Sacred Texts  Classics  Index  Previous  Next 

Greek Popular Religion, by Martin P. Nilsson, [1940], at

p. 42


A chapter on the religion of Eleusis is a natural sequel to the description of the rural customs and festivals, 1 for the Eleusinian Mysteries are the highest and finest bloom of Greek popular religion. Originally the Eleusinian Mysteries were a festival celebrated at the autumn sowing. This is proved by the testimony of Plutarch 2 and by their very near kinship to the Thesmophoria. Although it is acknowledged that the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries is an old agrarian cult, this fact has been pushed into the background by the attempts to discover the secret rites of the Mysteries. They have been discussed repeatedly by scholars and laymen, and numerous hypotheses have been put forward, some of them intelligent, others fantastic, none of them certain or even probable. Such a question seems to cast an everlasting spell on mankind, for mankind wants to know the unknowable. But the silence imposed upon the mystae has been well kept.

We possess a knowledge of certain preliminary rites which were not so important that it was forbidden to speak of them. In regard to the central rites belonging to the grade of the epopteia, our knowledge extends only to the general outlines. We know that there were things said, things done, and things shown, but we do not know what these things were, and that

p. 43

is the essential point. The rites consisted, not in acts performed by the mystae, as modern scholars would have us believe, but in the seeing by the mystae of something which was shown to them. This is repeated again and again from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter onward, and it is proved by the very name of the highest grade, epopteia, but we do not know what it was that was shown. The name of the high priest, hierophantes, proves that his chief duty was to show some sacred things. The names of the family from which he was always taken, the Eumolpidae, and of its mythical ancestor, Eumolpos, prove that he was famous for his beautiful voice. He recited or sang something, but what it was we do not know. Words probably accompanied the showing, but the showing, not the words, was the chief and culminating act of the Mysteries. It should be kept well in mind that the highest mystery was something shown and seen. It may be added that the Mysteries were celebrated by night in the light of many torches, which added to their impressiveness.

The silence imposed upon the mystae has, as I said, been well kept. Only Christian authors, who paid no heed to the duty of silence, have given information concerning the central rites of the Mysteries. But their testimony is subject to the gravest doubts. In the first place, what did they know? Had they any firsthand knowledge? Had they themselves been initiated? Clement lived in Alexandria and the others in Asia or Africa. It is much more probable that what they related was only hearsay. Further, are they reliable? We should realize that their writings were polemics against the perversity of the heathens and that in polemics of this kind controversialists are not conscientious about the means they use if only they hit the mark. Ecclesiastical authors certainly did not trouble themselves much about truth and about such questions of fact as whether a given rite belonged to the Eleusinian or to some

p. 44

other Mysteries, if only they could succeed in impressing upon their hearers or readers a sense of the contemptibility of the Mysteries. The hearers and readers knew nothing for certain and were not able to control the suggestions made to them.

Relying upon such unsafe evidence, modern scholars have tried to find out the kernel of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Two lines of thought are prominent in these attempts. One of these starts from the mysteries of late antiquity, whose highest aim was to elevate man above the human sphere into the divine and to assure his redemption by making him a god and so conferring immortality upon him. It is very questionable whether this idea existed at all in early times, when the gulf separating men from gods was regarded as self-evident and impassable. The supposition that it did exist is very popular in modern research, which has busied itself a great deal with the syncretistic religions of late antiquity; but this supposition should not be admitted without reliable evidence, and of such evidence there is none at all. Sex appeal finds a place even in the science of religion. Scholars have suggested that in the Eleusinian Mysteries immortality was conferred upon the mystes by his being made the son of the goddess through touching some sexual symbol. He was born anew of the goddess in a symbolic way. 3 It is true that Christian authors do ascribe sexual symbols to the Eleusinian Mysteries, and it is possible that there were such symbols at Eleusis, as there were, for instance, in the closely related festival of the Thesmophoria. But if such symbols were used at Eleusis, they did not have the significance suggested above but the old one of fertility charms, as in the Thesmophoria and other ceremonies.

Perhaps a remark is needed on the much-discussed formula

p. 45

which Clement of Alexandria gives as that of the Eleusinian Mysteries: "I have fasted, I have drunk of the kykeon, I have taken from the chest, and having worked, I have laid down into the basket and from the basket into the chest." 4 The first two of these rites, the fasting and the drinking of the kykeon, are known to have been practiced at Eleusis; but this is not true of the other rites, and it is uncertain whether they belong to Eleusis at all. They may be taken from the Mysteries of Demeter at Alexandria. 5 In any case, this formula refers to the preliminary rites performed by the neophyte, not to the highest mystery, the epopteia. It was pronounced by the neophyte in order to show that he had performed the preliminary rites necessary for being admitted to the final initiation. On this evasive formula are founded the hypotheses mentioned, which try to elucidate the kernel of the Mysteries.

