MythBlast | The Mysteries at Eleusis: Different and Luckier
My grandfather was a farmer in rural Minnesota on land that was homesteaded, probably by my great-grandfather, in the late 19th century. It was a small farm by today’s standards, not much more than 80-120 acres or so. I remember childhood Augusts spent wandering around the fields, along creeks, or through a grove of apple trees. Time on the farm in August moved slowly, languidly, while crops like wheat and corn mellowed into an eye-pleasingly warm, golden color; fruits and berries hung pendulously off branches and vines, grasses were cool, thick and luxurious; even the August air had a voluptuous, distended quality that made life itself seem idly rich, a little insouciant, and blithely serene.
Aptly, I think, we at JCF have decided that the theme for the month of August is fullness. As such, I would like to explore some ideas of fullness found in the Mystery Cult at the Sanctuary of Eleusis, a cult established around Demeter and Persephone, which endured for nearly two thousand years and attracted initiates from all over the civilized world (See Carl Kerényi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter).
Joseph Campbell points out that, unlike summer on my grandfather’s farm in the North American Midwest, “In the Greek summer, fierce heat dries up the vegetation, so during the summer the grain that was harvested in the spring was stored in silos in the ground. Hence the wealth of the culture is in and under the ground, in the domain of Hades…” (Campbell, Goddesses: Mysteries of the Divine Feminine, 191). Because all of the images and symbols in it refer to agricultural technology, the Demeter-Persephone myth makes a great deal more sense when one keeps in mind that times of planting and harvest are reversed in the more northern latitudes from those of the Mediterranean world.
It’s also important to note that Hades, or Plutus, is not only the god of the underworld, he’s also the god of wealth — and not just the cultural wealth Campbell mentioned, but also the mineral wealth found beneath the earth’s surface. In a sense, the mineral wealth and siloed grain fills the earth in the same way a cornucopia is filled, often to overflowing abundance. The cornucopia is an important symbol in the Eleusinian Mysteries (see figure below) and represents the wealth residing in one’s own psychic potential and the abundant gifts discernable in the midst of living one’s life if one knows how to look, how to see.
The entire purpose of the mystery rites at Eleusis was for the initiate to be inducted into a way of seeing, to apprehend a profoundly rapturous, overwhelming vision similar to what theologians in the Middle Ages called the Viso Beatifica. The Viso was the beholding of God, a direct revelation of God from God to the viewer who once having seen, achieved eternal blessedness. The Eleusinian Mysteries also culminated in a seeing, the difference being that while the Viso Beatifica was revelatory, it was still relational; there still remained distance between the seer and the seen, whereas in the Eleusinian rites the seer achieved Epopteia, an ability to see the inner god shining through the human being, to see that (in all senses of the word) one has become One with divinity, that life isn’t extinguished by death, that death is nothing to fear. In the kuṇḍalinī yoga, this is the realization at the opening of the seventh and final cakra. Epopteia is consistent with Campbell’s concept of mythic identification in which one realizes that one is oneself the object of religious awe.
It’s hard to say exactly what happened at Eleusis, partly because speaking about the ritual was, as Campbell puts it, “a mortal offense.” The rituals were a secret “kept by hundreds of thousands of people” (Goddesses, 192). We are given clues to some aspects of the ritual based on drawings and carvings on krators and sarcophagi, the fact that Aeschylus was put on trial and eventually acquitted for violating the omerta around the rituals, and that the notoriously narcissistic, treasonous sot, Alcibiades, is said to have staged scenes from the rites in his home. Later, the Apostolic Fathers, while writing to discredit the Mysteries described aspects of the rites associated with them. The end of the Mysteries came around 400 C.E. when Alaric, King of the Goths, accompanied by his soldiers and black-robed monks, poured through the Pass of Thermopylae and overran Greece.
What we do know is that “The initiate possessed a knowledge which conferred blessedness and not only in the hereafter; both knowledge and beatitude became his possession the moment he beheld the vision” (Kerenyi, p. 15), and this epiphany was repeated again and again over a period of nearly two thousand years. Invariably, the initiate was filled with knowledge, blessedness and beauty, and bliss. It was such a satisfying physical and spiritual fullness that it lasted, according to a profusion of accounts, one’s whole life long. Walt Whitman probably never heard of the Eleusinian Mysteries, but he sums them up perfectly in his great poem, “Song of Myself”:
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.All goes onward and outward—nothing collapses;And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier. (“Song of Myself,” lines 29–32)