image: the ruins of the sanctuary at Eleusis, including the Telesterion. Wikimedia commons (link).
The late afternoon sun bathed the city in a warm gold reminiscent of summer, but now a gentle breeze blew in from the sea, the cooler salt air invading the hillsides where the warmth of the sun had left a relative vacuum, bringing with it the hint of the approaching autumn. From the hills of Athens, the sun in its arc descended towards the west, in the direction of Eleusis and the Gulf of Eleusis, and the island of Salamis rising up out of the Aegean and separated by only a short stretch of water from the site of sacred Eleusis.
Salamis, of course, brought to mind Athenian naval prowess, but at this time of year, all the city-states of Greece observed a holy truce: each year, messengers from Athens traveled throughout the land to announce the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and to guarantee safe passage for an entire month leading up to the great festival, and for most of the month afterwards, to anyone who wished to attend in person. All were invited, whether man or woman, free citizen or slave -- as long as they could speak the Greek language, and as long as they had never committed the crime of murder.
The truce would last from the time of the full moon in the month of Metageitneon (the middle of the second month after the annual cycle of the Attic calendar began with the first new moon following summer solstice, which would put the fifteenth day of Metageitneon towards the beginning of our September), when the runners went out, through to the tenth day of the fourth month after summer solstice, Pyanepsion, which would be towards the end of October. But the runners had been sent out nearly a month ago now, and it was now the fourteenth day of Boedromion (and the eve of a full moon), that third and final "summer month" after the solstice, towards the end of what moderns would someday call September. Athens was now packed with those who had streamed in from all over the civilized world to observe the sacred mysteria.
Earlier in the day, the procession of the priests and priestesses of the mysteries had left Eleusis and walked from there to Athens, the priestesses bearing the sacred and secret objects in closed containers, out of public view.
A thrill of anticipation ran like a steady electrical current through all those who would participate for the first time in the rites which would begin the next day. They did not know, nor did any who had not already experienced the Eleusinian mysteries themselves, the exact details of the secret rites in which they would participate on the fifth day after the sacred festival began, for the penalty for divulging the secrets of those rites was death, and the ancients honored the prohibition so steadfastly that none can say for sure to this day exactly what went on within the sacred sanctuary of the Telesterion at Eleusis.
But, the public portion of the mysteries was widely known, for it began in the public places of Athens on the first day of the festival (the fifteenth day of Boedromion), on which day the formal invitation was proclaimed in the streets. The following day, the command of Halade Mystai! would go up ("Initiates, to the Sea!"), and all the people desiring to be initiated (the mystai) had to go down to the waters of the Aegean below Athens to bathe in a ritual act of purification, taking with them a piglet.
The following days there would be sacrifices and celebrations, and then at last would come the long-anticipated processions of the initiates, led by the priests and priestesses with the sacred objects still in their containers. Significantly, this ritual procession would include a stop at a cemetery, a crossing of a bridge over the river Cephisus, and a ritual mocking of the initiates by onlookers along the way. There was also a point where the initiates had to shout obscenities, in recollection of the time that Demeter, whose rites these Eleusinian mysteria were, had been made to smile by the off-color words and antics of the old nurse Iambe, who had cheered the mourning goddess during her search for her missing daughter Persephone. Both Demeter and Persephone were the goddesses of the Eleusinian rites, but Persephone was always referred to as Kore (meaning "the Maiden") in connection with the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Imagine the excitement of the mystai when they finally arrived in Eleusis! They would be nearly exhausted from the day's march and the events on the march itself, but what an impression it had left upon them and as they finally rested in the shadow of the sacred buildings themselves, they could look back and reflect upon all of them, as well as the emotion-laden days in Athens on the previous days. Perhaps many would then continue further back, and reflect upon how long they had anticipated this day, when they would finally walk the path to Eleusis itself -- perhaps a lifetime goal for many who were there now for the first time.
