The Eleusinian Mysteries

  • by  Dr M D Magee

Mother and daughter, the spirits of barleycorn and love, and the queen of the dead, were honored with great and popular celebrations twice a year, at the time of sowing and the time of reaping. The Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece were the oldest and most revered of all the celebrations of the ancient Mediterranean.

Annually, in honour of Demeter and Persephone, the city of Eleusis, 15 miles (25 km) west of Athens, hosted the Greater Mysteries every September from Mycenaean times until about 400 AD. Preliminary rites, the Lesser Mysteries, were held at Agrae in the Spring. That they were held in September suggests they evolved from a harvest ceremony. But the original reasons were not known to the later initiates who saw the rites as pertaining to the soul not to barleycorn. In many Greek states, the month beginning mid-September was called Demetrion after Demeter, though it was called Boedromion in Athens.

Zeus, the sky father (Dyaus Pitar, Jupiter), the high god of the Greeks, was mated with Hera (Juno), but in Greek mythology another mother goddess, Demeter, is at the same level as Hera and was much more popular. The cult of Demeter is probably no native Greek but derived from Thessaly or Thrace, countries to the north. Homer refers to pre-Dorian temples to Demeter in the Thessalian towns of Thermopylae, Pyrasos and Pherai, and etymology connects certain words in the rites of Demeter to pre-Hellenic dialects from the north. But a goddess “Dameter,” appears in Linear B tablets from Pylos of about 1200 BC. If Dameter is Demeter, the cult might already have been widespread in the Aegean so early, and there are clear similarities with grain goddesses elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. “Meter” is the Greek for “mother” and “De” is possibly a variation of the Indo-European word for a deity. In Crete, the only deity was the mother earth goddess, and Greek writers said they got their “mysteries” from Crete.

The Greeks had to admit Demeter to the Olympic family. Demeter had a daughter, Persephone, who also had to be admitted. They, of course, made her the daughter of Zeus by Demeter, and the wife of Pluto, the ruler of the world of the dead. But her “descent into hell” is the main point of interest for us.

 

Egyptian Influence?

The unearthing of Egyptian figurines and small artifacts at some Mycenaean sites and some statements by classical authors such as Herodotus suggest a link between the cult of Demeter in Greece and Egypt. Plutarch in Isis and Osiris, describing the myth of Isis, relates features astonishingly like those of the cult of Demeter recounted in the Hymn to Demeter. Both have infant princes whom the goddess is about to make immortal.

Who did the travelling, Isis or Demeter? No Egyptian artifacts have been found from the time when it seems the Eleusinian mysteries started, but Greek colonists were in Lower Egypt before 700 BC. Isis was, of course, a very ancient Egyptian Goddess, but she might have taken features of the similar fertility goddess brought by the Greeks into seventh century Egypt.

The Eleusinian mysteries attracted many initiates in Athens from about the seventh century BC, and the epics of Homer prove that, even that early, Greeks believed that the Eleusinian rites granted the initiates happiness after death. The citizens of Athens adopted the Mysteries of Eleusis as a feature of the state cult, then, at the time of Pericles, other Greek cities were admitted and later everyone who could speak Greek and had shed no blood or had subsequently been purified.

Other mystery religions followed a similar pattern, each with its own exotic god or goddess offering votaries personal favours, guaranteeing to watch over them after death and even offering them a form of divinity—immortality. Yearly festivals in honour of a goddess of grain and the annual renewal of life were also held at Samothrace, Cyprus, Crete and many other places. Each of the eastern religions had a god who suffered, died and finally triumphed. In each the initiate was invited to partake of the body of the god and thereby gain spiritual immortality. Christianity was one of these Eastern Mysteries—the last one and the only survivor. Only by the ultimate destruction of paganism in the sixth century AD did the Christians kill these beliefs.

