Celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Eleusinian Mysteries were the longest-lasting and most important mystery cult of the ancient world. Initiates were forbidden to reveal the final revelations of the ritual and none ever did; however, it is known that the result of the initiation was to remove all fear of death.

Summary of Event

In classical antiquity there were many secret cults or “mysteries,” each of which characteristically required initiatory rites before full knowledge of its beliefs and liturgy would be revealed. Demeter and Dionysos were the deities with whom the most famous ancient Greek mysteries were associated, and the Eleusinian Mysteries, celebrated in honor of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, were perhaps the most renowned of all. The name is derived from Eleusis, a town some fourteen miles northwest of Athens, its acropolis facing the Bay of Salamis and dominating the rich Thriasian plain. It is with this city that one of the principal myths of antiquity became associated some time in the latter half of the second millennium b.c.e.; as a result, Eleusis became famous and wealthy as the site of a major sanctuary. Pisistratus

According to the early Greek poets, the goddess Demeter was a daughter of the Titans Kronos and Rhea. Like many of the Hellenic female deities she was a fertility goddess, her province being the care of agriculture in general, specifically of grain. By Zeus, she had a daughter Persephone, known in the earliest myths as Kore, the Greek word for “maiden.” One day as the beautiful Persephone was picking flowers—according to one version, in the lush fields of Sicily—Hades, god of the underworld, violently carried her off to make her queen of his realm. Her mother searched for the maiden all over the world, even, in one version of the story, lighting torches by the fires of the volcano Etna to continue her quest by night. In her wanderings, she eventually came to Eleusis, where in her weariness she was received hospitably and was entrusted with the care of the prince’s newborn son, who is called Demophon in the Homeric hymn but is alternately known as Triptolemus. Demeter decided to reward the hospitality of her hosts by holding the infant in the hearth fire to make him immortal. However, she was interrupted in the process and forced to admit her divinity in explanation of this strange act. The people of Eleusis were ordered to erect a temple in her honor.

Because the crops and fruits withered and the earth became barren because of Demeter’s sorrow and neglect, Zeus ordered Hades to release his captive queen. Hades agreed, but before Persephone left, he gave her some pomegranate seeds to eat. Unaware that they would make impossible her permanent return from the underworld, she ate them. Consequently while Persephone might spend eight months of each year with her mother, she had to pass the remaining four in the company of Hades. The restriction could not tarnish Demeter’s joy at seeing her daughter once more; in celebration she rewarded the Eleusians by teaching them the rites by which she was to be worshiped thereafter. According to one version of the tale, she subsequently dispatched Triptolemus to go about the world teaching the arts of agriculture to humankind.

Upon Persephone’s return to earth, the barren fields had blossomed anew, and therefore the myth of Demeter and Persephone may be said to symbolize the annual turn of the seasons from spring growth to summer harvest, and thence to the sterile time of late fall and winter. More specifically it can refer to the fact that in Greece the seed grain was stored in the ground from the harvest in June until the sowing in October, when it was brought forth for the festival of planting.

Originally the Eleusinian Mysteries were an agrarian cult celebrated in the fall at the time of sowing. After the union of Eleusis with Athens some time before 600 b.c.e., the festival of the Greater Mysteries included a procession from Athens to the sanctuary in Eleusis. The Athenian tyrant Pisistratus not only encouraged the mysteries but subsidized them so that they could be celebrated with great formal and official pomp. Occasionally the state even paid the initiation fees for poor candidates.

The Greater Mysteries were held every year for eight days in the month of Boedromion, which corresponds to September and early October in the modern Western calendar. The sacred activities began in Athens on the first day of the festival when the cult herald proclaimed to the people an invitation to take part in the ceremonies and be initiated. The only ones banned were those who had committed homicide, those otherwise unclean, and foreigners who could not speak Greek. On the next day all the acceptable initiates went down to the sea, each with a sacrificial pig, in order to purify themselves and the animals in the sea waters. On the return to the city, the pigs presumably were sacrificed. Nothing specific is known about the third day, but it probably centered on a formal ceremony for the two goddesses in their temple, the Eleusinion, situated below the Acropolis on the north side. The fourth day honored Asclepius, the god of healing, and finally on the fifth day a great procession of priests and priestesses, officials, initiates, and their escorts set out for Eleusis, fourteen miles away. Because of the distance, the latter part of the journey had to be completed by torchlight. On the sixth day, after resting and feasting, the initiation rites began in the evening with the drinking of the kykeon, a mixture of meal, water, and mint.

