Eleusinian Mysteries

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Demeter and Persephone celebrating the Eleusinian Mysteries. Votive relief in Pentelic marble found in Eleusis, between circa 440 and circa 430 B.C.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were secret religious ceremonies that were practiced in Ancient Greece starting in the seventh century B.C. In the great Hall of Initiation, located at Eleusis on the Aegean coast, initiates reenacted the quest of the earth goddess Demeter for her daughter, Persephone.

According to myth, Hades, lord of the underworld, kidnapped Persephone and carried her off to his kingdom. Bearing torches, Demeter wandered the world looking for her daughter until the god Hermes rescued her from Hades and returned her to the light of day. But Persephone was thereafter required to spend half of each year in the underworld, returning to earth in the spring.

The meaning of the mysteries

The initiates found special meaning in this myth. For them it was not about agriculture or harvest but about the immortality of the soul. In one interpretation, Persephone represents the soul and Demeter represents the Divine Self. Each year as the celebrants reenacted the separation and union of Demeter and Persephone, they may have been celebrating their own hoped-for reunification with their Divine Self—their own divinization.[1]

The Eleusinian ceremonies were a carefully guarded secret. But scholars consider today that the purpose of the ceremonies was to induce an experience of oneness, or union, with God.[2] For the Greeks believed that men could become Gods.

By teaching people that they could become God, the mystery religions—and there were many that thrived in the Greco-Roman world—were not implying that there is more than one God. Although some mystery religions worshipped Isis, others the god Serapis or Mithras, they all believed that there is but one God and that the different gods were simply forms of the one universal and transcendent God. Mystery initiates believed that when they achieved deification, they, too, would be manifestations of the one God. The divinization of the mysteries was based on an internal conquest—the conquest of self.

The mystery religions and Christianity

When the scriptures of the New Testament, tell us to “be perfect,” they use the Greek word teleios, which meant “initiated” in the terminology of the mystery religions. When Jesus and Paul told us to be perfect, they were telling us to be initiates—that is, to present ourselves ready to participate in the process of divinization.

Remains of the Telesterion, the initiation hall where the most secret ceremonies of the Eleusinian Mysteries were conducted

C. W. Leadbeater’s interpretation of the mysteries

The Lesser Mysteries

According to Theosophical writer and clairvoyant, C. W. Leadbeater in his book Freemasonry and its Ancient Mystic Rites, the Eleusinian Mysteries were divided into two degrees, the Lesser and the Greater. Candidates of the Lesser Mysteries were called mystae (initiates). He explains:

The ceremonies opened with a preliminary purification or baptism in the waters of the Ilissus [river], during which certain ritual formulas were recited; they were continued in the secrecy of the temple, in which representations of the astral world were shown to the candidate, and instruction given upon results of certain courses of action in the life after death.... Besides this teaching upon the exact results in astral life of physical thought and action, much instruction was given in cosmogony, and the evolution of man on this earth was fully explained,... with the aid of illustrative scenes and figures, produced at first by materialization, but later imitated in various ways.[3]
Ancient Greek relief depicting Hades and Persephone
The myths of the exoteric religion of Greece were taken up and studied.... Among those relating to the life after death was that of Tantalus, who was condemned to suffer perpetual thirst in Hades: water surrounded him on all sides, but receded from him whenever he attempted to drink; over his head hung branches of fruit which receded in like manner when he stretched out his hand to touch them. This was interpreted to mean that everyone who dies full of sensual desire of any kind finds himself after death still full of desire, but unable to gratify it.[4]...
Within the Lesser Mysteries ... there existed an inner school for the training of specially selected candidates. These were taught to awaken the senses of the astral plane, so that the teaching given in the Mysteries could be verified by them at first hand. As in Egypt, the severe tests of courage were applied only to the small proportion of those who entered the Mysteries who intended to take up positive occult training, and become active workers on the astral and higher planes.... This inner school was kept secret, so that none of the initiates knew of its existence until actually received into it.[5]

Preparation for the Greater Mysteries

Regarding the Greater Mysteries, Leadbeater explains:

The Greater Mysteries were held at Eleusis in the month of September..., and in connection with their celebration all Greece went into holiday, and spendid public processions took place, in which the whole populace, both initiates and non-initiates, joined.[6]

