FESTIVALS IN ANCIENT GREECE
Festivals and feasts were held throughout the year. In Athens alone there were 120 days of festivals a year. Most festivals were harvest festivals or religious festivals. As Greece became urbanized more people turned out for these festivals and the activities became more elaborate. Festivals were often financed by the state and were regarded as a reflection on the city's image.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The four most famous festivals, each with its own procession, athletic competitions, and sacrifices, were held every four years at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia. These Panhellenic festivals were attended by people from all over the Greek-speaking world. Many other festivals were celebrated locally, and in the case of mystery cults, such as the one at Eleusis near Athens, only initiates could participate. [Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003, metmuseum.org \^/]
The citizens of Athens gathered once a year for the Panathanaic procession in which they dressed in woven robes like the one believed to be worn by Athena and marched through the city to the Acropolis. The procession was led by the Athenian cavalry and included priests, sacrificial animals, chariots, athletes, and maidens. One of the marque events was the apobates , in which contestants in full armor leapt on and off moving chariots.
The Greeks had some strange festivals associated with destroying things and ideas thought to be impure. During Bouphonia in Athens a sacrifice was held, then the ax used in the sacrifice was tried and condemned to death and thrown in the sea. After a hanging in Cos the rope and tree were banished. During the Ionian festival honoring Apollo sins were loaded onto a cart and taken out of town. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]
Comic playwrights had the most fun on the Day of Misrule, a holiday when nothing was sacred. Arcane philosophers were satirized, sexual morality was mocked, and even the gods were objects of ridicule.
Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea showgate.com/medea ; Greek History Course from Reed web.archive.org; Classics FAQ MIT rtfm.mit.edu; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu
Mary Renault's The Mask of Apollo contains good descriptions of religious festivals.
See Separate Articles on the Olympics
Ancient Greek Parties and Symposia
Symposia Banqueter A symposium was a dinner party with family, friends or associates. It generally began with a bout of drinking, followed by a big meal. There were often rules to ensure equality. Conversation topics included philosophy, politics, gossip. For a short period Greeks used birthday cakes.
The word symposia was used to describe the party and the place were it was held and is the source of the modern word symposium. The parties were usually lead by a feast master. Sometimes the guests wore garlands. Some people drank heavily; others held back.
There are vivid description of party entertainment in Xenophon's dialogue Symposium (380 B.C.). The host pays a man from Syracuse to bring traveling performers (probably slaves), a girl flutists, acrobats, a dancing girl and a boy who dances and plays the kithara , a kind of lyre. The group played music and did performances involving music, dance, acrobatics and mine. The girl juggled hoops, performed acrobatic stunts over a hoop rimmed with knives, and acted out mythical love scenes with the boy. Socrates, one of the guests, was quite taken with the boy.
The citizens of Sybaris in present-day southern Italy were such big partiers they reportedly banned roosters so the populous would not be woken to early in the morning. They also supposedly had wine piped directly from the vineyards to the city.
Sacrifices at Ancient Greek Festivals
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The central ritual act in ancient Greece was animal sacrifice, especially of oxen, goats, and sheep. Sacrifices took place within the sanctuary, usually at an altar in front of the temple, with the assembled participants consuming the entrails and meat of the victim. Liquid offerings, or libations, were also commonly made. [Source: Collete Hemingway, Independent Scholar, Seán Hemingway, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003, metmuseum.org \^/]
Pausanias wrote in “Description of Hellas” (c. A.D. 175): “Every year too the people of Patrai celebrate the festival Laphria in honor of their Artemis, and at it they employ a method of sacrifice peculiar to the place. Round the altar in a circle they set up logs of wood still green, each of them sixteen cubits long. On the altar within the circle is placed the driest of their wood. Just before the time of the festival they construct a smooth ascent to the altar, piling earth upon the altar steps. The festival begins with a most splendid procession in honor of Artemis, and the maiden officiating as priestess rides last in the procession upon a car yoked to deer. It is, however, not till the next day that the sacrifice is offered, and the festival is not only a state function but also quite a popular general holiday. For the people throw alive upon the altar edible birds and every kind of victim as well; there are wild boars, deer and gazelles; some bring wolf-cubs or bear-cubs, others the full-grown beasts. They also place upon the altar fruit of cultivated trees. Next they set fire to the wood. At this point I have seen some of the beasts, including a bear, forcing their way outside at the first rush of the flames, some of them actually escaping by their strength. But those who threw them in drag them back again to the pyre. It is not remembered that anybody has ever been wounded by the beasts. [Source: Pausanias, Pausanias' Description of Greece, translated by A. R. Shilleto, (London: G. Bell, 1900)]
On the sacrifice of a bull at funeral ceremony, Plutarch wrote in “Life of Aristides” (c. A.D. 110): “And the Plataeans undertook to make funeral offerings annually for the Hellenes who had fallen in battle and lay buried there. And this they do yet unto this day, after the following manner. On the sixteenth of the month Maimacterion (which is the Boiotian Alakomenius), they celebrate a procession. This is led forth at break of day by a trumpeter sounding the signal for battle; wagons follow filled with myrtle-wreaths, then comes a black bull, then free-born youths carrying libations of wine and milk in jars, and pitchers of oil and myrrh (no slave may put hand to any part of that ministration, because the men thus honored died for freedom); and following all, the chief magistrate of Plataea, who may not at other times touch iron or put on any other raiment than white, at this time is robed in a purple tunic, carries on high a water-jar from the city's archive chamber, and proceeds, sword in hand, through the midst of the city to the graves; there he takes water from the sacred spring, washes off with his own hands the gravestones, and anoints them with myrrh; then he slaughters the bull at the funeral pyre, and, with prayers to Zeus and Hermes Terrestrial, summons the brave men who died for Hellas to come to the banquet and its copious drafts of blood; next he mixes a mixer of wine, drinks, and then pours a libation from it, saying these words: "I drink to the men who died for the freedom of the Hellenes."” [Source: Plutarch, “Plutarch’s Lives,” translated by John Dryden, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1910)
Festival Entertainment in Ancient Greece
Maenads In a letter to Ptolemaios, Demophon wrote (c. 245 B.C.): “Send us at your earliest opportunity the flutist Petoun with the Phrygian flutes, plus the other flutes. If it is necessary to pay him, do so, and we will reimburse you. Also, send us the eunuch Zenobius with a drum, cymbals, and castanets. The women need them for their festival. Be sure he is wearing his most elegant clothing. Get the special goat from Aristion and sent it to us. Send us also as many cheeses as you can, a new jug, and vegetables of all kinds, and fish if you have it. Your health! Throw in some policemen at the same time to accompany the boat.
Strabo wrote in “Geographia” (c. A.D. 20): “A festival is celebrated every year at Acharaca; and at that time in particular those who celebrate the festival can see and hear concerning all these things; and at the festival, too, about noon, the boys and young men of the gymnasion, nude and anointed with oil, take out a bull and with haste run before him into the cave; and, when they arrive at the cave, the bull goes forward a short distance, falls, and breathes out his life. [Source: Strabo, The Geography of Strabo: Literally Translated, with Notes, translated by H. C. Hamilton, & W. Falconer, (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857)
The Roman-era Greek orator Dio Chrysostom wrote (A.D. 110): “Some people attend the festival of the god out of curiousity, some for shows and contests, and many bring goods of all sorts for sale, the market folk, that is, some of whom display their crafts and manufactures while others make a show of some special learning — many, of works of tragedy or poetry, many, of prose works. Some draw worshipers from remote regions for religion's sake alone, as does the festival of Artemis at Ephesos, venerated not only in her home-city, but by Hellenes and barbarians.
