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date: 19 April 2024

mysteries, Eleusinianfree

mysteries, Eleusinianfree

  • Fritz Graf


The mystery cult of the Eleusinian goddesses Demeter and Persephone was the most important Greek mystery cult. During its very long existence, the Eleusinian Mysteries influenced other cults and attracted and inspired countless ancient humans and gave them better hopes for their afterlife.


  • Greek Myth and Religion

The Festival Name

The Eleusinian Mysteries was an annual Athenian festival celebrated in the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore outside the small city of Eleusis, about twenty-two kilometres northwest of Athens (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Map of Attica.

Courtesy of Leo Nellissen.

Its local name, Mystēria, conforms to many other festival names in the Attic-Ionian calendar, such as Plyn-tēria (“Washing Festival”) or Anthes-tēria (“Flower Festival”) (thus the distinction between the festival name with a capital M and the generic noun). The underlying root is visible in the term mýs-tēs, the “initiate,” a noun derived from the verb mýō (that is a sigmatic stem*mýs-o whose /s/ remained preserved before the dental /t/), “to close” (one’s eyes), to which myéō “to initiate” is a not uncommon type of derivation. The noun mýstēs is first attested to in Heraclitus frg. B15 DK in the context of Bacchic mysteries (see also the gold tablet from Hipponion); it thus seems likely that the word was coined for any mystery rites, not necessarily first for Eleusis. Herodotus used the festival name as a noun for the rites of Samothrace (2.51), perhaps to denote rituals that reminded him of those in Eleusis.

The Athenian Festival

At the latest in the course of the 6th century ce (and at the earliest with the synoecism of Eleusis—the unification of all the tribes of Attica into a political entity under the authority of Athens), the Eleusinian festival was part of the festival calendar of Athens. In its well-documented form, it comprised several days in the early autumn month of Boedromion, starting on the 15th and culminating with the celebration in Eleusis on the 21st and 22nd and holding a concluding panegyris the following day or days. Whereas the ritual actions before the main celebration in Eleusis are well known, the ritual details of the core Eleusinian celebration were a well-kept secret.

Athens’s involvement with the festival started on Boedromion 13. On this day, a group of ephebes, the city’s adolescent warriors in full armour and with their distinctive black cloaks, marched out to a point on the notional border between Athens and Eleusis, where they were to meet the Eleusinian priesthood who in turn would set out the following morning with their sacred ritual objects (hierá) towards Athens; the ephebes had the task to accompany them, as august visitors, on their way into the city. When they arrived, they deposited the sacred objects in the Eleusinion, the sacred precinct of Demeter and Kore above the agora, and the Eleusinian “Sacred Herald” (hierokḗryx) went up to the shrine of Athena on the Acropolis to announce the visitors to the patron deity of Athens.

The official start of the festival period for the initiates was Boedromion 15. The prospective initiates, presumably together with their already initiated sponsors (mystagōgós), assembled on the agora. Here, the hierophant addressed them, prohibiting the participation of people defiled by murder or unable to understand Greek: the former is a standard provision of purity when coming into contact with the divine; the latter points to the importance of the spoken word in the core ritual. The following day, the initiates bathed themselves and a sacrificial piglet in the sea at Phaleron (day hálade mýstai, from what have been the ritual exhortation “to the sea, you initiates”). After the bath, the piglet was sacrificed and eaten, the last meal before a three-day fasting period, from Boedromion 17 to 19, during which the initiates were supposed to remain indoors. Boedromion 17 was also the day of the Epidauria, a festival in honour of Asclepius, in honour of the late arrival of the god from Epidauros for his initiation.