For the poets, and no doubt those who were already initiated, made no secret of the knowledge that those who witnessed and experienced the nights that were to come, here among the pillars of the holy buildings dedicated to Demeter, would be forever changed, and would be freed of the dread of death, and would be promised a better condition in the invisible realm of the dead. But, the mystai no doubt had also heard that the experience itself -- the secret rites that would commence the following night -- would move them profoundly, and would contain moments of terror that would fill them with dread (how exactly this would take place, we can today only speculate).
And so it would be with a mixture of high emotions and awful anticipation that those undergoing the initiation would have watched the sun sink once again into the west. They felt that events were now in motion that they could not stop, even if they wanted to back out now, drawing them onward almost in spite of themselves.
They might reflect, too, on the knowledge that these rites had been taking place since time immemorial, right there on those slopes of Eleusis facing the water, each and every year at this particular season, when the sun was crossing the great line of the celestial equator and the nights were balanced with the days, with the festival really getting underway after that line had been crossed and the kingdom of the night was expanding further and further, the days steadily retreating in their length on the way to the lower half of the year.
No one knows exactly when the Eleusinian mysteries had been founded, but they had been taking place at least since what we would call the eighth century BC, and possibly for many centuries before that based upon the archaeological evidence. We know that the so-called Homeric Hymns, some of them probably composed in the seventh century BC, describe the search of Demeter for Persephone after Zeus permitted Hades to kidnap the maiden and take her to the underworld to be the bride of the god of death, and that Eleusis receives prominent mention in the Homeric hymn to Demeter. The hymn to Demeter is the second in the Homeric Hymn series, and it is rich in mythical detail that help us to understand the profound themes which the Eleusinian Mysteries esoterically convey -- a translation of that Hymn to Demeter, which is believed to be one of the earliest of the collection, can be found online here.
What experiences awaited those anxious mystai, as well as the epoptai (those who had already been initiated, and were returning to Eleusis to participate again as initiated "seeing-ones," possibly to have revealed to them additional parts of the ritual which took place while the mystai were still blindfolded or in the dark)? They could only wonder and imagine that first night, as the cold night winds accompanied the sun's plunge into the western seas and rustled the leaves on the trees upon the darkened hills.
We, too, can only wonder what awaited them, for the Eleusinian Mysteries, those most celebrated in the ancient world, enacted for two thousand years in a row (a few centuries longer than the period which separates us today from the last participants), were shut down along with many other sacred conveyances of the ancient knowledge, at the dawn of the era of literalist Christianity, by the decree of the Roman Emperor Theodosius in AD 392. Flavius Theodosius began the third dynasty of Christian emperors, following Gratian (who had outlawed the Vestal Virgins in Rome) and the Valentinians, who themselves followed the Constantinians which began with Constantine himself, who had declared Christianity the religion of the empire in AD 324, and who had died in AD 337.
No longer would the secret experiences of Eleusis be available to all who chose to participate.
However, from the imagery of some of the artwork surrounding the Eleusinian Mysteries -- including the tablet shown below dedicated by a participant named Ninnion (her name can still be seen on the dedicatory inscription, at the lower left corner of the tablet), scholars have formulated guesses regarding what would have taken place on the night of the second day after the arrival of the initiates (behind the procession of the priests and priestesses carrying the hidden sacred objects).
image: Ninnion Pinax, or "Votive Plaque of Ninnion" dedicated to the keepers of Eleusis. Wikimedia commons (link).
We also have veiled hints of what took place which have survived in some ancient accounts, including those of the ever-helpful Plutarch. From these accounts, and from the scene above, we can surmise that the transformative events that awaited the mystai on the night following that first night after their arrival at Eleusis would involve a harrowing search by torchlight, during which they would no doubt be enacting the desperate search of the bereaved Demeter, and during which some have speculated that they would be startled by sudden visions of the two goddesses themselves, Demeter and Kore, illuminated by bursts of light with pyrotechnic effects and perhaps thunderous music or percussion, techniques perfected for and used in ancient theater as well.
