Two Goddesses would give: wealth in this life and a happy existence after death. Over time, the promises in this world were eclipsed by the expectations in the next, but they survived in the Athenian claim to be the origin of culture through agriculture. 8 The rather vague promises for the afterlife in the Hymn became much more concrete in the following centuries, with the colorful pictures of bliss in Aristophanes’s Frogs of 415 bce as perhaps the most impressive instance: here, the chorus of initiates dwells on the eternal light and spring and the dances as a clear opposition to the dreary picture of the dank and dark Underworld with its helpless shadows as painted by the Homeric Nekyia (Frogs 440–59). Aristophanes’s images also appear in a Pythagorean and Bacchic context, and it is tempting to ascribe their elaboration to an Eleusinian pseudonymous poem of the later 6th or earlier 5th century bce , either a more contemporary Hymn to Demeter or a Katabasis poem. 9

The fame of Eleusis drew other local Demeter cults into its influence, either in their own understanding or in the reading of later observers, as for example the cults of Pheneos in Arcadia (Pausanias 8.15.1–3) or Andania in Messene (Pausanias 8.31.7). Under Ptolemy I, Alexandria in Egypt acquired a cult site that was called Eleusis and must have focused on the rites of Demeter with perhaps the addition of the new god Sarapis, on the advice of the Eumolpid Timotheus whom the first Ptolemies employed as religious advisor (Tacitus, Historiae 4.83). When Christian father Clement of Alexandria later lambasts rituals in Eleusis, it is not always clear whether he means the Athenian or the Alexandrian sanctuary. Rome, on the other hand, where Cicero attests to nocturnal initiation rites for Ceres, confined to women, must have celebrated its local form of Thesmophoria (De legibus 2.36–37).

Plato used the Mysteries as a reservoir of images for his unique philosophical experience, 10 and later Platonists, such as Philo of Alexandria and the Neoplatonist philosophers from Plotinus to Proclos, followed suit. This in turn led to an allegorical interpretation not only of the mystery promises but even of its ritual and officials in Neoplatonic terms (Porphyry, Frg. 360 Smith), and it corresponded to the spiritualization of the Mysteries that is visible in the transformation of the hierophant with his growing distance to the physical world.

Christians noticed early that the Eleusinian Mysteries challenged Christian beliefs about the afterlife over time, the original afterlife assumption of the Homeric Hymn—an initiated person has a better fate in the underworld—detailed and concretized these hopes in colors of paradise, even if Eleusis never claimed to undo death, as the story of Demophon’s abortive immortalization in the Homeric Hymn makes clear. 11 Christian polemics began at the end of the 2nd century ce , and they intimated that shameful things occurred behind the secrecy of the ritual (Clemens of Alexandria, Protrepticus 22.4 Tertullian, Contra Valentinianos 1.1). Later preachers could be quite explicit in their sexual interpretations (Asterius, Homilia 10.9.1).

The Italian Renaissance inherited the Neoplatonic allegorical understanding of the Mysteries. This goes without saying for the outstanding Neoplatonic philosophers such as Ficino or Pico della Mirandola with their debt to Plotinus and Proclus, but even for an antiquarian like Giglio Gregorio Giraldo (Lilius Gregorius Gyraldus, 1479–1552 ) who in his Historia deorum gentilium reconstructed the ritual of Eleusis but gave it a thoroughly allegorical reading (in: Opera Omnia 1, 1696 , col. 429–431). This remained the standard approach in the following centuries, for example in Sainte-Croix. 12 Only a few radical antiquarians, such as the Dutch Johan Meursius, 13 kept away from symbolism and allegorical explanations, whereas the radically innovative Histoire générale des cérémonies, moeurs et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde looked at the ancient world, and especially the Romans, only insofar as their religion served as a model for Catholicism, and disregarded the mystery cults. 14 But it was the first volume of Christian August Lobeck’s Aglaophamus sive de theologia mysticae Graecorum causis that changed scholarship on the Mysteries permanently: Lobeck, otherwise known as a strict grammarian, cleaned the ancient literal evidence on Eleusis of all mystical undergrowth and opened the path to a historical study. 15 The site of Eleusis itself was identified and described by the early English travellers. 16 Excavations by the Greek Archaeological Society of Athens began in 1882 and cumulated with the work of Anastasios Orlandos, John Travlos, and Georgios Mylonas, whose 1961 book still remains the most detailed archaeological description of the site, despite later work on the site. 17

Eleusinian votive relief - History

There were three degrees of initiation: the Lesser Mysteries which were a preliminary requirement, the Greater Mysteries or telete which means &ldquoto make perfect,&rdquo and the additional and highest degree, the epopteia. The telete initiation can be divided into the dromena: &ldquothings acted,&rdquo the legomena: &ldquothings said,&rdquo and the deiknymena: &ldquothings shown.&rdquo Theon of Smyrna, who lived about 100 CE, had his own particular stages of mystical initiation related to his five-step understanding of philosophy. They are

1) initial purification,
2) mystic communion or communication,
3) revelation of holy objects and transmission of the initiation,
4) crowning with garlands as the badge of initiation into the mysteries, and
5) the happiness resulting from communion with God.

