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The Eleusinian Mysteries (Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) were initiation ceremonies held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis in ancient Greece. Of all the mysteries celebrated in ancient times, these were held to be the ones of greatest importance. It is acknowledged that their basis was an old agrarian cult which probably goes back to the Mycenean period (c. 1600 – 1100 BC) and it is believed that the cult of Demeter was established in 1500 BC. The idea of immortality which appears in syncretistic religions of antiquity was introduced in late antiquity. The mysteries represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld Hades, in a cycle with three phases, the "descent" (loss), the "search" and the "ascent", with the main theme the "ascent" of Persephone and the reunion with her mother. It was a major festival during the Hellenic era, and later spread to Rome. The name of the town, Eleusís seems to be Pre-Greek and it is probably a counterpart with Elysium and the goddess Eileithyia.
The rites, ceremonies, and beliefs were kept secret and consistently preserved from a hoary antiquity. The initiated believed that they would have a reward in the afterlife. There are many paintings and pieces of pottery that depict various aspects of the Mysteries. Since the Mysteries involved visions and conjuring of an afterlife, some scholars believe that the power and longevity of the Eleusinian Mysteries came from psychedelic agents.
The Mysteries are related to a myth concerning Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility as recounted in one of the Homeric Hymns (c. 650 BC). According to the hymn, Demeter's daughter Persephone (also referred to as Kore, "maiden") was gathering flowers with friends, when she was seized by Hades, the god of death and the underworld. He took her to his underworld kingdom. Distraught, Demeter searched high and low for her daughter. Because of her distress, and in an effort to coerce Zeus to allow the return of her daughter, she caused a terrible drought in which the people suffered and starved. This would have deprived the gods of sacrifice and worship. As a result, Zeus relented and allowed Persephone to return to her mother.
According to the myth, during her search Demeter traveled long distances and had many minor adventures along the way. In one she taught the secrets of agriculture to Triptolemus. Finally, by consulting Zeus, Demeter reunites with her daughter and the earth returns to its former verdure and prosperity: the first spring.
Zeus, pressed by the cries of the hungry people and by the other deities who also heard their anguish, forced Hades to return Persephone. However, it was a rule of the Fates that whoever consumed food or drink in the Underworld was doomed to spend eternity there. Before Persephone was released to Hermes, who had been sent to retrieve her, Hades tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds, (six or four according to the telling) which forced her to return to the underworld for some months each year. She was obliged to remain with Hades for six or four months (one month per seed) while staying above ground with her mother for a similar period. This left a long period of time when Demeter was unhappy due to Persephone's absence, neglecting to cultivate the earth. When Persephone returned to the surface, Demeter became joyful and cared for the earth again.
If we suppose that Persephone stayed with Hades for four months and Demeter eight months, corresponding to eight months of growth and abundance to be followed by four months of no productivity, we see the parallel with the Mediterranean climate of ancient Greece. The four months during which Persephone is with Hades correspond to the dry Greek summer, a period during which plants are threatened with drought. At the beginning of the autumn when the seeds are planted, Persephone returns from the underworld and is reunited with her mother, and the cycle of growth begins anew.
This reading of the ritual, however, does not square with the central foundation document of the mystery, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter line 415, where Persephone is explicitly said to return in the spring of the year, not the fall: "This was the day [of Persephone's return], at the very beginning of bountiful springtime."
Her rebirth is symbolic of the rebirth of all plant life and the symbol of eternity of life that flows from the generations that spring from each other.
The Eleusinian Mysteries are believed to be of considerable antiquity, deriving from religious practice 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." Comparative study shows parallels between these Greek rituals and similar systems — some of them older — in the Near East (see Religions of the Ancient Near East). These cults are the mysteries of Isis and Osiris in Egypt, the Adoniac of Syrian cults, the Persian mysteries, and the Phrygian Cabirian mysteries. Some scholars argued that the Eleusinian cult was a continuation of a Minoan cult, probably affected by the Near East.
The lesser mysteries were probably held every year, the greater mysteries only every five years. 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.