On the west coast of Asia Minor, Greek city states celebrated the cult of the Phrygian goddess Cybele from the seventh century BC. Known among the Greeks primarily as the Great Mother, or simply as Meter, this originally foreign goddess of nature and fertility was early associated with Rhea or Demeter herself. Some say Demeter and Cybele were merely variations of the Great Mother worshipped under diverse names all over Greece. In Pylos, an ancient tablet mentions annual rites in honour of a pair of goddesses draped in a veil, who were led in a formal procession with great pomp and solemnity down to the sea for washing and purification.

The ”Thesmophoria,” celebrating the goddess as ”law-bearer,” were celebrated by women only throughout all Greece in late October, and were most like the Eleusinian Mysteries. They involved a pig sacrifice, the usual sacrifice to gods and goddesses of the earth—the Greeks associating pigs with fertility. Mingling their flesh with the seeds of grain was believed to improve harvests. The ceremonies comprised fasting and purification, a ritualized descent into the underworld and bringing life out of death. The Eleusinian Mysteries involved the mystai washing and sacrificing piglets sacred to Demeter. The Eleusinian Mysteries and the Thesmophoria probably had the same origins.

 

Demeter and Other Gods

A general principle in religious studies is that associations among deities parallel similar associations in the practice of their cults. In patriarchal times, a divine son had to be introduced. The divine son in Greece was Dionysos, known to the later Greeks and Romans as Bacchus, which means the “rowdy one,” the god of wine. An old vegetation or fertility god in the barbarous country north of Greece, he was adopted by the Greeks as the son of Zeus and the virgin mortal Semele. Hera, wife of Zeus, was angry, and the mother had to give birth in secret, in a cave, on a journey, and even then the child had to be sent far away to escape the vengeance of Hera. There is good evidence that the goddesses of Eleusis and Dionysos were linked from at least the fourth century BC onward. These two deities were honoured in Athens and elsewhere as partner deities but less certain is whether this partnership status had any deeper significance. As long ago as the fifth century BC, Pindar in Isthmian Odes wrote of Dionysos as the god of the flowing locks who is enthroned beside Demeter.

The Orphics, who were widely influential and had their own Mystery celebrations, identified Dionysos-Zagreus as the son of Persephone and Zeus. The Romans recognized a trinity of Ceres, Liber, and Libera, where Cereswas Demeter, Liber was Dionysos, and Libera was Persephone. And as late as the sixth century AD, Stephanos Byzantios said that the rituals in honour of Persephone were performed ”in imitation of Dionysian happenings”. Iconographical evidence, including pictures on ancient Greek vases from Attica and Apulia, testify to a the presence of Dionysos at Eleusis.

Dionysos and Iacchos might have been masculine counterparts of Demeter and Persephone and all were aspects of a single deity! Demeter, Dionysos, and Persephone were the holy trinity of Eleusis. Few people now deny that Dionysos had a central role in the Mysteries of Eleusis. This shows that the Mysteries were never really separate religions but closely related ones, using the same or similar themes but having different emphases in the temples of different gods and goddesses. It certainly puts the Dionysian and Orphic Mysteries in a much more dominant position than had been thought.

 

The Mythology of the Eleusinian Mysteries

Ancient humanity conceived a legend of death and resurrection which Christians believe to be the unique property of their own Church. The myth associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries, by the seventh century BC, was that Pluto (Hades), the god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone (Kore or Cora, the maid). The Hymn to Demeter, almost 500 verses long and once thought to have been by Homer, narrates the symbolic story. Zeus advised to carry off the divine maid by force, as Demeter would never consent to her going below. So one day, as Persephone was gathering flowers in the meadows, Pluto took her off and bore her down with him to the underworld. In short, she had died. Demeter, disconsolate over her daughter's loss, fruitlessly searched the whole earth, in tears, for her daughter—as Isis sought Osiris, as Ishtar sought Tammuz, as the women sought Christ. Hecate and Helios eventually helped her see that Hades had taken her and that Zeus had approved of the deed. So, she nagged Zeus until he had to tell Pluto to give her up. Pluto agreed, but the desperate lover first induced Persephone to eat a pomegranate, and this, in Greek legend, made her a permanent citizen of the underworld. Zeus compromised, decreeing she must pass part of the year underground and part above ground with Demeter.

