The Eleusinian Mysteries

The Eleusinian mysteries were the most revered of all ancient mystery cults

Ten marble fragments of the Great Eleusinian Relief (ca. 27 B.C.–A.D. 14)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Eleusis is situated about 18 kilometres northwest from the centre of Athens. For over a thousand years the Eleusinian mysteries were celebrated every autumn at this place in honour of the Two Goddesses, Demeter and her daughter Persephone (known within the mysteries as Kore, the maiden). For most of that time men and women, including kings and emperors, came from all over the Mediterranean world to witness the sacred rites and be initiated in their secrets.

Hydria, Scene of Eleusinian Mysteries (front) (2e quart du IVe siècle av. J.-C.) by AnonymeMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

The Homeric hymn

Central to most interpretations of the Eleusinian mysteries is the story of the abduction of Persephone by Hades. Versions of the story were told across the Greek world, but the earliest surviving literary account of it is found in a poem directly associated with Eleusis, the so-called Homeric Hymn to Demeter, written sometime between 650 and 550 BCE. The hymn details how Demeter, in her sorrow over losing her daughter to the underworld, stops the grain from growing. To avoid a catastrophe, Persephone is allowed to return to the earth, but only during a certain time of the year. 

Terracotta altar with fertility goddesses and a panther mauling a bull (about 500 BC) by Museo Archeologico Regionale di GelaBritish Museum

At its core, the story is an explanation for the cyclical nature of agriculture: the time Persephone spends in the underworld represents the barren part of the year, while the time she spends with Demeter represents the fertile part of the year. In ancient Greece, winter was the busiest season for agriculture and might correspond to the time when Persephone and Demeter were together. The mysteries themselves were actually celebrated around the time for the autumn sowing.

Figurine Figurine (C. 430-370 B.C.) by UnknownMuseum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities

This terracotta figurine is likely a representation of Demeter, wearing a peplos and a wide polos...

Her curly hair and very voluminous hairdo is typical of Boeotian classical figurines...

The folds of the dress, along with her jewelry, are indicated by red paint...

Sculpture, Figurine Sculpture, Figurine (Early fourth century BC., Classical) by UnknownMuseum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities

This terracotta sculpture is likely a representation of Persephone...

sporting wavy hair...

and being crowned with a polos.

Votive Relief to Demeter and Kore (425–400 B.C.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The mysteries of the goddesses

The great festival of which the mysteries were a part lasted for a total of eight days. Two extended Eleusinian families, the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes, were responsible for the celebrations. On the day before the festival started, the 14 Boedromion, at the end of September or beginning of October, a procession of priests and priestesses would leave Eleusis to bring the hiera, the sacred objects of Demeter, to Athens. After a series of preparatory purifying rites, the festival moved to Eleusis itself. This time there were two processions over an equal number of days, one was led by the priests and priestesses returning the hiera and the other was made up of the aspiring initiates. After a 22-kilometre walk they reached the sanctuary and danced for Demeter and Kore outside its walls, by the Kallichoron Well, after which they finally entered the sacred grounds.

Architectural fragment by UnknownMuseum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities

Fragment of Corinthian (or composite) column capital; only one volute and part of an acanthus leaf preserved; drill-holes in leaf; plastic profile on the right hand side; yellowish white large-crystalline marble.

Figure, Figurine (Roman Period (30 BC-337 AD)) by UnknownMuseum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities

Figurine representing the goddess Demeter (or possibly Persephone)...

She is standing, resting slightly on her left leg...

Wearing a polos and a long chiton and on top of it a himation. On her head also a veil which falls in folds over her body...

Her left arm is held along her side...

...the right one is holding a torch which acts like a support on the right hand side.

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