THE Mysteries at Eleusis have been the mystery of the ages, and of all the numerous and varied solutions offered by antiquarian, philosopher, or commentator, no one theory has ever obtained complete and universal acceptance. What were these rites themselves? What was their purpose? What was the secret of their almost incalculable influence in the magic and enchanted period of the Hellenic world? Can the story so invested with myth and legend and rhapsody, so often presented only in the language of symbolism, so transformed into poetic and religious romance, be re-told in the language of the twentieth century, with any hope of rendering it clear and comprehensible, without losing its alluring charm of spiritual mystery, and divesting it of that atmosphere through which alone its images are visible? For that these rites were a factor of immeasurable importance in the Athenian life from some period of remote and shrouded antiquity down to the end of the fourth century before the Christian era is established beyond all controversy. The Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated with the utmost ceremonial splendor. Invested with mystic enchantment is the picture that, by some inherent magic of its own, is still visible to the eye of the spirit, of that procession of initiates setting forth in the brilliant sunshine of an early September morning from the old Dipylon Gate, to proceed to Eleusis, twelve miles distant, along the Sacred Way, which was lined with spectators. The significance of their progress was accentuated by vast crowds that then, as now, attended on any great enterprise. The procession was composed of men and women, youths and maidens of varying degrees (known as the ephebi), the priests, the mystics, and official torch-bearers, each carrying in his hand a sprig of thyrsus. The route to Eleusis was almost lined with sculptured tombs and funeral urns. The road led over the Cephissus, past the olive groves of Plato’s academy, through a deep gorge whose solemn shades blended with the serious character of the procession, and on through the narrow pass of Daphne which divides the Cephissus from the Thracian plain. This pass of Daphne so completely separates Athens and Eleusis as to make the distance seem much greater than it is in reality. On and on the procession went, past the romantic convent of Daphne, lingering on the way only at the way-side temple of Apollo, where a chorus of voices arose, singing hymns, and many of the initiate engaged in dances in honor of the god. In the Frogs of Aristophanes are given some of these choral songs, of which these lines, from the translation of Rogers, are typical:
“O happy mystic chorus, The blessed sunshine o’er us On us alone is smiling, In its soft, sweet light; On us who strive forever With holy, pure endeavor, Alike by friend and stranger To guide our steps aright.”
“To what,” questions Professor Mahaffy, “did the Eleusinian Mysteries owe their transcendent character? It was not because men here worshiped exceptional gods, for the worship of Demeter was an old and widely diffused cult all over Greece; and there were other Eleusinia in various places. It was not because the ceremony consisted of mysteries, of hidden acts and words, which it was impious to reveal, and which the initiated alone might know. Nay, even within the ordinary homes of the Greeks there were these Mysteries. Neither was it because of the splendor of the Temple and its appointments, which never equaled the Panathenaea at the Parthenon, or the riches of Delphi, or Olympia.” In reply to this speculation, Dr. Mahaffy believes that the sole cause of the pre-eminent place in Greek life of the rites celebrated at Eleusis was that they inculcated a faith of a hopeful and sustaining nature in the life to come after death. “This faith,” he continues, “was taught them in the Mysteries through symbols, through prayer and fasting, through wild rejoicings; but, as Aristotle expressly tells us, it was reached, not by intellectual persuasion, but by a change into a new moral state, in fact that of being spiritually revived.” This conviction of the learned and the most eminent contemporary interpreter of the life of the ancient Greeks is supported by many declarations of Cicero, who was himself an initiate. “Much that is excellent and divine does Athens seem to me to have produced and added to our life,” declares Cicero, “but nothing better than those Mysteries, by which we are formed and moulded from a rude and savage life to humanity; and indeed in the Mysteries we perceive the real principles of life, and learn not only to live happily, but to die with a fairer hope.” The conviction of Cicero is also shared and affirmed by a galaxy of the noblest writers and thinkers of Greece, Plato, Sophocles, Pindar, Aristophanes, Isocrates, and others; and all this testimony is again reinforced by the Homeric hymn, until practically the poet, the philosopher, the eloquent orator, both the religious and the doubter of religion, concur in their opinion regarding this remarkable ceremony.
