More than any other festival in the ancient world the Eleusinian Mysteries still holds a fascination for the modern world. The symbols seem obscure (see the Toys of Dionysus) and at first childish. References in classical literature attest to their importance but these are mostly from the later days of Athens and the Hellenic world. Taking its name from Eleusis, a town to the north-west of Athens it was originally a local festival but after the victory of the Athenians it was adopted by both cities. Eleusis had a great temple to Demeter and the festival celebrated both Demeter and her daughter Persephone. (For more details on the relationship see Kore).
Many have written on the Eleusinian Mysteries and I do not wish to add to the wealth of information.
The festival was divided into the Lesser and Greater Mysteries with the Lesser Mysteries being celebrated in February while the Greater Mysteries were celebrated in October.
It is evident to me that these are ancient rituals for the initiation of girls into womanhood. The Lesser Mysteries will have concerned themselves with the secrets of fertility and child-bearing, as well as all the other accomplishments that make a good mother. However on celebrating the Lesser Mysteries the chances are the girl became pregnant and so the Greater Mysteries will have concerned themselves with Childbirth and the labour pains and duties of mid-wives about the birthing of a child. Such at least is my deduction from the timing of the two festivities.
It is recorded (Smith Dictionary of Roman and Greek Antiquities, art. Eleusinia) that Demeter in her search for her daughter sat down at a well and grieved for her. The women of Eleusis celebrated and snag hymns to her around the well at Challichoros – I was unable to find a root Challi- in Liddell and Scott’s Greek English Lexicon, but did find Kalli- meaning beautiful. We might surmise the name refers to the ‘Dance of Beauty’ or ‘of the Beauties’, if my suggestion is correct.
It was said to have come from Egypt and carried with it corn. The mystery as it is commonly related refers to resurrection in that the ear of corn when planted springs up to give anew stalk and ear the following year. My earlier writings on name explored this theme much more deeply relating the word ‘yeast’ – to the East and the place of the rising Sun, the image of the Yearly cycle. We speak of bread ‘rising’ and of ‘a bun in the oven’ for a pregnant woman. I suggest these phrases are not accidental and refer to those mysteries. In part because this phrase is common not only in English but ion other European cultures also, e.g. Portuguese. When a tradition or phrase is widespread like this it indicates an ancient origin.
The mysteries themselves will have included home-keeping and baking as one of the womanly skills It will also have included weaving, as shown by the presence of ‘a lump of wool’ as Guthrie puts it.
On their defeat the Eleusinians admitted Athenian supremacy in everything but the ‘teletai’ whch they wished to administer themselves and so kept the roles of superintendence, which remained with the daughters of Eumolpos, the daughters of the King Celeus, and a third class of priests called Keryces, who traceed their origins ot Hermes and Aglauros.
Smith tells us that the Greater Mysteries were held at Athens and Eleusis while the Lesser were only held at Agrae. He also says that it was told the Lesser were instigated to allow Herakles to be initiated into the mysteries, since it was forbidden to initiate a stranger into them. So again we see the involvement of Hermes and Herakles in an un-Greek tradition. Other traditions concerning the initiation of Hrakles don’t menti0on the Lesser mysteries and Smith goes on to say
“But both traditions in reality express the same thing, if we suppose that the initiation of Herakles was only the first stage in the real initiation; for the Lesser Eleusinia were in reality only a preparation…for the real mysteries.”
The Lesser Eleusinia were celebrated in the month of Anthesterion and according to some in celebration of Persephone alone. (anthesteria – the Feast of Flowers, a 3 days festival to Bacchus in the month of Anthesterion equating to the end of February beginning of March. Lidell and Scott).
While Smith goes into great detail as to the events of each day – the Greater Mysteries were celebrated for 9 days – he makes no mention of any of the symbols we have presented under the toys of Dionysus. The only thing he mentions are games which took place on either the 6th or 7th day in which the victor received an ear of barley. He also tells us that they were celebrated in other parts of Greece, and that Crete also had its Eleusinia. My thought is that the festival derived from Crete originally but so far back as not to be recorded by Classical authors. The festival of the Greater Mysteries in particular were well attended and the streets of Athens thronged at this time with, according to Herodotus, as many as 30000 people, and that this was not unusual.