The Bus that stops at Eleusis   ΔΔ
Sten Von Krusenstierna

ON a day in the early part of February 1940 the passengers in a bus from Athens to Corinth were witnesses to a somewhat unusual experience. The Athens newspapers reported the strange incident in the days that followed. At one of the stops a thin old woman, with large and keen eyes, entered the bus. It turned out that she had no money to pay the fare, so the driver put her off at the next stop which was Eleusis. While the old woman was waiting patiently, the driver could not get the motor started again. Some of the passengers in the meantime decided to pay her fare. The moment she entered the bus again the engine sprang to life and the bus continued on its journey. The old woman then upbraided the passengers for their slowness and selfishness and predicted very hard times ahead for the country. To the great consternation of the passengers she then vanished out of their sight. Whether true or not, this is a good story. [This incident has been reported in various publications. As related here it is taken from Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas . II. 414. He in his turn has taken it from Hestia.]

According to the ancient myth, thousands of years ago, just such a thin old woman had arrived in Eleusis in search of her daughter. As she rested near the Maiden well where the women fetched their water, she was found and befriended by the children of King Keleos and Queen Metaneira. The royal family took her in and the kind old nurse Baubo gave her barley water with mint to drink.[Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 1.90.]

The Myth of the Two Goddesses

The myth which forms the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries is told in a long epic poem known as the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The unknown author begins his poem with the words: ‘I begin to sing of the fair-haired Demeter, august Goddess - of her and her trim-ankled daughter whom Aidoneus abducted.’ This Aidoneus is Plouton, the god of Hades, the underworld, where the dead go in Greek mythology. Demeter’s daughter by Zeus, Kore (the Maiden) was picking flowers in a field when the earth suddenly opened up and she was carried away by Plouton who wanted her for his wife as Queen of the underworld. Her mother heard her cries but did not know what had happened and went searching for her - as the Hymn relates:

Bitter pain seized her heart, and she rent the covering upon her divine hair with her dear hands; her dark cloak she cast down from both her shoulders and sped, like a wild bird, over the firm land and yielding sea, seeking her child ... For nine days, queenly Deo wandered over the earth with flaming torches in her hands, so grieved that she never tasted ambrosia and the sweet draught of nectar, nor sprinkled her body with water.

She finally found out from Helios, the sun-god - who had seen what had happened - that her daughter was in Hades. Angry with Zeus who had consented to the abduction, she left the world of the gods and entered the world of humanity in the disguise of an old woman. That is when we find her at the Maiden well at Eleusis. Having spent some time in the Household of King Keleos, she finally disclosed her identity and gave the command that a temple be built for the performance of her rites. ‘And I myself will teach my rites, that thereafter you may reverently perform them.’

She then caused a terrible drought to come over the earth so that nothing would grow. This finally forced Zeus to send Hermes to Hades to release her daughter, now Queen Persephone (‘bringer of destruction’)[ Ibid. Vol 11, Index. ] and so mother and daughter were happily reunited. But before she left Hades Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds (7 in one version). This meant that having tasted the food of the underworld, she had to go back again to spend ‘one third part of the seasons’ in the lower world while spending the rest of the year with her mother at Olympos. Demeter then made ‘the whole earth full with leaves and flowers.’

Then, to the kings of Eleusis who deal justice, Triptolemos and Diokles, the horse-driver, and the valiant Eumolpos and Keleos, leader of the people, she showed the conduct of her rites and taught them all her mysteries ... awful mysteries which no one may in any way transgress or pry into or utter, for deep awe of the Gods checks the voice.

Madame Blavatsky saw Demeter as symbolizing ‘ the intellectual soul, or rather the Astral soul...

This is the main outline of the myth on which the Mysteries of Eleusis were based. As with most ancient myths it holds several deeper meanings. Kore-Persephone was plucking the flower of the Narcissus (in other versions poppies) - symbolizing the beauty of the soul reflected in matter - when she was seized by the King of the lower world of desire. She can be seen as symbolizing humanity, which spends one part of its evolution in the lower world, in incarnation, and another part in the higher worlds, between incarnations.

