Category Archives: Traditions[post_grid id="10059"]
By Mónica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Centuries ago, from every corner of the Mediterranean, people traveled to Greece to get answers about their life and future by the Oracle of Delphi. It was there that the god Apollo, through different women named Pythia chosen by local priests, sent his messages to those who needed them… as well as to those who could afford them. This was how it happened for the 12 centuries the oracle was active.
How was life at Delphi?
Delphi, along with Olympia and Nemea, was considered an inter-urban sanctuary but also a pan-Hellenic sanctuary: “they were located away from major cities, although they were under the administrative control of their nearby city-states or amphictyonies, they had an aura of neutrality”.
While at least four temples were built for Apollo at Delphi, there were many more around the ancient Mediterranean world. In fact, Delphi was not even the only ancient city with an oracle, however it was one of the most significant.
While the oracle was active, wealthy people and leaders from different territories occasionally paid to get to the front of the line to see the oracle. Indeed, there are records that state that the Pythia was sometimes forced to take her position on the tripod by the temple priests in order to satisfy rich clients.
At Delphi, there were always a lot of people waiting in line to see it. We know about them because the ones who paid a lot of money are immortalized in stone inscriptions.
Interestingly, these aren’t the only stone inscriptions… Despite wars, the rise and fall of different empires, two messages still survive to this day on the entrance of the temple: “Know thyself” and “Nothing too much”.
The Oracle and its messages
According to some records, the oracle delivered its pronouncements on an annual basis; the day chosen for the event was the seventh day of Bysios, Apollo’s birthday.
Other records state that nine times each year the woman went to the tripod, initiated the trance state, and gave Apollo a voice to deliver his messages. These sessions were held on the seventh day after each new moon in spring, summer, and fall. It did not occur during winter because Apollo was believed to have gone north to the land of the Hyperboreans (giants who lived “beyond the North Wind”).
The Pythia was always a woman from Delphi, regardless of her age or social class. While she was serving as oracle, she lived in the sanctuary, abstained from sexual activity, and fasted on or before the days scheduled for oracular sessions.
During days of oracle activity, the Pythia would initially be brought by priests of the temple from a private residence and led through a series of purification and religious rituals before her performance. Eventually she was led down into the inner sanctum of the temple (the adyton).
Rulers and wealthy citizens of the known world (as well as famous philosophers) made the journey to this mountainous site to make the most important decisions of their lives… and the lives of those around them. Indeed, war and peace were determined by these messages.
The Vapors of Delphi
The Pythia delivered their oracles on a tripod over the cleft in the ground of Apollo’s temple, which was constructed around 800 BCE on Mount Parnassus. Over the years different women would take on the sacred role and pronounce their prophecies, but they were always inspired by the same vapors.
For centuries, different researchers underestimated the theory of the cleft and vapors because they couldn’t find any geological indicators that led them to their location. However, ancient writers such as Plutarch, Homer or Euripides described the vapors and modern studies are finally validating their reports. Evidence from a chemical analyses of water samples and travertine deposits in the adyton have shown that the springs on site have in the past and continue at present to emit small volumes of hydrocarbon gases.
Fall of Delphi and its Oracle
The Oracle started its decline in late Hellenistic and early Roman times. In 389 CE, Theodosius I started persecutions against Old Religion and prohibited the cult of Apollo and the celebration of the Pythian games in honor of Apollo. In 391 CE, Christianity was the exclusive state religion and older temples were closed.
Even though temples were shut down and the oracle was “silenced”, splendid structures still stand today, preserving the magnificent, if not fantastic, history of the Pythia and the Oracle of Delphi.
Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
While patriotism is associated with the modern world, scholars now believe that it was very common in the Classical world. Patriotism—which can be defined as a love of one’s country that conditions one’s behaviors and beliefs—played a major role in both Roman and Greek society. There, it was promoted through rituals and traditions—just as it is in modern nations, such as the United States on the 4th of July.
Patriotism in Ancient Greece
The ancient Greek world understood patriotism in a way similar to the modern world. For the Greeks, patriotism meant a willingness to serve and support the state—and if necessary, fight and die for one’s native land. Citizens who lost their lives in war were honored, as is evident in Pericles’ oration for those who fell in the early days of the Second Peloponnesian War.