The poem explains that Demeter came to Eleusis to establish her cult as the bringer of immortality to human beings. When the goddess realized the role of the other Olympians in her misfortune, she incarnated in human form and set forth as an old woman from Crete. Eventually she reached Eleusis and set herself down by an old well (the Maiden Well of the Mysteries), her heart overflowing with grief. The four beautiful daughters of Celeus, a local chieftain, befriended her and introduced her to their mother, Metaneira, who was impressed by the old woman's dignified bearing made her the nurse to her infant son.

Under Demeter's care the child thrived because each night Demeter anointed his limbs with ambrosia and put him into the fire. The object was to make the mortal child immortal but Metaneira saw Demeter one night and screamed in fright when Demeter put the boy into the flames. Demeter manifested herself as a goddess and promised to show humans the secret of immortality if they built a temple in her honour, whereupon she disappeared. In the legend of Isis, the Egyptian goddess has a similar experience.

After the Eleusinians had built their temple to Demeter, she stayed there and pined for her daughter, refusing to rejoin the other gods on Mount Olympus. Moreover, she refused to make the seeds sprout in the dark earth, and all the world began to suffer famine. Even the gods suffered from the lack of gifts and sacrifices. Father Zeus sent Iris and other gods to intercede with her, yet Demeter would not relent.

Finally, the king of the gods despatched Hermes down to Hades, bidding the lord of the underworld to give Persephone up and return her to her mother. Hades reluctantly agreed, but first he contrived to make Persephone taste a small morsel of food—consisting of a single pomegranate seed—just enough to ensure, by a kind of divine symmetry, that she would always have to spend one third of every year with him, during the winter. And so Persephone was able to leave the underworld and return to the light, where she was reunited at last with her mother.

The public ceremonies at Eleusis have been widely reported but the secret initiations still remain uncertain. A Mystery is a rite, secret from all save the initiated. Breaking the vow of secrecy was a capital crime, so initiates kept silent about what took place in the Telesterion, the main initiation hall of the Temple of Demeter. If anything was written down, it was subsequently destroyed by the triumphant Christians. Consequently modern researchers know amazingly little about them.

 

The Proceedings—Intitiates and Participants

What knowledge we have comes largely from the ruins of the sanctuary at Eleusis, interpreting statues, bas reliefs and pottery pictures of the initiations and festivals, and we cannot always be sure we are right. Documentary sources are the reports of contemporary writers such as Aeschylos, Sophocles, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Plutarch, and Pausanias—all of whom were initiates—and accounts by Christian critics like Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Tertullian and Astorias.

The proceedings had to be secret to ensure ritual purity. If they were disturbed they would have been invalidated by the contamination of those who were not ritually pure. The god would be angered and disaster and ill-fortune would be the outcome. Note however that, though the proceedings were secret, they were held openly—that is at known times and places and the rules of membership were known to all. Under Rome, clandestine meetings were illegal.

Mystery religions had a hierarchy of levels of initiation just as the Freemasons do. At Eleusis there were two grades of membership. The first grade of membership was that of the “mystes” (initiate), and many initiates were content to remain thus. Among the secrets were the contents of the sacred “kistai” (boxes) and the initiation of the mystai. The mystai had preliminary instructions and guidance from an experienced sponsor, or “mystagogos”, often their friends who guide them through the initiation.

The festival is conducted by the Archon Basileus and four assistants. Two of these, the Hierophantes and Dadoukhos (Torch Bearer) wear a long-sleeved tunic ornamented at the hem and shoulders (ependutes), a headband and Thracian knee-boots. Torch bearers carry one or two long torches.

Initiation into the Mysteries normally involved at least four steps:

  • purification
  • acceptance of mystic knowledge via teachings or exhortations
  • revelation of holy things where the initiate has to perform certain acts—the central feature of the rites—often some form of sacred drama
  • sacrificing, crowning or garlanding and concluding festivities.

