Quest of the Soul: The Eleusinian Mysteries

By William A. Savage
[From a talk given at Theosophical Library Center, Altadena, CA, May 27, 2005.]
In the mysteries that obtain among the Greeks, lustrations hold the first place. After these are the minor mysteries, which have some foundation of instruction and of preliminary preparation for what is to come after. And then the great mysteries, in which nothing remains to be learned of the universe, but only to contemplate and comprehend nature and things. Clement of Alexandria

The Eleusinian mysteries were the most famous in ancient Greece. Mysteries were religious practices characterized by initiation rites, cathartic and ecstatic practices, and a code of silence. Eleuseos means "the coming," so the word Eleusinian refers to a spiritual advent. Mysterion means to close the mouth or eyes; its root mu imitates the sound made with the lips closed. Mysteria thus signified an event defined by closing the lips, closing the eyes, and entering into darkness. The journey of consciousness taken from that point onward was a mystery indeed, and yet we will explore these mysteries.

The rites at Eleusis were built around legends of the great mother Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The oldest written source of this myth is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, dated around the 7th century BCE, which may be summarized as follows:

Persephone, playing in a meadow, came across a large and wondrous narcissus. As she reached for it, the ground gave way and the dark lord of the underworld, Hades, appeared on his golden chariot. He carried her off screaming to Zeus and the gods for help. Demeter heard her and rushed to find what had happened. For nine days she wandered the earth. On the tenth she appealed to the Sun who sees all in his daily travels. He reported that Zeus had given Persephone to his brother Hades to be his wife.
Demeter, filled with grief, was angry. She removed all signs of her divinity and as an old woman walked the earth in quest of her daughter. At Eleusis she sat on the outskirts of town near a well; Clement of Alexandria noted that sitting on a well "is even now prohibited to those who are initiated, lest they should appear to mimic the weeping goddess." Keleos's four young daughters wanted to help her, and with their mother's permission brought her home. Stepping onto the threshold, the old woman touched the roof beam with her head and a heavenly light filled the room. The family was filled with amazement and fear, but no one guessed she was a goddess. The girls' mother, Metaneira, offered her fine chair, but Demeter waited in silence. Finally a waiting-woman offered a stool covered with white fleece. Demeter sat down, covered herself with her veil, and waited in silence, pining for her daughter. This refers to the silence of the mysteries and the fleece-covered stool on which the initiant sat. The waiting-woman induced Demeter to smile. Metaneira brought a goblet of sweet wine, but the goddess refused, requesting instead a drink of barley, water, and mint, referring to the mystery-drink.
Later Metaneira gave Demeter her baby to rear. Demeter secretly fed the boy only the ambrosia of the gods, and at night concealed him in the embers of the fire, like a log. In this way he grew like a god, but Metaneira spied one night and shrieked at the sight of her son in the fire. Furious, Demeter snatched him out and exclaimed that he would have become ageless and immortal. Revealing herself as a goddess, she requested the people of Eleusis to build a great shrine in which she would instruct them in her rites. When the temple was finished, Demeter sat there pining for her daughter. Spring came but fields produced no growth, for heartbroken Mother Nature kept the seeds unsprouted in the ground. The human race would have perished, but Zeus took notice and one by one sent the other Olympians to summon her, but she spurned them all, inconsolable until she saw her daughter.
Finally Zeus dispatched Hermes, guide of the souls of the dead, to entreat Hades to release Persephone. Hermes led her to the world above and Demeter ran to her, asking: "While you were in the underworld, surely you didn't eat anything? For if you did, you'll return for one-third of the seasons." Persephone admitted she'd been tricked into eating some pomegranate seeds, and therefore had to spend one-third of each year as queen of the underworld and two-thirds among the rest of the gods. Demeter released the power that caused seeds to sprout, grow, and produce blossoms and harvest. And before returning to the ranks of the immortals she instructed the leaders of Eleusis in the sacred mysteries.

