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: The initiation to women’s cults in the Mysteries of the ancient world /1
Topic:Esotericism Reading
Esotericism ReadingIn the ancient world it was believed that the Isiac, luminous, sapiential and transforming aspect was potentially present in every woman, but that it had to be reawakened through the initiation to Mysteries. Furthermore, initiation to the Mysteries put the neophytes in contact with the powers of fertility and regeneration, through a passage by death and afterlife, as we will see.

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The initiation to women’s cults in the Mysteries of the ancient world

by Alessandro Orlandi

written for Esonet.it


In the ancient world it was believed that the Isiac, luminous, sapiential and transforming aspect was potentially present in every woman, but that it had to be reawakened through the initiation to Mysteries. Furthermore, initiation to the Mysteries put the neophytes in contact with the powers of fertility and regeneration, through a passage by death and afterlife, as we will see.

The initiation to the Mysteries played a fundamental role in the existence of those who approached them; the fact that throughout many centuries of initiations (from Eleusina, to the Mysteries of Dionysus, from the Isiac to Cybele and Mythra), nobody has ever broken the oath of secrecy taken at the moment of initiation, testifies how sacred it must have been considered. In actual fact, the very little we know about it is the result of a thorough collage of a myriad of unconnected fragments, many of which are comments by Christians, mostly making sure to devalue and rescale the Mysteries. Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch, Sophocles and Euripides, just to mention the best known, tell us that the person who received the initiation was destined, after his death, to a luminous fate, completely different from all other mortals. After all, many testimonies of people initiated to the Mysteries talk about an indescribably miraculous experience that irreversibly transformed the person who took part in them.

Our research will be helped by some of the myths that the initiates were told and that have reached us – although they must have had a different meaning for them – and with the little we know about the cult. We will try and reconstruct what this luminous fate could be and through which way the soul managed to transform itself so radically.

Eleusinian mysteries

The first archaeological testimonies date back to the eighth century B.C., whilst the destruction of the shrine in Eleusis by the Goths can be dated around the end of the fourth century A.D. (but the cult had been forbidden a few years earlier by the emperor Theodosius). The cult was devoted to the two goddesses Demeter and Persephone. The root of the name ‘Demeter’ would be ‘Mother Grain’, which connects her to the cycle of wheat and Nature.
The etymology of Persephone can be traced back to fero and foneuo, or ferbo and foneuo, in the first case ‘she who brings destruction’, in the second ‘she who feeds and kills all’. Demeter, corresponding to the Latin Ceres, was not only a goddess of crops and renewal of nature, as it is generally thought. Ceres’ priests in Rome were builders that also administered the law (Bachofen, 3.18, 22, 23).
Calvo says: ‘Demeter established the sacred laws, joined the bodies of the lovers in the night and founded great cities’.

Demeter and Persephone with Triptolemus

The Myth

Persephone, daughter of Demeter and Zeus, is abducted by Hades, who takes her into the underworld with his winged cart, whilst she picks daffodils (or poppies) in a field [where, in some versions, she loses a shoe]. When she doesn’t go back home, Demeter desperately looks for her. Helios (or Hecate or Eubuleus) tells the latter about the abduction, and she then wanders the earth with a torch in search of the lost daughter. Disguised as an old veiled woman, she reaches Eleusis, in the kingdom of Celeus, where she is offered to nurse Demophon, son of the king. The servant Jambe [1]  relieves her anguish with obscene jests and jokes (according to other versions, the person who makes her laugh is the pot-bellied Baubo together with her husband Dysaules; Baubo shows her the child Iacchus that peeps out of her thighs as if he was just born). The queen offers her some wine, but Demeter refuses and prepares a drink with water, flour and bran, the kikeion, later destined to the initiates of her Mysteries. She is discovered whilst she purifies Demophon with fire to make him immortal and she reveals herself, causing the building of a temple in her honor. Wrapped up in her suffering, she prevents the land from giving fruits, until Hermes, sent by Zeus, convinces Hades to let Persephone go back to her mother. But Ascalaphus, the gardener of the underworld, convinces Persephone to eat seven grains of pomegranate [2], after which she is forced to go back to the underworld every year, during the winter. According to other versions Triptolemus, the ‘three-fold warrior’, brother of Eubuleus (both children of Dysaules and Baubo) brings Persephone back to earth, which is the reason why Demeter establishes the Mysteries and teaches men how to grow wheat. Triptolemus is identified, in the underworld, with Dionysus and there is mention of an underground marriage between Dionysus and Persephone; the child Brimo, born from this marriage, is also identified with Dionysus. A fragment by Heraclitus says: ‘In truth, Dionysus and Hades is the same god’.

