Dave Fredrick's Summary of the Eleusinian Mysteries.


The Eleusinian Mysteries were, by the 5th century BCE, open to any Greek speaker, man, woman, or slave, citizen or not of Attica. Warfare was (ideally, but not always) suspended for the period of the initiations, which took 7 days. The action was split between Athens, the port of Piraeus, and Eleusis, a town about 15 miles southwest of Athens. The map below shows the relation between these places. Two days before the Mysteries began the "holy things" were brought in baskets to Athens by the ephebes, young Athenians in military training (red dots). On the 15th, the initiates gathered in Athens and met their mystagogus (a person already initiated who helped them through the process). On the 16th, the initiates took little piglets down to the sea, bathed with them, and purified themselves with blood of the sacrificed piglet ("Seaward Initiates"; blue dots). The initiates spent the next two days indoors at Athens--doing what, we are not too sure, but perhaps sacrificing privately to Demeter and Persephone, and performing what we might call meditation. Then on the fifth day (the 19th), they made the long march with the "sacred things" back to Eleusis (purple dots), where the sacred things were revealed in the Telesterion on the 20th. This was followed by plemochoai on the 21st, the last day, on which two odd-shaped vessels filled with water were tipped out to the east and west by each initiate, who uttered a mystical phrase...which has not been recorded.


The piglet was obviously important as the animal used to purify the initiates, who aimed at a better afterlife. Here is a statue of piglet dedicated by one initiate, and now at the museum at Eleusis.


After the long march to Eleusis, the initiates arrived in the evening of the fifth day in the sacred precinct of the two goddesses, Demeter and Persephone. The next day, a huge offering of grain is made to Demeter and Persephone, but the initiates themselves fast until evening, when they drink a pennyroyal mixture called kykeion. This red-figure vase shows the major female figures in the myth (Persephone, Demeter, Hecate, and Iambe, from left to right), with Hercules (the most famous mythological initiate) at upper left and Iacchos/Dionysus at upper right. In the center in Triptolemus, the mortal child of the king of Eleusis, to whom Demeter gave the gift of agriculture, and in the left center, a priest of the Eumolpidae, an aristocratic family of Eleusis which provided the "hierophant," the "shower of the sacred things." He carries two torches...the manipulation of light inside the dark Telesterion was apparently part of the mystical experience.


A closeup of the priest.


The Telesterion itself was unlike any other Greek temple. Its seats were cut into the rock itself, and it was designed to hold the large number of initiates in the darkness until they experience the "things said, things done, and things revealed." Consequently the Telesterion does not have the columns and sculpture we associate with Greek sacred architecture. Inside the Telesterion was the Anaktoron, a chamber that only the Hierophant was allowed to enter, and from which, at some point, he spectacularly emerged. The following pictures show a plan of the site at Eleusis, a view looking into the sacred precint, and a view of the Telesterion itself as it is now.




Here is another plan of the Telesterion, with an artist's reconstruction of its appearance during the late 5th century.

Return to Main Page: CLST 4003H. Spring, 2002