Demeter, one of the twelve Olympian gods, represented the fruitfulness of the earth. When Persephone left the earth, the flowers died and grain withered, but when she returned life began again. In their simplest form these religious rituals symbolized the annual death and resurrection of vegetation. But the myth refers more particularly to the power of growth contained within the seed. Therein is the mystery. Porphyry wrote that Demeter "gives birth to Persephone by Zeus, that is, she produces the shoot from the seeds of plants. . . . there was in the seeds cast into the earth a certain power . . . Persephone is the seminal power."* So in one sense Persephone is the seed cast into the ground who uses her powers to transform the seed into growth. But in still another sense she is the soul cast into the world of matter who uses her powers to build around the soul the body of a fetus the nine-day initiation corresponds to the nine months of embryonic building of matter. Because Persephone ate pomegranate seeds of the infernal physical world, she cannot return permanently to the world above the soul remains tainted and ensnared by bodily matter. The Eleusinian mysteries were an attempt to achieve and personally experience a connection between human soul and divine consciousness and to prepare for the after-death condition when the soul may regain something of its divine state. Demeter's search for her daughter, H. P. Blavatsky wrote, "is a mask for the transcendent narrative of the initiated seers; the celestial vision of the freed soul of the initiate of the last hour describing the process by which the soul that has not yet been incarnated descends for the first time into matter" (Isis Unveiled 2:111).

*On Images, fragments 6, 7
Telesterion remains at Eleusis

The site of the mysteries, Eleusis, was a coastal town just west of Athens where the Cephisus River pours into the Aegean Sea. In ancient times a temple to Demeter stood there, part of a complex of other buildings. In their prime the Eleusinian mysteries became an important religious institution in Greece and the Roman Empire, but the initiatory rites were mostly kept secret. Ancient authors, however, have left us enough information to permit a broad outline of their content and purpose. There were five degrees, according to 6th-century Neoplatonist Olympiodorus. The first two involved ritual purification. The third degree consisted of ceremonies to prepare the initiant. The fourth degree was the lesser mysteries, dedicated to Persephone, and the successful initiate was called mystes, one initiated. The fifth degree was the greater mysteries of Demeter, and the successful initiate was called epoptes, one who has seen. A candidate who failed to obtain one of the degrees had to enroll in up to five stages of purification and preparation before continuing to the next degree.

It is unclear how frequently the Eleusinian mysteries were celebrated. The lesser mysteries were probably held every year; the greater mysteries only every five years. The lesser were observed around the vernal equinox; the greater were connected with the autumnal equinox. The lesser mysteries were held at the village of Agrae on the banks of the Ilissus River, to the east of the Acropolis at Athens. They included purification rites, presentation of sacred dramas, and a great procession from Athens to Eleusis. Fasting preceded participation in the mysteries, then the initiant was purified in the river. Afterwards, standing with feet on the skins of animals sacrificed to Zeus, the initiant swore an oath of secrecy administered by the hierophant or mystagogue. The mysteries that followed had to do with the capture of Persephone by Hades and her subsequent dwelling in the underworld. Through dramatic re-creations, the initiants are thought to have learned about the terrifying aspects of the underworld and realized the importance of living a virtuous life in hopes of an improved afterlife.

In another sense the underworld is the world of matter in which the soul is born on earth. Psyche, the soul within, is characterized as Persephone, a maiden in the spiritual realms undefiled by matter. Once the soul has built around itself a body of matter in other words, been born it is no longer free. It has been abducted to the earthly realm symbolized by the descent into Hades, the body and world of matter which assaults and carries away the divine soul. Yet the soul soon begins to enjoy its rule, caught up in the trappings of matter, in the same way Persephone came to enjoy being a queen. Like Persephone, the soul is in Hades only part of the year incarnation is a cyclic process. Yet the soul does not have to wait for death to begin its ascent. The mysteries take the view that the soul wants to regain her freedom and that this is possible on earth through practices such as fasting and purification, in initiation, and during deep sleep. Furthermore, if such practices are not begun by us on earth, the soul will take its desires for material things into the after-death state and be variously tortured and tantalized by its cravings for tastes and possessions it can no longer have.

The successful initiates of the lesser mysteries could prepare themselves for the mysteries of Demeter. The primary source for the sequence of events is Hesychius of Alexandria, a 5th-century CE grammarian, but in fact we have very little ancient information on the specifics of either the lesser or greater mysteries of Eleusis, and scholars are not in agreement on the subject. In one reconstruction, on the first day initiates assembled, stated their qualifications, and began preparations. On the second the group marched to the sea and bathed in the Saronic Gulf near Eleusis. Seawater was considered a cure for some illnesses, and in this ceremony it may have been used for purification. On the third day initiants fasted and focused on things beyond the material, in commemoration of Demeter's wandering in search of her daughter. On the fourth day an offering was made to Demeter and Persephone. To the Greeks a sacrifice was a feast for all participants to enjoy, performed in a way pleasing to the gods. Some days of the greater mysteries were also accompanied by gymnastic exhibitions, music, and other public shows.