But for the ancient Greeks, there were actually two types of patriotism. The first was patriotism focused on a shared Hellenic identity. The Greeks took a great pride in being Hellenes. In fact, they believed that they were much superior to non-Greeks, whom they referred to as barbarians. Hellenic patriotism was celebrated in rituals and practices. A good example of this was the various Pan-Hellenic institutions, especially of a religious nature, such as the Oracle of Delphi.
Then there was the unique Hellenic expression of patriotism expressed in the Olympic Games. Only Hellenes could participate in the Games, which were a celebration of a common identity and values. Hellenic patriotism inspired Greeks to cooperate in Leagues, such as that formed when Persian invaded the Greek mainland in 492 BC.
The second form of patriotism in ancient Greece took a more localized form: pride in one’s city-state. A good example of this is the patriotism of Sparta. The Spartans took a great pride in their native land and identity. The vast majority of Greeks owed their first allegiance to their city-state, such as Thebes. The male citizen-body was a privileged group in the polis, and they were very loyal to the city-state. Typically, the citizen took an oath of loyalty to the state and was expected to devote himself to the good of the state.
The downside of this form of patriotism was that the citizens of city-states such as Athens felt that they could enslave and massacre those from a different polis. This civic patriotism was enforced by the citizen community in the form of military training. Religious festivals were often appropriated by the Civic Magistrates to enforce a sense of patriotism among the citizenship and the wider population.
The Panathenaea, for example, was a festival that celebrated the goddess Athena, the patron-deity of the city. This involved a procession and feasting, and it sought to demonstrate the uniqueness of Athens and it taught the citizens and others to take pride in their city. Many leading citizens would celebrate liturgies demonstrating their patriotism in which wealthy citizens would contribute to the public good, such as staging a tragedy in Athens.
The word patriotism has its roots in the Latin word for patria, which means homeland or fatherland. Roman patriotism was thus tied to a strong sense of loyalty to the father (pater) and family. Romans were totally devoted to their family and the head of the household was the undisputed authority. This loyalty to the family was gradually took on a more collective form and was transferred to the early Roman Republic. Roman patriotism became dedication and pride in the Fatherland. Rome was seen as a family of families.
This intense patriotism was one of the reasons for the success of Rome. Like the Greeks, the Romans had two forms of patriotism, one specific to the Roman Republic (and later Empire), and one to their native city or region. Romans were often both citizens of the Republic or Empire and their own city or area. They swore to serve the state and put it before their own interests.
Roman patriotism was enforced in a variety of rituals and ceremonies, such as those dedicated to Mars. All citizens served in the army during the early Republic, and this helped enforce patriotism. During the Imperial period, the emperor came to embody the state. Increasingly, patriotism centered on the emperor. The imperial cult was used to promote loyalty to the emperor and a common Roman identity throughout the provinces. Triumphs which celebrated some victory in battle were also used to inspire a pride and love of the Fatherland.
As in Greece, wealthy citizens would demonstrate their patriotism by building public works or providing entertainment for their fellow citizens in return for increased prestige. A good example of this was the staging of gladiatorial games. Roman history and literature often celebrated ancient heroes like Aeneas who were praised for their pietas, or love of family and fatherland. This inspired many Romans to serve their country and even to die for its sakes. A number of Romans, especially writers such Virgil, were patriotic in the sense that they believed that the empire had a divine mission to civilize the world.
Patriotism was common in the ancient world, where it was both a force for good—in that it promoted social cohesion and public service—but it also had its dark side, as it encouraged conflict and even xenophobia. Patriotism was essential to military strength and considered necessary for the public good. This helped the Greek and Roman civilizations to survive and to flourish for many centuries.
Kapust D. (2017) Roman Patriotism. In: Sardoc M. (eds) Handbook of Patriotism. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-30534-9_42-1
Crowley J. (2017) Patriotism in Ancient Greece. In: Sardoc M. (eds) Handbook of Patriotism. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-30534-9_7-1
Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Religious festivals played a very important role in Rome and one of the most remarkable was the Megalesia, which was celebrated in the Republican and Imperial era. Dedicated to a goddess known as Magna Mater (Latin, literally ‘great mother’), the event was to many a shocking affair because of its eunuch priests and strange ceremonies. The festival honored the goddess but also served several other important functions.
