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The Eleusinian Mysteries

And I myself will teach my rites, that hereafter you may reverently perform them and so win the favor of my heart.
— Hymn to Demeter, attributed to Homer

This week’s Full Moon was a powerful one in many, many cultures and traditions. In the ancient world, it is the Moon during which the Eleusinian Mysteries were observed.

The Eleusinian Mysteries, held annually in honor of Demeter (whose name literally means spelt wheat mother) and Kore (Persephone), were at one time the most sacred and revered of all the ritual celebrations of ancient Greece. They were instituted in the city of Eleusis, located about 15 miles northwest of Athens, in the heart of the wheat and barley growing region.

The Eleusinian Mysteries specifically honored Demeter as Goddess of Agriculture. She had taught the secrets of growing crops to the people of Eleusis, in return for their kindness to Her when She was in grief after Her daughter Kore (Persephone) had been abducted by Hades.

These rites commemorated the turning of the season, for the Equinox is the beginning of the dark half of the year, the time when Persephone descends to the Underworld, keeping Her vows to Hades. It is also the planting season for winter wheat in the Mediterranean climate, so Demeter’s blessings were crucial to the survival of the people.

The rites possibly date as far back as the early Mycenaean period (circa 1600-1200 BCE), but are echoed in much older Egyptian fertility cult practices. They were observed continuously for almost two thousand years.

During the Classical Age of Greece (in the 400s BCE) the Eleusinian Mysteries were not particularly well known. But in the later Hellenistic Age (300-150 BCE), they became incredibly popular. Thousands of people from all over the Greek world, (and later, from throughout the Roman empire) would gather to make the holy pilgrimage between Eleusis and Athens, and participate in the secret ceremonies.

The only initial requirement to become a mystes (initiate) was that you were not a barbarian (which simply meant that you spoke Greek) and to be without blood guilt. It was open to both men and women, and remarkably, slaves were also allowed into the cult.

Later, as Christianity began to spread, the Mysteries were condemned by the early Church fathers; yet the rites continued for hundreds of years more. And scholars suggest that their influence continues to this day. This is, in part, because, with the value placed on the Demokratia, for the first time in the ancient world, direct religious participation of the masses was allowed and even encouraged.

As a result, the Mysteries created a shift in spiritual values, offering participants a sense of personal salvation, transformation and even dedication to a more monotheistic practice, with Demeter at the center. Whether the early church liked it or not, this legacy has helped to form the Christian doctrine and practice of today.

When she had so said, the Goddess changed Her stature and Her looks, thrusting old age away from Her: beauty spread round about Her and a lovely fragrance was wafted from Her sweet-smelling robes, and from the divine body of the Goddess a light shone afar, while golden tresses spread down over Her shoulders, so that the strong house was filled with brightness as with lightning.
— Hymn to Demeter
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