Eleusinian Mysteries

views updated Jun 11 2018


ELEUSINIAN MYSTERIES . The most important mystery cult of the ancient world was that connected with the sanctuary of Demeter Eleusinia on a hillside outside Eleusis, about fourteen miles northwest of Athens.

Origins and History

The ritual of initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries preserves memories of an earlier phase during which the mysteries were the initiation ritual of a political and, at an earlier stage, clan community, especially in the initiation of the pais aphʾhestias, the "boy from the hearth," the religious center of house and state: he was an Athenian boy chosen by lot who underwent initiation at the cost and on behalf of the polis of Athens. Other traces are preserved in the cult of Demeter Eleusinia, which was widespread throughout Greece. On the island of Thasos, it was still a clan cult in the fourth century bce; in Laconia, it concerned especially the initiation of women. These local variations show that cults of Demeter Eleusinia existed in Greece before the local ritual of Eleusis developed into the mysteries. Contrary to previous belief, however, the cult at Eleusis has no demonstrable Bronze Age roots; Mycenaean walls that have been discovered under the later sanctuary belong to secular structures. The first archaeologically recoverable sanctuary shows traces of an apsidal or oval cult house enclosed by a wall, both from the eighth century bce. It is debatable when Athens took control of the culteither in or before the time of Solon (c. 600 bce) or, at the latest, in the time of Peisitratus (mid-sixth century bce), when the sanctuary underwent a fundamental restructuring that gave it the plan it was to have for the rest of its existence.

At this time, a monumental new gateway was constructed, looking not toward Eleusis but toward Athens, and a square initiation hall (telestērion ) was erected, incorporating the innermost sanctum (anaktoron ) of a Solonian temple. In the second half of the fifth century bce, the sanctuary was expanded by Ictinus and other architects to its final form. A new telestērion was built, large enough to accommodate several thousand initiands (mustai ), who during the initiation rites stood on steps along the four inner walls. In the center of the telestērion stood the anaktoron in its traditional location.

By the second half of the fifth century, in the Classical period of Greek culture, participation in the rites at Eleusis, previously restricted to Athenians, was open to all Greeks. In Hellenistic and imperial times, the mysteries gained even more prestige; they were now open to mustai from all over the Roman Empire. The eschatological hopes offered by the rites attracted philosophers and emperors alike. Marcus Aurelius, who was both, rebuilt the sanctuary after a barbarian invasion in 170 ce. The Christian emperor Theodosius (r. 379395) interdicted participation in the mysteries, as in all pagan cults, and shortly afterward, in 395 ce, the invading Goths destroyed the sanctuary.


Besides the priestess of Demeter, who lived in the sanctuary, the temple of Eleusis was attended by a host of officials, both religious and secular. The main religious official was the hierophant (Gr., hierophantes; lit., "he who shows the sacred things"), chosen from the Eleusinian family of the Eumolpides to serve for life. From the family of the Kerukes came the daidouchos ("torchbearer") and the hierokerux ("sacred herald"), the two officials next in rank.


The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, composed before Athenian control (between 650 and 550 bce), narrates how Demeter's daughter, Kore ("maiden"), also called Persephone, was carried off by Hades. After an unsuccessful search for Kore, Demeter in human disguise came to Eleusis and was engaged as a nurse to the baby prince Demophon, whom she tried to make immortal by immersion in fire. Found out, she revealed her divinity, ordered a temple to be built, and, by stopping the growth of crops, blackmailed Zeus into restoring her daughter, at least for half a year; the other half Kore had to spend in the underworld with her husband Hades. Demeter then restored life to the crops and revealed the mysteries to the Eleusinian princes.

This narrative uses a traditional themethe rape and restoration of a maiden are elements of a fertility theme that appears in various Near Eastern mythologiesto account for the origins of the Eleusinian cult. It is the central text for the mysteries. To those "who have seen these things," it promises a better fate after death (Homeric Hymn to Demeter 480ff.). In Peisistratean times, Athenian mythmakers introduced an important change: Demeter was said to have given the cereal crops to the Eleusinians, who had not known them before, and Triptolemos, one of the Eleusinian heroes, was credited with teaching the art of agriculture to humankind. Vase paintings attest to the popularity of this myth from the late sixth century onward. Not much later, another change was introduced that gave more concrete forms to the vague eschatological hopes raised by the mysteries: the mustai could now look forward to a blessed paradise, the uninitiated to punishments after death. From the fifth century onward, both these changes are reflected in poems ascribed to Musaios (a hero related to Eumolpos, the ancestor of the Eumolpidai) and to Orpheus.