Who Was the Magna Mater?
The Magna Mater was an ancient Anatolian goddess believed to have originated in prehistoric fertility cults and her worship may date back to the Neolithic period. In Phrygia (modern-day western Turkey) and elsewhere she was known as Cybele, but in Rome, she became known as the Great Mother.
She can be understood to be an Earth Goddess, and her cult had the aspects of a Mystery Religion. Devotees were initiated into her mysteries and granted secret knowledge. The mother goddess was often depicted as traveling in a lion-drawn chariot. She was served by a eunuch priests and her worship was often controversial because of the wild behavior of her followers. Self-castration was often practiced by her male followers.
The Origin of the Megalesia
During the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC), Hannibal ravaged Italy. In 205 BC, the Romans were terrified by portents indicating imminent defeat and famine. In desperation, they consulted the Sibylline Books, a set of oracular writings. The religious advisors interpreted the books as stating that Rome must worship the Cybele. Diplomatic negotiations began to bring the goddess from Phrygia to Rome. She arrived in the city in the form of the a black meteoric stone from the ancient city of Pessinos.
Roman worship of the Magna Mater was controversial. The majority of the population eventually embraced the cult in part because, once Cybele was brought to Rome, the tide of the war against Hannibal did indeed turn. The mother goddess cult soon became a state religion and the religious authorities in Rome decided to hold a festival in her honor. Her worship eventually spread throughout much of the empire.
The Megalesia Festival
The Romans initiated an annual celebration of the mother goddess in 191/192 BC which commenced after the construction of a temple in her honor by Marcus Junius Brutus. The festival, which was funded by the state, began on April 4th and lasted several days. The event included sacred plays and other entertainment likely staged in the Great Mother’s Temple. These sacred dramas were based on the story of Cybele and her eunuch consort Attis.
During the Megalesia, the cult image of the Magna Mater was carried in a public procession. This process was decidedly unlike anything else in Roman religion, whose rituals were often austere and restrained. The procession was accompanied by eunuch priests and dancers often dressed as warriors. A crowned image of the goddess was drawn in a replica of her lion-chariot. On April 10, a cult image of the mother goddess was taken to the racetrack and chariot races were staged in her honor. Many sacrifices were made to the Magna Mater.
During the festival, Roman nobles would spend lavishly on entertainment and banquets. The festival became infamous for riotous and outrageous behavior. In 106 BC, the Senate limited spending on entertainment during the festival. From an early date, Roman citizens could not participate in the procession as it was deemed unseemly. Slaves were excluded from even attending the festival.
The religious procession and the celebrations of the eunuch priests were never fully accepted by members of the Roman elite, particularly the conservatives. It was seen by many as primarily a festival of the plebians, or common people.
The popularity of this festival and the worship of the Magna Mater is evident in the establishment of a ‘Holy Week’ of sacrifices and celebrations in March in honor of the goddess. This is often regarded as an extension of the Megalesia festival.
The Holy Week festival was based on the myths of the Magna Mater and her consort and involved ritual castration and whipping on the so-called ‘Day of Blood’. It is possible that versions of the Megalesia was also celebrated in the provinces of the Roman Empire.
The Function Of the Festival
The festival was primarily a religious event. Many ancient commentators saw the festival as honoring the Sibylline Oracles. The Oracles were seen as correct to recommend the adoption of the cult, as it helped Rome survive the crisis of the Second Punic War.
The festival also served other social functions. Many prominent Roman families claimed Trojan descent and because the goddess was associated with Phrygia—the homeland of the Trojans—they used the event to emphasize their claimed origins. In this way, they demonstrated their ancestry and social status, which in turn helped legitimize their rule.
For the lower classes, the festival served to affirm their collective identity. At one point, the populist leader Clodius tried to control of the festival in a challenge to patrician control of the city. Cicero later successfully prosecuted Clodius for sacrilege.
The Megalesia was a great religious festival in honor of a mother goddess whose origin is thought to be far more ancient than the Roman empire itself. The goddess’ arrival in Rome and subsequent worship there was thought to have saved the empire at a time of crisis. The festival was popular among both the plebians and the patricians but viewed with suspicion by the conservatives. The festival not only served an important religious role in Roman life but also played an important political and social role throughout the empire.