According to inscriptions the crowning of initiates occurred at the beginning of the ceremonies described as the second and third stages. Their names were recorded on wooden tablets by the priests, and their myrtle wreaths were replaced by wreathes with ribbons, the emblem of their consecration to the goddesses.
The 7th day, Boedromion 21, was the second day at Eleusis and was probably spent resting and preparing for the final ceremony (orgia) in the Telesterion that night. Proclos wrote that those entering the temenos (sacred precinct) of Eleusis were not to advance inside the adytum.
In the dromena the initiates may have imitated in ritual fashion the actions and feelings of Demeter in the original time. These could have included the abduction of Persephone, the wanderings of Demeter, her arrival at Eleusis, her sorrow while staying with Celeus and Metaneira, the rejoicing at reunion with her daughter, and finally her divine gifts of grain and mystic knowledge. Tertullian complained about a discrepancy in the ritual.

Why is the priestess of Demeter carried off,
unless Demeter herself had suffered the same sort of thing?
Tertullian To the Nations 30

Lactantius wrote that in the Mysteries of Demeter all night long with torches kindled they sought for Persephone and when she was found, the whole ritual closed with thanksgiving and the tossing of torches.
Many literary sources and especially the art show us the dominant importance of the torches in the rites. Ovid gave this account of the original action of Demeter:

There the goddess kindled two pine-trees
to serve her as a light
hence to this day a torch is given out at the rites of Ceres.
Ovid Fasti IV, 492-494

A quote from Apollodoros indicates sound effects.

The Hierophant is in the habit of sounding the so-called gong
when Kore is being invoked by name.
Apollodoros Fragment 36

This gong was used in the Greek theater to imitate thunder, which was believed to come from the underworld.
Plutarch described the serious reverence on the final night as being analogous to the deepest calm of the enlightened philosopher.

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 &ldquohumble and orderly attends upon&rdquo reason as upon a god.
Plutarch Progress in Virtue 81e

Aristeides said that in the hall mystics experienced bloodcurdling sensations of horror and the most enthusiastic ecstasy of joy. The Eleusinian initiates were to receive impressions more than information, and the aim was to reach a certain attitude of mind, provided they were prepared.
The following account by Synesius indicated that Aristotle took the same position:

But their procedure is like Bacchic frenzy—
like the leap of a man mad, or possessed—

the attainment of a goal without running the race,
a passing beyond reason
without the previous exercise of reasoning.
For the sacred matter (contemplation)
is not like attention belonging to knowledge,
or an outlet of mind,
nor is it like one thing in one place and another in another.
On the contrary—to compare small and greater—
it is like Aristotle&rsquos view that
men being initiated have not a lesson to learn,
but an experience to undergo
and a condition into which they must be brought,
while they are becoming fit (for revelation).
Synesius Dio 1133

Themistius said of the initiate:

Entering now into the secret dome,
he is filled with horror and astonishment.
He is seized with loneliness and total perplexity
he is unable to move a step forward,
and at a loss to find the entrance to the way
that leads to where he aspires to,
till the prophet or conductor lays open
the anteroom of the Temple.
Themistius Oration in Patrem. 50

Stobaeus spoke of a rude and fearful march through night and darkness, and Proclus aid that in the most sacred Mysteries before the scene of the mystic visions, there is terror infused into the minds of the initiated.

Porphyry told how a boy&rsquos part in the ritual helps the relationship between god and man.

For, in your mysteries,
what the boy who attends the altar accomplishes,
by performing accurately what he is commanded to do,
in order to render the gods propitious
to all those who have been initiated, as far as to muesis,
that, in nations and cities, priests are able to effect,
by sacrificing for all the people,
and through piety inducing the Gods to be attentive
to the welfare of those that belong to them.
Porphyry On Abstinence From Animal Food

According to Hermias those initiates who closed the eyes, which muesis signifies, no longer received by sense those divine mysteries, but with the pure soul itself.
The following passage from Plutarch&rsquos essay On the Soul survives today only because it was quoted by Stobaeus in Florigelium 120. So significant are its ideas and perhaps others in the same essay, that it may have been censored from his collected works by some ruthless dogmatists. It does more than describe the emotions experienced in initiation as it goes to the core of its meaning.

Thus death and initiation closely correspond
even the words (teleutan and teleisthai) correspond,
and so do the things.
At first there are wanderings
and toilsome running about in circles and journeys
through the dark over uncertain roads and culs de sac
then, just before the end, there are all kinds of terrors,
with shivering, trembling, sweating, and utter amazement.
After this, a strange and wonderful light meets the wanderer
he is admitted into clean and verdant meadows,
where he discerns gentle voices, and choric dances,
and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions.
Here the now fully initiated is free, and walks at liberty
like a crowned and dedicated victim, joining in the revelry
he is the companion of pure and holy men
and looks down upon the uninitiated and unpurified crowd
here below in the mud and fog,
trampling itself down and crowded together,
though of death remaining still sunk in its evils,
unable to believe in the blessings that lie beyond.
That the wedding and close union of the soul with the body
is a thing really contrary to nature
may clearly be seen from all this.
Plutarch&rsquos On the Soul

Revelation of the Mystic Grain

The Deiknymena (objects shown) were the sacred things (hiera) displayed by the Hierophant while standing in front of the Anaktoron in radiant light at the climactic moment. Clement of Alexandria refers to the mystic kistai (baskets) which contained the Hiera.

