Today, in the Athenian calendar, was the fifth day of the month of Boedromion, the “month of seeking help,” the month of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which have intrigued scholars for centuries; because the contents of the Mysteries were an Athenian state secret, we cannot be sure we have any clear idea of what happened during them. The Mysteries fell into two periods: the earlier, in Anthesterion, was called the Lesser Mysteries, and probably involved a ritual or drama about the life, death, and resurrection of Dionysos; the later, in Boedromion, was called the Greater Mysteries, and was definitely centered on the myth of the Rape of Persephone, as told in the Greek poem called the Second Homeric Hymn to Demeter. It has often been thought that initiation into the Lesser Mysteries was required before initiation into the Greater Mysteries, but this does not seem feasible, since in Roman times many people came from around the Empire in Boedromion to be initiated at the Greater Mysteries. Clinton, in his Personnel of the Eleusinian Mysteries, insists that initiation into the Lesser Mysteries was never a prerequisite for initiation into the Greater, and mentions that about 2100 people were initiated in the year 408-7 B.C.E., which would imply a total attendance at the panegyris (festival) of the Mysteries of about 10,000, many of whom would have come from outside of Athens. It is not reasonable to suppose that they had made the same journey six months before. (Of course, it could be that the earlier requirements were liberalized during the Imperial period.)
The Mysteries, according to both Greek legend and archaeological data, originated around 1500 BCE, give or take many decades, and were at least in part imported from Crete. Preserved by the local families, the Mysteries underwent a theological reform, as evidenced by the Second Homeric Hymn to Demeter, around 700 BCE, that is, at about the same time that the Athenians annexed Eleusis to their state and made the Mysteries the official religion of the Athenian empire. The Mysteries remained the central rite of Greco-Roman paganism — every civilized person tried to make the pilgrimage to Eleusis at least once in a lifetime, just as Muslims now make their Hajj to Mecca — until the fifth century C.E., when an army of Christian monks was sent in by the Byzantine emperor to tear the buildings at Eleusis down to the ground brick by brick, in order to prevent the people from going there, as they had continued to do.
Despite the famous “secrecy” of the Mysteries, it was no more effective than “secrecy” of any other sort. We have more data about Eleusis than about any other pagan religion of antiquity, and we almost certainly do know what was done there. There is a famous story that Aeschylus, who was a native of Eleusis, as soon as his first tragedy had been produced, was called before a council of priests and accused of giving away the secret of the mysteries. Aeschylus, however, responded, “I didn’t know it was a secret” — which became a catchphrase in the classical world — and proceeded to demonstrate that, since he had never been initiated, it was the council of priests who were giving him information they were oathbound not to reveal. He was acquited, of course, and the Eleusinian families then proceeded to adopt the new costumes that Aeschylus had designed for his actors as the official ceremonial robes for the Mysteries: even in the classical world, life imitated art. Since this very first tragedy would have enacted scenes perfectly familiar to us from the Greek myths, we do know what happened at Eleusis — but we don’t know which myth holds the secret. Still, it is possible to make some educated guesses, and, as I will explain later, I believe that Professor Walter Burkert of Zürich has broken the code.
The fifth day of Boedromion was the Genesia or Nekusia or Nemesia, the clans’ feast of the dead, which began the preparations for the Mysteries. In “the ritual of the sacred plowing observed at Eleusis, . . . members of the old priestly family known as the Bouzygai or Ox-yokers uttered many curses as they guided the plough down the furrows of the Rarian plain.”(That’s in Frazer’s commentary on Apollodorus’ Library.) That “fair-tressed Demeter, yielding to her passion, lay in love with Iasion in the thrice-plowed field” (Odyssey 5.125-7) is the mythic analog to the folk ritual worked at this festival. As Plutarch (Moralia 144) comments about the three sacred plowings, “most sacred of all such sowings is the marital sowing and plowing for the procreation of children.” Obviously this Greek ritual, at the beginning of their growing season, is quite parallel to the fertility rituals in northern Europe associated with May Day or, as the Irish call it, Beltane.