Eleusinian Mysteries: The Secret Rites No One Dared Talk About

The Eleusinian Mysteries were ancient Greece’s most revered and secret celebrations. Slaves and women could participate, but all initiates swore a vow of secrecy.

Feb 18, 2022By Zeynep Tareen, MSc in History w/ Ancient Greek concentration, BA in Classics
telestirion eleusis reconstruction leighton return persephone painting

 

The Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, the oldest of their kind, were celebrated annually for at least a thousand years, until 329 CE. The festival started in early September in Eleusis, a town 14 miles from Athens, and was known as the most mysterious of the ancient Greek world. The major multi-day rites of the Mysteries were closely related to the myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The sacred story of their bitter separation and joyful reunion served as catalysts for the spiritual enlightenment of the initiates and the rituals intended to evoke an overwhelming and ineffable experience.

 

The Myth Behind the Eleusinian Mysteries 

evelyn de morgan demeter mourning persephone painting
Demeter mourning for Persephone, by Evelyn de Morgan, 1906, Via De Morgan Collection

 

Homer did not mention the Olympian goddess Demeter often. In fact, he rarely talked about her. However, her story probably had its roots in the beliefs of early agrarian people in Mother Earth. The Earth brings all things to life and nourishes them. In the end, she welcomes the dead back into her body. This notion was still vivid in the Greek world, and Greek authors, such as Aeschylus in his play The Libation Bearers, recaptured it. Since Demeter was the goddess of agriculture, she and her cult stood in the center of practices related to the Earth and Grain Mother.

 

gabriel rossetti proserpine dante painting
Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874, via Tate, London


The Homeric Hymn to Demeter describes the extreme disorientation and stress Demeter went through after the disappearance of her daughter Kore (maiden or girl), who was abducted by Hades to the underworld. Demeter was so distraught that she stopped her nurturing of the natural world. Zeus had to interfere by ordering Hades to release Kore. But Kore did something, by mistake or perhaps knowingly, which would bind her to the underworld forever. She ate a pomegranate seed offered by Hades and whoever eats something in the underworld, no matter how small it is, they are bound to stay. Now Kore was compelled to spend half of the year on earth with her mother and the remaining half in the underworld with Hades. Hence Kore was referred to as Persephone after she became the goddess of the dead and the wife of Hades.

 

Rituals Before the Start of the Mysteries

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Priestess of Demeter carrying a basket of sacred objects, via The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

 

The Homeric Hymn narrates the founding story for the Mysteries as well. Demeter, disguised as a human, arrives at Eleusis while searching for her daughter, and the city takes her in as a nurse. She feels obliged to reward the city for its hospitality and reveals herself. Then she shares her secret rites, which consequently become the central theme of the Eleusinian Mysteries. But initiation to these rites was no simple task. Participants had to prepare for at least half of the year or more and nurture themselves spiritually to embrace the secret revelation.

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The day before the start of the Eleusinian Mysteries in early September, the priestesses of Demeter and Persephone commenced walking towards the temple of the Goddess in Athens. Each took a basket full of Demeter’s sacred objects to carry on their heads through the Sacred Way, which connected Athens to Eleusis. Scholars safely assume that on day one, two to three thousand initiates gathered in the agora. There was an intriguing detail: They were forbidden by Athenian law from disclosing the secrets of the Mysteries. Those who disobeyed were punished with the death penalty. Consequently, all took a vow of secrecy then and there.

 

The Experiences of the Initiates During the Mysteries

telesterion eleusis interior layout reconstruction
Reconstruction of the Telesterion’s Interior Layout in the 2nd century CE, the inner sanctum in the middle, Via Anasynthesis

 

According to the myth, Demeter searched for her daughter for nine days in agony. Similarly, the set of the rites during the Eleusinian Mysteries took nine days to complete. From day one through five, a series of purification rituals, fasting, animal sacrifices, possibly piglets, and sacred offerings to Demeter were performed. Day five was called the Grand Procession. The priestesses of Demeter and Persephone, who carried sacred baskets the day before, began their walk with thousands of initiates behind them. The mass advanced from Athens towards Eleusis on foot, if wealthy on chariots, along the Sacred Way, a distance that was about 14 miles.

 

eleusis sanctuary demeter
Sanctuary of Demeter in Eleusis, via Mythical Routes

 

Unfortunately, after arriving at Demeter’s sanctuary, the Mysteries become less clear. The initiates would wander outside in the dark, confused and disoriented, to reenact the feelings of Demeter while Kore was lost. Then, they would enter the temple of Demeter, called Telesterion. As the largest closed building in the ancient Greek world, it could easily hold a few thousand. What happened after that is an intriguing mystery.

 

Hallucinogenic Drugs and Rape as Part of the Mysteries?

telesterion eleusis mysteries reconstruction
Reconstruction of the Telesterion during the Mysteries, via Anasynthesis

 

At this time, it needs to be pictured that apart from some small fire pits set in the center, Telesterion would be almost completely dark. People would jostle to secure a good spot since the building had rows of massive columns that might have obstructed their view. At that point, everyone was expected to be fasting, silent, and identify with Demeter’s grief.

