For almost thousand years, the most exclusive society in the ancient world consisted of people initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Only the wise could be so honored; and wisdom, then as now, transcended gender, class, and country.
"Happy is he of the mortals who has seen this," wrote Homer. "In the dark kingdom of the shadows, the fate of the initiate and the uninitiated is not the same. Those mysteries of which no tongue can speak-only blessed is he whose eyes have seen them; his lot after death is not the lot of other men!"
Like most great cults, it began with a legend long since obscured in the mists of prehistory. It's site was Eleusis, north-west of Athens. Here Demeter, was reunited with her lost daughter Persephone. The site derives its potency from Demeter, a powerful figure in the Greek pantheon, symbolic of the Earth Mother, goddess of grain, fruitfulness, agriculture and civil laws.
The tale, recounted in one of the earliest Homeric Hymns, told how Persephone had attracted the attention of Hades, the dark Lord of the Underworld, who had carried her off to his realm beneath the earth. A distraught Demeter wandered the land, spreading famine by withholding her gifts of fruitfulness and causing crops to die. While she lingered at Eleusis with a family that had befriended her. Zeus persuaded Hades to return his captured bride.
But Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds in the Underworld, an act which obliged her to return to the shadowy domain for a third of every year. Nevertheless, Demeter and Persephone, in joyful reunion, became resigned to the annual parting and taught their Mysteries-an allegory of spring and rebirth- to the townspeople of Eleusis. Thereafter they annually re-enacted the celebration.
Very little is known about the Mysteries. The sacred rites took place in early autumn and the preliminary ceremonies lasted for nine days. They began with a gathering in Athens, when the names of that year's initiates would be read out.
They met the next day and each initiate would be in charge of a young pig. The procession would head to the sea, and the initiates would wash both themselves and the animals. Then they would sacrifice the pigs and set off along the Sacred Way-the 14 mile route to Eleusis-with much light-heartedness and many stops at temples and shrines.
By the time the processing arrived in Eleusis, it would be dark. The night would be spent near the well where Demeter was befriended, the celebrants dancing by the light of flickering torches to the music of a crude oboe the aulos, and crashing cymbals. Emulating Demeter's search, the participants would break their dancing to randomly search along the shore, ending their symbolic fast with a breakfast (according to the historian Clement of Alexandria) of barley water, wheat and sesame cakes, pomegranates, lumps of salt and young shoots of the fig tree.
Then, with growing tension, the crowd would assemble outside the telesterion, an immense hall with a roof supported by 42 massive columns. People gathered into two groups: the mystai, whose initiation was deferred for another year, and the epoptai, who were given a password and allowed to enter. On at least one occasion, men trying to bluff their way in without the password were put to death.
Certainly great efforts prevailed to see that no hint of what happened inside was conveyed to the uninitiated. The playwrite Aeschy-lus, born at Eleusis in 525 B.C., was accused of giving away the secrets in one of his plays. He escaped lynching only by proving that he had not been initiated.
Other ancients wrote about Eleusis. Cicero commented, "Nothing is higher that these Mysteries. They have sweetened our characters and softened our customs; they have made us pass from the condition of the savages to true humanity. They have not only shown us the way to live joyfully but they have taught us to die with better hope."
Aristotle said that one did not go to Eleusis to learn, but to experience certain emotions and to be put in a receptive frame of mind. And Aristophanes added, "To us alone initiated men, who act aright by stranger and by friend, the sun shines out to light us after death."
And in our era Jung explained. "the ordinary man was somehow liberated from his personal impotence and temporarily endowed with an almost superhuman quality. The conviction could be sustained for a long time and it gave a certain style to life and set a tone for a whole society."
The ancient Greeks believed in the necessity of understanding the soul and coming to terms with death by abolishing one's fear of it. This is a worthy state to achieve, and such persons who did so comprised an intellectual elite; self-confident, unencumbered by trivial concerns, truly free. The rites of Eleusis induced this happy condition.
At first the Mysteries attracted people of the locality. But with the rise to power of Athens, the cult expanded to include that city, altough the positions of authority-hierophant (high priest), daduchas (torch-bearer) and keryx (herald)-were always held by citizens of Eleusis.
For most of the centuries that Eleusis held sway, the city remained immune to outside strife. When Persian invaders burned down one temple, it was replaced with an even grander one. The new structure, of white marble, rose under the auspices of Pericles, whose favorite sculptor Ictinus had already achieved fame the Parthenon. The new Eleusinian temple's "beauty and prodigious magnitude"-230 feet long by 180 feet wide-excited a degree of astonishment equaled only by the awe that its sanctity evoked.
But this too, eventually fell. In the 4th century A.D. Alaric the Goth laid waste to the whole surrounding province of Attica. Shortly thereafter, the Roman emperor Theodosius struck down most pagan temples, and the ruins of Eleusis lay untended and forgotten for centuries. In 1675, George Wheler an English traveler, noted, "One of the first things we came to was the stately temple of Ceres (Demeter's Latin name), now laid prostrate on the ground, not having one stone upon another, for it lyeth all in a confused heap together."
Half a century later, another Englishman observed "the bust of a colossal statue of excellent workmanship maimed and the face disfigured. A tradition prevails that if the broken statue be removed, the fertility of the land will cease." This belief which first surfaced in Cicero's writings, still had currency at the end 18th century when country folk could be observed dancing around the statue on the Full Moon at harvest time.
In 1801, over local objections, two British academics who had bribed the Turkish governor removed the statue to Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, where it remains today. Compounding their theft, they boasted about it in a pamphlet published in England shortly afterwards, explaining that their coup "required equal promptness and secrecy amidst the opposition to be expected from a herd of idle and mercenary Greeks."
Whether there is anything to the old belief that the fertility of the land would cease with the statue's removal can be judged by today's visitors. They view only a region made arid and dusty by the heat, smoke, and debris from the surrounding oil refineries and industry. Doubtless the area prospers judging by the numerous shipyards and by the processing of oil, soap and aluminum. But the ecological cost has been high. For miles around, the trees, turning wistfully toward the sun, appear to be choking from pollution unknown in previous centuries.
Because of its industrial nature, Eleusis is not popular with tourists. This is unfortunate, because the sacred site is only a half-hour bus ride from Athens and here and there you can discover much of its original mystical charm-all the more so, ironically, because of its relative lack of attention.
Immense broken pillars lie everywhere, many with ancient lettering still visible, and patches of blue and white tile in intricate patterns define the areas of ancient floors. Great stone stairways lead up the gentle tree-clad hill behind the remains of the vast telesterion, it's back to the rock and frontal facade toward the early-morning sun. Underground chambers and what remains of the ceremonial well lie almost overgrown with waist-high grass.
In the adjoining museum are a plaster reconstruction of the ancient site, marble pigs, and statues of Demeter with chipped faces. A tab-leau depicts what may be rites from the Eleusinian Mysteries-but who can really know about this most famous of human secrets? Over it all seem to hover the lovely spirits of the eternal mother and daughter, Demeter and Persephone. And from below, perhaps a hint of a rumble from the everpresent god of the netherworld.
"Then you will find a breath about your ears
Of music, and a light about your eyes
Most beautiful-like this-
and myrtle groves,
And joyous throngs
of women and of men,
From Mystical & Magical Sites, by Elizabeth Pepper & John Wilcock, Phanes Press, 1992.