Tuesday, 13 October 2015

THE ELEUSINIAN MYSTERIES

“Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” - Neil Armstrong

One of the most ancient and important among the festivals observed by the Greeks was that of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which was celebrated in honour of Demeter and Persephone. The name was derived from Eleusis, a town in Attica, where the Mysteries were first introduced by the goddess herself. They were divided into the Greater and Lesser Mysteries, and, according to the general account, were held every five years.

The Greater, which were celebrated in honour of Demeter, and lasted nine days, were held in autumn; the Lesser, dedicated to Persephone (who at these festivals was affectionately called Kore, or the maiden), were held in spring. It is supposed that the secrets taught to the initiated by the priests (the expounders of the Mysteries) were moral meanings, elucidated from the myths concerning Demeter and Persephone; but the most important belief inculcated was the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. That the lessons taught were of the highest moral character is universally admitted. “The souls of those who participated in them were filled with the sweetest hopes both as to this and the future world”, and it was a common saying among the Athenians: “In the Mysteries no one is sad”.

The initiation into these solemn rites (which was originally the exclusive privilege of the Athenians) was accompanied with awe-inspiring ceremonies; and secrecy was so strictly enjoined that its violation was punished by death. At the conclusion of the initiation great rejoicings took place, chariot-races, wrestling matches, poetry contests, music recitals were held, and solemn sacrifices offered. The initiation into the Lesser Mysteries served as a preparation for the Greater.

The Mysteries began with the march of the mystai (initiates) in solemn procession from Athens to Eleusis. The rites that they then performed in the Telesterion, or Hall of Initiation, were and remain a secret. Something was recited, something was revealed, and acts were performed, but there is no sure evidence of what the rites actually were, though some garbled information was given by later, Christian writers who tried to condemn the Mysteries as pagan abominations.

It is known, however, that neophytes were initiated in stages and that the annual process began with purification rites at what were called the Lesser Mysteries held at Agrai (Agrae) on the stream of Ilissos, outside of Athens, in the month of Anthesterion (February–March). The Greater Mysteries at Eleusis was celebrated annually in the month of Boedromion (September–October). It included a ritual bath in the sea, three days of fasting, and completion of the still-mysterious central rite. These acts completed the initiation, and the initiate was promised benefits of some kind in the afterlife.

In the Hellenistic age (300-150 BCE), the cult was taken over and run by the state, and two aristocratic families from Eleusis officiated (the Eumolpidae and Kerykes). In this age, mystery cults were becoming very popular, unlike classical Greece (400s BCE) when the Eleusinian mysteries were a rare form of worship. The annual Eleusinian mysteries attracted thousands of people from all over the Greek world, and the only initial requirement to become a mystes (initiate) was to be without blood guilt nor a barbarian (in other words, if you spoke Greek). It was open to both men and women, and remarkably, slaves were also allowed into the cult.

The mysteries existed from Mycenaean times (circa 1600-1200 BCE), thought to have been established in the 1500s BCE and held annually for two thousand years. The Roman emperor Theodosius closed the sanctuary in CE 392, and finally it was abandoned when Alaric, king of the Goths, invaded Greece in CE 396. This brought Christianity to the region, and all cult worship was forbidden.

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