Eleusinian Mysteries

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The Eleusinian Mysteries were annual initiation ceremonies 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. These myths and mysteries began c. 1500 BCE and later spread to Rome. The rites, cultic worships, and beliefs were kept secret, for initiation rites united the worshipper with god, and included promises of divine power and rewards in life after death.

Eleusis (modern-day Elefsina) was a small town located about 30 km NW of Athens. It was an agricultural town, producing wheat and barley.

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[edit] Mythology

The Mysteries were based on a legend revolving around Demeter, the goddess of life, agriculture and fertility. According to the legend, Demeter's daughter Persephone was gathering flowers with friends one day, when she was seen by Hades, the god of death and the underworld. Hades fell in love with Persephone and kidnapped her, taking her to his underworld kingdom. Distraught, Demeter searched high and low for her daughter; in her distress, she neglected her duties. In turn, this caused a terrible dry season in which the people suffered and starved. (Although the dry season is summer in Greece, this catastrophe is often associated with winter.)

During her search, Demeter wandered far and wide, having many minor adventures along the way, including one in which she teaches the secrets of agriculture to Triptolemus. Finally, by consulting Zeus, Demeter reunites with her daughter and the earth returns to its former verdance and prosperity: the first spring. (For more information on this story, see Demeter.) Unfortunately, Persephone was unable to remain permanently in the land of the living; while in the underworld she had eaten six seeds of a pomegranate that Hades had given her, meaning that she had to stay in the underworld for six months of the year (Autumn/Winter) but was allowed by Zeus and Hades to stay on the earth for the other six months (Spring/Summer).

The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated Persephone's return, for it was also the return of plants and of life to the earth. Persephone had gone into the underworld (underground, like seeds in the winter), then returned to the land of the living: her rebirth is symbolic of the rebirth of all plant life during the spring and, by extension, all life on earth.

[edit] The Mysteries

The Mysteries are believed to have been begun about 1500 BC, during the Mycenean Age. They were held annually for about two thousand years. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a King Celeus is said to have been one of the first people to learn the secret rites and mysteries of her cult, as well as one of the 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 specifically 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 a lack of "blood guilt", meaning having never committed murder, and not being a barbarian (ie. unable to speak Greek). Men, women and even slaves were allowed to be initiated.

[edit] Participants

There were four categories of people who participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries:

  1. The priests, priestesses and hierophantes.
  2. The initiates, undergoing the ceremony for the first time.
  3. The others who had already participated at least once. They were eligible for the fourth category.
  4. Those who had attained epopteia, who had learned the secrets of the greatest mysteries of Demeter.

[edit] Secrets

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 basket with a lid, contained. The contents, like so much about the Mysteries, are still unknown, and probably will be forever.

However, Thomas Taylor writes that this Cista ("kiste") contained a golden mystical serpent, egg, a phallus, and possibly also seeds sacred to Demeter.1

[edit] Two Eleusinian Mysteries, the "Greater" and the "Lesser."

Taylor has written that "the Lesser Mysteries signified the miseries of the soul while in subjection to the body. The Greater Mysteries 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 intellectual [spiritual] vision." He also quotes Plato who wrote that "the design of the mysteries was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended, that is to a perfect enjoyment of intellectual [spiritual] good". 1

The Lesser Mysteries were held in Anthesterion (March) but the exact time was not always fixed and changed occasionally, unlike the Greater Mysteries. The priests purified the candidates for initiation (myesis). They first sacrificed a pig to Demeter and then purified themselves.

The Greater Mysteries took place in Boedromion (the first month of the Attic calendar, falling in late summer) and lasted nine days.

[edit] Outline – The Greater Mysteries in Five Acts

The first act (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.

On 15th Boedromion, the hierophantes (priests) declared prorrhesis, the start of the rites.

The ceremonies began in Athens on 16th Boedromion with the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron and sacrificing a young pig at the Eleusinion on 17th Boedromion.

The procession to Eleusis began at Kerameikos (the Athenian cemetery) on the 19th Boedromion from where the people walked to Eleusis, along what was called the "Sacred Way", 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 "Iakch' o Iakche!," 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 hierophantes could enter, where sacred objects were stored. Here in the Telesterio, the initiates 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. Athenagoras of Athens claims that it was for this crime (among others) that Diagoras had received the death penalty.

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. (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.

[edit] End of the Eleusinian Mysteries

The Roman emperor Theodosius I closed the sanctuaries by decree in AD 392 as part of his effort to suppress Hellenistic resistance to the imposition of Christianity as a state religion. The last remnants of the Mysteries were wiped out in AD 396, 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 Eunapios, a historian and biographer of the Greek philosophers. Eunapios 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 Eunapios, the very last Hierophant was a usurper, "the man from Thespiai who held the rank of Father in the mysteries of Mithras".

[edit] The Mysteries in art

There are a great many paintings and pieces of pottery that depict various aspects of the Mysteries. The Eleusinian Relief, from late 5th century BCE, stored in the Archaeological National Museum in 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 BCE, depict Triptolemus holding an ear of corn, sitting on a winged throne or chariot, surrounded by Persephone and Demeter with pine torches.

The Ninnion Tablet 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 bakchoi. 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.

[edit] Entheogenic theories

Some scholars believe that the power of the Eleusinian Mysteries came from the kykeon's functioning as a psychedelic agent; this was argued most extensively in The Road to Eleusis[1], by R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Ruck. Barley may be parasitized by the fungus ergot, which contains LSA, a precursor to LSD. It is thus possible that the initiates, sensitized by their fast and prepared by preceding ceremonies, were propelled by the effects of a powerful psychoactive potion into revelatory mind states with profound spiritual and intellectual ramifications.

While Wasson et al. have presented evidence supporting their view that a potion was drunk as part of the ceremony, the exact composition of that agent remains controversial, as modern preparations of kykeon using ergot-parasitized barley have yielded inconclusive results. It has been argued by Terence McKenna that the mysteries were focused around a variety of Psilocybe mushrooms, and various other entheogenic plants, such as Amanita mushrooms, have also been suggested but at present no consensus has been reached.

[edit] See Also

[edit] Notes

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T. Taylor, Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries
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T. Taylor, Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, p.47

[edit] References

  • Carl Kerenyi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, (in his series Archetypal Images in Greek religion), Bollingen, (August 12, 1991). ISBN 0-691-01915-0.
  • Clifford H. Moore, Religious Thought of the Greeks, 1916.
  • George Emmanuel Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1961.
  • Martin P. Nilsson, Greek Popular Religion, 1940.
  • Xavier Riu, Dionysism and Comedy, 1999. cf. p.107 for a discussion of Dionysus and his role in the Eleusinian Mysteries. [2]
  • Erwin Rohde, Psyche, 1925. cf. Chapter 6, The Eleusinian Mysteries.
  • Thomas Taylor, A Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, 1791.
  • Wasson, Ruck, Hofmann, The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978. ISBN 0-15-177872-8.

[edit] External links

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Eleusinian Mysteries

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