The mysteries of the two goddesses took place at two different times of the year. During the month of Anthesterion (spring equinox) the ‘small mysteries’ took place; the initiates were prepared to the following revelation and learnt certain details of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, reaching the status of mystai. In the small mysteries, after the sacrifice of a sow, the initiates underwent the trials of the four elements. The ‘great mysteries’ occurred during the month of Boedromion (autumnal equinox) and they were reserved to the people who were destined to have the transforming vision, the epoptai.

The initiation was carried out in an underground hall of the temple called Telesterion; the initiates were called mystagogoi [3]. Just before entering the Telesterion they were given the kikeion and it is thought that the drink had hallucinogenic effects, thanks to the presence of claviceps purpurea, a fungus that grows on the ears of rye.

Porphyry reports that the Eleusinian ceremonies were closed by uttering the sentence: Konx om pax’ [4].

The Great Mysteries were carried out as follows. The ghenos of the Eumolpidae chose the best priest, the hierophant who dealt with the ‘vision’, viz. the representation of Hades’ abduction of Persephone and their marriage. The announcement of the birth of Iacchus-Dionysus followed. The names of the priests that officiated could not be pronounced, they were engraved into bronze or lead boards and then committed to the depth of the sea. The torch bearers were part of the same family, too. Later the aspirants to the initiation marched towards the Faliro bay, where they dived to be purified, recapturing the initiatory dive by Eumolpus, the hero founder of the cult, thrown into the sea by his own mother.

The following day the procession took place, and the whole people took part in it.

The aspirants and the initiates that had left the Telesterion showed the sacred objects.

The objects consecrated to the cult were:

    - Demeter’s torch,
    - the ear of rye,
    - a mysterious box that often Kore holds in her hands (we will go back to it when we will talk about the myth of Cupid and Psyche),
    - a gold branch to appease Cerberus,
    - the pomegranate,
    - a piglet.

The Thesmophoria in honor of Demeter (Thesmos: ancient laws. Initiator of the laws, through agriculture that led to civil life) were celebrations carried out in the fall; only women married to Athenian men could take part. Men were forbidden from accessing their secret execution, since they were feasts of feminine identity. [5]

The Eleusinian Mysteries were a rite of transformation that involved many aspects: physical, psychological, spiritual.

First of all it was a Rite of Passage from adolescence (Kore) to adulthood (Demeter), through which women became aware of their power to give life and to provoke and revive desire. This rite of passage wasn’t only an individual fact, though; the whole Nature followed the fate of Kore, abducted by Hades in the underworld, sinking underground during fall and winter. The birth of Iacchus – Dionysus in the secret of Telesterion didn’t only mark a transition from child to woman. The rite involved all the female forces of nature, the forces of growth and regeneration; the woman recognized in herself the same spark that every year lights up in the world during the winter solstice, which drives the lymph up the trees trunk, makes flowers blossom, animals desire each other, then mate and reproduce; crop gives fruit, the climate becomes warmer and there are more hours of light than dark. The cult of Demeter, though, didn’t only refer to the cyclic renewal of Nature.

Fundamental point of this transformation, of this reversal, this awareness of the immense feminine power, was the experience of death, the descent in the Underworld and the contact with the divine aspect of death that culminates in the Epopteia, the transforming vision.

Blessed is the man who has seen!’- says the Homeric hymn; in his treaty on soul, Plutarch says that death and its horrors turn into beatitude of the soul and that the initiate that has gone through the vision doesn’t doubt any more of his fate of salvation whilst the others, the non-initiates, are damned.

In his furious Heracles, Euripides makes Heracles, who defeated Cerberus and came back safe and sound from the underworld, say: ‘I have been able to do so much because I saw the sacred actions of Eleusis’.

Which was, then, the mysterious vision destined to the initiates in the secret of the Telesterion? From Clement of Alexandria we know that the initiate had to pronounce this sentence: ‘I fasted, I drank the potion, I took from the basket, after manipulating I put back in the hamper, then in the basket’.