Boedromion 19 was the day of the procession from Athens to Eleusis. The initiates assembled on the agora and, with the Eleusinian priesthood leading, started their day-long walk towards Eleusis. At the Sacred Gate, the statue of the god Iakchos was brought from its shrine at the gate to be carried at the head of the procession. Iakchos is the personification of the ecstatic shout and other ecstatic experiences of the fasting initiates during their long march procession. As such, Iakchos was often identified with the god Dionysos. Pausanias (I 38.1–7) describes the processional road with its many sacred places where the procession stopped for worship along the way. Two bridges were important: the bridge over the river Kephisos (presumably the one near Athens, not its homonymous river near Eleusis) was the place of the gephurismoí, jokes by bystanders addressed to the more illustrious participants; the other bridge, over salt-water Rheitoi near the coast, was constructed in 422/421 bce “so that the priestesses could carry the sacred objects in greater safety” (inscription IG I3 79). The latter was purposely built so narrow that no carriages could be used in the procession, “but one had to walk to the shrine” (IG I3 79). The initiates arrived in Eleusis at nightfall. There they must have broken their fast by drinking the kykeṓn, a mixture of water, barley, and mint that, according to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the Eleusinian queen Metaneira offered Demeter to break the fast during her grief for her daughter when she came to Eleusis in the guise of an old woman (vv. 206–211, clearly marked as a ritual action), and that the initiates brought with them in the procession, to judge from the picture of the Ninnion pinax, a votive plaque of the mid-4th century bce that depicts the arrival of the initiates in Eleusis (see figure 2).1

Figure 2. The Ninnion pinax, dated to the 4th century bce, is a votive tablet depicting the Eleusinian mysteries. The deities Demeter and Persephones receive a procession of initiates led by Iakchos.

National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Creative Commons License, CC BY 2.5.

Knowledge about what happened once the initiates had entered the high walls of the sanctuary area through the propylon (see Propylaea) is very scanty. Archaeology suggests that the wide terrace in front on the telesterion played some role in preliminary ritual performances, but information is lacking, and the main rites were confined to the interior of the telesterion where the initiates stood or sat on the steps along the four interior walls (figure 3).

Figure 3. The remains of the telesterion in Eleusis.

Photo by Carole Raddato, Creative Commons License, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Hymn to Demeter enjoins absolute secrecy on those rituals; Alcibiades and his friends were severely punished for having “danced out” the rituals (t5), and Livy tells about the execution of two foreign youth who by mistake ended up in the sanctuary during the initiation night. Despite this very serious prohibition to divulge the secret rites, many texts offer tantalizing bits of information about what happened. Key details come from a converted pagan cited by the polemical Christian writer Hippolytos of Rome. It proves impossible to reconstruct a liturgy from these disjointed fragments, although a few sources give some vague ideas. The password for the initiates stipulates the ritual steps: “I have fasted, drunk the kykeon, have taken from the chest, worked, put (it) into the basket and from the basket to the chest” (Clement, Protrepticus 2.21). The password as such confirms fasting and drinking the kykeon as the first steps but leaves scholars in utter darkness as to the rest, despite speculation. Two late Hellenistic reliefs from Rome and Torre Nova near Rome depict a similar progression from the well-attested sacrifice of a piglet after unreported purification to closeness with the two goddesses. The initiation hall contained at its centre a rectangular walled space with a floor of natural rock; it remained carefully preserved in its original state and location during the several expansions and restorations of the hall. Scholars call it anáktoron, although Kevin Clinton, following Ludwig Deubner, questioned the correctness of the term and wanted to reserve anáktoron for the initiation hall.2 It seems that not all texts are consistent, and telestérion may refer to the initiation hall, and anáktoron to its most holy part, also called ábaton (“inaccesible”). It must have played an important role in the ritual, and this is confirmed by the position of the throne of the hierophant at a right angle next to it.

In a famous fragment, Aristotle insisted that initiation did not teach (matheîn ti) but rather conveyed an experience (pathein ti) (Aristotle, Frg. 15 Rose); this experience was based on both seeing and on hearing. Texts that praise the initiation, starting with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (vv. 480–481), insist on the importance of seeing as the way to receive the initiation: “Happy is he who has seen this” (see also Pindar, Frg. 133 Snell-Maehler and Sophocles, Frg. 837 TrGF); and the hierophant is “He Who Shows the Sacred Things.” Later inscriptions praise the voice of the hierophant—and the architectural structure of the mystery hall with its density of interior columns leads one to think that hearing was at least as important as seeing. According to a writer cited by Hippolytus of Rome, at the high point of the rite, the hierophant—in utter silence—showed a cut sheaf of wheat. The same Hippolytos reports that the hierophant shouted, “The Lady has given birth to a Holy Boy! Brimo has given birth to Brimos!” (that is, as he explains, “the strong one to the strong one”) (Refutatio 5.40.8). Light and darkness were equally important for the ritual. Hippolytus writes that the hierophant showed “the great and unspeakable mysteries amongst a huge fire.” A lantern-like structure sat on the roof of the classical and postclassical building directly above the central sacred spot; it must have functioned as a chimney for a fire inside this space. Darkness and the occasional light effect of torches structured the ritual, as Plutarch describes in another text where he compares the experience of a philosophical neophyte to those of an initiate (de progrediendo 10, 81DE): both move from fears in the dark to joy when the doors are opened among much light. In a fragment, Plutarch compares death to the experience of initiation that moves from “fright, trembling, sweat and terror” to “marvelous light” and the view of flowery meadows (Frg. 178 Sandbach). According to Apollonios of Athens, a gong was sounded during the nocturnal rite and “Persephone appeared in much fire” (FGH 244 F 10). This must have been a light effect generated by a sudden fire from inside the anaktoron; Plutarch mentions the “huge fire” when they open the anaktoron (de progrediendo 10, 81DE).