The temple of the Mysteries occupied a commanding position on a high plateau above the beautiful Bay of Eleusis, and is said to have been able to hold thirty thousand people. The portico was adorned by twelve Doric columns, and two wide portals led into the interior, which, according to the custom of the Greeks, was quarried out of the solid rock of the Acropolis of Eleusis. This interior was nearly one hundred and eighty feet long and only ten feet less in width, and the roof was supported by forty-two magnificent columns, divided into six rows. Within recent years the Archaeological Society of Athens has excavated the foundations and pavement of this great sanctuary of Eleusis, which is said to offer more problems to architects and archaeologists than are likely to be solved in any immediate present. The Russian savant, M. Ouvaroff, in his Essai sur les My-stères d’Eleusis, first published in Paris in 1816, and which has continued to hold its place as the most authoritative modern exposition of these strange rites, asserts his conviction that “among all the institutions which have been denominated Mysteries, those of Eleusis hold the highest rank, equally imposing from their origin and their results.” M. Ouvaroff discusses them as the religious ideas that formed the mysticism of polytheism; as equally important from the probability that their origin was the very cradle of the moral and religious ideas of the universe, and he accepts the declaration of Pausanias that “the Chaldeans and the Magi are the first who pronounced the soul to be immortal; from them the Greeks learned their doctrine, and above all Plato, the son of Ariosto.” From the Orient to Egypt, from Egypt to Greece, he believes the origin is to be traced. “The Mysteries of Eleusis were divided,” continues the writer, “into two parts; the one esoteric, the other exoteric; and these two parts were the greater and the lesser Mysteries.”
The picture of the procession starting from the old Dipylon Gate is one that persists through the ages. Men bearing olive branches, the youths with chaplets, maidens bearing holy vessels, voices chanting the Homeric hymn to Demeter; arriving at Eleusis in the darkness of the evening; each devotee bearing a flaming torch, whose light streamed through the woodlands as they wound their way along the romantic shores of the bay. The journey was preceded by special preparations. Only the initiate were permitted to take part in these ceremonies, and four days before setting out they held an assembly in Athens; the next day all the youths and maidens, and the old men and women, bathed in the sea; the day after was kept strictly as a fast, and on the day preceding the journey they offered sacrifice. Thus, translating their observances into the terms of the Christian religion, it is seen how the great essentials, fasting and prayer, which the Church has ever held as all-important, were the keynotes of preparation for the Eleusinian rites. Dr. Anna Kingsford, the priestess of a cult of mystics that was prominent in London in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, and who herself had a curiously recognizable likeness to much that is associated with the early manifestations of religion in Greece, writing of the Eleusinian Mysteries, said :
“. . . Venus, or Aphrodite, is celestial harmony, that binding power of sympathy that enlightens. Air, Pallas, is the offspring of Ether, or original substance, which is universally diffused and penetrates everywhere. The soul, Persephone, is the daughter of Demeter (earth, or motion) and of Ether (Zeus, or rest), representing, respectively, the visible and the invisible.”
The significance of these Mysteries seems, perhaps, to have been to show the relation of the soul to the elements by which it is beset. The gods of the elements were Athena (the air), Poseidon – (the water), Hephaistos (fire), and Demeter (the earth). One of the aims was to gain “four excellent things:” Knowledge, that comes by labor; Courage, which is gained by Faith; Will, which is the fruit of Energy; and Wisdom, the Fruition of all.”
In the Exhortation to Hermes we find:
“Therefore I would have you armed both with a perfect philosophy and with the power of the divine life.
“And first the knowledge; that you and they who hear you may know the reason of the faith which is in you.
“But knowledge cannot prevail alone, and ye are not yet perfected.
“When the fullness of the time shall come, I will add unto you the power of the divine life.
“It is the life of contemplation, of fasting, of obedience, and of resistance.
“And afterwards the chrism, the power, and the glory. But these are not yet.”
It would be claiming far too much to affirm that the Mysteries of Eleusis were wholly a spiritual rite, in the sense of modern under-standing of spiritual enlightenment; yet, as Dr. Kingsford said, in her address to the British Theosophical Society in 1883:
“Greek, Hermetic, Buddhist, Vedantist, Christian all these Lodges of the Mysteries are fundamentally one and identical in doctrine….”
