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Eleusinian Mysteries

Of all the Mysteries of the ancient religions, those celebrated at the Village of Eleusis, near the City of Athens, were the most splendid and the most popular. To them men came, says Cicero, from the remotest regions to be initiated They were also the most ancient, if we may believe Epiphanius, who traces them to the reign of Inachus, more than eighteen hundred years before the Christian era. They were dedicated to the goddess Demeter, the Ceres of the Romans, who was worshiped by the Greeks as the symbol of the prolific earth; and in them severe scenically represented the loss and the recovery of Persephone, and the doctrines of the unity of God and the immortality of the soul were esoterically taught.

The learned Faber believed that there was an intimate connection between the Arkite Worship and the Mysteries of Eleusis; but Faber's theory was that the Arkite Rites, which he traced to almost all the nations of antiquity, symbolized, in the escape of Noah and the renovation of the earth, the doctrines of the resurrection and the immortal life. Plutarch (De Isis et Osiris) says that the travels of Isis in search of Osiris were not different from those of Demeter in search of Persephone; and this view has been adopted by Saint Croix (Mysteres du Paganisme) and by Creuzer (Symbolik und Arkaologie); and hence we may well suppose that the recovery of the former at Byblos, and of the latter in Hades, were both intended to symbolize the restoration of the soul after death to eternal life. The learned have generally admitted that when Virgil, in the sixth book of his Aeneid, depicted the descent of Aeneas into hell, he intended to give a representation of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The Mysteries were divided into two classes, the lesser and the greater. The lesser Mysteries were celebrated on the banks of the Ilissus, whose waters supplied the means of purification of the aspirants. The greater Mysteries were celebrated in the temple at Eleusis. An interval of six months occurred between them, the former taking place in March and the latter in September; which has led some writers to suppose that there was some mystical reference to the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, March 21 and September 22 when the nights and days are equal all over the world. But, considering the character of Demeter as the goddess of Agriculture, it might be imagined, although this is a mere conjecture, that the reference was to seed-time and harvest. A year, however, was required to elapse before the initiate into the lesser Mysteries was granted admission into the greater.

In conducting the Mysteries, there were four officers, namely: 1. The Hierophant, or explainer of the sacred things. As the pontifex maximus in Rome, so he was the chief priest of Attica; he presided over the ceremonies and explained the nature of the Mysteries to the initiated. 2. The Dadouchus, or torch-bearer, who appears to have acted as the immediate assistant of the Hierophant. 3. The Hieroceryx, or sacred herald, who had the general care of the Temple, guarded it from the profanation of the uninitiated, and took charge of the aspirant during the trials of initiation. 4. The Epibomus, or altar-server, who conducted the sacrifices.

The ceremonies of initiation into the lesser Moniteries were altogether purificatory, and intended to prepare the neophyte for his reception into the more sublime rites of the greater Mysteries. This, an ancient poet, quoted by Plutarch, illustrates by saying that sleep is the lesser Mysteries of the death. The candidate who desired to pass through this initiation entered the modest Temple, erected for that purpose on the borders of the Ilissus, and there submitted to the required ablutions, typical of moral purification. The Dadouchus then placed his feet upon the skins of the victims which had been immolated to Jupiter. Hebsychius says that only the left foot was placed on the skins. In this position he was asked if he had eaten bread, and if he was pure; and his replies being satisfactory, he passed through other symbolic ceremonies, the mystical signification of which was given to him, an oath of secrecy having been previously administered. The initiate into the lesser Mysteries was called a mystes, a title which, being derived from a Greek word meaning to shut the eyes, signified that he was yet blind as to the greater truths thereafter to be revealed.

The greater Mysteries lasted for nine days, and were celebrated partly on the Thriasian plain, which surrounded the temple, and partly in the Temple of Eleusis itself. Of this Temple, one of the most magnificent and the largest in Greece, not a vestige is now left. Its antiquity was very great, having been in existence, according to Aristides the rhetorician, when the Dorians marched against Athens. It was burned by the retreating Persians under Xerxes, but immediately rebuilt, and finally destroyed with the city by Alaric, "the Scourge of God," and all that is now left at Eleusis and its spacious Temple is the mere site occupied by the insignificant Greek Village of Lepsina, an evident corruption of the ancient name.

The public processions on the plain and on the sacred way from Athens to Eleusis were made in honor of Demeter and Persephone, and made mystical allusions to events in the life of both, and of the infant Iacchus. These processions were made in the daytime, but the initiation was nocturnal, and was reserved for the nights of the sixth and seventh days.

The herald opened the ceremonies of initiation into the greater Mysteries by the proclamation, xxx, FKaSS Ea7f meaning "Begone, begone, O ye profane. " The old meaning, and of course the Masonic one, of profane is of a person not yet received within the temple, from the words pro meaning before, and fanum, temple. Thus were the sacred precincts tiled.