Beard, Mary, North, John and Price, Simon (1998). Religions of Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Written by Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Part 1 of this series can be found here.
From the deep recesses of the Archaic era to enlightened Imperial Rome, the list of initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a popular cult honoring the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, reads like a who’s who of the Classical era. Indeed, some of antiquity’s greatest names graced their ranks.
Reluctant as they may have been to share their secrets—after all, it was heresy—it is thanks to their accounts (as well as those of tendentious Christian zealots, whose accounts are less reliable), that we know something about the Mysteries. As it stands, due to the cult’s hallmark secrecy, there is heated debate amongst the academic community as to the exact nature of the rites. Nonetheless, while the rites themselves may be in contention, where the rites were celebrated is not.
To accommodate its great number of initiates, Demeter’s Temple—also called the Telesterion, or initiation hall—stood at a regal 51 x 51 meters. The largest public building in fifth-century (BCE) Attica, the Telesterion was a roofed temple with seating for several thousand spectators on eight rising steps.
Unlike today’s religious structures, which are places of worship where adherents congregate, Greek temples were not designed for adherents but built solely to house deities. In this aspect, the Telesterion was a departure from conventional temples of the time.
Inside the Telesterion was its inner holy sanctum called the Anaktoron, where the holiest of holy rites were performed. In her 2002 article about the Mysteries, Nancy Evans likened the Telesterion to an indoor square theater which is an apt comparison as the main event was highly theatrical.
Perhaps the renown of the festival had as much to do with theatrics as it did with the promise of eternal salvation. In fact, some posit that the works of the early tragedians—indeed the art of theatre itself—may have sprung forth by the spectacular stagecraft presented during the Mysteries’ rites.
The lead ‘actor’ in the mystia was the head priest or the hierophantes, which in ancient Greek means displayer of holy things. In this life-long appointed position, whose occupier was required to be from the original clans of Eleusis, it was imperative that the hierophant possess a melodious voice, as singing played a considerable role in the rites.
It is supposed that it was the hierophant who played the role of the all-important Triptolemus—the scepter-wielding youth—who appears between the twin goddesses in artwork from the era. Though Triptolemus played a minor role as Demeter’s priest in the Homeric Hymn To Demeter, his part was greatly enhanced in the Mysteries—the mythological character became famous for introducing both agriculture and the Eleusinian Mysteries to humankind.
Next in line to the hierophant was the dadouchos, or torchbearer, also a hereditary position that could last a lifetime. Because of his role as torchbearer, some posit that the dadouchos may have played the part of the cult-hero, Eubouleus.
Although this character is not in the Hymn, in an Orphic rendition of the Demeter’s myth an unfortunate swineherd by the name of Eubouleus was sucked into a gorge along with his swine when the earth cleaved open and Hades abducted Kore.
Although the Orphic version of the myth was subsequent to the Hymn, some contend that the Orphic myth may have reflected an even earlier tradition than the Hymn. Somewhere along the way, this humble swineherd informed Demeter of the whereabouts of Persephone. In fact, Eubouleus had such a cult following that in some versions of the myth he is alternatively either the son of mighty Demeter herself or of the all-powerful Zeus.
With no mythological foundation, another cult figure is Iacchus, who is often identified with Dionysus (or Bacchus). He is depicted as either the son of Demeter or of Persephone. Iacche was a ritual cry that the initiates would shout during the procession along the Sacred Way as part of a processional rite in the Mysteries.
Although there were several priests below these ranks, there were only three noteworthy priestesses. One priestess honored the double goddesses, Demeter and Persophone. Then there were two additional priestesses called the hierophantides. One represented Demeter, the other Persephone. According to Eleusinian scholar Kevin Clinton, on the night of the mysterai the two hierophantides were said to have been decked out in full splendor to impersonate the twin goddesses and became the physical incarnations of Demeter and Persephone on earth.
The rite may hark back to a tradition from Minoan Crete, where priestesses physically represented the great mother goddess Ariadne and where Demeter also had a strong presence. But the twin goddesses were not the only deities represented in the Mysteries. Because the Mysteries emphasized the spiritual unity of all gods, two important gods adopted by the Eleusinian priesthood were Dionysus and Heracles.
