“Oh, thrice-blessed the mortals who, having contemplated these Mysteries, have descended to Hades; for those only will there be a future life of happiness—the others there will find nothing but suffering.” Sophocles
In the Thriasian plain on the coast of western Attica, there are the ruins of a sanctuary. Destroyed by the Persians in 484 BCE, witness to devastating Spartan incursions during the Peloponnesian War, and razed again by Sarmatians in 170 CE and, finally, Visigoths in 396 CE, it was at this sanctuary that for over 1000 years a cult of initiated Greeks would gather annually to perform τὰ ἐλευσίνια μυστήρια: the initiation rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Don’t Mention the Mysteries!
While membership was accessible for all Greek-speaking men, women, and slaves, any public discussion of the rites was a capital crime. In fact, Christians hoping to delegitimise the cult in the late 4th century CE were unable to cite specific practices, only common rumours and vague insinuations. If it is true, as some believe, that psychedelics were ingested during the rites, a coherent description of the ceremonies may have been difficult to come by.
As the most popular and esteemed cult of the Greek world, the annual intake of initiates during the Hellenistic and Roman eras regularly numbered in the thousands. Nevertheless, while accounts survive of those punished for profaning the secrets of the Mysteries, there is no extant explanation of the cult’s most unspeakable practices. So, what do we know about the Mysteries? If stumps of fluted marble and the foundations of walls could talk, what would those at Eleusis reveal?
The Celebration of the Mysteries
The Eleusinian sanctuary was built in honour of the goddess Demeter (think Harvest, Spring, Eternal Rebirth and Life Abundant), the central figure of the Mysteries. The initiation of new members took place in Autumn of every year, and the ceremony’s greatest spectacle was a public procession along the Hiera Hodos (“Sacred Way”), which took place after sacrifices, cleansings, and the beginning of a fast for new initiates (mystai). Thirty kilometres long, the Hiera Hodos led westward from the Sacred Gate in Athens, passed under Mount Egaleo, and continued by the coast until arriving at the sanctuary of Eleusis.
The journey was marked by ecstatic celebration. Amid the shouts of “Iakch’ o Iakche!”, the swung rhythm of bundled bakchoi branches, and the various invocations of Demeter and Persephone, there were, gravely guarded, the kistai, baskets which concealed the sacred objects of the final rites — objects which remain unknown to us today.
After nightfall, the procession arrived at the gates of the sanctuary precinct. Sacrifices at temples of Artemis and Poseidon situated outside the gates were conducted, dances were performed, and feasts held in which the initiates broke their fast. All of this happened against the backdrop of the gates to the Eleusinian sanctuary, which threatened death to any non-initiate who dared to enter…
Inside the Sanctuary: Death Rehearsal
The main feature of the sanctuary was the telesterion, where the final rites were performed. Unlike an ordinary temple, the telesterion was designed to hold several thousand people at once. Within the telesterion was a smaller room, the anaktoron. We know of two features which were inside: the throne of the head priest (or hierophant), and an exposed, unhewn rock. On top of the anaktoron, it is believed, was a fire which illuminated the telesterion, smoke escaping through a skylight into the night sky.
It is the sequence of “things done,” “things shown,” and “things said” inside the telesterion and anaktoron which remain most obscure to us, and most central to the ceremony. We do know, however, that the things shown, drawn from the kistai baskets, were “dreadful, terrifying things. (...) The degree of solidarity achieved [in the mysteries] is in direct relation to the hardships of access.” (Walter Burkert)
Aristotle, discussing the Eleusinian Mysteries, explains that initiates were not meant to learn, but “pathein,” which can mean either to suffer or to experience. The purpose of these “hardships” was to prepare initiates for the horror of overcoming death, and it was thus that members were confident of receiving a blessed afterlife.
Horror stories aside, the true focus of the Eleusinian cult was the celebration of renewed life after death. So, towards the end of the rites, the hierophant struck a gong to conjure Persephone (whose apparition may have been aided by the psychoactive ergot fungus possibly mixed into the kykeon, announced a divine birth (although whose birth this was is unclear to us today), and displayed an ear of corn which, with all the telesterion watching in rigid silence, he cut in half. Dances, a sacrifice, and a feast followed, with the pouring of libations while people looked up and cried “Rain!”, before looking to the earth and crying “conceive!” — or, in Greek, the rhyme “Hue! Kue!” (pronounced “hoo-eh, koo-eh”).
Quite something, no? But what exactly is meant by all this business with death, the afterlife, corn and rain? And what does Demeter have to do with it? These questions may be answered with reference to the cult’s foundational myth, which begins and ends with Demeter’s daughter, Persephone:
The Abduction of Persephone
Persephone, as was her custom, was picking flowers with her friends the nymphs. Spotting a narcissus flower, she bent down to pluck it as Hades, the god of the Underworld, opened up the earth beneath her, and carried her to the Underworld. Demeter searched for Persephone for nine days, until she arrived at Eleusis. There, King Celeus took Demeter in as a guest. Demeter, however, had disguised herself as an old woman in order to be given charge over the upbringing of the king’s son, Demophon. Now the child’s nursemaid, she held the child over the fire in the palace hearth every night, intending in this way to make him immortal. One night, however, Demeter was seen by the king’s wife Metaneira, and forced to reveal her true nature. Demeter then ordered the Eleusinians to dedicate to her a shrine.
Still angry with the gods over the abduction of Persephone, Demeter isolated herself in the shrine and caused a drought through all of Greece, starving the people and depriving the gods of sacrificial offerings. Zeus ordered Hades to return Persephone to Demeter. Hades complied, but before allowing Persephone to leave, he fed her pomegranate seeds, irrevocably binding her to himself. Because of this, Persephone was forced to spend half her life as queen of the Underworld, and the rest with her mother in the overworld. This cyclical passage over the threshold of Death is allegorical for the cultivation of the wheat grain, which must die before it can spawn new generations, which in turn remain under the earth for half the year before regrowing. The Eleusinian Mysteries are, at their core, a celebration of the harvest, the fertility of the land, and the universal cycle of life and death.
Anyone visiting the sanctuary today can walk among stretches of platformed marble and the remnants of columns, gates, and triumphal arches. Among the structures we’ve discussed above, one can see the base of the temple to Artemis outside the sanctuary, and the floor of the telesterion. Nearby is the Cave of Hades (the Plutonion), where according to myth Persephone passed to and from the Underworld.
Eleusis was named the European Capital of Culture for 2022, but coronavirus postponements have led to its earning the title for 2023. Hopefully by that time the city will be able to profit from this recognition of its significance as the site of the most esteemed and widely renowned mystery cult of both the Greek and Roman worlds.
The base of the telesterion seen today.
Written by Tom Harris
Hellenic Museum volunteer and Bachelor of Arts student in Classics at the University of Melbourne.