Then comes the vision, the epopteia, after which the Hierophant, the miste (the initiate, Note of the Translator) belonging to the ghenos of the Eumolpides that carried out the rite, showed the initiate an ear of corn, in silence. Finally there is the birth of Iacchus – Dionysus – Brimos, a divine child born from Persephone and Dionysus (or Triptolemus), or from Demeter and Zeus or Triptolemus, announced with the words: ‘The queen Brimo gave birth to the sacred child Brimos (the furious)’. [6]

What did the basket contain? Walter Otto observes that the structure of the Telesterion, full of pillars, and the Eleusinian account books exclude any theatrical form that is not extremely simple and hypothesizes that the initiates witnessed a proper miracle, an epiphany of Persephone (Apollodorus tells us that in the instant when the Kore was evoked, the hierophant struck the bronze gong, called echeion, that opened the kingdom of the dead wide), an immediate maturation of an ear of corn under the astonished eyes of the witnesses, and, as we will see later, talking about the Mystery villa in Pompeii, we can assume that the basket mentioned by Clement of Alexandria contained a wooden phallus. We can also assume that this object, drawing energies from the initiates, went up in the air by itself, against any law of gravity, portraying the reawakening of the forces of Nature and the ghenos. [7] What we don’t know is if these ‘miracles’ were the result of skilled tricks or real sacred work.

Let’s now explore certain aspects of the myth and what we know about the ritual that accompanied the Mysteries.

Demeter’s laugh. The old Baubo (or the servant Jambe) causes Demeter to laugh and drives away her sadness. This laugh, like many other forms of humor, is linked to strabismus, seeing two antithetical things at the same time; under the belly of the old fat woman a child peeps out, as if he was just born and Baubo/Jambe accompanies the action of covering her thighs with jokes and obscene insults, which nobody would expect from her. The sterile womb of the old woman represents the sterile womb of the earth and at the same time it is the part of the soul that has never lived and given fruit. It is not a coincidence that sense of humor is also called ‘spirito’ in Italian; tricksters and sorcerers use jokes to make their adepts progress. The strabismus characteristic of this kind of witticism is a preparation to the journey in the afterworld, to a kind of perception that goes beyond the rigid separation between Self and World, between here and there, wake and sleep, life and afterlife, mask and face. We must not underestimate the value of this aspect. Aristophanes tells us: ‘Athenian women, whilst traveling on carts to celebrate the Mysteries, exchanged insults and laughed; these were called the ‘insults of the cart’. They insulted each other because they thought that when Demeter arrived in Eleusis for the first time, looking for Kore, she was very upset and Jambe, Celeus and Metanira’s servant, drove her to laugh by insulting her’.

Furthermore, let’s remember that in ancient Rome the fetes in honor of Cybele, the Great Mother, were celebrated between the 15th and the 27th March; one of the days, the 25th March, was dedicated to a fete called Hilaria, during which for a whole day the followers of the goddess Cybele exchanged jokes and obscene words and laughed continuously to celebrate the resurrection of Attis.

The Pomegranate. Persephone is forced to go back to the underworld because she is tempted to eat seven grains of pomegranate. As it often happens with symbols, it is likely that these seven grains had two opposite and complementary meanings; they represent the seven dismembered parts of Dionysus’ body (as well as the four phases of the lunar cycle, each of seven days). On one hand these grains remind us that what leads us to death is fragmentation, the power of identifications and projections (when Dionysus is dismembered by the Titans, is looking at himself in the mirror, which cracks). On the other hand, after the passage from the Hades, ‘to eat the grains’ might mean to gather what is scattered, re-unifying Dionysus’ dismembered body and causing its resurrection.

The underworld marriage of Persephone with Dionysus and with Hades. What did this marriage mean from a spiritual point of view?

In the sacred marriage, the female was considered by men as a saving power of knowledge and transformation, a guide of his inner journey (Sophia, Virgin Mary, Isis, Athena, Tara, the alchemic Queen). The woman, on the contrary, considered man as an active force aimed at achieving high goals, a force made fertile and aware by the meeting with the female energies and that exalted their value and function. The marriage with Dionysus and the rites of death and resurrection of the initiates to the mysteries elevated the female principle to source of light and redemption [8].

Dionysus was the god that expressed all the male potential, all grades of virility, from the infernal to the heavenly ones, in a continuous interpenetration between sensitive and over-sensitive aspects, between physical and psychic beauty, between art and idea. Furthermore, Dionysus was the designated groom for young girls prematurely dead and the marriage with the god involved the joining with the essence of the vital spark that animates all living beings, the celestial fire that makes wine ferment in barrels and gives blood its vital energy.