 

The initiates were served a drink called kykeon. Even though various articles mention that it contained hallucinogenic substances, many scholars oppose this idea due to a lack of evidence. Despite the secrecy, a few accounts from ancient sources indicate that the Eleusinian Mysteries involved visual performances: things were said, shown, and done. These acts were presumably linked to a small room within the Telesterion, near the fire pits. The initiates were prohibited from entering this sacred room, as it was reserved for the priests and priestesses, who would eventually come out to perform the secret revelation.

 

antoine coypel rape persephone painting
The rape of Persephone, by School of Antoine Coypel, 1661-1722, Via National Gallery of Athens

 

The consensus is that the secrets reenacted the story of Demeter and Persephone, and until the moment of revelation, the initiates witnessed terrifying things. Some scholars speculate that the “secrets” involved an actual murder or rape of a maiden to dramatize the abduction and rape of Kore. Her capture symbolized her death: Kore was gone, for she had transitioned into Persephone. The evidence related to the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece is scarce, yet no critical finding affirms in such violent acts either at Eleusis or in other sites that worshipped Demeter. Whatever the initiates witnessed, there are reports of people who were in complete shock during the Mysteries. Many initiates spoke out that the experience transformed them and removed their fears of death.

 

Finally, on day nine, which was also called The Return, everyone walked back to Athens. Their arrival marked the close of the festival.

 

What Did the Ancient Authors Write About Demeter and Eleusis?

walter crane fate persephone painting
The Faith of Persephone, by Walter Crane, 1877, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The earliest written record of Demeter comes from the Greek poet Hesiod in the 8th century BCE. In his poem called Theogony, Demeter is mentioned only in three lines. A century later, more details became available with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Based on this account, the daughter of Demeter was in a meadow picking up iris and hyacinth blossoms. Suddenly Hades sprang out of the earth on a chariot with immortal horses and seized her against her will. Presumably, this was the only time he left the underworld. Demeter heard Kore’s cries and piercing voice. Neither gods nor mortals told her the truth, and she kept looking for her everywhere. Hence, Demeter’s nine-day agony lasted until she reached Eleusis. Eleusis welcomed her as an old, veiled lady who was in agony for her lost daughter. Later she revealed herself. She changed her size because Gods were much larger than their life-size, shed her old age, and shone with a beautiful radiance. She instructed them to build her a great temple, promised to teach her secrets, and reunited with Persephone near Eleusis.

 

frederic leighton return persephone painting
The Return of Persephone, by Frederic Lord Leighton, c. 1890-91, via The Met Museum, NYC

 

Ancient writers such as Sophokles, Herodotus, Aristophanes, and Plutarch, mention the Eleusinian Mysteries because they all became participants once. Yet, the Eleusinian Mysteries remain an intriguing secret of ancient Greece because the initiates, with remarkable consistency, swore not to disclose what happened in the Telesterion and the inner sanctum. As a result, scholars have to use a limited number of accounts and construct tentative hypotheses with no consensus.

 

The Influence of the Eleusinian Mysteries: Is Demeter Still Alive?

valentine cameron first touch winter painting
At the First Touch of Winter, Summer Fades Away, by Valentine Cameron Prinsep, c. 1897, Via Art UK

 

A Romanian professor of history and religion, Mircea Eliade, from the University of Chicago, recounts an interesting event in his book The History of Religious Ideas. On a cold day in February, in 1940, during the Second World War, a bus full of passengers traveling from Athens to Corinth witnessed something unusual. The bus made a stop for an old lady. She got on but soon realized that she carried no money to pay the fare. The driver asked her to exit at the next stop, precisely at Eleusis. After her exit, the motor could not start again, and the passengers got stuck for a long while. Feeling bad for the old lady, who was still waiting outside in the cold, the passengers decided to pay for her fare. As soon as she got on the bus, the engine sprang to life, and they continued their journey. But the old lady was angry: she reprimanded the passengers severely for their selfishness and slowness and declared that great misfortunes laid ahead for Greece. She then disappeared into thin air.

 

Whether this story contains any credibility is out of the question. However, it is remarkable that multiple newspapers reported this in Athens in 1940, and many publications afterward suggested that this old lady was perhaps Demeter.

 

The last remnants of the Eleusinian Mysteries might have been wiped out almost over two thousand years ago by Alaric, the king of the Goths, to suppress Hellenic resistance against the advancement of Christianity as a state religion. Nevertheless, Demeter remains a powerful figure, still active in the popular imagination today.



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By Zeynep TareenMSc in History w/ Ancient Greek concentration, BA in ClassicsZeynep earned her Master's degree in History from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and continued her Ancient Greek literature studies during that time. She received her BA in Classics from the University of Washington in Seattle, USA, having focused on Ancient Greek and epigraphy. Apart from her interest in ancient history and languages, Zeynep is keen on studies about folklore and superstition, and their effect on significant social and cultural movements of the past. She loves movies that make her think and listen to music from the Early Period to Scandinavian Metal.