And the formula of the Eleusinian mysteries is as follows:
&ldquoI fasted, I drank the draught (kykeon) I took from the chest
having done my task, I placed in the basket,
and from the basket into the chest.
Clement of Alexandria Exhortation to the Greeks II, 18

We learned of these baskets from Callimachus.

As the basket comes, greet it, you women,
saying &ldquoDemeter, greatly hail!
Lady of much bounty, of many measures of corn.&rdquo
As the basket comes, from the ground you shall see it,
you uninitiated, and gaze not from the roof or from aloft—
child nor wife nor maid that has shed her hair—
neither then nor when we spit from parched mouths fasting.
Callimachus To Demeter 1-5

Athenaeus gives us Polemon&rsquos account of the rites using a tray (kernos).

Moreover Polemon, in the treatise On the Sacred Fleece, says:
&ldquoAfter these preliminaries (the priest)
proceeds to the celebration of the mystic rites
he takes out the contents of the shrine and distributes them
to all who have brought round their tray (kernos).
The latter is an earthenware vessel, holding within it
a large number of small cups cemented together,
and in them are sage, white poppy-seeds,
grains of wheat and barley, peas, vetches, okra-seeds, lentils,
beans, rice-wheat, oats, compressed fruit, honey, oil, wine,
milk, and sheep&rsquos wool unwashed.
The man who carries it,
resembling the bearer of the sacred winnowing-fan,
tastes these articles.&rdquo
Athenaeus The Deipnosophists XI, 478d

Pausanias in discussing Cyamites of bean fame clearly implied that beans are not to be associated with Demeter.

I cannot say with certainty whether he was the first
who sowed beans (kuamoi),
or whether they made up the name of a bean-hero
because the discovery of beans
cannot be attributed to Demeter.
Any one who has seen the mysteries at Eleusis,
or has read what are called the works of Orpheus,
knows what I mean.
Pausanias Description of Greece I, 37:3

Pollux referred to a dance involving these trays (kerna) and crowning torches.

In regard to the dance in which kerna were carried,
I know that they carried lights or small hearths on their heads.
Pollux IV, 103

The early Christian theologian Hippolytus of Rome wrote down the account of the Eleusinian Mysteries told to him by a Naasene.

The Phrygians, however assert, he says,
that he is likewise &ldquoa green ear of corn reaped.&rdquo
And after the Phrygians, the Athenians,
while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites,
likewise display to those who are being admitted
to the highest grade at these mysteries,
the might, and marvelous, and most perfect secret
suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths:
I allude to an ear of corn in silence reaped.
But this ear of corn is also considered among the Athenians
to constitute the perfect enormous illumination
that has descended from the unportrayable one,
just as the Hierophant himself declares
not, indeed, emasculated like Attis,
but made a eunuch by means of hemlock,
and despising all carnal generation.
Now by night in Eleusis, beneath a huge fire, the Celebrant, enacting the great and secret mysteries,
vociferates and cries aloud, saying,
&ldquoAugust Brimo has brought forth a consecrated son, Brimus&rdquo
that is, a potent mother has been delivered of a potent child.
But revered, he says, is the generation that is spiritual,
heavenly, from above, and potent is he that is so born.
For the mystery is called &ldquoEleusin&rdquo and &ldquoAnactorium.&rdquo
&ldquoEleusin,&rdquo because, he says, we who are spiritual
come flowing down from Adam above
for the word &ldquoeleusesthai&rdquo is, he says,
of the same import with the expression &ldquoto come.&rdquo
But &ldquoAnactorium&rdquo is of the same import
with the expression &ldquoto ascend upward.&rdquo
This, he says, is what they affirm
who have been initiated in the mysteries of the Eleusinians.
It is, however, a regulation of law,
that those who have been admitted into the lesser
should again be initiated into the Great Mysteries.
For greater destinies obtain greater portions.
But the inferior mysteries, he says
are those of Proserpine below in regard of which mysteries,
and the path which leads there, which is wide and spacious,
and conducts those that are perishing to Proserpine,
the poet likewise says:
&ldquoBut under her a fearful path extends,
Hollow, miry, yet best guide to
Highly-honored Aphrodite&rsquos lovely grove.&rdquo
These, he says, are the inferior mysteries
those appertaining to carnal generation.
Now, those men who are initiated
into these inferior mysteries ought to pause,
and then be admitted into the great and heavenly ones.
For they, he says, who obtain their shares in this mystery,
receive greater portions.
For this, he says, is the gate of heaven
and this a house of God, where the Good Deity dwells alone.
And into this gate, he says, no unclean person shall enter,
nor one that is natural or carnal
but it is reserved for the spiritual only.
Hippolytus The Refutation of All Heresies V, 3

