Eleusinian Mysteries Part Three

The Actual Ceremony

Not much is known about the actual ceremony. Most of the scholars that I have studied, however, believe that a drama of some sort was enacted, centering again on the Demeter myth. The phrase "to dance out the mysteries" was often used, so chances are a sacred dance was performed. It is also possible that there was a symbolic enacting of the initiate being reborn from Demeter's womb.

It is generally agreed, however, that the climax of the entire ceremony lay in the unveiling (epopteia) of sacred objects. For the term for those people who had reached the highest level of initiation was the epoptai, which means "those who gazed at something." Again, because it has not been stated explicitly, there is disagreement as to what the sacred objects actually were. But the most popular suggestion seems to be that, as a part of the rites of Demeter, they had something to do with grain.

Despite the fact that the Church Fathers often exaggerated and misconstrued the facts of the Mysteries, one statement by Hippolytus seems to be fairly plausible here: he wrote that "the Athenians, when they initiate in the Eleusinia exhibit in silence to the epoptai the mighty and marvelous and most epoptic mystery, an ear of cut-wheat." Although it is obvious that he is trying to trivialize the event, it is likely that the wheat was somehow involved in the ceremonies, considering that in the myth much was made of Demeter's allowing grain and plants to grow again after the barren year. So the ear of grain may represent the puzzle of the mystery itself.

It seems that the revelation of this wheat was done in the midst of dramatic changes in lighting which intensified the emotional effects of the rites. The actions leading up to this revelation probably included great contrasts, between darkness and the light of numerous torches. Finally, there may have been a type of communion, again with cereal and barleywine.

The grain was, in fact, a symbol of life. This makes perfect sense if we recall that in the Homeric Hymn, Demeter made the earth fertile again by raising up the plants and grain when her daughter Persephone was brought back to life, up from the underworld. When the initiates saw the wheat, therefore, they recalled the gift of life that the goddess had given the world. This life extended not only to the plants which grew around them, but to the very lives of the initiates themselves.

Again thinking back to the myth, we realize that Demeter created all of this new life from ground that was already barren and dead. Equating the grain with human life, then, the initiate could have hope that he too would be reborn into a glorious afterlife. This, in fact, is one of the promises given to initiates: the Eleusinian mysteries promised a better lot in the afterlife, but for non-initiates, everything there would be bad. This promise comes straight from the Homeric Hymn, which states that

Whoever on this earth has seen these is blessed,
but he who has no part in the holy rites has
another lot as he wastes away in dank darkness.

Thus, although even those who are not initiated into the rites will apparently continue to live after death, this afterlife will be full of evils, while the initiate will be blessed.

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