Eleusinian Mysteries Part Two

How the Initiates Prepared

Eleusis, a town about 14 miles west of Athens, was the only place in which these mysteries could occur --  in the Homeric Hymn, Demeter herself is said to have decreed the spot. Although these mysteries were open to people of both sexes, and of all ages and fortunes, there were a few necessary requirements; namely, those wishing to be initiated into them must have pure hands and be Greek speaking. The language requirement was needed so that all the initiates would be able to understand everything that they would be told in the ceremonies.

Those who wished to be initiated into the mysteries were sworn to secrecy, permitted to reveal nothing about the secret rites. This command is found in the Homeric Hymn, when Demeter is said to show the people

the awful mysteries not to be transgressed, violated
or divulged, because the tongue is restrained by reverence for the gods.

Because this secrecy was taken so seriously, it is extremely difficult if not utterly impossible to imagine what exactly occurred at Eleusis; however, this need for secrecy applied only to the last rite, the Beholding or Epopteia, which was the climactic point of several days of mysteries. Therefore, it is possible to discuss the preliminary activities of the mysteries, those which have been somewhat more clearly revealed to us.

To begin, certain "sacred objects" from Eleusis were brought to a sanctuary at Athens. These were carried back to Eleusis by the priestesses before it was time for the participation of the initiates. Exactly what these objects consisted of is not known with any certainty, although there are several important theories which will be mentioned later.

When the time came for the initiates to take part in the action, purification was an important part of their preliminary activities. On the second day of the festival preparing for the secret rite, the command of "seaward, initiates!" was shouted. Through the cleansing of the seawater and the sacrificing of a pig, the purification was carried out.

Much of the mysteries consisted of a recreation of parts of the Demeter and Persephone myth. Thus, like Demeter herself, the initiates fasted from food and drink as they took part in a long procession from Athens to Eleusis a few days after the purification. This procession may have been rather lively, with flute and harp players and perhaps groups of singers, and at a certain point obscenities were shouted. 

When at last, in the dark, the group reached Eleusis in torch-light, the time of the final secret rite was near. Now there was more fasting, again in imitation of Demeter; this fast was broken with the drinking of the kykeon, a special barley drink which is supposed to recall Demeter's partaking of such a beverage. At last, the secret ceremony would begin.

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