Eleusinian Mysteries: Death, Rebirth, & Sacred Rites
Over three thousand years ago, Greek mystics revealed the truth of life and death through an ancient tale, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Setting up a secret school at Eleusis, they divulged the truth of these mysteries only to the purest of heart through the Eleusinian Mysteries. With the coming of Christianity, this pagan knowledge was lost for over a millennia. Since then, fragments have been uncovered and lost writings decoded. Have the mysteries finally been rediscovered? What were the secrets of the ancient mystics?
Mankind has always grappled with the stark reality that one day we will all die. Death is perhaps the greatest motivator of all, how can one attain all there is in this world while spending such little time on it. What is the fate of the soul, after the corporal body has rotted away? Gilgamesh asked the question over 5000 years ago, and since then we are no closer to understanding what lays beyond the veil. Not that humanity hasn’t tried, religious texts and human philosophy have always tried to bridge the gap between life and death, promising everything from paradise to the cessation of existence altogether.
Early in the development of civilization, a dark, shadowy entity emerged, mostly hidden to the outside world and people. A special kind of school, bridging faith and rationalism, so the two could work together in the search for tangible answers to the divine mysteries surrounding our existence. Secret societies, mystery schools, call them what you wish, they were organized groups with a clear mission to understand life, death, the world around, and beyond us.
What is the Cult of Demeter?
In its most basic description, the Cult of Demeter was a pagan festival occurring at Eleusis, Greece. It is estimated that worship began around 1500BC and lasted until 395AD when the Roman Emperor, Theodoros, banned the practice in preference for Christianity. A side note, it was around this time that the people of the region began to legally worship St. Demeter instead.
The festival was originally only open to women, but after a period of time men were allowed to take part, so long as they took a feminine name. Members were to know the Greek language and hold no impurity by blood guilt. The leniency of the terms, and the secrets the cult promised to divulge to members, meant that the festival rapidly grew in size, with people travelling from every corner of the known world to take part.
The Eleusinian Mysteries promised its initiates a better life and for something to be hopeful about after death. Cicero wrote ‘We have been given a reason not only to live in joy but also to die with better hope.’ And Isokrates, ‘Those who take part in them possess better hopes in regard to the end of life and in regard to the whole life span.’ It is clear to us that once initiated into the Cult of Demeter, one could attain higher knowledge and understanding.
The Eleusinian Rites
The mysteries were revealed to individuals through ceremonial rituals, unlocking the secrets within the mind of the person through a real experience. The society was secret with the initiated swearing an oath of silence with severe consequences of breaking the promise. It is because of this that we do not know in detail what occurred. However, we know enough through the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the testimonies of some members.
It is known that there were two festivals in the year, the lesser occurring in spring, the greater in autumn. The festivities held great purifications, processions, and sacrifices for nine straight days, leading up to the final night, where initiates would enter the temple of Demeter. All parts of the festival and rituals were highly symbolic, the nine days of initiation mimicked the nine months of pregnancy, where finally the initiate would be reborn a new individual. Writing from the experience of his own initiation, Plutarch gives perhaps the greatest record of these rites,
“…Wandering astray in the beginning, tiresome walkings in circles, some frightening paths in the darkness that lead nowhere; then immediately before the end all the terrible things, panic and shivering and sweat, and amazement. And then some wonderful light comes to meet you, pure regions and meadows are there to greet you, with sounds and dances and solemn, sacred words and holy views; and there the initiate, perfect by now, set free and loose from all bondage, walks about crowned with a wreath, celebrating the festival together with the other sacred and pure people, and he looks down on the uninitiated, unpurified crowd in this world in mud and fog beneath his feet.”
– (168 Sandbach = Stobaeus Anthologium 4.52.49)
To truly understand the truths of the Eleusinian Mysteries, you should read the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the discussion on Demeter & Persephone: Life & Death Unveiled. For what you will find is that this topic relies heavily on the interpretation of the myth as it is a blue print for the rituals themselves.
All things in this world are transient in that they are in a state of constant change. This is clear through the stages of Persephone’s development in the myth. She is introduced as Kore, an affectionate name for “girl”, and is picking flowers carelessly with her friends. Kidnapped, she evolves into Persephone, shifting to the role of a married lady and queen of Hades. Her mother, Demeter, struggles with the reality, trying to save her daughter and restore her innocence. However, it is in vain, for change usually only travels one way in this world and it is not backwards. What Demeter does succeed in though, is evolving Persephone further to allow her to return to the earth from the underworld for nine months of the year. The initiate is taught that change should not be feared, and it cannot be stopped. Even if a poor situation manifests itself, it too cannot last forever because it is subject to change as well.
#2: More Than The Material
With the loss of her daughter, Demeter refuses to eat, drink, or sleep reminding us that there are greater things in this world than just the material. Demeter refuses to join the gods at Olympus with all their divine pleasures, teaching the audience that pleasure is also subject to a state of change. What the episode is trying to show us is that there is a hierarchy of importance in the world, and that pleasure and material wealth is below things like love, family and loyalty. It is a reminder of morality over materiality.
#3: Hope & Strength
Hope is a huge theme throughout the myth and is a massive theme through the Eleusinian Mysteries. Demeter loses a lot, but she holds on to the hope of saving her daughter. She doesn’t rest on her laurels and wait for fate though, she sets out into the world and takes action. This legend come from a highly male dominated society, and it is important to remember this when you consider what Demeter does. She actively rebels against the patriarchal gods of Olympus. She refuses to raise the crop essentially starving humans on earth. Without food, the humans cannot give gifts and sacrifices to the gods, so in turn they starve too. Demeter held on to hope, took action, and outwitted Zeus, leading to the recovery of her daughter. It is a serious lesson to humanity, that no matter how daunting the task, to always hold hope in your heart, and to never stop trying.
#4: Life After Death
Because change is a constant, death should not be feared, for even the cessation of existence cannot be permanent. The deal struck that allowed Persephone to live on earth for nine months before returning to the underworld for three shows the initiate that rebirth is simply a way of the world. These times, nine and three months, were not accidently picked either. The priests studied the workings of nature and noted the cycle of crops. Starting from seed, the plant slowly grows, changing through the seasons, and reaching maturity it dies after nine months and returns to the earth. For three months the land lays barren with no life, until again in spring, the cycle starts anew. It was the final lesson at Eleusis, by simply lifting a stalk of wheat above his head, the priest shows the initiate the cycles of existence.
The rituals and beliefs of the Eleusinian Mysteries are not to be taken lightly. Many of history’s greatest minds, philosophers, playwrights, mathematicians, and politicians were initiates of the school. It taught them new ways of understanding the world in a method that reading and writing simply cannot. To experience the lesson leaves a purer understanding. We cannot recreate the Eleusinian Mysteries, their secrecy has been sealed away, but we can try and understand them through the material we have. Perhaps over time, new secrets will be revealed and greater truths unlocked.
To read more, have a look at The Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Demeter & Persephone: Life & Death Unveiled or for an older Sumerian explanation of life and death, read Unraveling The Epic of Gilgamesh: 5 Mysteries Revealed