On the fifth day the initiants marched solemnly two by two, each carrying a torch, into the temple of Demeter at Eleusis, guided by a torch bearer who represented the sun. This ceremony corresponded to Demeter's search for her daughter by torchlight. According to some authors the sixth day, in contrast, was a joyful festival of the god Dionysus or Bacchus, where a procession was led by the bearer of the god's image or statue, and initiants were crowned with myrtle leaves and given a Bacchic staff wreathed with ivy and grape leaves. In part Dionysus was, like Demeter, an agricultural god: she represented grain or bread, and he represented wine. Moreover, in Blavatsky's words, Demeter or Ceres "was the female productive principle of the Earth; the spouse of Father Aether, or Zeus; and Bacchus, the son of Zeus-Jupiter, was his father manifested; in other words, Ceres and Bacchus were the personifications of Substance and Spirit, the two vivifying principles in Nature and on Earth" (Collected Writings 11:93-4). Bread and wine later found their way into the Christian Eucharist.

On the evening of the sixth day the highest initiation ceremony, the epopteia, was begun in the outer court of the Telesterion (temple). Because there are no definitive accounts of the ceremony, we give one reconstruction of the events: The attendant or herald, corresponding to Hermes as guide of souls, exacted a solemn oath of silence from each initiant, who returned formula answers. Initiants then put on a new set of clothes covered with the skin of a fawn, symbolizing their regeneration. At the conclusion of the ceremony all lights were extinguished. In complete darkness lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and unearthly noises were heard, symbolizing Tartaros, the terrifying hell of those who do not work with nature, and also the world coming out of chaos under the command of the demiurge or creator who worked the raw forces of nature to fashion a new state. Initiants were then conducted to the inner adytum which was illuminated intensely. There they saw a resplendent statue of Demeter in an epiphany called autopsia, a seeing with one's own eyes. It was a re-creation of heaven, with harmonious tones and dazzling light, to prepare for the experience of the highest heaven after death. This is reminiscent of Apuleius' comments about the mysteries of Isis in his Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass:

I approached the very gates of death and set one foot on Persephone's threshold, yet was permitted to return, rapt through all the elements. At midnight I saw the sun shining as if it were noon; I entered the presence of the gods of the underworld and the gods of the upper-world, stood near and worshipped them.

The connection of initiation with death was also expressed by Plutarch:

At first there is wandering, and wearisome roaming, and fearful traveling through darkness with no end to be found. Then there is every sort of terror, shuddering and trembling and perspiring and being alarmed. But after this a marvelous light appears, and open places and meadows await, with voices and dances and the solemnities of sacred utterances and holy visions. In that place one walks about at will, now perfect and initiated and free, and wearing a crown, one celebrates religious rites, and joins with pure and pious people. Such a person looks over the uninitiated and unpurified crowd of people living here, who are packed together and trample each other in deep mud and murk, but who hold onto their evil things on account of their fear of death, because they do not believe in the good things that are in the other world. Quoted in Stobaeus, Anthology 4.52.49

He also said:

Now of the deaths we die, the one makes man two of three [soul, spirit, and body], and the other one of two [spirit from the soul]. And the former indeed is in the region and jurisdiction of Demeter [mother earth]. The Athenians also called the deceased sacred to Demeter. As for the other death, it is in the moon, or region of Persephone . . . Physical death suddenly and with force and violence plucks the soul from the body; but Persephone mildly and in a long time disjoins the understanding [nous] from the soul [psyche]. "On the Face Appearing in the Orb of the Moon," 943

The climax of the greater mysteries, which revealed to those sensitive enough to see it something of the mysteries of creation, growth, and consciousness after death, closed with the words konx om pax, which do not appear elsewhere in Greek. Then there was silence.

On day seven the initiants marched about ten miles from Eleusis to Athens, stopping to observe the location of the first fig tree and at the bridge spanning the Cephisus River, where local people teased the initiants, reproducing the waiting-lady's attempts to make Demeter smile. On the eighth day latecomers to the Eleusinian mystery, or those who missed a day, were given a chance to catch up because, according to legend, the divine physician Asklepios had come late to the festival. On the ninth and last day the ceremony began before dawn. One vessel filled with a mixture of wine and water was slowly poured out towards the rising sun, the east belonging to Zeus. A second was likewise poured out towards the setting sun, the west belonging to Hades. While these were being poured, initiants alternately looked towards heaven and earth, in recognition of heaven the father of all things and earth the mother of all things.