Even if we are precluded from knowing the highest and most central rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries, we are not precluded from knowing the Eleusinian religion--the ideas which were at the bottom of the belief of the initiated in the bliss conferred upon them in the Mysteries. 'We are acquainted with the gods of the Mysteries, and we know something of the impression made by the celebration and of the hopes which it evoked. We have a document concerning the Eleusinian cult which is older and more comprehensive than anything concerning any other Greek cult, namely, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter composed in Attica before Eleusis was incorporated into the Athenian state, not later than the end of the seventh century B.C. We know that the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries was an old agrarian cult celebrated in the middle of the month Boedromion (about October) and

p. 46

closely akin to the Thesmophoria, a festival of the autumn sowing celebrated by the women not quite a month later. I need not dwell upon this connection, which is established by internal evidence as well as by direct information.

According to all probability, the Eleusinian cult goes back to the Mycenaean age. In the excavations of recent years a Mycenaean megaron was discovered beneath the mystery hall. 6 This hall is very unlike a Greek temple, which was the house of a god. It was rebuilt several times, but always according to the old plan. It was a square hall, with pillars supporting the roof and with benches carved in the rock on three sides, destined for the great assembly of the mystae. This hall was called anaktoron (the royal house). It has been suggested that the name is reminiscent of a time when the mystery assembly took place in the king's house. 7 The family of the Eumolpidae were the successors of the king, and the cult always remained the property of this family, from which the high priest was taken. Originally the Eleusinian Mysteries were a family cult to which the head of the family admitted whom he pleased. This explains why it was a secret cult and why not only citizens but also strangers and slaves had access to the celebration.

After these preliminaries, we turn to the gods of Eleusis. There were two pairs, one comprising the two goddesses Demeter and Kore, or, more properly, the Mother and the Maid; the other, "the God" and "the Goddess." Both pairs are represented on a relief which Lysimachides dedicated at Eleusis in the fourth century B.C. 8 (Fig. 16) . The inscription

p. 47

above the heads of the second pair reads: "To the God, to the Goddess." It is said that "the God" and "the Goddess" were anonymous, and reference is made to the rule forbidding mention of the name of a man who had become a hierophant; but this interdiction is an accretion belonging to a late age, which loved to enhance the mystic character of the cult. In the classical age the hierophants were called by their proper names. Very often, when no misunderstanding was possible, the Greeks said only "the God" or "the Goddess" instead of using proper names. Thus, "the God" at Delphi is Apollo, and "the Goddess" at Athens is Athena. "The God" and "the Goddess" at Eleusis were Plouton and Persephone. They are represented, fortunately with their names inscribed, in a similar scene in a vase painting 9 (Fig. 25), in which Plouton holds his constant attribute, the cornucopia. They are also represented on a badly mutilated tablet from Eleusis. 10

To each of these two pairs a hero was added, and so we get two triads: Demeter, Kore, and Triptolemos; and "the God," "the Goddess," and Eubouleus. They are seen on an Attic relief found at Mondragone near Sinuessa in Italy, 11 with the addition of a seventh figure clad in a Dionysiac costume--boots and fawnskin. He is Iacchos. Iacchos is a personification of the Iacchic cry heard in the great procession which went from Athens to Eleusis in order to celebrate the Mysteries. The gay revels, the merry cries, and the light of the torches in this procession were reminiscent of the festivals of Dionysus, and the name of Iacchos suggested the second name of this god, Bacchos. So Iacchos was represented in the likeness of Dionysus. But he is a later creation, who owes his existence to the procession mentioned; that is to say, he cannot

p. 48

be older than the incorporation of Eleusis into the Athenian state, and he was created at the earliest in the sixth century B.C. There is no question of Dionysiac elements in the Eleusinian Mysteries at an early age, but we shall see that from the late fifth and early fourth centuries B.C., there was a certain mixing up of the Mysteries of Eleusis and the cult of Dionysus.

The largest of all Eleusinian monuments, the relief dedicated by Lakrateides, priest of "the God," "the Goddess," and Eubouleus, in the year 97-96 B.C., 12 is peculiar. Happily the names of the chief figures are inscribed, so that it can be ascertained that both "the God" and Plouton are represented. The splitting up of this deity into two is due to the late date of the monument, for in this age the avoidance of proper names was current in the Mysteries and thus "the God" and Plouton might appear as two personages. The daughter of Demeter also was divided into two goddesses, Kore and Persephone. The two are one and the same person, although they are represented as two different goddesses. In order to understand how this was possible, we must turn to the myth of the rape of Demeter's daughter by Plouton. It is the central part of the Homeric Hymn, but it was common to all Greeks. The Maiden was playing with her comrades in a meadow strewn with flowers when the earth opened and up came the god of the nether world in his car. Seizing the Maiden, he abducted her to his subterranean realm.