Clementis Recognitiones wrote (c. A.D. 220): “Most men abandon themselves at festival time and holy days, and arrange for drinking and parties, and give themselves up wholly to pipes and flutes and different kinds of music and in every respect abandon themselves to drunkenness and indulgence.”
Wild Dionysus Festivals
To pay their respect to Dionysus, the citizens of Athens, and other city-states, held a winter-time festival in which a large phallus was erected and displayed. After competitions were held to see who could empty their jug of wine the quickest, a procession from the sea to the city was held with flute players, garland bearers and honored citizens dressed as satyrs and maenads (nymphs), which were often paired together. At the end of the procession a bull was sacrificed symbolizing the fertility god's marriage to the queen of the city. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,"]
Dancing maenadThe word “maenad” is derived from the same root that gave us the words “manic” and “madness”. Maenads were subjects of numerous vase paintings. Like Dionysus himself they often depicted with a crown of iv and fawn skins draped over one shoulder. To express the speed and wildness of their movement the figures in the vase images had flying tresses and cocked back head. Their limbs were often in awkward positions, suggesting drunkenness.
The main purveyors of the Dionysus fertility cult "These drunken devotees of Dionysus," wrote Boorstin, "filled with their god, felt no pain or fatigue, for they possessed the powers of the god himself. And they enjoyed one another to the rhythm of drum and pipe. At the climax of their mad dances the maenads, with their bare hands would tear apart some little animal that they had nourished at their breast. Then, as Euripides observed, they would enjoy 'the banquet of raw flesh.' On some occasions, it was said, they tore apart a tender child as if it were a fawn'"μ
One time the maenads got so involved in what they were doing they had to be rescued from a snow storm in which they were found dancing in clothes frozen solid. On another occasion a government official that forbade the worship of Dionysus was bewitched into dressing up like a maenad and enticed into one of their orgies. When the maenads discovered him, he was torn to pieces until only a severed head remained."
It is not totally clear whether the maenad dances were based purely on mythology and were acted out by festival goers or whether there were really episodes of mass hysteria, triggered perhaps by disease and pent up frustration by women living in a male'dominate society. On at least one occasion these dances were banned and an effort was made to chancel the energy into something else such as poetry reading contests.
Lucian De Salt wrote (c. A.D. 160): “The Bacchic dance is taken especially seriously in Ionia and Pontus, although it belongs to Satyric drama, and has so taken hold of people there that, in the festival time, they put aside everything else and sit the day through, watching corybants, satyrs, and shepherds; and people of the best lineage and foremost in every city dance, not in the least embarrassed but proud of it.....Each town or region celebrates the festivals of the gods with its own rites; thus, to Egyptian deities generally by lament, to the Hellenic for the most part by choruses, but to the non-Hellenic by the clangor of cymbalists, drummers, and flutists....At Delos not even the sacrifices are offered without dancing. Boy choruses assembled and, to the pipe and kithara, some moved about, singing, while the best performed a dance in accompaniment; and hymns written for such choirs are called dances-for-accompaniment."
In a letter to Aureleus Theon, expressing the business side of the festival, Aurelius Asclepiades wrote (c. A.D. 295): “I desire to hire from you Tisaïs, the dancing girl, and another, to dance for us at our festival of Bacchias, for fifteen days from the 13th Phaophi by the old calendar. You shall receive as pay 36 drachmai a day, and for the whole period 3 artabai of wheat, and 15 loaves; also, three donkeys to fetch them and take them back.”
Ancient Greek Festivals for Women
There were two major festival for Athenian women every year: The Thesmophoria promoted fertility and honored Persephone with piglet sacrifices and the offering of mass-produced statues of the goddess to receive her blessing. The Adonia honored Aphrodite's lover Adonis. It was a riotous festival in which lovers had openly licentious affairs and seeds were planting to mark the beginning of the planting season.
During Thesmophoria, an annual Athenian event to honor Demeter and Persephone, women and men who required to abstain from sex and fast for three days. Women erected bowers made of branches and sat there during their fast. On the third day they carried serpent-shaped images thought to have magical powers and entered caves to claim decayed bodied of piglets left the previous years. Pigs were sacred animals to Demeter. The piglet remains were laid on an Thesmphoria altar with offerings, launching a party with feasting, dancing and praying. This rite also featured little girls dressed up as bears.
Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “Adjoining the temple of Athena is the temple of Pandrosus, the only one of the sisters to be faithful to the trust. I was much amazed at something which is not generally known, and so I will describe the circumstances. Two maidens dwell not far from the temple of Athena Polias, called by the Athenians Bearers of the Sacred Offerings. For a time they live with the goddess, but when the festival comes round they perform at night the following rites. Having placed on their heads what the priestess of Athena gives them to carry — neither she who gives nor they who carry have any knowledge what it is — the maidens descend by the natural underground passage that goes across the adjacent precincts, within the city, of Aphrodite in the Gardens. They leave down below what they carry and receive something else which they bring back covered up. These maidens they henceforth let go free, and take up to the Acropolis others in their place. By the temple of Athena is .... an old woman about a cubit high, the inscription calling her a handmaid of Lysimache, and large bronze figures of men facing each other for a fight, one of whom they call Erechtheus, the other Eumolpus; and yet those Athenians who are acquainted with antiquity must surely know that this victim of Erechtheus was Immaradus, the son of Eumolpus. On the pedestal are also statues of Theaenetus, who was seer to Tolmides, and of Tolmides himself, who when in command of the Athenian fleet inflicted severe damage upon the enemy, especially upon the Peloponnesians.” [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]
Herodotus on Ancient Greek Festivals
In his description of the encounter between Solon, the great wise Athenian, and the Lydian King Croesus, regarded as one of the richest men in the world at that time, Herodotus wrote in “Histories” (430 B.C.): “ There was a great festival in honour of the goddess Juno at Argos, to which their mother must needs be taken in a car. Now the oxen did not come home from the field in time: so the youths, fearful of being too late, put the yoke on their own necks, and themselves drew the car in which their mother rode. Five and forty furlongs did they draw her, and stopped before the temple. This deed of theirs was witnessed by the whole assembly of worshippers, and then their life closed in the best possible way. Herein, too, God showed forth most evidently, how much better a thing for man death is than life. [Source: Herodotus “The History of Herodotus” Book VI on the Persian War, 440 B.C.E, translated by George Rawlinson, MIT]
“For the Argive men, who stood around the car, extolled the vast strength of the youths; and the Argive women extolled the mother who was blessed with such a pair of sons; and the mother herself, overjoyed at the deed and at the praises it had won, standing straight before the image, besought the goddess to bestow on Cleobis and Bito, the sons who had so mightily honoured her, the highest blessing to which mortals can attain. Her prayer ended, they offered sacrifice and partook of the holy banquet, after which the two youths fell asleep in the temple. They never woke more, but so passed from the earth. The Argives, looking on them as among the best of men, caused statues of them to be made, which they gave to the shrine at Delphi."