Eleusinian figures. Vase, 335-325 BCE (St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum)

The successful candidate in the Eleusinian mysteries had been purified, initiated, and ultimately had a change of consciousness in which a perception of the divine was achieved. One who has perceived some of the mysteries of life and death was called an epoptes, which originally meant an overseer, eyewitness, one who perceives things as they really are. Blavatsky explained that in the mysteries an epoptes "means that stage of divine clairvoyance when everything pertaining to this earth disappears, and earthly sight is paralyzed, and the soul is united free and pure with its Spirit, or God" (Isis Unveiled 2:90). This is the action of the noetic or intuitional part of our consciousness. Proclus wrote, "the initiation and epopteia are symbols of ineffable silence, and of union with mystical natures, through intelligible [or noetic] visions" (Theology of Plato, bk. iv). The goal of the mysteries was to activate the nous or higher mind. One who succeeded in shifting his consciousness truly experienced a perceiving and a revelation, and could call himself "one who sees."

The Eleusinian mysteries may have included mystic visions. There are various artificial means of inducing these, including fasting, an overflow of intense information, and potions. Part of the Eleusinian ritual may have involved the use of an entheogen or plant alkaloid in a drink called kykeon. In the Iliad and Odyssey the base of the kykeon was "barley-meal, grated cheese, honey" and a strong red wine. Its consistency was like a thick soup. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter it contained no wine and was a porridge of barley, water, and pennyroyal mint. Blavatsky refers to the epoptes as one who has seen by a revelation "by no human agent, but through the 'receiving of the sacred drink.' In India the initiated received the 'Soma,' a sacred drink which helped to liberate his soul from the body; and in the Eleusinian Mysteries it was the sacred drink offered at the Epopteia" (Isis Unveiled 2:91n).

Another feature of the Eleusinian mysteries was a basket or chest containing simple objects with symbolic meanings forbidden to the uninitiated. Clement of Alexandria reveals the response of the initiant: "The following is the token [or password] of the Eleusinian mysteries: I have fasted, I have drunk the kykeon; I have received from the box; having done, I put it into the basket, and out of the basket into the chest" (Protreptikos 2.18). Hippolytus provides further information in his anti-Gnostic Philosophumena or Refutation of All Heresies (5.8.39): "The Athenians, when they initiate in the Eleusinia, exhibit in silence to the epoptai the mighty and marvelous and most complete epoptic mystery, an ear of cut-wheat. But this ear of wheat is also considered among the Athenians to constitute the perfect enormous illumination that has descended from the ineffable one, just as the hierophant himself declares." Part of the reverence may be directed to the source of the generative power within the seed, for that power of reproduction is a mystery even to us today who know the mechanisms of DNA and RNA and the transmission of genes, but who do not understand how such interdependent processes originated. Perhaps by undergoing a type of conscious death the initiant became inwardly transformed, just as the dying grain of wheat was.

Initiation into the ancient mysteries, for those who took it solemnly and seriously, was a preparation of the soul for the after-death states of consciousness. Some, including the Greek mysteries, featured initiation in the sense of one's consciousness or soul temporarily passing into other states of being, such as experiencing death and the underworld while still alive. Quoting from Olympiodorus' Commentaries on Plato's Phaedo, Osvald Sirén sheds light on this process:

The purpose of the teleté (illumination attained through initiation) is to bring the souls to reascend to the region from which they have descended in the very beginning when Dionysos first placed them on the throne of his father Zeus: the ethereal condition. The initiated thus remains in the realms of the gods under the guidance of the god through whom he was initiated. The initiations are of two kinds: those which are performed here below and which are preparatory, and those which take place beyond and which also (as far as I know) are double, i.e., those pertaining to the tunica pneumatica (the ethereal vesture), i.e., the liberating of the oyster from its material shell, and those appertaining to the tunica luminosa (the spiritual vesture of nous). The Theosophical Forum, Jan. 1939, pp. 17-18

We don't know in detail how the Eleusinian initiations were actually practiced these were, after all, mysteries protected by vows of secrecy. But we do know, as H. P. Blavatsky wrote, that "The object of the Mysteries was to re-establish the soul in its primordial purity, or that state of perfection from which it had fallen."

(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)

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