Ancient descriptions suggest that they would have wandered in circles, calling out loudly, perhaps blindfolded during the initial windings and searchings, and that they would have also been given glimpses of sacred and symbolic objects representative of the cult of the two goddesses. One ancient source also declares that at the end of the search there would have been a triumphant revelation and a celebration, and much flinging about of torches also!
The most sacred aspects of the central rites probably took place in the cave-like settings inside the inner sanctuary buildings, and included a ritual drink and perhaps even a handling of the sacred objects themselves, as well as the revelation perhaps of the goddess or goddesses themselves. Some have speculated that the drink given to the initiates possessed hallucinogenic properties, or that hallucinogenic substances were otherwise involved, accounting for the powerful visions and the feeling of dread described.
But we simply do not know. The contents of the mysteries have been sealed off from our view, and may (as far as we can tell at this point in history) retain their secrets for eternity.
What we can say for sure is that, for those who have become familiar with the ancient system of celestial metaphor which underlies all of the most ancient sacred rites and scriptures of the planet, there are abundant clues in the imagery that has survived, as well as in the ancient Hymn to Demeter itself, to allow us to gather just a taste of the significance of Eleusis.
First of all, it is clear from the specific station of the year when these rites would be celebrated -- just after the fall equinox, and after the full moon began to wane -- that the Mysteries of Eleusis involve the descent of the great heavenly cycle into the lower half of the year, the dark half, the portion signifying the underworld. From the extensive analysis and evidence offered by Alvin Boyd Kuhn (so extensive that it is really beyond dispute, in my opinion), we can also declare that this descent was seen by the originators of the ancient myths to be representative of the descent of the fiery soul into the material realm: the incarnation in the body.
Note all the imagery which confirms this interpretation surrounding the rites of Eleusis: there is the descent from Athens into the sea by the participants, during their ritual cleansing at the start of the festival; there is the crossing of the bridge, during which crossing the initiates are ritually mocked (note the crossing points of the year marked on the zodiac wheel, above -- the downward crossing is at the sign of the Virgin); there is the story of Persephone, seized and taken down into the underworld; there is the fact that Persephone is always referred to as Kore, the Maiden (the word "maiden" means "virgin") in the rites of Eleusis, just as the sign of the Virgin presides over this downward crossing on the annual cycle; there is the association of Demeter with grain and the harvesting of wheat, just as Virgo traditionally carries a sheaf of wheat, associated with her brightest star, Spica; and there is the imagery of the torches, which we have already seen were anciently associated with the equinoxes and the crossing of the blazing ecliptic path of the sun downward or upward across the unchanging line of the celestial equator (see discussion in this previous post, for example).
The goddess Hecate is often shown in imagery surrounding Eleusis and the search for and return of Persephone/Kore, and when she is shown, she is often depicted carrying two torches.
Further, the imagery of the goddesses Demeter and Kore, seated upon their thrones, are often configured to resemble the distinctive features of the constellation Virgo. Note in the Ninnion Pinax shown above the posture of the two goddesses, who are seen on right side of the plaque (facing to the left). Demeter is above, and Kore is beneath. Both are seated on thrones, and both have the extended hand that is very distinctive of Virgo (we have discussed this in previous posts such as this one and this one). Below is the same ancient scene, with the outline of the stars of Virgo superimposed:
Further, we have already discussed at length the thesis put forward by Alvin Boyd Kuhn that the search for the hidden god or goddess over all the lands inhabited by men and women was meant by the ancients to convey the sacred truth that the divine spark is hidden within all men and women, but that it is seemingly "lost" and must be pursued, reawakened, and found again (see here and here, for example).
We note that the mystai stopped at a graveyard on their way down to Eleusis: suggestive of the ancient allegorization of the plunge of the soul from the world of spirit as a "death," and this life as a passage through the "underworld" itself (which, relative to the world of spirit symbolized by the ethereal spheres that circle above our heads, this world in fact is -- again see Kuhn's extensive analysis and support of this assertion). We also note the symbolism that on the day in which they were ordered down into the sea (symbolic of the command to incarnate), they had to carry with them a live piglet: symbolic of the fact that when the spirit incarnates, it must take on the "animal" body, and become a cross of the spiritual and the carnal (how many ancient allegorical myths warn against becoming too comfortable with the carnal side of this combination, and of thus "turning into swine").
