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 p452  Eleusinia

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on pp452‑454 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

ELEUSI′NIA (Ἐλευσίνια), a festival and mysteries, originally celebrated only at Eleusis in Attica, in honour of Demeter and Persephone (Andoc. De Myst. 15). All the ancients who have occasion to mention the Eleusinian mysteries, or the mysteries, as they were sometimes called, agree that they were the holiest and most venerable of all that were celebrated in Greece (Aristot. Rhet. II.24; Cic. De Nat. Deor. I.42). Various traditions were current among the Greeks respecting the author of these mysteries; for, while some considered Eumolpus or Musaeus to be their founder, others stated that they had been introduced from Egypt by Erechtheus, who at a time of scarcity provided his country with cornº from Egypt, and imported from the same quarter the sacred rites and mysteries of Eleusis. A third tradition attributed the institution to Demeter herself, who, when wandering about in search of her daughter, Persephone, was believed to have come to Attica, in the reign of Erechtheus, to have supplied its inhabitants with corn, and to have instituted the τελεταί and mysteries at Eleusis (Diod. Sic. I.29; Isocrat. Panegyr. p46, ed. Steph.). This last opinion seems to have been the most common among the ancients, and in subsequent times a stone, called ἀγέλαστος πέτρα (triste saxum), was shown near the well Callichoros at Eleusis, on which the goddess, overwhelmed with grief and fatigue, was believed to have rested on her arrival in Attica (Apollod. Biblioth. I.5; Ovid, Fast. IV.502, &c.). Around the well Callichoros, the Eleusinian women were said to have first performed their chorus, and to have sung hymns to the goddess (Paus. I.38 § 6). All the accounts and allusions in ancient writers seem to warrant the conclusion that the legends concerning the introduction of the Eleusinia are descriptions of a period when the inhabitants of Attica were becoming acquainted with the benefits of agriculture, and of a regularly constituted form of society (Cic. De Leg. II.14; in Verr. V.14).

In the reign of Erechtheus a war is said to have broken out between the Athenians and Eleusinians (Hermann, Polit. Antiq. of Greece, § 91, note 9), and when the latter were defeated, they acknowledged the supremacy of Athens in every thing except the τελεταί, which they wished to conduct and regulate for themselves (Thucyd. II.15; Paus. I.38 § 3). Thus the superintendence remained with the descendants of Eumolpus [Eumolpidae], the daughters of the Eleusinian king Celeus, and a third class of priests, the Keryces, who seem likewise to have been connected with the family of Eumolpus, though they themselves traced their origin to Hermes and Aglauros.

 p453  At the time when the local governments of the several townships of Attica were concentrated at Athens, the capital became also the centre of religion, and several deities who had hitherto only enjoyed a local worship, were now raised to the rank of national gods. This seems also to have been the case with the Eleusinian goddess, for in the reign of Theseus we find mention of a temple at Athens, called Eleusinion (Thucyd. II.17), probably the new and national sanctuary of Demeter. Her priests and priestesses now became naturally attached to the national temple of the capital though her original place of worship at Eleusis, with which so many sacred associations were connected, still retained its importance and its special share in the celebration of the national solemnities; and though, as we shall see hereafter, the great Eleusinian festival was commenced at Athens, yet a numerous procession always went, on a certain day, to Eleusis: it was here that the most solemn part of the sacred rites was performed.

We must distinguish between the greater Eleusinia which were celebrated at Athens and Eleusis, and the lesser which were held at Agrae on the Ilissus (Steph. Byz. s.v. Ἄγρα). From the tradition respecting the institution of the lesser Eleusinia, it seems to be clear, that initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries was originally confined to Atticans only; for it is said that Heracles, before descending into the lower world, wished to be initiated, but as the law did not admit strangers, the lesser Eleusinia were instituted in order to evade the law, and not to disappoint the great benefactor of Attica (Schol. ad Aristoph. Plut. 846). Other legends concerning the initiation of Heracles do not mention the lesser Eleusinia, but merely state that he was adopted into the family of one Pylius, in order to become lawfully intitled to the initiation. But both traditions in reality express the same thing, if we suppose that the initiation of Heracles was only the first stage in the real initiation; for the lesser Eleusinia were in reality only a preparation (προκάθαρσις, or προάγνευσις) for the real mysteries (Schol. ad Aristoph. l.c.). After the time when the lesser Eleusinia are said to have been instituted, we no longer hear of the exclusion of any one from the mysteries, except barbarians; and Herodotus (VIII.65) expressly states, that any Greek who wished it, might be initiated. The lesser Eleusinia were held every year in the month of Anthesterion (Plut. Demetr. 26), and, according to some accounts, in honour of Persephone alone. Those who were initiated in them bore the name of mystae (μύσται, Suidas, s.v. Ἐπόπτης), and had to wait at least another year before they could be admitted to the great mysteries. The principal rites of this first stage of initiation consisted in the sacrifice of a sow, which the mystae seem to have first washed in the Cantharus (Aristoph. Acharn. 703, with the Schol. 720, and Pax, 368; Varro, de Re Rust. II.4; Plut. Phoc. 28), and in the purification by a priest, who bore the name of Hydranos (Hesych. s.v. Ὑδρανός; Polyaen. V.17). The mystae had also to take an oath of secrecy, which was administered to them by the mystagogus, also called ἱεροφάντης or προφήτης: they received some kind of preparatory instruction, which enabled them afterwards to understand the mysteries which were revealed to them in the great Eleusinia; they were not admitted into the sanctuary of Demeter, but remained during the solemnities in the vestibule (Seneca, Quaest. Nat. VII.31).

