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joi, 27 septembrie 2012

On the Eleusinian Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries are believed to be of considerable antiquity, deriving from religious practice of the Mycenaean period and thus predating the Greek Dark Ages. One line of thought by modern scholars has been that the Mysteries were intended "to elevate man above the human sphere into the divine and to assure his redemption by making him a god and so conferring immortality upon him." 

Comparative study shows parallels between these Greek rituals and similar systems — some of them older — in the Near East (see Religions of the Ancient Near East). These cults are the mysteries of Isis and Osiris in Egypt, the Adoniac of Syrian cults, the Persian mysteries, and the Phrygian Cabirian mysteries. Some scholars argued that the Eleusinian cult was a continuation of a Minoan cult, probably affected by the Near East.

The lesser mysteries were probably held every year, the greater mysteries only every five years. This cycle continued for about two millennia. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, King Celeus is said to have been one of the first people to learn the secret rites and mysteries of her cult. He was also one of her original priests, along with Diocles, Eumolpos, Polyxeinus and Triptolemus, Celeus' son, who had supposedly learned agriculture from Demeter.

Under Pisistratus of Athens, the Eleusinian Mysteries became pan-Hellenic and pilgrims flocked from Greece and beyond to participate. Around 300 BC, the state took over control of the Mysteries; they were controlled by two families, the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes. This led to a vast increase in the number of initiates. The only requirements for membership were freedom from "blood guilt", meaning never having committed murder, and not being a "barbarian" (being unable to speak Greek). Men, women and even slaves were allowed initiation.
    
To participate in these mysteries one had to swear a vow of secrecy.
Four categories of people participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries:
1) Priests, priestesses and hierophants.
2) Initiates, undergoing the ceremony for the first time.
3) Others who had already participated at least once. They were eligible for the fourth category.
4) Those who had attained épopteia (Greek: ἐποπτεία) (English: "contemplation"), who had learned the secrets of the greatest mysteries of Demeter.
    
Much of the concrete information about the Eleusinian Mysteries was never written down. For example, only initiates knew what the kiste, a sacred chest, and the kalathos, a lidded basket, contained. The contents, like so much about the Mysteries, are unknown. However, one researcher writes that this Cista ("kiste") contained a golden mystical serpent, egg, a phallus and possibly also seeds sacred to Demeter.
    
The Church Father Hippolytus, writing in the early 3rd century, discloses that "the Athenians, while initiating people into the Eleusinian rites, likewise display to those who are being admitted to the highest grade at these mysteries, the mighty, and marvellous, and most perfect secret suitable for one initiated into the highest mystic truths: an ear of corn in silence reaped."
    
There were two Eleusinian Mysteries, the Greater and the Lesser. According to Thomas Taylor, "the dramatic shows of the Lesser Mysteries occultly signified the miseries of the soul while in subjection to the body, so those of the Greater obscurely intimated, by mystic and splendid visions, the felicity of the soul both here and hereafter, when purified from the defilements of a material nature and constantly elevated to the realities of intellectual [spiritual] vision." And that according to Plato, "the ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended, … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual [spiritual] good." The Lesser Mysteries took place in the month of Anthesteria under the direction of Athens' archon basileus. In order to qualify for initiation, participants would sacrifice a piglet to Demeter and Persephone, and then ritually purify themselves in the river Illisos. Upon completion of the Lesser Mysteries, participants were deemed mystai ("initiates") worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries.
    
“For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as 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 also to die with a better hope.”
    —Cicero, Laws II, xiv, 36
    
The first act (14th Boedromion) of the Greater Mysteries was the bringing of the sacred objects from Eleusis to the Eleusinion, a temple at the base of the Acropolis.
    
The Greater Mysteries took place in Boedromion (the third month of the Attic calendar, falling in late Summer) and lasted ten days. On 15th Boedromion, called Agyrmos (the gathering), the hierophants (priests or "those who show the sacred ones") declared prorrhesis, the start of the rites, and carried out the "Hither the victims" sacrifice (hiereía deúro). The "Seawards initiates" (halade mystai) began in Athens on 16th Boedromion with the celebrants washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron.
    
On 17th Boedromion, the participants began the Epidauria, a festival for Asklepios named after his main sanctuary at Epidauros. This "festival within a festival" celebrated the hero's arrival at Athens with his daughter Hygieia, and consisted of a procession leading to the Eleusinion, during which the mystai apparently stayed at home, a great sacrifice, and an all-night feast (pannykhís).
    
