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THE ELEUSINIAN MYSTERIES – A MODERN PILGRIMAGE

by Sheila Rose Bright

Eleusis (pronounced Elev-seess) captured my imagination years before I got there. It was such a powerful and effective mystery religion that it was celebrated for almost two thousand years (from c. 1400 BCE to 395 CE), yet the secret of its central mystery (the epopteia or vision) was never revealed. It grew from a local family cult to attract at its height thousands of pilgrims annually to Eleusis (14m/20km NW of Athens) from all over the ancient world, including as far away as Egypt. It was considered so central to Hellenic civilisation that all the warring states observed a fifty-five-day truce both before and after the celebrations so that initiates could travel safely. Clearly something very special happened at Eleusis to warrant the status accorded to it.

The Mysteries, as they were simply called, were concerned with the relationship of Demeter and the Kore, the Holy Grain Mother and the Sacred Daughter. Kore descends to the Underworld and there finds her name (Persephone was never named as such in the Eleusinian records, unlike Demeter), her vocation as Queen of the Dead, and a lover/consort. The Mysteries of Demeter and Kore turn around the changing relationship of Mother and Maiden Daughter, their separation and reunion, and the Earth’s seasons of planting, growth, harvesting, death and rebirth. Persephone goes into the Underworld, like seeds under the earth; She returns to Demeter and the joy of their reunion reflects human joy as plant life springs anew out of the earth. Demeter goes through a mother’s loss, grief and rage to the eventual restitution of her Daughter, as a result of which She gives humanity her two gifts: the gift of grain & gift of her rites, in which She instructed the original Eleusinian priesthood.

Although the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries reached its heights in Hellenic times, their roots and essence predate the Olympian pantheon in which Gods assumed power and the previously powerful Goddesses were married off to them. In fact it is possible that the Mysteries originated in Goddess celebrating Minoan Crete: Homer’s Hymn to Demeter says that she came from Crete originally, and Diodorus of Sicily said in the first century BCE that the Mysteries originated at Knossos on Crete. However no trace of the Mysteries has ever been found on Crete.

The setting for the story of Demeter and Persephone is also claimed by Sicily itself. There is a Sicilian version of the tale, and in the mountaintop town of Enna are the remains of a temple to Demeter the Grain Goddess on La Rocca Cerere (Ceres’ Rock). Clearly the Two Goddesses and their story were widely known and celebrated in the ancient world in other places than Eleusis.

Only in Eleusis in Greece, however, did they grow to such huge importance. Yet astonishingly the ancient sacred site of Eleusis is not on the main tourist trail. Perhaps many people are deterred by its surroundings: a modern industrial town and port, although they not as intrusively ugly as some guidebooks proclaim. Perhaps in the absence of standing (or reconstructed) buildings and columns it fails to impress with grandeur or photo-opportunities. Despite being only 14 miles from Athens and accessible by public transport, it is extraordinarily under-visited considering both its size and significance. For this the modern Goddess pilgrim may be fervently grateful, since she may find herself free to experience the site and its relatively undisturbed energies with minimal interruption.

The Mysteries

The Mysteries were protected by two kinds of secrets. Important information about what happened during the rites, the aporrheton or lesser secrets, was protected by vows of secrecy. The arrheton or final ineffable mystery, the epopteia or vision which was conveyed in the Telesterion at the culmination of the Greater Mysteries, was also a ‘holy open secret’ (Goethe): a mystery in the true sense of the word because it could not be communicated in words but had to be experienced to be understood. Perhaps then as now initiates knew that trying to describe a precious spiritual peak experience dissipates its power. Not one initiate is ever known to have breached the laws enforcing silence – amazing considering the hundreds of thousands of people initiated over two millennia but perhaps not so surprising since the punishment was death and being cursed by the Eleusinian clergy. The latter may have been even more greatly feared than the former, given the central role the Eleusinian Mysteries played in the religious life of ancient Greece.

