There were three degrees of initiation: the Lesser Mysteries which were a preliminary requirement, the Greater Mysteries or telete which means “to make perfect,” and the additional and highest degree, the epopteia. The telete initiation can be divided into the dromena: “things acted,” the legomena: “things said,” and the deiknymena: “things shown.” Theon of Smyrna, who lived about 100 CE, had his own particular stages of mystical initiation related to his five-step understanding of philosophy. They are
1) initial purification,
2) mystic communion or communication,
3) revelation of holy objects and transmission of the initiation,
4) crowning with garlands as the badge of initiation into the mysteries, and
5) the happiness resulting from communion with God.
According to inscriptions the crowning of initiates occurred at the beginning of the ceremonies described as the second and third stages. Their names were recorded on wooden tablets by the priests, and their myrtle wreaths were replaced by wreathes with ribbons, the emblem of their consecration to the goddesses.
The 7th day, Boedromion 21, was the second day at Eleusis and was probably spent resting and preparing for the final ceremony (orgia) in the Telesterion that night. Proclos wrote that those entering the temenos (sacred precinct) of Eleusis were not to advance inside the adytum.
In the dromena the initiates may have imitated in ritual fashion the actions and feelings of Demeter in the original time. These could have included the abduction of Persephone, the wanderings of Demeter, her arrival at Eleusis, her sorrow while staying with Celeus and Metaneira, the rejoicing at reunion with her daughter, and finally her divine gifts of grain and mystic knowledge. Tertullian complained about a discrepancy in the ritual.
Why is the priestess of Demeter carried off,
unless Demeter herself had suffered the same sort of thing?
Tertullian To the Nations 30
Lactantius wrote that in the Mysteries of Demeter all night long with torches kindled they sought for Persephone and when she was found, the whole ritual closed with thanksgiving and the tossing of torches.
Many literary sources and especially the art show us the dominant importance of the torches in the rites. Ovid gave this account of the original action of Demeter:
There the goddess kindled two pine-trees
to serve her as a light;
hence to this day a torch is given out at the rites of Ceres.
Ovid Fasti IV, 492-494
A quote from Apollodoros indicates sound effects.
The Hierophant is in the habit of sounding the so-called gong
when Kore is being invoked by name.
Apollodoros Fragment 36
This gong was used in the Greek theater to imitate thunder, which was believed to come from the underworld.
Plutarch described the serious reverence on the final night as being analogous to the deepest calm of the enlightened philosopher.
Just as persons who are being initiated into the Mysteries
throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting,
and jostle against one another;
but when the holy rites are being performed and disclosed
the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence,
so too at the beginning of philosophy:
about its portals also you will see great tumult and talking
and boldness, as some boorishly and violently
try to jostle their way towards the repute it bestows;
but he who has succeeded in getting inside,
and has seen a great light, as though a shrine were opened,
adopts another bearing of silence and amazement,
and “humble and orderly attends upon” reason as upon a god.
Plutarch Progress in Virtue 81e
Aristeides said that in the hall mystics experienced bloodcurdling sensations of horror and the most enthusiastic ecstasy of joy. The Eleusinian initiates were to receive impressions more than information, and the aim was to reach a certain attitude of mind, provided they were prepared.
The following account by Synesius indicated that Aristotle took the same position:
But their procedure is like Bacchic frenzy—
like the leap of a man mad, or possessed—
the attainment of a goal without running the race,
a passing beyond reason
without the previous exercise of reasoning.
For the sacred matter (contemplation)
is not like attention belonging to knowledge,
or an outlet of mind,
nor is it like one thing in one place and another in another.
On the contrary—to compare small and greater—
it is like Aristotle’s view that
men being initiated have not a lesson to learn,
but an experience to undergo
and a condition into which they must be brought,
while they are becoming fit (for revelation).
Synesius Dio 1133
Themistius said of the initiate:
Entering now into the secret dome,
he is filled with horror and astonishment.
