What, exactly, this mystic ritual was, no one knows; but why the ancient Greeks participated in it can be understood by the testimonials of the initiated.
The Eleusinian Mysteries, held each year at Eleusis, Greece, fourteen miles northwest of Athens, were so important to the Greeks that, until the arrival of the Romans, The Sacred Way (the road from Athens to Eleusis) was the only road, not a goat path, in all of central Greece. The mysteries celebrated the story of Demeter and Persephone but, as the initiated were sworn to secrecy on pain of death as to the details of the ritual, we do not know what form this celebration took. We do know, though, that those who participated in the mysteries were forever changed for the better and that they no longer feared death.
Demeter & Persephone
Demeter, the goddess of nature, had a daughter, Kore, who was kidnapped and, by some accounts, raped, by Hades, lord of the underworld. Demeter searched for her Kore all across the earth in vain, finally coming to rest by a well in the city of Eleusis. There, disguised as an old woman, she cared for the queen's son, baptizing him nightly in fire so that he would be immortal. When the queen, one night, found her nursemaid placing her son in the fire she was understandably upset - but not as angry as the grieving goddess who then threw off her disguise and revealed her glory and her wrath. Mollified, as long as the people would build her a temple in Eleusis, Demeter taught the queen's son, Triptolemos, the art of agriculture. Zeus, king of the gods, persuaded Hades to return Kore to her mother as, in Demeter's grief, the crops were dying, people starving, the gods not receiving their accustomed tribute. Hades agreed but had tricked Kore into eating some pomegranate seeds and, if one ate in the land of the dead, one remained with the dead. As she had only eaten some, however, it was agreed she would spend half the year with Hades in the underworld and half with her mother on earth. Kore emerged from the underworld as Persephone (`she who brings doom') the Queen of the dead and, while she remained on earth, Demeter caused the world to be fruitful while, when Persephone was in the underworld, the plants withered and died; thus the seasons were explained.
There were the Lesser Mysteries, which took place in the spring, and the Greater Mysteries which those who had been purified earlier took part in when September came. They walked the Sacred Way from Athens to Eleusis calling for the Kore and re-enacting Demeter's search for her lost daughter. At Eleusis they would rest by the well Demeter had rested by, would fast, and would then drink a barley and mint beverage called Kykeon. It has been suggested that this drink was infused by the psychotropic fungus ergot and this, then, heightened the experience and helped transform the initiate. After drinking the Kykeon the participants entered the Telesterion, an underground `theatre', where the secret ritual took place. Most likely it was a symbolic re-enactment of the `death' and rebirth of Persephone which the initates watched and, perhaps, took some part in. Whatever happened in the Telesterion, those who entered in would come out the next morning radically changed. Virtually every important writer in antiquity, anyone who was `anyone', was an initiate of the Mysteries.
Plato, an initiate himself (as Socrates was before him) mentions the Mysteries specifically in his famous dialogue on the immortality of the soul, the Phaedo, " our mysteries had a very real meaning: he that has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods" (69:d, F.J. Church trans). Plutarch, writing to his wife on the death of their daughter, says, "because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries...we hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal. Let us behave ourselves accordingly"(Hamilton, 179). And, says further, "When a man dies he is like those who are initiated into the mysteries. Our whole life is a journey by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of qutting it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances and holy apparations" (Hamilton, 179). Cicero writes, "Nothing is higher than these mysteries...they have not only shown us how to live joyfully but they have taught us how to die with a better hope" and the historian Durant states of the mysteries, "In this ecstasy of revelation...they felt the unity of God, and the oneness of God and the soul; they were lifted up out of the delusion of individuality and knew the peace of absorbtion into deity" (Durant, 189).Waverly Fitzgerald sums the experience up clearly with, "It was said of those who were initiated at Eleusis that they no longer feared death and it seems that this myth confirms the cyclical view of life central to pagan spirituality: that death is part of the cycle of life and is always followed by rebith."
The Eleusinian Mysteries were closed down by the Christian Emperor Theodosius in 392 CE as he saw the ancient rites as inspiring resistance to Christianity and the `truth' of Christ. The temple of Demeter and every sacred site in Eleusis was sacked by the Arian Christians with Alaric, King of the Goths, in his invasion of 396 CE, leaving only ruins and rubble where once the people of the ancient world gathered to experience viscerally the truths of life, of death, and the promise of rebirth.
Contributor's Note: This article was first published on the site Suite 101. C. 2009 Professor Joshua J. Mark