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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Eleusinian Mysteries

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the sacred rites with which the annual festival of Ceres was celebrated at Eleusis, a town in Attica, situated to the northwest of Athens, and opposite the island of Salamis. They were the most ancient and most venerated mysteries of Greece, and were probably at first a national and harvest festival instituted to thank Demeter for the gift of fruit, to remember the barbaric times preceding the introduction of agriculture, and to rejoice at the progress made since. Both the founder of the mysteries and the time of their foundation are unknown. It is probable that the first foundation of them was laid by Thracians, who from Boeotia, spread over Western Attica; and that they were farther developed by the Athenians themselves, especially at the tinge of the Pisistratidae. The place in which they were celebrated was the temple of Demeter at Eleusis, a spacious, almost quadratic structure, which had been erected by the architect Iktinos, and was surrounded with a double vestibule (peribolos). At the time when Heracles came to Athens to be initiated into the mysteries it was not yet permitted to admit any foreign Greek. In order not to violate the traditional laws, and at the same time not to offend the great hero, who was not less feared than venerated, the lesser mysteries were transferred to Agrae, a suburb of Athens, and with them Heracles had to be content. From this time the lesser mysteries served as a preparation for the greater.

The initiation into the mysteries was preceded by some devotional exercises, sacred rites, and symbolic actions, the object of which was to divert the candidates for initiation for a time from the world, its pleasures and occupations, and to bring about in them a change of mind, and a longing for the disclosures to be made to them. Between initiation into the lesser and initiation into the greater one year had to elapse. The lesser were celebrated from the 19th to the 21st of the month Anthesterion (beginning of April); the greater one, the Eleusinian mysteries, were celebrated from the 16th to the 25th of Boedromion (beginning of October). "On the first day (called agurmos, the assembling), the neophytes, already initiated at the preparatory festival, met, and were instructed in their sacred duties. On the second day (called Halade, mystae, To the sea, ye initiated!), they purified themselves by washing in the sea. On the third day, sacrifices, comprising, among other things, the mulletfish, and cakes made of barley from the Rharian plain, were offered with special rites. The fourth day was devoted to the procession of the sacred basket of Ceres (the Kalathion). This basket-containing pomegranates, salt, poppy seeds, etc., and followed by bands of women carrying smaller baskets similarly filled-was drawn in a consecrated cart through the streets, amid shouts of 'Hail, Ceres!' from the onlookers. The fifth day was known as the 'day of the torches,' and was thought to symbolize the wanderings of Ceres in quest of her daughter. On it the mystae, led by the 'daduchus,' the torch-bearer, walked two by two to the temple of the goddess, and seem to have spent the night there. The sixth day, called Iacchus, in honor of the son of Ceres, was the great day of the feast. On that day the statue of Iacchus was borne in pomp along the sacred way from the Ceramnicus at Athens to Eleusis, where the votaries spent the night, and were initiated in the last mysteries. Till this stage of the proceedings they had been only mystae; but on the night of the sixth day they were admitted into the innermost sanctuary of the temple, and, from being allowed to behold the sacred things, became entitled to be called 'epoptse,' or 'ephori,' i.e., spectators, or contemplators.

They were once more purified, and repeated their original oath of secrecy with an imposing and awful ceremonial, somewhat resembling, it is believed, the forms of modern free-masonry. On the seventh day the votaries returned to Athens with mirth and music, halting for a while on the bridge over the Cephisus, and exercising their wit and satire against the spectators. The eighth day was called Epidauria, and was believed to have been added to the original number of the days for the convenience of those who had been unable to attend the grand ceremonial of the sixth day. It was named in honor of AEsculapius, who arrived on one occasion from his native city of Epidaurus too late for the solemn rites, and the Athenians, unwilling to disappoint so distinguished a benefactor of mankind, added a supplementary day. On the ninth day took place the ceremony of the 'Plemochose,' in which two earthen vessels filled with wine were turned one towards the east and the other towards the west. The attendant priests, uttering some mystic words, then upset both vessels, and the wine so spilt was offered as a libation. Slaves, prostitutes, and persons who had forfeited their citizenship were excluded from the rites. During the period of the festival, none of those taking part in it could be arrested for any offense. Lycurgus, with a view to destroying distinctions of class, forbade any woman to ride to the Eleusinia in a chariot, under a penalty of 6000 drachmae. The mysteries were celebrated with the most scrupulous secrecy. No initiated person might reveal what he had seen under pain of death, and no uninitiated person could take part in the ceremonies under the same penalty. The priests were chosen from the sacred family of the Eumolpidae, whose ancestor, Eumolpus, had been the special favorite of Ceres. The chief-priest was called the 'Hierophant,' or 'Mystagogue;' next in rank to him was the Daduchus, or Torch-bearer; after whom came the 'Hiero-Ceryx,' or Sacred Herald, and the priest at the altar. Besides these leading ministers, there was a multitude of inferior priests and servants" (Chambers, Cyclop. s.v.). It was undoubtedly one chief aim of these mysteries to spread among the educated classes of the people more elevated religious ideas than were held by the mass of the people, especially with regard to the immortality of the soul, the punishment of the wicked, and the rewards of the good. The initiated were supposed to be especially protected by the gods, and to be sure of the joys of the future life. See Ouwaroff, Essai sur les Mysteres d'Eleusis (3d edit. Paris, 1816; Preller, Demeter und Persephone (Hamb. 1837); Mommsen, Heortoloqie. Antiquar. Untersuchungen iuber die stfdtischez Feste der Athener (Leipz. 1864). (A.J.S.)


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Eleusinian Mysteries'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. http://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/e/eleusinian-mysteries.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.


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