Madame Blavatsky saw Demeter as symbolizing ‘the intellectual soul, or rather the Astral soul, half emanation from the spirit and half tainted with matter through a succession of spiritual evolutions.’ She sees the old nurse, Baubo, as symbolizing matter. ‘Until then, doomed to her fate, Demeter, or Magna -Mater, the Soul, wonders and hesitates and suffers; but once having partaken of the magic potion prepared by Baubo, she forgets her sorrows.’

The importance of the myth cannot be underestimated.

The story of the two goddesses as related in the myth served as the basis for some of the ceremonies enacted in the Mysteries, including such open and popular activities as large processions and nightly searches by torchlight, re-enacting the search for Demeter for her daughter. The importance of the myth cannot be underestimated. As Walter Otto, one of the few scholars who seems to have got the real ‘feel’ of the Mysteries, writes:

What, then, is myth? - An old story, lived by the ancestors and handed down to the descendants. But the past is only one aspect of it. The true myth is inseparably bound up with the cult. The once-upon-a-time is also a now, what was is also a living event. Only in its twofold unity of then and now does a myth fulfil its true essence. The cult is its present form, the re-enactment of an archetypal event, situated in the past but in essence eternal. And the moment when this myth is realized is the festival of the gods, the holy days, recurring at fixed interval ...

The stupendous moment has returned, the moment when the young goddess was ravished by darkness, when the divine mother sought her, mourning and lamenting her, until she learned that she was the Queen of the Dead and would remain so; but she rises up again and with her the grain to which men owe their civilization.

The Mysteries of Demeter and Kore

The Eleusinian Mysteries were the most famous and most prestigious of all the Mysteries of classical antiquity. They were highly praised by practically all authors of the period. The original buildings at Eleusis were several times enlarged or replaced by more magnificent new temples, both in the heyday of Athenian power and later in the Roman period.

As far as can be ascertained the Mysteries were inaugurated before 1500 BC and were continued annually until the 4th Century AD. Most of the buildings are thought to have been destroyed during or after the invasion of the Goths under Alaric in AD 395. Even before that the emperor Theodosios had issued strict laws against secret cults. But it may not come as a surprise that the Christian saint Demetrios became the protector of agriculture, thus replacing Demeter. There was even a local saint, St Demetra, until quite recently.

...actual initiations took place in secret in special buildings under the guidance of the hierophant of the Mysteries and his assistants.

During the nearly two thousand years that the Mysteries were in operation they were protected and maintained by the State of Athens. Athenian law punished with the death penalty anyone who revealed any of the secrets of the cult. This even applied to accidental intrusion into the sacred premises. The dramatist Aischylos was set upon by an infuriated crowd in the theater when they thought that he had revealed some secrets of the Mysteries in one of his tragedies. He was only saved by the intervention of members of the Areopagos who promised to investigate the case. Some parts of the Mysteries were held in public, in the open air, and anyone could witness what was going on and even take part in it. But the actual initiations took place in secret in special buildings under the guidance of the hierophant of the Mysteries and his assistants.

The conduct of both the lesser and greater Mysteries was in the hands of members of two families, the Eumolpids and the Kerykes. The hierophant and his two principal female assistants were members of the former family and held their office for life. The torchbearer, second to the hierophant in importance, and the herald were of the family of Kerykes. Besides these main officiants there were numerous priests and priestesses performing various functions. There were also ‘all holy’ women who had no communion with men and presumably had a role to play in the rites of the Thesmophoria to which only women were admitted - and of which we know nothing. The initiates were called mystal and those that had received the final initiation epoptal. Each candidate had as a sponsor an initiate who was his mystagogos. This sponsor would introduce him to the Mystery authorities and usually stayed with him until he had been initiated. We learn that only he ‘who had clean hands and intelligible speech’ (that is, Greek) and ‘who is pure from all pollution and whose soul is conscious of no evil and who has lived well and justly’ is being accepted for initiation. But men and women and even slaves were admitted if accepted by the hierophant.

The Lesser Mysteries

Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom.

