|The Eleusinian Mysteries began on the 15th day of the Greek lunar month of Boedromion and ended nine days later. (Other writers mention the autumn equinox as the starting date and certainly the full moon nearest the autumn equinox, what we call the Harvest Moon, would be an appropriate time to celebrate the mysteries of the grain and its transformation).
For centuries, people came from all over the world to Eleusis to participate in a series of structured rituals, which produced a change of consciousness in the participants (much like the mystery-religions of today, which generally call themselves other things). Most of the initiates were women, but men (including Sophocles, Aristides and Cicero) also took part. Participants were instructed to keep secret what happened during the mysteries - very likely the experiences were hard to put into words.
The first day was called the Day of Assembly when those who had participated in the purification rituals during the spring of the previous year, processed from Athens to Eleusis, carrying symbols of Demeter. The second day the initiates bathed in the ocean and dressed in new linen clothing. The following days were spent re-enacting Demeter's search for her missing daughter. The culmination of the mystery took place on Holy Night in a subterranean temple where the initiates waited in darkness. Probably there was a ritual drama. The early Christian fathers who disapproved of the rites claimed that the heirophant and the priestess had sex. According to Hippolytus, the revelation at the heart of the ritual was the display of "the mighty and wonderful and most perfect mystery - a harvested ear of corn - in silence."
In silence is the seed of wisdom gained.
Does not the real secret of every mystery lie in its simplicity?
Kerenyi, Introduction to Mythology, p 248
Through this revelation, the initiates recognized their own immortality and divinity. Plutarch wrote about his initiation: When a man dies he is like those who are initiated into the Mysteries. Our whole life is a journey by torturous ways without outlet. At the moment of quitting it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances and holy apparitions.
I approached the confines of Death, and, having trodden on the threshold of Proserpina, returned, having been carried through all the elements, to the depths of midnight I saw the sun glittering with a splendid light, together with the infernal and supernal gods, and to these divinities approaching, I paid the tribute of devout adoration.
The Golden Ass, p. xi
Although the central revelation of the Mysteries is still a mystery, we can speculate about it. We know that the myth of Demeter was the focus of the Mysteries. When her daughter disappears, Demeter wanders the earth, night and day, carrying a torch and grieving. Since she is the goddess of fertility (Mother Nature is a contemporary equivalent), when she withdraws from the world, the earth becomes barren. During her search, she stays at Eleusis where she encounters two old women who try to cheer her up: Iambe, who tells her lascivious verses and Baubo, who after giving Demeter barley-water, lifts up her skirts and pretends to give birth to Demeter's own son, Iacchus. Eventually Demeter learns that her daughter has been kidnapped by Hades, the King of the Underworld and is now known as Persephone, the Queen of the Dead. With the help of Hecate, she gets Zeus to agree to release her daughter, if she has not eaten the food of the dead. But Kore has eaten some pomegranate seeds, a wonderful symbol of fertility and sexuality - in some versions of the myth, she's pregnant or has given birth to a son. Because of this, she must spend three months of every year in the Underworld. This myth has many levels of meaning. It introduces the Goddess in her triple aspect - the young maiden (Kore's name derives from the same word as corn or kernel, a seed), the mother whose bountiful presence enriches the earth, and the Queen of the Dead. Robert Graves points out that at one time only women practised the mysteries of agriculture. He equates Kore with the green corn, Persephone with the ripe corn and Hecate with the harvested corn. The myth also explains the death of vegetation at autumn equinox (when Persephone descends into the Underworld) and its re-emergence in spring. It was said of those who were initiated at Eleusis that they no longer feared death and it seems that this myth confirms the cyclical view of life central to pagan spirituality: that death is part of the cycle of life and is always followed by rebirth. This belief is underscored by the predominance of agricultural imagery in the myth and the Mysteries. The Autumn is the time of the Transformation Mysteries, when grain is turned into bread, grapes into wine, barley into beer. In the old songs about John Barleycorn, it is made clear that the grain dies to give us life. But not all grain is converted into food and drink. Some of it is stored in seed form, often in stone caskets reminiscent of burial urns, to be sowed again in spring, the promise of new life. The ear of ripe corn mentioned by Hippolytus conveys all of these meanings.
According to Durdin-Robertson's selections from various writers, the various days of the Mysteries featured these activities:
1) The Day of Assembly
Procession from Athens to Eleusis, with matrons carrying the symbols of Demeter.
2) Seaward, Initiates!
Initiates bathed in the ocean, then put on new linen clothes.
3) Hither the Pig Victims!
Building of an altar around a tree, burning incense, pouring libations, sacrifice of pigs (sacred to Demeter), offerings of barley.
A procession honoring Demeter, her representative is carried around in a cart and hailed, dancing. Or a mini-festival of Epidaurus and his daughter Hygeieia
5) Torch Day
Initiates march carrying lit torches, looking for the Kore. Matrons carry baskets filled with "Holy Things." Clement of Alexandria (a Church Father who disapproved of the whole thing) mentions sesame cakes, pyramid and spherical cakes, cakes with many navels, balls of salt, a serpent, pomegranates, fig branches, fennel stalks, ivy leaves, round cakes and poppies. Also symbols of Ge Themis, marjoram, a lamp, a sword and a woman's comb, which Clement says is a euphemistic expression used in the mysteries for a woman's private parts.
6) Holy Night
The initiates, wearing dark robes and carrying pilgrim staffs and myrtle branches, follow two figures dressed as Iacchos and his mother, Demeter, along the Sacred Way. They stop at a sacred fig tree and cross two bridges. At one of the bridges they encounter Baubo who tries to lighten Demeter's heavy mood by lifting up her skirts and making the goddess laugh. At the second bridge, they pass through some sort of challenge, which requires knowing a password. They also drank kykeon, a special drink sometimes described as (fermented?) wheat gruel blended with mint and sometimes described as hallucinogenic. They pass through the Entrance to the Mysteries and enter the Initiation Hall. The Heirophant invokes Kore, as Queen of Hell. Then a huge fire blazes up and they see the beatific vision.
7) Sports Day:
Athletic games and races, with the winners given barley.
8) Second Initiation:
Perhaps a repeat for those who had not fully grasped the Mysteries the first time through, or a confirmation of what had been realized at that time. Took place in caves.
9) Pourings of Plenty:
Two vessels of water are poured out in the directions of east and west, a ritual which reminds me of the water pouring (to invoke rain) which follows the Jewish full moon festival of Sukkoth.
For a rich and provocative look at the myth of Demeter and Persephone, read Death's Daughter, Life's Bride by Kathie Carlson, Shambhala 1998.
Also see Robert Graves version and interpretation in The Greek Myths, Penguin 1955.
Durdin-Robertson, Lawrence, The Year of the Goddess, Aquarian Press 1990
Fitzgerald, Waverly, Celebrating the Seasonal Holy-Days, Priestess of Swords Press 1991.
||Demeter, Triptolemus, Persephone