Today Only! The Secret of the Eleusinian Mysteries

Boedromion 22

The central event in the Mysteries is the night-long ritual in the Telesterion, the Hall of Initiation.  The initiates stand on raised steps around the edges of the Telesterion, and see and hear something like a ritual drama. (That the rituals lasted all night is stated by Clinton, p. 38, citing I.G. II2, 3639; see also Greek Anthology, XI, Epigram 42.)  As Plutarch (Moralia, 81d-e) describes, “Just as persons who are being initiated into the Mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting, and jostle against one another, but when the holy rites are being performed and disclosed, the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence . . . he who has succeeded in getting inside and has seen a great light, as though a shrine were opened, adopts another bearing, of silence and amazement, and, humble and orderly, attends upon” the gods.  Similarly, Dio Chrysotom (Discourse 12, 33) says, “This is like placing a man in a mystic shrine of extraordinary beauty and size to be initiated.  There he would see many mystic sights and hear many mystic voices, light and darkness would appear to him alternately, and a thousand other things would occur.” Galen mentions that an initiate would have given himself up “wholly to the things done and said by the Hierophants” (Galen, de Usu. Part., 7.14.469, cited by Harrison, Prolegomena, p. 157). Lucius of Apulia (The Golden Ass, 11.23) says of his own initiation, “I approached near to hell, even to the gates of Persephone, and after I was ravished throughout all the elements, I returned to my proper place.  About midnight I saw the sun brightly shine.  Likewise I saw the Gods celestial and infernal, before whom I presented myself and worshipped them.”  (For a similar description, see Plutarch, Moralia, frag.178).  Perhaps this is metaphor, but it could easily be a description of an initiation.

Proklos (Platonic Theology, p. 7)  relates that, “In the most holy Mysteries, the initiates at first meet many sorts of spirits . . ., but on entering the interior of the temple, . . . they genuinely receive divine illumination, and divested of their garments [my italics] they participate in the divine nature.”  Proklos, as a devout dualist, obviously disapproves, but I think this must look familiar to any modern Witch. It is very difficult to assign a sequence to the events that may have taken place in the Telesterion, but I think Harrison’s logic holds water: the Sacred Marriage, if there was one, would probably have been celebrated before the birth of the Sacred Child.

Asterius (as cited by Harrison, Prolegomena, p. 563) wrote, “Isn’t there the descent into darkness, the sacred intercourse of Hierophant with Priestess, he and her alone?  Aren’t the torches extinguished?  Doesn’t the vast assembly believe that what is done by the two in darkness is their salvation?”  Maybe he was misinformed about Eleusis; yet his words describe precisely the attitude of Witches toward the Great Rite.

Next the doors of the central chamber, the Anaktoron, are thrown open in a flood of light from a great fire that can be seen for miles from the open roof of the Telesterion (it is referred to by Plutarch, Themistocles, 15.1), and the Hierophant appears, displaying an ear of wheat to the silent crowd and shouting, “Holy Brimo has brought forth a mighty son, Brimos!” (See Burkert, Homo Necans, for a convincing argument why this passage from Hippolytus, 5.4, is trustworthy.  Brimo is a title of Hecate, who seems to complete a triad with Kore and Demeter; see Apollonios of Rhodes, Argonautica, 861-2, 1211, and Lycophron, Alexandra, 1175ff. Propertius 2.2.11 presents this Hecate Brimo as a lover of the Hermes who is a major deity of the Samothracian Mysteries.  This line also seems to be reflected in Euripides, Suppliants, 54, which takes place at Eleusis.)  We know that the Hierophant displayed the “secret sacred objects” (and that is what his title means) kept in the Anaktoron, into which only he was allowed, as only the High Priest of Jerusalem was allowed into the innermost sanctuary in that temple; and that he had an extensive speaking or singing part in the proceedings, partly from within the Anaktoron (see Clinton, pp. 39 & 46, citing I.G. II2, 3411, and Aelian, Varia Historia, frag. 10).  He may have carried the sacred objects around the Telesterion in a procession, followed by all the other priests and priestesses (Clinton, p. 47.); this would be parallel with the Torah procession in the synagogue.  There was also much dancing; Lucian commented that there are no Mysteries without dancing, and that those who violate the secrecy of the Mysteries are said to “dance them out” (Lucian, The Dance, 15).

With a rolling beat upon a gong that produces a roar louder than a jet plane (Ovid, Art of Love, 610; Harrison, Prolegomena, p. 140, citing Apollodorus of Athens as quoted by the scholiast on Theocritus, Idylls, 2.10; Olivier Messiaen, scholar and classicist that he is, uses this sound in his Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuis, “I Expect the Resurrection of the Dead.”), Persephone herself appears — or so her priestess would have appeared, to the eyes of faith (see Clinton, p. 47, and the sources he cites).

Perhaps at this point in the proceedings her wedding to Hades was celebrated. What Psellus says (or his source said) is that the words, “I have eaten from the drum, I have drunk from the cymbal, I have carried the kernos, I have entered the bridal chamber,” were sung as an accompaniment to the Anakalypteria of Kore; this term might mean only unveiling (its literal meaning is “raising up the veil”) or reappearance, but it is the common Greek term for a wedding. (See also the scholiast on Plato, Gorgias, 497C, cited by Harrison, Prolegomena, p. 158.)

Walter Burkert also argues in Homo Necans that another key event would have focused on the pais ap’hestia, the “child initiated from the hearth,” who was the ritual analog of the infant Demophon, “voice of the people,” whom Demeter attempted to immortalize by fire.  Burkert argues that the child, doped with opium from Demeter’s own poppies, is placed in a swing and swung through the fire — but when the swing returns, in it is a black ram, which is then sacrificed, and its fleece used for the next year’s initiates.  Obviously this ritual is the Greek analog to the story of Abraham and Isaac, and it seems fitting that the same story should turn out to underlie both Greek and Hebrew religion, whose roots all go back to eastern Mediterranean culture of ca. 1500 B.C.E.  Just as the Mysteries began at the full moon nearest to the fall equinox, the story of Abraham and Isaac is the portion read in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah (so I have been informed by my colleague Deborah Bender), which always also falls near the fall equinox. Clearly the association of the fall equinox with a story of a child rescued from death was widespread.

Burkert also argues that the key to the Greeks’ strong feelings about the ritual at Eleusis is that during it they were formally adopted as children of Demeter — perhaps in a ritual that involved marching under her throne (e.g., see the ritual described at the end of the final myth in Plato’s Republic) — so that when they went before Persephone’s throne, they would be judged according to the rules for kin, not those for strangers — and that made all the difference in the world for Greeks.


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