Under Pisistratus 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", meaning never having committed murder, and not being a "barbarian" (being unable to speak Greek). Men, women and even slaves were allowed initiation.
To participate in these mysteries one had to swear a vow of secrecy.
Four categories of people participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries:
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. The contents, like so much about the Mysteries, are unknown. However, one researcher writes that this Cista ("kiste") contained a golden mystical serpent, an egg, a phallus, and possibly also seeds sacred to Demeter.
The Church Father Hippolytus, writing in the early 3rd century, discloses 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 corn in silence reaped."
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." And that 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."
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.
|“||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.||”|
—Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36
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).
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.
Upon reaching Eleusis, there was a day of fasting in commemoration of Demeter's fasting while searching for Persephone. The fast was broken while drinking a special drink of barley and pennyroyal, called kykeon. 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"). 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. 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 received the death penalty; the tragic playwright Aeschylus was allegedly tried for revealing secrets of the Mysteries in some of his plays, but was acquitted. 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 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.
In 170 AD, the Temple of Demeter was sacked by the Sarmatians but was rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was then allowed to become the only lay person ever to enter the anaktoron. As Christianity gained in popularity in the 4th and 5th centuries, Eleusis's prestige began to fade. The last pagan emperor of Rome, Julian, reigned from 361 to 363 after about fifty years of Christian rule. Julian attempted to restore the Eleusinian Mysteries and was the last emperor to be initiated into them.
The Roman emperor Theodosius I closed the sanctuaries by decree about 30 years later, in 392 AD. The last remnants of the Mysteries were wiped out in 396 AD, when Alaric, King of the Goths, invaded accompanied by Christians "in their dark garments", bringing Arian Christianity and desecrating the old sacred sites. The closing of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the 4th century is reported by Eunapius, a historian and biographer of the Greek philosophers. Eunapius had been initiated by the last legitimate Hierophant, who had been commissioned by the emperor Julian to restore the Mysteries, which had by then fallen into decay. According to Eunapius, the very last Hierophant was a usurper, "the man from Thespiae who held the rank of Father in the mysteries of Mithras."
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. 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.
Numerous scholars have proposed that the power of the Eleusinian Mysteries came from the kykeon's functioning as a psychedelic agent. Use of potions or philtres for magical or religious purposes was relatively common in Greece and the ancient world. The initiates, sensitized by their fast and prepared by preceding ceremonies (see set and setting), may have been propelled by the effects of a powerful psychoactive potion into revelatory mind states with profound spiritual and intellectual ramifications. In opposition to this idea, other pointedly skeptical scholars note the lack of any solid evidence and stress the collective rather than individual character of initiation into the Mysteries. Indirect evidence in support of the entheogenic theory is that in 415 BC Athenian aristocrat Alcibiades was condemned partly because he took part in an "Eleusinian mystery" in a private house.
Many psychoactive agents have been proposed as the significant element of kykeon, though without consensus or conclusive evidence. They include a fungal parasite of barley, ergot, which contains the alkaloids lysergic acid amide (LSA), a precursor to LSD, and ergonovine. However, modern attempts to prepare a kykeon using ergot-parasitized barley have yielded inconclusive results, though Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin describe both ergonovine and LSA to be known to produce LSD-like effects.
Mushrooms are another candidate. Terence McKenna speculated that the mysteries were focused around a variety of Psilocybe. Other entheogenic fungi, such as Amanita muscaria, have also been suggested. A recent hypothesis suggests that the ancient Egyptians cultivated Psilocybe cubensis on barley and associated it with the deity Osiris.
Another candidate for the psychoactive drug is an opioid derived from the poppy. The cult of the goddess Demeter may have brought the poppy from Crete to Eleusis; it is certain that opium was produced in Crete.
Another theory is that the psychoactive agent in kykeon is DMT, which occurs in many wild plants of the Mediterranean, including Phalaris and/or Acacia. To be active orally it must be combined with a monoamine oxidase inhibitor such as Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala), which grows throughout the Mediterranean.
According to Clement of Alexandria's Exhortation to the Greeks. See Meyer 1999, 18.
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