It was, indeed, inclusively speaking, the vast and far-reaching problem of idealism that inspired the symbolic rites at Eleusis. There are two degrees of initiation: the first, that of turning away from the external, the things of the sense; the second, that which enters into the innermost truth of the spirit, and realizes that in the knowledge of the divine is eternal life. “And this is life eternal, to know Thee, the only true God.” There is something in humanity, something that is revealed to the Greeks of twenty-five hundred years ago and to all the nations of the earth to-day, that intuitively and universally responds to the command of Jesus, the Christ, when He said: “Be ye there-fore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Remote as an individual or as a nation may be from even an approach to the fulfillment of this sublime ideal, it is nevertheless implanted in the soul. Every rite in the Mysteries of Eleusis was symbolic. The hierophant, the priest who presided, must be a celibate, must strictly fast on certain appointed dates, and must devote his life to the office. The first initiations of the Eleusinia were known as terminations, “denoting that the rudimentary period of life was ended, and that the candidate was a mysta, or liberated person. The Greater Mysteries completed this liberation and carried him on to development. . . .” The soul was believed to be of a two-fold nature, linked on one side to the eternal world, emanating from God, and partaking of the divine nature; on the other, allied to the phenomenal and external world: thus was she under bondage to evil until she had overcome all evil. She was * subject to the two influences, now exalted, now debased, dwelling in” the physical body as in a prison. In this state the earth-life was a dream rather than a reality. Yet even in this condition, the soul was held to have unquenched longings for a nobler life, and affinities indestructible for the eternal and divine. “All men yearn after God,” said Homer. Plato declared that there are innate in the soul certain ideas, or principles, which are not derived from without, but are anterior to all experience and are developed and brought to view but not produced by experience. These ideas are the most vital of all truths; and the purpose of instruction and discipline is to make the individual conscious of them and willing to be led and inspired by them. The soul is purified or separated from evils by knowledge, truth, expiation, sufferings, and prayers. Our life is a discipline and preparation for another state of being; and resemblance to God is the highest motive of action.
There are several versions of the details of the Mysteries, almost every historian and commentator holding some favorite one of his own, deduced from acquaintance with such ancient manuscripts as still exist. No two of these commentators seem to be in entire agreement, although Professor Mahaffy says that all the serious authorities agree in one respect : that “the doctrine taught in the Mysteries was a faith which revealed to them hopeful things about the world to come; and which, not so much as a condition but as a consequence of this clearer light, this higher faith, made them better citizens and better men.”
The dramatic story of Demeter and Persephone was held as the legend typical of the experiences and the development of the soul, and it is this story which was the foundation of all the rites and ceremonies celebrated under the name of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Briefly told, the belief embodied a conception of which the main outlines are something as follows : the soul and the spirit were not held as identical terms; the spirit being breathed into man by the divine, while the soul was believed to be generated by the polarization of astral elements. The soul was, indeed, regarded rather as the envelope of the spirit: as its body, so to speak, inseparable from it. Thus, containing the spirit, it passed into and through many mortal bodies, which were used as the vehicle for gaining experience, and which, after serving this temporal purpose, were discarded. This theory, indeed, differs little from that of the Theosophical belief somewhat widely held and discussed at the present time. In the Mysteries, the soul was defined as the divine idea. Its primal existence was in the mind of God. But spirit, says an ancient authority on Mysticism, “being the substance of all things, is in all things; but does not become the Spirit until, from being diffuse and abstract, it becomes, by polarisation, concentrate and formulate, from heat becoming flame.”
The story of Persephone presents the conception of God under two methods : one as the contemplative and passive; the other that of force and activity. One condition is thus dynamic, the other static. Out of the latter arises a movement that produces ether, in which every atom of the universe moves; but this activity is held to be the production of matter, and the greater the activity, the more material is the life. To counteract this materiality was that quietude, in which, as asserted in the Bible, “shall be your strength,” and Demeter was conceived as the being representing this tranquillity. Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Ether, the link between the spiritual and the material. Demeter was hailed as the “Earth-Mother,” and as the “angel of the crucible.” The descent of Persephone into Hades is the allegory of the spirit of man incarnating in a physical body. And the story further runs that Persephone, belonging to the two worlds, passed half her time in Hades and half on Olympus. But from a sin she be-came chained and imprisoned in the lower world, from which her mother Demeter sought in vain to release her. This sin was the following of her own will.