The form the Great Mysteries took must have changed and developed significantly over two millennia, but frustratingly we do not know the exact form the heart of the mysteries took, because the vows of secrecy were so completely observed. Many have speculated, more or less improbably, but we must accept that sixteen centuries later there is no way for us to fully re-enter or reclaim the great Mystery. We know how incredibly powerful it must have been and how effective it was in changing the initiates’ lives: there have been many testimonies to the beatitude it conferred, both joy in this life and confidence of blessedness to come after death, and simply because the rites survived almost two millennia and were held in the highest possible esteem.

Eleusis: The remains of the Telesterion today
Eleusis: The remains of the Telesterion today

The Greater Mysteries were celebrated over a nine-day period, beginning on Boedromion 15 (Full Moon September-October). The days of the Mysteries echoed the nine days in which the grieving Demeter searched for her Daughter before she discovered what had happened to her; indeed the mystai also emulated some of Demeter’s other experiences during the days of the Greater Mysteries. As in modern sacred ritual drama, the core of the transformative power lies in identifying with the Goddess & her story as it is played out. What do we know for certain about the epopteia, the final vision, the ineffable secret? We do know that at some point in Holy Night a huge fire was lit on the rock in the central Anaktoron, because the sudden and immensely bright light was seen coming out of the special opening in the roof of the Telesterion and flashing across the bay of Eleusis. It could not be concealed from those outside the Sanctuary, nor could the joyful cry of the mystai nor the thundering sound of what was probably a huge gong. All of these are recorded in Plutarch’s life of Themistokles. We also know from the Greek words used to describe it that the vision conferred by the Greater Mysteries was explicitly seen with the eyes open; thus it was a shared revelation visible to all, not an inner individual vision, and it took the mystai through a great transition from sadness to joy, from separation to reunion, from death to rebirth.

The Sacred Way to Eleusis

My quest began in Athens, where we sought out the starting point of the mystai‘s journey to Eleusis. I could find no trace of the Eleusinion where the hiera (sacred objects) had been stored overnight in the ancient Agora beneath the northwest corner of the Acropolis, but I did walk from there to the Keramikos (potters’) site, along a route which was so aligned with the Acropolis (to the southeast) and the marked Sacred Way (to the northwest), cutting diagonally across the grid of most of the city streets, that it must have been the route of the procession even though it is no longer named as the Sacred Way.

Finding the Keramikos site already closed and locked, we located the Sacred Way where it emerged from Keramikos through a gate in the old city wall. We stood on the busy road, calling on Demeter and Persephone to bless our journey and to grace us with their gifts. Ceremonially we crossed busy Piraeus Street and walked the first few hundred yards up the road which is still named and signposted Iera Odos, the Sacred Way. Wow! That felt incredible, a powerful beginning and stepping out.

The Sacred Way in AthensThe following day I explored the Keramikos site. Here I found the first remaining section of the marked Sacred Way, an earth path amongst the stone ruins. I walked through the remains of the Sacred Gate through which the mystai passed; on the left side the wall still stands high. I was thrilled by my awareness of the hundreds of thousands of pairs of feet which had walked that same path before me in previous millennia, beside the same Eridanos river, dry at this season but filled with rushes and bright flowering plants. I followed the Sacred Way past the old city wall, to the edge of the Keramikos site on Piraeus Street which I had found the day before.

I then returned to the Sacred Gate, where I watched a huge turtle emerge from the riverbed and feed on the vegetation. This felt like serendipity, the first of several special blessings which the two Goddesses seemed to confer on me in the course of my pilgrimage. I settled to meditation in this green and peaceful spot, the first time I could sink myself deeply into the world of Demeter, Persephone and their blessed Mysteries. I could hear their voices calling to me and feel the pull of Eleusis, the urge to pilgrimage and process, to follow the Sacred Way in awe and worship sixteen centuries after the last official celebrations.

The following day I followed the Sacred Way by road all the way from the Keramikos exit onto Piraeus Street in Athens to Eleusis. I drove the original route and then processed on foot up the final few hundred yards of the Sacred Way and into the Sanctuary of Eleusis. What met my eyes was spectacular. I was standing in a large forecourt, facing the six white marble steps (tens of metres wide) which form the approach to the Greater Propylaia, the great gates through which the initiates processed after they were built in the second century BCE on the site of older gates. Barefoot, I was awed to tread where hundreds of thousands of expectant initiates had walked before me. I felt an incredible sense of history. From the big circular bases of the columns which once held up the magnificent gates I could imagine the imposing splendour of the original building (there are no buildings left standing at Eleusis) which was a close copy of the central great gates of the Athenian Acropolis. I sensed how passing between the columns was to cross a psychic as well as physical threshold.

