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.


  • Dave Burwasser

    Some of these accounts, particularly that of Lucius, suggest that entheogens might have been involved.

  • thehouseofvines

    I’ve enjoyed this series up to now. But seriously? You just lump in every quote that mentions mysteries as if they refer to the Eleusinian mysteries? Even though context makes it perfectly clear that at least half of those were talking about mystery rites conducted elsewhere and in some cases for completely different deities. And also have you read a book on basic archaeology about Eleusis? Because I’d like to know where this stage for the sacred drama is located. (Hint: Not at Eleusis. There’s nothing at the site even remotely like that, especially if this performance is supposed to be seen by thousands of pilgrims.) Also, please just slap the stupid out of that dude above who suggests entheogens were part of Eleusis. Anyone who 1) has a modicum of common sense or 2) has actually read the sources or 3) actually ever done drugs themselves would know the impossibility of this.

  • Fritz Muntean

    I agree with ‘houseofvines’ about the unlikelihood of entheogens at Eleusis. This theory was originally proposed by Ruck and Wasson in their 1978 book “The Road to Eleusis”.

    About that book . . .
    Back in the ’60s, lots of us assumed that anything really weird was happening (or had happened back in History) that ‘those people MUST have been STONED’.
    After a while, we started deciding that 1) being stoned was not really all that weird, and 2) ‘being weird’ was pretty subjective.
    But a couple of the authors of this book had written scholarly papers during the ’60s about the (possible) role of entheogens (the substances, most of them vegetable alkaloids, formerly known as ‘psychedelics’) in world history. Virtually all of their dependable information came from experiences (not all their own) in Mezzo and South America — but the very idea of ‘dependable’ gets kinda shaky when these experiences take place deep in the jungle — and some of the details are just a bit difficult to . . . um . . . remember.
    At any rate, Ruck and Wasson claimed to have found evidence of the use of these drugs in Indo-European religious institutions — especially those involving ritualized visionary experiences. And they said they were in the process of writing a book proving that entheogens were central to the Eleusinian experience. And they’d roped Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who invented LSD, into working on it with them. Oh boy, oh boy!
    And so we waited. And waited. And waited.
    Finally, over a decade later, in ’78, the book appeared, and we all ran right out and bought copies.
    First of all, the book itself seemed kinda thin. 190-odd pages? Not very substantial for a scholarly work. And then we read it. Our first reaction was something like ‘That’s IT?’ ‘That’s all you managed to ‘discover’ about the use of entheogens at Eleusis?’ ‘Give us a break!’
    For one thing, the amount of dependable information about Eleusis that we had to work with in the ’60s was pretty thin itself. But by the late ’70s, lots of newly-discovered details had emerged. By then we knew a LOT about Eleusis, and the idea that people had had these profound experiences there simply because they were stoned didn’t seem compatible with much (or really any) of what we then knew — about either the Mysteries themselves. Or about being stoned.
    And then the scholarly reviews started coming in. Embarrassing is hardly the word for it. The book and its authors kinda slunk off, disappearing (at least from the academic world) except as kind of a footnote to human folly. From our point of view, as ‘scholar/practitioners’, the whole thing was yet another proof of the well-known mushroom pickers’ axiom — that the more mushrooms you eat, the more you find. Either growing in the grass — or popping up in ancient history.
    And now, over 30 years later, the book is making the rounds again. But this time, the academic community (the reviewers) are taking no notice of it, and its new generation of readers don’t have the volume of experience with the use of psychedelic drugs in ritual that we denizens of the ’60/70s did.
    Something very much like this happened back once before. In 1921, Margaret Murray wrote ‘Witch Cult in Western Europe’ (and followed it up 10 years later with ‘The God of the Witches’ — same material, written for a more popular audience). Both books pretty much disappeared under a virtual avalanche of scholarly disdain. But in the late ’50s, the second book was published in the US, and became (in the absence of any critical assessment) enormously popular.

    I don’t have Ruck & Wasson’s book handy. I read it when it came out (35-odd years ago), and again for a paper I wrote about Eleusis for an undergrad class at UBC about 20 years ago. But here, in a nutshell, is the argument as I remember it.

    Ruck and Wasson (and all the rest of us) were intrigued by the fact that many our sources insist that all the participants at Eleusis had a visionary experience. An enactment of the dramatic elements of the Homeric Hymn could have been seen by all the initiates, especially if they took place within the Sanctuary walls (as Burkert states in his Greek Religion) around the very landmarks consecrated by the actual presence of Demeter. But once the ceremonies moved inside the Telesterion, the view of what the Heirophant did at the moment of the vision would have been obscured for many of the participants by the forest of columns that supported the roof. Not to mention the high back of the Heirophant’s throne, and the Anaktron itself, on top of which a great fire was said to burn at the moment of the revelation of the Mysteries. Burkert further recounts (in Ancient Mystery Cults) the story that a man who was blind was able behold the sacred exhibition. Mysteries were to be ‘seen’ at Eleusis, apparently even by the blind.

    And Plutarch writes of ‘Nights lit by a Light more Fair than Day’, as he states that the initiates were caused to simultaneously share feelings, sufferings, and ‘Certain Psychic Moods’.

    It was observations and stories like these that led R & W to propose that perhaps the kykeon, the sacred ritual beverage of Eleusis, was a psychedelic potion. We know virtually nothing about this drink (except the obvious — that it was based on barley and some kind of mint), not even when it was served during the ceremony. So we can safely assume that it most likely belonged to the most secret/sacred portion of the festival.