Thus, the testimonies about the ritual of the initiation night suggest the importance of sensual experience in the liturgy—of fire, the voice, and other sounds. According to Aristotle, what counted in this liturgy was “to experience” (patheîn), not to learn something (matheîn): the initiation rite did not convey specific points of theology and doctrine. The testimonies about the way Alcibiades and his friends revealed the Mysteries as a party joke talk about “dancing them out”—this again points to the key importance of a liturgy based on sensual impression. Such instruction was the prerogative of the texts such as the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the pseudepigraphical texts ascribed to Orpheus and Musaeus that could speak to a larger audience without violating the ritual prohibition of revealing the Mysteries.

The final verses of the Homeric Hymn are important in this respect. They praise the initiate for two gifts of Demeter and Kore: the gift of wealth in this life and that of a better life after death. Later texts give more detailed accounts that have reached us mainly through the choral songs of the initiates in Aristophanes’s Frogs. The underlying message is that, on the one hand, the initiation gave the initiates a special status that respected the subjection of humans under death, and that it created a familiarity and closeness of the initiate with the Eleusinian goddesses. Also emphasized in the story of the Homeric Hymn is the former message that Demeter was unable to make the Eleusinian baby prince Demophon immortal, because his mortal mother interrupted the goddess. The eschatological message is confirmed by the late Hellenistic images on an ash urn in Rome (Lovatelli Urn) and a chest for the ritual deposition of bones from Torre Nova near Rome—both objects connected with death and afterlife. Both depict the initiation of Heracles in three scenes and must go back to the same iconographic source. The first scene shows the well-documented sacrifice of a piglet by a priest (Figure 4).

Figure 4. A scene from the Lovatelli urn shows the sacrifice of a piglet by a priest during the initiation of Heracles to the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Fotosar/National Roman Museum at Palazzo Massimo; inventory: 11301.

The second scene depicts the purification of Herakles by fire (Lovatelli) and air (Torre Nova) who sits on a stool that is covered with a ram’s hide: the stool is already mentioned in the arrival scene of Demeter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (vv. 195–198), whereas evidence for purification rites is otherwise lacking (figure 4). The final scene has him approach a standing Persephone and a sitting Demeter with a snake on her lap which Herakles touches. The ritual thus progresses from the well-documented sacrifice of a piglet to purification and final closeness to the two goddesses that must reflect the eschatological hopes of the initiates.

Other rituals events preceded and followed the Mysteria festival with its the initiation during the night of Boedromion 19. Sources often combine initiates (mystai) and epōptai, and it becomes clear that the epōptía, the “Looking Upon” or, perhaps better with another meaning of the preverb, the “Additional Vision,” is a higher degree of initiation. Information about its date and ritual form is not available. But since the Athenian law on the Mysteries from the middle of the 5th century bce (IG I3 6) provides for a sacred armistice in Boedromion for “mystai and epoptai and their followers and possessions,” it is likely that the epopteia was embedded in the main festival days. Besides the main or Greater Mysteria, there were Lesser Mysteria. The same Athenian law provides for a sacred armistice for the Lesser Mysteria in the winter month Gamelion and sets the fees to be paid by each initiate at the Greater and the Lesser Mysteria to several Eleusinian officials for ritual services (priestess of Demeter, Eumolpidai, Kerykes): presumably, a first stage of individual initiation took place at those mystery rites that are often connected not with Eleusis but with a shrine of the Mother in Agrai on the river Ilissos. Scholars also tentatively connected this first stage with the purification rites on the two reliefs Lovatelli and Torre Nova, but if the sacrifice of a piglet that precedes the purification scene belongs to the ritual of Boedromion, this is impossible.

