On a recent trip to Greece I had the opportunity to explore the ruined sanctuaries of the Eleusinian Mysteries, so named after the sacred city of Eleusis (modern Elefsina – 12 miles northwest of Athens), where ancient rituals of death and rebirth were once preformed.
The mysteries, which appear to have an eastern origin, were introduced into Greek culture by Mycenaean priest-kings during the late Bronze Age, circa 1,100 – 1,600 BC.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were regarded as sacred by all strata of Greek society. Although they died out in late Roman times, a faint memory has been preserved in the Masonic 3rd degree ritual, which continues to ‘raise’ initiates in a symbolic death and resurrection ceremony to this day.
Like modern day Freemasonry, to which I am no stranger, the Eleusinian Mysteries were open to initiates of all walks of life, but there were prerequisites to the ‘greater’ mysteries.
Details of the earliest rituals conducted at Eleusis have been clouded by the mist of time. And no wonder, settlement at Eleusis dates back nearly 4000 years. What we do know is that later day rituals appear to have been based on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which was written in the 8th century BC.
The ‘lesser mysteries’ took place in Athens in mid February in a sanctuary called the Agra, near Olympic Stadium. It is believed that the rituals contained a sexual element or theme.
The ‘lesser mysteries’ served as prerequisites for the ‘greater mysteries’, which took place around the 22nd of September (in our modern calendar) and lasted for 9 days; symbolic of Detemer’s 9 day wandering in search of her abducted daughter, Kore.
The high priests from Eleusis were escorted by a torchbearer along the 12 mile ‘sacred way’ to Athens. Upon arrival in Athens, sacrifices were made to Athena at the Acropolis, to bless the forthcoming ceremony.
In preparation for the procession to Eleusis, ceremonies took place in the nearby Agora, including the bathing, bloodletting, sacrifice and burial of a pig by each initiate. This signalled the start of the symbolic process of letting go, or the death of one’s ‘self’.
Several days of ceremony ensued before the day of Gathering, or agrymos, when the initiates would assemble in the Agora at the Eleusinion, a temple dedicated to the mysteries, to prepare for the pilgrimage to Eleusis. This took place on or around the 27th of September, and from this point onward, the initiates were sworn to secrecy.
From the Eleusinion, the procession of initiates, called mystai, were led by priest and priestess through the Agora to the Kerameikos, Athens ancient cemetery.
The theme of death, the shedding of ones former ‘self’, intensifies from this point onwards. In addition to the Dipylon (or double) Gate – the grandest in the world in its day, the Kerameikos boasted the Sacred Gate, which marked the start of the official procession to Eleusis.
From the sacred gate, the mystai process for several miles along the ‘avenue of tombs’, again focusing the initiates mind on death.
Next, the mystai were led to a particular spot where gephyrismoi, or ‘bridge gests’ were preformed. This consisted of what we would call hazing, or mockery. The ‘gests’ were highly personal, and were intended to further ‘kill’ the individuals concept of self.
Darkness would have descended by the time the mystai arrived in Eleusis. Here they would begin a two day period of initiation. The rituals were highly secretive, but are believed to have included ceremonies at the ancient well of Demeter and the nearby Cave of Hades, which was thought to be the entrance to the underworld, as recounted in the Hymn to Demeter. Here initiates are believed to have prayed in the presence of an omphalos, the navel of the world.
The ceremony climaxed at the Telesterion, a specially designed temple for the initiation of mystai. Initially, the Telesterion was modest and quite intimate in size. Later, it was rebuilt to accommodate 3000 initiates.
It is believed that prior to entering the great hall the high priest would administer an entheogen to enhance the initiate’s experience of re-birth.
Archaeologists believe that part of the secret of the ritual was the re-enactment of the reunion of Kore, or Persephone as she was known to the mystai, and Demeter. Persephone’s return from darkness is believed to have triggered a hallucinogenic inspired reaction in the initiate, symbolising the rebirth of their new self.
Once the mysteries had completed, the mystai returned to the Eleusinion in the Agora in Athens to confer with the ‘council of 500’, an act that illustrates how important the mysteries were to Greek society.
Historians tell us that the reason the Eleusinian Mysteries were permitted to carry on until late Roman times was the fear that failure to pay homage to the reunion Demeter and Kore would result in nothing short of the death of Greece, and the obliteration of mother earth itself.