I have read that as the mystai passed through the series of gates (into the Sanctuary’s forecourt, through first the Greater and then the Lesser Propylaia (gates) then into the Telesterion (the central Hall of Mysteries), each gate would be locked behind them, increasing the sense of irrevocably proceeding forwards. I could imagine the size and weight of these huge gates from seeing the deep semicircular ruts they had made in the marble floor as they were opened and closed.

Eleusis: The Forecourt and Greater Propylaia
Eleusis: The Forecourt and Greater Propylaia with the Ploutonian caves behind

Once through the numinous threshold of the Greater Propylaia, the Sacred Way turns slightly to the left and through the Lesser Propylaia, the entrance to the main part of the Sanctuary. These too made deep semicircular grooves in the marble floor. The roof used to be supported by huge circular columns. On the inner side of the gates, these columns were carved in the form of two priestesses or Caryatids, each bearing on her head the kista mystika, the sacred chest containing the hiera and on the outside decorated with Demeter’s sacred symbols: ears of corn, poppies, rosettes and the kerna, the sacred vessels carried by women on their heads in the procession, containing the kykeon and/or small lights. One of these original columns/statues is in the Eleusis museum and was a joy to see it in physical reality.

Immediately after passing through the Lesser Propylaia, the mystai would have seen a small doorway on the right opening into the Ploutonian caves: two natural caves, one larger and one smaller, side by side in the side of the small hill. This is the entrance to the Underworld: one of the possible places where Persephone descended, the Gates of Hades according to the Orphic Hymn. Here offerings were made in the small temple of Plouton when the initiates arrived in Eleusis. It is also where the Pourings of Plenty libations were offered on the final day of the Greater Mysteries, seeping through the earth back to the underworld through a pit which has since been filled in.

The place was awesome and redolent of Underworld energies. The gloomy light was in stark contrast to the bright sunlight outside. When I visited in late October the ground was covered with crushed and burst crimson vulva-shaped fruits containing big seeds. No, they weren’t pomegranates: they were actually the fruits of the prickly pear cacti that grow on the hillside above, but remarkably the Ploutonian was the only place in the whole Eleusinian Sanctuary where I saw them. The visual impact was striking – very like dark blood seeping – as was their likeness to Persephone’s pomegranates, here where the powers of the Underworld were at their strongest on the aboveground. This was another of the powerful synchronicities I encountered on this magical pilgrimage.

I climbed up on the big protruding rock within the larger cave which had been worn smooth. My guidebook had led me to assume it was the agelastos petra, the Mirthless Rock where Demeter sat ‘without laughing’ to rest and grieve. Certainly it felt very appropriately situated, right within the cavern of the Underworld, although the official guide to Eleusis identifies the Laughless Rock as a smaller one to the left of the Sacred Way further up from the Lesser Propylaia.

The Ploutonian Cave & the Mirthless Rock
The Ploutonian Cave & the Mirthless Rock

Whichever, I found myself thrust immediately, spontaneously and with no pre-planning into the part of a traditional Samhain ritual where we call our Beloved Dead. It was 29 October and my stepfather had died three weeks previously, so you could say I was ripe and the timing was right to fall deeply into grieving for all my losses through death and separation. I sat on the rock with tears streaming down my face as I named, remembered and grieved – sitting, as I believed, where Demeter herself had once sat and grieved. Even as I sobbed I felt very grateful both for her example, her leading the way in the sacred healing process of grieving, and also for the knowledge that her tears were not bottomless and neither are mine. Her story tells me that restitution happens, albeit sometimes in a different form.

So with final blessings and thanks to Persephone I left the caves and proceeded on the next stage of my journey, physical as well as spiritual, up the Sacred Way past the Exedra or Stand towards the Telesterion, the Central Hall of Initiation and the Heart of the Mysteries. My heart fluttered with intense anticipation and I was not disappointed.