Ears of wheat were represented on the architrave of the Lesser Propylaea in the decoration of the kiste supported by the Caryatids. According to Himerios, a sophist who lived in Athens when Julian was Emperor of Rome (361-363), an old law ordered the initiates to take with them handfuls of agricultural produce which were the badges of a civilized life. These probably included ears of wheat, for on the relief of Lakratides the priest, his sons have handfuls of wheat.
Athenaeus has gathered more material on the original &ldquobarley mother.&rdquo

Now Semus of Delos in his work On Paeans says:
&ldquoThe handfuls of barley, taken separately, they called amalai
but when these are gathered together
and many are made into a single bundle
people called them ouloi or iouloi
hence also they called Demeter
sometimes Chloe, sometimes Ioulo.
Hence from Demeter&rsquos gifts they call not only the fruit,
but also the hymns
sung in honor of the goddess, ouloi or iouloi.
There are also Demetrouloi and kalliouloi and the refrain:
&lsquoSend forth a sheaf, a plenteous sheaf, a sheaf send forth.&rsquo&rdquo
Athenaeus The Deipnosophists XIV, 618d

In Proclus&rsquo commentary on the Timaios 293c, he offered another recitation. In the Eleusinian rites they gazed up to the heaven and cried aloud &ldquorain,&rdquo they gazed down upon the earth and cried &ldquoconceive.&rdquo
On the edge of a well by the Dipylon gate of Athens where the procession to Eleusis began, an inscription reads &ldquoO Pan, O Men, be of good cheer, beautiful Nymphs, rain, conceive, overflow.&rdquo

Legomena (Things Said)

The legomena were short liturgical statements, explanations, and perhaps invocations accompanying the dromena. Their importance is shown by a rhetorical exercise of Sopratos which tells of a young man who dreamed that he was initiated in the Mysteries and saw the dromena, but because he could not hear clearly the words of the Hierophant he could not be considered as initiated. This incident implies that knowledge of the sacred words is needed for initiation but it also implies that he would have been considered initiated if he had heard the words even though his entire experience was in a dream. A knowledge of Greek was necessary for initiation because of the importance of the legomena. The legomena may have provided instruction to guide one in the other world as in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Porphyrus gives us a description of initiation which includes legomena and seems to indicate also much of the content and feeling of the Epopteia.

Epopteia: The Holy Light of the Holy Night

Those initiated (mystai) could return a year later for the higher degree of initiation attained by the epoptai during the second night in the Sanctuary of Demeter. The most sacred objects were revealed to them.
We remember from Aristophanes the mention of the holy ligh.

And I will with the women and the holy maidens go
Where they keep the nightly vigil, an auspicious light to show.
Aristophanes The Frogs 442-443

Psellus said that when the initiate was raised to the Sublime Degree of the Epoptae, he beheld the divine light. Kerenyi described a painted marble votive relief of the 5th century BC, found in the excavation of the Telesterion that was dedicated to Demeter by Eukrates. Over the inscription is carved the face and head of the goddess surrounded by red rays. Schuré quoted Proclus and interprets the word &ldquogods&rdquo in this instance as &ldquoall orders of spirits.&rdquo
In all the initiations and Mysteries the gods manifest themselves in many forms, assuming a great variety of guises sometimes they appear in a formless light, again in quite different form.
Orpheus in his hymn &ldquoTo Protogonus&rdquo sings of the appearance of these holy spirits in the mystic rites.

Ericapaeus, celebrated pow&rsquor,
Ineffable, occult, all-shining flow&rsquor.
&rsquoTis thine from darksome mists to purge the sight,
All-spreading splendor, pure and holy light
Hence, Phanes, call&rsquod the glory of the sky,
On waving pinions thro&rsquo the world you fly.
Priapus, dark-ey&rsquod splendor, thee I sing,
Genial, all-prudent, ever blessed king.
With joyful aspect on these rites divine
And holy Telite propitious shine.
Taylor Mystical Hymns of Orpheus

In his hymn &ldquoTo Melinoe,&rdquo an ineffable spirit of life and death, Orpheus prays that men remove their needless fear of death and sights invisible.

When, under Pluto&rsquos semblance, Jove divine
Deceiv&rsquod with guileful arts dark Proserpine.
Hence, partly black thy limbs and partly white,
From Pluto dark, from Jove ethereal bright
Thy color&rsquod member, men by night inspire
When seen in spectred forms, with terrors dire
Now darkly visible involved in night,
Perspicuous now they meet the fearful sight.
Terrestrial queen, expel wherever found
The soul's mad fears to earth's remotest bound
With holy aspect on our incense shine,
And bless thy mystics, and rites divine.
Taylor Mystical Hymns of Orpheus

Socrates described a mystic vision of initiation in Plato&rsquos Phaedrus.
There was a time when with the rest of the happy band
they saw beauty shining in brightness,--
we philosophers following in the train of Zeus,
others in company with other gods
and then we beheld the beatific vision
and were initiated into a mystery
which may be truly called most bleed,
celebrated by us in our state of innocence
before we had any experience of evils to come,
when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions
innocent and simple and calm and happy,
which we beheld shining in pure light.
Plato Phaedrus 250

The eighth day of the celebrations was the initiates&rsquo last day at Eleusis and was devoted mainly to libations and rites for the dead. Athenaeus tells us of a ritual performed which gave this day the name Plemochoai.