On a Dionysus-style festival in Egypt, Herodotos wrote in “Histories” (c. 430 B.C.): “In other respects the festival is celebrated almost exactly as Dionysiac festivals are in Hellas, excepting that the Egyptians have no choral dances and no plays. They also use phalli four cubits [6 feet] high, pulled by ropes, which the women carry around, and whose male genitalia are operated by strings to go up and down. A piper goes in front, and the women follow, singing hymns in honor of Dionysos. The erection of the phallus, however, which the Hellenes observe in their statues of Hermes, they did not derive from the Egyptians, but from the Pelasgians; from them the Athenians adopted it, and afterwards it passed to the other Hellenes. The Athenians, then, were the first of the Hellenes to have an erect phallus.... [Source: Herodotus, “Histories”, translated by George Rawlinson, (New York: Dutton & Co., 1862)
Plutarch on Strange Ancient Greek Festivals
Plutarch wrote in “Life of Alcibiades”(c. A.D. 110): “After the people had adopted this motion and all things were made ready for the departure of the fleet, there were some unpropitious signs and portents, especially in connection with the festival, namely, the Adonia. This fell at that time, and little images like dead folk carried forth to burial were in many places exposed to view by the women, who mimicked burial rites, beat their breasts, and sang dirges. Moreover, the mutilation of the Hermai, most of which, in a single night, had their faces and phalli disfigured, confounded the hearts of many, even among those who usually set small store by such things. They looked on the occurrence with wrath and fear, thinking it the sign of a bold and dangerous conspiracy. They therefore scrutinized keenly every suspicious circumstance, the council and the assembly convening for this purpose many times within a few days.” [Source: Plutarch, “Plutarch’s Lives,” translated by John Dryden, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1910)
Plutarch wrote in “The Life of Theseos” (c. A.D. 110): “The feast called Oschophoria, or the feast of boughs, which to this day the Athenians celebrate, was then first instituted by Theseos. For he took not with him the full number of virgins which by lot were to be carried away [to the Labyrinth], but selected two youths of his acquaintance, of fair and womanish faces, but of a manly and forward spirit, and having, by frequent baths, and avoiding the heat and scorching of the sun, with a constant use of all the ointments and washes and dresses that serve to the adorning of the head or smoothing the skin or improving the complexion, in a manner changed them from what they were before, and having taught them farther to counterfeit the very voice and carriage and gait of virgins so that there could not be the least difference perceived, he, undiscovered by any, put them into the number of the Athenian virgins designated for Crete. At his return, he and these two youths led up a solemn procession, in the same habit that is now worn by those who carry the vine-branches. Those branches they carry in honor of Dionysos and Ariadne, for the sake of their story before related; or rather because they happened to return in autumn, the time of gathering the grapes. “The women, whom they call Deipnopherai, or supper-carriers, are taken into these ceremonies, and assist at the sacrifice, in remembrance and imitation of the mothers of the young men and virgins upon whom the lot fell, for thus they ran about bringing bread and meat to their children; and because the women then told their sons and daughters many tales and stories, to comfort and encourage them under the danger they were going upon, it has still continued a custom that at this feast old fables and tales should be told. There was then a place chosen out, and a temple erected in it to Theseos, and those families out of whom the tribute of the youth was gathered were appointed to pay tax to the temple for sacrifices to him. And the house of the Phytalidai had the overseeing of these sacrifices, Theseos doing them that honor in recompense of their former hospitality.
Demeter Procession in Hermione
On a Demter procession, in Hermione, a coastal town in Argolis in the Peloponnese, Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book II: Cornith: “The object most worthy of mention is a sanctuary of Demeter on Pron. This sanctuary is said by the Hermionians to have been founded by Clymenus, son of Phoroneus, and Chthonia, sister of Clymenus. But the Argive account is that when Demeter came to Argolis, while Atheras and Mysius afforded hospitality to the goddess, Colontas neither received her into his home nor paid her any other mark of respect. His daughter Chthoia disapproved of this conduct. They say that Colontas was punished by being burnt up along with his house, while Chthonia was brought to Hermion by Demeter, and made the sanctuary for the Hermionians. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]
“At any rate, the goddess herself is called Chthonia, and Chthonia is the name of the festival they hold in the summer of every year. The manner of it is this. The procession is headed by the priests of the gods and by all those who hold the annual magistracies; these are followed by both men and women. It is now a custom that some who are still children should honor the goddess in the procession. These are dressed in white, and wear wreaths upon their heads. Their wreaths are woven of the flower called by the natives cosmosandalon, which, from its size and color, seems to me to be an iris; it even has inscribed upon it the same letters of mourning.
“Those who form the procession are followed by men leading from the herd a full-grown cow, fastened with ropes, and still untamed and frisky. Having driven the cow to the temple, some loose her from the ropes that she may rush into the sanctuary, others, who hitherto have been holding the doors open, when they see the cow within the temple, close the doors. [2.35.7] Four old women, left behind inside, are they who dispatch the cow. Whichever gets the chance cuts the throat of the cow with a sickle. Afterwards the doors are opened, and those who are appointed drive up a second cow, and a third after that, and yet a fourth. All are dispatched in the same way by the old women, and the sacrifice has yet another strange feature. On whichever of her sides the first cow falls, all the others must fall on the same.[2.35.8] Such is the manner in which the sacrifice is performed by the Hermionians. Before the temple stand a few statues of the women who have served Demeter as her priestess, and on passing inside you see seats on which the old women wait for the cows to be driven in one by one, and images, of no great age, of Athena and Demeter. But the thing itself that they worship more than all else, I never saw, nor yet has any other man, whether stranger or Hermionian. The old women may keep their knowledge of its nature to themselves.”
Hercules Festival in Sicyon
On a festival in Sicyon, a city-state situated in the northern Peloponnesus between Corinth and Achaea, Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece” Book II: Corinth (A.D. 160): “In the gymnasium not far from the market-place is dedicated a stone Heracles made by Scopas.1 There is also in another place a sanctuary of Heracles. The whole of the enclosure here they name Paedize; in the middle of the enclosure is the sanctuary, and in it is an old wooden figure carved by Laphaes the Phliasian. I will now describe the ritual at the festival. The story is that on coming to the Sicyonian land Phaestus found the people giving offerings to Heracles as to a hero. Phaestus then refused to do anything of the kind, but insisted on sacrificing to him as to a god. Even at the present day the Sicyonians, after slaying a lamb and burning the thighs upon the altar, eat some of the meat as part of a victim given to a god, while the rest they offer as to a hero. The first day of the festival in honor of Heracles they name . . . ; the second they call Heraclea. From here is a way to a sanctuary of Asclepius. On passing into the enclosure you see on the left a building with two rooms. In the outer room lies a figure of Sleep, of which nothing remains now except the head. The inner room is given over to the Carnean Apollo; into it none may enter except the priests. In the portico lies a huge bone of a sea-monster, and after it an image of the Dream-god and Sleep, surnamed Epidotes (Bountiful), lulling to sleep a lion. Within the sanctuary on either side of the entrance is an image, on the one hand Pan seated, on the other Artemis standing. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]
“When you have entered you see the god, a beardless figure of gold and ivory made by Calamis.1 He holds a staff in one hand, and a cone of the cultivated pine in the other. The Sicyonians say that the god was carried to them from Epidaurus on a carriage drawn by two mules, that he was in the likeness of a serpent, and that he was brought by Nicagora of Sicyon, the mother of Agasicles and the wife of Echetimus. Here are small figures hanging from the roof. She who is on the serpent they say is Aristodama, the mother of Aratus, whom they hold to be a son of Asclepius. Such are the noteworthy things that this enclosure presented to me, and opposite is another enclosure, sacred to Aphrodite. The first thing inside is a statue of Antiope. They say that her sons were Sicyonians, and because of them the Sicyonians will have it that Antiope herself is related to themselves. After this is the sanctuary of Aphrodite, into which enter only a female verger, who after her appointment may not have intercourse with a man, and a virgin, called the Bath-bearer, holding her sacred office for a year. All others are wont to behold the goddess from the entrance, and to pray from that place. The image, which is seated, was made by the Sicyonian Canachus, who also fashioned the Apollo at Didyma of the Milesians, and the Ismenian Apollo for the Thebans. It is made of gold and ivory, having on its head a polos,1 and carrying in one hand a poppy and in the other an apple. They offer the thighs of the victims, excepting pigs; the other parts they burn for the goddess with juniper wood, but as the thighs are burning they add to the offering a leaf of the paideros.
