“The ultimate design of the Mysteries […] was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended, […] a perfect enjoyment of intellectual [spiritual] good” (Plato, trans. Taylor). In the town of Eleusis, twelve miles from Athens, anyone with a desire to honor the Two Goddesses and know the truths of life and death could come to be purified in the spring and witness the Mysteries in the autumn. Tonight’s sunset marks the first day of the first half or “Lesser” of the Eleusinian Mysteries; this purification and initiation began on the 20th day of Anthesterion, the second moon following the Winter Solstice, and ended six days later, in preparation for the ritual proper or “Greater” of the Mysteries, which takes place in Boedromion, the third moon following the Summer Solstice.
The Lesser Mysteries were a required “preliminary purification” preceding the Greater Mysteries (Goodart, “The Lesser Mysteries of Eleusis”). Mystery initiations must be undergone in a specific order, Plutarch instructs us; “one should bear up to the first purifications and unsettling events and hope for something sweet and bright to come out of the present anxiety and confusion.” In the case of the Mysteries of Eleusis, when initiates would meet Hades’ Queen, these purifications were particularly important. “The goddess Persephone is always associated with purity,” writes Stefanie Goodart. “One of her epithets is hagne or ‘pure.’ The term ‘creates a field of forces that demands reverence and distance’ [Walter Burkert, Greek Religion]. The opening line of one of the Orphic Gold Tablets from Thurii reads: ‘Pure I come from the pure, Queen of those below.’ For a goddess whose own purity is beyond measure, one must take extra precautions when preparing one’s self.”
The rituals during the first purifications at Eleusis were often called the myesis, “to teach, initiate,” while the rituals at the Greater Mysteries were called epopteia, “to witness, be initiated.” This subtle difference in language encapsulates the differences between the two Mysteries: the Lesser was an instruction on theology and mysticism, when candidates were taught the myths of the Two Goddesses and of the sacred meaning of the Mystery rites; while at the Greater Mysteries, initiates experienced these rituals and walked within the myths for themselves, even being granted a vision of Persephone at the end of the week-long festival.
Plato […] thought it not lawful for ‘the impure to touch the pure.’
Thence the prophecies and oracles are spoken in enigmas, and the mysteries are not exhibited incontinently to all and sundry, but only after certain purifications and previous instructions. […] It is not then without reason that in the mysteries that obtain among the Greeks, lustrations hold the first place […] After these are the minor mysteries, which have some foundation of instruction and of preliminary preparation for what is to come after; and the great mysteries, in which nothing remains to be learned of the universe, but only to contemplate and comprehend nature and things.
Clement of Alexandria, Stromata
As was true of other ceremonies, one could not participate if stained with miasma, an impurity associated in Greek lore with Oedipus, for inadvertently enacting his own prophecied fate by murdering the king and marrying the queen, unknowingly therefore killing his father and marrying his mother; the House of Atreus, famously including Tartarus, Pelops, Agamemnon, Atreus, Thyestes, Menelaus, and Orestes, for various brutal murders within the family and horrific acts of violence and hubris; and Heracles, who murdered his own wife and children while mad. It is said that the Lesser Mysteries were created to purify Heracles of his miasma, who would not have been able to encounter Persephone and still leave the Underworld when he traveled there to defeat Cerberus during his last task (one of the many given him by Hera to absolve him of the murder of his family) without having been initiated into the Mysteries at Eleusis.
Additionally, writes Thomas Taylor in The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, the heroic journey and return was key to the metaphor of the mystery, that of the spiritual liberation that lies beyond death:
“We may observe farther concerning these dramatic shows of the Lesser Mysteries, that as they were intended to represent the condition of the soul while subservient to the body, we shall find that a liberation from this servitude, through the purifying disciplines, potencies that separate from evil, was what the wisdom of the ancients intended to signify by the descent of Hercules, Ulysses, etc., into Hades, and their speedy return from its dark abodes. ‘Hence,’ says Proclus [in Commentary on the Statesman of Plato], ‘Hercules being purified by sacred initiations, obtained at length a perfect establishment among the gods:’ that is, well knowing the dreadful condition of his soul while in captivity to a corporeal nature, and purifying himself by practice of the cleansing virtues, of which certain purifications in the mystic ceremonies were symbolical, he at length was freed from the bondage of matter, and ascended beyond her reach.”
