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Eleusinian mysteries

The sacred Eleusinian mysteries of the Greeks date back to the fifth century B.C.E. and were the most popular and influential of the cults. The rites took place in the city of Eleusis, a small community 14 miles west of Athens, but it was the ruler of Athens, together with a specially selected committee, who was in charge of the general management of the annual event. Although the Dionysian and Orphic rites could be celebrated at any time, the Eleusinian rites were held at a fixed time in the early fall after the seeds had been entrusted to the fields, and were conducted by a hereditary priesthood called the Eumolpedie.

Sometime in the month of September, the Eumolpedie removed the Eleusinian holy objects from Eleusis and carried them to the sacred city of Athens, where they were placed in the Eleusinion temple. Three days after the holy relics had been transported, the initiates gathered to hear the exhortations of the priests, who solemnly warned all those who did not consider themselves worthy of initiation to leave at once. Women and even slaves were permitted to join the mysteries of Eleusis, providing that they were either Greeks or Romans, but it was required that all those wishing to be considered as initiates had first undergone the lesser mysteries held in Agrae, a suburb of Athens, six months before. After the rites of purification had been observed, the initiates bathed in the sea and were sprinkled with the blood of pigs as they emerged. A sacrifice was offered to the gods, and a procession began the journey to Eleusis, where, upon the arrival of the priests and the initiates, a midnight feast was celebrated and the new members of the cult were made one with the gods and goddesses by partaking of holy food and drink and enacting the ritual drama.

The Eleusinian drama reenacted the myth of the rape, abduction, and marriage of Kore (Persephone) by Hades, god of the underworld, and her separation from her mother, Demeter, the goddess of grain and vegetation. When, in her despair, Demeter refuses to allow the earth to bear fruit and brings about a time of blight and starvation that threatens to extinguish both humans and the gods, Zeus recalls Persephone from Hades. Filled with joy at the reunion with her daughter, Demeter once again allows the Earth to bear fruit. Persephone, however, will now divide the days of each year between her husband, Hades, in the underworld, and her mother, ensuring a bountiful harvest.

Essentially, the rites imitated the agricultural cycles of planting the seed, nurturing its growth, and harvesting the grain, which, on the symbolical level, represented the birth of the soul, its journey through life, and its death. As the seed of the harvest is planted again and the agricultural cycle is perpetuated, so is the soul harvested by the gods to be resurrected. Membership in the mysteries of Eleusis was undertaken to ensure initiates a happy immortality.

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