“This is a plant in the open parts of the enclosure, and it grows nowhere else either in Sicyonia or in any other land. Its leaves are smaller than those of the esculent oak, but larger than those of the holm; the shape is similar to that of the oak-leaf. One side is of a dark color, the other is white. You might best compare the color to that of white-poplar leaves. Ascending from here to the gymnasium you see in the right a sanctuary of Artemis Pheraea. It is said that the wooden image was brought from Pherae. This gymnasium was built for the Sicyonians by Cleinias, and they still train the youths here. White marble images are here, an Artemis wrought only to the waist, and a Heracles whose lower parts are similar to the square Hermae.”
Great Mysteries Festival
Kiki Karoglou of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “In classical antiquity, the earliest and most celebrated mysteries were the Eleusinian. At Eleusis, the worship of the agricultural deities Demeter and her daughter Persephone, also known as Kore, was based on the growth cycles of nature. Athenians believed they were the first to receive the gift of grain cultivation from Demeter. [Source: Kiki Karoglou, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2013, metmuseum.org \^/]
“During the Great Eleusinia, the public aspect of which culminated in the grand procession from the center of Athens to Eleusis along the Sacred Way, the actions and experiences of the initiates mirrored those of the two goddesses in the sacred drama (drama mystikon). In the early sixth century B.C., the "Queen of the Underworld" persona of Kore was introduced and a nocturnal initiation rite called katabasis was added to the festival: a simulated descent to Hades and ritual search for Persephone. Before the entrance to the Telesterion, the central hall of the sanctuary where the secret rites were performed, priestly personnel holding torches met up with the initiates, who until then were wandering in the dark. At the Eleusinian mysteries, the tension between public and private, conspicuous and secret was inherent in the double nature of the cult. Unlike city-state (polis) religion, participation was restricted to individuals who chose to be initiated, to become mystai. At the same time, it was far more inclusive, being open not only to Athenian male citizens, but to non-Athenians, women, and slaves.” \^/
The Lesser Mysteries: Athenian 'flower-month' Anthesterion (February/March) — with 12th Pithoigia 'opening the jars', 13th Choes 'wine amphorae' and 14th Chytrai — was held at Agrai, in Athens, on the south east side of the Ilissos stream, just outside the old walls, where there was a shrine for Demeter (Metroon) and for Artemis. It was said the maiden Oreithyeia was abducted here by Boreas ('North Wind': Death/cold) and ravished. Her companion was Pharmakeia ('user-of-drugs'). [Plato Phaedrus 229c] [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class ++]
Greater Mysteries:: Athenian 'bull-running' month Boedromion (September-October). On the 13th and 14th Boed., young aristocratic Athenian Ephebes (teens engaged in military training) escorted the 'sacred things' from Eleusis to Athens. The ‘sacred things’ were brought to the Eleusinion, at the west foot of the Acropolis. Their arrival was then reported to the priestess of Athena Polias (City-Athena). The first four days of the festival took place in Athens (15th to 18th): 15th Agrimos ('Gathering'), 16th 'Seaward, Initiates', 17th 'Hither the victims', 18th Epidauria (at Athens), 19th March to Eleusis,20th Initiation, 21st Plemochoiai ++
The festival was supervised by the Athenian magistrate, the Basileus ('King'), with two assistants from the Athenian Citizen body and a representative of the Clan Eumolpidai and Clan Kerykes. Initiates had to bathe in the sea and sacrifice a pig to Demeter. The 20-kilometer Procession to Eleusis (14 miles) was led by statue of Iacchos (Bacchus). Participants wore crowns of myrtle on their heads and carried bundles of leaves bound with bacchoi (rings). At night inside a small building called the A naktoron ('King's house' wanax) in the Telesterion ('Hall of Initiation') in Eleusis, the sacred things were placed in baskets (kistai) were 'shown' by the Hierophant. Epopteia ('Beholding') was an optional festival held the year following for Greater Mysteries festival. The Mystai (initiates of the previous year's ceremony) A fresh-cut wheat stalk was 'shown'.” ++
Eleusinian Mystery Rituals
Dudley Wright wrote: “ The Eleusinian Mysteries, observed by nearly all Greeks, but particularly by the Athenians, were celebrated yearly at Eleusis, though in the earlier annals of their history they were celebrated once in every three years only, and once in every four years by the Celeans, Cretans, Parrhasians, Pheneteans, Phliasians, and Spartans. It was the most celebrated of all the religious ceremonies of Greece at any period of the country's history, and was regarded as of such importance that the Festival is referred to frequently simply as "The Mysteries." The rites were guarded most jealously and carefully concealed from the uninitiated. If any person divulged any part of them he was regarded as having offended against the divine law, and by the act he rendered himself liable to divine vengeance. It was accounted unsafe to abide in the same house with him, and as soon as his offence was made public he was apprehended. Similarly, drastic punishment was meted out to any person not initiated into the Mysteries who chanced to be present at their celebration, even through ignorance or genuine error. [Source: “The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright (1868-1949), Theosophical Publishing House. 1919, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.net, |~|]
“The Mysteries were divided into two parts — the Lesser Mysteries and the Greater Mysteries. The Lesser Mysteries were said to have been instituted when Hercules, Castor, and Pollux expressed a desire to be initiated, they happening to be in Athens at the time of the celebration of the Mysteries by the Athenians in accordance with the ordinance of Demeter. Not being Athenians, they were ineligible for the honour of initiation, but the difficulty was overcome by Eumolpus, who was desirous of including in the ranks of the initiated a man of such power and eminence as Hercules, foreigner though he might be. The three were first made citizens, and then as a preliminary to the initiation ceremony as prescribed by the goddess, Eumolpus instituted the Lesser Mysteries, which then and afterwards became a ceremony preliminary to the Greater Mysteries, as they then became known, for candidates of alien birth. In later times this Lesser Festival, celebrated in the month of Anthesterion at the beginning of spring, at Agra, became a general preparation for the Greater Festival, and no persons were initiated into the Greater Mysteries until they had first been initiated into the Lesser. |~|
“The Festival of the Greater Mysteries — and this was, of course, by far the more important — began on the 15th of the month of Boedromion, corresponding roughly with the month of September, and lasted until the 23rd of the same month. During that time it was unlawful to arrest any man present, or present any petition except for offences committed at the Festival, heavy penalties being inflicted for breaches of this law, the penalties fixed being a fine of not less than a thousand drachmas, and some assert that transgressors were even put to death. |~|
Lesser Mysteries Rituals
Dudley Wright wrote: “Scarcely anything is known of the programme observed during the course of the Lesser Mysteries. They were celebrated on the 19th to 21st of the month Anthesterion, and, like the Greater Mysteries, were preceded and followed by a truce on the part of all engaged in warfare. The same officials presided at both celebrations. The Lesser Mysteries opened with a sacrifice to Demeter and Persephone, a portion of the victims offered being reserved for the members of the sacred families of Eumolpus and Keryce. The main object of the Lesser Mysteries was to put the candidates for initiation in a condition of ritual purification, and, according to Clement of Alexandria, they included certain instructions and preparations for the Greater Mysteries. Like the Eleusinian Mysteries, properly so called, they included dramatic representations of the rape of Persephone and the wanderings of Demeter; in addition, according to Stephen Byzantium, to certain Dionysian representations. [Source: “The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright (1868-1949), Theosophical Publishing House. 1919, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.net, |~|]