Dionysus’ task was to harmonize sensuality and erotic-sensual drives with the desire for eternal unity with the loved being [9]. Bachofen in ‘Matriarchy’ and Kerenyi in ‘Dionysus’ state that the ‘women’s god’ embodies the two aspects of Eros that feminine psychic evolution must blend. They are the lower aspect of ‘ethereal tellurism’, the impure Eros of corrupt depths, the god connected to the death of young energies, to the earthly Aphrodite and indiscriminate eroticism and Uranian Eros, Psyche’s lover, connected to the celestial Aphrodite, to the sacred marriage and the eternal unification with the loved being. ‘A superior spiritual existence must necessarily blend on the harmony with physical existence’, says Bachofen in ‘Matriarchy’ [10].

The cult of the god was therefore perfectly compatible with the status of married woman [11] and it represented the attempt to subdue the unrestrained and incontrollable powers of Eros and life, after evoking them through the ordaining principles of rhythm and dance.



1. Some scholars think that Iambic verses take their name from Jambe. (back to main article)

2. Traditionally, they represented the flesh and blood of Dionysus, dismembered by the Titans in seven parts. (back to main article)

3. In classical times, the ceremonies cost 15 drachmas; some Eleusinian families were designated to manage it. The main family was the Eumolpides (Eumolpus = the good bard), descendents of Eumolpus, first priest of Demeter. During the great Mysteries, celebrated with the waning moon, the veiled initiates dived in the sea before starting the rites. During one of the stages of initiation the neophyte had right hand and left foot tied with a yellow ribbon. He also had to admit to his faults and drink the ‘water of oblivion’. During the procession they were crowned with a crown of mirth and white poplar leaves were used [consecrated to Persephone; white poplar was used to make coffins]. (back to main article)

4. They are not Greek words and Schuré thinks that they have Indo-European origins. Wilford thinks that they come from Sanskrit: ‘Konx’ could derive from ‘kansha’ (‘object of intense desire’); ‘om’ from ‘oum’ and ‘pax’ from ‘pasha’ (exchange, cycle). The expression could therefore mean: ‘back to the universal soul’. (back to main article)

5. During the rites, the remains of sacrificed animals (pigs), sexual symbols made of dough, branches of pine (an evergreen linked to the Dionysian cult), were thrown into pits. Later, the remains were gathered, arranged on altars and burnt. The ashes were mixed with the seeds to sow, thinking that this would make the crop abundant. It was a sort of fertility ritual. The swine was introduced in the ritual as homage to Eubuleus, guardian of pigs, son of the priest Trokhilos and brother of Triptolemus. Eubuleus’ swine would sink in the same pit where Persephone fell. During the mysteries of the goddess, the women could not mention the father or the son...The swine was connected to the mysteries also because mainly fed on wheat (during the Thesmophoria women ate pork and for a day they only fed on pomegranate, strictly forbidden during the remaining days) and because Eubuleus’ pigs sank in the abyss with Persephone. (back to main article)

6. According to Asterion and Clement of Alexandria, the priest and priestess of Demeter joined carnally but, if we leave out the Christian slander, we know that this was only a ritual joining; the priest got rid of his virility with an application of hemlock and sometimes this joining was symbolically represented by sliding a wooden phallus into a female boot. (back to main article)

7. Snakes and phalluses were connected to the cult of ancestors as well. (back to main article)

8. Hades and the underworld can represent a world of male desires and passion that immature girls fear and don’t know. They feel chosen and desired for feminine characteristics of seduction and prettiness that they haven’t yet accepted as their own. (back to main article)

9. The well-known fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’ has a similar meaning. Here the prince, wrapped into an animal shape, must be cared for and loved by Beauty for a whole year in that shape, in order to turn back into a handsome man. Likewise, Dionysus, present in every man like divine aspect of his virility, had to be accepted and loved for his primary and instinctual part in order to free the Sublime aspect of self. (back to main article)

10. The God was often accompanied by a panther, an animal that, according to the myth, was characterized by a sensual fragrance given off both by its body and its breath. According to Detienne [see M. Detienne, Dionysus and the fragrant panther, Rome-Bari 1983], the panther represented, in Greek imagination, the aspect of desire inspired by the feminine body and its fragrances. The smell attributed to the panther leads us to believe that it represented the ‘subtlest’ aspects of seduction. The orgiastic folly and copulative impetuousness of Dionysus’ cortege, viz. the Maenads, according to the Greek mentality were not immoral, but rather deserving of worshipping and sacred, because they manifested themselves under the aegis of a god that represented, at the same time, the sacred love of the wife for her husband, the love for the male winged ideal and for the pure spiritual principle. In other words, sexuality was experienced depending on the purpose for which it had been given to women as living beings. (back to main article)

11. Even though Hera’s and Dionysus’ priestesses could not talk to each other and it was forbidden to introduce ivy in Hera’s temples. (back to main article)

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