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The Eleusinian Mysteries ( ) were initiation ceremonies held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusismarker in ancient Greece. Of all the mysteries celebrated in ancient times, these were held to be the ones of greatest importance. These myths and mysteries, begun in the Mycenean period (c. 1600 BC) and lasting two thousand years, were a major festival during the Hellenic era, later spreading to Rome. The name of the town, Eleusís, is a variant of the noun έλευσις, éleusis, arrival.

The rites, ceremonies, and beliefs were kept secret, as initiation was believed to unite the worshipper with the gods and included promises of divine power and rewards in the afterlife. There are many paintings and pieces of pottery that depict various aspects of the Mysteries. Since the Mysteries involved visions and conjuring of an afterlife, some scholars believe that the power and longevity of the Eleusinian Mysteries came from psychedelic agents.

Mythology of Demeter and Persephone

The Mysteries seem to be related to a myth concerning Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility as recounted in one of the Homeric Hymns (c. 650 B.C.). According to the hymn, Demeter's daughter Persephone (also referred to as Kore, "girl") was gathering flowers with friends, when she was seized by her uncle, Hades, the god of death and the underworld, with the consent of her father Zeus. He took her to his underworld kingdom. Distraught, Demeter searched high and low for her daughter. Because of her distress, and in an effort to coerce Zeus to allow the return of her daughter, she caused a terrible drought in which the people suffered and starved. This would have deprived the gods of sacrifice and worship. As a result, Zeus relented and allowed Persephone to return to her mother.

According to the myth, during her search, Demeter traveled long distances and had many minor adventures along the way. In one instance, she teaches the secrets of agriculture to Triptolemus. Finally, by consulting Zeus, Demeter reunites with her daughter and the earth returns to its former verdure and prosperity: the first autumn. (For more information on this story, see Demeter.)

Zeus, pressed by the cries of the hungry people and by the other deities who also heard their anguish, forced Hades to return Persephone. However, it was a rule of the Fates that whoever consumed food or drink in the Underworld was doomed to spend eternity there. Before Persephone was released to Hermes, who had been sent to retrieve her, Hades tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds, (six, eight, or perhaps four according to the telling) which forced her to return to the underworld for a season each year. As a result, Persephone could not avoid returning to the underworld for part of the year. According to the prevailing version of the myth, Persephone had to remain with Hades for six months (one month per seed) while staying above ground with her mother for a similar period. This left a large period of time when Demeter was unhappy due to Persephone's absence therefore she did not cultivate the Earth and it withered. When Persephone returned to the surface, Demeter became joyful and cared for the Earth again.

However, six months of summer was unlikely and it is easier to believe that Persephone stayed with Hades for four months and Demeter eight months. The end result was eight months of growth and abundance to be followed by four months of no productivity. These periods correspond well with the Mediterranean climate of Ancient Greece. The four months during which Persephone is with Hades correspond to the dry Greek summer, a period during which plants are threatened with drought. After the first rains in the fall, when the seeds are planted, Persephone returns from the Underworld and the cycle of growth begins anew.

The Eleusinian Mysteries probably included a celebration of Persephone's return, for it was also the return of plants and of life to the earth. Persephone had gone into the underworld (underground, like seeds in the winter), then returned to the land of the living: her rebirth is symbolic of the rebirth of all plant life during Spring and, by extension, all life on earth.

The Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries are believed to have begun about 1600 BC, during the Mycenean Agemarker. One line of thought by modern scholars has been that these Mysteries were intended "to elevate man above the human sphere into the divine and to assure his redemption by making him a god and so conferring immortality upon him."

The lesser mysteries were probably held every year; the greater mysteries only every five years. This cycle continued for about two millennia. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, King Celeus is said to have been one of the first people to learn the secret rites and mysteries of her cult. He was also one of her original priests, along with Diocles, Eumolpos, Polyxeinus and Triptolemus, Celeus' son, who had supposedly learned agriculture from Demeter.

Under Pisistratus of Athens, the Eleusinian Mysteries became pan-Hellenic and pilgrims flocked from Greece and beyond to participate. Around 300 BC, the state took over control of the Mysteries; they were specifically controlled by two families, the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes. This led to a vast increase in the number of initiates. The only requirements for membership were a lack of "blood guilt", meaning having never committed murder, and not being a "barbarian" (unable to speak Greek). Men, women and even slaves were allowed initiation.