“Two months before the full moon of the month of Boedromion, sphondophoroi or heralds, selected from the priestly families of the Eumolpides and Keryces, went forth to announce the forthcoming celebration of the Greater Mysteries, and to claim an armistice on the part of all who might be waging war. The truce commenced on the 15th of the month preceding the celebration of the Mysteries and lasted until the 10th day of the month following the celebration. In order to be valid the truce had to be proclaimed in and accepted by each Hellenic city. |~|
“The sacred symbols used in the ceremonies were enclosed in a special chamber in the Telestrion, or Hall of Initiation, known as the Anactoron, into which the hierophant alone had the right to penetrate. During the celebration of the Mysteries they were carried to Athens veiled and hidden from the gaze of the profane, whence they were taken back to Eleusis. It was permitted only to the initiated to look upon these "hiera," as they were called. These sacred objects were in the charge of the Eumolpides family. |~|
“Written descriptions, however graphic or eloquent, convey but a faint impression of the wonderful scenes that were enacted; Aristides says that what was seen rivalled anything that was heard. Another writer has declared: "Many a wondrous sight may be seen and not a few tales of wonder may be heard in Greece; but there is nothing on which the blessing of God rests in so full a measure as the rites of Eleusis and the Olympic games." For nine centuries — that period of time being divided almost equally between the pre-Christian and Christian eras — they were the Palladium of Greek Paganism. In the latter part of their history, when the restrictions as to admission began to be relaxed, and in proportion to that relaxation, their essential religious character disappeared, they became but a ceremony, their splendour being their principal attraction, until finally they degenerated into a mere superstition. Julian strived in vain to infuse new life into the vanishing cult, but it was too late — the Eleusinian Mysteries were dead.” |~|
First Day of the Greater Mysteries
Dudley Wright wrote: “The following is the programme of the "Greater Mysteries," which extended over a period of ten days. The various functions were characterized by the greatest possible solemnity and decorum, and the ceremonies were regarded as "religious" in the highest interpretation of that term. [Source: “The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright (1868-1949), Theosophical Publishing House. 1919, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.net, |~|]
“FIRST DAY. — The first day was known as the "Gathering," or the "Assembly," when all who had passed through the Lesser Mysteries assembled to assist in the celebration of the Greater Mysteries. On this day the Archon Basileus presided over all the cults of the city, and assembled the people at a place known as the Poikile Stoa. After the Archon Basileus, with four assistants, had offered up sacrifices and prayers for the welfare of Greece, the following proclamation was made by the Archon Basileus, wearing his robe of office: — |~|
“"Come, whoever is clean of all pollution and whose soul has not consciousness of sin. Come, whosoever hath lived a life of righteousness and justice. Come all ye who are pure of heart and of hand, and whose speech can be understood. Whosoever hath not clean hands, a pure soul, and an intelligible voice must not assist at the Mysteries." |~|
“The people were then commanded by the hierophant to wash their hands in consecrated water, and the impious were threatened with the punishment set forth in the law if they were discovered, but especially, and this in any case, with the implacable anger of the gods. The hierocceryx then impressed upon all the duty of observing the most rigid secrecy with respect to what they might witness, and bade them to be silent throughout the ceremonies, and not utter even an exclamation. The candidates for initiation assembled outside the temple, each under the guidance and direction of the mystagogue, who repeated these instructions to the candidates. Once within the sacred enclosure all the initiates were subject to a purification by fire ceremonial. All wore regalia special to the occasion. This is evident from the wording of inscriptions which have been discovered, but particulars of the regalia are wanting. We know that extravagant and costly dresses were regarded by Demeter with disfavour, and that it was forbidden to wear such in the temple. Jewellery, gold ornaments, purple-coloured belts, and embroideries were also barred, as were robes and cloths of mixed colours. The hair of women had to fall down loose upon the shoulders, and must not be in plaits or coiled upon the head. No woman was permitted to use cosmetics.” |~|
Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Days of the Greater Mysteries
Dudley Wright wrote: “SECOND DAY. — The second day was known as “Halade Mystæ”, or "To the sea, ye mystæ," from the command which greeted all the initiates to go and purify themselves by washing in the sea, or in the salt water of the two consecrated lakes, called Rheiti, on what was known as "The Sacred Way." The priests had the exclusive right of fishing in these lakes. A procession was formed, in which all joined and made their way to the sea or the lakes, where they bathed and purified themselves. This general purification was akin to that practised to this day by the Jews at the beginning of the Jewish year. The day was consecrated to Saturn, into whose province the soul is said to fall in the course of its descent from the tropic of Cancer. Capella compares Saturn to a river, voluminous, sluggish, and cold. The planet signifies pure intellect, and Pythagoras symbolically called the sea a tear of Saturn. The bathing was preceded by a confession, and the manner in which the bathing was carried out and the number of immersions varied with the degree of guilt which each confessed. [Source: “The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright (1868-1949), Theosophical Publishing House. 1919, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.net, |~|]
“According to Suidas, those who had to purify themselves from murder plunged into salt water on two separate occasions, immersing themselves seven times on each occasion. On returning from the bath all were regarded as "new creatures," the bath being regarded as a laver of regeneration, and the initiates were clothed in a plain fawn-skin or a sheep-skin. The purification, however, was not regarded as complete until the following day, when there was added the sprinkling of the blood of a pig sacrificed. Each had carried to the river or lake a little pig, which was also purified by bathing, and on the next day this pig was sacrificed. The pig was offered because it was very pernicious to cornfields. On the Eleusinian coinage the pig, standing on a torch placed horizontally, appears as the sign and symbol of the Mysteries. On this day also some of the initiated submitted to a special purification near the altar of Zeus Mellichios on the Sacred Way. For each person whom it was desired to purify an ox was sacrificed to Zeus Mellichios, the infernal Zeus, the skin of the animal was laid on the ground by the dadouchos, and the one who was the object of the lustration remained there squatting on the left foot. |~|
“THIRD DAY. — On the third day pleasures of every description, even the most innocent, were strictly forbidden, and every one fasted till nightfall, when they partook of seed cakes, parched corn, salt, pomegranates, and sacred wine mixed with milk and honey. The Archon Basileus, assisted again by the four epimeletæ, celebrated, in the presence of representatives from the allied cities, the great sacrifice of the Soteria for the well-being of the State, the Athenian citizens, and their wives and children. This ceremony took place in the Eleusinion at the foot of the Acropolis. The day was known as the Day of Mourning, and was supposed to commemorate Demeter's grief at the loss of Persephone. The sacrifices offered consisted chiefly of a mullet and of barley out of Rharium, a field of Eleusis. The oblations were accounted so sacred that the priests themselves were not permitted, as was usual in other offerings, to partake of them. At the conclusion of the general ceremony each one individually sacrificed the little pig purified in the sea the night before. |~|
