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miercuri, 29 august 2012

The Eleusinian Mysteries

The word ‘cult’ in ancient times did not carry the pejorative overtones of today. It simply referred to the particular rites and worship customs dedicated to specific gods by the worshippers of that time and place.

The cult of the Two Goddesses, centered on the Greater Mysteries of Eleusis, was one of the longest lasting cults in history. Its origins stretch back into Mycenaean pre-history, and it endured until the late 4th century BCE. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of initiates took part in the ritual and witnessed the Mysteries, yet there is no record of any breaching the oath of silence surrounding what they experienced.

The Eleusinian Mysteries are based on the worship of the agrarian mother goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. The Lesser Mysteries took place during the month of Anthesterion, in spring, and their purpose was to prepare and purify the mystoi, or new initiates, for the Greater Mysteries, which took place during the month of Boedromion, around September.

The rites are based upon the events of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, where the goddess’s daughter Kore, or Maiden, is abducted by Hades, Lord of the Underworld. Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter, neglecting her role as nurturer of crops, and allowing the world to fall into famine. Zeus intervenes and has her daughter returned to her, but the young goddess is transformed into the powerful Persephone, and returns to Hades for part of every year to spend with her husband. The ritual of the Greater Mysteries seems to have given its celebrants an enhanced understanding of the cycles of life and death, as well as the opportunity to participate in a happier afterlife.

There is some debate as to whether the ritual is based on the hymn, or the hymn was written to explain ritual actions whose origins have been lost to time. The question is unanswerable, as are many questions about what happened in the sanctuary at Eleusis known as the Telesterion. But clearly the process of the rites follows the flow of the story over the nine days of the Mysteries. Two of the most hotly contested questions are those of the apporheta, or the ‘unrepeatables’, and the kykeon, the sacred drink. The apporheta consisted of the three parts. The first is the deiknumena, the things shown. 

A basket known as a kiste contained certain sacred objects, which were displayed to the mystoi within the Telesterion. Speculation that some of the objects were lewd can be chalked up to later reports by converted Christians attempting to discredit the Mysteries, although because of the Goddesses’ connection to life, death and fertility, the possibility of generative organs being depicted cannot be discounted. The second element is the legomena, things said. These could have been recitations of the epithets of the deities involved, or commentary on the ritual elements themselves, or perhaps the teaching of spells to help newly deceased souls negotiate the Afterlife. The third element is the dromena, or things done. It is widely believed that a ritual drama re-enacting the story of Persephone’s abduction took place, but if that is the case, there must be details not revealed in the Homeric Hymn, as there is no secrecy involved in the popular story. Some speculate that a Hieros Gamos, or Great Marriage, took place between a priest and priestess, but there is no evidence of this. 

The second question concerns the kykeon, the drink that Demeter requested during her sojourn at Eleusis, and which the mystoi drink after their long procession from Athens to Eleusis. The drink consists of barley and pennyroyal mint. A very popular modern theory suggests that ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus that grows on barley, was added to the drink, creating visions and intoxication. Since alcohol was prohibited during the Mysteries, this is the only explanation some can conceive for the wonder and transformation that the many initiates apparently experienced over the millennia. However, it is extremely unlikely. Ergot is very dangerous, and the likelihood of getting the dosage exactly right for the large numbers of participants without killing many of them is far-fetched. It is much more likely that the long preparation, periods of fasting, and true piety accounted for the success of the cult. The most likely explanation of all, that the Two Goddesses actually blessed the participants with their presence, is not one that any but their worshippers are bound to accept.

The Mysteries are almost impossible to recreate in modern times, and for solitary practitioners to attempt. Yet the dedicated worshipper can take elements of the ancient ritual and incorporate them into a one, three or nine day festival to connect with the Two Goddesses, honor Them, and try to achieve some of the insight and epiphany the ancient initiates enjoyed. And for those fortunate enough to end their ritual with the rumored vision of Persephone rising in flames, the words of Cicero ring true. ‘The rites are called initiations, so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but to die with better hope.’

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