There were four categories of people who participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries:
  1. Priests, priestesses and hierophants.
  2. Initiates, undergoing the ceremony for the first time.
  3. Others who had already participated at least once. They were eligible for the fourth category.
  4. Those who had attained épopteia (Greek: ἐποπτεία) (English: "contemplation"), who had learned the secrets of the greatest mysteries of Demeter.


The outline below is only a capsule summary; much of the concrete information about the Eleusinian Mysteries was never written down. For example, only initiates knew what the kiste, a sacred chest, and the kalathos, a lidded basket, contained. The contents, like so much about the Mysteries, are unknown. However, one researcher writes that this Cista ("kiste") contained a golden mystical serpent, egg, a phallus and possibly also seeds sacred to Demeter. The contents of the chest might have been similar to Middle-American Indian mushrooms of the genus Psilocybin.

The Church Father Hippolytus, writing in the early third century, discloses that "the Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites, likewise display to those who are being admitted to the highest grade at these mysteries, the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: an ear of corn in silence reaped."

Lesser Mysteries

There were two Eleusinian Mysteries, the Greater and the Lesser. According to Thomas Taylor, "the dramatic shows of the Lesser Mysteries occultly signified the miseries of the soul while in subjection to the body, so those of the Greater obscurely intimated, by mystic and splendid visions, the felicity of the soul both here and hereafter, when purified from the defilements of a material nature and constantly elevated to the realities of intellectual [spiritual] vision." And that according to Plato, "the ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended, … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual [spiritual] good."

The Lesser Mysteries took place in the month of Anthesteria under the direction of Athens' archon basileus. In order to qualify for initiation, participants would sacrifice a piglet to Demeter and Persephone, and then ritually purify themselves in the River Illisos. Upon completion of the Lesser Mysteries, participants were deemed mystai ("initiates") worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries.

Greater Mysteries

The first act (14th Boedromion) of the Greater Mysteries was the bringing of the sacred objects from Eleusis to the Eleusinion, a temple at the base of the Acropolis.

The Greater Mysteries took place in Boedromion (the third month of the Attic calendar, falling in late Summer) and lasted ten days. On 15th Boedromion, called Agyrmos (the gathering), the hierophants (priests or "those who show the sacred ones") declared prorrhesis, the start of the rites, and carried out the "Hither the victims" sacrifice (hiereía deúro). The "Seawards initiates" (halade mystai) began in Athens on 16th Boedromion with the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron.

On 17th Boedromion, the participants began the Epidauria, a festival for Asklepios named after his main sanctuary at Epidaurosmarker. This "festival within a festival" celebrated the hero's arrival at Athens with his daughter Hygieia, and consisted of a procession leading to the Eleusinion, during which the mystai apparently stayed at home, a great sacrifice, and an all-night feast (pannykhís).

The procession to Eleusis began at Kerameikosmarker (the Athenian cemetery) on the 19th Boedromion from where the people walked to Eleusis, along what was called the "Sacred Way" (Ιερά Οδός, Hierá Hodós), swinging branches called bacchoi. At a certain spot along the way, they shouted obscenities in commemoration of Iambe (or Baubo), an old woman who, by cracking dirty jokes, had made Demeter smile as she mourned the loss of her daughter. The procession also shouted "Íakch', O Íakche!" referring to Iacchus, possibly an epithet for Dionysus, or a separate deity, son of Persephone or Demeter.

Upon reaching Eleusis, there was a day of fasting in commemoration of Demeter's fasting while searching for Persephone. The fast was broken while drinking a special drink of barley and pennyroyal, called kykeon. Then on 20th and 21st Boedromion, the initiates entered a great hall called Telesterion; in the center stood the Anaktoron ("palace"), which only the hierophantes could enter, where sacred objects were stored. Before mystai could enter the Telesterion, they would recite, "I have fasted, I have drunk the kykeon, I have taken from the kiste ("box") and after working it have put it back in the kalathos ("open basket"). It is widely supposed that the rites inside the Telesterion comprised three elements: dromena ("things done"), a dramatic reenactment of the Demeter/Persephone myth; deiknumena ("things shown"), displayed sacred objects, in which the hierophant played an essential role; and finally legomena ("things said"), commentaries that accompanied the deiknumena. Combined these three elements were known as the apporheta ("unrepeatables"); The penalty for divulging them was death. Athenagoras of Athens claims that it was for this crime (among others) that Diagoras had received the death penalty; the tragic playwright Aeschylus was allegedly tried for revealing secrets of the Mysteries in some of his plays, but was acquitted. The ban on divulging the core ritual of the Mysteries was thus absolute, which is probably why we know almost nothing about what transpired there.