As ancient Greek society became ever more male-oriented, the role of Dionysus as the son of Zeus began to supplant that of Persephone. Like Persephone, he died and was resurrected each year and was associated with fertility. In fact, some espouse that it was the presence of Dionysus and his characteristic theatrics which gave the cult its flair for drama.
The drama began in Athens on the 14th of Boedromion then made its way to the town of Eleusis on the 19th by way of a spectacular twelve-mile procession along the famed Sacred Way. Amid the sounds of singing and rejoicing, the cacophony must have been deafening as several thousand passionate followers— initiates and non-initiates alike—came together on the packed Athenian thoroughfare for the celebrated parade.
Known for its egalitarianism, all walks of life were represented at the Mysteries. From citizens to courtesans, magistrates to masons, everyone joined the parade. After all, anyone free of “blood guilt” (murder) could be an initiate.
Once in Eleusis, the initiates spent the day fasting and mourning, mirroring Demeter’s behavior in the Hymn when she was grieving for her daughter. The evening of the 20th marked the first moment the mystai, or novice initiates, were allowed to enter Demeter’s sanctuary where the Telesterion was housed.
The most sacred of all nights, known as the “scene of beholding,” is believed to have been on either the 20th or the 21st (or perhaps both) when the nocturnal rites or teletai and the sacred drama or mysteria were performed. Once the mystai were initiated into the ranks of the epopteia (the seeing)—the highest degree of initiation—they could take off their blindfolds and behold the mysteries. While much of what they witnessed remains under wraps, one thing is certain: fire played an enormous role in the rituals.
In ancient Greece, fire was a means of communicating between the mortal and immortal realms; smoke from sacrificial fires rose to the celestial heavens as a means of placating the deity or deities for whom the sacrifice was intended. Fire was also often used in Greek mythology as a means of immortalizing humans. In the Hymn, Demeter attempts to immortalize the infant Demophoon by glazing him with ambrosia and burning him in the fire each night “as if he were a smoldering log.”
The thinking was that because Hades stole a daughter from Demeter, she would immortalize a human, thus removing one from the lord of the underworld’s thriving enterprise. When Demophoon’s mother, Metaniera, comes upon Demeter incinerating her son in the family hearth, she screams—as any mortal mother might. The scream, however, disturbs the ritual and the mighty Demeter, incensed at the foolhardiness of mortals, tosses Demophoon to the ground.
In her rage, she sentences the infant—and by implication, the rest of humankind—to a life of mortal mediocrity. Thus we behold the Eleusinian Mysteries: formed as a compensatory action to placate the anger of the goddess, the rites were believed capable of restoring humankind’s lost immortality.
While what was revealed at the mysteria remains a mystery, there are some theories about what may have transpired. Although the hierophant’s voice played an integral role in the rites, the Mysteries were largely a visual experience. Literary sources detailing the remarkable sights within the Mysteries abound, from both pagan and early Christian chroniclers.
Even the names of the sacred actors in the secret cult are emblematic of this. Hierophant signifies “revealer of sacred objects,” while the two levels of the initiates: myste and epoptes indicate “one whose eyes are closed” and “the seers” respectively.
Yet, of all the sights, the one that was so impressive it would remain with initiates for the rest of their lives was the phenomenal light they were to have witnessed during the sacred drama. In fact, pyrotechnic expertise was characteristic of the Mysteries.
In his treatise On the Soul, Plutarch reminisces: “But then one encounters an extraordinary light and pure regions and meadows offer welcome, with voices and dances and majesties of sacred sounds and holy sights.” This “extraordinary light” has been described by ancients before and after Plutarch as the famous “fire of the mysteries.”
In a mimesis of Demeter carrying the torch in search of Persephone, torches were widely used in the rites—not only great torches carried by the torch-bearing dadouchos and the hierophant but torches born by the initiates as well. In fact, Clinton posits there is evidence to suggest that the extraordinary light could have come from the fire of over a thousand torches held by the initiates:
“The passage by Himerius informs us that the extraordinary light was furnished by torchbearers…probably at least a thousand torch bearers, standing not sitting.” He goes on to add that the torches carried by the initiates were far more dramatic than those carried by adherents of other cults, perhaps bigger and more imposing, leading to the notoriety of the “fires of Eleusis.”