The Ritual

The initiation rites were secret. Current knowledge is restricted to scraps of information provided by those who dared to divulge them (especially converted pagans) and to those rituals that were public.

The initiation formed part of the state festival of the Musteria, or Greater Mysteries, in the Athenian month of Boedromion (SeptemberOctober). Initiation at Eleusis was preceded by a preliminary ritual, at Agrai, just outside Athens, that took place in the month of Anthesterion (FebruaryMarch). Pictorial sources show that this ritual, called the Lesser Mysteries, had a predominantly purificatory character: it contained the sacrifice of a piglet and purifications through fire (a burning torch) and air (by means of a fan). The Greater Mysteries themselves began with preparations in Athens: assembly of the mustai and formal exclusion of "murderers and barbarians" (on 15 Boedromion), a ritual bath in the sea (on 16 Boedromion), and three days of fast. On 19 Boedromion, the mustai marched in procession from Athens to Eleusis, guided by the statue of Iacchos, the god who impersonated the ecstatic shouts (iacchazein, "to shout") of the crowd and was later identified with the ecstatic Dionysos.

Toward dusk, the mustai entered the sanctuary at Eleusis. A secret password, known through a Christian source, provides information about the preliminary rites (Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 21.8): "I fasted; I drank the kukeōn; I took from the chest; having done my task, I placed in the basket, and from the basket into the chest." The kukeōn is known to have been a mixture of water, barley, and spice, taken to break the fast (Hymn to Demeter 206ff.), but details of the rest of the ritual are obscure. Perhaps the mustai took a mortar from the sacred chest and ground some grains of wheat. They also enacted the search for Kore by torchlight (ibid., 47ff.).

The central rite is clear only in its outline. Crowded in the telestērion for the whole night, the mustai underwent terrifying darkness; then came a climax full of illumination, "when the anaktoron was opened" (Plutarch, Moralia 81de) and a huge fire burst forth. (Note the parallel to the motif of immersion in fire to gain immortality in Hymn to Demeter 239f.) Details of what followed are conjectural, based largely on the account of Hippolytus (c. 170236). "Under a huge fire," he reports, "the hierophant shouts, 'The Mistress has given birth to a sacred child, Brimo to Brimos'" (Refutation of All Heresies 5.8). Perhaps "the mistress" is Demeter and the "sacred child" Ploutos (Plutus), or Wealth, symbolized by an ear of wheat, for Hippolytus describes another ritual thus: "The hierophant showed the initiates the great mystery, an ear cut in silence" (ibid.).

The central rite must have evoked eschatological hopes by ritual means, not by teaching. (Teaching is expressly excluded by Aristotle, Fragment 15.) The symbolism of the grain lends itself to such an explanation, as does the symbolism of a new birth. A year after his initiation (muēsis ), the mustēs could attain the degree of epopteia. The rituals of this degree are unknown; many scholars maintain that the showing of the ear belongs to this degree, on the strength of Hippolytus's terminology.

Initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries was, in historical times, an affair of individuals, as in the imperial mystery cults, but unlike them, it always remained bound to one place, Eleusis, and had presumably grown out of gentilitial cults of the Eleusinian families.

See Also

Demeter and Persephone; Mystery Religions.


