The mystery religions of the ancient world are a fascinating subject. While most worship in public temples at the time focused more on action than emotion, any ancient Greeks and Romans who wanted a more personal relationship with a god could find a home in the various mystery religions scattered throughout the ancient world. Perhaps the most popular of these mystery religions was dedicated to the goddesses, Demeter and Kore (associated with Persephone), located at Eleusis.
Fairly close to Athens, in the region of Attica, Greece, the community of Eleusis set up a cult to the earth goddesses, Demeter and Kore, in support of the local agriculture. One of the cult’s early functions was to ensure their patron goddesses’ favor for the health of the grain they sowed around September and October. The agricultural cult in Eleusis was founded and controlled by the Eleusinian people until Athens usurped control of the cult around 600 BCE.
As the name ‘mystery religion’ suggests, much of what happened in the cult of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis remains a mystery, for what occurred in the cult was a guarded secret. It is known that they, at least, celebrated two events—the lesser and greater mysteries. The lesser mysteries are thought to have been a preparatory celebration that occurred near Athens around February at a place called Agrai. The much more elaborate greater mysteries occurred during September and October, when the sacred items held by the cult of Demeter and Kore were transported from Eleusis to a temple in Athens. Once they were in the great city, eager initiates into the mysteries of Eleusis were instructed to bathe in seawater. Next, they would sacrifice a pig in honor of their patron goddesses. After the celebrations and ceremonies of the greater mysteries were complete, the cult members and initiates packed up the sacred items of their goddesses and returned to Eleusis, singing and dancing as they went.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts by Marvin W. Meyer. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.