Here I take the occasion to mention a legend told in later sources. A herdsman, Eubouleus, was tending his herd of swine near by when the earth opened. His swine were swallowed up by the chasm and then the earth closed again. This

p. 49

is an explanatory legend, invented to account for a sacred custom. At a certain time of the year, perhaps at the festival of the threshing, pigs were thrown into subterranean hollows. The putrefied remains were brought up again at the festival of the autumn sowing--the Thesmophoria--laid on altars, and mixed with the seed corn--a very simple and old-fashioned fertility charm. The swine was the holy animal of Demeter. Pigs were sacrificed by the mystae before their initiation, and figures of swine are found in Demeter's sanctuaries at Eleusis, at Cnidus, and elsewhere. The connection of Eubouleus with the Eleusinian gods shows that this fertility charm belonged to Eleusis also, and it proves that the Eleusinian festival referred to the autumn sowing. The rite is one of the links between the Thesmophoria and the Eleusinian Mysteries, proving that both were agrarian rites whose purpose was to promote the fertility of the corn which was laid down in the earth.

We revert to the myth told in the Homeric Hymn. The Mother wandered about, clad in black garments and carrying torches, in search of her daughter. Coming to Eleusis, she sat down at the well of the maidens, or, as some say, at "the laughless stone." At the well Demeter met King Keleos' daughters, who came to fetch water, and followed them to their father's house. Here she sat down on a seat spread with the skin of a ram. She sat in grief and silence until Iambe by her obscene jests contrived to make Demeter smile. She rejected a cup of wine offered to her and ordered a drink of water mixed with barley meal and pennyroyal. This drink is the kykeon. The story refers to the preliminary initiation, which is represented on certain monuments of the Roman age. Among these is a marble vase described by Countess Lovatelli 13 (Fig. 15). To the right, a youth who is to be initiated

p. 50

sacrifices a pig. Then we see him seated with veiled head on a seat decked with a ramskin, while a priestess holds a winnowing basket over his head. This agrarian implement is mentioned in several other Mysteries, especially those of Dionysus, though not at Eleusis. It may be an addition, but it goes well with the character of the Eleusinian cult. Finally, we see the mystes playing with the snake of Demeter, behind whom is Kore. I emphasize again that these were preliminary rites, for this is the reason why they could be mentioned and represented. They are the rites mentioned in the formula of Clement--the fasting and the drinking of the kykeon.

In the house of Keleos, Demeter nursed Demophon, the child of the royal pair. She put him into the fire in order to make him immortal, but her intention was frustrated by the frightened mother, who discovered her in the act. This story is based on an old folk-tale motif which has nothing to do with the Eleusinian cult. It is introduced in order to let Demeter reveal herself in her divine shape. King Keleos ordered a temple to be built for her. Demeter sat in her temple in grief. Not a stalk sprouted in the fields; the labor of the plow oxen was vain; men nearly died of hunger. Zeus was compelled to interfere. He ordered Plouton to send Kore back to the upper world; but Plouton had offered a pomegranate seed to her, and, as she had eaten it, she was bound to the nether world. And so Kore was compelled to dwell one third of the year in the nether world. However, she dwells two thirds of the year in the upper world, reunited with her mother.

This last is the essential point. The understanding of the Eleusinian religion depends on the correct understanding of this myth. The fact that the Maiden dwells two thirds of the year in the upper world and one third in the nether world is manifestly connected with vegetation. Demeter is a goddess of vegetation, but not of vegetation in general. Philologists

p. 51

disagree as to whether the syllable de- signifies "earth" or "corn." The cult is decisive. Demeter presides at the threshing and at the autumn sowing. She is the Corn Mother. According to Homer and Hesiod, she united herself with Iasion on the thrice-plowed fallow land and bore to him Ploutos, the god of wealth. The Homeric Hymn promises that the goddesses will send him to the house of the man whom they love. Under the conditions prevalent in early times, wealth is the store of corn on which men live during the season when the gifts of nature are scarce. Plouton is only a derivative form of the word ploutos and means "he who has wealth." Everywhere in the Mediterranean countries the corn is stored in subterranean silos. An inscription orders such silos to be built at Eleusis for storing the tithes of corn which were brought to the goddesses.