Plemochoe is an earthen dish shaped like a top,
but tolerably firm on its base
some call it a kotyliskos, according to Pamphilus.
They use it at Eleusis on the last day of the Mysteries,
a day which they call from it Plemochoai
on that day they fill two plemochoai, and they invert them
standing up and facing the east in the one case,
the west in the other,
reciting a mystical formula over them.
Athenaeus The Deipnosophists XI, 496a

This rite was probably followed by celebrations of singing and dancing and other festivities. The initiates returned to Athens on the 9th day, Boedromion 23. This was not an organized procession, and everyone did not have to go back to Athens but could go directly home if they wished. On Boedromion 24 the Council of the 500 assembled at the Eleusinion in Athens to hear the Archon-Basileus&rsquos report and to handle any problems that may have occurred. This law was established by Solon in the 6th century BC. Mylonas noted that the initiates were under no obligation to the Sanctuary or the Goddess in regard to worship or rules of conduct. They were free to return to their lives enriched by their experience.

Different Interpretations

Persephone&rsquos eating of the pomegranate may be seen as symbolic of sex and death. It is bright red and somewhat unusual in that the seeds are the edible fruit. Pausanias describes a pomegranate tree growing over a burial place.

On the tomb of Menoeceus there grows a pomegranate-tree:
if you break the outer husk of the ripe fruit,
you will find the inside like blood.
This pomegranate-tree is living.
Pausanias Description of Greece IX, 25:1

Kerenyi described a terra-cotta statuette from the end of the classical period showing a pomegranate cut in two revealing a maiden in a short dress, tucked up around the waist disclosing herself as befits an epiphany.
Erich Neumann interpreted the redness of the pomegranate as the woman&rsquos womb and the seeds as fertility. Having been raped by Hades, Persephone is persuaded to taste the sweet morsel, symbolizing the consummation of her marriage and sojourn in the underworld part of the year.
The early enthusiasts of Christianity often denounced the mysteries, but Mylonas pointed out that none of the Fathers appeared to have been initiated into the Mysteries nor did any claim that he was repeating what was told by initiates converted to Christianity.
Epictetus, in his &ldquoAgainst those who readily come to the profession of sophists,&rdquo criticized those who imitate the superficialities of the Eleusinian Mysteries but miss the spiritual significance.

But no man sails from a port without having sacrificed
to the Gods and invoked their help
nor do men sow without having called on Demeter
and shall a man who has undertaken so great a work
undertake it safely without the Gods?
and shall they who undertake this work
come to it with success?
What else are you doing, man, than divulging the mysteries?
You say, &ldquoThere is a temple at Eleusis, and one here also.
There is an Hierophant at Eleusis,
and I also will make an Hierophant:
there is a herald, and I will establish a herald
there is a torch-bearer at Eleusis,
and I also will establish a torch-bearer
there are torches at Eleusis, and I will have torches here.
The words are the same
how do the things done here differ from those done there?&rdquo
Most impious man, is there no difference?
These things are done both in due place and in due time
and when accompanied with sacrifice and prayers,
when a man is first purified,
and when he is disposed in his mind to the thought that
he is going to approach sacred rites and ancient rites.
In this way the mysteries are useful
in this way we come to the notion
that all these things were established by the ancients
for the instruction and correction of life.
But you publish and divulge them out of time, out of place,
without sacrifices, without purity
you have not the garments
which the hierophant ought to have, nor the hair,
nor the head-dress, nor the voice nor the age
nor have you purified yourself as he has:
but you have committed to memory the words only,
and you say: &ldquoSacred are the words by themselves.&rdquo
You ought to approach these matters in another way
the thing is great, it is mystical, not common thing,
nor is it given to every man.
Epictetus Discourses III, 21

Tertullian criticized both the secrecy and the elaborate preparation, which he seems to exaggerate but these could just as easily be seen as virtues protecting and increasing the sanctity of the rites.

Now, in the case of those Eleusinian mysteries,
which are the very heresy of Athenian superstition,
it is their secrecy that is their disgrace.
Accordingly, they previously beset all access
to their body with tormenting conditions
and they require a long initiation
before they enroll their members,
even instruction during five years for their perfect disciples,
in order that they may mold their opinions
by this suspension of full knowledge,
and apparently raise the dignity of their mysteries
in proportion to the craving for them
which they have previously created.
Then follow the duty of silence.
Carefully is that guarded, which is so long in finding.
All the divinity, however, lies in their secret recesses:
there are revealed at last
all the aspirations of the fully initiated,
the entire mystery of the sealed tongue, the symbol of virility.
But this allegorical representation,
under the pretext of nature&rsquos reverend name,
obscures a real sacrilege by help of an arbitrary symbol
and by empty images obviates the reproach of falsehood!
Tertullian Against the Valentinians I

Nonnos of the 5th century CE has Demeter consulting the astrologer Asterion.

