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The Elusinian Mysteries

By Dr. Lindy McMullin

Nothing is actually known about what happened during the celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries, as one of the requirements of the initiate was to remain silent forever about what was seen and heard during the celebration; no-one ever broke this vow.

The word myesis, with its Latin counterpart initia meant beginnings, and initiation meant secret. As the verb myeo denoted action, the verb myo implied secrecy; epopteia, or initiation, which came during ritual procession through vision of that which brought understanding (Kerenyi, 1967). The mysteries were held for two thousand years, enacting supposedly the myth of Demeter and Persephone, with a multitude of people initiated from all over the civilized world that belonged to all classes.

Both Homer and Hesiod probably experienced initiation prior to their writings, as Kerenyi (1967) allocated the beginning of them, according to archaeological findings, between 1580 and 1500 BC.

Information available from both literary and artistic sources included that there were two parts to the mysteries of Eleusis. The first part of the celebration that we know more about was held in Athens during spring at the site of the Agrai, on the east bank of the river Ilissos. These were the lesser mysteries, serving as preparation that included purification and cleansing, the bearing of sacred vessels, dancing and singing. This information comes to us from the only document that can be definitely associated with the celebrations, the Ninnion tablet, which dates to the first half of the fourth century B.C. According to Mylonas (2010) the greater mysteries were held in the sacred month of Boedromion, corresponding to September and the beginning of October. Initiates included men, women, children, and even slaves from all over the Hellenic world as far as Egypt, Syria and Antioch. On the 14th day of the Boedromion, the Hiera or sacred objects of Demeter were removed from the Anaktoron by the High Priest, carried by the priestesses in a procession headed by the priesthood of Eleusis, and taken to Athens. The procession was met by the priests of Athens upon their arrival, who took them to the northwest corner of the Acropolis where the Hiera were deposited in a special sanctuary called the Eleusinion (Vanderpool, 1949), whilst news of their arrival was taken to the priestess of Athena (Mylonas, 2010).

On the 15thday, which marked the first day of the Boedromion, the magistrate of Athens, Archon Basileus, called the people to an assembly in the Agora. In the presence of the Hierophant (high priest) and Daudouchos (torch bearer), a proclamation was repeated and people were officially invited to be initiated. Those to be initiated had to have clean hands (no guilt of homicide) and speak Greek. On the second day of the Boedromion, the Mystai went to the sea carrying a small piglet, in order to perform the rite of purification in the sea. Returning to Athens, the pigs were probably offered up to the goddesses, as on the third day some scholars believe that sacrifices were given to the goddesses and prayers held for the citizens of Athens (Harrison, 2012). The fourth day of the celebration was called the Epidauria or Asklepia in honor of Asklepios, who, according to Pausanias (1918), came late to the purification; this was a day of rest, as Aristotle (2004) tells us, with possibly additional sacrifices to the city, according to Philostratos, or a day of healing that was dedicated to Asklepios. On the fifth day, which marked the culmination of festivities in Athens, the great procession left Athens for Eleusis. Crowned with myrtle, the sacred wreath of the mysteries, the procession made its way to Eleusis, some fourteen miles from Athens.

Walking along the Sacred Way initiates, priests and priestesses passed the Sanctuary of Apollo and the Shrine of Aphrodite, amongst others, making their way to the bridge. On the bridge, the descendants of Krokos carried out the krokosis, the tying of a saffron ribbon around the right hand and left leg of each initiate (Foucart, 1914). On the next bridge, called the Eleusinian Kephisos, masked men hurled insults at the initiates and, as Aristophanes tells us in the choral song of Frogs, the rest of the night was spent singing and dancing in honor of the Goddesses.

The Hierophant was the High Priest of Eleusis, a member of the Eumolpid family who held office for life. Only he could enter the Anaktoron and show worshippers the Hiera or sacred objects (Mylonas, 2010). His sanctity was extremely important in Roman times and his personal name never spoken. He called for the holy truce, sending messengers to the Hellenic world, inviting participation in the celebrations and tithes due to the Goddess. The Hierophantides, two priestesses devoted to the two Goddesses, were his assistants. The Dadouchos was the torch bearer, chosen from the Kerykes family. He could not enter the Anaktoron nor have a part in the showing of the sacred objects to the initiates. He was assisted by a priestess as well. The two families, the Eumolpids and Kerykes, held the right of apostolic succession, with the Kerykes holding secondary position.

Scholars believed the second family was from Athens and connected after Eleusis came under the domination of Athens. The Eumolpids kept both privileges and succession until the end of the Sanctuary (Mylonas, 2010).

Persephone and HadesPersephone & Hades (Museum Crete)
Photo credit: Pinterest 

Modern Interpretations

Attention is drawn to the fact that the journey setting off from Athens to Eleusis may well have been the enacting of a journey taken to reach the inner self, knowledge of which may have been embedded in the Hymn. The masked men who hurled insults perfectly describe the hidden subpersonalities that emerge once one sets off on the journey within to meet the different personas in the psyche. Moreover, the high priest/priestesses and torch bearer are archetypal figures that lend a sacred and profound aspect of respect to the atmosphere of a mystical ascent to the heights of Olympus, after having experienced the lows of the underworld. An epiphany emerges when knowledge of eternal life is known and not simply believed to exist, as it has been fully experienced.

This interpretation underlies the work that is done in the workshops. We revere an unseen wisdom that assists in unravelling our own inner world, bringing to light the latent potential within.

 

Photo credit: Fedge No on flickr

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