The great mysteries were celebrated every year in the month of Boedromion during nine days, from the 15th to the 2ed (Plut. Demetr. 26; Meursius, Eleusin. c. 21), both at Athens and Eleusis. The initiated were called ἐπόπται or ἔφυροι (Suidas, s.v.). On the first day, those who had been initiated in the lesser Eleusinia, assembled at Athens,a whence its name was ἀγυρμός (Hesych. s.v.); but strangers who wished to witness the celebration of these national solemnities likewise visited Athens in great numbers at this season, and we find it expressly stated that Athens was crowded with visitors on the occasion (Maxim. Tyr. Dissert. 33 sub fin.; Philostrat. Vit. Apoll. IV.6). On the second day the mystae went in solemn procession to the sea-coast, where they underwent a purification. Hence the day was called Ἅλαδε μύσται, probably the conventional phrase by which the mystae were invited to assemble for the purpose (Hesych. s.v.; Polyaen. III.11). Suidas (s.v. Ῥειτοί: compare Paus. I.38 § 2) mentions two rivulets, called ῥειτοί, as the place to which the mystae went in order to be purified. Of the third day scarcely anything is known with certainty; we only learn from Clemens of Alexandria (Protrept. p18, ed. Potter) that it was a day of fasting, and that in the evening a frugal meal was taken, which consisted of cakes made with sesame and honey. Whether sacrifices were offered on this day, as Meursius supposes, is uncertain; but that which he assigns to it consisted of two kinds of sea-fish (τρίγλη and μαινίς, Athen. VII p325), and of cakes of barley grown in the Rharian plain (Paus. I.38 § 6). It may be, however, that this sacrifice belonged to the fourth day, on which also the καλάθος κάθοδος seems to have taken place. This was a procession with a basket containing pomegranates and poppy-seeds; it was carried on a waggon drawn by oxen, and women followed with small mystic cases in their hands (Callim. Hymn. in Cor.; Virg. Georg. I.166; Meursius, l.c. c 25). On the fifth day, which appears to have been called the torch day (ἡ τῶν λαμπάδων ἡμέρα), the mystae, led by the δᾳδοῦχος, went in the evening with torches to the temple of Demeter at Eleusis, where they seem to have remained during the following night. This rite was probably a symbolical representation of Demeter wandering about in search of Persephone. The sixth day, called Iakchos (Hesych. s.v. Ἴακχον), was the most solemn of all. The statue of Iakchos, son of Demeter, adorned with a garland of myrtle and bearing a torch in his hand, was carried along the sacred road (Plut. Alcib. 34; Etymol. Magn., and Suidas, s.v. Ἱερὰ Ὁδός) amidst joyous shouts (ἰακχίζειν) and songs, from the Cerameicus to Eleusis (Aristoph. Ran. 315, &c.; Plut. Phocion, 28, and Valcken. ad Herod. VIII.65). This solemn procession was accompanied by great numbers of followers and spectators, and the story related by Herodotus is founded on the supposition that 30,000 persons walking along the sacred road on this occasion was nothing uncommon. During the night from the sixth to the seventh day the mystae remained at Eleusis, and were initiated into the last mysteries (ἐποπτεία). Those who were neither ἐπόπται nor μύσται were sent away by a herald. The  p454 mystae now repeated the oath of secrecyº which had been administered to them at the lesser Eleusinia, underwent a new purification, and then they were led by the mystagogus in the darkness of night into the lighted interior of the sanctuary (φωταγωγία), and were allowed to see (αὐτοψία) what none except the epoptae ever beheld. The awful and horrible manner in which the initiation is described by later, especially Christian writers, seems partly to proceed from their ignorance of its real character, partly from their horror and aversion to these pagan rites. The more ancient writers always abstained from entering upon any description of the subject. Each individual, after his initiation, is said to have been dismissed by the words κόγξ, ὄμπαξ, (Hesych. s.v.) in order to make room for other mystae.