He is seized with loneliness and total perplexity;
he is unable to move a step forward,
and at a loss to find the entrance to the way
that leads to where he aspires to,
till the prophet or conductor lays open
the anteroom of the Temple.
Themistius Oration in Patrem. 50
Stobaeus spoke of a rude and fearful march through night and darkness, and Proclus said that in the most sacred Mysteries before the scene of the mystic visions, there is terror infused into the minds of the initiated.
Porphyry told how a boy’s part in the ritual helps the relationship between god and man.
For, in your mysteries,
what the boy who attends the altar accomplishes,
by performing accurately what he is commanded to do,
in order to render the gods propitious
to all those who have been initiated, as far as to muesis,
that, in nations and cities, priests are able to effect,
by sacrificing for all the people,
and through piety inducing the Gods to be attentive
to the welfare of those that belong to them.
Porphyry On Abstinence From Animal Food
According to Hermias those initiates who closed the eyes, which muesis signifies, no longer received by sense those divine mysteries, but with the pure soul itself.
The following passage from Plutarch’s essay On the Soul survives today only because it was quoted by Stobaeus in Florigelium 120. So significant are its ideas and perhaps others in the same essay, that it may have been censored from his collected works by some ruthless dogmatists. It does more than describe the emotions experienced in initiation as it goes to the core of its meaning.
Thus death and initiation closely correspond;
even the words (teleutan and teleisthai) correspond,
and so do the things.
At first there are wanderings
and toilsome running about in circles and journeys
through the dark over uncertain roads and culs de sac;
then, just before the end, there are all kinds of terrors,
with shivering, trembling, sweating, and utter amazement.
After this, a strange and wonderful light meets the wanderer;
he is admitted into clean and verdant meadows,
where he discerns gentle voices, and choric dances,
and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions.
Here the now fully initiated is free, and walks at liberty
like a crowned and dedicated victim, joining in the revelry;
he is the companion of pure and holy men
and looks down upon the uninitiated and unpurified crowd
here below in the mud and fog,
trampling itself down and crowded together,
though of death remaining still sunk in its evils,
unable to believe in the blessings that lie beyond.
That the wedding and close union of the soul with the body
is a thing really contrary to nature
may clearly be seen from all this.
Plutarch’s On the Soul
The Deiknymena (objects shown) were the sacred things (hiera) displayed by the Hierophant while standing in front of the Anaktoron in radiant light at the climactic moment. Clement of Alexandria refers to the mystic kistai (baskets) which contained the Hiera.
And the formula of the Eleusinian mysteries is as follows:
“I fasted, I drank the draught (kykeon); I took from the chest;
having done my task, I placed in the basket,
and from the basket into the chest.
Clement of Alexandria Exhortation to the Greeks II, 18
We learned of these baskets from Callimachus.
As the basket comes, greet it, you women,
saying “Demeter, greatly hail!
Lady of much bounty, of many measures of corn.”
As the basket comes, from the ground you shall see it,
you uninitiated, and gaze not from the roof or from aloft—
child nor wife nor maid that has shed her hair—
neither then nor when we spit from parched mouths fasting.
Callimachus To Demeter 1-5
Athenaeus gives us Polemon’s account of the rites using a tray (kernos).
Moreover Polemon, in the treatise On the Sacred Fleece, says:
“After these preliminaries (the priest)
proceeds to the celebration of the mystic rites;
he takes out the contents of the shrine and distributes them
to all who have brought round their tray (kernos).
The latter is an earthenware vessel, holding within it
a large number of small cups cemented together,
and in them are sage, white poppy-seeds,
grains of wheat and barley, peas, vetches, okra-seeds, lentils,
beans, rice-wheat, oats, compressed fruit, honey, oil, wine,
milk, and sheep’s wool unwashed.
The man who carries it,
resembling the bearer of the sacred winnowing-fan,
tastes these articles.”
Athenaeus The Deipnosophists XI, 478d
Pausanias in discussing Cyamites of bean fame clearly implied that beans are not to be associated with Demeter.
