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The Eleusinian Mysteries

The mystery cult1 of Demeter and her daughter Kore (or Persephone) was international in a different sense from that the hero cult of Heracles, which had shrines throughout the Greek world. The cult of Demeter and Kore had a fixed center in its major sanctuary at Eleusis2, a settlement on the western coast of Attica, to which worshippers flocked from all over the Greek world. The central rite of this cult was called the Mysteries, a series of ceremonies of initiation into the secret knowledge of the cult. If they were free of pollution, all speakers of Greek from anywhere in the world—women and men, adults and children—were eligible for initiation, as were some slaves who worked in the sanctuary. Initiation proceeded in several stages. The main stage took place during an annual festival lasting almost two weeks. So important were the Eleusinian Mysteries that an international truce of fifty-five days was proclaimed to allow travel to and from the festival even from the distant corners of the Greek world. Initiates expected that they would enjoy added protection from troubles in their lives on earth and also a better fate after death. “Richly blessed is the mortal who has seen these rites; but whoever is not an initiate and has no share in them, never has an equal portion after death, down in the gloomy darkness,”3 are the words that the sixth-century poem called The Hymn to Demeter uses to describe the benefits of initiation in the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The Mystery of the Mysteries

Prospective initiates in the Eleusinian Mysteries participated in a complicated set of ceremonies that culminated in the revelation of Demeter's central secret after a day of fasting. The revelation was performed in an initiation hall ( telesterion 4) constructed solely for this purpose. Under a roof fifty-five yards square supported on a forest of interior columns, the hall held three thousand people standing around its sides on tiered steps. The most eloquent proof of the sanctity attached to the Mysteries of Demeter and Kore is that, throughout the thousand years during which they were celebrated, we know of no one who ever revealed the secret. To this day, all we know is that it involved something done, something said, and something shown.

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  • Cross-references in notes to this page (1):
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, The Archaic Age
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