Cults* devoted to the worship of gods and goddesses were common in ancient Greece, and the most famous of these were called the Eleusinian Mysteries—dedicated to Demeter, the goddess of grain and fertility. Like other cults, the Eleusinian Mysteries promised earthly blessings and benefits to those who pledged their faith in them. However, the mysteries also promised happiness in the afterlife, a feature that distinguished this cult from most others. The rituals* of the mysteries were secret, and those who joined the cult swore never to reveal them. Unlike other cults, the rituals were conducted inside a temple at night rather than outdoors during the day. Anyone who spoke Greek and was not a murderer was eligible to join, as long as he or she paid the required initiation fee.
The earliest reference to the cult is in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a poem written in the early 500s B.C. The poem tells the story of Demeter’s daughter Persephone (also known as Kore), who was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld*. As a punishment for this action, Demeter takes away her gift of grain, causing a year of famine. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, arranges a bargain in which Persephone spends each winter with Hades and returns in spring to spend the remainder of the year with her mother. This myth reinforces the notion of Demeter’s control over grain, the main food source for the ancient Greeks, as well as over the change of seasons and the relationship between death and life.
The Hymn to Demeter also connects the cult to the town of Eleusis. While taking refuge in the town, Demeter meets the town’s king and queen and becomes the nurse to their infant son. In an attempt to make the child a substitute for her lost daughter, Demeter feeds him ambrosia, the food of the gods, and lays him in a fire each night to burn away his human flesh. When the queen of Eleusis discovers the plan, Demeter becomes angry, reveals her true identity, and demands that the people of Eleusis build a temple in which her rites, or mysteries, are to be celebrated.
In the late 500s B.C., when Eleusis came under the rule of Athens, the structure of the rituals changed, and two separate sets of rites were established. The Lesser Mysteries, held just outside Athens in the spring, were considered to be a preliminary initiation in which participants fasted, sacrificed*, and purified themselves. The Greater Mysteries were held in early October, beginning when sacred images were brought to Athens from Eleusis and ending in the temple in Eulisis.
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
On the first day of the Greater Mysteries, participants gathered in the agora* of Athens to hear the requirements for initiation. The following day, the new members paraded three miles to the sea, where they purified themselves in the water and sacrificed a young pig. After a feast, the participants walked 14 miles to Eleusis. Before entering the town, they crossed a bridge on which men, dressed as women, shouted insults and obscenities at them. This ritual either symbolized the change from the joy and celebration of the journey to the seriousness of the rites, or it signified an attempt to drive away evil spirits who might disrupt the rites. Although there are no records of the rituals conducted inside the temple in Eleusis, it is known that special objects were displayed and special rituals were performed. The writer Hippolytus reported that a piece of wheat, a symbol of Demeter’s gift of grain, was displayed. Grain dies in the winter but grows again in the spring, and this natural cycle may have represented the hopes of the members of the cult for a new life after death in the underworld. (See also Cults; Myths, Greek; Religion, Greek; Ritual and Sacrifice.)
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
* agora in ancient Greece, the public square or marketplace