The Legend of Eleusis - Ch. 1 "The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites" by Dudley Wright

The Eleusinian Myth

Within the culture of Ancient Greece existed certain religious ceremonies dedicated to particular gods and goddesses. Some being more well known than others, like the ones to Bacchus. But most well known were those mysteries which were celebrated in honor of the goddess Demeter. The different myths and legends which provide the origin of these rites center them on the city of Eleusis. It was there that Demeter spent time in search of her daughter and taught the people how to worship her. One of the key aspects of these rites is their secrecy, requiring one to be initiated into them. In this post I lay out the basics of the Eleusinian Myth which sparked what would become the most widespread of religious ceremonies in the pagan world. 

The Myth
The Greek myth which makes up the foundation for the mystery rites at Eleusis is a legend about Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. It begins one day with Persephone out picking flowers when she is abducted by Hades and taken into the underworld. Supposedly Zeus had given permission for this abduction, but her mother, Demeter, certainly did not. By the time that Demeter got there, Persephone was gone, and no one was willing to tell her who had taken her daughter. "For nine nights and days she wandered, torch in hand, in quest of her child. Eventually, however, she heard from Helios (the sun) the name of the seducer and his accomplice."

Being angry at Zeus and the other gods of Olympus, she left them and came to earth in the disguise of an old woman wandering the land with a torch. Eventually she ends up in the city of Eleusis. There she interacts with the royal family and is brought in to educate their son. Little do they know that Demeter is attempting to make her son immortal. "Unknown to the parents Demeter used to anoint Demophon by day with ambrosia, and hide him by night in the fire like a firebrand. Detected one night by Metanira, she was compelled to reveal herself as Demeter, the goddess. Whereupon she directed the Eleusinians to erect a temple as a peace-offering, and, this being done, she initiated them into the form of worship which would obtain for them her goodwill and favor." 2 

Of course she still misses her daughter, though, and as a result she turned the whole earth unharvestable for a whole year. This caused chaos in that man almost died out, and the gods didn't receive their sacrifices from man. Thus, Zeus was forced to send his messenger to tell Hades to restore Persephone to her mother. "Hades yielded, but before Persephone left she took from the hand of Pluto four pomegranate pips which he offered her as sustenance on her journey." 3 This was done as a trick to her. And so when Persephone arrived at the new temple in Eleusis to meet her mother, her mother asked if she had eaten anything along the way. She, indeed, had consumed the four pomegranate pips and this Hades had a made a condition of her release, that she not take anything with her from Hades. And so Demeter is forced to allow Persephone to go down to Hades for four months of the year, ever year, forever. While the other eight months she can be with her mother. Demeter finally allowed the harvest to return and the people to survive. Demeter then called together the princes of Eleusis and taught them sacred rites of worship, though these rites could not be divulged to another who was not initiated into them. 4

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Other Versions
There is another version of this story outside the Orphic Hymn which was found in a library in Russia. "The earliest mention of the Temple of Demeter at Eleusis occurs in t he Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which has already been mentioned. This was not written by Homer, but by some poet versed in Homeric lore, and its probably date is about 600 B.C.. It was discovered a little over a hundred years ago in an monastery library at Moscow, and now reposes in a museum at Leyden." This version includes the perspective of Persephone as she is being abducted. 5 

There's another version told by an author named "Minucius Felix" in which Persephone is brought to a cave by Hades where she afterwards holds power of dead spirits. In a yet another version, Poseidon falls in love with Demeter as she is looking for her daughter. She tries to hide from him by turning into a horse, but he also transforms himself into a horse to attempt to seduce her. Demeter then hid herself in a cave to get away from him and during that time the crops were affected. Finally, Pan discovers her and makes Zeus aware of where she is and the pestilence ends. 6 

The Spread of the Mysteries to Athens
When Eleusis came under control of the Athenians the mysteries spread to Athens, as well as all around the Panhellenic region, including to the Romans. Even so, the secrets of the rite retained their power. Even Theseus is criticized for having tried to force his way into the rites without permission. "... Theseus was a living character who once forced his way into the Eleusinian Mysteries, for which crime he was imprisoned on earth and afterwards damned in the infernal regions." 7 Of course it was within Eleusis where the rites were celebrated most frequently and with greater solemnity. 8 Even Cicero writes about them. He said, "Much that is excellent and divine does Athens seem to me to have produced and added to our life, but nothing better than those Mysteries by which we are formed and moulded from a rude and savage state of humanity; and indeed, in the Mysteries we perceive the real principles of life, and learn not only to live happily, but to die with a fairer hope." Overall, it is consensus that these were the greatest religious ceremonies in Ancient Greece. 9
1 - Wright, Dudley. Eleusinian Mystery & Rites. (Glastonbury, UK. The Lost Library, 2016.) Pg. 17.
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