As to the climax of the Mysteries, there are two modern theories. Some hold that the priests were the ones to reveal the visions of the holy night, consisting of a fire that represented the possibility of life after death, and various sacred objects. Others hold this explanation to be insufficient to account for the power and longevity of the Mysteries, and that the experiences must have been internal and mediated by a powerful psychoactive ingredient contained in the kykeon drink. (See "entheogenic theories" below.)

Following this section of the Mysteries was the Pannychis, an all-night feast accompanied by dancing and merriment. The dances took place in the Rharian Field, rumored to be the first spot where grain grew. A bull sacrifice also took place late that night or early the next morning. That day (22nd Boedromion), the initiates honored the dead by pouring libations from special vessels.

On 23rd Boedromion, the Mysteries ended and everyone returned home.

End of the Eleusinian Mysteries

In 170 AD, the Temple of Demeter was sacked by the Sarmatians but was rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was then allowed to become the only lay-person to ever enter the anaktoron. As Christianity gained in popularity in the 4th and 5th centuries, Eleusis' prestige began to fade. Julian, the last pagan emperor of Rome, was also the last emperor to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The Roman emperor Theodosius I closed the sanctuaries by decree in 392 AD. The last remnants of the Mysteries were wiped out in 396 AD, when Alaric, King of the Goths, invaded accompanied by Christians "in their dark garments", bringing Arian Christianity and desecrating the old sacred sites. The closing of the Eleusinian Mysteries in the 4th century is reported by Eunapios, a historian and biographer of the Greek philosophers. Eunapios had been initiated by the last legitimate Hierophant, who had been commissioned by the emperor Julian to restore the Mysteries, which had by then fallen into decay. According to Eunapios, the very last Hierophant was a usurper, "the man from Thespiae who held the rank of Father in the mysteries of Mithras."

The Mysteries in art

There are many paintings and pieces of pottery that depict various aspects of the Mysteries. The Eleusinian Relief, from late 5th century BC, displayed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athensmarker is a representative example. Triptolemus is depicted receiving seeds from Demeter and teaching mankind how to work the fields to grow crops, with Persephone holding her hand over his head to protect him. Vases and other works of relief sculpture, from the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries BC, depict Triptolemus holding an ear of corn, sitting on a winged throne or chariot, surrounded by Persephone and Demeter with pine torches. The monumental Protoattic amphora from the middle of the 7th century BC, with the depiction of Medusa's beheading by Perseus and the blinding of Polyphemos by Odysseus and his companions on its neck, is kept in the Archaeological Museum of Eleusis which is located inside the archaeological site of Eleusismarker.

The Ninnion Tablet, found in the same museum, depicts Demeter, followed by Persephone and Iacchus, and then the procession of initiates. Then, Demeter is sitting on the kiste inside the Telesterion, with Persephone holding a torch and introducing the initiates. The initiates each hold a bacchoi. The second row of initiates were led by Iakchos, a priest who held torches for the ceremonies. He is standing near the omphalos while an unknown female (probably a priestess of Demeter) sat nearby on the kiste, holding a scepter and a vessel filled with kykeon. Pannychis is also represented.

In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the masque that Prospero conjures to celebrate the troth-pledging of Miranda and Ferdinand echoes the Eleusinian Mysteries, although it uses the Roman names for the deities involved - Ceres, Iris, Dis and others - instead of the Greek. It is interesting that a play which is so steeped in esoteric imagery from alchemy and hermeticism should draw on the Mysteries for its central masque sequence.