The thousand torches, however, were not the only light show to which the ancients were referring. Making gods appear was another hallmark event for the Mysteries. In a third-century text, the hierophant Apollonius cries: “O initiates, you saw me then appearing from the Anaktoron in the bright nights…” Living up to his title, it was the hierophant’s main task to display sacred objects which in the holiest of holy mysteria were the twin goddesses themselves—in all their radiant splendor.
Ascending in full voice, the hierophant emerged from the Anaktoron for the scene of beholding to reveal the spectacularly colossal goddesses to the thousand torch-bearing and thousands more non-torch bearing initiates. For the grand finale of this sacred drama, the goddesses came alive—Persephone, the “Mistress of Fire”, rises from the land of the dead to join Demeter in her earthly domain. At long last, mother and daughter are reunited; humankind is saved.
No longer mere slabs of stone-cold marble, Demeter and Persephone looked for all the world like living goddesses—they were colorful, they were polished, but most of all they were illuminated. “Beauty blazing out,” is how Plato describes the goddesses during the Mysteries in Phaedrus. With their blindfolds freshly removed, the thunderstruck initiate’s first sight was of the glowing goddesses—indeed, such a dramatic spectacle might have rendered even the most stalwart of skeptics speechless.
It is posited that the statues were illuminated by placing fiery candles in the hollowed-out interiors of the statues. After the light festival, did the sacred actors emerge accompanied by music and dancing to celebrate the reunion, as some contend? Were hallucinogenic drugs involved in the rites, as many posit?
Alas, the view is often murky looking back over a span of thousands of years. On the following day, festivities continued and sacrifices were made in the public courtyard for the community at large, because even the uninitiated celebrated the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Their revels now ended, on the 23rd the initiates began the journey back to Athens, concluding the 9-day long festival—until the Mysteries began anew the following year. Practiced for over two thousand years, the Mysteries had become the largest and most celebrated of all religious cults in the Greco-Roman world.
In 392 CE, Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I issued a comprehensive decree prohibiting pagan worship in favor of a burgeoning new religion that preached equality, promised a happy afterlife and included worship of a god whose son died and was resurrected so his followers would have everlasting life.
In a sense, the Mysteries live on.
Written by Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Conjuring up mystical images of secret initiation rites held under cover of darkness, the Eleusinian Mysteries were reputedly a dark and dangerous festival. In fact, the rituals were surrounded by such an aura of deadly secrecy that the tragedian Aeschylus was nearly killed on stage just for referencing them. But what were the Mysteries really about? And what made them so renowned?
Demeter’s Rites of Eleusis—better known as the Eleusinian Mysteries—were egalitarian yet exclusive. Open to everyone free of “blood guilt” (murder) but exclusive to those initiated in their secret rites, this was one of the most acclaimed religious festivals in the Greek world.
Like the all-female festival Thesmophoria, the Mysteries honored Demeter, goddess of the harvest and her daughter, Persephone, queen of the underworld. The Eleusinian Mysteries allegedly emerged as a masculine response to the Thesmophoria. The festival sprang from the myth in which Demeter’s daughter Kore is kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld. After her abduction, Kore’s name changes to Persephone.
Carrying a torch, Demeter searches nine days for her daughter and has adventures with mortals along the way until she realizes her true strength lies in her fertility—so she halts the seasons. Earth becomes a barren wasteland. Zeus pleads with Demeter to make the earth abundant once again but she will not relent until Persephone is returned to her. Zeus orders Hades to release Persephone. Hades adheres, but not before luring Persephone into eating a pomegranate seed. The mere act of eating in the underworld binds Persephone to Hades for a few months each year.
The myth is allegorical of agricultural renewal, from life to death and back again each year. Although agriculture played a part in the Mysteries, its role was greatly diminished in favor of the eschatological nature of Demeter’s story; that is to say, issues regarding life after death. In the minds of the ancients, nature’s resurrection each year was emblematic of humankind’s immortality.