Earthly life was considered a trial in which human souls were subjected to various tests. The object of initiation into the mysteries was to assist the soul in passing its tests so that it could proceed to a higher level of existence and, ultimately, to immortality. The more pious initiates went on to the higher grade after not less than a year at the lower level of fellowship. A mystes who returned to Eleusis for induction into the higher level was known as an epoptes.

An official herald loudly called the initiates to silence to allow the Mysteries to begin. The mystai were introduced by a High Priest or Hierophant, a revealer of holy things, who, together with a priestess, presided over the most solemn parts of the ceremonies. Only the hierophant could enter the inner sanctum, the Anaktoron, where the holy objects, the Hiera, were kept. The priestess probably played the part of Demeter in a sacred drama of the goddess's anguish and desperate search for Persephone. The High Priestess also joined the High Priest in performing a sacred wedding.

Two female assistants of the Hierophant also played in the procedings. Lesser Priestesses called ”bees” were some sort of celibate assistants who perhaps carried the holy things in the stately procession from Eleusis to Athens and back. The deputy to the Hierophant was the torchbearer who removed impurity from those who had shed human blood. He also managed the stage and lighting effects in the Telesterion which had such a magical effect during the ceremonies. Another priest looked after the animal sacrifices to the goddesses.

 

The Calendar of Events

Crowds of worshippers from all over Greece and, later, from throughout the Roman empire, gathered to make the holy pilgrimage between the two cities and and join in the secret ceremonies, the high point of Greek religion. As Christianity began to spread, the Mysteries were condemned by the early Church fathers. Yet the rites continued, exercising considerable influence on early Christian teachings and practices.

The schedule of events in the Mysteries at Eleusis was quite elaborate, taking place place over nine days near the autumnal equinox in September. The calendar however was not fixed because it began at a new moon. For each day, there was a prescribed series of ritual actions that initiates were expected to follow in the proper order.

13 September—the day before the festival, two youths on horseback travel to Eleusis to accompany the Sacred Objects which, on the first day of the festival, will be brought by wagon to Athens to be received at the shrine (Eleusinion). The holy things probably included ancient figures of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone.

14 September—the first day proper of the festival. The sacred objects, contained in round kistai bound with purple ribbons, were taken in parade from Eleusis to Athens where they were ceremonially received and placed in the Eleusinium. A curator of the two goddesses reports their arrival to Athena's priestess who pays her respects, but their names are too sacred to be spoken. In five days they would return.

16 September—For three days, the novitiates prepared themselves in the Athenian agora. The mystai, who must have already been initiated in the Lesser Mysteries in February, gather in the agora. Names seem to have been taken to ensure that they had been initiated into the Lesser Mysteries. They had to be Greek (or later Roman), above a minimum but young age, ritually pure and ”pure of hand”, that is of bloodshed and later pure of soul. The Herald told them that if they were unready for, or unworthy of, the initiation they should withdraw. He said they must have ”a soul conscious of no evil” and that they ”must have lived well and justly.” Those afflicted by blood-guilt or other impurity are warned away. The mystes spends the remainder of the day in spiritual exercises recommended by his or her mystagogos.

The next day is for purification. The mystai purified themselves individually by walking down to the beach with a sucking pig, sacred to Demeter. On the order ”Seaward Initiates!” they entered the water with their piglet to wash themselves clean in the sea, and thus purify themselves and the offering by salt water. In the evening, the pig was sacrificed to the goddess, and the mystes was sprinkled with its blood. The pork would be cooked for a feast. The ceremony at this point is similar to that of the Thesmophoria. Sacrifices in honour of the city of Athens and other public institutions were also held.

On the final preparatory day, the mystai secluded themselves indoors to prepare mentally for the main ceremonies. For others, a festival was held to commemorate the god Asclepius, and His daughter Hygieia (Health) participating in the Eleusinian initiation.

19 September—the fifth day of the festival. Beginning from the shrine of Dionysos (Iakkhos) and led by the priest of the shrine, the mounted youths, the mystai, their mystagogoi, epoptai, and the hierophants solemnly escorted the Hiera back to Eleusis in a splendid procession. The marchers are accompanied by musicians, and called out on the way. The mystai wore garlands of myrtle and carried bunches of myrtle stems tied with wool. They also carried their belongings in a bundle tied to a pole.

