The date on which the Rites of Eleusis began is as uncertain as the name of their founder, but we do know that they were observed annually from around 1450 BCE to 390 CE, and were broken into two events that occurred at different times of the year.
The so-called Lesser Mysteries took place in the spring, at a suburb of Athens called Agrae, and involved a purification rite that qualified candidates for their upcoming initiation. After paying the requisite fees to the high priests and organisers, each participant was required to sacrifice a piglet to the Greek goddesses Demeter and Persephone, and then ritually purify themselves in the nearby river Illisos. This occult drama was said to wash away the sufferings of a soul tethered to a material body, and make initiates worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries, which occurred at Eleusis during September, near the time of the autumnal equinox.
The solemn procession which took place later in the year was symbolic of the journey to the underworld that Demeter is said to have made in search of her daughter Persephone, after she was abducted by Hades, or the lord of death. As the Homeric Hymn relates the Greek myth, the Earth Mother is accompanied in her search by her son Iacchus – often identified in inscriptions with Dionysus – who holds aloft a torch to illuminate the darkness ahead. Despite traveling far and wide, their quest ends fruitlessly, and in her distress, Demeter brings a drought upon the world as a means of compelling the Greek gods to demand Persephone’s return. At the command of Zeus, Demeter’s wife, Hades is eventually forced to relent, and he permits Persephone to exit the underworld. However, her leave is forever rendered temporary because of her consumption of six pomegranate seeds, which commits the fair maiden to return to the realm of departed souls for several months each year. And so, with cyclic regularity, the Earth Mother must prevent the growth of vegetation across the land in order to facilitate her daughter’s continual reappearance.
In observance of this ancient myth of the seasons, when summer grew late and the leaves turned ochre and began to fall, the purified would gather in Athen’s streets to commence their pilgrimage along the Sacred Road. Upon leaving the city gates, initiates crossed a narrow bridge connecting them to an ancient burial ground, which was believed to ensure the fertility of the surrounding land. As they made their way over the water to the opposing bank, masked men lining the bridge jeered and shouted profanities at them, symbolising the difficult journey between the two worlds. After passing through the burial site, initiates climbed the low crest of the mountain that skirts the western limit of the Attic plain. There, participants paused to catch their breath amid a grove of laurel trees, before descending the low ridge to cross fertile Rarian land, where the first grain was said to have been sown. Tracking the landlocked bay of Eleusis, as they chanted a hymn to Iacchus, initiates saw ahead of them, at the southern extremity of the plain, the principal object of their pilgrimage: the great telesterion and its unmistakeable lantern, held aloft by Philon’s portico of twelve Doric columns, between which could be perceived only the faintest silhouette of the inner sanctum, where their spiritual chrysalis would soon take place.
As the nature of this procession suggests, Persephone’s abduction and subsequent marriage to Hades allowed her to personify for initiates both the Cthonic queen of death and the goddess of fertility. At the same time, her eternal return revivified in their minds the prospect of immortality, which explains why the mythos of Demeter and Persephone is mimetic of the death-rebirth experience that awaited every soul in the sacred initiation hall.