Thought to have predated the Greek Dark Ages (1100 BCE-800 BCE), the Mysteries reach back into the Mycenaean period (1600 BCE- 1100 BCE), yet the bulk of evidence about the festival dates from the Archaic period (800 BCE- 480 BCE).
Although its foundations were in the Greek world, it was celebrated throughout the Roman Empire and garnered near-universal reverence up until the late fourth century CE when Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I proscribed worship outside Christianity. But the Eleusinian Mysteries were more than a religious festival. The event had become part of civic identity — its renown in ancient Greece and beyond played a pivotal role in shared cultural hegemony.
What, then, was so mysterious about the Eleusinian Mysteries? The answer can be found in the word itself. Novice initiates of the cult were called mystai and the accompanying ever-secret initiation ritual was called mysteria; participation in the secret cult was restricted to its initiates and initiation ceremonies played a key role in the sacred rituals.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were composed of both the Lesser Mysteries honoring Persephone and were observed in the spring. The Greater Mysteries, honoring Demeter and celebrated six months later, fell in the fall in the month of Boedromion, now known as September-October—directly before the sowing season which heralded the female Thesmophoria.
As a preparation for the Greater Mysteries, a candidate could become a mystes, or novice-initiate, to begin his or her worship in the ranks of the Lesser Mysteries. The mystes would progress into the more enlightened Greater Mysteries once his or her initiation was complete. The initiation period is believed to have been a year, after which time the mystes, orblinded one, would ascend into the hallowed ranks of epoptes, or seer, and be able to participate as a full initiate of the Greater or Epoptical (all-seeing) Mysteries.
Though the most sacred of the rituals were celebrated in Eleusis—an agricultural town some twelve miles northwest of Athens—people came from all over the Greco-Roman world to Athens to participate in the nine-day event. The procession from Athens to Eleusis was considered the most spectacular of all religious processions in the ancient world. In fact, the road between the two cities (called the Sacred Way) became so legendary that before the Romans arrived, it was the only road in all of central Greece that was not a goat path.
Adherents of the Mysteries came from all over the Greco-Roman world but the rituals were celebrated exclusively in Athens and Eleusis. Until the mid-sixth century BCE, Eleusis controlled the festival but after it was conquered by Athens, the Athenians took over. This made the Mysteries more well-known and transformed the festival from Demeter’s Rites at Eleusis into the celebrated Eleusinian Mysteries.
Technically, membership in the Mysteries was unrestricted. Open to all men and women, slaves and foreigners alike—everyone ”free of the pollution of murder”—could participate, yet in reality there were some restrictions. While foreigners were welcome in the Mysteries, initiates had to speak Greek as “not being a barbarian” was a requirement. This, however, changed when Athens assumed control of the rites. They lifted the Greek speaking requirement in order to promote the Mysteries across the Greek world and beyond. Might they also have lifted the blood guilt ban? Militarism had engulfed the region—soldiers were aplenty and encouraged to join the Mysteries, which they did with abandon. However, despite loosening their standards for some, during the fourth-century BCE, Athens tightened them for others. They began requiring initiates to pay fifteen drachmas for the privilege of membership. Fifteen drachmas was equivalent to ten days of labor—an amount that the poor or enslaved would likely have been unable to pay.
While the rituals were initially concerned with Demeter’s imparting gifts of fertility and the cyclical nature of creation, over time they focused more on immortality. Of the Mysteries, the poet Pindar (498 BCE – 436 BCE) opined: “Blessed is he who has beheld the mysteries, descending in the Netherworld. He knows the aim; he knows the origin of life.” To be sure, the main focus of the Mysteries was the happy afterlife initiates were promised.
In discussing the difference in focus between the all-female Thesmophoria and the Eleusinian Mysteries, classicist Marcia D. S. Dobson contends that the difference between the two cults could be based on gender, as women are closer to nature and therefore more accepting of death. She contends: “Because the male connection to the natural rhythms of life and death are not as immediate, a man experiences his mortality as a devastation of his individuality.” Rebelling against nature, men are at odds with the cyclical patterns of regeneration that the two goddesses represent; the assurance of a happy afterlife helps them overcome this dissonance. But are women any less interested in the notion of a happy afterlife than men?
