Hades, the god of the underworld; an abduction; a mysterious ritualistic cult that still remains shrouded in mystery, aka the Elusinian Mysteries and the love of a mother for her lost daughter – this Halloween, allow me to take you through a walk of along the sacred pathway from Athens to Elefsina, to the Telestrion or the sacred hypostyle hall where the initiation in to the mysteries took place.
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Hades, the god of the underworld was the unlucky brother of his two more celebrated brothers, the gods Zeus and Poseidon. But Hades not only had one of the worst jobs looking after the underworld, he was also bereft of a godly status. Living in his dark, dank world of the dead, Hades was however deeply attracted to the slim-ankled Persephone, the daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter and Zeus. Now Persephone was beautiful and loved flowers and all things colourful. One fine Autumn morning, oblivious to what fate had in mind for her, she was out in the beautiful fields collecting sweet flowers like soft crocuses mingled with irises and hyacinths, and rose-blooms and lilies. But she was being watched, intently, by the Evil One (Hades) and he split the earth with a great cleave and sprung forth to snatch away the effervescent Persephone. Fate struck, Persephone was abducted and she was whisked away screaming for her mother Demeter. An overwrought Demeter went searching for Persephone and after nine long days came to rest at a maiden’s well, in the fragrant Eleusis, near the site which is supposed to have been the gateway to the underworld. She waited for any sign of her daughter but was sorely disappointed. Soon people found out that the daughter of the goddess who looked after their sustenance had been abducted and panic struck as the dark haired Demeter, daughter of Rhea, rendered the earth barren in her rage. She changed her appearance and took on the garb of a lamenting old lady and refused to drink sweet wine that Metaneira, wife of Celeus (son of Eleusis) offered her but instead, asked for a mix of barley with water and mint. Mateneira and Celeus asked her to nurse their infant son Demophoon whom Demeter anointed with nectar and ambrosia but was insulted for this act by Mateniera. Enraged at this treatment, Demeter suddenly changed her appearance and ordered the cowering Mateneira to build her a temple. But she remained brooding in her new temple, lamenting the loss of Persephone, sometimes referred to as Kore.
Eventually the people of the land pleaded with Zeus to convince Hades to return Persephone or else there would be no food to feed anyone. The god Zeus had a word with Hades who had to relent but the god of the underworld had a trick or two up his sleeve. He fed his beloved new wife a pomegranate before sending her off to her delighted mother. The world swung back to normalcy and the people rejoiced as Persephone had returned to plant new hope. But as Demeter embraced her long lost daughter she immediately sensed a withdrawn Persephone and instinctively inquired whether her daughter had tasted any food in the ungodly underworld. For as Hades fed his wife, he knew the rule that anything consumed in the underworld binds that person to that world, forever. So even though Persephone had returned on her mother’s request, she would eventually have to go back to the underworld, the home of her husband. Thus, the earth lost out on cultivation for two seasons, autumn and winter, while Persephone reunited with her mother every year in Spring.
A cult followed this happy reunion of a mother and daughter, the core activities of which remain a mystery to this day. A Homeric poem relays the story of Demeter’s quest for her daughter Kore or Persephone, but there is no recorded evidence of what actually happened in the rituals at the Telestrion. The archaeological site today has many layers of architecture, like most old sites. The Romans flourished it with their touches while the older temple to Demeter was destroyed by Alaric, a Gothic military commander who sacked Eleusis around 410 BCE. Some Persian influences can also be seen with a Mithraion (sanctuary to Persian god Mithras), as the cult of Mithras was followed by some Romans.
The Eleusinian mysteries lay cloaked in secrecy but it was a much celebrated event which started in about 2000 BCE, a 9 day festical starting on the 15th day of Boedrominion or Autumn. The only criterion for being a participant were the ability to speak Greek and most Athenians were initiated into the cult, including the famous Plato and Socrates! A head priestess would lead the event and members would be initiated into the cult, singing and dancing all the way from the fortified walls of Athens (near the archaeological site of Kerameikos), about 20km away on foot, along the sacred pathway, past the temple of Aphrodite, towards Elefsina (Eleusis). The road is still used today and parts of it have been excavated to reveal an ancient bridge that could have been part of the sacred pathway. The initiates would eventually reach the Eleusinian site and be seated around the Telestrion, while the rituals began at midnight. The members were sworn to secrecy and initiated during this time, while mediations and incantations followed. The main ritual however revolved around a drink, consumed by all initiates which led them to gladly welcome death, as the notion of the after life was simply considered a journey onwards. This drink has remained the greatest mystery of all as it is assumed that it was possibly some kind of a hallucinogenic drug. Speculations have been made by many, one of the popular ones being the use of mushrooms. However, barley is thought to be the winning ingredient and more precisely, an ergot fungal growth on it. The Eleusinian mysteries claim our curiosity to this day as one of the most elusive ancient mysteries of all times.
Excerpt of Homeric poem:
“Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom.”