I cannot say with certainty whether he was the first
who sowed beans (kuamoi),
or whether they made up the name of a bean-hero
because the discovery of beans
cannot be attributed to Demeter.
Any one who has seen the mysteries at Eleusis,
or has read what are called the works of Orpheus,
knows what I mean.
Pausanias Description of Greece I, 37:3
Pollux referred to a dance involving these trays (kerna) and crowning torches.
In regard to the dance in which kerna were carried,
I know that they carried lights or small hearths on their heads.
Pollux IV, 103
The early Christian theologian Hippolytus of Rome wrote down the account of the Eleusinian Mysteries told to him by a Naasene.
The Phrygians, however assert, he says,
that he is likewise “a green ear of corn reaped.”
And after the Phrygians, the Athenians,
while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites,
likewise display to those who are being admitted
to the highest grade at these mysteries,
the might, and marvelous, and most perfect secret
suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths:
I allude to an ear of corn in silence reaped.
But this ear of corn is also considered among the Athenians
to constitute the perfect enormous illumination
that has descended from the unportrayable one,
just as the Hierophant himself declares;
not, indeed, emasculated like Attis,
but made a eunuch by means of hemlock,
and despising all carnal generation.
Now by night in Eleusis, beneath a huge fire, the Celebrant,
enacting the great and secret mysteries,
vociferates and cries aloud, saying,
“August Brimo has brought forth a consecrated son, Brimus;”
that is, a potent mother has been delivered of a potent child.
But revered, he says, is the generation that is spiritual,
heavenly, from above, and potent is he that is so born.
For the mystery is called “Eleusin” and “Anactorium.”
“Eleusin,” because, he says, we who are spiritual
come flowing down from Adam above;
for the word “eleusesthai” is, he says,
of the same import with the expression “to come.”
But “Anactorium” is of the same import
with the expression “to ascend upward.”
This, he says, is what they affirm
who have been initiated in the mysteries of the Eleusinians.
It is, however, a regulation of law,
that those who have been admitted into the lesser
should again be initiated into the Great Mysteries.
For greater destinies obtain greater portions.
But the inferior mysteries, he says
are those of Proserpine below; in regard of which mysteries,
and the path which leads there, which is wide and spacious,
and conducts those that are perishing to Proserpine,
the poet likewise says:
“But under her a fearful path extends,
Hollow, miry, yet best guide to
Highly-honored Aphrodite’s lovely grove.”
These, he says, are the inferior mysteries
those appertaining to carnal generation.
Now, those men who are initiated
into these inferior mysteries ought to pause,
and then be admitted into the great and heavenly ones.
For they, he says, who obtain their shares in this mystery,
receive greater portions.
For this, he says, is the gate of heaven;
and this a house of God, where the Good Deity dwells alone.
And into this gate, he says, no unclean person shall enter,
nor one that is natural or carnal;
but it is reserved for the spiritual only.
Hippolytus The Refutation of All Heresies V, 3
Ears of wheat were represented on the architrave of the Lesser Propylaea in the decoration of the kiste supported by the Caryatids. According to Himerios, a sophist who lived in Athens when Julian was Emperor of Rome (361-363), an old law ordered the initiates to take with them handfuls of agricultural produce which were the badges of a civilized life. These probably included ears of wheat, for on the relief of Lakratides the priest, his sons have handfuls of wheat.
Athenaeus has gathered more material on the original “barley mother.”
Now Semus of Delos in his work On Paeans says:
“The handfuls of barley, taken separately, they called amalai;
but when these are gathered together
and many are made into a single bundle
people called them ouloi or iouloi;
hence also they called Demeter
sometimes Chloe, sometimes Ioulo.
Hence from Demeter’s gifts they call not only the fruit,
but also the hymns
sung in honor of the goddess, ouloi or iouloi.
There are also Demetrouloi and kalliouloi; and the refrain:
‘Send forth a sheaf, a plenteous sheaf, a sheaf send forth.’”
