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Eleusis

by Dr Alena Trckova-Flamee Ph.D.
Black Figured Vase with a Procession of Initiates.

Eleusis is the place, where the cult of the goddess Demeter existed many centuries and where the most famous religious festival, called the Eleusinian mysteries were performed in the honour of this deity. According to the "Homeric Hymn to Demeter" (7th century BCE), when the goddess Demeter was desparetely looking for her daughter (=Kore) Persephone -kidnapped by Aidoneus (Hades)- during her wandering she came to the city Eleusis. Here she was welcomed by the Queen Metaneria. To thank her, Demeter took care about prince Demophon. Each night she brought the boy near the fire to make him immortal and she fed him with the nectar and ambrosia of the Gods. When the childīs mother saw once at night what was happening, she was astonished. Demeter revealed, who she was and she asked to build a sanctuary in her honour to teach them secret rituals. She closed herself in the temple, troubled for her daughter and she did not allow any seed to grow from the fields until she saw her daughter again. So, Zeus decided, that Persephone will spend one third of a year with Aidoneus in the underworld and the other two thirds with her mother, Demeter. When Persephone is leaving to the underworld Demeter mourns for her and all nature is ready to die, to be reborn again in the spring, when she is coming back to her mother. The myth is a base for the explanation of the changing of nature and the different seasons during a year. Also there was a tradition spread out by the Athenians about the first civilization in Eleusis who were cultivating grain, the gift of Demeter to Triptolemos, the son of the Eleusinian king.

The sanctuary and its cult have roots in the Mycenaean period (1500 - 1425 BCE). The ritual was originally local and it could have had probably from the beginning an agrarian aspect. The Athenians established this cult as Panhellenic during the period of Peisistratus. It was florishing under the Roman supremacy until the proscription of the cult by Theodosius and the destruction of the sanctuary by the Goths about 400 AD.

The name "Eleusinian mysteries" is connected with two Greek words eleusis,- eos - arrival, tó mystírion - secrecy. The people were arriving to this place to performed secret rites. The mysteries were kept in absolute secrecy, so it was strictly forbidden to talk about them under penalty of death. Nevertheless we have some informations from the different sources - many reflections in the literature, the epigraphical evidence, the archaeological findings (architectonical, sculptural, paintings on the vases, votive objects, cult vessels) related to the Eleusinian religious rites. All of these materials are used for the reconstruction of events. But well known is mainly this part of the celebration, which was performed in public.

The ancient literature (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Pindar, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristoteles, Pausanias) contains only allusions to this theme. But the authors are writing without any doubt, that the mortals who participated in the initiations, were blessed. They knew the beginning and the end of life, they had the happinies, while the others - uninitiated, had only misery and after death murky dark. Christian writers tried to break a secrecy about the ritual. They were describing some details from the initiation act, like drinking from the kykeon ( a special mixture of barley, water and aromatic mint) and moving with sacred tools, kiste and kalathos (kiste - the sacred chest, kalathos - the basket closed with a lid), which only initiate (mystes) members knew what it concealed. Unfortunately they could not give more references about it. Some authors of modern literature are supposing, that the secret of the Eleusinian mysteries was based on the hallucinogenic ingredients in the kykeon.

The reliefs and vase paintings related to the Eleusinian mysteries are concentrated mainly around two themes. They are depicting the mythological story about blessing of agriculture for the earth and in the second case they illustrate the great proccesion from Athens to Eleusis. Triptolemos, receiving the seeds from the hands of Demeter, has to teach mankind how to cultivate the fields, while Kore keeps her hand over his head to protect him.This main story is depicted on the great Eleusinian relief ( from the half of the 5th century BCE.), exhibited in the Archaeological National Museum in Athens. The mission of Triptolemos, seated on the winged throne or chariot with the ears of corn in his hand, surrounded by Demeter and Kore with pine-torches, is an occasional representation on some black and red figured vases and the votive reliefs between the 6th and the 4th centuries BCE, when the myth about beginning of agriculture, connected with the Eleusinians, was very popular.

The procession of initiates with Kore and Iakchos in front of Demeter on the Ninnion Tablet (from the lst half of the 4th century BCE) in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens is showing many interesting details from the Eleusinian celebration. We are supposing that poeple arrived inside the sanctuary. Demeter with a sceptre is sitting on the sacred kiste and Kore with torches is introducing her initiates. Each of them is keeping branches, called bakchoi, which were swung rythmically along the thirty kilometers of the Sacred Way from Athens to Eleusis. The procession was moving with dancing attendants, some of them almost in ecstasy.

The second row of procession was led by torch-bearer Iakchos in the function of priest at the mysteries, who leads the way and holds torches for performance of the rites. He is standing near omphalos, while a further unknown figure sitting on the closed kiste, keeps in her hands a sceptre and a vessel. Probably she is a priestress of Demeter, carrying kiste with the sacred symbols during the procession and keeping a vessel with kykeon. On the pediment of this Tablet is represented Pannychis, the whole-night feast. The festal activities were accompanied by dances, -perhaps across the Rharian field-,(where as the myth is saying the first corn ever grew) and later on by a bull-sacrifice also in the court of the sanctuary.

The Eleusinian Mysteries had their fixed place in the calendar. The first stage of the initiation (Lesser Mysteries) were held usually in the spring in the month of Anthesterion (March). But it could take place also at various times in Eleusis or at the Eleusinion in Athens. The priests of the Mysteries prepared the candidates for receiving initiation (myesis). The first act was the sacrifice of a young pig, after which a purification ceremony followed.

The Great Mysteries were celebrated for nine dayes in the month of Boedromion (September). On the first day - the 14th of Boedromion the sacred symbols were brought from Eleusis to Athens. After the hierophant opened the festal time with an official proclamation (prorrhesis). On the 16th of the month the initiates went together to the sea at Phaleron to purify themselves by bathing. On the 17th the sacrifices were made at the Eleusinion and the next day the initiates stayed at home. On the 19th of the month the procession moved to Eleusis, carrying the sacred symbols of Demeter.

The gates of the sanctuary in Eleusis were open only for the initiates - men, women, foreigners who were admitted, but not murderers or barbarians. The initiation rites took place in the Telesterion building (which was made for several thousand people)on the 20th and 21st of the month.. On each of its sides there were the seats, from which initiates watched the mysteries. Almost in the center of the hall was built the Anaktoron(Palace), a rectangular stone construction for the sacred objects of Demeter. Only the hierophantes could enter it, to perform the rites and display their sacred things. Two classes of initiates participiated in the mysteries - the initiates, who took part for the first time and the others, who were present for at least a second time. The second group could attain epopteia, the highest stage of initiation, when the hierophant showed the greatest mystery. Next day the initiates honoured the dead with libations from special vases. On the 23rd of the month the celebrations took an end and everybody was returning home.


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