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Chapter 14

Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries

The lengthy Homeric Hymn to Demeter (2) provides the most important and complete information about DEMETER [de-mee'ter] (CERES) and PERSEPHONE [per-sef'o-nee] (PROSERPINA), daughter of Zeus and Demeter, and is in itself a literary gem.

The Abduction of Persephone. Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, was also called KORE [ko'ree] (“girl” or “maiden”). While she was picking beautiful flowers with the daughters of Ocean, Earth, at the will of Zeus and to please Hades, produced a most wondrous and radiant narcissus. As Persephone reached out to pluck the flower, Earth yawned open, and Hades appeared in his golden chariot and carried her away in tears. Persephone shouted and called out to Zeus, but he did not hear her for it was by his will that HADES [hay'deez] (PLUTO), his brother and her uncle, carried her off to be his wife and queen of the Underworld.

Demeter’s Grief and Anger. Demeter heard her daughter’s screams and frantically rushed in pursuit. For nine days she did not eat ambrosia or drink nectar, nor did she bathe; she roamed the earth, disconsolate and holding burning torches in her hands. Hecate had heard Persephone’s screams, but could not tell Demeter who carried her daughter off. On the tenth day, the sun-god Helius, who had seen everything, explained to Demeter what had happened. He added that Demeter should not lament. Her brother Hades would make a fine husband for her daughter, since he was a great god, who when divine power was first divided three ways was made king of the Underworld.

Now that she knew the truth, Demeter’s grief was intensified and a great anger rose up in her heart against Zeus because he had willed the rape of her daughter. She avoided the gods on Olympus and, disguising her beautiful appearance, wandered among mortals.

Demeter Comes to Eleusis. She came to ELEUSIS [e-lou'sis] and, grieving, sat in the shade beside the Maiden Well. She looked like a very old woman who might be a housekeeper or a children's nurse. The four daughters of CELEUS [see'le-us] or KELEUS, the king of Eleusis, and METANEIRA [me-ta-neye'ra], his wife, saw her there when they came to draw water and questioned her. Demeter answered that she would tell them the truth, but instead invented for herself a human identity. Her name is DOSO [doh'soh], and she was carried off from Crete by pirates, from whom she escaped when they disembarked. She does not know where she has come in her travels, but she hopes that the maidens will help her find work as a housekeeper or a nurse. Callidice, the most beautiful of the daughters of Celeus, suggested that the old woman remain at the well until they return home to ask their mother if they might come back to fetch her.

Demeter Arrives at the Home of Celeus and Metaneira. When the young women returned home and told their mother all about Doso, Metaneira directed them to return quickly and hire the woman at any price. For she cherished an only son, long prayed for, who needed care. So they brought the goddess to their house, grieving, with her head veiled and wearing a dark robe. As the goddess stood in the threshold her head reached up to the beams, and she filled the doorway with a divine radiance. Metaneira, overcome by awe, asked her guest to be seated. Demeter refused to sit on the splendid couch offered but instead waited until a servant IAMBE [eye-am'bee] brought her an artfully made chair and threw a fleece over it. Then Demeter sat down, holding her veil over her face, silent and serious, tasting no food or drink and overcome by longing for her daughter. Iambe, however, with jests and jokes (doubtlessly in iambic meter) caused the holy lady to smile and laugh. She refused the red wine that Metaneira offered but instead ordered Metaneira to mix meal, water, and mint for her. The great lady Demeter accepted the drink for the sake of the holy rite, i.e., to initiate and observe the holy rite or sacrament. This drink (the kykeon) very likely represented a kind of communion.

Demeter Nurses Demophoön. Metaneira promised Demeter great rewards if she would nurse her child DEMOPHOÖN [de-mof'oh-on], or DEMOPHON, and bring him up. Demeter took the child to her bosom, promising that he would not be harmed by evil charms. She nourished him on ambrosia, and she breathed sweetness upon him, and he grew like a god. At night, she hid him in the fire, without the knowledge of his parents, who were amazed how their child grew and flourished. Demeter would have made Demophoön immortal, if foolish Metaneira had not spied upon her and cried out in terror because this stranger was burying her son within the blazing fire.

Demeter Reveals Her Divinity. Demeter was enraged at the stupidity of Metaneira, who by her interference had ruined Demeter’s plan to make the boy immortal. Nevertheless, Demeter would still allow Demophoön to flourish as a mortal and grant him imperishable honor because he had slept in her arms. Then Demeter proclaimed, “I am Demeter, esteemed and honored as the greatest benefit and joy to mortals and immortals,” and gave her instructions for the future of Eleusis. She cast off her old age and transformed her size and appearance. Fragrant beauty and a divine radiance breathed around her, and her golden hair flowed down on her shoulders. The house was filled with her brilliance as though with a lightning flash. She disappeared, and Metaneira was overcome by astonishment and fear.

Demeter’s Instructions. Before her disappearance, Demeter had ordered that the people of Eleusis build for her a great temple and an altar below the town on the rising hill above the well Kallichoron; she promised to teach them her rites so that by performing them with reverence they might propitiate her heart. King Celeus saw to it that Demeter’s will was accomplished.

Demeter’s Determined Grief. Demeter, still wasted with longing for her daughter, caused for mortals a most devastating year with no harvest. The earth would not send up a single sprout. By continuing in this gashion, she would not only have destroyed the entire human race with cruel famine but would also have deprived the Olympian gods of their glorious prestige from gifts and sacrifices. Zeus finally took notice. He sent Iris to Demeter in her temple at Eleusis with his command that she rejoin the company of the gods. Demeter refused to obey. So Zeus sent down all the immortal gods, who approached Demeter one by one, offering any gifts or honors that she might choose. Demeter stubbornly insisted that she would never set foot on Olympus until she with her own eyes saw her daughter again.