    All these are the points that the arguments of R & W take off from, but the proposal Ruck makes, that what the Hierophant ‘showed’ were not necessarily sacred OBJECTS, but “the very experience and ceremony of religion itself: the entire realm of the holy” is a pretty big jump from the epigraphal evidence (or lack of it) at hand. He quotes Euripedes’ Cyclops, in which Odysseus gives the monster undiluted wine that required at least 8 part of water to be drunk safely, and the Cyclops becomes drunk after just one sip of this wine taken straight. So to Ruck this suggests that the inclusion of psychotropic botanicals was a common practice in the ancient world. Somewhere else in the book, one of these guys tells the tale of time Demeter got drunk on the divine inebriant nektar, and copulates (in the famous ‘thrice-plowed field’) with Iasion, whose name, we are told, means ‘The Man of the Drug’.

    I’m not a philologist, but this is all-too-typical of the authors’ frequent and lengthy exercises in word play. And it seems to me more like the non-sequitur ramblings of Robert Graves than anything constructive I’ve ever read in the field.

    The undeniable fact is this — psychedelic drugs (all the hopes and dreams of us denizens of the ’60s notwithstanding) are notorious for NOT producing predictable, reproducible, and uniform visionary experiences in groups of people (especially large groups of people). I mean seriously — what entheogen do YOU know of that would work in this way? Back in the day, hopes were high that there might somewhere BE such a drug. But now? Not so much.

    Furthermore, let’s keep in mind that the Eleusinian initiates were citizens of the ancient world, and their imaginations had not been stupefied by media bombardment. Being in the enthusiastic company of (from our point of view) unbelievably like-minded people, they were wide open to the experience of miracles. The ability to encounter the miraculous in the carefully crafted container of a religious ritual is by no means limited to the pagans cults of antiquity. Christian songs and sermons speak of ‘the unmitigated presence of God in the Mass’ as if it were a foregone conclusion. And although an individual’s willingness to undergo such an experience may vary, it can be heightened by fasting and keeping a vigil through the night. We should be willing to seriously consider the idea that those who participated in the Mysteries may have experienced what they believed to be a miraculous vision — an authentic divine epiphany. But that it was generated — and we can do this today — through the careful creation and the emphatic administration of an intense ritual experience.

    • thehouseofvines

      Brilliantly said. My partner Dver also recently posted something debunking the theory that ergot was used at Eleusis:

    • Garlic Clove

      That was the best response to anything ever. While I enjoyed the above article, I think you gave certain parts of it so much context. I hope others bother to scroll down and read it. However, I only saw one mention of drugs in the above article, the mention of a child who was sedated, not the whole assembly. Still, I feel like this article would make a good side-by-side piece with the above.

  • Kate Gladstone

    How was the _pais_ap’hestia_ chosen?

    • aidanakelly

      I think by lottery from the short list of qualified children: both parents living, family of good moral character, etc.

  • Gaddy

    Thank you, Mr. Kelly for a most informative series. I will spend a long, long time reading and re-reading this I’m trying to absorb all the information that you wrote here over the past month.

    having never delved into the subject at any length, especially in a collegiate graduate study program, I had no idea that so much was actually known about these Mysteries.

    Curious that the mere suggestion that drugs were used on one specific initiate (specifically one who’s position was special, even among the other initiates) has caused such uproar. It’s not as if Mr. Kelly has proposed that everyone there was just so high that they all hallucinated everything, and that’s why all accounts of the rituals sound so whacky!

    What gives?

    • Dave Burwasser

      It wasn’t even Mr Kelly’s post that produced the uproar; it was my speculation.

  • aidanakelly

    Sedating the child before the fire swing is totally not the same as “Everybody must get stoned.” And the basic problem with the idea of entheogens is that it is being proposed by skeptics who cannot imagine what a conversion experience is actually like or even believe that such an experience exists.

    • Dave Burwasser

      I must disagree with your second sentence here. I made the suggestion here and I have had a conversion experience: An epiphanal experience of the Goddess in 1987 is why I’m Pagan today. And I have successfully used cannabis as an entheogen.
      Fritz Muntean and (to a lesser extent) Houseofvines make a persuasive case that the subject is settled among scholars of the Mysteries as a matter of scholarship, but also make it abundantly clear that it is not settled emotionally, if a simple suggestion can evoke such an passionate outpouring.
      I must agree with one point one of them made (Muntean, I believe, but I’m not going to trawl through that verbiage again): Entheogens do not produce uniform enough experiences to be effective in a scripted group epiphany.

  • Mr. Brown

    “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;” Does anyone else see the significance of this statement? The remaining families from which the High Priests were drawn at the time, Annas and Boethus, were notable both for their prominence in that whole Jesus affair, as well as for their connections with the Persian/Babylonian spiritual elites-the Magi.

    When the ancient religion was essentially destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, and the treasures of the Temple were taken to Babylon, the official stance is that the Ark-the keystone of the Sanctum Sanctorum, was lost forever. Yet recently this vase was discovered showing a stylized version of the Ark among the treasures of Darius II. Tenuous evidence to be sure, but based on the Magian tendency to abscond with both relics and persons who had spiritual significance it is not beyond possibility that the Ark remained in their control after they absorbed the Hebrew priesthood into their order.

    Which makes me wonder about that statement. If the High Priest of Jerusalem was the only one who could enter into the sanctum of the Anakroton, and if the culmination of the mysteries was essentially a revelation of higher power, perhaps the Ark itself was used in the process. At any rate a fascinating look at one of the most secretive of the mysteries.