Rites and rituals form a part of our daily lives whether we participate consciously or not. Today, ‘rites’ and ‘rituals’ can relate to a series of actions or behaviour done regularly, such as going to work every day. It can also relate to certain conventions or habits like players gathering in a pre-match huddle. Each word can be defined as:
Rites: a formal act prescribed in [religious] ceremonies.
Collins Dictionary, 1989
Ritual: a prescribed order for performing a ritual ceremony that is consistently followed.
Collins Dictionary, 1989
The Eleusinian Mysteries rites and rituals was borne out of Demeter’s search for her daughter, Persephone. The most curious aspect of the ‘mysteries’ was whoever participated weren’t allowed to tell anyone what they did or saw. If they did, they were sentenced to death. Anyone could become an initiate (mystai), men, women, or slaves, however they had to be able to speak Greek and were innocent of murder.
On day one, a herald announces the commencement of the ‘mysteries’:
Seaward, O mystai, mystai, to the sea!
The initiates headed down the beach and cleansed themselves in the water. On day two and three, offerings were made and ceremonies performed at Athens; day four, the image of Iacchos was taken from his shrine and carried in a procession along the Sacred Way to Eleusis. The initiates sang the song of Iacchos until they reached the temple of the goddesses, then there was a night-time celebration where the initiation took place. What happened in the telesterion (hall) is not determined but some sources suggest the initiates were privy to closely guarded secrets relating to the afterlife and shown sacred objects in relation to Demeter and agriculture.
There still is no definitive information on exactly what the initiates did or saw. For instance, what offerings were made and the ceremonies, what happened in them? Those who did participate came away hopeful, assured of future well-being and a sense anything was possible.
Bliss has he won whose these things have seen,
Among all men upon the earth that go;
But they to whom those sights have never been
Unveiled have other dole of weal and woe,
Even dead, shut fast within the mouldy gloom below.
The Eleusinian Mysteries grew in status and stature across the Panhellenic world until around the 4th century CE, when paganism ended. Christianity did take a number of rituals and phrases from the mysteries, which are still followed today. Baptism is one such element, though the initiates or mystai knew it as ‘purification’; the Eleusinian’s believed in rebirth, in Christianity the story of Jesus’ resurrection. There is an extract from Andrew Benson’s book The Origins of Christianity and the Bible on the internet which explains how influential the mysteries were on ritualistic elements of Christianity. Worth reading if you are interested.
Anyone wishing to be initiated had to pay fees to the cult personnel: the hieropoioi, sacred officials; the priestesses of Demeter; and the Eumolpidai and Kerykes, Eleusinian families in charge of the Mysteries. The initiates each had their own personal instructor, mystagogos, who was responsible for them and made sure the initiation rites were fulfilled.
Why were the Eleusinian Mysteries popular? I believe there are a few factors and these are only my theories:
1. The myth of a mother seeking her daughter was and is a sympathetic and relatable incident;
2. Initiates bonded and were bound to a secret no other was privy to;
3. A belief the mysteries revealed answers and hope for a better life.
An interesting side note: it is thought the mysteries were established in 1500 BCE during the Mycenaean times (circa 1600-1200 BCE) and held every year until the 4th century CE. It lasted for 2000 years.
Bury, J.B. and Meiggs, Russell (1978) A History of Greece: to the Death of Alexander The Great. Palgrave, Hampshire.
Dillon, Matthew and Garland, Lynda (2000) Ancient Greece: Social and Historical Documents from Archaic Times to the Death of Socrates. Routledge, London.
Leadbetter, Ron ‘Eleusinian Mysteries’, Encyclopaedia Mythica, Revised 10 June 2002.