Leadbeater tells us that processions continued for several days, during which time the initiates entered the Eleusinion at the foot of the Acropolis. They remained there secluded “receiving instruction and preparing themselves by meditation for their initiation into the Greater Mysteries.”[7]

After emerging, the initiates took a cermonial bath of purification in the sea and the procession to Eleusis continued as the sacred objects were carried and some placed in a cermonial cart which contained the image of Iacchos, one of the forms of Dionysus. Leadbeater describes the activities leading up to the Greater Mysteries:

Next marched the young men, myrtle-crowned, with shields and lances glittering in the sunlight, whose duty it was to escort the sacred Hallows,[8] borne aloft upon the ceremonial car in the great wicker baskets, still bound with purple wool; after them came the hierophant[9] and his officers, dressed in their purple robes and wearing myrtle crowns, followed by the mystae in charge of the mystagogues.[10] After them marched the vast company of initiates and people, arranged according to their tribes, and preceded by the civil magistrates and the council of the five hundred; and the whole splendid throng was followed by a train of baggage-animals carrying bedding and provisions for the few days’ sojourn at Eleusis.
The procession arrived at the sacred village after nightfall, and glowed like a river in the blazing light of the torches carried by all the people; and after a tremendous ovation the Hallows were carried into the sacred enclosure by the hierophant, who placed them once more in the secret shrine within the hall of initiation (Telesterion). The next two days, during which the actual cermonial instruction took place, were spent by the initiates within the enclosing walls of the temple, and the whole glorious celebration concluded with a festal assembly held outside the temple walls, in which all the citizens took part, afterwards returning quietly to their homes.[11]

The Greater Mysteries

The teachings of the next stage of initiation are described by Leadbeater as follows:

In the Greater Mysteries the teaching upon the life after death was extended to the heaven-world.... The initiates were named epoptae,[12] and their ceremonial garment was ... a golden fleece—whence, naturally, the whole myth of Jason and his companions. This symbolized the mental body, and the power to definitely to function in it.[13]
As in the Lesser Mysteries men learned the exact result in the intermediate world after death of certain actions and modes of life on the physical plane, so in the Greater Mysteries they learnt how causes generated in this lower existence worked out in the heaven-world. In the Lesser the necessity and the method of the control of desires, passions and emotions was made clear; in the Greater the same teaching was given with regard to the control of mind.
Further teaching upon cosmogenesis[14] and anthropogenesis[15] was also continued. In the greater Mysteries instead of being instructed only as to the broad outlines of evolution by reincarnation (which does not appear to have been clearly taught in the outer religion), and the previous races of mankind, the initiates now received a description of the whole scheme as we have it to-day, including the seven great chains of worlds and their positions in the solar system as a whole[16] ... where we speak of successive life-waves and outpourings, they spoke of aeons and emanations,... they represented them to their pupils in wonderful visions of cosmic processes and their terrestrial analogies.... Illustrations of the development of the human embryo ... were employed to teach by the law of correspondences the truth of cosmic evolution.
The culmination of the ceremonial of the Greater Mysteries was the exposition of an ear of corn.... This symbol referred to the divine life of God, ever-changing, ever-renewed, buried in the earth of the lower planes, only to rise in other forms to a fuller and more abundant life, passing from manifestation to manifestation without end. This was explained by the hierophant to the initiates, and the simplicity of the symbol and the beauty and profundity of the meaning underlying it formed a fitting climax to a wonderful ceremony.[17]

Myths of the Greater Mysteries

We have previously mentioned the myth of Demeter and Persephone as the foundational myth of the Eleusinian mysteries. In the Greater Mysteries the initiates continued to receive instruction on the meaning of the various myths. Leadbeater continues:

The Minotaur, which was slain by Theseus, was the personality in man, “half animal and half man”. Theseus typifies the higher self, who had been gradually developing and gathering strength until at last he can wield the sword of his divine father, the Spirit. Guided through the labyrinth of illusion which constitutes these lower planes by the thread of occult knowledge given him by Ariadne (who represents intuition), the higher self is enabled to slay the lower and escape safely from the web of illusion; yet there remains for him the danger that, developing intellectual pride, he may neglect intuition, even as Theseus neglected Ariadne, and so failed for the time to reach his highest possibilities. The legend of the slaying of Bacchus [Dionysus] by the Titans, the tearing of his body into fragments and his resurrection from the dead, was also taught, with the same interpretation as that given to the legend of Osiris in the Mysteries of Egypt—the descent of the One to become the many, and the reunion of the many in the One through suffering and sacrifice.[18]

