Eleusinian Mysteries Part One

I am Demeter the honored, the greatest
benefit and joy to undying gods and to mortals
I myself shall introduce rites so that later
you may propitiate my mind by their right performance.

With these words from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter the Eleusinian mysteries were born.

These secret rites, basically a re-enactment of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, took place solely in a town called Eleusis, but their influence spread far over much of the ancient world. In fact, not only did they play an important role in the pagan world, but they continued to affect those living in the Christian era. The importance of these rites did not diminish for centuries after the beginning of Christianity; in fact, some of their influence can be subtly found in Church rituals today.


The Eleusinian mysteries are connected with the myth of Demeter and Persephone. This myth is found, among other places, in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Hesiod's Theogony, and most relevant to the mysteries, in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. 

According to this myth, Demeter grieves over her daughter Persephone, who has been snatched away to the underworld by Hades. She searches the earth for her daughter, coming to Eleusis in the form of an old woman. There, the daughters of King Keleos take Demeter to his mansion. Once there, it is stressed that Demeter takes neither food nor drink. At the mansion, Iambe jokes and jests, causing the goddess to laugh and smile, and finally Demeter asks for and accepts a barley-meal drink.

At this point, Queen Metaneira asks Demeter to take care of her child Demophoon. When the queen finds Demeter hiding her son in the fire, she wails and complains. As a result, Demeter becomes angry and claims that she was going to make the son a god, but now it is too late. Here Demeter speaks some lines which will be seen to have great meaning for the Eleusinian mysteries:

But come now, let all the people build me
a great temple and beneath it an altar under the steep walls
of the city, above Kallichoron, on the rising hill.
I myself shall introduce rites so that later
you may propitiate my mind by their right performance.

Now the goddess changes back into her divine form, and causes a harsh year of famine on the earth. She insists that she will not return to Olympos or allow grain to grow on the earth until she sees Persephone. Finally, Zeus intervenes and a deal is made - Persephone shall dwell in the underworld for a third of each year, and spend the remaining time with her mother. At this, she once again fills the earth with leaves and flowers.
This myth, as found in the Homeric Hymn, is essential to the Eleusinian mysteries. Much about the mysteries is still veiled in secrecy, but there seems to be little doubt that the major parts of the myth were acted out at Eleusis through a dance or a play.

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