Pisistratus, the Athenian tyrant, is carried through the streets by Athenians celebrating his return.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The rites began in the evening in the Telesterion or Great Hall of the Mysteries, but because the cult practices themselves were carefully guarded secrets throughout antiquity, almost nothing is known about them. The chief priest displayed certain holy objects, as indicated by his Greek title hierophant, meaning one who shows something sacred; a chorus recited and chanted various hymns; and ritual acts were performed. For the participants in the liturgy there appear to have been three stages: initiation, preliminary confirmation, and final revelation. While some early Church Fathers, notably Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215 c.e.), report that sexual objects were uncovered in the final stage, it is more likely that the ultimate manifestation of the mysteries was an ear of wheat, which could well embody the wonder of the changing seasons as well as food and famine, or life and death. However, the actual content of the final revelation remains unknown. Completion of all ritual activity came on the evening of the seventh day, and on the eighth there were libations and rites for the dead. The return of the pilgrims to Athens occupied the ninth day, and on the tenth the Athenian Council of the Five Hundred convened in the Eleusinion to receive a formal report on the celebration.

The main building of the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis was the Telesterion, a large structure some 170 feet (52 meters) square at its base. Its roof was supported by forty-two columns, with banks of steps on all sides of the interior which perhaps served as seats. Here the mystai or initiates observed the sacred rites on the floor in front of them. The building was a final evolution of a first structure that had been small and rectangular and a second that had been square but only one fourth the size of the last building, which was designed and built by the architect Ictinus (fl. fifth century b.c.e.) in the Periclean age. Other structures in the area were the Temple of Artemis Propylaea, the Greater and Lesser Propylaea, all of Roman times, and numerous altars and stelae with inscriptions and dedications within the sanctuary proper.

Excavations at Eleusis were begun in 1882 by the Greek Archaeological Society, and have continued at varying times until the present.


The Eleusinian Mysteries offered the hope of a happy afterlife to its initiates for over one thousand years. In some ways, it bore similarities to other Greek festivals such as the Thesmophoria (which also included the sacrifice of piglets), and in some it foreshadowed the promises of Christianity. This was probably one source of the hostility exhibited toward the mysteries by early Christians. The festival also transcended the strictly local nature of most ancient cults, eventually drawing initiates from throughout the Mediterranean world. The myth and worship of Demeter and Persephone was one of the most important in Greek religion and in many ways provide the paradigm for goddess worship in the Western mind.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cosmopoulos, Michael B., ed. Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology of Ancient Greek Secret Religions. New York: Routledge, 2003. A collection of essays that take an archaeological approach to understanding Greek religions. The first three essays discuss the Eleusinian Mysteries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Downing, Christine, ed. The Long Journey Home: Re-Visioning the Myth of Demeter and Persephone for Our Time. Boston: Shambhala, 1995. A collection of essays that offers a variety of approaches to the contemporary meaning of the myth that underlies the Mysteries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hard, Robin, and H. J. Rose. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology: Based on H. J. Rose’s “A Handbook of Greek Mythology.” New York: Routledge, 2003. A standard work containing basic information on Demeter, Persephone, and other deities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kerenyi, Karl. Eleusis. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. A psychological analysis of the Mysteries and Greek religion. Draws on archaeology, art history, religious history, and comparative religion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mylonas, George F. Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. This book sums up the archaeological research up to the middle of the twentieth century on the site of Eleusis, and also examines what is known about the mysteries celebrated there in antiquity. The book concludes with a glossary of ancient Greek terms, a selected bibliography, an index, and eighty-eight illustrations, including a map, plans, and photographs of the site.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Folk Religion. Reprint. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. A substantial chapter in this classic study is devoted to Eleusis.

Categories: History