The Eleusinian Mysteries are believed to have begun during the 1700sBC and they continued for over 2000 years, spreading in time from Greece to Rome. They were initiation ceremonies celebrated by the cult of Demeter and Persephone in Eleusis (modern-day Elefsina) in ancient Greece. The rites were secret and their details remain secret to this day, but it is believed that they involved union with the Gods and promises of life after death or resurrection. Some scholars believe these included some sort of Shamanic underworld journey that may have been aided by the use of psychedelic agents.
The Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries were probably held every year and they were open to anyone who could speak Greek and who had not committed murder. According to Homer, King Celeus was one of the first to partake of these rites and learn the mysteries of the cult.
The Roman emperor Theodosius closed the sanctuaries in 392AD as part of his effort to impose Christianity on the empire. In 396AD, Alaric, King of the Goths, invaded with his Christian forces and desecrated many sacred sites. Emperor Julian attempted to restore the mysteries in the 4th century with the aid of Eunapios who claimed to have been initiated by the last living Heirophant, but this didn’t work out.
Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries
The Lesser Mysteries were held in the month of Anthesterion which roughly corresponds to March. They consisted of ritual purification of the initiates by the Heirophantes and the sacrifice of a pig to Demeter.
Greater Eleusinian Mysteries
The Greater Mysteries were held every five years in Boedromion (roughly September) and lasted for ten days. On the 14th day of the month, sacred objects were brought from Eleusis to the Eleusion, a temple at the base of the Acropolis in Athens.
On the 15th day of the month, named Agyrmos for the purposes of the festival, Priests (Heirophantes) made the announcement of the beginning of the rites (prorrhesis) and prepared the sacrifices (hiereia deuro). Celebrants purified their sacrifices by washing them in the sea.
On the 16th day of the month was the Epidauria, a festival in honor of Asklepios celebrating His arrival in Athens with his daughter Hygieia. There was a procession to the Eleusinion, sacrifices and a great feast which lasted all night (pannychis)
On the 19th day of the month, a procession from Kerameikos (a cemetery) to Eleusis featured people swinging branches (bacchoi), shouting obscenity and cracking dirty jokes. This is done in memory of Iambe (or Baubo) the woman who cheered up Demeter when she was missing Persephone by cracking dirty jokes.
Once the people reached Eleusis, they would fast commemorating Demeter’s fast while she was searching for Persephone and they would break their fast by drinking kykeon. Some believe the kykeon contained some hallucinogenic agents.
On the 20th and 21st, people would enter the temple hall (the Telestrion). This was the most secret part of the mysteries and nobody is sure what went on in there. It is believed that they were shown objects sacred to Demeter (as they were stored there) and that the Heirophantes shared wisdom. Perhaps there was a group journey. Research leaves us with the less than satisfactory conclusion that the rites consisted of the deiknymena (“things shown”), the legomena (“things said”), and the dromena (“things done”).
After this, the people went to the Rharian Field, which is the spot where, according to legend, that grain first grew, and danced and feasted all night.
Early in the morning of the 22nd, a bull was sacrificed and people spent the day honoring the dead and pouring out libations to them from special vessels.
On the 23rd day, the rites were completed and initiate returned home.