The procession moved along the sacred way with the mystai and acolytes carrying an effigy of the boy god Iacchos (Dionysos), depicted as a torch-bearing youth. Evidently there was a close connexion between the Eleusinian mysteries and those of Dionysos. At one place the right hand and left leg of each of each mystes is tied with a piece of yellow wool. Elsewhere they are ritually abused. Each of many shrines along the route had to be attended, so the procession did not end until after sunset, the final part of the procession being by torchlight, Demeter traditionally seeking Kore (the maid, Persephone, her abducted daughter) by torchlight. Demeter is offered an earthenware dish with many small cups containing small offerings of the fruits of the earth (such as grain, peas, beans). Then followed revels of the mystai with their god. The preparations were to commence the next day.

For the next few days the mystai then rested, purifed themselves and fasted. As each evening approached, they broke the day's fast by drinking a special brew known as the kykeon, a communion drink. The goddess in the mystery play drinks at one stage from a cup. The votaries did the same. The drink originally would have been beer because the Hymn of Demeter says Demeter did not drink wine, possibly admixed with cornmeal and fresh pennyroyal mint leaves, the same brew that Demeter drank, as recounted in the Hymn. Obviously, the grain in the drink was a symbol of Persephone, the eternal goddess who dies, goes under the ground, and then comes back to life again. The corn or barley from which it was made represented the body of the goddess and the mystai would therefore have united with her.

It plainly had a sacramental character, involving a communion with, or assimilation of, the spirit of the deity and, like the Christian Eucharist, was an act of religious remembrance, mimicking an act of the Goddess. The similarity in symbolic significance to the Christian Eucharist is unarguable and might be greater if we knew more about the role of Dionysos in all this. If some sort of communion with Dionysos also occurred involving a libation of a cup of wine then we would have from an early date in history the bread and wine communion. In the nearby Samothracian mysteries the priest broke bread and poured a cup of wine for the initiates—just as the Christians do—but the meaning of the body and blood of the god is less obscured than in the Christian communion through its clearer link with the vegetative god of the vine and the vegetative goddess of the corn.

22 September—The initiation, which lasted through the night, took place in a closed building called the Telesterion (Initiation Place). In its center is the Anaktoron, the ”Holy of Holies” to which no-one but the Hierophantes is admitted. The proceedings involved Things Said, Things Done and Things Revealed.

The mystai watched the sacred drama of Demeter and Kore in which Kore dies and is resurrected. The Hierophant, the Hierophantis (High priestess) and the Torch Bearer playing the central roles of the gods. The daughter Kore (Persephone) is abducted, the Great Mother, Demeter, searches and sorrows while all of life suffers torment, and then the daughter is at last returned. The setting was simple, there being no evidence of elaborate stages or scenery but a magical effect was secured through costume and lighting. Illuminated in a sudden blaze of torchlight, Persephone emerged from the underworld and returned to life, the dramatic intensity heightened by music and chanted invocations. The mystai share Demeter's joy at the restoration of Persephone. The spectacle must have been awe inspiring.

When the mystai entered the Telesterion, they were given a pass word to confirm their readiness to participate in the rites. Clement of Alexandria says they said:

I fasted. I drank the kykeon. I took from the reliquary. Having done my task, I placed in the basket and from the basket into the reliquary.

They raise their heads to the sky calling ”rain,” hue, then address the earth calling ”conceive,” kue—again demonstrating the agrarian origins of the ritual. The words Hue, Kue were inscribed for all to see on a wall beside the dipylon gate of Athens. Finally the Hierophant gives a closing address. It was called the ”Logos”—the ”Word”!