For people who live in a northerly country, where the soil is frozen and covered by snow and ice during the winter and where the season during which everything sprouts and is green comprises about two thirds of the year, it is only natural to think that the Corn Maiden is absent during the four winter months and dwells in the upper world during the eight months of vegetation. And, in fact, this is what most people do think. But it is an ill-considered opinion, for it does not take into account the climatic conditions of Greece. In that country the corn is sown in October. The crops sprout immediately, and they grow and thrive during our winter except for the two or three coldest weeks in January, when they come to a standstill for a short time. Snow is extremely rare and soon melts away. The crops ripen and are reaped in May and threshed in June. This description refers to Attica. The climate is of course different in the mountains, but Eleusis is situated in Attica. The cornfields are green and the crops grow and thrive during our winter, and yet we are asked to believe that the

p. 52

[paragraph continues] Corn Maiden is absent during this period. There is a period of about four months from the threshing in June to the autumn sowing in October during which the fields are barren and desolate; they are burned by the sun, and not a green stalk is seen on them. Yet we are asked to believe that during these four months the Corn Maiden is present. Obviously she is absent. 14

Thus, we are enabled to reach a true understanding of the myth of the absence of the Corn Maiden which agrees with the climatic conditions of Greece. In June the crops are threshed, and the corn, which is the wealth of man, is stored in subterranean silos. In Sicily a festival was celebrated at the time of the threshing which was called the Descent of Kore (Katagoge Kores). Down in the subterranean silos the Corn Maiden is in the realm of Plouton, the god of wealth. Four months later, when the time of the autumn sowing is approaching, the silos are opened and the seed corn is brought up. This is the anodos, the ascent of the Corn Maiden, and on this occasion the Eleusinian Mysteries took place. The seed corn, the corn of the old crop which will soon sprout and produce the new crop, is laid down in the fields. The Corn Maiden is reunited with the Corn Mother, for at this time the old crop and the new meet each other.

Thus, we are able to understand why Plouton, the god of wealth, had become a god of the nether world. His abode was beneath the surface of the earth, in the silos in which the corn was stored. In early times the corn was often stored in great jars set down into the ground, and such jars were often used for burials also. The myth of the abduction of the vegetation goddess seems to be pre-Greek; and so is the name of

p. 53

[paragraph continues] Persephone, which occurs in curiously varying forms: Phersephassa and Periphone. It was inevitable that those gods who dwelt beneath the earth should be fused with the lords of the underworld, the king and queen of gloomy Hades. The other aspect of the Corn Maiden was the dreary Persephone, as Homer calls her. Her two aspects were so much at variance that it is not in the least astonishing to find her appearing at Eleusis as Kore, the daughter of Demeter, on the one hand, and as Persephone, the wife of Plouton on the other. Probably two old goddesses were fused into one, the pre-Greek queen of the underworld and the Greek Corn Maiden. These diverse aspects referring to life and death were a source of wealth to the Mysteries. The sprouting of the new crop is a symbol of the eternity of life.

There is, however, another ascent of the Corn Maiden, which follows soon after the fetching of the seed corn from the subterranean silos. It is depicted in some vase paintings, 15 of which one on a mixing bowl in the museum at Dresden is the most remarkable (Fig. 17). There we see Pherephatta emerging from the ground, which reaches her knees, while Hermes assists her, and three satyrs--nature daemons--dance around her. 16 The meaning of this ascent of the Corn Maiden is explained by other vase paintings which seem enigmatical. A great female head emerges from the ground and satyrs strike it with large hammers 17 (Fig. 18). The explanation is not doubtful. A large wooden hammer was a common rustic implement; it was used for smashing the clods and smoothing

p. 54

the surface of the fields, which was very rough after the seed corn was plowed under. This process, which corresponds to the rolling of the present day, was carried out just when the corn had begun to sprout and when it was still possible to walk on the fields without doing harm to the crops. It concurred with the second ascent of the Corn Maiden, the germinating of the new crop.

The reuniting of the Mother and the Maid was the kernel of the myth. Judging from the nature of the festival, it must likewise have been the kernel of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were a celebration of the ascent of the Corn Maiden in the autumn sowing. The old agrarian myth was elevated into the human sphere. The grief and sorrow of the bereaved mother, the despair of her search, touch upon the deepest feelings of man. Demeter is rightly called the mater dolorosa of Greek religion. To this heartbreaking sorrow, the reunion of mother and daughter provided a joyful contrast, rousing the mystae to exultation and moving their minds with the deepest emotions. The Mysteries were not a gloomy festival; they conferred joy and happiness upon man. Not the rape and separation but the reunion was its theme. The reunion is represented on the famous tablet of Ninnion from the end of the fifth century B.C., found in the sacred precinct at Eleusis 18 (Fig. 21). In the lower zone Demeter is seated, and at her side is a vacant seat; Kore is absent. Demeter is approached by Iacchos, the leader of the great procession to Eleusis, and by two mystae. In the upper zone we again see Demeter seated. A stately woman approaches, carrying torches and followed by mystae, a woman with a kernos (a vessel used in the mysteries) on her head, a youth, and a man. It is Kore,

