Temple of Demeter in Eleusis
Temple of Demeter in Eleusis

Eleusis was a city in Attica in Greece, located some 12 miles northwest of Athens. From early times Eleusis was associated with the Eleusinian mystery rites of Demeter, a Mother Goddess figure and maternal figure of power, and the development of a cult that existed since the early Greek culture of the Cyclades islands. Festivals like the Eleusinian Mysteries were part of the annual celebration of birth and rebirth in the early Mediterranean.

The rites also included worship of the god of wine and pleasure, Bacchus (or Dionysus). While Athens took over the rites around 600 b.c.e., there is much evidence that the mystery rites had their origin in the dawn of Greek civilization and formed a part with the Mother Goddess cults found throughout both the western and eastern Mediterranean in ancient times.

The festivals, as fertility rites, can only be fully understood when they are viewed as only the first act of a two-act annual drama. What was actually the first act was held in the spring at Agrae, the Lesser Mysteries.

This corresponds with the traditional time of sowing the new crops and the joy of rebirth. The mystery celebration at Eleusis marked not only the harvest, but the hope that life would return again after the winter, as Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, would return from the Underworld, or Hades.

It is possible that in the earliest times the mysteries also included human sacrifice, with the shedding of the blood of the sacrificial victim offered to bring fertility back to the land. Even into classic Grecian times after 600 b.c.e. the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries formed a major milestone in Greek religion.

However, something—a taboo or a fear of retaliation from the gods or those who celebrated the mysteries—kept even the most rational minds of the day from relating what happened at the Eleusinian Mysteries, or even about the buildings used in their celebration.