Entheogenic theories

Some scholars believe that the power of the Eleusinian Mysteries came from the kykeon's functioning as a psychedelic agent. Barley may be parasitized by the fungus ergot, which contains the psychoactive alkaloids lysergic acid amide , a precursor to LSD and ergonovine. It is possible that a psychoactive potion was created using known methods of the day. The initiates, sensitized by their fast and prepared by preceding ceremonies, may have been propelled by the effects of a powerful psychoactive potion into revelatory mind states with profound spiritual and intellectual ramifications.

While modern scholars have presented evidence supporting their view that a potion was drunk as part of the ceremony, the exact composition of that agent remains controversial. Modern preparations of kykeon using ergot-parasitized barley have yielded inconclusive results, although Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin describe both ergonovine and LSA to be known to produce LSD-like effects. Terence McKenna argued that the mysteries were focused around a variety of Psilocybe mushrooms, and various other entheogenic plants, such as Amanita muscaria mushrooms, have also been suggested but at present no consensus has been reached. The size of the event may rule out Amanita or Psilocybe mushrooms as active ingredient, since it is unlikely that there would have been enough wild mushrooms for all participants. However a recent hypothesis suggests that Psilocybe cultivation technology was known in ancient Egypt, from which it could easily have spread to Greece.

Another theory is that the kykeon was an Ayahuasca analog involving Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala), a shrub which grows throughout the Mediterranean and also functions as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. The most likely candidate for the DMT containing plant, of which there are many in nature, would be species of Phalaris and/or Acacia. Other scholars however, noting the lack of any solid evidence and stressing the collective rather than individual character of initiation into the Mysteries, regard entheogenic theories with pointed skepticism. While this may be true, the Mysteries are generally accepted to be associated with the consumption of some substance(s), possibly as a beverage, that induced visions and a feeling of oneness with at least mankind, if not the universe. This made the event particularly reliable, necessarily secret, in addition to special and certainly subject to strict sanctions if the secrecy were violated.

See also


  1. Newton, Joseph Fort, The Builders, 1915. Cf. p.24. "The Grecian or Eleusinian Mysteries, established 1800 BC, represented Demeter and Persephone, and depicted the death of Dionysus with stately ritual which led the neophyte from death into life and immortality"
  2. Cf. Mylonas, 1961, p.24. "Again, from legends we learn of the arrival of the Cult of Demeter at Eleusis in the fifteenth century [BC] --- an event that must of course have had a profound influence on the life and activities of the site."
  3. Ouvaroff, M. (alternatively given as Sergei Semenovich Uvarov, or Sergey Uvarov, 1786-1855) (Translated from the French by J. D. Price) Essay on the Mysteries of Eleusis, London : Rodwell and Martin, 1817 (Reprint: USA: Kessinger Publishing, 2004). Ouvaroff does write that fixing the earliest foundation date to the Eleusinian Mysteries is fraught with problems.
  4. Tripolitis, Antonia. Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, November 2001. pp. 16–21.
  5. Wasson, R. Gordon, Ruck, Carl, Hofmann, A., The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978.
  6. Foley, Helene P., The Homeric "Hymn ro Demeter". Princeton University Press 1994. Also Vaughn, Steck. Demeter and Persephone. Steck Vaughn Publishing, June 1994
  7. Smith, William. A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology and Geography Vol. II. Kessinger Publishing, LLC 2006.
  8. Smith, 2006.
  9. Greene, William C. "The Return of Persephone". Classical Philology. University of Chicago Press 1946. pp. 105–106
  10. Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion "The Religion of Eleusis" New York: Columbia University Press, 1947. pages 42 - 64
  11. Savage, William A. "Quest of the Soul: The Eleusinian Mysteries". Sunrise (magazine). February/March 2006.
  12. Apollodorus, 1.5.2.
  13. Smith, William. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, London, 1875.
  14. Taylor, Thomas. Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries. Lighting Source Publishers, 1997. p. 117.
  15. Wasson, Gordon. The Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico: An Inquiry into the Origins of the Religious Idea Among Primitive Peoples". The Psychdelic Review, 1963. Vol I; No. I
  16. Hippolytus, Refutation of all Heresies, in ANF, vol. 5; 5, 3
  17. Taylor, p.49.
  18. Clinton, Kevin. "The Epidauria and the Arrival of Asclepius in Athens", in Ancient Greek Cult Practice from the Epigraphical Evidence, edited by R. Hägg. Stockholm, 1994.
  19. According to Clement of Alexandria's Exhortaton to the Greeks. See Meyer 1999, 18.
  20. See (e.g.) Brisson/Teihnayi 2004, 60
  21. Nicomachean Ethics 1111a8-10.
  22. Boardman, Griffin, and Murray. The Oxford History of the Classical World. Oxford University Press 1986.
  23. Eleusis: Pathways to Ancient Myth
  24. Rassias, Vlasis. Demolish Them. (in Greek) Athens 2000.
  25. Wasson, R. Gordon, Ruck, Carl, Hofmann, A., The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978.
  26. Wasson, et al..
  27. Shulgin & Shulgin. Tihkal. Transform Press, 1997.
  28. Erowid Ergot Vault
  29. McKenna.
  30. Metzner, Ralph. "The Reunification of the Sacred and the natural". Eleusis Volume VIII, 1997. pp. 3-13
  31. Burkert, op.cit. Ch.4