Lustratio, to which Clement of Alexandria refers to above (“in the mysteries that obtain among the Greeks, lustrations hold the first place,” Stromata), is a sacrificial purification ceremony and procession. In the case of the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries, the animal offered to Persephone and Demeter was a pig for each candidate. A procession brought the initiates and their pigs to the ocean, where they bathed their sacrifice. The Lovatelli urn above depicts Heracles himself offering a pig on the eskhara, the low altar reserved for the chthonic gods (the pig was therefore intended for Persephone), and pelanoi, round cakes made from barley meal and honey offered after the pig, while a priest offers a poured libation and perhaps poppies (associated with Demeter and Persephone, and smoked by the mother in an attempt to forget her grief over Persephone’s abduction), cheese, pomegranates, or spherical cakes, all of which are said to be offered at the Mysteries (and the Bacchic rites) by Clement of Alexandria in his Exhortation to the Greeks. (Carl A.P. Ruck proposes that the priest is carrying a platter of sacred mushrooms, eliminating the opium poppies theory due to their thickness and the fact that they are depicted with unnecessary stems and without the characteristic calyx of the capsule.)
Myth and meaning were next taught, then (as displayed on the urn), as Demeter did while grieving Persephone, the initiate sits veiled upon a ram’s fleece. Overhead, a priestess wafts a winnowing fan as a torch passes before them. The winnowing fan (liknon) “is a type of basket used to separate the wheat from the chaff. Its connection to Demeter and Persephone, goddesses of the grain, is obvious. The action can also be described as a type of sympathetic magic. The wheat is purified, and so is the initiate. The liknon is also a common symbol in the cult of Dionysos. In such a context, separating the wheat from the chaff then becomes a metaphor for separating the soul from its outer casing, the body” (Goodart).
Purified, the initiate is prepared to approach the goddess. In the final scene on the urn, Heracles approaches Demeter who is seated on the kiste, the basket holding the sacred ritual objects of the Greater Mysteries–“I fasted; I drank the draught; I took from the chest; having done my task, I placed in the basket, and from the basket into the chest” (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks). Heracles reaches out his right hand to touch the snake coiling from the kiste to the goddess’s lap, while the mystes, the successful initiate carrying a bundle of some sort, touches the snake of all divine mysteries fearlessly. Demeter is not careless, but she does not even look at Heracles in the depiction on the urn, instead gazing behind her at the return of Persephone, which she bars from Heracles’ sight, just as she defends the kiste, as these are mysteries only intended to be revealed at the rituals in autumn.
It was all a great preparation, for, writes Thomas Taylor, “as the dramatic shows of the Lesser Mysteries occultly signified the miseries of the soul while in subjection to body, so those of the Greater obscurely intimated, by mystic and splendid visions, the felicity of the soul both here and hereafter, when purified from the defilements of a material nature, and constantly elevated to the realities of intellectual [spiritual] vision.”
The vow of silence taken by all who experienced the Mysteries has left us grasping for answers as to the exact events at these rites, and the pure, unadulterated mysticism of them leave us hungry and aching for a deeper understanding.
“The founders of the mysteries had a real meaning and were not mere triflers when they intimated in a figure long ago that he who passes unsanctified and uninitiated into the world below will live in a slough, but that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods. For ‘many,’ as they say in the mysteries, ‘are the thyrsus bearers, but few are the mystics.'”
Sacred Mushrooms of the Goddess by Carl A.P. Ruck
Exhortation to the Greeks by Clement of Alexandria, translated by G.W. Butterworth
Stromata by Clement of Alexandria, translated by James Donaldson and Alexander Roberts
“The Lesser Mysteries of Eleusis” by Stefanie Goodart in Rosicrucian Digest No. 2 (2009)
Phaedo by Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett
The Homeric Hymns, translated by Thelma Sargent
The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries by Thomas Taylor