He learned the details of the day
when her only child was new born, and the exact time
and veritable course of the season which gave her birth:
then he bent the turning fingers of his hands
and measured the moving circle of the ever-recurring number
counting from hand to hand in double exchange.
He called to a servant,
and Asterion lifted a round revolving sphere,
the shape of the sky, the image of the universe,
and laid it upon the lid of a chest.
Here the ancient got to work.
He turned it upon its pivot,
and directed his gaze round the circle of the Zodiac,
scanning in this place and that planets and fixed stars.
He rolled the pole about with a push,
and the counterfeit sky went rapidly round and round
in mobile course with a perpetual movement,
carrying the artificial stars
about the axle set through the middle.
Observing the sphere with a glance all round,
the deity found that the Moon at the full
was crossing the curved line of her conjunction,
and the Sun was half through his course opposite the Moon
moving at his central point under the earth
a pointed cone of darkness creeping from the earth
into the air opposite to the Sun hid the whole Moon.
Then when he heard the rivals for wedded love,
he looked especially for Ares,
and espied the wife-robber over the sunset house
along with the evening star of the Cyprian.
He found the portion called the Portion of the Parents
under the Virgin&rsquos starry corn-ear and round the Ear
ran the light-bearing star of Cronides, father of rain.
When he had noticed everything
and reckoned the circuit of the stars,
he put away the ever-revolving sphere in its roomy box,
the sphere with its curious surface
and in answer to the goddess
he mouthed a triple oracle of prophetic sound:
&ldquoFond mother Demeter, when the rays of the Moon
are stolen under a shady cone and her light is gone,
guard against a robber-bridegroom for Persephoneia,
a secret ravisher of your unsmirched girl,
if the threads of the Fates can be persuaded.
You will see before marriage a false and secret bedfellow
come unforeseen, a half-monster cunning-minded:
since I perceive by the western point Ares
the wife-stealer walking with the Paphian,
and I notice the Dragon rising beside them both.
But I proclaim you most happy:
for you will be known for glorious fruits
in the four quarters of the universe,
because you shall bestow fruit on the barren soil
since the Virgin Astraia holds out her hand full of corn
for the destined lot of your girl&rsquos parents.&rdquo
Nonnus Dionysiaca VI, 58-102

The spherical device for measuring the revolutions of the sun, moon, and planets round the zodiac is certainly a product of later times, but the interpretation of the horoscope is cosmic and the same in all ages. The eclipse of the moon caused by the earth blocking the sun&rsquos light is portentous for the mother, the feminine principle and domestic life. Its darkness when it should be full is symbolic of Persephone&rsquos prominent and sudden venture to the underworld and the shadowing over the mother. The &ldquosunset house&rdquo is the portion of the sky over the western horizon and is called the seventh house, indicating marriage and partnership. Naturally Asterion found Mars there, the planet of sex, boldness, heat, force, and strong action. Its conjunction with Venus, the planet of love and harmony, can mean a rash, intense, adventurous, harmonious marriage. Jupiter, the benevolent and expansive planet, in Virgo in the &ldquoPortion of the Parents&rdquo (fourth house) means great benefit to the parents through the products of the earth. Apparently Jupiter was very close to the star symbolizing the ear of corn, indicating Demeter&rsquos gift of the grain.

In art, literature and culture

There are many paintings and pieces of pottery that depict various aspects of the Mysteries. The Eleusinian Relief, from the late 5th century BC, displayed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens is a representative example. Triptolemus is depicted receiving seeds from Demeter and teaching mankind how to work the fields to grow crops, with Persephone holding her hand over his head to protect him. [41] Vases and other works of relief sculpture, from the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries BC, depict Triptolemus holding an ear of corn, sitting on a winged throne or chariot, surrounded by Persephone and Demeter with pine torches. The monumental Protoattic amphora from the middle of the 7th century BC, with the depiction of Medusa's beheading by Perseus and the blinding of Polyphemos by Odysseus and his companions on its neck, is kept in the Archaeological Museum of Eleusis which is located inside the archaeological site of Eleusis.

The Ninnion Tablet, found in the same museum, depicts Demeter, followed by Persephone and Iacchus, and then the procession of initiates. Then, Demeter is sitting on the kiste inside the Telesterion, with Persephone holding a torch and introducing the initiates. The initiates each hold a bacchoi. The second row of initiates were led by Iakchos, a priest who held torches for the ceremonies. He is standing near the omphalos while an unknown female (probably a priestess of Demeter) sat nearby on the kiste, holding a scepter and a vessel filled with kykeon. Pannychis is also represented.

In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the masque that Prospero conjures to celebrate the troth-pledging of Miranda and Ferdinand echoes the Eleusinian Mysteries, although it uses the Roman names for the deities involved – Ceres, Iris, Dis and others – instead of the Greek. It is interesting that a play which is so steeped in esoteric imagery from alchemy and hermeticism should draw on the Mysteries for its central masque sequence.

