The previous time we talked about Persephone, the goddess of vegetation and queen of the underworld, who was the daughter of goddess Demeter and the wife of Demeter’s brother, Plouton. In today’s video, we will be exploring the Eleusinian Mysteries – the secret rituals of an agrarian* cult in ancient Greece.
It is important to clarify that the mysteries themselves were actually happening in real-life, they were not mythical; however, they did revolve around ancient Greek mythology, and because of the secrecy that surrounded them, a lot of the things that we know about them, might not be true.
When were the Eleusinian Mysteries taking place?
Many scholars believe that the Eleusinian Mysteries were inspired by some older Egyptian rituals that involved Isis and Osiris or that they were directly connected to some other Greek rituals, known as “Cabeirian Mysteries”, which were dedicated to chthonic deities living under the surface of the Earth.
The information we have regarding these rituals come from the ancient Greek geographer, Pausanias, who said that, when the Athenians took over the city of Eleusina, they were able to control every aspect of the lives of the people living in Eleusina. But there was an exception. They had no control over the Eleusinian Mysteries, the secret rituals of an agrarian cult.
According to estimates by archaeologists, the mysteries were taking place for at least 2.000 years, between 1450 BCE to 392 CE. They were always held in the ancient Greek month Boedromion (August – September).
Persephone’s Myth and the Eleusinian Mysteries
The myth itself is related to Persephone’s myth, the one we covered in our previous video. Persephone was both the goddess of vegetation and the queen of the underworld. She was depicted as a joyful, young girl, but also as a chthonic, fearful divinity. Persephone would spend half of the year by the side of her mother, on the surface of the earth, gathering flowers in fields and protecting the nature. The other half, she would go back to her husband in the underworld, the same way that the seeds are buried under the ground till they grow and sprout.
The Mysteries are connected to this myth. The cycle of life and death, the change of seasons, and possibly, reincarnation. And during the rituals, it is said that the descent, search, and ascent of Persephone where depicted.
The Agrarian Cult of Eleusina
Eleusina is a town with one of the most visited archaeological sites in Greece. It is located nearby Athens and it is visited by many schools and tourists every year. The entire area was of great spiritual significance in ancient times, since that was the place where Demeter spent most of her time searching for her daughter after she was abducted and held in Hades.
This town was a connection point for the devotees of Demeter and Persephone who would gather every year, at the end of the summer, to participate in some very secretive rituals. The rituals were said to be organized by an agrarian cult, meaning that this cult was highly interested in Mother Earth and the cultivation of land. The cult had members outside of Eleusina, spreading to Athens and other parts of Greece.
The rules of this cult were very austere; members were warned to never reveal what the rituals consisted of. Anyone who disobeyed would receive the death penalty. The same would happen to anyone who would make fun of the mysteries as well.
What do we know about the Eleusinian Mysteries?
Since the Eleusinian rituals were so secretive, little is known as to what they consisted of. We know that they were open to all: males, females, children, the old, slaves, and free people. We also know that they incorporated some dramatical/theatrical elements, meaning that the experience was similar to watching or even participating in a theatrical play. The main goal was catharsis, the physical, emotional, and spiritual cleansing.
Another thing we know is that the people leading the rituals were a group of priests, priestesses, and hierophants, who were followed by the initiates, the new members of the cult, and then the older members; the ones that had already passed the “epopteia”, the process of learning the mysteries.
What we know about the Eleusinian Mysteries:
- The ritual involved baskets with poppy flowers and pomegranates.
- A chest with unknown offerings was also used.
- The Eleusinian rituals revolved around Persephone and the connection between life and death (when corps die, they are reborn through their seeds).
- When the rituals became popular in Athens, Athenians would walk to Eleusina through the “Iera Odos” (Sacred Road). In the same area there is now a motorway with the same name.
- Accusations of breaking the rules of the cult was popular among rivals. The penalty was death.
- The rituals were separated into the “Lesser Mysteries” and the “Greater Mysteries”. The latter would last ten days.
- The rituals involved animal sacrifices, feasts, and dances.
Speculations about the Eleusinian Mysteries:
- The participants would descent and ascent a cave; the journey from darkness to light was considered spiritually therapeutic. (Perhaps the Plutonian Cave of Eleusina?)
- Narcotics were given to the members of the cult for a more intense experience.
- The rituals involved human sacrifice (unpopular opinion – no proof).
The mysteries ended when Christianity took over the Hellenistic religion and was established as the main religion in Greece.
*agrarian= related to the cultivation of land.
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