p. 55

brought back to her mother. This is, of course, not a direct representation of a scene in the Mysteries, which it was forbidden to divulge not only in words but also in pictures. It is a mythical scene with features borrowed from the mystery procession. We do not know if the reuniting of mother and daughter was enacted in the Mysteries, but it must have been in the minds of all. Perhaps it was enacted in some manner, perhaps it was only indicated symbolically. A Christian writer says that the highest mystery of the epopteia at Eleusis was a reaped ear of corn shown in silence. 19 It may be that this statement is more trustworthy than others, for it agrees exactly with the simple old agrarian character of the Eleusinian cult. In this connection, mention is often made of the picture on an Apulian tomb vase, which shows five ears of corn in a sacellum, very carefully drawn 20 (Fig. 20). Of course it has nothing to do with the Eleusinian Mysteries, but it is an expression of the same belief in the sacredness of the ear of corn, the symbol of the eternity of life. The purpose of these rites at the autumn sowing, that which the celebrants hoped for, was the new crop. Here it was--the ear held up in the hands of the hierophant. All saw that their hopes would be fulfilled; nay, were fulfilled. Here was she who had long been absent and had been sought for in vain, the Corn Maiden, reunited with the Corn Mother. For, if this information is reliable, I should like to call the ear of corn the Corn Maiden.

The old agrarian cult was capable of carrying other ideas of a moral character. We have heard that Triptolemos was added to the pair of goddesses. Originally, this was not so.

p. 56

[paragraph continues] In the Homeric Hymn he is barely mentioned as one of several Eleusinian noblemen. We are able to trace his rise to a higher dignity. It was due to his name, which may signify the "thrice warring," but which was understood as the "thrice plowing." He became the hero of the thrice-plowed cornfield and is sometimes represented with a plow in his hand 21 (Fig. 23). Pausanias mentions the threshing floor of Triptolemos in the sacred Rharian field near Eleusis, the cradle of agriculture, where corn was sown for the first time. Triptolemos begins to appear in paintings on black-figured vases in the late sixth century B.C., represented as a bearded hero 22 (Fig. 19). In the vase paintings of the early red-figured style he is extremely popular. He is seated on a winged car drawn by serpents and is placed between the two goddesses, who offer him the cup of farewell as they send him out on his mission to propagate agriculture 23 (Fig. 22). Even when other gods are added, Triptolemos is the central figure.

We know the meaning of this scene from the praises be-stowed upon Athens as the cradle of civilization. Isocrates speaks in his Panegyricus of the two greatest gifts granted the Athenians by Demeter--the corn, which is the reason why men do not live like wild beasts, and the Mysteries, from which they derive higher hopes in regard to their life and all time. The dadouchos Kallias said something similar in the peace negotiations at Sparta in 372 B.C. This praise of Athens is behind the decree of 418 B.C., in which the Athenians invited all Greeks to bring tithes to the Eleusinian goddesses

p. 57

according to old custom and an oracle from Delphi. 4 At this time Eleusis must have been recognized as the cradle of agriculture.

The vase paintings mentioned show how strongly the benefits of agriculture were felt at the end of the sixth and the beginning of the fifth century B.C. This feeling was of course not limited to the cultivation of cereals, but referred especially to the moral and social consequences of agriculture. I should like to refer to a parallel, the exploits of the Athenian national hero Theseus, which were very popular in vase paintings of the same age. It is said that the Athenians wished to create a counterpart of Heracles for themselves, but a great difference between Heracles and Theseus is to be noted. While the exploits of Heracles are those of an old mythical hero, Theseus conquers highwaymen and robbers who resist civilization and are dangerous to it. Theseus is the guardian and hero of a peaceful and civilized life, of which agriculture is the foundation.

The peasant loved peace. In war his fields were burned and his trees cut down. Hesiod says that for the wild beasts the law is to eat each other, but Zeus has given justice to man. Hesiod preaches labor, through which man earns his livelihood, and justice, which assures him of the fruits of his labor. Hesiod has abandoned the ideal of the warring Homeric knights and embraced a new, quite contrasted ideal of peace and justice created by agriculture. Its hero is the Eleusinian Triptolemos. This is a complete revolution in moral ideals, which ought to be appreciated to its full extent. I venture to speak of an Eleusinian piety founded on this idea that agriculture created a civilized and peaceful life worthy of human

p. 58

beings. Aristophanes speaks of it in some remarkable verses of his comedy The Frogs25 The mystae sing: "The sun and the gay light are only for us who are initiated and live a pious life in regard to foreigners and private persons." In order to attain to the better lot in the other world for which the mystae hoped, it was necessary to have been initiated; but here there is added to this requirement the further requirement of a pious life, specified in a somewhat pedantic manner by the words "in regard to foreigners and private persons." Among the private persons were also the slaves. Slaves as well as foreigners were admitted to the Eleusinian Mysteries, provided that they spoke Greek. In antiquity foreigners and slaves were excluded from the protection of civil law. This traditional limit was transcended in the Mysteries. They could not grant the protection of the law, but they demanded the piety which implies the law and is more than the law. In fact, an effort was made to break the traditional bonds of the local city-state and to attain to the idea of humanity as a great brotherhood. This morality issued from the agricultural conditions prevalent in Attica in the early age and was developed in the old agricultural cult of Eleusis.