A special case, finally, is the initiation of a “Boy from the Hearth” (pais aph’hestías), an Athenian boy, presumably of an aristocratic family, at the expense of the state. Again, information is sketchy at best, but it appears as if this boy would represent an entire class of young Athenians.

Officiants and Priests

The Eleusinian Mysteries were performed by a particular group of sacred officials who belonged to specific aristocratic clans. Besides lesser-known minor officials, there were four main officials who served for life and were elected from a narrow group of three or four aristocratic clans.

The head official was the hierophant, a title to denote “Him Who Shows the Sacred Things.” He belonged to the clan of the Eumolpidai whose eponymous hero was Eumolpos (“He Who Sings and Dances Well”), and he was elected for life. The hierophant was the chief official of the Mysteries and their interpreter and spokesman in the Athenian state. He stood out in Athens already by his elaborate attire: a knot of hair on the neck, a special headband, and an elaborate dress that was said to have inspired Aischylos (a native from Eleusis) to his theatrical costumes (Athenaios 1.12, 21E). Inscriptions extoll the quality of his voice, and scholars have identified a few of his ritual utterances. In the course of the Hellenistic epoch, the sacrality of his person was growing so much that he lost his personal name once he was elected to his function; according to a Christian source, he became so far removed from the world that he was “not castrated but made an eunuch and removed from an bodily procreation by the use of hemlock” (Hippolytus, Refutatio 5.8.40).

The second-most important official was the dadouchos or “Torch-bearer” from the clan of the Kerykes that, together with the Eumolpidai, oversaw the administration of the Eleusinian sanctuary (Aristotle, Constitution of Athens 39.2). He too was elected for life and resembled the hierophant in public attire. His importance reflects the key role of fire and darkness during the mystery rites, but unlike the hierophant he could not enter the anaktoron. The third male official was the hierokeryx or “Sacred Herald,” elected for life and also from the clan of the Kerykes. As any herald, his duties were mainly those of vocal communications during the ritual, but like the hierophant and dadouchos he was also involved in the pre-liminary initiation of candidates (IG I3 6).

Then there was the priestess of Demeter (later also called the priestess of Demeter and Kore). She came from the clans of Eumolpidai or Philleidai, was elected for life, and had her own “sacred house” near the sanctuary. Unlike her male colleagues, she was politically connected with the polis of Eleusis; this points to an old connection of the sanctuary of Demeter and her local cult with the township of Eleusis. She was only marginally important for the secret rites. According to the accusations against Alcibiades’s divulgation of the Mysteries during a party in 416 bce, the imitation of hierophant, dadouchos, and hierokeryx was enough to “imitate and show” the secret rites (Plutarch, Alcibiades 22.3; see also Andocides, De mysteriis 11 and 16). Their performance alone constituted the core of the nocturnal initiation.

Historical Development

The sanctuary of Demeter and Kore in Eleusis was situated on the Southeastern slope of the Eleusinian acropolis hill, well outside the settlement (see figure 1). This position is common for sanctuaries of the Two Goddesses and is repeated in the Athenian Eleusinion that is built halfway up the hillside above the agora, and at the shrine of Demeter in Priene high above the settlement at the foot of the acropolis cliffs. This suggests that the shrine began as a shrine and probably as the Thesmophorion of the small township of Eleusis before an incorporation of Eleusis into Athens. Yet it is not easy to reconstruct a plausible development that would account for the transformation of a women’s cult in a Thesmophorion into the later mystery cult that was open to both genders.

Mylonas reconstructed a small Bronze Age ritual building from some late Bronze Age walls that he excavated under the later telesterion.3 This reconstruction led him to assume a Bronze Age origin for Eleusinian cult and its (archaeologically unattested) continuity into the Geometric Age, with the anaktoron, the immovable central room that is attested to since the Solonian building, marking the place of the Bronze Age shrine. There are no other indications for a Bronze Age date of the Eleusinian cult, and Pierre Darcque’s detailed analysis of the excavation reports concluded that Mylonas’s reconstruction was inadmissible: Mylonas selected from a much larger number of walls the ones that suited his reconstruction.4 There is no clear Bronze Age trace of cult buildings in Eleusis.