And, note carefully the incorporation into these rites of the obscenities shouted by the participants, in commemoration of the actions of Iambe in bringing a smile to the lips of the grieving goddess: this is a component of goddess-myths the world over, found in Norse myths (Loki and Skadi), in Japanese myths (Uzume and Amaterasu), and in the Old Testament story of Sarai/Sarah and her secret smile (all of these are discussed in this previous post, which features detailed diagrams of the constellation Virgo which show why these goddesses or female figures all have to smile).
It is very interesting to note that sexually explicit antics are often involved in the myths involving the smile -- this is true of the antics of Loki, of Uzume, and (in many versions of the tale) of the old Iambe (sometimes named Baubo in some versions of the Greek or Latin myth of Demeter) as well. This is highly significant, as the stars themselves can hardly be said to suggest such a constant theme, and it is difficult to argue that this very specific and distinctive aspect of the myth would arise independently in so many different cultures. And yet Japan is very far from Scandinavia, and both are far from Greece as well -- how did this myth-detail arise in such far-flung mythologies? There are a few possible answers, but I believe the most likely is the fact that all these vessels of ancient wisdom are descended from a common, even more ancient source (the "lost civilization" -- and one that other evidence reveals to have been very advanced and very sophisticated).
Esoterically, however, we can speculate that the connection to the more physical and generally private aspects of the human body (specifically, the sexual functions) at which the goddess or maiden is made to smile in these myths connects to the greater theme of incarnation as well: this specific part of the solar cycle (the autumn equinox and the plunge into the lower half) and of the lunar cycle (after the full moon is over, and the moon begins to wane towards "death") and of the elemental cycle (plunging from the air and fire of the heavenly journey into the earth and water that all the circling heavenly bodies encounter when they sink down into the western horizon) figures the plunge of the disembodied soul into the incarnated physical vessel of the human form.
Perhaps these myths are meant to hint at the idea that the soul finds this condition somewhat uncomfortable at times, especially the most carnal aspects of its incarnation. Certainly the myths involving the smiling goddess seem to poke fun at this aspect of our incarnate state. The mocking of the initiates, and their explicit participation in the obscenities of Iambe, might certainly have been intended to convey to the mystai this esoteric message.
We do not know what exactly took place on those powerful nights of mystery which the initiates could look forward to as they marveled at the experiences which they had undergone thus far. But we can guess that the truth that the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries meant to have them experience -- and hence to know, deep in their bones, not just by faith but by gnosis -- was that this mortal material life is not all that there is, and that the physical world and all that seems so solid and imprisoning can actually be transcended. If they actually underwent an out-of-body experience during the rites themselves, as some believe they did, then they would have experienced that aspect of transcending apparently un-crossable boundaries right then and there!
This is exactly what the evidence tells me that the ancient universal myths bequeathed to humanity were all meant to convey. They all intended to teach a shamanic, holographic vision of the universe we inhabit, and that we can grasp hold of the shamanic and holographic within this very life, to overcome and to create and to transcend.
Unfortunately -- tragically -- this ancient message was somehow subverted, and an active and deliberate campaign to stamp it out was initiated, even as the Eleusinian Mysteries were still going on. Their shutting down by Theodosius was a decisive event in that anti-shamanic campaign (discussed at greater length, and using other clear examples from history, in my book The Undying Stars). The sanctuary and the Telesterion at Eleusis would be sacked in AD 396 and never rebuilt.
But the message of the Eleusinian Mysteries does not depend upon the physical stones of the sanctuary, nor even in the secret objects or rituals (whatever they were) enacted on those final nights. The message is still available today, and can be read in the book of the starry heavens and the books of the sun and the moon in their cycles, open for all to see every day and every night.