The Eleusinian Mysteries had still more to offer to the initiated. The Homeric Hymn promises: "Happy is he who has seen this. Who has not taken part in the initiation will not have the same lot after death in the gloomy darkness." 26 Sophocles repeats the same idea in still more impressive words. He says that those who have seen the Mysteries are thrice happy when they go to the underworld, and adds that for them only is life, for others all is evil. 27 Aristophanes in The Frogs introduces a chorus of mystae in the scene which is laid in the

p. 59

underworld. I have already quoted his words. The mystae dance and revel in a meadow strewn with flowers. This conviction of a happier lot in the underworld, which filled the minds of the initiated, sprang from ancient roots, the world-wide idea that the other life is a repetition of this life. The idea is found, for example, in the eleventh book of the Odyssey, which describes Odysseus' visit to the underworld. The simple fact is that the initiated believed that they would continue to celebrate the Mysteries in the underworld, as Aristophanes and Euripides 28 show them doing. Since the Mysteries were the most edifying event they knew of, such a conception of a future state formed the brightest possible contrast to the dark and gloomy Hades in which the Greeks believed.

This is really a very simple belief, and perhaps it satisfied the great mass. But it may be permitted to ask whether deeper ideas of life and death were not evoked by the Eleusinian Mysteries. Perhaps they were. In a remarkable fragment Pindar says: "Happy is he who, having seen this, goes beneath the earth; he knows the end of life and he knows its god-sent beginning." 29 We do not know if Pindar was initiated, but supposing that his words really refer to Eleusinian beliefs, we will try to interpret them. What is the beginning of life? If we remember that the Mysteries were a festival of the autumn sowing, the ascent of the Corn Maiden, we are re-minded of the words in the Gospel of St. John: "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." 30 It is related that the Athenians sowed corn on graves and that they called the dead demetreioi31 In a well-known hymn, the Christian poet

p. 60

[paragraph continues] Prudentius uses the same simile for the resurrection of the individual; but we have no right to postulate this idea for an age when conscious individualism was unknown and when the individual was only a link in the chain of the generations. Such an age had no need of a belief in the immortality of the individual, but it believed in the eternity of life in the sense that life flows through the generations which spring from each other. No clearer, no better expression of this belief can be found than the sprouting of the new crop from the old crop which has been laid down in the earth. It is the second ascent of the Corn Maiden, which was familiar to that age from its labors and which was the immediate result of the autumn sowing celebrated in the Eleusinian cult.

The latest monument of art which represents the mission of Triptolemos is the famous Eleusinian relief (Frontispiece), which better than any other conveys an idea of the high artistry and the deep religious feeling of Phidias. Triptolemos is almost a boy standing between the two goddesses. This relief was sculptured about 440 B.C. In later monuments Triptolemos often appears, but only as a member of the assembly of the Eleusinian deities. He is no longer the central figure. To the Eleusinian deities, others are added: the city goddess of Athens; Dionysus, who in this age had a certain connection with Eleusis; and more heroes--Heracles and the Dioscuri. These heroes, the first strangers to be initiated, recall the Panhellenic aspirations of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Such representations are manifestly a product of the interest taken in the Eleusinian Mysteries, but they do not express any special idea, as the representations of Triptolemos and the Ninnion tab-let do.

Certain other vase paintings are more interesting because they introduce a novelty. A child appears among the Eleusinian

p. 61

deities. Most remarkable is a hydria found in Rhodes 32 (Fig. 24). A woman has partly emerged from the ground, which reaches to her breast. She holds a cornucopia on which a child is seated. The child stretches out its arms toward a goddess with a scepter, who must be Demeter, for on the other side is Kore with two torches and above her is Triptolemos. A pelike from Kertsch shows a woman rising from the ground and handing over a child to Hermes, at whose side is Athena. 33 To the left are Demeter and Kore, and to the right are "the God" and "the Goddess," that is Plouton and Persephone. On the other side, and on a vase in the collection at Tubingen, the child is a little older. He stands at the side of Demeter and holds a cornucopia. 34

