Tuesday, 30 September 2008


"Those who take part possess better hopes in regard to the end of life and in regard to the whole of eternity.' - Isokrates

So the Eleusinian Mysteries drew to an end. After the Final Vision the Initiates partook of one more day of the Rites, this time involving food, drink and celebration in honour of the abundance and fertility of Demeter - the Gift of the Grain. Thus after Death had been faced and transcended the bounty of Nature was rejoiced in. After that, the Mystai were free to return to the world, their understanding of their place in it transformed...

Why are the Eleusinian Mysteries so important to us? For the Greeks, as we have seen, they were crucial: the axis, as it were, around which the Universe of Gods and Men revolved. For two thousand years (as long as Christianity has been on this Earth and longer than Islam) they performed this vital role for Greek culture, only being discontinued several centuries after Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Imitation Eleusises were founded in Alexandria and in other parts of the classical world but none are believed to have had the energy or pull of the original. The fame of the Rites reached even India. One story speaks of a Brahmin Priest traveling to Athens to experience the Mysteries and walking into the flames of the Final Vision in order to show his contempt for them.

What makes the Rites of Eleusis important is their influence on almost all the Mystery Traditions that followed them. In their exploration of Immortality and their focus on imagery of grain and corn they almost certainly found their way into the New Testament. We have seen how the iconography of corn is used in the Gospel of John, for instance and, of course, there are other such images in parables such as that of the sower of seed. Of course, we could easily say that corn is a universal image for Immortality and Resurrection and that therefore there may well have been no influence but the reality is probably much more subtle than that. Historians of religion have done a great deal to unearth how all sorts of pre-Christian Mysticism worked its way into the Gospels. We forget how at the time of Christ's birth and ministry nearby Alexandria was a focus for spirituality in the known world at the time. Alexandria was a centre for Jewish religion and mysticism, Zoroastrianism, Platonic, Pythagorean and Hermetic spirituality and the old Egyptian Mysteries. It should come as no surprise that the new spirituality of Christianity should not encounter and absorb these traditions. One can see this in one of three ways depending upon your view - firstly that Christianity was just a cobbling together of what came before, secondly that it took these images in order to trump them or thirdly that it became a synthesis of all that came before embodied in the human/divine figure of Christ. Whatever the case there would seem to be no doubt that the Mysteries of Eleusis found their way into the new religion. Taken with the Mysteries of Dionysus and their imagery of the Vine, those of Eleusis reappear in the bread and wine of the Last Supper. Initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries wore bracelets made out of red and white wool. Once again, those key colours appear as central to the process of achieving Immortality in both ancient Greek and Christian cultures.

As an image of the life-giving energy of the Divine Feminine, the Mysteries found themselves reworked in a complex way in the figures of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdelene and the Sophia. As if to point out that the Goddess could no longer provide Resurrection, the Virgin, unlike her Greek predecessor, is not able to bring Christ back to life, or so it would appear. Nonetheless in John's Gospel the two Marys and a third, Mary, wife of Cleopas, are present at the foot of the Cross like another version of the Triple Goddess. And just as the Eleusinian Final Vision took place in the Inner Sanctum, Christ's Resurrection, witnessed by the Persephone counterpart Mary Magdelene, takes place in the Tomb which is itself an image of the Womb of the Divine Mother. Interestingly, just as the Mystai witnessed some kind of manifestation in the blinding fire of the Sanctum, so Mary Magdelene encounters Christ shortly after encountering two Angels in shining white garments in the Tomb. Equally important is the fact that in all four accounts of the Resurrection, not only is the Tomb attended by women followers of Christ (natural given the customs of the time) but the miracle occurs after the Sabbath Day when the Feminine Aspect of God, the Shekinah, dwells with the people of Israel. Thus the life-giving energy of the Divine Feminine is inextricably associated with the Resurrection of Christ all of which, the two Marys, the Shekhinah, become expressions of the Wisdom of God, the Sophia. Without her and the energies she represents, the central miracle of the Christian Mysteries cannot happen.

In esotericism, the Rites appear vividly not only in the distinction between the Lesser and Greater Mysteries but also in things such as the Tarot, most particularly in the Empress Card as depicted in the Rider-Waite pack. Waite's Empress is pure Demeter-Persephone. Her robe is covered in pomegranates, associated with the Daughter while at her feet is the wheat of the Mother. Also associated with Demeter is the diadem of stars the Empress wears. In astrology, Virgo is linked to the Mysteries, being often represented as maiden carrying a sheaf of corn in each hand. People who have been on the ball will have noticed that the ten days of the Rites fell during harvest time, the period we associate with September, the month of Virgo. Thus they would have been presided over by this constellation which rules the ninth month, nine months being, of course, the nine months of gestation before birth. So all these images of femininity, fertility and fecundity all merge into one.

Even more interesting than all this is the presence of the Mysteries of Eleusis in the works of Shakespeare, particularly in the fascinatingly elusive Late Plays. It seems to have gone almost completely unnoticed, for instance, that the Masque that Prospero shows Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest is an enactment of the Mysteries, featuring Demeter, Persephone and Hades in their Roman guises as Ceres, Iris and Dis. That Shakespeare should have Prospero chose this story to commemorate the bethrothal of the two lovers seems to have gone completely unremarked by anyone since its premiere in the 17th Century. Similarly in The Winter's Tale the return of Hermione to Leontes at the hands of Paulina almost exactly parallels the Final Vision of the Mystai in the Inner Sanctum. In it Paulina, the Demeter-figure of the play in guiding Leontes and the others to Hermione draws them into a Chapel where a statue of the supposedly dead Queen is found. She then performs a magical ceremony which brings Hermione back to life, just as Persephone returns from the Underworld, when she is reunited with her King. No play marks the seasons like The Winter's Tale, the bucolic fourth act of which is presided over by 'thou Great Goddess Nature' before the process of regeneration of the end. Cymbeline has a death and resurrection (Imogen) and Pericles sees the wizard Cerimon resurrect Thaisa who goes on to become a Priestess of Diana in Ephesus. Somehow, for whatever reason, these ancient Rites of the Greeks seem to have come to Shakespeare's awareness and informed the redemptive vision of his final four plays.

Clearly the Mysteries of Eleusis have depths and reverberations we have not yet even begun to fully explore. Their profundity, their imagery and their influence continues to make itself felt even in our world today. For so long shrouded in mystery they have been neglected as an important phenomena by historians until this last century. Esotericists seem to have known about them and to have been aware of their deep significance, but in terms of the popular perception of what ancient Greek culture was all about, even in supposedly educated circles they have been largely overlooked until now. Whatever the truth about them, the fact is that the Greeks conceived of these Mysteries as the pivot of their Cosmos and world view - not the Mysteries of Zeus, or Apollo or even Dionysus. For them the fundamental source of Mystery, the means whereby the health and equilibrium of everything was maintained, was a ritual centred not around a masculine energy but one that was specifically feminine, not around any God but the Goddess in all of her three of her aspects. Zeus may have been the ultimate ruler of Olympus, but the Mysteries of Demeter, Kore and Persephone held the key to everything. Perhaps in our modern time with food shortages, GM crops and an environment badly out of balance the Eleusinian Mysteries have more to say to us than ever...

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