The most competent archaeological account of the Eleusinian mysteries (with a much less convincing part on the ritual) is George E. Mylonas's Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton, 1961). Corrections regarding the Mycenaean origin are presented by Pascal Darcque in "Les vestiges mycéniens découverts sous le Telestérion d'Eleusis," Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 105 (1981): 593605. The Homeric hymn has been edited, with ample commentary, by N. J. Richardson in The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Oxford, 1974); the later poems are reconstructed in my Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens in vorhellenistischer Zeit (Berlin, 1974). The iconographical sources are collected by Ugo Bianchi in The Greek Mysteries (Leiden, 1976). Interesting insights, despite many debatable arguments, are given in Karóly Kerényi's Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York, 1967). Walter Burkert's Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, edited and translated by Peter Bing (Berkeley, Calif., 1983), approaches the mysteries through the phenomenology of sacrificial ritual; see also his short but masterly account in Greek Religion, Archaic and Classical (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), pp. 285290. Bruce M. Metzger's "Bibliography of Mystery Religions: IV, The Eleusinian Mysteries," in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, vol. 2.17.3 (Berlin and New York, 1984), pp. 13171329, 14071409, covers the years 19271977 and is a very thorough listing, albeit without annotation.

New Sources

Alderink, Larry. "The Eleusinian Mysteries in Roman Imperial Times." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2.18.2, pp. 14991539. Berlin and New York, 1989.

Bianchi, Ugo. "Saggezza olimpica e mistica eleusina nell'Inno Omerico a Demetra." Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni 35 (1964): 161193.

Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, Mass., 1987.

Clinton, Kevin. Myth and Cult: The Iconography of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The M.P. Nilsson Lectures on Greek Religion, Delivered 1921 Nov. 1990 at the Swedish Institute at Athens. Göteborg, 1992.

Clinton, Kevin. "Stages of Initiation in the Eleusinian and Samothracian Mysteries." In Greek Mysteries, edited by Michael B. Cosmopoulos, pp. 5078. London and New York, 2003.

Cosmopoulos, Michael B. "Micenean Religion at Eleusis: The Architecture and Stratigraphy of Megaron B." In Greek Mysteries, edited by Michael B. Cosmopoulos, pp. 124. London and New York, 2003.

Dietrich, Bernard C. "The Religious Prehistory of Demeter's Eleusinian Mysteries." In La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell'impero romano. Atti del Colloquio internazionale, Roma, 2428 settembre 1979, edited by Ugo Bianchi and Maarten J. Vermaseren, pp. 445471. Leiden, 1982.

Dowden, Ken. "Grades in the Eleusinian Mysteries." Revue d'Histoire des Religions 197 (1980): 409427.

Foucart, Paul. Les mystères d'éleusis. Puiseaux, 1941, reprint 1999.

Gallant, Christine. "A Jungian Interpretation of the Eleusinian Myth and Mysteries." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2.18.2, pp. 15401563. Berlin and New York, 1989.

Janda, Michael. Eleusis. Innsbruck, 2000.

Lauenstein, Diether. Die Mysterien von Eleusis. Stuttgart, 1987.

Motte, André. "Silence et sécret dans les mystères d'éleusis." In Les rites d'initiation. Actes du Colloque de Liège et Louvain la Neuve, 2021 novembre 1984, edited by Julien Ries and Henri Limet, pp. 317334. Louvain la Neuve, 1986.

Robertson, Noel. Festivals and Legends: The Formation of Greek Cities in the Light of Public Ritual. Toronto, 1992.

Robertson, Noel. "The Two Processions to Eleusis and the Program of the Mysteries." American Journal of Philology 119 (1998): 547575.

Sfameni Gasparro, Giulia. Misteri e culti mistici di Demetra. Rome, 1986.

Sourvinou Inwood, Christine. "Festival and Mysteries: Aspect of Eleusinian Cult." In Greek Mysteries, edited by Michael B. Cosmopoulos, pp. 2549. London and New York, 2003.

Speyer, Wolfgang. "Einblicke in die Mysterien von Eleusis." In Religio Graeco-Romana. Festschrift für Walter Pötscher, edited by Joachim Dalfen, Gerhard Petersmann, and Franz Ferdinand Schwarz, pp. 1533. Horn, 1993.

Wasson, R. Gordon, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Ruck. The Road to Eleusis, preface by Huston Smith; afterword by Albert Hofmann. Los Angeles, 1998.

Fritz Graf (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Eleusinian mysteries

views updated Jun 27 2018

Eleusinian mysteries Religious rites performed in ancient Greece at Eleusis, Attica, to honour Demeter and Persephone. The rites probably arose out of a rural fertility festival.