Athenaeus The Deipnosophists XIV, 618d
In Proclus’ commentary on the Timaios 293c, he offered another recitation. In the Eleusinian rites they gazed up to the heaven and cried aloud “rain,” they gazed down upon the earth and cried “conceive.”
On the edge of a well by the Dipylon gate of Athens where the procession to Eleusis began, an inscription reads “O Pan, O Men, be of good cheer, beautiful Nymphs, rain, conceive, overflow.”
The legomena were short liturgical statements, explanations, and perhaps invocations accompanying the dromena. Their importance is shown by a rhetorical exercise of Sopratos which tells of a young man who dreamed that he was initiated in the Mysteries and saw the dromena, but because he could not hear clearly the words of the Hierophant he could not be considered as initiated. This incident implies that knowledge of the sacred words is needed for initiation; but it also implies that he would have been considered initiated if he had heard the words even though his entire experience was in a dream. A knowledge of Greek was necessary for initiation because of the importance of the legomena. The legomena may have provided instruction to guide one in the other world as in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Porphyrus gives us a description of initiation which includes legomena and seems to indicate also much of the content and feeling of the Epopteia.
Those initiated (mystai) could return a year later for the higher degree of initiation attained by the epoptai during the second night in the Sanctuary of Demeter. The most sacred objects were revealed to them.
We remember from Aristophanes the mention of the holy ligh.
And I will with the women and the holy maidens go
Where they keep the nightly vigil, an auspicious light to show.
Aristophanes The Frogs 442-443
Psellus said that when the initiate was raised to the Sublime Degree of the Epoptae, he beheld the divine light. Kerenyi described a painted marble votive relief of the 5th century BC, found in the excavation of the Telesterion that was dedicated to Demeter by Eukrates. Over the inscription is carved the face and head of the goddess surrounded by red rays. Schuré quoted Proclus and interprets the word “gods” in this instance as “all orders of spirits.”
In all the initiations and Mysteries the gods manifest themselves in many forms, assuming a great variety of guises; sometimes they appear in a formless light, again in quite different form.
Orpheus in his hymn “To Protogonus” sings of the appearance of these holy spirits in the mystic rites.
Ericapaeus, celebrated pow’r,
Ineffable, occult, all-shining flow’r.
’Tis thine from darksome mists to purge the sight,
All-spreading splendor, pure and holy light;
Hence, Phanes, call’d the glory of the sky,
On waving pinions thro’ the world you fly.
Priapus, dark-ey’d splendor, thee I sing,
Genial, all-prudent, ever blessed king.
With joyful aspect on these rites divine
And holy Telite propitious shine.
Taylor Mystical Hymns of Orpheus
In his hymn “To Melinoe,” an ineffable spirit of life and death, Orpheus prays that men remove their needless fear of death and sights invisible.
When, under Pluto’s semblance, Jove divine
Deceiv’d with guileful arts dark Proserpine.
Hence, partly black thy limbs and partly white,
From Pluto dark, from Jove ethereal bright
Thy color’d member, men by night inspire
When seen in spectred forms, with terrors dire;
Now darkly visible involved in night,
Perspicuous now they meet the fearful sight.
Terrestrial queen, expel wherever found
The soul's mad fears to earth's remotest bound;
With holy aspect on our incense shine,
And bless thy mystics, and rites divine.
Taylor Mystical Hymns of Orpheus
Socrates described a mystic vision of initiation in Plato’s Phaedrus.
There was a time when with the rest of the happy band
they saw beauty shining in brightness,--
we philosophers following in the train of Zeus,
others in company with other gods;
and then we beheld the beatific vision
and were initiated into a mystery
which may be truly called most bleed,
celebrated by us in our state of innocence
before we had any experience of evils to come,
when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions
innocent and simple and calm and happy,
which we beheld shining in pure light.
Plato Phaedrus 250
The eighth day of the celebrations was the initiates’ last day at Eleusis and was devoted mainly to libations and rites for the dead. Athenaeus tells us of a ritual performed which gave this day the name Plemochoai.