Instruments and symbols of initiation

In the Eleusinian Mysteries the initiates were brought into close communion with the Deity through specially consecrated food and drink. Cups of highly magnetized water were given, and consecrated cakes were eaten during the ceremonies of initiation....
The Hallows (Hiera) already mentioned were physical objects extremely highly magnetized, through which much of the magical side of the Mysteries was performed. They were the personal property of the priestly family of the Eumolpidae,[19] being handed down from generation to generation....
One of these [highly magnetized physical objects] was the caduceus, the rod of power, surrounded by the twisting serpents and surmounted by the pine-cone. It was the same as the thrysus; and was said to be hollow and to be filled with fire…When a candidate had been initiated, he was often described as one who had been touched with the thrysus, showing that it was not a mere emblem, but had also a practical use. It also indicated the spinal cord, ending in the medulla, while the serpents were symbolical of the two channels called in Eastern terminology Ida and Pingala; and the fire enclosed within it was the serpent-fire which in Sanskrit is called kundalini. It was laid by the hierophant against the back of the candidate, and thus used as a strong magnetic instument in order to awaken the forces latent within him, and to free the astral[20] body from the physical, so that the candidate might pass in full consciousness to the higher planes. To help him in the efforts that lay before him the priest in this way gave the aspirant some of his own magnetism. This rod of power was of the greatest importance, and we can understand why it was regarded with so much awe when we realize something of its occult potency.
There was also the krater or cup always associated with Dionysus, and emblematical of the causal body of man, which has ever been symbolized by a cup filled with the wine of the divine life and love....
Among the holy symbols there were also highly-magnetized and richly jewelled statues, which had been handed down from a remote past, and were the physical basis of certain great forces invoked in the Mysteries; and a lyre, reputed to be the lyre of Orpheus, on which certain melodies were played and to which the sacred chants were sung.[21]

The toys of Bacchus: planes of the solar system

There were also the toys of Bacchus [Dionysus], with which he was playing when he was seized by the Titans and torn to pieces—very remarkable toys, full of significance. The dice with which he plays are the five Platonic solids, the regular polygons possible in geometry.[22] They are given in a fixed series, and this series agrees with the different planes of the solar system. Each of them indicates, not the form of the atoms of the different planes, but the lines along which the power works which surrounds those atoms. Those polygons are the tetrahedron [a triangular pyramid], the cube, the octahedron [solid figure having eight faces], the dodecahedron [solid figure having twelve faces], and the icosahedron [solid figure having twenty faces]. If we put the point at one end and the sphere at the other we have a set of seven figures, corresponding to the number of planes in our solar system.
In some of the older schools of philosophy it was said: “No one can enter who does not know mathematics.” That meant not what we now call mathematics, but that science which embraces the knowledge of the higher planes, of their mutual relations, and way in which the whole is built by the will of God. When Plato said: “God geometrizes,” he stated a profound truth which throws much light upon the methods and mysteries of evolution. Those forms are not conceptions of the human brain; they are truths of the higher planes.... The old philosophers pondered upon them because they led to the understanding of the true science of life.
Another toy with which Bacchus played was a top, the symbol of the whirling atom.... Yet another was a ball which represented the earth, that particular part of the planetary chain to which the thought of the Logos is specially directed at the moment. Also he played with a mirror. The mirror has always been a symbol of the astral light, in which the archetypal ideas are reflected and then materialized. Thus each of those toys indicates an essential part in the evolution of a solar system.[23]

The hidden mysteries: the path of initiation

Leadbeater continues:

The two divisions of the lesser and greater mysteries ... were generally known, but it was not known that there was always, behind and above those, the greater mystery of the Path of Holiness, the steps of which are the five great Initiations.[24]... The very existence of the possibility of that future advancement was not certainly known even by the initiates of the Greater Mysteries until they were actually fit to receive the mystic summons from within ... the existence of the true Mysteries was not made public; and no one knew of them until he was deemed, by those who could judge, worthy to be admitted into them....
Thus the Mysteries of Eleusis correspond closely with those of Egypt, though they differed in detail; and both these systems led their initiates, when properly prepared, to that Wisdom of God which was “before the beginning of the world.”[25]

Suppression of the public mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries were known throughout the Greco-Roman world, especially during the period of their greatest popularity, beginning in the seventh century B.C. As with the supression of the Gnostics, the Mysteries were also supressed. Leadbeater writes:

