20 September - in Ancient Greece, the climax of the Teletai, the Greater Mysteries of Eleusis, began with the initiates entering the Telestrion where they were shown the sacred relics of Demeter.
“You would peradventure demand (you studious reader) what was said and done there, verely I would tell you if it were lawfull for me to tell, you should know if it were convenient for you to heare, but both thy eares, and my tongue shall incur the like paine of rash curiositie: Howbeit, I will content thy mind for this present time, which peradventure is somewhat religious and given to some devotion, listen therefore and beleeve it to be true: Thou shalt understand that I approached neere unto Hell, even to the gates of Proserpina, and after that, I was ravished throughout all the Element, I returned to my proper place: About midnight I saw the Sun shine, I saw likewise the gods celestiall and gods infernall, before whom I presented my selfe, and worshipped them: Behold now have I told thee, which although thou hast heard, yet it is necessarie thou conceale it; this have I declared without offence, for the understanding of the prophane.” (Apuleius, “The Golden Ass”)
|Henryk Siemiradzki (1843–1902): “Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis“ (1899)|
The ages-old interactive drama of the changing of the seasons, of death and rebirth, that nature acts out with mankind in the Northern Hemisphere from time out of mind manifested itself in many formative myths. The one the Attic Greeks gave their best attention to on a long-term basis was the legend of Demeter, the harvest goddess, whose daughter Persephone was abducted into Hades by the eponymous god of the Underworld and the seasons halted with Demeter’s grief. Searching for Persephone, Demeter came to Eleusis in Attica and taught the son of the local king, one Triptolemos, the secrets of agriculture out of gratitude for taking her in while she wore the guise of an old beggar-woman. When Persephone finally returned to the world of the living and the first spring happened, her return was commemorated with the Minor Mysteries. Since she had to return for one third of the year to Hades, in Winter, mysteries were celebrated in autumn as well since the time of the Mycenaeans, in Eleusis, usually beginning in mid-September.
|Frederic Leighton: "The Return of Persephone" (1891)|
Thousands of men and women, mystes as well as people to be initiated, started out from the Kerameikos in Athens to 12 miles away Eleusis, shouting obscenities to make the goddess laugh, and Iakch' o Iakche! in honour of Dionysus, arriving at the place a day later, fasted until the next sunrise and then drank a potion of barley and pennyroyal, a brew that possibly contained ergot or some other psychoactive substances with effects along the lines of taking LSD. Then the initiates entered the Telestrion and what happened there was indeed classified and a breach of secrecy was punishable by death. And even though there are archaeological findings and some ancient writers had tried to divulge the mysteries, we don’t know exactly what happened there to this day.
|A votive relief from Eleusis showing Demeter to the left, |
handing over wheat sheaves to Triptolemos in
the middle who is blessed by Persephone,
to the right. (5th century BCE, Archaeological Museum, Athens,
found on http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eleusis2.jpg)
The Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated for a span of roughly 2,000 years and had, in contrast to the rest of Ancient Greek society that, by and large, ignored women, foreigners and slaves, astonishingly liberal lineaments – everyone could be initiated – and was – as long as one could speak Greek fluently and did not ran about blabbing about the mysteries. With the continuous claim of Athens to be the cultural arbiter of everything Greek, the mysteries remained a state affair from 300 BCE until the Romans took over and finally ended when Emperor Theodosius forbade everything non-Christian in the empire in 392 CE, Julian the Apostate was the last prominent initiate, and when the Visigoths under King Alaric sacked the place five years later it was never rebuilt.
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