This passage from the Hymn to Demeter applies especially to the Lesser Mysteries, which Aristophanes tells us were devoted to Persephone. They would thus mainly be concerned with the end of physical life and the entrance into Hades. The Lesser Mysteries were held annually in Spring at Agra, a suburb of Athens, where there must have been a temple dedicated to Persphone, although the exact site is no longer known. The candidates took part in ceremonies of purification, they fasted, bathed in the river Ilissos and sang hymns. Of the actual initiations we know nothing.

The Initiates were also shown the results that certain actions in the present would have in the astral world after death.

C. W. Leadbeater tells us that in the Lesser Mysteries teachings were given about life after death in the astral world. The Initiates were also shown the results that certain actions in the present would have in the astral world after death. The teachings were illustrated by well-known examples found in Greek mythology. There was the story of Tantalos, who in Hades was surrounded by water which always receded when he tried to slacken his thirst - symbolizing what would happen after death to people still full of physical cravings and desires. Another was the story of Sisyphos who tried to roll a large stone to the top of a hill. The moment it got there it rolled down again - illustrating the futility of personal ambitions for selfish ends.

So the many thousands who throughout the centuries were initiated into the Lesser Mysteries no longer had any fear of death. They had gained some knowledge of what life would be in the hereafter. As Sophokles explains: ‘Thrice happy those among mortals who, having seen those Mysteries, will go down to Hades; only they can have true life there; for the rest all this is evil.’

The Greater Mysteries

These - the Mysteries of Demeter - were held annually in autumn and lasted nine days. A fifty-five day truce was kept around this event all over Greece to allow participants to travel to Athens and back unmolested and without getting involved in the frequent small wars among the city-states. Mystal from all over Greece would usually arrive a few days early to prepare themselves for their initiation under the guidance of their mystagogoi.

On the day before the beginning of the Mysteries, the Hiera, or sacred objects of the cult - which were normally kept in the Anaktoron (the Holy of the Holies) and to which only the hierophant had access - were brought in state to Athens by the priests and priestesses of the rite. They were held there in the Eleusinion, situated just below the Akropolis to announce the arrival of Demeter to the priestesses of Athena, the goddess and protectress of Athens.

On the first day of the Mysteries the Athenian authorities called upon the people of Athens to take part in a festive assembly at which - among other activities - a proclamation was read stating the requirements for initiation. Only those who had previously been initiated in the Lesser Mysteries were fit for initiation into the Greater, the telete (from teleo, to make perfect).

The second day was a day of purification. The call went out: “To the sea, ye Mystai!" So they all went down to the sea to bathe. This was thought to clean them both from physical and emotional impurities. The third and fourth days were spent in further preparations for the coming events.

The fifth day marked the culmination of the official celebrations of the Mysteries. At dawn a large procession of priests and priestesses left the Eleusinion. As the procession moved out of Athens towards Eleusis it was joined by numerous people. It must have been a remarkable sight. At the head was a carriage with a statue of Iacchos (the son of Demeter by Zeus), then came the priests and priestesses with another carriage with the Hiera, the sacred objects kept in large wicker baskets, guarded by the Ephebes, myrtle-crowned young men carrying shields and spears. They were followed by the hierophant and his assistants, by officials from Athens and other Greek cities and by the myrtle-crowned mystal and their sponsors. Large numbers of ordinary citizens usually joined the procession winding its way out onto the ‘sacred road’ to Eleusis. Herodotus estimated the crowd at about thirty thousand!

The distance to Eleusis was about fourteen miles and several stops had to be made on the way for rest and refreshments. We can still imagine the procession moving through the hills and now and then down towards the sea opening up vistas of distant mountains and the blue sea. There can be no doubt about the enthusiasm of the people. The hills echoed with the festive cry of the marchers - as Aristophanes so vividly pictures it in his play The Frogs:


Come, arise, from sleep awaking,

              Come the fiery torches shaking,

              Oh Iacchos, Oh Iacchos.

              Morning Star that shinest nightly,

              Lo, the mead is blazing brightly.

              Age forgets its years and sadness.

              Lift thy flashing torches o’er us.

              Marshall all the blameless train.

              Lead, Oh lead the way before us.

