What Were the Eleusinian Mysteries?

Instructor: Emily Teater

Emily currently is a substitute teacher, and has taught a variety of K-12 courses. She has a master's degree in Mythological Studies.

Explore the fascinating yet often unknown ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries. This is an introduction to the ritual and the myth surrounding this celebration of rebirth.

The Eleusinian Mysteries: The Myth

The Eleusinian Mysteries were a series of rituals celebrated regularly in the city of Eleusis, which was not that far from Athens, Greece. It is also one of the oldest mystery cults in the Greco-Roman history, spanning from about 1600 BCE to around 392 CE, when Christianity became the state religion. While participants were sworn to secrecy about the events of these rituals, and we therefore know little about them, there is some information about what was celebrated during this ritual and why. Like many rituals in ancient Greece, there was a myth around which it centers. For the Eleusinian Mysteries, it is the myth of Hades and Persephone, which is considered one of the most significant ancient Greek myths.

Hades, the god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone, the goddess of rebirth and spring, who also happened to be the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the fertility of the land. Hades was also Demeter's brother, making him Persephone's uncle. Hades kidnapped Persephone and married her before her mother realized what happened. When Demeter found out, she was inconsolable. She wandered aimlessly in the mortal world, disguised as an old woman. During this time, nothing grew, and the world fell into an endless winter.

This Pre-Raphaelite painting depicts a mourning Demeter, devastated by the loss of her daughter, Persephone.

Demeter was later found by a wealthy family who assumed she was a nursemaid. She was welcomed into their home and cared for their son. Demeter grew attached to the boy and decided to make him immortal by placing him in the fire every night to burn away his mortality. Unfortunately, the boy's mother discovered this, and like any parent would, she became upset when she saw her nursemaid burning her child. She pulled her son out just before he became immortal. Demeter was not happy with this turn of events, but after the city built a temple in her honor, she blessed it and the boy by teaching him the art of agriculture, which he passed on to humankind.

In the meantime, the gods became distressed with the endless winter Demeter had brought. Zeus finally convinced Hades to release Persephone. One of the rules about the underworld is that if one eats the food of the underworld, one stays among the dead. Persephone had eaten nothing during this time, too depressed to do so, but just as she was about to leave, she ate some of a handful of pomegranate seeds Hades had given her. Because she ate only half of the seeds, and the gods really needed some peace on earth, it was agreed that Persephone would only spend half the year in the underworld and the other half on the earth with her mother. Demeter's mood still affects the seasons, so whenever Persephone is gone, we have winter.

It is also believed, as part of the myth, that the Mysteries celebrated the birth of the sacred child, Brimos, to Persephone. The name Brimos was linked to the name Iacchos, which was one of the many names of Dionysus. This origin story does actually fit with this god of wine. Persephone is a goddess of nature and rebirth. Dionysus is a god of nature and experienced a death and rebirth himself. This is not the common origin myth of Dionysus; it is associated only with the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The Ritual of the Mysteries

There were two rituals associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Lesser Mysteries, celebrated in the spring, served as a ritual of purification for initiates to the Greater Mysteries, which occurred in early fall. It was the Greater Mysteries that were discussed at length by scholars. It is also important to note that once an initiate participated in the Greater Mysteries once, he never participated again.

During the Greater Mysteries, initiates would go on a short pilgrimage from Athens to Eleusis, which was the only road in central Greece, and they would mimic Demeter's desperate search for Persephone by calling her name and fasting. Upon arrival to Eleusis, they would go to the Telesterion, which was an underground theater of sorts where it was believed that they would reenact the Hades and Persephone myth. However, what really occurred in the Telesterion is unknown.

The Telesterion today

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