The first thing that strikes you about the Telesterion [see photoEleusis: The remains of the Telesterion today] is its size. It is vast: about 56 metres square. Originally on all four sides, now the remaining one and two halves of the sides are lined with eight tiers of steps/seats. This is where the mystai sat or stood to experience Holy Night, having processed up the Sacred Way in the dark with torches flaming. Before I went to Eleusis I wondered how they could ever accommodate so many people in one place. Standing there awestruck on the edge of the Telesterion, I could see how three thousand people would easily have fitted in. I felt incredibly small, in fact utterly dwarfed by the dimensions of the place.

Mt.Kerata viewed from the Museum terrace
Mt. Kerata viewed from the Museum terrace

I walked around, explored and took photos. Behind the small museum, at the top of the site, is a splendid view across the Bay of Salamis, where the Greeks fought their famous battle against the Persians in 480 BCE. I stood on the museum terrace looking out over the sea and watched the huge red ball of the sun set just south of a very distinctive mountain double peak which looks very like lips. I was told it is called Trikeri or Mt. Kerata, which means Three Horns, one of which is not visible from this angle. The museum guides said it was not a holy mountain but my instinct said it probably did have some significance, and I later found confirmation in Rachel Pollack’s book ‘The Body of The Goddess’. Later it occurred to me that at some time during the summer the sun must actually set between the two peaks as viewed from the Sanctuary of Eleusis. It would be very interesting to know when this happens, and if it is a special time in the Demetrian calendar.

I returned to the centre of the Telesterion to find the Anaktoron or Holy of Holies (Anaktoron literally means ‘palace’). The first small sacred room, built when the Sanctuary was established in Mycenean/late Helladic times (about 1400 BCE), is called Megaron B by archaeologists. According to myth this was the temple which Demeter demanded that the Mycenean King Keleus of Eleusis build for her once she had revealed her true identity. It was replaced by the first Anaktoron built c.600 BCE on the site of the original one-room Megaron B temple, thus overlapping the original foundations. Only the Hierophants were permitted entry to the Anaktoron. Here the hiera were kept and displayed by the Hierophant (literally s/he who makes things appear); here also the Hierophant’s throne was said to be. Excavations now reveal the different levels of building from different eras; the lowest level visible had the only curved wall that I saw on the whole site, possibly revealing its pre-classical and more female design.

I sat on a protruding piece of stonework of the Anaktoron for my final meditation here at the centre of all things. Knowing that the clock would soon strike closing time, I had no great expectations and was utterly surprised at the power of what happened. Looking around me, I realised that instead of sitting in an initiate’s seat huddled in a far corner, I was now in the priest(ess)’s position, at the centre facing the rows of initiates. And whether because of that, or whether because my days of immersion in these Mysteries had made me unusually receptive, or probably just because the place is so damn powerful after almost two millennia of sacred rites, I experienced an enormous sense of power rising out of the ground and flowing through me – I who am not usually very sensitive to the energies at sacred sites. It was an incredibly physical sensation of being flooded from below with intense energy.

Then it was like warm honey seeping all through me, filling me with an extraordinary feeling of bliss. I couldn’t believe it. This was the sense of total beatitude that many initiates had described, happening to me quite spontaneously. I felt blissful in a way I never have before and will never forget. Life and death had become one, Demeter and Persephone had became one, I was perfect and perfectly fulfilled and the present moment was perfect and had lasted from the beginning of time and would continue to the end of eternity. Everything was one, utterly blissfully at peace and in joy. I had been blessed and gifted beyond all expectations to share something of the beatitude the initiates attained at the culmination of the Greater Mysteries at Eleusis. It will remain, I am sure, one of the high points in my spiritual life. The Holy Mysteries of the Two Goddesses had surely changed me and my life as deeply as they affected the initiates of old. The power and long reach, through time as well as space, of the Holy Mother and Her Daughter can never, it seems, be finally destroyed but springs eternal, like the grain and Persephone herself.

This article is extracted from “The Eleusinian Mysteries: A Modern Pilgrimage” by Sheila Rose Bright.
To order copies of this illustrated booklet contact Sheila:
sheila@rosebright.co.uk