The documented history of the Eleusinian cult begins in the Geometric Age. The earliest buildings after the Bronze Age are two apsidal structures of Late Geometrical date, one under the later temple of Artemis Propylaia just outside the later sanctuary, the other one reconstructed by Mylonas from a wall under the later telesterion terrace. The location and the fact that Geometric shrines are often apsidal led him to the assumption that we deal with the oldest Post-Bronze Age mystery shrine at a time when Eleusis was still independent from Athens.5

The probable incorporation of the city of Eleusis into Athens in the 7th century made the Mysteria an Athenian festival. It might well have been the immediate reason for the composition of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter with its praise of the ritual and its afterlife promises.6 It also led to a radical reconfiguration of the shrine at the time of Solon, with a first rectangular telesterion (see Eleusis’s plan). During the following two centuries, this central shrine was enlarged three times, with the anaktoron remaining unmoved in the position it already had as the abaton of the Solonian temple. A Peisistratean reconfiguration developed the concept of a square building with interior steps along three of the four walls. This basic ground plan is then repeated, on a larger scale, in the much larger Periclean telesterion which would remain the place of the main mystery ritual for the rest of antiquity; Vitruvius names Iktinos, the main Periclean architect, as its author, and adds that at the end of the 4th century, under Demetrius of Phaleron, a front with its traditional outer columns was added (De architectura 7, praef. 12; see also Plutarch, Pericles 13.7). A short-lived Cimonian predecessor shrine, built after the destruction of the sanctuary by the Persians in 480 bce, had returned to a rectangular plan that, however, could not convince the Athenians: the rectangular shape, canonical for Greek temples, must have offered much less viewing space to the participants of the rite than did the square layout. The sanctuary also contained the well that was already important in the Hymn and the cave where Hades returned to the underworld. The Peisitratean sanctuary opened with an impressive propylon towards a large space outside the sanctuary walls with the small temple of Artemis Propylaia.

It also was in the Peisistratean epoch that the myth of Eleusis as the birth place of agriculture was developed out of the earlier version of the Homeric Hymn, according to which Demeter stopped and then restarted the fertility of the fields, not the least of the Rharian Field outside of Eleusis, to blackmail the Olympians into restoring her daughter to her. This change follows from the sudden appearance of an iconography of Triptolemos on black-figured vases from the later 6th century bce that depict him with ears of corn in a flying chariot drawn by snakes and sent off by the two goddesses (see figure 5); a fragment of Sophokles Triptolemos (Frg. 597 Radt) suggests that this must have been his mission to distribute agriculture to all of humanity.

Figure 5. Attic red-figure dinos attributed to the Syleus Painter, about 470 bce The vase depicts Triptolemos in a winged chariot setting off to spread knowledge of the cultivation of wheat. Demeter and Kore surround the youth.

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 89.AE.73. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program, Creative Commons License, CC BY 4.0.

In the context of the Athenian expansionism after the Persian Wars, this was combined with sophistic cultural theory and turned into the claim that Athens as the birthplace of agriculture was the birthplace of human civilization, succinctly expressed by Isocrates (Or. 4.28) and echoed by Cicero (De legibus 2.36). This claim led the Athenians to ask for a tribute in kind from all Greek cities (IG I3 78 in 422 bce7; they even built silos in the Eleusinian shrine.

Rome’s takeover of the Greek world opened the Eleusinian Mysteries to the Roman elites whose bilingualism qualified them for initiation (similarly, Republican Romans were already initiated in Samothrace, IG XII:viii, 173 and 176, bce). Both Cicero and his friend T. Pomponius Atticus were Eleusinian initiates (De legibus 2.36), and Cicero cites a verse by an unknown Republican author according to which “people from the most distant regions” were initiated (De natura deorum 1.119). The crisis between Sulla and Nero does not seem to have affected Eleusis very deeply, although Nero “did not dare to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries from which the voice of the herald keeps away ungodly and criminal people” (thus Suetonius, Nero 34.4). Other emperors were initiated, not the least Marcus Aurelius, who did it, according to the (not always reliable) Historia Augusta, “in order to prove his guiltlessness” (Capitolinus, Septimius Severus 27.1). Restoration work in the sanctuary, not always easily dated, went on during larger parts of the 2nd century ce, and the Panhellenes erected a slender triumphal arch “for the Goddesses and the Emperor” (presumably Trajan, IG II² 2958). Restorations were much needed and swiftly done after the barbarian Kostovoks destroyed part of the shrine in 170 ce, without nterrupting the annual succession of the ritual, thanks to the then hierophant (IG II2 3639). In c. 220 ce, the Athenians decreed ampler participation of the armed ephebes in the procession to Eleusis “to avoid an interruption and a neglect of traditional religion” (IG II2 1078).