In these paintings the birth of a child is represented in Eleusinian surroundings. The type is well known from the representations of the birth of Erichthonios, but this Athenian hero has no connection with Eleusis. The cornucopia which the child carries, and on which it is seated in the picture on the hydria from Rhodes, puts us on the right track. The cornucopia is the attribute of the god of wealth, Plouton. The ideal embodied in this god was popular at the time to which these vases belong. The most famous example is the group by Kephisodotos, erected in 372 B.C., in which the goddess of peace carries the child Ploutos in her arms. It is an expression of the hopes of the Athenian people in those troubled times.

p. 62

In the foregoing we have heard of Plouton as a full-grown god, and he is sometimes represented as a white-haired old man. 35 But we have also mentioned the myth that Demeter bore Ploutos, having united herself with Iasion on the thrice-plowed fallow land. We find representations of Ploutos at all stages of life, corresponding to the cycle of vegetation. Without any doubt, Ploutos is the child who appears in the vase paintings mentioned. Except for these vase paintings, we hear nothing of the child Ploutos at Eleusis. The reason is very simple. By the side of the daughter of Demeter, whose part was most prominent, there was no place for the son of Demeter. He would have been completely out of accord with the idea expressed in the Eleusinian myth. His reappearance in the fourth century B.C. is a kind of atavism, due to the longing of that age for the security of peace and wealth. Kephisodotos called the mother "Peace." For the vase painters, her name was probably Ge (the earth), from which the crops sprout. Ploutos appeared only for a brief time, and he vanished as quickly as he had come, but that he did appear proves that new ideas could find a place in the minds of those who were initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries.

At the same time, Dionysiac elements were introduced at Eleusis. One connecting link was, of course, Iacchos, whose similarity to Dionysus-Bacchos was pointed out above. But there were also internal connections, for the cult of Dionysus in one of its aspects had to do with the cycle of vegetation. At Delphi he was represented as a child in a winnowing basket, awakened by the maenads. According to Furtwangler, the child which is handed over to Hermes on the pelike from Kertsch is wrapped in a fawnskin and crowned with ivy, and

p. 63

on a vase from the Hope collection we see Dionysus emerging from the ground like the Corn Maiden. 36 We have seen further that in several late Eleusinian vase paintings Dionysus is introduced among the Eleusinian deities. This is a forerunner of the coalescence between various mystery cults, which became common in a later age. There are traces of this syncretism in the Roman age, with which I cannot deal here.

The rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries were persistently preserved from a hoary antiquity, although they, too, may have been somewhat modified in the course of time. There were no doctrines, however, but only some simple fundamental ideas about life and death as symbolized in the springing up of the new crop from the old. Every age might interpret these according to its own propensities. Thus the persistence of the most venerable religion of ancient Greece is explained. Its power was a result of the absence of dogmas and of its close connection with the deepest longings of the human soul.

So it was possible to develop on the foundation of the old agrarian cult a hope of immortality and a belief in the eternity of life, not for the individual but for the generations which spring one from another. Thus, also, there was developed on the same foundation a morality of peace and good will, which strove to embrace humanity in a brotherhood without respect to state allegiance and civil standing. The hope and the belief and the morality were those of the end of the archaic age. The thoroughly industrialized and commercialized citizens of Athens in its heyday had lost understanding of the old foundation of human civilization--agriculture--and at the end of the fifth century B.C. the individual was freed from the old fetters of family and tradition. The foundations for the ideal-ism of the Eleusinian belief and morality were removed. Man

p. 64

was no longer content with the immortality of the generations but wanted immortality for himself. The Eleusinian Mysteries promised even this in a happy life in the underworld. If a man underwent initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries in this era, he did so because he hoped for a happier life in the other world and because he found the celebration of the Mysteries edifying. The hero of agriculture became only a concomitant figure in the assembly of the Eleusinian gods. Dionysus was added, and the child which brings wealth reappeared. But participation in the mystery rites was still a religious experience, which had the power of conferring happiness on man and of helping him through life. For it was an experience that was rooted in the deepest feelings of man and spoke to his heart, although its language changed with the changing ages.


42:1 For a full presentation of the materials and arguments see my paper, "Die eleusinischen Gottheiten," Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, XXXII (1935), 79 ff. See also my forthcoming Geschichte der griechischen Religion, Vol. I.

42:2 Frag. 23.

44:3 A. Dieterich, Eine Mithrasliturgie (Leipzig, 1903), p. 125; A. Körte in Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, XVIII (1915), 122 ff.; and C. Picard in Revue de l’histoire des religions, XCV (1927), 220 ff.

45:4 Protrepticus, ed. O. Stählin (Leipzig, 1905), p. 16, 11. 18-20.

45:5 H. G. Pringsheim, Archäologische Beiträge zur Geschichte des eleusintschen Kults (Dissertation, Bonn, 1905), p. 49 and note 1 on p. 58.

46:6 K. Kourouniotes, "Das eleusinische Heiligtum," Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, XXXII (1935), 52 ff.; and my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, 318, Fig. 4, and 319, Fig. 5.

