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Mysteries of the Eleusinian - Cult of Demeter and Persephone in Ancient Greece

Updated on September 15, 2016
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Mythology is a wonderful world that Phyllis can escape to when her mind needs a break from daily life.

Votive plaque depicting elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries
Votive plaque depicting elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries | Source

Ancient Eleusis

In the northernmost end of the Saronic Gulf in West Attica, Greece, ceremonies were held each year in ancient times for the initiates of the cult of Demeter and Persephone. These are known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. There is evidence that as early as 1700 BC, the ceremonies and festival for the Mysteries were held at the site of what was ancient Eleusis.

The belief of the cult was that there was hope for life after death. A stalk of grain was used as a symbolism of life by opening the grain to show the seed within and to tell of its life cycle, birth, death, and rebirth. The rituals and ceremonies were performed to initiate new followers of Demeter and Persephone.

Even modern scholars believe that the purpose of the Mysteries was to elevate man to the divine level by attaining purity.

There is an ongoing debate that the Eleusinian Mysteries could possibly have originated in Egypt long before appearing in Greece, but as yet has not been proven.

The barley was sacred to the priestesses and used in ceremonies

Barley | Source

Demeter and Persephone

In ancient Greek mythology Demeter was goddess of the harvest, agriculture, and forests. She was the wife of Zeus, the supreme god, the Father of gods and men, god of Sky, Thunder, and Lightning. Demeter ruled from high above on Mount Olympus and reigned over all that grew on Earth. Nothing on Earth grew unless it had Demeter's blessings and care. In the eyes of the gods, Demeter was most important for all life on Earth to flourish.

Persephone, goddess of Spring, was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Persephone was most lovely and all the gods wanted to court her, hoping she would choose to love one of them. Demeter did not want her precious daughter to become a servant to a god, for, although lovely and much sought after, Persephone had no great powers of her own and was not given any position of power by Zeus -- so her position had no stability and she was at the mercy of Zeus.

Demeter tried to keep her daughter safe from the gods that pursued her, so Persephone was taken far away to live in peace among meadows of flowers, gentle woodlands, and only quiet beauty surrounding her. Persephone's only companions were the nymphs who delighted in running free and safe in this paradise.

Yet Zeus had other plans for Persephone, with his nephew, Hades, Lord of the Underworld. A conspiracy between these two gods allowed for Persephone to be kidnapped and taken to the Underworld to become the wife of Hades, for he was so smitten by her beauty.

When Demeter found out where her daughter had been taken, she moved all things on Earth and threatened to let all plant life die. If all on Earth died, then the people would have nothing to offer to Zeus, nor would anyone survive. So, a bargain was made between Hades and Demeter. Persephone was allowed to spend Spring, Summer, and Autumn with Demeter on Earth. At the end of the harvest season, Persephone was to live out the Winter months in the Underworld with Hades.

Every year, Persephone returns to bring in the symbolic rebirth and new beginnings of Spring.

Demeter and Persephone

Persephone is returned from Hades to Demeter
Persephone is returned from Hades to Demeter | Source

Ceremonies of the Mysteries

The main theme of the introduction ceremony was the story of Demeter's quest to find her lost daughter, Persephone, whom Hades had kidnapped. These particular ceremonies were considered the most important of all celebrations in ancient times.

The mysteries had three cycles, or phases, which represented the mythological story of Demeter and Persephone. The abduction of Persephone by Hades was shown in ritualistic manner of the phases: The Descent, The Search, and The Ascent. This major festival of the Hellenic period eventually spread to Rome.

In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Keleos, King of Eleusis, was one of the original priests of Demeter, and one of the first people to learn her secret rites. In honor of Demeter, Keleos had a beautiful shrine built where he had a seat in the temple constructed for only her.

The Eleusinian Mysteries involved two parts, known as the Lesser Mysteries and the Greater Mysteries. Those who joined were sworn to secrecy, taking their vows in the Introduction Ceremony.

Thomas Taylor (1758 - 1835), English translator and Neoplatonist, interpreted the shows of the Lesser Mysteries were symbolic of what the soul goes through while subjected to the physical body experience and the miseries therein. The Greater Mysteries were seen by Taylor as the purification of the soul from the negative influence of the material world and release of the soul into the divine hereafter. Plato described the Mysteries as that which leads us back to a perfect reunion of the spiritual good.

The secrets of the Mysteries are still not known today, for they were never written. There are assumptions and theories based on symbolism and conjecture.

During the annual festival, performances were presented to the public, yet none of the actual Mystery secrets were made known.

Ceremony at Eleusis

Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1889
Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1889 | Source

The Sacred Way

Those who attended the Eleusinian Mysteries festival and ceremonies followed the Sacred Way. This was the road to Eleusis that began in Athens, on the 19th of Boedromion, which is in late summer, the month of reaping, September.

Followers of the Demeter and Persephone cult formed a procession at the Kerameikos cemetery and made their way to Eleusis swinging bacchoi (branches). When the procession reached Eleusis, a day of fasting was held to commemorate the fast that Demeter entered into when searching for Persephone.

Along the Sacred Way are shrines for Zeus, Cayemites, Apollo, Aphrodite, tomb of Eumolpus, among others, where offerings may have been made by people in the procession. From the beginning of the procession through the nine days of the festival, the people were filled with joy and the hopes of achieving higher spiritual levels.

Sacred Way in Athens: the "Tripopatréion" Sacred Area

Kerameikos Cemetery (Athens).
Kerameikos Cemetery (Athens). | Source

A Mother's Love

The goddess Demeter is the epitome of motherly love and protection. A mother's love is powerful. If her child is in danger, if the child is in the clutches of evil, she will enter the gates of hell and face Hades himself to protect her child.

© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns


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    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Mike, thank you for your visit and comment. I am glad you liked this hub.

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 

      6 years ago from London

      Wonderful and informative hub, Phyllis. Thanks for this educative hub!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Eddy, Glad you enjoyed reading about the Mysteries. I often wonder if some people still carry on the rituals and ceremonies in their own homes. Thanks for the visit and comment.

      Have a great week with many blessings.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      So interesting and thanks for sharing Phyllis.

      Enjoy your day.


    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      DDE, I am so glad you liked reading about the Mysteries. I love to study things like this and write about them. Thank you very much for the visit and comment. I appreciate your visit.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile imageAUTHOR

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      tillsontitan, I am always delighted to read your comments, for they inspire me to more writing. Thank you so much for the visit and votes -- I really appreciate it. Hope all is well with you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Awesome about Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece so interesting useful, and informative

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Wow Phyllis, another interesting hub and one I was not familiar with at all. so many mysteries from the Ancients! You do such a great job of explaining them and making them even more interesting!

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.


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