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.