The procession to Eleusis began at Kerameikos (the Athenian cemetery) on 19th Boedromion from where the people walked to Eleusis, along what was called the "Sacred Way" (Ιερά Οδός, Hierá Hodós), swinging branches called bacchoi. At a certain spot along the way, they shouted obscenities in commemoration of Iambe (or Baubo), an old woman who, by cracking dirty jokes, had made Demeter smile as she mourned the loss of her daughter. The procession also shouted "Íakch', O Íakche!" referring to Iacchus, possibly an epithet for Dionysus, or a separate deity, son of Persephone or Demeter.
    
Upon reaching Eleusis, there was a day of fasting in commemoration of Demeter's fasting while searching for Persephone. The fast was broken while drinking a special drink of barley and pennyroyal, called kykeon. Then on 20th and 21st Boedromion, the initiates entered a great hall called Telesterion; in the center stood the Anaktoron ("palace"), which only the hierophants could enter, where sacred objects were stored. Before mystai could enter the Telesterion, they would recite, "I have fasted, I have drunk the kykeon, I have taken from the kiste ("box") and after working it have put it back in the kalathos ("open basket"). It is widely supposed that the rites inside the Telesterion comprised three elements: dromena ("things done"), a dramatic reenactment of the Demeter/Persephone myth; deiknumena ("things shown"), displayed sacred objects, in which the hierophant played an essential role; and finally legomena ("things said"), commentaries that accompanied the deiknumena. Combined these three elements were known as the apporheta ("unrepeatables"); the penalty for divulging them was death. Athenagoras of Athens, Cicero, and other ancient writers cite that it was for this crime (among others) that Diagoras received the death penalty; the tragic playwright Aeschylus was allegedly tried for revealing secrets of the Mysteries in some of his plays, but was acquitted. The ban on divulging the core ritual of the Mysteries was thus absolute, which is probably why we know almost nothing about what transpired there.
    
As to the climax of the Mysteries, there are two modern theories. Some hold that the priests were the ones to reveal the visions of the holy night, consisting of a fire that represented the possibility of life after death, and various sacred objects. Others hold this explanation to be insufficient to account for the power and longevity of the Mysteries, and that the experiences must have been internal and mediated by a powerful psychoactive ingredient contained in the kykeon drink.
    
Following this section of the Mysteries was the Pannychis, an all-night feast accompanied by dancing and merriment. The dances took place in the Rharian Field, rumored to be the first spot where grain grew. A bull sacrifice also took place late that night or early the next morning. That day (22nd Boedromion), the initiates honored the dead by pouring libations from special vessels.
    
On 23rd Boedromion, the Mysteries ended and everyone returned home.
    
Some scholars have proposed that the power of the Eleusinian Mysteries came from the kykeon's functioning as a psychedelic agent. Use of potions or philtres for magical or religious purposes was relatively common in Greece and the ancient world. The initiates, sensitized by their fast and prepared by preceding ceremonies (see set and setting), may have been propelled by the effects of a powerful psychoactive potion into revelatory mind states with profound spiritual and intellectual ramifications. In opposition to this idea, other pointedly skeptical scholars note the lack of any solid evidence and stress the collective rather than individual character of initiation into the Mysteries.
    
Many psychoactive agents have been proposed as the significant element of kykeon, though without consensus or conclusive evidence. They include a fungal parasite of barley, ergot, which contains the alkaloids lysergic acid amide (LSA), a precursor to LSD, and ergonovine. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is a potent hallucinogen, which was first synthesized from ergot alkaloids by the Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, in 1938. However, modern attempts to prepare a kykeon using ergot-parasitized barley have yielded inconclusive results, though Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin describe both ergonovine and LSA to be known to produce LSD-like effects.
    
American author John Grigsby contends that the presence of ergot in the stomachs of some of the so called 'bog-bodies' (Iron Age human remains from peat bogs N E Europe such as Tollund Man) is indicative of use of ergot in ritual drinks in a prehistoric fertility cult akin to the Eleusinian Mysteries cult of ancient Greece. In his book Beowulf and Grendel, he argues that the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is based on a memory of the quelling of this fertility cult by followers of Odin. He writes that Beowulf, which he translates as barley-wolf, suggests a connection to ergot which in German was known as the 'tooth of the wolf'.
    
The Ninnion Tablet depicts Demeter, followed by Persephone and Iacchus, and then the procession of initiates. Then, Demeter is sitting on the kiste inside the Telesterion, with Persephone holding a torch and introducing the initiates. The initiates each hold a bacchoi. The second row of initiates were led by Iakchos, a priest who held torches for the ceremonies. He is standing near the omphalos while an unknown female (probably a priestess of Demeter) sat nearby on the kiste, holding a scepter and a vessel filled with kykeon. Pannychis is also represented. The Tablet can be found in the Archaeological Museum of Eleusis, which is located inside the archaeological site of Eleusis.

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