46:7 Deubner, Attische Feste, p. 90.

46:8 Ephemeris archaiologike, 1886, Pl. 3; L. R. Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States (Oxford, 1896-1909), III, Pl. 1; and my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, Pl. 39, Fig. 3.

47:9 Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, III, Pl. 8a.

47:10 Ephemeris archaiologike, 1901, Pl. 2; and my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, Pl. 41, Fig. 1.

47:11 Bulletin de correspondance hellénique, LV (1931), Pl. 2.

48:12 R. Heberdey in Festschrift Für Otto Benndorf zu seinem 60. Geburtstage (Vienna, 1898), Pl. 4 and pp. iii ff.; Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, III, Pl. 2; and my Gesch. der Griech. Rel., I, Pl. 40.

49:13 Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, III, Pl. 15a; and my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, Pl. 43, Fig. 2. This and kindred monuments are exhaustively treated by G. E. Rizzo in Römische Mitteilungen, XXV (1910), 89 ff.

52:14 This view is contested by K. Kourouniotes in Deltion archaiologikon, XV (1934-35), 1 ff., but I cannot find his arguments conclusive. He does not take into account the fact that Demeter is not a goddess of vegetation in general but of cereals.

53:15 They are enumerated and discussed in an appendix to my paper, "Die eleusinischen Gottheiten," pp. 131 ff., referred to in note 1 of this chapter.

53:16 Archäologischer Anzeiger, 1892, p. 166; J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 3d ed. (Cambridge, 1922), p. 277, Fig. 67; Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, III, Pl. 6b; and my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, Pl. 39, Fig. I.

53:17 Harrison, Prolegomena, p. 279, Fig. 69; and my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, Pl. 39, Fig. 2.

54:18 Ephemeris archaiologike, 1901, Pl. 1; Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, III, Pl. 16; and my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, Pl. 41, Fig. 2.

55:19 Hippolytus, Refutatio haereseon, V, 8, 39.

55:20 P. Wolters, "Die goldenen Ähren," Festschrift für James Loeb zum sechzigsten Geburtstag gewidmet (Munich, 1930), p. 124, Fig. 14; Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, III, Pl. 3b; and my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, Pl. 42, Fig. 3.

56:21 Athenische Mitteilungen, XXIV (1899), Pl. 7; and Harrison, Prolegomena, p. 273, Fig. 65.

56:22 W. H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen and römischen Mythologie (Leipzig, 1884-1937), Vol. V, col. 1127, Fig. 1.

56:23 The most beautiful example is a skyphos by Hieron. It is often reproduced. See A. Furtwängler and K. Reichhold, Griechische Vasenmalerei (Munich, 1900-1932), Pl. 161; Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, III, Pl. 13; and my Gesch. der griech. Rd., I, Pl. 43, Fig. 1 (part).

57:4 Isocrates, Panegyricus, 28; Xenophon, Hellenica, VI, 3, 6; the decree in W. Dittenberger, Sylloge inscriptionum Graecarum, 3d ed. (Leipzig, 1915-24), Vol. I, No. 83.

58:25 Ranae, vss. 454 ff.

58:26 Homeric Hymn to Demeter, vss. 480 ff.

58:27 Frag. 753, in A. Nauck, Tragicorum Graecorum fragmenta, 2d ed. (Leipzig, 1889).

59:28 Euripides, Hercules furens, vs. 613.

59:29 Frag. 137, in T. Bergk, Poetae lyrici Graeci, 4th ed. (Leipzig, 1878-82).

59:30 Gospel of St. John, 12: 24.

59:31 Cicero, De legibus, II, 63, from Demetrius of Phaleron; Plutarch, De facie in orbe lunae, p. 943b.

61:32 It is often reproduced. See Harrison, Prolegomena, p. 525, Fig. 151; and my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, Pl. 44, Fig. 1.

61:33 Admirably reproduced in Furtwängler and Reichhold, Griechische Vasenmalerei, Pl. 70. See also Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, III, Pl. 21a (the side with Hermes); and my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, Pl. 46.

61:34 C. Watzinger, Griechische Vasen in Tubingen (Reutlingen, 1924), Pi. 40; and my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, Pl. 45, Fig. 1. Unfortunately this vase was overlooked in my paper, "Die eleusinischen Gottheiten," referred to in note 1 of this chapter. On the interpretation see my Gesch. der griech. Rel., I, 295, note 4.

62:35 On a Nolan hydria; see British Museum, Corpus vasorum antiquorum (London, 1925-), Fasc. 6, Pl. 84, Figs. 2a-c. For Plouton alone see Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, III, Pl. 32a.

63:36 E. M. W. Tillyard, The Hope Vases (Cambridge, 1923), No. 163, Pl. 26, and pp. 97 ff.

Next: The House and the Family