On the seventh day the initiated returned to Athens amid various kinds of raillery and jests, especially at the bridge over the Cephisus, where they sat down to rest, and poured forth their ridicule on those who passed by. Hence the words γεφυρίζειν and γεφυρισμός (Strabo, IX p395;b Suidas, s.v. Γεφυρίζων; Hesych. s.v. Γεφυρισταί; Aelian, Hist. Animal. IV.43; Müller, Hist. of the Lit. of Greece, p132). These σκώμματα seem, like the procession with torches to Eleusis, to have been dramatical and symbolical representations of the jests by which, according to the ancient legend, Iambe or Baube had dispelled the grief of the goddess and made her smile. We may here observe, that probably the whole history of Demeter and Persephone was in some way or other symbolically represented at the Eleusinia. Hence Clemens of Alexandria (Protrept. p12, ed. Potter) calls the Eleusinian mysteries a "mystical drama" (see Müller, Hist. of the Lit. of Greece, p287, &c.). The eighth day, called Ἐπιδαύρια, was a kind of additional day for those who by some accident had come too late, or had been prevented from being initiated on the sixth day. It was said to have added to the original number of days, when Asclepius, coming over from Epidaurus to be initiated, arrived too late, and the Athenians, not to disappoint the god, added an eighth day (Philostr. Vit. Apoll. IV.6; Paus. II.26 § 7). The ninth and last day bore the name of πλημοχόαι (Pollux, X.74; Athen. XI p496), from a peculiar kind of vessel called πλημοχόη, which is described as a small kind of χότυλος. Two of these vessels were on this day filled with water or wine, and the contents of the one thrown to the east, and those of the other to the west, while those who performed this rite uttered some mystical words.

Besides the various rites and ceremonies described above, several others are mentioned, but it is not known to which day they belonged. Among them we shall mention only the Eleusinian games and contests, which Meursius assigns to the seventh day. They are mentioned by Gellius (XV.20), and are said to have been the most ancient in Greece. The prize of the victors consisted in ears of barley (Schol. ad Pind. Ol. IX.150). It was considered as one of the greatest profanations of the Eleusinia, if during their celebration an ἄτιμος came as a suppliant to the temple (the Eleusinion), and placed his olive branch (ἱκετηρία) in it (Andoc. De Myst. p54); and whoever did so might be put to death without any trial, or had to pay a fine of one thousand drachmae. It may also be remarked that at other festivals, as well as the Eleusinia, no man, while celebrating the festival, could be seized or arrested for any offence (Demosth. c. Mid. p571). Lycurgus made it a law that any woman using a carriage in the procession to Eleusis should be fined one thousand drachmae (Plut. De Cup. Div. IX p348; Aelian, V. H. XIII.24). The custom against which this law was directed seems to have been very common before (Demosth. c. Mid. p565).

The Eleusinian mysteries long survived the independence of Greece. Attempts to suppress them were made by the emperor Valentinian, but he met with strong opposition, and they seem to have continued down to the time of the elder Theodosius. Respecting the secret doctrines which were revealed in them to the initiated, nothing certain is known. The general belief of the ancients was that they opened to man a comforting prospect of a future state (Pind. Thren. p8 ed. Böckh). But this feature does not seem to have been originally connected with these mysteries, and was probably added to them at the period which followed the opening of a regular intercourse between Greece and Egypt, when some of the speculative doctrines of the latter country, and of the East, may have been introduced into the mysteries, and hallowed by the names of the venerable bards of the mythical age. This supposition would also account, in some measure, for the legend of their introduction from Egypt. In modern times many attempts have been made to discover the nature of the mysteries revealed to the initiated, but the results have been as various and as fanciful as might be expected. The most sober and probable view is that, according to which, "they were the remains of a worship which preceded the rise of the Hellenic mythology and its attendant rites, grounded on a view of nature, less fanciful, more earnest, and better fitted to awaken both physical thought and religious feeling" (Thirlwall, Hist. of Greece, II p140, &c.). Respecting the Attic Eleusinia see Meursius, Eleusinia, Lugd. Bat. 1619; St. Croix, Recherches Hist. et Critiq. sur les Mystères du Paganisme (a second edition was published in 1817, by Sylvestre de Sacy, in 2 vols. Paris); Ouwaroff, Essai sur les Mystères d'Eleusis, 3d edition, Paris, 1816; Wachsmuth, Hell. Alter. vol. II p575, &c. 2d edit. p249, &c.; Creuzer, Symbol. u. Mythol. IV p534, &c.; Nitzch, De Eleusin. Ratione, Kiel, 1842.

Eleusinia were also celebrated in other parts of Greece. At Ephesus they had been introduced from Athens (Strabo, XIV p633). In Laconia they were, as far as we know, only celebrated by the inhabitants of the ancient town of Helos, who on certain days, carried a wooden statue of Persephone to the Eleusinion, in the heights of Taygetus (Paus. III.20 § 5, &c.). Crete had likewise its Eleusinia (see Meurs. Eleus. c. 33).

Thayer's Notes:

a It was apparently on the 15th of Boëdromion that the rite of enthronement, not mentioned in our article, took place (Dio Chrysostom, XII.33).

b Something has gone wrong in the Dictionary here. On p395 of the Geography (IX.1.12) Eleusis and its temple are briefly mentioned, but not the bridge and the "bridge-jokes": Strabo mentions those somewhat later, on p400 (IX.1.24).

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