Even before the destruction of the Roman Empire the withdrawal of the Mysteries as public institutions had taken place; and this fact was mainly due to the excessive intolerance displayed by the Christians. Their amazing theory that none but they could be ‘saved’ from the hell which they themselves invented naturally led them to try all means, even the most cruel and diabolical persecutions.[26]...
In A.D. 399 the Roman Emperor Theodosius issued his celebrated edict, which was a heavy blow to the outer manifestation of the ancient pagan faith. This edict abolished all privileges conceded by the ancient laws to the priests, ministers and “hierophants of sacred things.” By A.D. 423 another edict by the same Emperor proclaimed that exile and confiscation of goods be the punishment for the “pagans” sacrificing to “demons.”[27]

The value of the mysteries

Leadbeater states:

The teachings were all of the highest and purest nature, and they could not but benefit very greatly all who had the privilege of being initiated into them. In classical and post-classical times many of the greatest men have borne witness to their worth including Sophocles, Plato and Cicero who himself was initiated into the mysteries and held them in great reverence.[28]

See also

Mystery religions

Orphic Mysteries

Mysteries of Isis


Elizabeth Clare Prophet with Erin L. Prophet, Reincarnation: The Missing Link in Christianty, pp. 68–69, 307.

Sections from Leadbeater compiled by the editors from C. W. Leadbeater, Freemasonry and its Ancient Mystic Rites (New York: Gramercy Books 1926, 1998).

  1. See Karl Kerényi, Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, trans. Ralph Manheim, Bollingen Series 65 (1967; reprint, Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 144–47, 174; and Edward F. Edinger, The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology, ed. Deborah A Wesley (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1994), pp. 176–78.
  2. See James D. Tabor, Things Unutterable: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise in Its Greco-Roman, Judaic and Earl Christian Contexts (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986), pp. 77–79; Jocelyn Goodwin, Mystery Religions in the Ancient World (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), pp. 26–37; and S. Angus, The Mystery-Religions: A Study in the Religious Background of Early Christianity (1928; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1975), pp. 106–12.
  3. C. W. Leadbeater, Freemasonry and its Ancient Mystic Rites (New York: Gramercy Books, 1926, 1998), p. 86.
  4. Ibid., p. 87
  5. Ibid., pp. 87–88.
  6. Ibid., p. 88.
  7. Ibid., p. 89.
  8. Holy or sacred objects.
  9. Priest who interprets sacred mysteries or esoteric principles, literally “one who explains sacred things,” the chief of the initiates.
  10. Instructors into religious mysteries before initiation.
  11. Ibid., pp. 89–90.
  12. Those who see or behold.
  13. Ibid., p. 90.
  14. The origin and evolution of the cosmos.
  15. The origin and evolution of man, from the Greek word for man, anthropos.
  16. Refers to the seven sacred planets of our solar system. The term “chain” refers to the Theosophical teaching that “every planet, whether visible or invisible, is credited with 6 companion globes. The evolution of life proceeds on these seven globes or bodies from the 1st to the 7th in Seven ROUNDS or Seven cycles.” The fourth globe is our physical earth which is in the fourth Round or cycle. See The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, pp. 158–59.
  17. Freemasonry and its Ancient Mystic Rites, pp. 90, 91, 92.
  18. Ibid., pp. 92–93.
  19. In Greek mythology, Eumolpos was the king of Thracia, who founded the city of Eumolpias, ca. 1200 B.C. Eumolpos was one of the first priests of Demeter and one of the founders of the Eleusinian mysteries.
  20. In the terminology of the ascended masters today, this would be the etheric body.
  21. Freemasonry and its Ancient Mystic Rites, pp. 93–94.
  22. A polygon is a two-dimensional plane shape with straight sides (triangles, rectangles, octagons). A regular polygon is a polygon all of whose sides are the same length and all of whose interior angles are the same measure.
  23. Freemasonry and its Ancient Mystic Rites, pp. 94–95.
  24. 1) Birth of Horus or Christ 2) Baptism 3) Transfiguration 4) Crucifixion and Resurrection 5) Adeptship (ascension).
  25. Freemasonry and its Ancient Mystic Rites, pp. 95–96.
  26. Ibid., p. 113.
  27. Ibid., p. 116.
  28. Ibid., p. 78.