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Definition: Eleusinian Mysteries from Philip's Encyclopedia

Religious rites performed in ancient Greece at Eleusis, Attica, to honour Demeter and Persephone. The rites probably arose out of a rural fertility festival.


Summary Article: Eleusinian Mysteries
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Ceremonies in honour of the Greek deities Demeter, goddess of corn, and her daughter Persephone, queen of the underworld, celebrated in the precincts of the temple of Demeter at Eleusis, in the territory of Athens. They formed the basis of a secret cult, requiring initiation for entrance. The rituals were agrarian in origin and had a strong chthonic (pertaining to the underworld) aspect, dealing with the cycle of growth and decay represented by Persephone's half-yearly absence from her mother.

History The festivals of Eleusis were established in Athens by the end of the 6th century BC. In archaic times the mysteries were probably supervised by the king, but in the classical era this function was performed by the archon basileus, the elected king and religious representative of the state. The mysteries were abolished at the end of the 4th century AD by the Roman emperor Theodosius (I) the Great, a pious Christian who dealt severely with heretics and ordered the death penalty for some extreme sects.

Initiation In early times entrance to the cult was confined to Athenian citizens, and only with the consent of the head of the family, although most participated at some time in their life. Initiation was later opened to all who spoke Greek, and finally to the Romans.. Murderers and barbarians were excluded at all times. The high reputation of the mysteries is indicated by the initiations of the Roman emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.

Ritual Knowledge of the mysteries is limited by the total secrecy surrounding the most sacred rites. The Lesser Mysteries took place in the spring, and the Greater Mysteries in the autumn. From the Homeric hymn to Demeter, it is assumed that they were concerned with Persephone's annual journeys between earth and the underworld. Persephone's descent to the underworld was represented in the Greater Mysteries, marking the dying away of vegetation and the storage of the seed corn in underground silos after harvest. Her return to her mother, a time of regeneration and spring sowing, was observed in the Lesser Mysteries.

The Greater Mysteries went on for nine days. After five days of preliminaries, a great procession took place along the Sacred Way from Eleusis to Athens. The followers chanted ‘iakkh' o iakkhe’, the personification of Iacchus, son of Demeter by Zeus, who was deemed to lead the initiates. The god was sometimes believed to be the reincarnation of Zagreus, son of Persephone and Zeus (transformed as a serpent), and was later identified with Dionysus. The initiation ceremony included a sacred marriage and other common fertility rites, but the most secret rituals were only known to contain ‘things spoken, things seen, and things performed’. Full initiates were called ‘seers’.

The chthonic nature of the ceremonies is indicated by reference to the dead as ‘Demeter's people’ in Athens. In Greek mythology, Heracles was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries to learn the way to and from the underworld, in order to fetch the guard-dog Cerberus as one of his labours.

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