Plemochoe is an earthen dish shaped like a top,
but tolerably firm on its base;
some call it a kotyliskos, according to Pamphilus.
They use it at Eleusis on the last day of the Mysteries,
a day which they call from it Plemochoai;
on that day they fill two plemochoai, and they invert them
standing up and facing the east in the one case,
the west in the other,
reciting a mystical formula over them.
Athenaeus The Deipnosophists XI, 496a
This rite was probably followed by celebrations of singing and dancing and other festivities. The initiates returned to Athens on the 9th day, Boedromion 23. This was not an organized procession, and everyone did not have to go back to Athens but could go directly home if they wished. On Boedromion 24 the Council of the 500 assembled at the Eleusinion in Athens to hear the Archon-Basileus’s report and to handle any problems that may have occurred. This law was established by Solon in the 6th century BC. Mylonas noted that the initiates were under no obligation to the Sanctuary or the Goddess in regard to worship or rules of conduct. They were free to return to their lives enriched by their experience.
Persephone’s eating of the pomegranate may be seen as symbolic of sex and death. It is bright red and somewhat unusual in that the seeds are the edible fruit. Pausanias describes a pomegranate tree growing over a burial place.
On the tomb of Menoeceus there grows a pomegranate-tree:
if you break the outer husk of the ripe fruit,
you will find the inside like blood.
This pomegranate-tree is living.
Pausanias Description of Greece IX, 25:1
Kerenyi described a terra-cotta statuette from the end of the classical period showing a pomegranate cut in two revealing a maiden in a short dress, tucked up around the waist disclosing herself as befits an epiphany.
Erich Neumann interpreted the redness of the pomegranate as the woman’s womb and the seeds as fertility. Having been raped by Hades, Persephone is persuaded to taste the sweet morsel, symbolizing the consummation of her marriage and sojourn in the underworld part of the year.
The early enthusiasts of Christianity often denounced the mysteries, but Mylonas pointed out that none of the Fathers appeared to have been initiated into the Mysteries nor did any claim that he was repeating what was told by initiates converted to Christianity.
Epictetus, in his “Against those who readily come to the profession of sophists,” criticized those who imitate the superficialities of the Eleusinian Mysteries but miss the spiritual significance.
But no man sails from a port without having sacrificed
to the Gods and invoked their help;
nor do men sow without having called on Demeter;
and shall a man who has undertaken so great a work
undertake it safely without the Gods?
and shall they who undertake this work
come to it with success?
What else are you doing, man, than divulging the mysteries?
You say, “There is a temple at Eleusis, and one here also.
There is an Hierophant at Eleusis,
and I also will make an Hierophant:
there is a herald, and I will establish a herald;
there is a torch-bearer at Eleusis,
and I also will establish a torch-bearer;
there are torches at Eleusis, and I will have torches here.
The words are the same;
how do the things done here differ from those done there?”
Most impious man, is there no difference?
These things are done both in due place and in due time;
and when accompanied with sacrifice and prayers,
when a man is first purified,
and when he is disposed in his mind to the thought that
he is going to approach sacred rites and ancient rites.
In this way the mysteries are useful;
in this way we come to the notion
that all these things were established by the ancients
for the instruction and correction of life.
But you publish and divulge them out of time, out of place,
without sacrifices, without purity;
you have not the garments
which the hierophant ought to have, nor the hair,
nor the head-dress, nor the voice nor the age;
nor have you purified yourself as he has:
but you have committed to memory the words only,
and you say: “Sacred are the words by themselves.”
You ought to approach these matters in another way;
the thing is great, it is mystical, not common thing,
nor is it given to every man.
Epictetus Discourses III, 21
Tertullian criticized both the secrecy and the elaborate preparation, which he seems to exaggerate; but these could just as easily be seen as virtues protecting and increasing the sanctity of the rites.
Now, in the case of those Eleusinian mysteries,
which are the very heresy of Athenian superstition,
it is their secrecy that is their disgrace.