Then they were shown cult objects. The Hierophant withdrew alone into the Anaktoron and emerged with the Hiera, the Holy Things or relics of Demeter and Persephone, probably ancient statues of the goddesses, doubtless understood to have been consecrated by Demeter herself. The higher initiates watched a sacred marriage ritual, an Hieros Gamos, between the Hierophant and the Hierophantess in which it is announced that the divine Brimo has brought forth a sacred child, Brimos. It is this that the Christians tried to pass off as sexual. Hippolytus of Rome, in the third century, writes:

At night in Eleusis, the Hierophant, appearing in the midst of many fires, proclaims the great and secret mystery, saying, ”The Holy Brimo has borne a sacred child, Brimos.”

Brimo was a name of Demeter, meaning mighty or furious, supposedly in anger at Zeus's collusion in the kidnapping of her daughter. The saying given by Hippolytus therefore says in Greek that the Feminine Mighty One has borne the Masculine Mighty One. The child will have been Iacchos, the infant Dionysos, whose statue was carried on the pilgrimage from Athens to Eleusis and who, according to Orphic tradition, was the offspring of Persephone and Zeus.

Finally, they were shown an ear of corn reaped in silence symbolising resurrection of the soul after death, a relic of the earlier stage when the Great Mother was a corn goddess. The whole performance must have been accompanied by an orchestra and indeed the music would have provided the timing that enabled the torches to be illuminated and doused in synchronisation. Now, even the mystes' clothes are sacred and are preserved as personal holy objects. This was a day the mystai would never forget.

What is not mentioned by any modern observer is the significance of the fires mentioned, for example, by Hippolytus. The myth has the goddess bathing the child in fire and it seems inconceivable that this was not a central part of the procedure. In the myth, it made the child immortal, the apparent purpose of the ceremony, and so must have been part of the initiation. In one instance a Brahmin priest called Zarmaros, acting as an ambassador from king Poros of India to the emperor Augustus in 31 BC, took the initiation at Eleusis and it is said he walked immediately into the fires causing astonishment. Evidently he expected to have to walk in the flames, a practice he might have been well acquainted with, but perhaps when they were a bit less vigorous for the mystai.

One can speculate with some assurance that some form of fire ordeal was a part of the Eleusis proceedings. People who take the courage to do this find immense power and self-confidence through the experience. Plato had already described the underworld as a fiery lake of flames and boiling mud and the Persian idea of the fate of the wicked was to be consumed in flames while the righteous were saved. Furthermore Aristotle says that the initiates did not have to learn anything from the ceremonies but they had to suffer something. Apuleius, admittedly speaking of the Mystery tradition of Isis, says he had to travel through all the elements (the four Platonic elements, earth, air, fire and water) to be initiated. Servius says they disinfect you with burning sulphur. The mystai will have been prepared by the mystagogues, not only spiritually, but to be ready to boldly follow the Hierophant over hot stones. They would then know that they had been purified and were safe from the hot place and only had to remain upright to join the goddess in immortality.

 

Salvific Power

On the slow walk back to Athens was the time for reflection and meditation. The mystai had entered into a contract with the goddess: they promised her lives of exemplary morality while she promised them immortality after the death of their earthly bodies. As the festival wound down, the participants dedicated services in honour of the dead. Ritual libations were poured on the ground, the consecrated liquid flowing in the eastward and westward directions. The tired initiates then returned to Athens individually, no return procession being part of the ceremony.

These mysteries were apparently entirely seemly, but some Christians have contended that they were indecent. Why? Because Christian writers said they were. Christianity has always been prudish about sex, though sex and birth is understandably a source of religious wonder. The prudishness of Christianity comes from the Essenes' distrust of women and their preference for ritual chastity in preparation for become sexless inhabitants of the kingdom of God.

With typical Christian patronisation, T R Glover has written: Greek polytheism had always been weak in moral content, morals to Christians as ever being something sexually dirty rather than the important issues of the morality of condoning mass murder or the morality of destroying the environment and cultures of millions of people, who might as well die because in the world of big-religion bullies they can see nothing to live for.