“The hog of propitiation offered to Frey was a solemn sacrifice in the North of Europe and in Sweden, down to modern times, the custom has been preserved by baking, on Christmas Eve, a loaf or cake in the form of a hog. |~|
“FOURTH DAY. — The principal event of the fourth day was a solemn procession, when the holy basket of Ceres (Demeter) was carried in a consecrated cart, the crowds of people shouting as it went along, "Hail, Ceres!" The rear end of the procession was composed of women carrying baskets containing sesamin, carded wool, grains of salt, corn, pomegranates, reeds, ivy boughs, cakes known as poppies, and sometimes serpents. One kind of these cakes was known as "ox-cakes"; they were made with little horns and dedicated to the moon. Another kind contained poppy seeds. Poppy was used in the ceremonies because it was said that some grains of poppy were given to Demeter upon her arrival in Greece to induce sleep, which she had not enjoyed from the time of the abduction of Persephone. Demeter is invariably represented in her statues as being very rotund, crowned with ears of corn, and holding in her hand a branch of poppy. |~|
“FIFTH DAY. — The fifth day was known as the Day of Torches, from the fact that at nightfall all the initiates walked in pairs round the temple of Demeter at Eleusis, the dadouchos himself leading the procession. The torches were waved about and changed from hand to hand, to represent the wanderings of the goddess in search of her daughter when she was conducted by the light of a torch kindled in the flames of Etna.” |~|
Sixth Day of the Greater Mysteries
“SIXTH DAY. — Iacchos was the name given to the sixth day of the Festival. The "fair young god," Iacchos, or Dionysos, or Bacchus, was the son of Jupiter and Ceres, and accompanied the goddess in her search for Persephone. He also carried a torch, hence his statue has always a torch in the hand. This statue, together with other sacred objects, were taken from the Iacchion, the sanctuary of Iacchos in Athens, mounted on a heavy rustic four-wheeled chariot drawn by bulls, and, accompanied by the Iacchogogue and other magistrates nominated for the occasion, conveyed from the Kerameikos, or Potter's Quarter, to Eleusis by the Sacred Way in solemn procession. It was on this day that the solemnity of the ceremonial reached its height. The statue, as well as the people accompanying it, were crowned with myrtle, the people dancing all the way along the route, beating brass kettles and playing instruments of various kinds and singing sacred songs. [Source: “The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright (1868-1949), Theosophical Publishing House. 1919, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.net, |~|]
“Halts were made during the procession at various shrines, at the site of the house of Phytalus, who, it was said, received the goddess into his house, and, according to an inscription on his tomb, she requited him by revealing to him the culture of the fig; particularly at a fig-tree which was regarded as sacred, because it had the renown of being planted by Phytalus; also upon a bridge built over the river Cephissus, by the side of which Pluto descended into Hades with Persephone, where the bystanders made themselves merry at the expense of the pilgrims. At each of the shrines sacrifices and libations were offered, hymns sung, and sacred dances performed. Having passed the bridge, the people entered Eleusis by what was known as the Mystical Entrance. Midnight had set in before Eleusis was reached, so that a great part of the journey had to be accomplished by the light of the torches carried by each of the pilgrims, and the nocturnal journey was spoken of as the "Night of Torches" by many ancient authors. The pitch and resin of which the torches were composed were substances supposed to have the virtue of warding off evil spirits. |~|
“The barren mountains of the Pass of Daphni and the surface of the sea resounded with the chant, "Iacchos, O Iacchos!" At one of the halts the Croconians, descendants of the hero Crocon, who had formerly reigned over the Thriasian Plain, fastened a saffron band on the right arm and left foot of each one in the procession. Iacchos was always regarded as a child of Demeter, inasmuch as the vine grows out of the earth. Various symbols were carried by the people, who numbered sometimes as many as from thirty to forty thousand. These symbols consisted of winnowing fans — the "Mystic Fan of Iacchos," plaited reeds and baskets, both relating to the worship of the goddess and her son. The fan, or van, as it was sometimes called, was the instrument that separates the wheat from the chaff, and was regarded also as an emblem of the power which separates the virtuous from the wicked. In the ancient paintings by Bellori two persons are represented as standing by the side of the initiate. One is the priest who is performing the ceremony, who is represented as in a devout posture, and wearing a veil, the old mark of devotion, while another is holding a fan over the head of the candidate. In some of the editions of Southey's translation of the “Æneid” the following lines appear:
Now learn what arms industrious peasants wield
To sow the furrow's glebe, and clothe the field:
The share, the crooked plough's strong beam, the wain
That slowly rolls on Ceres to her fane:
Hails, sleds, light osiers, and the harrow's load,
The hurdle, and “the mystic van of God.” |~|
“The distance covered by the procession was twenty-two kilometres, but Lycurgus ordered that if any woman should ride in a chariot to Eleusis she should be mulcted in a fine of 8,000 drachmas. This was to prevent the richer women from distinguishing themselves from their poorer sisters. Strange to relate, the wife of Lycurgus was the first to break this law, and Lycurgus himself had to pay the fine which he had ordained. He not only paid the penalty, but gave a talent to the informer. Immediately upon the deposit of the sacred objects in the Eleusinion, at the foot of the Acropolis, one of the Eleusinian priests solemnly announced their arrival to the priestess of the tutelary goddess of Athens — Pallas Athene. Plutarch, in commenting upon lucky and unlucky days, says that he is aware that unlucky things happen sometimes on lucky days, for the Athenians had to receive a Macedonian garrison "even on the 20th of Boedromion, the day on which they led forth the mystic Iacchos."” |~|
Seventh Day of the Greater Mysteries
Dudley Wright wrote: “SEVENTH DAY. — On the seventh day the statue was carried back to Athens. The return journey was also a solemn procession, and attended with numerous ceremonies. Halts were again made at several places, like the "stations" of Roman Catholic pilgrimages, when the inhabitants also fell temporarily into line with the procession. For those who remained behind at Eleusis the time was devoted to sports, the combatants appearing naked, and the victors were rewarded with a measure of barley, it being a tradition that that grain was first sown in Eleusis. It was also regarded as a day of solemn preparation by those who were to be initiated on the following night. The return journey was conducted with the same splendour as the outward journey. It comprised comic incidents, the same as on the previous day. Those who awaited the procession at the bridge over the Athenian river Cephisson exchanged all kinds of chaff and buffoonery with those who were in the procession, indulging in what was termed "bridge fooling." These jests, it is said, were to recall the tactful measures employed by a maidservant named Iambe to rouse Demeter from her prolonged sorrowing. There is a strange contradiction in the various statements made by the ancient writers as to what was permissible and what was forbidden during the ceremonies. Demeter, when in search of her daughter, broke down with fatigue at Eleusis, where she sat down on a well, overwhelmed with grief. [Source: “The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright (1868-1949), Theosophical Publishing House. 1919, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.net, |~|]
It was strictly forbidden to any of the initiated to sit down on this well lest it should appear that they were mimicking the weeping goddess. Yet the mimicking of the jests of Iambe were part of the ceremonial of the Mysteries. According to the ancient writers the "jests," so-called, would be regarded to-day as in bad taste.
Having thus spoken, she drew aside her garments
And showed all that shape of the body which it is
improper to name — the growth of puberty.
And with her own hand Iambe stripped herself under the breasts.