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) borrowed terms and interpretations from the late 19th and early-20th century classical scholarship in German and French as a source of metaphors for his reframing of psychoanalytic treatment into a spiritualistic ritual of initiation and rebirth. The Eleusinian mysteries, particularly the qualities of the Kore, figured prominently in his writings. [42]

New York 24.97.99 (Sculpture)

Two goddesses, probably Demeter and Persephone, face each other, with a cylindrical thymiaterion (incense burner) between them. Both rest their weight on their right legs, while their left legs are relaxed, and both hold scepters in their left hands. Demeter (?), on the left, stands profile to the right, wearing sandals with straps, a peplos with an overfold, and a himation. Persephone stands in 3/4-view to the left, wearing sandals with straps, a sleeved chiton, and a himation draped over her left shoulder. Persephone, perhaps to sprinkle incense, holds her hand over the flames. The altar-like thymiaterion between them is decorated in relief with a bucranium (ox-head) between two garlands, and rests on lion's feet.

Parts of this relief, particularly the figure of Demeter, recall the Great Eleusinian Relief and may be copied from that original ( Athens, NM 126 ).

The figures stand on a tall, plain plinth.

Richter ( Richter 1954, 37 ) suggests that this relief copies a Greek original dating to the late fifth century, perhaps later than the Great Eleusinian Relief ( Athens, NM 126 ), as the drapery on this relief (particularly Persephone's chiton) is more transparent, and that the thymiaterion was added by a copyist.

Condition: Fragmentary

Condition Description:

Restored from five pieces, comprising the lower part of the relief, illustrating the figures from the chest down. There are some solution cracks, particularly on the plinth. Although the back of the slab was sawn off in modern times, Richter notes that the block was also broken in antiquity, causing surface fractures.

'Pentelic' (according to Richter).

Technique Description:

Richter notes rasp marks on the drapery and Demeter's scepter, claw chisel marks on the edges, and saw marks on the front of the plinth.

Acquired through the Fletcher Fund, 1924.

Richter 1954, 28-29 no. 35, pl. 32b

Richter 1970d, 180, fig. 510 Richter 1953, 94, pl. 72d G. Richter, AJA 47 (1943) 188 n. 1, fig. 12 G. Richter, ArchEph 1937, 20 n. 3 Dragendorff, SBHeid 1935/1936, 14 Herbig, RM 48 (1933) 312 Richter 1930a, 248, fig. 170 G. Richter, MMABull Suppl. 1926, 10, fig. 2.


The Eleusinian Mysteries are believed to be of considerable antiquity, deriving from the religious practices of the Mycenaean period and thus predating the Greek Dark Ages. One line of thought by modern scholars has been that the Mysteries were intended "to elevate man above the human sphere into the divine and to assure his redemption by making him a god and so conferring immortality upon him." [19] Comparative study shows parallels between these Greek rituals and similar systems—some of them older—in the Near East. Such cults include the mysteries of Isis and Osiris in Egypt, the Adoniac of Syrian cults, the Persian mysteries, and the Phrygian Cabeirian mysteries. [20] Some scholars argued that the Eleusinian cult was a continuation of a Minoan cult, [21] probably affected by the Near East.

According to Mylonas, the lesser mysteries were held "as a rule once a year in the early spring in the month of flowers, the Anthesterion," while "the Greater Mysteries were held once a year and every fourth year they were celebrated with special splendor in what was known as the penteteris." [22] Kerenyi concurs with this assessment: "The Lesser Mysteries were held at Agrai in the month of Anthesterion, our February. The initiates were not even admitted to the epopteia [Greater Mysteries] in the same year, but only in September of the following year." [23] This cycle continued for about two millennia. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, King Celeus is said to have been one of the first people to learn the secret rites and mysteries of her cult. He was also one of her original priests, along with Diocles, Eumolpos, Polyxeinus and Triptolemus, Celeus' son, who had supposedly learned agriculture from Demeter. [24]

Under Peisistratos of Athens, the Eleusinian Mysteries became pan-Hellenic, and pilgrims flocked from Greece and beyond to participate. Around 300 BC, the state took over control of the Mysteries they were controlled by two families, the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes. This led to a vast increase in the number of initiates. The only requirements for membership were freedom from "blood guilt" [ citation needed ] , meaning never having committed murder, and not being a "barbarian" (being unable to speak Greek). Men, women and even slaves were allowed initiation. [25]


To participate in these mysteries one had to swear a vow of secrecy.

Four categories of people participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries:

    , priestesses, and hierophants.
  1. Initiates, undergoing the ceremony for the first time.
  2. Others who had already participated at least once. They were eligible for the fourth category.
  3. Those who had attained épopteia (Greek: ἐποπτεία) (English: "contemplation"), who had learned the secrets of the greatest mysteries of Demeter.


The outline below is only a capsule summary much of the concrete information about the Eleusinian Mysteries was never written down. For example, only initiates knew what the kiste, a sacred chest, and the kalathos, a lidded basket, contained.