Zeus’ Orders to Hades. Thus Zeus was forced to send Hermes down to explain to Hades all that Demeter had said and done; Hermes also delivered the command that Persephone return with him out of the Underworld so that her mother might see her and desist from her wrath. Hades smiled grimly and immediately obeyed Zeus the king. He ordered Persephone to return with a loving heart to her mother; but he also told her that he was not an unworthy husband for her, since he was the full brother of her father Zeus and that while she was with him she would rule as his queen, a great goddess. Those who did not propitiate her power by performing holy rites and sacrifices would find eternal retribution.

Persephone Eats of the Pomegranate. Joyous Persephone jumped up quickly. But (according to the poet of the Hymn) Hades secretly gave his wife the fruit of the pomegranate to eat to ensure the fulfillment of his words to her as her husband; she should not remain the whole year above with her mother Demeter but would rule with him below for part of the time.
He then yoked his immortal horses to his golden chariot, which Persephone mounted. Hermes took the reins, and in no time at all they came to a halt in front of the temple where Demeter waited.

Demeter’s Ecstatic Reunion with Her Daughter. At the sight of her daughter, Demeter rushed out of the temple with the passion of a maenad, and Persephone leaped down from the chariot and ran to meet her mother, throwing her arms around her neck. Immediately Demeter sensed some treachery and asked if Persephone had eaten any food in the Underworld. If she had not, she would live with her father Zeus and mother Demeter above, but if she had eaten anything, she would live a third part of the year in the Underworld and the other two thirds in the upper world. With the burgeoning spring she would wondrously rise again from the gloomy region below. Demeter ended by asking by what trick Hades has deceived her.
Persephone said that she would tell the truth. According to her version (contradicting the description of Hades’ secret deception just given), when she jumped up at the news of her return, Hades swiftly put into her mouth the fruit of the pomegranate and compelled her to eat it by force, against her will. Then Persephone painfully described how Hades carried her off, despite her screams.
Their mutual grief was soothed by their loving and tender embraces. Hecate arrived and affectionately shared their joy. From that time on she became one of Persephone’s attendants.

Demeter Restores Fertility to the Earth. Zeus sent Rhea to lead Demeter back among the gods with the following message. He promised to grant Demeter the honors among the immortals that she would choose, and he consented that her daughter live a third part of the year below and the other two thirds above, with her mother and the other gods. Rhea swiftly rushed down and delivered Zeus’ pronouncements and encouraged Demeter to comply, first by restoring the earth7rsquo;s fertility for mortals. Demeter obeyed. She miraculously caused fruit to spring up from earth that had previously been barren, and the whole land blossomed with flowers.

Demeter Establishes Her Eleusinian Mysteries. Then Demeter went to the leaders of the people of Eleusis and showed them how to perform her sacred rites and taught them her holy mysteries, which no one is allowed in any way to violate, question, or reveal. After she had ordained these things, Demeter and Persephone returned to Olympus. The two goddesses sent to their beloved mortals PLUTUS [plou'tus], or PLOUTOS, a god of agricultural plenty, prosperity, and wealth (not to be confused with Pluto, i.e. Hades).
The following words from the Homeric Hymn promise happiness both in this life and in the next for those who are initiated into Demeter’s ELEUSINIAN [e-lou-sin'i-an] MYSTERIES:
Happy is the one of mortals on earth who has seen these things. But those who are uninitiated into the holy rites and have no part never are destined to a similar joy when they are dead in the gloomy realm below.

Triptolemus. TRIPTOLEMUS [trip-tol'e-mus], or TRIPTOLEMOS, is only mentioned in the hymn, but elsewhere he is made the messenger of Demeter, traveling to teach her agricultural arts in a magical car drawn by winged dragons. He and Demophoön are sometimes confused.


Eleusis is about fourteen miles west of Athens, and the Eleusinian mysteries were closely linked to the religion and politics of Athens itself. There were two major stages to the rituals.

The Lesser Mysteries. Precise details about this first stage celebrated in Athens each year in the early spring are virtually unknown. Ceremonies probably focused upon initial purification.

The Greater Mysteries. These were held annually during the months of September and October. A holy truce was declared to issue invitations to individuals and states. The ceremonies included:

  • Splendid processions between Eleusis and Athens in which the Hiera (“holy objects”) were carried in sacred chests by priests and priestesses.
  • Sacrifices, prayers, and cleansing in the sea.
  • The singing of hymns, the exchange of jests, and the carrying of torches.
  • Fasting, a vigil, and the drinking of the sacred drink, the kykeon.

The ultimate mysteries of Eleusis were expressed visually and orally, and their unwritten secrets have been kept, apparently forever. The heart of the mysteries involved a dramatic performance of some sort, perhaps enacting episodes from the Hymn (e.g., the sufferings and joys of Demeter and her miracles) or presenting a vision of the Afterlife to evoke a religious catharsis.
The revelation of the Hiera (“sacred objects”), (which we cannot identify) was made by a high priest, the Hierophant (“he who reveals the Hiera”), while bathed in mystic light, and he uttered words, the significance of which we do not know.
Of the many guesses made about the nature of the holy objects and the sacred words, the simplest may be correct and the most profound: at their heart was the manifestation of ears of grain, representing Demeter and Persephone’s mystery, which is the mystery of all life.
The New Testament expresses the allegory of spiritual resurrection thus: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

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