Blandly then the goddess laughed and laughed in her mind,
And received the glancing cup in which was the draught. |~|
“During the Peloponnesian war the Athenians were unable to obtain an armistice from the Lacedæmonians who held Decelea, and it became necessary to send the statue of Iacchos and the processionists to Eleusis by sea. Plutarch says: "Under these conditions it was necessary to omit the sacrifices usually offered all along the road during the passing of Iacchos."” |~|
Eighth Day of the Greater Mysteries
Dudley Wright wrote: “EIGHTH DAY. — The eighth day was called Epidaurion, because it happened once that Æsculapius, coming from Epidaurius to Athens, desired to be initiated, and had the Lesser Mysteries repeated for that purpose. It therefore became customary to celebrate the Lesser Mysteries a second time upon this day, and to admit to initiation any such approved candidates who had not already enjoyed the privilege. There was also another reason for the repetition of the initiatory rites then. The eighth day was regarded as symbolical of the soul falling into the lunar orbi, and the repeated initiation, the second celebration of that sacred rite, was symbolical of the soul bidding adieu to everything of a celestial nature, sinking into a perfect oblivion of her divine origin and pristine felicity, and rushing profoundly into the region of dissimilitude, ignorance, and error. [Source: “The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright (1868-1949), Theosophical Publishing House. 1919, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.net, |~|]
“The day opened with a solemn sacrifice offered to Demeter and Persephone, which took place within the peribolus. The utmost precision had to be observed in offering this sacrifice as regarding the age, colour, and sex of the victim, the chants, perfumes, and libations. The acceptance or rejection of a sacrifice was indicated by the movements of the animal as it approached the altar, the vivacity of the flame, the direction of the smoke, etc. If these signs were not favourable in the case of the first victim offered, other animals must be slain until one presented itself in which all the signs were favourable. The flesh of the animal offered was not allowed to be taken outside the sacred precincts, but had to be consumed within the building.
The following is said to have been an Invocation used during the celebration of the Mysteries:
Daughter of Jove, Persephone divine,
Come, blessed queen, and to these rites incline;
Only-begotten, Pluto's honoured wife,
O venerable goddess, source of life:
'Tis thine in earth's profoundities to dwell,
Fast by the wide and dismal gates of hell.
Jove's holy offering, of a beauteous mien,
Avenging goddess, subterranean queen.
The Furies' source, fair-hair'd, whose frame proceeds
From Jove's ineffable and secret seeds.
Mother of Bacchus, sonorous, divine,
And many form'd, the parent of the vine.
Associate of the Seasons, essence bright,
All-ruling virgin, bearing heav'nly light.
With fruits abounding, of a bounteous mind,
Horn'd, and alone desir'd by those of mortal kind.
O vernal queen, whom grassy plains delight,
Sweet to the smell, and pleasing to the sight:
Whose holy forms in budding fruits we view,
Earth's vig'rous offspring of a various hue:
Espous'd in autumn, life and death alone
To wretched mortals from thy pow'r is known:
For thine the task, according to thy will,
Life to produce, and all that lives to kill.
Hear, blessed Goddess, send a rich increase
Of various fruits from earth, with lovely Peace;
Send Health with gentle hand, and crown my life
With blest abundance, free from noisy strife;
Last in extreme old age the prey of death,
Dismiss me willing to the realms beneath,
To thy fair palace and the blissful plains
Where happy spirits dwell, and Pluto reigns.” |~|
Ninth and Tenth Days of the Greater Mysteries
Dudley Wright wrote: “NINTH DAY. — The ninth day was known as the Day of Earthen Vessels, because it was the custom on that day to fill two jugs with wine. One was placed towards the East and the other towards the West, and after the repetition of certain mystical formulæ both were overthrown, the wine being spilt upon the ground as a libation. The first of these formulæ was directed towards the sky as a prayer for rain, and the second to the earth as a prayer for fertility. The words used by the hierophant to denote the termination of the celebration of the Mysteries-“Conx Om Pax”: "Watch and do no evil" — are said to have been Egyptian, and were the same as those used at the conclusion of the Mysteries of Isis. This fact is sometimes used as an argument in favour of the Egyptian origin of the Eleusinian Mysteries. [Source: “The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright (1868-1949), Theosophical Publishing House. 1919, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.net, |~|]
“TENTH DAY. — On the tenth day the majority of the people returned to their homes, with the exception of every third and fifth year, when they remained behind for the Mystery Plays and Sports, which lasted from two to three days. |~|
“The Eleusinian Games are described by the rhetorician Aristides as the oldest of all Greek games. They are supposed to have been instituted as a thank-offering to Demeter and Persephone at the conclusion of the corn harvest. From an inscription dating from the latter part of the third century B.C. sacrifices were offered to Demeter and Persephone at these games. They included athletic and musical contests, a horse race, and a competition which bore the name of the Ancestral or the Hereditary Contest, the nature of which is not known, but which it is thought may have had its origin in a contest between the reapers on the sacred Rharian plain to see which should first complete his allotted task. |~|
“The ancient sanctuary in which the Mysteries were celebrated was burnt by the Persians in 480 or 479 B.C., and a new sanctuary was built — or, at least, begun — under the administration of Pericles. Plutarch says that Corcebus began the Temple of Initiation at Eleusis, but only lived to finish the lower rank of columns with their architraves; Metagenes, of the ward of Xypete, added the rest of the entablature and the upper row of columns, and that Xenocles of Cholargus built the dome on the top. The long wall, the building of which Socrates says he heard Pericles propose to the people, was undertaken by Callicrates. Cratinus satirized the work as proceeding very slowly:m”Stone upon stone the orator has pil'd/ With swelling words, but words will build no walls.” |~|
“According to some writers the Temple was planned by Tetinus, the architect of the Parthenon, and Pericles was merely the overseer of the building. We are told by Vitruvius that the Temple at Eleusis consisted at first of one cell of vast magnitude, without columns, though it was probable that it was meant to be surrounded in the customary manner; a prostyle, however, only was added, and that not until the time of Demetrius Phalereus, some ages after the original structure was erected. It is probable that the uncommon magnitude of the cell, added to the various and complicated rites of initiation to the Eleusinian Mysteries, of which it was the scene, prevented its being a peristyle, the expense of which would have been enormous. The Temple was one of the largest of the sacred edifices of Greece. Its length was 68 metres, its breadth 54,66 metres and its superficial area 3716,88 square metres. The monumental altar of sacrifice was placed in front of the facade, close by the eastern angle of the enclosure. According to Virgil the words "Far hence, O be ye far hence, ye profane ones," were inscribed over the main portal. |~|
“In the fourth century of the Christian era the Temple of Eleusis was destroyed by the Goths, at the instigation of the monks, who followed the hosts of Alaric. The revenues from the celebrations must have been considerable. At both the Lesser Mysteries and the Greater Mysteries a charge of one obole a day was demanded from each one attending, which was given to the hierophant. The hierocceryx received a half-obole a day, and other assistants a similar sum. In current coinage an obole was of the value of a fraction over 1 1/4d.” |~|
Second Degree Initiation Ceremony at the Greater Mysteries Festival
Dudley Wright wrote: “Admission to the second degree took place during the night between the sixth and seventh days of the celebration of the Mysteries, the candidates being led blindfolded into the temple and the ceremony opened with prayers and sacrifices by the second Archon. The candidates were crowned with myrtle wreaths, and, on entering the building, they purified themselves in a formal manner by immersing their hands in the consecrated water. Salt, laurel-leaves, barley, and crowns of flowers were also employed in the purification. The priests, vested in their sacerdotal garments, then came forward to receive the candidates. This initial ceremony took place in the outer hall of the temple, the temple itself being closed. [Source: “The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright (1868-1949), Theosophical Publishing House. 1919, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.net, |~|]