Hippolytus of Rome, one of the Church Fathers writing in the early 3rd century AD, discloses in Refutation of All Heresies that "the Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites, likewise display to those who are being admitted to the highest grade at these mysteries, the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: an ear of grain in silence reaped." [26]

Lesser Mysteries

There were two Eleusinian Mysteries, the Greater and the Lesser. According to Thomas Taylor, "the dramatic shows of the Lesser Mysteries occultly signified the miseries of the soul while in subjection to the body, so those of the Greater obscurely intimated, by mystic and splendid visions, the felicity of the soul both here and hereafter, when purified from the defilements of a material nature and constantly elevated to the realities of intellectual [spiritual] vision." According to Plato, "the ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended, … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual [spiritual] good." [27]

The Lesser Mysteries took place in the month of Anthesteria under the direction of Athens' archon basileus. In order to qualify for initiation, participants would sacrifice a piglet to Demeter and Persephone, and then ritually purify themselves in the river Illisos. Upon completion of the Lesser Mysteries, participants were deemed mystai ("initiates") worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries.

Greater Mysteries

For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization and as the rites are called "initiations," so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.

The first act (14th Boedromion) of the Greater Mysteries was the bringing of the sacred objects from Eleusis to the Eleusinion, a temple at the base of the Acropolis of Athens.

The Greater Mysteries took place in Boedromion, the third month of the Attic calendar, falling in late summer, and lasted ten days. On 15th Boedromion, called Agyrmos "the Gathering", the hierophants (priests or "those who show the sacred ones") declared prorrhesis, the start of the rites, and carried out the "Hither the victims" sacrifice (hiereía deúro). The "Seawards initiates" (halade mystai) began in Athens on 16th Boedromion with the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron.

On 17th Boedromion, the participants began the Epidauria, a festival for Asklepios named after his main sanctuary at Epidauros. This "festival within a festival" celebrated the hero's arrival at Athens with his daughter Hygieia, and consisted of a procession leading to the Eleusinion, during which the mystai apparently stayed at home, a great sacrifice, and an all-night feast (pannykhís). [28]

The procession to Eleusis began at Kerameikos (the Athenian cemetery) on 19th Boedromion from where the people walked to Eleusis, along what was called the "Sacred Way" (Ἱερὰ Ὁδός, Hierá Hodós), swinging branches called bacchoi. At a certain spot along the way, they shouted obscenities in commemoration of Iambe (or Baubo), an old woman who, by cracking dirty jokes, had made Demeter smile as she mourned the loss of her daughter. The procession also shouted "Íakch', O Íakche!" referring to Iacchus, possibly an epithet for Dionysus, or a separate deity, son of Persephone or Demeter. [29]

Upon reaching Eleusis, there was an all-night vigil (pannychis) according to Mylonas [30] and Kerenyi. [31] perhaps commemorating Demeter's search for Persephone. At some point, initiates had to down a special drink of barley and pennyroyal, called kykeon, which has led to speculation about its chemicals perhaps having psychotropic effects.

Then on 20th and 21st Boedromion, the initiates entered a great hall called Telesterion in the center stood the Anaktoron ("palace"), which only the hierophants could enter, where sacred objects were stored. Before mystai could enter the Telesterion, they would recite, "I have fasted, I have drunk the kykeon, I have taken from the kiste ("box") and after working it have put it back in the kalathos ("open basket"). [32] It is widely supposed that the rites inside the Telesterion comprised three elements: dromena ("things done"), a dramatic reenactment of the Demeter/Persephone myth deiknumena ("things shown"), displayed sacred objects, in which the hierophant played an essential role and finally legomena ("things said"), commentaries that accompanied the deiknumena. [33] Combined these three elements were known as the apporheta ("unrepeatables") the penalty for divulging them was death. Athenagoras of Athens, Cicero, and other ancient writers cite that it was for this crime (among others) that Diagoras was condemned to death in Athens [34] [35] the tragic playwright Aeschylus was allegedly tried for revealing secrets of the Mysteries in some of his plays, but was acquitted. [36] The ban on divulging the core ritual of the Mysteries was thus absolute, which is probably why we know almost nothing about what transpired there.

As to the climax of the Mysteries, there are two modern theories. Some hold that the priests were the ones to reveal the visions of the holy night, consisting of a fire that represented the possibility of life after death, and various sacred objects. Others hold this explanation to be insufficient to account for the power and longevity of the Mysteries, and that the experiences must have been internal and mediated by a powerful psychoactive ingredient contained in the kykeon drink. (See "entheogenic theories" below.)

Following this section of the Mysteries was the Pannychis, an all-night feast [37] accompanied by dancing and merriment. The dances took place in the Rharian Field, rumored to be the first spot where grain grew. A bull sacrifice also took place late that night or early the next morning. That day (22nd Boedromion), the initiates honored the dead by pouring libations from special vessels.

On 23rd Boedromion, the Mysteries ended and everyone returned home. [38]


Read more about the Greek mythic lore of the passing of the seasons on the Blog of Baphomet, “Dionysis’ Doorway” by Nikki Wyrd: https: //theblogofbaphomet.com/2016/05/08/dionysus-doorway/

Ben Sessa’s novel, To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic (Psychedelic Press, 2016 ), is about the experience of reintegrating psychedelics into western medicine and society.

Julian Vayne & Rosalind Stone

Julian Vayne is a founding contributor to the Blog of Baphomet and the author of Getting Higher: the Manual of Psychedelic Ceremony (2017), available from the Psychedelic Press and from Amazon.

Rosalind Stone is a journalist and researcher with. Read More

Watch the video: Eleusis Amphora