The aspirant was clothed with the skin of a calf. An oath of secrecy was administered, and he was then asked, "Have you eaten bread?" The reply to which was, "I have fasted; I have drunk the sacred mixture; I have taken it out of the chest; I have spun; I have placed it in the basket, and from the basket laid it in the chest." By this reply, the aspirant showed that he had been duly prepared by initiation into the lesser Mysteries; for Clement of Alexandria says that this formula was a shibboleth, or password, by which the mustae, or initiates, into the lesser Mysteries were known as such, and admitted to the epopteia or greater initiation. The gesture of spinning wool, in imitation of what Demeter did in the time of her affliction, seemed also to be used as a sign of recognition. The aspirant was now clothed in the sacred tunic, and awaited in the vestibule the opening of the doors of the sanctuary.

What subsequently took place must be left in great part to conjecture, although modern writers have availed themselves of all the allusions that are to be found in the ancients. The Temple consisted of three parts: the megaton, or sanctuary, corresponding to the holy place of the Temple of Solomon; the anactoron, or holy of holies, and a subterranean apartment beneath the temple. Each of these was probably occupied at a different portion of the initiation.

The representation of the infernal regions and the punishment of the uninitiated impious was appropriated to the subterranean apartment, and was, as Sylvestre de Sacy says ( Notes to Crozz i, 360) an episode of the drama which represented the adventures of Isis, Osiris, and Typhon, or of Demeter, Persephone, and Pluto. This drama, the same author thinks, represented the carrying away of Persephone, the travels of Demeter in search of her lost daughter her descent into hell; the union of Pluto with Persephone, and was terminated by the return of Demeter into the upper world and the light of day.

The representation of this drama commenced immediately after the profane had been sent from the Temple. And it is easy to understand how the groans and wailings with which the Temple at one time resounded might symbolize the sufferings and the death of man, and the subsequent rejoicings at the return of the goddess might be typical of the joy for the restoration of the soul to eternal life. Others have conjectured that the drama of the Mysteries represented, in the deportation of Persephone to Hades by Pluto, the departure, as it were, of the sun, or the deprivation of its vivific power during the winter months, and her reappearance on earth, the restoration of the prolific sun in summer. Others again tell us that the last act of the Mysteries represented the restoration to life of the murdered Zagreus, or Dionysus, by Demeter. Diodorus says that the members of the Body of Zagreus lacerated by the Titans was represented in the ceremonies of Mysteries, as well as in the Orphic hymns; but he prudently adds that he was not allowed to reveal the details to the uninitiated.

Whatever was the precise method of symbolism, it is evident that the true interpretation was the restoration from death to eternal life, and that the funereal part of the initiation referred to a 1088, and the exultation afterward to a recovery. Hence it was folly to deny the coincidence that exists between this Eleusinian drama and that enacted in the Third Degree of Freemasonry. It is not claimed that the one was the uninterrupted successor of the other, but there must have been a common ideal source for the origin of both. The lesson, the dogma the symbol, and the method of instruction are the same. Waving now, as Pindar says, "descended beneath the hollow earth, and beheld those Mysteries," the initiate ceased to be a mystes, or blind man, and was thenceforth called an epopt, a word signifying he who beholds.

The Eleusinian Mysteries, which, by their splendor, surpassed all contemporary institutions of the kind, were deemed of so much importance as to be taken under the special protection of the state, and to the council of five hundred were entrusted the observance of the ordinances which regulated them. By a law of Solon, the magistrates met every year at the close of the festival, to pass sentence upon any who had violated or transgressed any of the rules which governed the administration of the sacred rites. Any attempt to disclose the esoteric ceremonies of initiation was punished with death. Plutarch tells us (Life of Alctotades) that the votary of pleasure was indicted for sacrilege, because he had imitated the mysteries, and shown them to his companions in the same dress as that worn by the Hierophant; and we get from Livy (xxxi, 14), the following relation:

Two Acarnanian youths, who had not been initiated, accidentally entered the Temple of Demeter during the celebration of the Mysteries. They were soon detected by their absurd questions, and being carried to the managers of the Temple, although it was evident that their intrusion was accidental, they were put to death for so horrible a crime. It is not, therefore, surprising that, in the account of them, we should find such uncertain and even conflicting assertions of the ancient writers, who hesitated to discuss publicly so forbidden a subject. The qualifications for initiation were maturity of age and purity of life. Such was the theory, although in practice these qualifications were not always rigidly recorded. But the early doctrine was that none but the pure, morally and ceremonially, could be admitted to initiation. At first, too, the right of admission was restricted to natives of Greece; but even in the time of Herodotus this law was dispensed with, and the citizens of all countries were considered eligible. So in time these Mysteries were extended beyond the limits of Greece, and in the days of the Empire they were introduced into Rome, where they became exceedingly popular. The scenic representations, the participation in secret signs and words of recognition, the instruction in a peculiar dogma, and the establishment of a hidden bond of fraternity, gave attraction to these Mysteries, which lasted until the very fall of the Roman Empire, and exerted a powerful influence on the mystical associations of the Middle Ages. The bond of union which connects them with the modern initiations of Freemasonry is evident in the common thought which pervades and identifies both, though it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to trace all the connecting links of the historic chain. We see the beginning and we see the end of one pervading idea. For a general discussion and study of theory consult Brother Goblet d'Alviella's Eleusinia.

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