Friday, March 1, 2013

PBP: The Eleusinian mysteries


Two weeks ago, I promised that for my first 'E', I would talk about the Eleusinian mysteries beyond the scope of the dadoukhoi, the torch bearers, so today, I give a short introduction upon which I will expand in the coming week, the week of the Lesser Mysteries. In my previous post, I shared that the Eleusinian mysteries (Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια) had festivals throughout the year, which were tied to agriculture through Demeter's refusal to perform her duties as an agricultural Theia while her daughter Persephone is with Hades, and to the afterlife and Underworld through Persephone's return to the surface of the earth after Her mandatory stay with Hades has ended. Initiation ceremonies were held every year at Eleusis. Of all the mysteries celebrated in ancient times, the mysteries at Eleusis are assumed to be of great importance to a large portion of the ancient Hellens. The cult itself likely has origins dating back to the Mycenean period of around 1600 to 1100 BC, and it is believed that the cult of Demeter Herself was established in 1500 BC.

Mythologically, the foundations of the Eleusinian mysteries can be found in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Within the hymn, Demeter travels the globe in her grief over losing Her daughter. She eventually settles at the home of Keleus (Κελεός), husband of Metaneira, father of several children, who are called Kallidice, Demo, Kleisidice, Kallithoe, Triptolemos, and Demophon, his youngest son by Metaneira. The daughters of Keleus find a disguised Demeter near a well and bring Her home. Keleus hires Her to take care of Demophon. He treats her well, with every courtesy, and as a gift to Keleus, because of his hospitality, Demeter plans to make Demophon immortal by burning his mortal spirit away in the family hearth every night. Before she can complete Her work, Metaneira interrupts Her and pulls Demophon from the fire prematurely. This ruins any chance Demophon would have had at immortality. Demeter, furious, shouts the following:

"Witless are you mortals and dull to foresee your lot, whether of good or evil, that comes upon you. For now in your heedlessness you have wrought folly past healing; for -- be witness the oath of the gods, the relentless water of Styx -- I would have made your dear son deathless and unaging all his days and would have bestowed on him everlasting honour, but now he can in no way escape death and the fates. Yet shall unfailing honour always rest upon him, because he lay upon my knees and slept in my arms. But, as the years move round and when he is in his prime, the sons of the Eleusinians shall ever wage war and dread strife with one another continually. Lo! I am that Demeter who has share of honour and is the greatest help and cause of joy to the undying gods and mortal men. But now, let all the people build be a great temple and an altar below it and beneath the city and its sheer wall upon a rising hillock above Callichorus. And I myself will teach my rites, that hereafter you may reverently perform them and so win the favour of my heart."

It is also said that Demeter, after She could no longer take care of Demophon, nor save him from his own mortality, She instead taught Triptolemos the secrets of agriculture--a valuable gift, because the art was unknown to mankind until then. This is not reflected in the hymn, however, where the people already rely on Demeter to make the grain grow. At any rate, Keleus did built the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis, and followers of the Mysteries came there to celebrate them for a little over two millennia. King Keleus is said to have been one of the first people to learn the secret rites and mysteries of Demeter's cult, and he was also one of Her original priests, along with his son Triptolemos.

Throughout the whole of Hellas, the originally Eleusian practice was picked up. Athens even built its own temple to Demeter where She could be honored for successful grain production. a very large portion of all grain produced by Athens (1/600), as well as a slightly less large portion of first fruit (1/1200) was gifted to the temple of Demeter at Athens, where is was sold on, providing great wealth to the temple. The Athenians believed firmly that Triptolemos had taught the people agriculture, and thanked Demetra for Her lessons this way. Seeing as most of the rest of Hellas did not believe this claim, they refused to promise large portions of their grains and first fruits to Demeter at Her temple in Athens, although Demeter most certainly received these sacrifices at local temples and at Eleusis--just not in set portions.

The Mysteries were obviously celebrated to honor Demeter--Demeter Eleusinia, specifically. Yet, as we have seen, there was more to the Mysteries; through the honoring of Demeter, the ancient Hellens prayed for a good harvest, and through the worship of Persephone--Kore--those who were initiated in the Mysteries assured they would be looked upon favorably in the Afterline. Isocrates, a famous orator, said:

"When Demeter came into the country in her wandering, after the rape of Persephone, and was kindly disposed to our forefathers on account of the services they rendered her, which can be told to none but the initiated, she bestowed two gifts which surpass all others: the fruits of the earth, which have saved us from the life of wild beasts, and the mystic rite, the partakers in which have brighter hopes concerning the end of life and the eternity beyond."

The ancient Hellens believed the Underworld was a neutral place. One did not desire to go there in the least, but it was part of life, and as far as the afterlife went, it was dull and sunless but nothing like the hell of Christianity. Through it runs Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, and all who come to the afterworld are eventually forced to drink from it and forget their old lives. Those who were initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, however, could drink from the fountain (or well) of Mnemosyne (memory) and were allowed to remember. In short, initiation into the mysteries helped you built kharis with Demeter in life, as well as with Persephone--and Hades, in a way--for in the afterlife. It was not odd that large portions of the population were initiated into the mysteries.

There are many festivals and rites connected to the mysteries, and I will talk about them all in next week's Pagan Blog Project post. Tomorrow, however, I will talk more about the Lesser Mysteries, which were held annually, and would have started at sunset tomorrow. Until then!


No comments: