1902 Encyclopedia > Eleusinia

Eleusinia




ELEUSINIA, a festival with mysteries in honour of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, so named, it was supposed, from the celebration of the most ancient of these festivals at Eleusis. The institutional legend con-nects the festival at Eleusis directly with the mythical in-cidents arising out of the rape of Persephone, known pre-eminently as Kore or the Maiden. Mourning bitterly for the loss of her child, who has been borne away by Hades or Aidoneus to the regions beneath the earth, the goddess Demeter wanders over sea and land in a vain search, until she comes to Eleusis. Here seated on a stone, and absorbed in her grief, she is accosted by the daughters of the Eleusin-iau king Celeus, and by them brought into his house, where ' she finds a home and becomes the nurse of his only son Demophoon. To make the child immortal she plunges him each night into a bath of fire; but before the work is done, the process is seen by his mother Metanira. Her terror excites the wrath of the mysterious stranger, who, throwing off her garment of humiliation, exhibits herself in all her majesty, and, rebuking the folly which has marred the fortunes of Demophoon, promises to prescribe the rites to be celebrated in the temple which is to be built to her honour on the hill above the fountain. In this temple she takes up her abode ; but the grief from which she had been roused for a while by the jests and sarcasms of the serving maid Iambe again settles down upon her ; and the earth, sympathizing with the Mourning Mother, refuses to yield her fruits until Zeus sends Hermes, his messenger, to the unseen land, and the maiden is restored to her mother at Eleusis, a name which means simply the trysting-place. The myth was thus localized in the little town, which retained its religious pre-eminence after it had been included in the Athenian state. Here was to be seen the stone on which the goddess was seated when the daughters of Celeus addressed her; here was the hill on which she bade them raise her shrine, and the well Callichorus, with its overshadowing olive tree, near which she had rested. Here also were the homes of Eumolpus, Triptolemus, and Diocles, whose descendants retained for ages their hereditary functions in the mysteries which attended the great annual festival. In the same way each incident in the legend was reproduced in the feast or in its accessories. Rude and coarse raillery addressed to the passers-by repre-sented the rough jests of the maid Iambe ; the posset of barley-meal mingled with water and mint, which the goddess drank in the house of Celeus, was still given to her worshippers ; while the torch by which Hecate had guided her during part of her wanderings had its place in the ritual of the feast, every portion of which had thus her august sanction.





In later times, when Eleusis had lost its political in-dependence, a temple of the goddess at Athens, called the Eleusinion, became to some extent the rival of the shrine at Eleusis ; but the dignity of the ancient sanctuary was still marked by the solemn procession yearly made to it from Athens, during the greater of the two Eleusinian festivals. To this feast it would seem that at first Athenians only were admitted, the origin of the lesser festival being ascribed to a request niade by Hercules to be initiated before his descent into Hades. Strangers being, it was said, excluded from the mysteries, the lesser Eleusinia were instituted to extend the benefit to all Greeks who might wish to share it. The great feast, celebrated yearly during the month of Boedromion (Sept.-Oct.), lasted nine days. The first day bore the name ayupjttos, the day of gathering at Athens for those who had been initiated in the lesser mysteries. On the second day, which was named from the cry "AXaSe IXVO-THI, the mystu? went in procession to the sea-shore and were there purified. The third was, it seems from the scanty notices which we have of it, a day of fasting. On the fourth a basket containing pomegranates and poppy seeds (the latter representing the stupefying power, Nap/ao-o-os, under whose influence the maiden Persephone was stolen away, the former denoting the fecundating principle by which the earth is prepared for the outburst of vegetation after the sleep of winter), was carried on a waggon in a basket, whence the procession received the name KaXaOov- KCWOSOS. The waggon was followed by women carrying small cases, Kicrrai fuxTTLKai, in their hands. On the fifth day, the day of lamps, the torches borne in procession to the temple at Eleusis denoted the wanderings of the goddess in search of her child, through the season of darkness and gloom. The sixth, the most solemn day of all, was known by the name of Iacchus, "laxvos, who in the Eleusinian legend is described as a son of Demeter, but who, according to the Theban tale, is, under his name Dionysus, the child of Zeus and Semele. The statue of this god, bearing a torch, was carried in solemn procession to Eleusis from the Athenian suburb of Kerameikos (Ceramicus). During the night which followed this celebration those who sought initiation were admitted to the last rites, in the presence of those only who, having been already initiated, were called i-n-oirrai. After taking the usual oath of secrecy, they passed from the darkness of night into the lighted interior of the shrine, and there saw the things which none but Epoptse could look upon, and which they were bound not to reveal. The imagination of later writers, not speaking from personal knowledge, ran riot in description of terrible ordeals and scaring sights undergone by the mystse before the final splendours burst upon their eyes ; while the fancy of Christians invested the preparatory rites with even greater horrors. Probably both the awfulness of the ordeal and the glories of the subsequent revelation were absurdly exaggerated. The whole of this part of the ritual is on its face symbolical of the passage through death to life, first in the case of the fruit-bearing earth, and then of the soul of man.

The real work of the festival was now over. The pilgrimage of the Mourning Mother had been traced from the moment when her child had been torn from her to the hour when by the Eleusinian fountain she was restored to her in all her loveliness. The seventh day was a day of jesting and raillery, denoting most probably the joy in-volved in the outburst of spring, although the institutional legend ascribed it to the efforts of Iambe or Baubo to dispel the grief of the goddess before the return of the maiden. The eighth day, called Epidauria, is said to have been added because on that day the god Asclepius (yEsculapius), arriving too late for the ceremonial of the sixth day, asked for initiation. This legend is a set-off to the one which was supposed to account for the institution of the lesser Eleusinia for the benefit of Hercules. The pouring of water or wine from two vessels, one held towards the east, the other towards the west, some mystic words being at the same time recited, gave to the ninth and last day its name nA^yuo^oat.





The nature of the mysterious doctrines set forth before those who were initiated in the Eleusinian festival is a question which belongs rather to the subject of mysteries in general. Enough has been already said to show that one great feature in this feast was the dramatic symbolism which described the revivification of the earth after the death of winter. This symbolism assumed forms which would explain their meaning even to the uninitiated. But the revival of nature would be inseparably associated with the thought of the life into which the human soul passes through the gateway of death; and in a festival where everything was dramatic the one truth or fact would be expressed by signs not less than the other. The Eleusinian legend represents Dionysus or Iacchus as the son of Demeter; and in the great Dionysiac festival at Athens the phallus was solemnly carried in procession, as in like state the veiled ship or boat of Athene was borne to the Acropolis. This ship or boat was represented by the mystic cists or chests carried by the pilgrims to Eleusis, and answers to the yoni, as the phallus corresponds to the lingam of the Hindu. The methods of initiation based on these signs might be gross or spiritual, coarse or refined, according to the genius of the people by whom they were used; nor would it be surprising if both these elements were more or less mingled in all mystical celebrations. There is no reason for supposing that the Eleusinian mysteries involved any more than this symbolical teaching which centres on the two ideas of death and reproduction ; there is no valid ground for supposing that it involved less. Hence when Dr Thirlwall expresses a doubt whether the Greek mysteries were ever used " for the exposition of theological doctrines differing from the popular creed," or when Mr Grote asserts it to be altogether improbable that " any recondite doctrine, religious or philosophical, was attached to the mysteries or contained in the holy stories " of any priesthood of the ancient world, the remark is pro-I bably right, if by this recondite teaching be meant doctrines relating to the nature of God and the divine government of the world ; but we should be scarcely justifiel in pushing it further.

How far in the Eleusinian mysteries the ritual was strictly Greek or even strictly Aryan is a question of greater difficulty, and perhaps of greater interest It may, be enough here to say that the lacchus or Dionysus who in the Eleusinian legend is the son of Demeter is preeminently a Theban god, and that to Thebes especially is traced the introduction from Asia of that orgiastic worship in which the frenzy of the worshippers denoted the irresistible impulses by which the decay and reproduction of the natural world are governed.

See Ouwaroff, Essai sur les mystères d'Eleusis, Paris, 1816 ; Sainte Croix, Recherches historiques sur les mystères du Paganisme, Paris, 1817, 2 vols. ; Preller, Demeter und Persephone, Hamburg, 1837 ; Dollinger, Ileidcnthum und, Judenthum, Eatisbon, 1857 ; A. Mommsen, Heortologie, Antiquarische Untersuchungen über die Städtischen Feste der Athener, Leipsic, 1S64 ; F. Lenonnant, Recherches Archéologiques à Eleusis exécutées clans le cours de Vannée 1860, Recueil des inscriptions, Paris, 1862 ; Monographie de la voie sacrée éleusinicnnc, de ses monuments, et de ses souvenirs, tome i. 1864, and "Mémoire sur les representations qui avaient lieu dans le mystères d'Eleusis," in Mémoires de l'Acad. des Inscriptions, 1861 ; Grote, History of Greece, part i. chap. i. 1870; Cox, Mythology of the Aryan Nations, book ii. chap. ii. section 12,1870 ; Bernhard Schmidt, "Demeter in Eleusis und Herr F. Lenormant," in Rheinisches Museum, 1876 ; Brown, Dionysiak Myth, chap. vi. sub-section 3, on the Eleusinian Ritual, 1877. (G. W. C.)



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