It would hardly seem surprising to normal people if ceremonies representing rebirth had some sexual content, but if the ceremonies of Eleusis did, nobody now has any inclination what it was, unless it was ritualised sex representing the conception of the sacred child. Maybe it was phallic symbolism. Maybe it was so symbolic that it was stylised entirely and the Christian accusations are typical of Christians. At any rate, the present tabloid obsession with sex, the result of centuries of Christian repression of sex and sexuality, is more vulgar than the symbolic sex of a solemn and sacred ritual, but few Christians today object.

Myth follows rites. The clues to the origin of the Eleusinian mysteries are clear but cannot yield any detail. The original rites will have been pre-Hellenistic, but were taken over by the Hellenes seeking the approval of local gods to legitimize their occupation of the country. The beginning of the mysteries was the annual rite beginning the barleycorn harvest without which the people would starve, and so was of some significance to them. The first ear gathered was the centre of the rite, and later this, or an image of it, signified the “ear of corn gathered in silence,” to show the solemn importance of the occasion. Hippolytus tells us of this in his tract refuting all heresies. Once the first ear had been solemnly gathered and displayed to the harvesters, we can guess that the silence will have been broken with a great cheer of approval, and then the gatherers would have set about their work.

The myth was an explanation of the rite. The solemn gathering, with its expectant silence and the cheer and joy that followed to celebrate the corn harvest, over the years, was elaborated. Corn goddesses were added, an earth god and a myth of seasonality devised. Then the myth became self-ritualised in the holy dramas and the “hierogamos” of the earth god and the corn goddess. At a later date, when the ceremony was performed for the urban sophisticates of Athens, the significance was gradually transformed from agricultural magic to salvific magic—the rebirth being the soul not merely the corn crop. The promise of Eleusis was that death could be faced without fear because the grain of corn seemed to die in the soil but sprang up again. The drama did not simply revivify the vegetable world but promised further life to all.

The greatest intellects of the ancient world testified to the salvific power of the Mysteries. A fragment of Pindar (522-443 BC) from Stromata III, reads:

Blessed are they who, having beheld them, will go down below the earth, for he knows how to find life indeed, who knows the divine principle of all things.

And Sophocles (495-406 BC) wrote:

Thrice blessed among mortals who, having seen the right, will go to Hades. To them alone down there, it is given to live, but for the rest there is only misery.

And Cicero (106-43 BC) in De Legiones wrote:

Athens, which has produced many extraordinary and divine things, has brought us nothing more beneficial to human life than those mysteries, by which from a rustic and brutal form of life we have been humanized and introduced to the true principles of life, initiated into them, as we say, and we have recieved a way not only of living but also of dying with a better hope.

The life and death of a cereal standing for the harvest that sustains humanity, rescuing them from death by starvation, thus becomes a symbol of salvation of the soul at death, and to victory in eternal life. Yet even then, 2500 years ago, Plato confessed in Phaedo it was nothing more than a “happy dream in which one indulges.” The happy dream is still indulged in by the Christians who get strength in numbers but not sense. The original reward of separation from the physical body of the personality and its continued life in some balmy place was for courageous people or righteous ones only. The Christians extend it to the absurdity of “belief” and nothing more—or so they persuade themselves.

The script of the rituals perhaps kept the same throughout the millennia for conservatism is characteristic of religions. But the stage management and interpretations given to the ritual performances by the hierophants and mystagogues will have changed. This natural development and the syncretism that came from increasing cultural linking across the eastern Mediterranean fused with the philosophical speculations triggered by the Persians in the fourth century BC, forced the evolution of the Mysteries. The immense degree of cultural mixing stimulated by Alexander and effected in the Hellenistic era caught up the new sect of Christianity in it.

When the Christian church found that Pagans were so fond of their old gods that they could not be made to let go of them, they made them into Christian saints so that the people could continue to venerate them in Christian churches. The Eleusinian mysteries, in a homeopathic way, are still celebrated in Greece where ”St Demetra” is none other than the corn goddess, Demeter, whose daughter was abducted, by gloomy Dis (Hades), to great sorrow signifying winter death. Multitudes of Christian saints are mythical in every detail.


source: askwhy.co.uk

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