  • Apollodorus. Apollodorus: The Library, Sir James George Frazer (translator). Two volumes. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press and London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. Vol. 1: ISBN 0674991354. Vol. 2: ISBN 0674991362.
  • Boardman, Griffin, and Murray. The Oxford History of the Classical World (Oxford University Press 1986). ISBN 978-0198721123.
  • Brisson, Luc and Tihanyi, Catherine (2004). How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226075354
  • Burkert, Walter, Ancient Mystery Cults, Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Cicero. Laws II, xiv, 36.
  • Clinton, Kevin. "The Epidauria and the Arrival of Asclepius in Athens" in Ancient Greek Cult Practice from the Epigraphical Evidence. edited by R. Hägg, Stockholm, 1994. ISBN 9179160298.
  • Goblet d’Alviella, Eugène, comte, The mysteries of Eleusis : the secret rites and rituals of the classical Greek mystery tradition, 1903.
  • Greene, William C. "The Return of Persephone" in Classical Philology. University of Chicago Press 1946. pp. 105–106.
  • Kerényi, Karl. Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, Princeton University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-691-01915-0.
  • Metzner, Ralph. "The Reunification of the Sacred and the natural", Eleusis Volume VIII, pp. 3–13 (1997).
  • McKenna, Terence. Food of the Gods: Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. Bantam, January 1993. ISBN 0553371304.
  • Meyer, Marvin W. (1999). The Ancient Mysteries, a Sourcebook: Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812211692X
  • Moore, Clifford H. Religious Thought of the Greeks. (1916). Kessinger Publishing April, 2003. ISBN 0766151301.
  • Mylonas, George Emmanuel. Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Princeton University Press 1961.
  • Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion 1940.
  • Rassias, Vlasis. Demolish Them. (in Greek) Athens, 2000. (2nd edition) ISBN 960-7748-20-4.
  • Riu, Xavier. Dionysism and Comedy, (1999), Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.; Reprint edition (March 2002). ISBN 0847694429. Cf. p. 107 for a discussion of Dionysus and his role in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
  • Rohde, Erwin. Psyche: The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality among the Greeks. trans. from the 8th edn. by W. B. Hillis, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1925; reprinted by Routledge, 2000. cf. Chapter 6, "The Eleusinian Mysteries".
  • Shulgin, Alexander, Ann Shulgin. TiHKAL. Transform Press, 1997.
  • Smith, William, A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology and Geography Vol. II. Kessinger Publishing, LLC 2006. ISBN 1428645616.
  • Smith, William. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London, 1875.
  • Thomas Taylor, The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries. Lighting Source Publishers, 1997. ISBN 1564599760.
  • Tripolitis, Antonia. Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, November 2001. ISBN 080284913X.
  • Vaughn, Steck. Demeter and Persephone. Steck Vaughn Publishing, June 1994. ISBN 978-0811433624.
  • Wasson, R,, Ruck, C., Hofmann, A., The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978. ISBN 0-15-177872-8.
  • Willoughby, Harold R. The Greater Mysteries at Eleusis, Ch. 2 of Pagan Regeneration: A Study of Mystery Initiations in the Graeco-Roman World, 2003, Kessinger Publishing, ISBN 0766180832. Broad excerpts can be browsed online.

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