It is easy to understand the fascination of this legend, replete with mystic significance for both the moralist and the poet. Swinburne pictures Persephone as a maiden with “Her deep hair heavily laden with odor and color of flowers, White rose of the rose-white water, a silver splendor, a flame, Bent down to us who besought her, and earth grew sweet with her name.”
One of the younger American poets, George Edward Woodberry, whose genius has added new luster to the lyric art of his country, has recently published a long poem in which occurs this beautiful stanza to Proserpine (or Persephone, the former name lending its better grace to the muse), which, by Mr. Woodberry’s kind permission, may enrich this chapter on the Mysteries :
“O Proserpine, dream not that thou art gone Far from our lives, half-human, half-divine; Thou hast a holier adoration won In many a heart that worships at no shrine. Where light and warmth behold me, And flower and wheat enfold me, I lift a dearer prayer than all prayers past; He who so loved thee that the live earth clove Before his pathway unto light and love, And took thy flower-full blossom, who at last Shall every blossom cull, Lover the most of what is most our own, The mightiest lover that the world has known, Dark lover, Death, was he not beautiful.”
Eleusis boasts the added fame of being the native city of AEschylus, who was born about 525 B.C., and it thus incites a speculative won-der as to what degree his profound’ spiritual insight and his message of imperishable truth may not have been influenced by the essentially religious character of his surroundings, as the scene of the Eleusinian rites.
When the initiates came into the vast temple of the Mysteries, in Eleusis, they were clad in linen, with golden grasshoppers in the hair, and each one had his head wreathed with myrtle. The actual nature of the rites that took place have never been authoritatively disclosed. The mainspring of all the ceremonies was undoubtedly the Greek consciousness of both the visible and the invisible worlds; to them, these worlds were closely interwoven; they contemplated all life from the standpoint of its existence in surroundings of spiritual meaning. This conception is made clear by Aristotle, and it pervades, indeed, in more or less definite form, all the philosophy of the Greeks. Their struggle was always for a reconciliation between the spiritual and the material; between the inner and the outer life. There is evident the perpetual longing to realize the conditions of Eternity, as so clearly revealed by Plato, and the ever unsuccessful effort to reconcile phenomena and experience.
One of the most beautiful and significant of the symbolic rites at Eleusis was that of passing on the light from one torch to another, each torch being lighted from the burning one that preceded it in the procession, thus portraying the transmission of knowledge from one generation and one century to the succeeding one. To the Greeks the attainment of the higher life was the persistent ideal, and all their art, in its varied forms of sculpture, poetry, and drama, had this fundamental idea as the supreme lesson, the all-important message, to be impressed upon the mind. In the light of this spirit the ceremonies of the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries are seen contemplated in their true aspect and as an integral factor in all that made for the diviner life as increasingly attained and revealed by the human life. While the nature implanted by God may be stifled and overlaid by the things of the senses, it can never be exterminated. It may be a far cry from the Mysteries of twenty-four hundred years ago in Eleusis to the Christian ideals of today; and still, in the deeper study of the spirit that pervaded these rites, and that sought through them communion with something higher than itself, the words of Phillips Brooks are not inapplicable when he says: “So to the soul that finds in all life new and ever deeper knowledge of God, life is forever accumulating. Every passing event gets a noble value from the assurance that it gives us of God. This is the only real transfiguration of the dusty road, of the monotony and routine of living.” Instead of regarding the, Eleusinian Mysteries as inscrutable rites to whose possible significance we hold no clue, if, indeed, we believe that they possess any significance, they may be regarded as but another revelation of the spiritual nature of man; whose search for immortality has manifested itself in all ages and under the guise of innumerable forms, but which is always in perpetual evidence because he is made in the divine image, and shares the divine nature, and only in the infinite Life can he realize his own potential life as a child of God.