Accordingly, they previously beset all access
to their body with tormenting conditions;
and they require a long initiation
before they enroll their members,
even instruction during five years for their perfect disciples,
in order that they may mold their opinions
by this suspension of full knowledge,
and apparently raise the dignity of their mysteries
in proportion to the craving for them
which they have previously created.
Then follow the duty of silence.
Carefully is that guarded, which is so long in finding.
All the divinity, however, lies in their secret recesses:
there are revealed at last
all the aspirations of the fully initiated,
the entire mystery of the sealed tongue, the symbol of virility.
But this allegorical representation,
under the pretext of nature’s reverend name,
obscures a real sacrilege by help of an arbitrary symbol
and by empty images obviates the reproach of falsehood!
Tertullian Against the Valentinians I
Nonnos of the 5th century CE has Demeter consulting the astrologer Asterion.
He learned the details of the day
when her only child was new born, and the exact time
and veritable course of the season which gave her birth:
then he bent the turning fingers of his hands
and measured the moving circle of the ever-recurring number
counting from hand to hand in double exchange.
He called to a servant,
and Asterion lifted a round revolving sphere,
the shape of the sky, the image of the universe,
and laid it upon the lid of a chest.
Here the ancient got to work.
He turned it upon its pivot,
and directed his gaze round the circle of the Zodiac,
scanning in this place and that planets and fixed stars.
He rolled the pole about with a push,
and the counterfeit sky went rapidly round and round
in mobile course with a perpetual movement,
carrying the artificial stars
about the axle set through the middle.
Observing the sphere with a glance all round,
the deity found that the Moon at the full
was crossing the curved line of her conjunction,
and the Sun was half through his course opposite the Moon
moving at his central point under the earth;
a pointed cone of darkness creeping from the earth
into the air opposite to the Sun hid the whole Moon.
Then when he heard the rivals for wedded love,
he looked especially for Ares,
and espied the wife-robber over the sunset house
along with the evening star of the Cyprian.
He found the portion called the Portion of the Parents
under the Virgin’s starry corn-ear; and round the Ear
ran the light-bearing star of Cronides, father of rain.
When he had noticed everything
and reckoned the circuit of the stars,
he put away the ever-revolving sphere in its roomy box,
the sphere with its curious surface;
and in answer to the goddess
he mouthed a triple oracle of prophetic sound:
“Fond mother Demeter, when the rays of the Moon
are stolen under a shady cone and her light is gone,
guard against a robber-bridegroom for Persephoneia,
a secret ravisher of your unsmirched girl,
if the threads of the Fates can be persuaded.
You will see before marriage a false and secret bedfellow
come unforeseen, a half-monster cunning-minded:
since I perceive by the western point Ares
the wife-stealer walking with the Paphian,
and I notice the Dragon rising beside them both.
But I proclaim you most happy:
for you will be known for glorious fruits
in the four quarters of the universe,
because you shall bestow fruit on the barren soil;
since the Virgin Astraia holds out her hand full of corn
for the destined lot of your girl’s parents.”
Nonnus Dionysiaca VI, 58-102
The spherical device for measuring the revolutions of the sun, moon, and planets round the zodiac is certainly a product of later times, but the interpretation of the horoscope is cosmic and the same in all ages. The eclipse of the moon caused by the earth blocking the sun’s light is portentous for the mother, the feminine principle and domestic life. Its darkness when it should be full is symbolic of Persephone’s prominent and sudden venture to the underworld and the shadowing over the mother. The “sunset house” is the portion of the sky over the western horizon and is called the seventh house, indicating marriage and partnership. Naturally Asterion found Mars there, the planet of sex, boldness, heat, force, and strong action. Its conjunction with Venus, the planet of love and harmony, can mean a rash, intense, adventurous, harmonious marriage. Jupiter, the benevolent and expansive planet, in Virgo in the “Portion of the Parents” (fourth house) means great benefit to the parents through the products of the earth. Apparently Jupiter was very close to the star symbolizing the ear of corn, indicating Demeter’s gift of the grain.