Greek and Roman calendars were filled with religious festivals. They were quite strict to ensure these special days were observed and particular rites carried out. A lot of these religious festivals pre-dated the written word and over time adapted and changed to suit the needs of the current times. Nothing new about that. One of the most interesting and intriguing festivals was the Eleusinian Mysteries, it even rivalled the attempts of the Roman Catholic Empire to stamp it out. Of course, it happened but its popularity and ‘pagan’ elements was eventually subsumed into the Christian faith. Its rites were distorted and no longer recognisable but to gain control and following, the Roman Catholic Empire took as its own.
The word ‘mysteries’ refers to the cult of underworld deities. It was the Homeric bards of Ionia, who described the grey kingdom of Hades and Persephone but they lived in a society filled with pleasure and when their time came to leave, they did so knowingly and willingly. After all, the epic stories paved the way into shedding light as to what to expect in the afterlife. However life on the home land of Greece was different, people struggled and toiled daily. Through Hesiod’s Works and Days, he painted a dark picture of hardship, and ‘strife’ was embodied in the Goddess Eris, the bringer of suffering and discord. She was sister to the Keres, daemons that escaped from the urn Pandora opened.
What the people wanted was a set of new ideals of a future world and hope of a tolerable existence, which was beyond reach for many but offered the possibility. In the 7th Century BCE, these chthonic cults took a foothold and the myth of Persephone’s rape by Hades paved the way for the Eleusinian Mysteries. Demeter roamed the earth looking for her daughter and exhausted arrived at Eleusis. The ‘hope’ the people desired emerged, death wasn’t the end; rebirth, a renewal was the new state of being.
Eleusis was an independent state but when it was made part of Athens, the Athenians included the Eleusinian worship as part of their state religion. They also built a temple in honour of the two goddesses at the base of the Akropolis called the Eleusinion. Unfortunately, today only the foundations of the temple exist. When the Athenians took control, they made a few changes:
- Eleusinian king Triptolemos made more prominent and revered as founder of agriculture, who was sent abroad by Demeter to instruct people to sow seed and the art of farming;
- Linked the cult of Iaachos with Eleusinian worship. Iaachos was a god of the underworld and had a shrine in Athens. As part of the Mysteries, every year the god (a symbol of the deity) was carried to Eleusis and presented to the priests.
In Part 2, I will outline the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
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Bury, J.B. and Meiggs, Russell (1978) A History of Greece: to the Death of Alexander The Great. Palgrave, Hampshire.
Dillion, Matthew and Garland, Lynda (2000) Ancient Greece: Social and Historical Documents from Archaic Times to the Death of Socrates. Routledge, London.