Of all the ‘Mystery’ cults – ancient religious sects defined by keeping knowledge of the rituals performed by members secret to the uninitiated – throughout the Egyptian, Greek and Roman worlds the Eleusinian Mysteries are probably one of the most famous, and certainly the best-documented, examples. Its ceremonies were held at the Eleusis sanctuary near Athens for over a thousand years. Within their own time they were famous, with initiates being drawn in from all over the Mediterranean[1]. But what were these ceremonies about, and what occurred during them?

As the name suggests concrete evidence for Mystery cult activities, even one as relatively well known as the Eleusinian Mysteries, is hard to come by. Luckily, we can start to answer the first question thanks to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.[2] The Hymn is nominally the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, but there are clues throughout that suggest at least some relevance to the Eleusinian Mysteries (even if some historians claim it can’t tell us what happens during the ceremonies themselves,[3] there’s enough allegory to initiation within to make it our best source of written evidence for the cult). It all but says as much on two occasions, firstly when the goddess Demeter commands king Celeus and his people to perform her ‘mysteries’,[4] and again towards the climax when the ‘solemn Mysteries’[5] are mentioned explicitly.

With the evidence justified, here’s the quick rundown of the myth and its relation to the Mysteries:

  • Demeter is the Greek goddess of the harvest, and her beautiful daughter is named Persephone.
  • Persephone is captured by Hades, and taken to the Underworld to be raped. Demeter wanders the world in grief, refusing to allow crops to grow until her daughter is returned.
  • She eventually finds her daughter, but since Persephone was tricked into eating a pomegranate seed while in Hades’ captivity she must remain with him for a period of the year as ‘Kore’, queen of the Underworld. This was the Greek explanation for the harvest cycle, with crops blooming while Persephone with her mother and dying when she returns to the Underworld.
Source: MrSandmanGR on Deviantart, The Abduction of Persephone

So the Mysteries can be roughly interpreted both as a harvest ceremony and a vehicle for self-discovery and spiritual transformation, mirroring Persephone’s transformation into Kore. With two such relatable themes behind them it’s easy to see why the Mysteries became so popular. But that still doesn’t answer the more tantalising question of, what actually happened in these ceremonies?

Article after article could be written on this subject, and there’s no way every aspect of the rites can fit here. Some scholars such as Colin Wilson suggest the Sanctuary at Eleusis was essentially a ‘ghost train’[6] where initiates would be led through a labyrinth and have all manner of surprises pop out to spook them. Recent studies have (sadly) found no evidence of any structure like this, but there are other references we can follow up on.

One problem with studying Mystery cults is that most evidence for what occurred during rituals comes from sources hostile to them, such as later Christian writers or ‘profaners’ like Diagoras of Melos who was accused of ‘impiety’ in 415BCE.[7] Even so there are times when the evidence they present is intriguing. For example, the claim by Clement of Alexandria in his ‘Exhortations to the Heathens’ that a narcotic drink sometimes translated as Kykeon had been ingested at Mystery ceremonies[8] gels with other supposed evidence of the sort of things initiates got up to; these include long flickering torchlight processions to the Sanctuary that could have induced an almost hypnotic atmosphere[9], and potential allusions to drugged beverages both within the Hymn itself and in artwork from the period:

Source: British Museum, adapted from Clinton 1992.

Although we can’t be one hundred per cent certain that drugs were used during the Eleusnian Mysteries, therefore, we can take a reasonable guess at the fact the priests went out of their way to induce a manic, almost party-like atmosphere to the rites that might have included such narcotics – maybe not so ‘solemn’ any more, but doubtless more enjoyable.

If the idea sounds overly-cliché, think of it another way; many scholars suggest that since the Eleusinian Mysteries were based on a story of transformation and self-realisation, a key pat of the cultic ceremonies was self-reflection.[10] Anything that could have loosened an initiate’s grip on reality would certainly open them up to ‘transformations’ in their personality. The Mysteries were also a social event both for Athens and the entire Mediterranean. It would make sense that, just like many modern clubbers, our Greek ancestors found the wheels of socialising considerably oiled while bouncing around on drugs to flickering (torch)lights.

Sexual contact might have featured in these ceremonies, (it’d certainly fit with the theme of fertility) but as with much to do with the cult it’s hard to be certain. Later attempts to reproduce cult ceremonies also play their part in confusing the reality; Clement of Alexandria also claimed that a box containing a mysterious item was paraded before initiates to trigger a moment of revelation[11]. That’s certainly possible, but what isn’t so likely is the idea floated around by later copycats such as Alexander of Abonoteichus that the box might have literally contained a new born child, referenced as the ‘birth of a god’.[12] If nothing else timing up a birth correctly would have been a logistical feat impressive even to the mathematically minded Greeks! While an extreme example, this does illustrate that there’s plenty about the Eleusinian Mysteries we will probably simply never know. That doesn’t mean we should stop searching, however, or that the evidence we do have isn’t intriguing.

There could be far more hear to discuss, for this was an incredibly quick whistle-stop tour of the Eleusinian Mysteries. It might have been just a harvest festival for some, but through a mixture of ritual, possibly drugs, and other events we can only guess at it drew for other it offered the chance for a transformative ‘rebirth’ – at least spiritually so.

[1] Huw Bowden, Mystery Cults in the Ancient World, 2010
[2] http://homer.library.northwestern.edu/html/application.html
[3] Kevin Clinton, Myth and Cult: the iconography of the Eleusinian Mysteries, 1992, and Huw Bowden, Mystery Cults in the Ancient World, 2010
[4] HH.2.274
[5] HH.2.479
[6] Colin Wilson, The Occult, 1971
[7] Diodorus Siculus, XIII.6.7
[8] Clement of Alexandria Protrepticus, 2.21.2
[9] Jan Bremmer, Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World, 2014
[10] Larry Alderink, ‘Personal Religion?’, in Reading Religions n the ancient world, 2007
[11] Clement of Alexandria Protrepticus, 2.21.2
[12] Lucian of Samotosa, Alexander the False Prophet, 38 – http://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/lucian/lucian_alexander.htm


This article was written by Jordan Green, whose writing portfolio can be found online here.