It was during the Archaic era— when the Mysteries were in full swing— that the attitude toward death and afterlife began to shift in the Greek world. Prior to this era, death was viewed as part of the natural order of things and gloomily accepted. Over the course of time, however, as people began disconnecting themselves from the cyclical patterns of nature, death became more personal and a greater anxiety about it ensued.
Discussing changing attitudes toward death, scholar Christiane Sourvinous-Inwood, a leading voice on the Hellenic world, argues: “There was a shift in the attitudes in the Archaic period, from an acceptance of a familiar (hateful but not frightening) death, to the appearance of attitudes of greater anxiety and a more individual perception of one’s death, conducive to the creation of eschatologies involving a happy afterlife.”
Alas, the Elysian Fields awaited only those infrequent few who were bestowed with immortality by the gods. To be sure, until the Mysteries began to gain a foothold, afterlife for the ancient Greeks was a cheerless proposition. Regardless of achievements and position in life, kings and slaves alike could expect to spend eternity fluttering around endlessly in a shadowy underworld.
Even Achilles, war-hero great and demigod in life, was reduced to an insubstantial shade in dusty death: “No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus! By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man–Some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
After all, if such a dismal destiny awaited a near god, what chance did an average bloke have? At the end of the day, faced with the prospect of a happy afterlife, is it any wonder that the ancients were lining up in droves to become initiates in the Eleusinian Mysteries?
Written by Lauren Groff, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Romans had an enormous reverence for their ancestors and for death itself. What were their beliefs and customs surrounding the passing and burial of their loved ones?
Belief In the Afterlife
It was exceedingly important for the Romans to leave an enduring memory of themselves behind and one way they did this was by building elaborate tombs. They also demanded that family members have a feast in their honor on the tomb, so they would always be remembered. Some men ensured their memory by establishing funds of money, the interest from which was used for specific activities such as offering an annual feast for the people of their hometown.
Burial and Cremation
From the creation of Rome until about the mid-2nd century AD, cremation was the most common burial rite. The deceased would be taken to Rome’s necropolis (“city of the dead”) and placed upon a burning pyre. The ashes and remaining bone fragments were interned in a funerary urn. It was believed that the deceased’s “shade” (spirit) had not crossed the River Styx (the river that takes one from the World of the Living to the World of the Dead) until the body had been interred.
From the mid-2nd century on, burial became the preferred method of funeral rite. The deceased was placed inside a sarcophagus, which was often richly decorated. They were buried without their possessions, unlike other Mediterranean cultures.
Not everyone could afford a sarcophagus, however. Rome’s poorest were often tossed into pits called puticuli, meaning “to rot or decompose”. These pits held a mixture of human remains, animal corpses, garbage, and excrement. Some of them were large, containing 24,000 corpses each.
This wasn’t the best way to be buried, so anyone who could afford it would join a burial club. A burial club was a group that charged monthly dues and if one of the members died, you would pool the clubs money to bury that member. A fee of 100 sesterces was required to join, and new members were sometimes required to bring a jar of wine. Some of these clubs had a mixed membership of slaves and free people. If someone committed suicide, however, this person was considered to have forfeited his right to a funeral. Burial clubs had elaborate rules governing member functions.
The heirs of the deceased were responsible for the construction of their loved ones’ tombs. There were often stipulations on how the tomb was to be constructed or that the heir would not receive their inheritance until the deceased was buried in the specified manner. Many heirs resented this and included their names on the constructed tombs, sometimes taking up more prominence than the deceased relative themselves.
Funerals in Ancient Rome
A funeral began with a procession to the burial place. The corpse was carried in a bier (a bed-like tray). The procession was a loud and raucous affair. The wealthier and more famous the deceased was in life, the more ostentatious the funeral procession would be, with more musicians, actors, and even mimes. Professional mourners were hired to participate in the procession, ripping their hair out and wailing. The more professional the procession, the wealthier the deceased had been in life.
If the deceased had been an important member of state or had made a strong impression their family, then an eulogy for the deceased would be delivered. Many examples of eulogies have survived to this day.
The ancient Romans loved a feast, and funerals were no exception to this rule. It was a common practice to have a ritual feast after the cremation or burial of the deceased. Burials and funerals in Ancient Rome were an important part of Roman culture. Honoring one’s ancestors and remembering those that came before them was important to them.