The decline set in during the 3rd century ce and especially after the legalization of Christianity under Constantine. It is unclear when the last mystery rituals at the sanctuary were given up. Julian still used the present tense when writing about Eleusis (In Deorum Matrem 13), as did Asterius of Amaeia later in the century. But after the Goths of Alaric had destroyed the sanctuary walls in 395 ce, no repairs were made: this must mark the end of the cult.

Importance and Influence of the Eleusinian Mysteries

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter praises the Mysteries for what the intimacy with the Two Goddesses would give: wealth in this life and a happy existence after death. Over time, the promises in this world were eclipsed by the expectations in the next, but they survived in the Athenian claim to be the origin of culture through agriculture.8 The rather vague promises for the afterlife in the Hymn became much more concrete in the following centuries, with the colorful pictures of bliss in Aristophanes’s Frogs of 415 bce as perhaps the most impressive instance: here, the chorus of initiates dwells on the eternal light and spring and the dances as a clear opposition to the dreary picture of the dank and dark Underworld with its helpless shadows as painted by the Homeric Nekyia (Frogs 440–59). Aristophanes’s images also appear in a Pythagorean and Bacchic context, and it is tempting to ascribe their elaboration to an Eleusinian pseudonymous poem of the later 6th or earlier 5th century bce, either a more contemporary Hymn to Demeter or a Katabasis poem.9

The fame of Eleusis drew other local Demeter cults into its influence, either in their own understanding or in the reading of later observers, as for example the cults of Pheneos in Arcadia (Pausanias 8.15.1–3) or Andania in Messene (Pausanias 8.31.7). Under Ptolemy I, Alexandria in Egypt acquired a cult site that was called Eleusis and must have focused on the rites of Demeter with perhaps the addition of the new god Sarapis, on the advice of the Eumolpid Timotheus whom the first Ptolemies employed as religious advisor (Tacitus, Historiae 4.83). When Christian father Clement of Alexandria later lambasts rituals in Eleusis, it is not always clear whether he means the Athenian or the Alexandrian sanctuary. Rome, on the other hand, where Cicero attests to nocturnal initiation rites for Ceres, confined to women, must have celebrated its local form of Thesmophoria (De legibus 2.36–37).

Plato used the Mysteries as a reservoir of images for his unique philosophical experience,10 and later Platonists, such as Philo of Alexandria and the Neoplatonist philosophers from Plotinus to Proclos, followed suit. This in turn led to an allegorical interpretation not only of the mystery promises but even of its ritual and officials in Neoplatonic terms (Porphyry, Frg. 360 Smith), and it corresponded to the spiritualization of the Mysteries that is visible in the transformation of the hierophant with his growing distance to the physical world.

Christians noticed early that the Eleusinian Mysteries challenged Christian beliefs about the afterlife; over time, the original afterlife assumption of the Homeric Hymn—an initiated person has a better fate in the underworld—detailed and concretized these hopes in colors of paradise, even if Eleusis never claimed to undo death, as the story of Demophon’s abortive immortalization in the Homeric Hymn makes clear.11 Christian polemics began at the end of the 2nd century ce, and they intimated that shameful things occurred behind the secrecy of the ritual (Clemens of Alexandria, Protrepticus 22.4; Tertullian, Contra Valentinianos 1.1). Later preachers could be quite explicit in their sexual interpretations (Asterius, Homilia 10.9.1).

