ELEUSINIAN MYSTERIES

The following entries are listed for background and are not compulsory reading. Instead it is for those wishing to know more and add depth to their stories.


The Eleusinian Mysteries are a set of traditions that was practiced extensively as far back as 3500 years in Greece. The popular cult invited all, accepting slaves, women, and men, regardless of financial standing and background.

The origin of the group centers on a conflict between Greek Gods, with the Goddess Demeter plunging the world into famine in order to save her daughter Persephone.


Let's take a look at the background, the rituals, and a possible explanation for the popularity and longevity of the Eleusinian Mysteries, as well as a place where you can see a modern day recreation of their ceremonies in Zerzura.

 

ORIGINS

The longest lasting "mystery" religion of the Greco-Roman period spanned nearly 2000 years, extending out of Mycenean traditions (approx. 1500 BC) and the Greek Dark Ages.


The Eleusinian Mysteries are named after their origin in the city of Eleusis.

The religion centers on the story of Demeter, the Goddess of agriculture, and her daughter Persephone. One day, Persephone is captured and raped by Hades. In order to coerce the other Greek Gods to liberate Persephone from the Underworld, Demeter causes drought affecting the entire Earth.

The drought deprives humans of food — but, more importantly, the Greek Gods of sacrifices. Zeus orders Hades to mediate Persephone's return, but a dirty rule of the Underworld calls for anyone who consumes food within there to stay within its boundaries forever and Persephone had eaten several pomegranate seeds during her stay.  Hermes brokered a deal  between Hades and Demeter where Persephone will return to Hades for four to six months out of the year, months when Demeter will be dissatisfied and once again prohibit the growth of plants.


This story of Demeter and Persephone sets forth an understanding of the change in seasons against a backdrop of the Greek pantheon.

 

THE SECRET KNOWLEDGE

The cult of Demeter and Persephone allowed anyone in society to enter, as long as the individual spoke Greek and never committed murder.


The individual's station in life did not matter — slaves, women, and the poor could enter into the religion and have access the fellowship and secret knowledge of the Eleusinian Mysteries.


The Eleusinian Mysteries featured a series of celebrations consisting of Lesser Mysteries and Greater Mysteries, with the Greater celebrated every five years or so.


Details of the Mysteries are kept secret. Members who reveal the more elusive secrets will meet their demise at the hands of other members.


The secrets of the Mysteries are thought to revolve around hidden physical objects — the contents of a giant chest and an enclosed baskets. Each container holds a Mystery that reveals a truth about life, death and rebirth. 

 

SACRED WEEK

Following are descriptions of the days in the Sacred Week that led up to the night of the Greater Mysteries.

There were two Eleusinian Mysteries: the Greater and the Lesser. The Lesser Mysteries were held in Anthesterion (March). The exact time was not always fixed and changed occasionally, unlike the Greater Mysteries.


Candidates wishing to be Initiated prepared themselves by bathing and then bringing a pig to the Priests to be sacrificed to Demeter. Afterwards they would be purified by the Priests in a small ceremony that opened their fasting and studies of the Lesser Mysteries.

Once the Lesser Mysteries had been mastered and the Initiates had demonstrated their understanding and application, they moved on to study the Greater Mysteries. This was done by participating in a set of ceremonies conducted in Boedromion (the first month of the Attic calendar) and lasted nine days or a sacred week

Each day of this Sacred Week, saw ceremonies led by the Priests and afterwards fasting and meditations. There would be tasks set too for those seeking the knowledge to complete.

Day 1 - The first act of the sacred week (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.

Day 2 - On 15th Boedromion, the hierophants (priests) declared prorrhesis, the start of the rites.


Day 3 - The ceremonies began in Athens on 16th Boedromion with the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron.


 Day 4 - a young pig would be sacrificed at the Eleusinion on 17th Boedromion and those pigs would be kept for a feast a few days hence.

Day 5 - would be spent in fasting and study. Initiates would also honour the dead by pouring libations from sacred special vessels.


Day 6 & 7 -The procession to Eleusis began at Kerameikos (the Athenian cemetery) on the 19th Boedromion and the people walked to Eleusis, along the Sacred Way, swinging branches called bakchoi.


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 "Iakch' o Iakche!", referring to Iacchus, possibly an epithet for Dionysus,  son of Persephone.


Upon reaching Eleusis, was the last day of fasting in commemoration of Demeter's fasting while searching for Persephone. The fast was broken by drinking kykeon.

Day 8 - Then on 21st Boedromion, the initiates entered a great hall called Telesterion, where they were shown the sacred relics of Demeter. This was the most secretive part of the Mysteries and those who had been initiated were forbidden to ever speak of the events that took place in the Telesterion. The penalty was death.

As the sacred week climaxed, the priests reveal visions of the holy night, consisting of a fire that represented the possibility of life after death, and various sacred objects and knowledge.

Following this was the Pannychis, an all-night feast accompanied by dancing, orgies and feasting. 


Day 9 - On 23rd Boedromion, the Mysteries ended with a final ceremony and blessing. All who attended returned home with a gift from Demeter.


In the center of the Telesterion was the Anaktoron ("sacred palace"), a small stone building which only the hierophantes could enter.

The sacred objects were stored there.There were four categories of people who participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries:


  • 1. The priests, priestesses and hierophants

    2. The initiates (Mystai), undergoing the ceremony for the first time

    3. The others who had already participated at least once. They were eligible for the last category

    4. Those who had attained epopteia, who had learned the secrets of the greatest mysteries of Demeter.

 

THE GREATER MYSTERY

The most important ritual for those involved in the Eleusinian Mysteries involved a ten day journey to Eleusis and a fast broken by drinking kykeon.


The administration of kykeon, a drink consisting of barley and the common cooking herb penny-royal.


This drink contains a psychoactive ingredient called Ergot. A parasite that grows on barley and emits ergometrine and d-lysergic acid amide, a chemical precursor to LSD.


After ingesting the kykeon, the followers enter the final portion of their journey, wherein the most secret aspects of the Mysteries are revealed, with many experiencing visions pertaining to the possibility of eternal life.


The influence of mind altering drugs is believed to bolster the individual's reaction to the final step and help the Eleusinian Mysteries survive for nearly two thousand years against a plethora of other mystery cults and the rise of Christianity in Rome.

 

DISTINGUISHED INITIATES

Plato was an initiate of the Mysteries of Demeter


In his dialogue on the immortality of the soul, the 'Phaedo', he said that "our Mysteries had a very real meaning: saying that those who had been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods".


Plutarch, also an initiate, wrote that "because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries...we hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal" and he continued further, "when a man dies he is like those who are initiated into the Mysteries. Our whole life is a journey by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of quitting it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances and holy apparitions".


Cicero praised the Mysteries, writing "nothing is higher than these Mysteries...they have not only shown us how to live joyfully but they have taught us how to die with a better hope".


In Waverly Fitzgerald words, “it was said of those who were initiated at Eleusis that they no longer feared death and it seems that this doctrine confirms the cyclical view of life central to spirituality: that death is part of the cycle of life and is always followed by rebirth."

 

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