Far and away the most famous of the ancient mysteries, the mystery rites of Eleusis were celebrated every September for nearly 2000 years in the small town of the same name, a few miles from Athens. Archeologists have found that by about 1500 BCE, an open space for ritual dancing had been established on the site of the later mystery temple. A century later, the first stone temple was built there, surrounded by a rough wall. Even through the Dark Age that followed the fall of Mycenae around 1250 BCE, the rites at Eleusis survived, and as Greece recovered in the eighth century BCE, the temple was rebuilt and expanded. By the beginning of the Common Era the temple had become a vast hall, the Telesterion, half the size of a football field. At its center was a small stone building, the Anaktoron, whose location remained the same through all the rebuildings of the temple.
Initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries involved a strict process that took more than a year and a half to complete. Candidates first took part in the Lesser Mysteries, the Myesis, which was celebrated in February each year on the banks of the Ilissos River near Athens. Each candidate sacrificed a pig to the gods, bathed in the icy waters of the Ilissos, and received instruction in the myth of Demeter, the goddess of the earth, and her daughter Persephone. The myth at the center of the mystery rite told how Persephone was carried off by Pluto, god of the underworld; how mourning Demeter deprived the earth of its fertility as she searched for her daughter; and how Zeus finally ruled that Persephone would henceforth live half the year on Mount Olympus with the gods and half in the underworld. The whole myth, like the sacred stories central to all the ancient mysteries, is an allegory of the seasons.
After the Lesser Mysteries, candidates had to wait until September of the following year before they could take part in the Greater Mysteries, called the Teletai. These rites formally began on the 14th of the month of Boedromion, when priestesses from Eleusis came to Athens carrying baskets. The baskets contained sacred objects that were stored in the Eleusinion, a temple in Athens; what those objects were, nobody knows. Candidates began fasting on the 10th, and on the 16th they marched in a procession down to the sea to purify themselves in its water, then went into seclusion for the next two days.
At dawn on the 19th, the candidates gathered at the Painted Porch in the central market place of Athens, donned myrtle wreaths, and formed a procession with the priestesses and their mysterious baskets. They left Athens by the Sacred Gate and proceeded along the Sacred Road toward Eleusis. At a bridge they met priests who gave each of them a carefully measured portion of a beverage called kykeon (“the mixture”) containing water, roasted barley, and pennyroyal. At a second bridge, another detachment of priests tied a thread to the right hand and left foot of each candidate. Finally, around sunset, the procession reached Eleusis and marched by torchlight into the sacred precinct. They entered the Telesterion, where the Hierophant, the chief priest of Eleusis, sat on his throne just outside the entrance to the Anaktoron.
It is at this point that most of the surviving sources fall silent. Some ancient authors mention that a brilliant light shone out of the Telesterion, bright enough to be seen for miles. By that light, the Hierophant apparently opened the doors of the Anaktoron and showed something to the candidates. No reliable ancient source mentions what they saw. While a few people in ancient times were said to have violated the oath of secrecy demanded of initiates, and one – Diagoras of Melos, called “the godless” – even wrote a book about what went on at Eleusis, no certain trace of their testimony remains. One late and unreliable Gnostic source claims that the secret of Eleusis was a single ear of grain, held up in silence.
According to Clement of Alexandria, a Christian writer from the fourth century, initiates of Eleusis had a special password, the synthema: “I have fasted, drunk the kykeon, taken things out of the large basket, worked with them, put them into the small basket, and then back into the large basket.” Comments from many initiates indicated that whatever they saw within the Telesterion freed them from the fear of death – a point that merely deepens the mystery that surrounds Eleusis.
During the heyday of the Roman Empire, people came to Eleusis from all over the known world to seek initiation, and the prestige of the mysteries made their suppression difficult even after the Christian seizure of power. In 364 CE, when the Emperor Valentinian ordered all other nocturnal pagan ceremonies suppressed, the rites at Eleusis won a reprieve. The collapse of the Roman state in the following years proved to be less easy to survive, though. In 386 the Visigoths, who converted to Christianity earlier in the century, invaded Greece and devastated most of the surviving pagan sanctuaries in the country. The temple at Eleusis was destroyed and the mysteries lost forever.
Interest in the mysteries of Eleusis seems not to have revived until the eighteenth century, when the rapid spread of Freemasonry made the ancient world’s initiation rites a subject of much speculation. Few eighteenth-century secret societies made much use of the legends of Eleusis, though Adam Weishaupt – the founder of the Bavarian Illuminati – used “Eleusis” as his code word for Ingolstadt, the site of the Illuminati headquarters. By the nineteenth century, though, attempts to reconstruct the Eleusinian mysteries had begun. One of them ended up as the seventh and highest degree of the Patrons of Husbandry, one of the most influential American secret societies of the time, and several others were in use at one time or another.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006