Eleusis, the Eleusian Mysteries and the Myth of Demeter and Kore - Sept 9
Mystery religions are often a source of appeal as being parallel to Christianity and the roots of some of their ideas. We have already noted Isis and Osiris. Next we note the oldest of these mystery cults with roots in Greece. About a half an hour west of Athens is Elefsina on the Saronic Gulf coast, which was known as Eleusis. Worship took place here since 1350 BC and lasted until the end of the fourth century AD. On the site of Eleusis was a temple that could hold 3000 people during the height of its influence. Here the goddess Demeter was worshipped as one associated with nature's renewal and the health of crops. Here sacred and secret rituals were observed. Included was an annual week long celebration in our month of September/October that involved a procession from Athens to the sacred site. The myth and records of this cult date back to sources that reach back to the 6th century BC, while the story goes back to a period about c. 1350 BC. The myth tied to this movement is agricultural in its roots. Demeter has gone to look for her daughter disguised as an old woman, known as Kore or Persephone, who has been captured by Pluto (or Hades, god of the underworld). The story is when Demeter came to Eleusis, she cared as a nurse for the king's child and tried to turn him into an immortal through rituals of holding him over a fire at night. The king is known as Celeus, while the son's name was Demophon. When the queen (Metaneira) discovered this, she was angry. Demeter confessed who she was and what she was doing. A temple was built to her there. Angry at being thwarted by the gods and man, she brought drought until her daughter was returned and she sojourned through the upper world. Out of this myth, developed secret (mystery) rites that initiated people into the Eleusian cult, which supposedly reinacted the myth. The myth is recounted in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which dates from the seventh to sixth century BC. This mystery involved a multi-year initiation program that could take place in Athens or Eleusis. Such ceremonies would take place at night. This cult was never very widespread because it was tied to this locale. The cult believed in a type of afterlife for initiates who are able to move around as spirits in the underworld free of care as opposed to others whose shadowy existence mired them in mud and mist as they trample over each other in the crowded underworld of judgment. Plutarch in the second century AD (Fragment 178) tells us of this view. So the mystery had hope of a vague afterlife, not a resurrection but a revivification as spirit free of the pain and suffering of others. Participation in the cult was probably seen as a typer of purification and renewal that parallels the repetative cycle of the earth coming back to life each year. It was said that when Demeter was confined (for a third of the year), nothing grew, but that when she roamed (the rest of the time), things grew. She was especially associated with corn. I am going through these mysteries in some detail with the noting of sources so you can see the age and ideas associated with each. In this way, you can see the similarities and differences between these movements and Christianity.