The Italian Renaissance inherited the Neoplatonic allegorical understanding of the Mysteries. This goes without saying for the outstanding Neoplatonic philosophers such as Ficino or Pico della Mirandola with their debt to Plotinus and Proclus, but even for an antiquarian like Giglio Gregorio Giraldo (Lilius Gregorius Gyraldus, 1479–1552) who in his Historia deorum gentilium reconstructed the ritual of Eleusis but gave it a thoroughly allegorical reading (in: Opera Omnia 1, 1696, col. 429–431). This remained the standard approach in the following centuries, for example in Sainte-Croix.12 Only a few radical antiquarians, such as the Dutch Johan Meursius,13 kept away from symbolism and allegorical explanations, whereas the radically innovative Histoire générale des cérémonies, moeurs et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde looked at the ancient world, and especially the Romans, only insofar as their religion served as a model for Catholicism, and disregarded the mystery cults.14 But it was the first volume of Christian August Lobeck’s Aglaophamus sive de theologia mysticae Graecorum causis that changed scholarship on the Mysteries permanently: Lobeck, otherwise known as a strict grammarian, cleaned the ancient literal evidence on Eleusis of all mystical undergrowth and opened the path to a historical study.15 The site of Eleusis itself was identified and described by the early English travellers.16 Excavations by the Greek Archaeological Society of Athens began in 1882 and cumulated with the work of Anastasios Orlandos, John Travlos, and Georgios Mylonas, whose 1961 book still remains the most detailed archaeological description of the site, despite later work on the site.17

Primary Texts

  • Clinton, Kevin. Eleusis. The Inscriptions on Stone: Documents of the Sanctuary of the Two Goddesses and Public Documents of the Deme. Athens: The Archaeological Society at Athens, 2005.
  • Meyer, Marvin W. The Ancient Mysteries. A Sourcebook. San Francisco: Harper, 1987.
  • Scarpi, Paolo, ed. Le religioni dei misteri. 1: Eleusi, Dionisismo, Orfismo. Milan: Mondadori, 2002.


  • Bowden, Hugh. Mystery Cults of the Ancient World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • Bremmer, Jan N. Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2014.
  • Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • Cavanaugh, Maureen B. Eleusis and Athens: Documents in Finance, Religion, and Politics in the Fifth Century B.C. Philadelphia: American Philological Association, 1996.
  • Clinton, Kevin. The Sacred Officials of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Philadelphia: American Philological Association, 1974.
  • Clinton, Kevin. “Myth and Cult.” The Iconography of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Stockholm: Aström, 1992.
  • Darque, Pierre. “Les vestiges mycéniens découverts sous le télésterion d’Eleusis.” Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique 105 (1981): 593–605.
  • Drerup, Heinrich, Griechische Baukunst in geometrischer Zeit. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1969.
  • Graf, Fritz. Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1974.
  • Kerényi, Karl. Eleusis. Archtypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.
  • Mylonas, George E. Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.
  • Richardson, Nicolas J. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.
  • Riedweg, Christopher. Mysterienterminologie bei Platon, Philon und Clemens von Alexandrien. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1987.
  • Sabbatucci, Dario. Saggio sul misticismo greco. 2d ed. Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1991.


  • 1. Kevin Clinton, “Myth and Cult.” The Iconography of the Eleusinian Mysteries (Stockholm: Aström, 1992).

  • 2. Clinton, 1992, 126–132.

  • 3. George E. Mylonas Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961)

  • 4. Pierre Darque’s (1981)

  • 5. (for comparative material see Drerup, 1969).

  • 6. Richardson, 1974.

  • 7. Maureen B. Cavanaugh, Eleusis and Athens: Documents in Finance, Religion, and Politics in the Fifth Century B.C. (Philadelphia: American Philological Association, 1996).

  • 8. Jan N. Bremmer, Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World (Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2014), 19.

  • 9. Fritz Graf, Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens (Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1974)

  • 10. Christopher Riedwig, Mysterienterminologie bei Platon, Philon und Clemens von Alexandrien (Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1987).

  • 11. (Sabbatucci, 1991).

  • 12. Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la religion secrète des anciens peuples (Paris, 1784).

  • 13. Eleusinia. Sive de Cereris Eleusinae Sacro, ac Festo. Liber Singularis (Leiden, 1622).

  • 14. (vol. 9, Amsterdam, 1732).

  • 15. (Königsberg, 1828).

  • 16. George E. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 9–12, with some emphasis on Richard Chandler’s 1766 visit.

  • 17. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries.