Eleusinian Mysteries

Within the Eleusinian Mysteries the role of Demeter is vitally important. She took her name from Mother Earth, as was among the generation of children born of Cronus and Rhea. Her name provides a link with the Indo-European deities that the Hellenes brought with them.

Almost with certainty, the triad in the Sumerian system would have been represented by Inanna and Ereshigal with Dumuzi, or his counterpart, the king in whom his spirit was incarnate; while in the Classical Greek supposed the triad in the Eleusis mysteries was composed of Demeter (the mother-goddess Earth), Persephone (Queen of the Underworld), and the young king, their foster child, Triptolemos (once a local king), who is said to have brought Demeter’s gift of grain into the world, and as the fosterling of Persephone, to now reign in the land of the dead.

Although Demeter was thought as the mother-goddess Earth she never was confused with Gaia, who was considered a cosmic element. Demeter’s providence was the cultivation of the soil, especially land producing corn. Thus legends concerning her proliferated among the futile plains, and the central ground for her myths were the plains of Eleusis, which were around Athens and Sicily, containing the granaries of the ancient world.

Together with Demeter and Persephone the also was a third deity, Zagreus, who figured in the mysteries of Eleusis. Initially Iacchus was the shout uttered by the faithful in the course of religious processions. Gradually the shout assumed a personality and adopted the task of leading the processions of initiates. Occasionally he was thought to be the son of Demeter, but at other times he was considered to be the reincarnation of Zagreus, a son of Persephone and Zeus.

In Iacchus, one see a shout, an inanimate object, assume life; and in Zagreus, one sees the dead regain life; both are the revelation of the Eleusian mysteries. This was as it should be since the central theme of the Eleusus mysteries centers on the abduction of Persephone into the Underworld by Hades. Only Demeter, and Hekate, a moon goddess, heard her daughter, Persephone, scream for help when the Earth opened permitting Hades to snatch her away.

But when bereaved Demeter tried tracing her daughter’s footsteps she found them obliterated by those of a pig. As by coincidence at the time of the abduction a herd of pigs was rooting nearby. The swineherd’s name was Eubouleus, which means «the giver of good counsel» was himself earlier in the appellation of the god of the underworld. Furthermore, when the chasm opened to swallow up Persephone, the pigs fell in as well. This is, according to tradition, the reason that pigs play an important role in the rites of Demeter and Persephone.

The first festivals celebrating the sorrows and later joys of Demeter and Persephone were exclusively for women held in pre-Hellenic Greece; that is in the so-called Pelasgian period, when the hieratic civilizations of Crete and Troy were at their zenith before the time of the warrior-gods Zeus and Apollo who reduced the power of the great goddess.

The festivals included the sacrifice of suckling pigs in a manner suggestive of not only of an human sacrifice but of a gruesome one. The women fasted for nine days in memory of the nine days of sorrow that Demeter roamed the earth holding a staff-like torch in search of Persephone.

She meets Hekate, and together they go tp Phoebus, the sun god, who had seen the young goddess abducted and told them where she was. Afterwards Demeter, filled with wrath and grief, left the world of the gods, and sat as an old woman, heavily veiled, for days at the Well of the Virgin. Next she became a servant in a kingly household in Eleusis, the city that became her largest sanctuary in Greece. She then cursed all the earth so it bore no fruit for man or the gods for a whole year.

Then the gods of Olympus, including Zeus, each pleaded with her in vain, but she would not relent. Zeus finally succeeded in gaining Persephone’s release; but while in the underworld she had eaten a seed of a pomegranate and as a consequence would have to spend one third of the year with Hades. She was embraced by both her mother and Hekate and returned to Olympus glorious, and, as if by magic, the earth bloomed again with flowers and vegetation.

The seed-time festival of Thesmophoria lasted three days, the first day being named Kathodos (downgoing) and Anodos (upcoming), the second Nestia (fasting), and the last Kalligeneia (fair-born or fair-birth); and it was during the first that the suckling pigs were thrown, probably alive, into an underground chamber called a megara, and left there to rot for a year, the bones from the year before being carried up to the earth again and placed upon an altar.

Figures of serpents and human beings made of flour and wheat were also thrown into the chasm, or «chamber,» at this time. And the author of this information wrote: «They say that in or about the chasms are snakes which consume the most part of what is thrown in; hence a rattling din is made when the women draw up the remains and when they replace the remains by well-known images, in order that they snakes which they hold to be the guardians of the sanctuaries may go away.»

These rites were secret, thus little is known of them. However, in the widely celebrated and extremely influencial mysteries of Eleusis, where the Kathodos-and-Anodos of the maiden Persephone was again the central theme, pigs again were important offerings. And, a new motif appeared; for the culminating episode of the holy pageant performed in the «hall of the mystics» at Eleusis, representing the sorrows of Demeter and the ultimate Anodos or return of the maiden, was the showing of an ear of grain.

The mysteries of these rites are the evolving of life, death, and rebirth. The pig was the sacrificial beast, representing death and rebirth. So are the goddesses Demeter and Persephone symbolic of death and rebirth. During the lost of her daughter Demeter had no desire for life, the mother-goddess Earth stopped functioning and the earth was barren.

Her desire for living was gone, taken away when her daughter Persephone was abducted into the world of the dead. Persephone role in Hades, Queen of the Underworld, is as equally important too because she became the dead element of Demeter when she was taken, or severed, from her mother. During the separation of her daughter Demeter did not and would not be mother-goddess Earth. But the moment her daughter, the maiden, was reunited with her, Demeter magnificently functioned again and the earth blossomed.

Thus this is the symbol of the ear of grain, the blossom, or fruit, of the dormant seed; the seed with the embodiment of life that lies as if dead until time to live again. Again, Persephone, being a goddess, is thought divine, so when she entered the world of the dead, that divine part of her entered too; and when she returned to the living the divine returned too as it believed to do in each individual.

As it was in India, so in these Hellenistic mysteries, the accomplished initiate both realized his own divinity and was honored as a god; for what better sign of godhood could there be than a human being in whom his own godhood has been realized, or what better guide to his own perfection? Oh, there were critics, saying cult members were confused, for sure; but others such as Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-143 BC) who wrote in his De Legibus of the Greek mysteries of Eleusis:

Among the many excellent and divine institutions that your Athens has developed and contributed to human life, there is none, in my opinion, better than these mysteries, by which we have been brought forth from our rustic and savage mode of existence, cultivated and refined to a state of civilization; and as these rites are called «initiations» so, in truth, we have learned from them the first principles of life and have gained the understanding, not only to live happily, but also to die with better hope.

In some manner the Eleusis mysteries are still remembered and participated in, usually by neo-Pagans. This annual reenactment tends to show the dividing difference between neo-Paganism and Christianity and other formalized religions. It is true that the phenomena of death and resurrection is present in Christianity as it was in the ancient Pagan religion, but also present is the concept of the end of this world in order to usher in the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven now. All of this is based on the guilt of man.

Jesus died to pay for this guilt, and his resurrection signified that man, now free of guilt or sin, can enter the kingdom of God. Whereas, in the Pagan view the reenactment of these mysteries symbolize the events which constantly happen on earth, for which this is no improvement or even a need for any, for this world continues forever. The initiates, and those believing likewise, who have learned the ways of these rites come to see and know the world as it is. A.G.H.


Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, p. 121
Campbell, Joseph, The Mask of the God: Primitive Mythology, New York, Penquin Books, 1982
Campbell, Joseph, The Mask of the God: Occidental Mythology, New York, Penquin Books, 1976