“A herald then came forward and uttered the proclamation: "Begone ye profane. Away from here, all ye that are not purified, and whose souls have not been freed from sin." In later years this formulary was changed, and in its stead the herald proclaimed: "If any atheist, or Christian, or Epicurean, is come to spy on the orgies, let him instantly retire, but let those who believe remain and be initiated, with good future." It was the final opportunity for the retirement of any who were not votaries who had by chance entered the precincts: if discovered afterwards the punishment was death. In order to make certain that no intruders remained behind all who were present had to answer certain specified questions. Then all again immersed their hands into the consecrated water and renewed their pledge of secrecy. The candidates for initiation then took off their ordinary garments and put on the skins of young does. This done, the priests wished them joy of all the happiness their initiation would bring them, and then left the candidates alone. Within a few minutes the apartment in which they were was plunged in total darkness. |~| “Lamentations and strange noises were heard; terrific peals of thunder resounded, seemingly shaking the very foundations of the temple; vivid flashes of lightning lit up the darkness, rendering it more terrible, while a more persistent light from a fire displayed fearful forms. Sighs, groans, and cries of pain resounded on all sides, like the shrieks of the condemned in Tartarus. The novitiates were taken hold of by invisible hands, their hair was torn, and they were beaten and thrown to the ground. Then a faint light became visible in the distance and a fearful scene appeared before their eyes. The gates of Tartarus were opened and the abode of the condemned lay before them. They could hear the cries of anguish and the vain regrets of those to whom Paradise was lost for ever. They could, moreover, witness their hopeless remorse: they saw, as well as heard, all the tortures of the condemned. The Furies, armed with relentless scourges and flaming torches, drove the unhappy victims incessantly to and fro, never letting them rest for a moment. |~|
“Meanwhile the loud voice of the hierophant, who represented the judge of the earth, could be heard expounding the meaning of what was passing before them, and warning and threatening the initiates. It may well be imagined that all these fearful scenes were so terrifying that very frequently beads of anguish appeared on the brows of the novices. Howling dogs and even material demons are said actually to have appeared to the initiates before the scene was changed. Proclus, in his “Commentary on Alcibiades”, says: "In the most holy of the Mysteries, before the presence of the god, certain terrestrial demons are hurled forth, which call the attention from undefiled advantages to matter." At length the gates of Tartarus were closed, the scene was suddenly changed, and the innermost sanctuary of the temple lay open before the initiates in dazzling light. In the midst stood the statue of the goddess Demeter brilliantly decked and gleaming with precious stones; heavenly music entranced their souls; a cloudless sky overshadowed them; fragrant perfumes arose; and in the distance the privileged spectators beheld flowering meads, where the blessed danced and amused themselves with innocent games and pastimes.
“Among other writers the scene has been described by Aristophanes in “The Frogs”:-
Heracles: The voyage is a long one. For you will come directly to a very big lake of abysmal depth.
Dionysos: Then how shall I get taken across it?
Heracles: In a little boat just so high: an old man who plies that boat will take you across for a fee of two oboles.
Dionysos: Oh dear! How very powerful those two oboles are all over the world. How did they manage to get here?
Heracles: Theseus brought them. After this you will see serpents and wild beasts in countless numbers and very terrible. Then a great slough and overflowing dung; and in this you'll see lying any one who ever yet at any place wronged his guest or beat his mother, or smote his father's jaw, or swore an oath and foreswore himself.... And next a breathing of flutes shall be wafted around you, and you shall see a very beautiful light, even as in this world, and myrtle groves, and happy choirs of men and women, and a loud clapping of hands.
Dionysos: And who are these people, pray?
Heracles: The initiated. |~|
“It was regarded as permissible to describe certain scenes of the initiation, and this has been done by many writers, but a complete silence was demanded as to the means employed to realize the end, the rites and ceremonies in which the initiate took part, the emblems which were displayed, and the actual words uttered, and the slightest contravention of this rule rendered the offender liable to the strongest possible condemnation and chastisement. |~|
“In the course of the ceremony the hierophant asked the candidates a series of questions, to which written answers had been prepared and committed to memory by the candidates. The holy Mysteries were revealed to them from a book called “Petroma,” a word derived from “petra”, a stone, and so called because the writings were kept between two cemented stones which fitted in to each other. The Pheneatians used to swear by and on the Petroma. The domed top held within it a mask of Demeter which the hierophant wore at the celebration of the Mysteries, or during part of the ceremonial. The garments worn by the initiates during the ceremony were accounted sacred and equal to incantations and charms in their power to avert evils. Consequently they were never cast off until torn and tattered. Nor was it usual, even then, to throw them away, but it was customary to make them into swaddling clothes for children or to consecrate them to Demeter and Persephone.” |~|
Third Degree Initiation Ceremony at the Greater Mysteries Festival
Dudley Wright wrote: “Admission to the third degree took place during the night between the seventh and eighth days of the celebration of the Greater Mysteries. This, the final degree, with the exception of those called to be hierophants, was known as the degree of Epopta. Exactly in what the ceremonial consisted, save in one particular presently to be described, is unknown. Hippolytus is practically the only authority for the main incident of the degree. Certain words and signs were, however, communicated to the initiated which, it was stated, would, when pronounced at the hour of death, ensure the eternal happiness of the soul. [Source: “The Eleusinian Mysteries and Rites’ by Dudley Wright (1868-1949), Theosophical Publishing House. 1919, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.net, |~|]
“The most solemn part of the ceremony was that which has been described by some writers as the hierogamy, or sacred marriage of Zeus and Demeter, although some have erroneously referred to it as the marriage of Pluto and Persephone. During the celebration of the Mysteries the hierophant and hierophantide descended into a cave or deep recess and, after remaining there for a time, they returned to the assembly, surrounded seemingly by flames, and the hierophant, displaying to the gaze of the initiated an ear of corn, exclaimed with a loud voice: "The divine Brimo has given birth to the holy child Brimos: The strong has brought forth strength." The scene was dramatic and symbolical, and there could have been nothing material in the incident. The torches of the multitude were extinguished while the throng above awaited with anxious suspense the return of the priest and priestess from the murky place into which they had descended, for they believed their own salvation to depend upon the result of the mystic congress. The charges brought against the Eleusinian Mysteries of rioting and debauchery during their Grecian history are brought by those who were not permitted to share their honours, or who were prejudiced in favour of some other form of religion. In the opinion of the majority of contemporary writers these charges were wholly gratuitous, and they maintain that the Eleusinian Mysteries produced a sanctity of manners and a cultivation of virtue. They could not, of course, make a man virtuous against his will and Diogenes, when asked to submit to initiation, replied that Pataecion, a notorious robber, had obtained initiation. |~|
“"The Athenians," says Hippolytus, "in the initiation of Eleusis, show to the epoptæ the great, admirable, and most perfect mystery of the epoptæ: an ear of corn gathered in silence." The statement is so clear as to leave no doubt whatever on the subject; indeed, it has never been called into question. The presentation of the ear of corn was regarded as a special, indeed the most important, feature of the Mysteries of Eleusis, and it was reserved for the final degree. Much has been made of this incident by many who can see no beauty in pre-Christian or non-Christian systems of religion, their comments being based mainly on a statement of Gregory Nazianus, who stands almost alone in discerning lewdness in the Eleusinian ceremonial. He says: "It is not in our religion that you will find a seduced Cora, a wandering Demeter, a Keleos, and a Triptolemus appearing with serpents; that Demeter is capable of certain acts and that she permits others. I am really ashamed to throw light on the nocturnal orgies of the initiations. Eleusis knows as well as the witnesses the secret of the spectacle, which is with reason kept so profound."” |~|
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2018