The procession arrived at Eleusis long after sunset and the arrival by torchlight of this enormous crowd of people must have been an impressive sight. With a great ovation the Hiera were carried into the sacred enclosure by the hierophant and part of the rest of the night was spent in dancing and singing.

During the days and nights that followed the secret parts of the Mysteries were enacted in the Telesterion and its immediate surroundings which were surrounded by a high wall. Again we know practically nothing of what took place except that this part of the Mysteries is thought to have consisted of:

              Dromena, rituals enacted:

                Delknymena, sacred objects and symbols shown:

                Legomena, words and sentences spoken.

Most likely scenes from the myth of the two goddesses were enacted in which the initiates participated.

Leadbeater tells us that in the Greater Mysteries teachings about life after death were given, this time including the experiences in the mental world, what in modern Theosophy we call Devachan. This may have been illustrated by the soul entering the Elysian fields as envisaged in Greek mythology.

There is some uncertainty concerning what was regarded as the final stage of the Mysteries, the Epoptela. According to Mylonas the mystal were only admitted to that stage a year after their initiation into the telete. For the great mass of the mystal their initiation into the Greater Mysteries ended with their participation in the telete. For the few who wished to go a little further the opportunity existed to become epoptal, ‘those who behold’.

Madame Blavatsky writes that the epopteia is alluded to by Plato in Phaedrus (64), when he says: ‘In consequence of this divine initiation, we become spectators of entire, simple, immovable and blessed visions, resident in the pure light.’ She comments that they thus ‘saw visions, gods, spirits’. But they presumably must have been out of the body as she further quotes Plato as saying ‘We were ourselves pure and immaculate, being liberated from this surrounding vestment, which we donominate body, and to which we are now bound like an oyster to its shell.’

On the ninth day the mystal started on their homeward journey, most of them returning to Athens in small groups. And so ended - in each autumn for nearly 2,000 years - one of the most remarkable religious activities known in history. Not only the ancients, but even many modern scholars, realize the tremendous influence for good of the Eleusinian Mysteries. As Eliade says, they not only played a central role in Greek religious life, but indirectly made a significant contribution to the history of European culture.

There is no doubt that as time went on a certain degeneration set in. This seems to happen in all religious activities. So we find that at a comparatively early stage animal sacrifices - which were very common in antiquity - were introduced, though they never formed a vital part of the Mysteries. It is to the Orphic and Pythagorean brotherhoods that we have to look for abstention from animal sacrifices and a vegetarian diet. The quality of the Eleusinian priesthood probably also deteriorated towards the end.

The Secrets still well-kept

With all this, one remarkable fact remains. We still know nothing of the real Mysteries. We do not know what its rituals were or what the words spoken or chanted were. Leadbeater’s chapter on the Greek Mysteries in the book quoted is perhaps one of the clearest expositions that can be found, especially as he also gives us some of the occult side without giving away any secrets. Mylonas expresses very well the situation with regard to the secrets of ‘the awful mysteries which no one may pry into or utter’ when he writes:

The last Hierophant carried with him to the grave the secrets which had been transmitted orally for untold generations, from the one high priest to the next. A thick, impenetrable veil indeed still covers securely the rites of Demeter and protects them from the curious eyes of modern students. How many nights and days have been spent over books, inscriptions, and works of art by eminent scholars in their effort to lift the veil! How many wild and ingenious theories have been advanced in superhuman effort to explain the Mysteries! How many nights I have spent standing on the steps of the Telesterion, flooded with the magic silver light of a Mediterranean moon, hoping to catch the mood of the initiates, hoping that the human soul might get a glimpse of what the rational mind could not investigate! All in vain - the ancient world has kept its secret well and the Mysteries of Eleusis remain unrevealed.

I shall close with another quotation from Walter Otto, who seems to have caught the atmosphere and the true spirit of the Mysteries in the following words:

The Eleusinian mystes lived the miracle of intimacy with the goddesses, he experienced their presence. He was received into the sphere of their acts and sufferings, into the immediate reality of their sublime being. His famous vision was no mere looking on. It was sublimation to a higher existence, a transformation of his being. What wonder then that the beholder of this vision should have been confident of a higher destiny in life, and in death, where Persephone was Queen!

The Theosophist

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