Among the most influential and well-known Greek mysteries were those of the Grain mother and her daughter at Eleusis (21 km northwest of Athens). They were also perhaps the oldest, dating back beyond the seventh century B.C.E., when the so-called Homeric Hymn to Demeter was written, in part, to account for the origins of these rites at Eleusis. The hymn relates the story of a young "maiden" (Kore, also known as Persephone, or Proserpine), who is violently snatched away and raped by Hades, god of the underworld, with the approval of his brother Zeus: “the earth split open wide along the plain and from it the lord host of many, Kronos’ son of many names, darted out on his immortal horses. He grabbed her, resisting and screaming, and took her away in his golden chariot”. The echoing screams reach the maiden’s mother, Demeter, who in grief begins the search for her daughter: “in anger at Zeus, shrouded in clouds, she deserted the gatherings of the gods and went far from Olympus to the cities and farms of men and for a long time disguised her appearance”.
It is this desperate search that ultimately brings Demeter, in disguise, to the town of Eleusis, among the mortals. There she volunteers to care for King Keleos’ son (Demophon). Metaneira, the king’s wife offers Demeter wine, but she requests instead a drink which continued as an important part of the mysteries: the kykeon made from barley groats, water, and pennyroyal. As nurse, Demeter secretly feeds the boy the food of the gods and places him in a flame that will give him the status of a god, apparently attempting to fill some of the void left by the absence of her goddess daughter. When Demeter is discovered by the boy’s mother, Metaneira (which foils the plans to make Demophon immortal), the goddess reveals herself in a grand epiphany and demands that a temple and an altar be built in her honour. “I myself will establish rites so that henceforth you may celebrate them purely and propitiate my mind”.
Demeter’s inability to find her daughter leads her not only to abandon her place among the Olympian gods, but also to cause havoc on earth by withdrawing her seed (she herself represents the mature grain) from the earth. The famine causes further chaos both on earth, as humans begin to waste away, and in the realm of the gods. The symbiotic relation between humans and the gods is threatened by the destruction of humankind, since the gods depend on humans’ “glorious honour of offerings and sacrifices”. Zeus, king of the gods, must find a solution. At first he sends several messengers to convince Demeter, bearer of fruit, to lift the famine. Yet Demeter refuses anything but the return of her daughter, Persephone (= Kore). Finally, Zeus must find a compromise and so Persephone is returned to her mother. But Hades had secretly planted in Persephone’s food a pomegranate seed which ensured her connection to the underworld. The result is that Persephone will live with her mother for two-thirds of the year, when the fields were fruitful, and in the “misty darkness” of the underworld for the third part of the year, when seeds did not grow.
Despite the fact that Persephone will spend part of the year with her new husband beneath the earth, Demeter and Persephone were overjoyed at their reunion: “with minds in concord they spent the whole day warming their hearts and minds, showering much love on each other, and her mind found respite from its griefs, and they gave and received joys from each other”. The hymn finishes with the return of agricultural fertility and Demeter’s more detailed introduction of the “holy things” and “sacred rites” that were to be performed in her temple at Eleusis. These were mysteries “which it is forbidden to transgress, to inquire into, or to speak about, for great reverence of the gods constrains their voice. Blessed of earthbound men is he who has seen these things, but he who dies without fulfilling the holy things, and he who is without a share in them, has no claim ever on such blessings, even when departed down to the moldy darkness”. Those who were initiated in the mysteries could count on special blessings, gifts, or benefactions from the goddesses.
Despite this secrecy surrounding Demeter’s rites at Eleusis, we do know something about the public dimensions of the festivities from literature and archeology. Initiation was open to all Greek-speaking men, women, and children who had not tainted their hands with the blood of another (murder). There were two main festivals associated with the mysteries at Eleusis: 1) the "lesser mysteries" in the month of Anthesterion (February) which took place in Athens itself and were in some sense preparatory for full initiation, and 2) the "greater mysteries" which were celebrated in the month of Boedromion (late September-early October) and were the more important of the two. A final stage of initiation, which only some achieved, was the "viewing" (epopteia) which took place a year (or more) after the main initiation of the greater mysteries (we know little about the details); the mysteries at Samothrace also had a secondary "viewing" stage of initiation.
The greater mysteries at Eleusis lasted for nine days. In preparation, the youths (ephebes) brought the sacred objects (under the direction of the Hierophant, the revealer of the sacred objects) from the inner-sanctum (Anaktoron) at Eleusis back to Athens (14th of Boedromion). Then the festival officially began with a proclamation by the sacred-announcer (Hierokeryx) on the 15th of the month. Those who wished to be initiated then began several days of preparation which centered on purification in the sea and sacrificing piglets (18th). On the 19th, the important Iacchos procession, or parade, from Athens to Eleusis took place. This involved the initiates-to-be along with all the main functionaries in the cult of Eleusis, including the hierophant, the priestess of Demeter, the male torch-bearer, the female torch-bearer assistants, the mystogogues (sponsors of each potential initiate), and others. It seems that Iacchos was a god that personified the joyous shout which the initiates-to-be repeated as they processed towards Eleusis. Aristophanes’ play, The Frogs, provides a sense of the atmosphere and activities that took place as part of this procession. The characters in the play speak of the “crackle and smell of torches” and the dancing and singing that went on as the parade made its way to Eleusis with the ritual cry: “Iacchos, Iacchos, Iacchos, O Iacchos!” Upon breaking their preparatory fast, it seems that initiates would drink the kykeon, which Demeter drank in the hymn, in preparation for the final ceremony.
The culmination of the festival was the initiation proper, which took place at night within the central initiation-hall. Excavations of the Telesterion, which was quite large (30m x 27m in late sixth century BCE), reveal something of what went on there. Columns supported the raised structure which was equipped with seating on the sides of the hall, where initiates-to-be sat. Within the hall was a smaller rectangular room, the Anaktoron, which would have housed the sacred objects. Only the hierophant (chosen from the Eumolpid family) could enter into this room at a particular point in the initiation ceremony. He would then reveal these objects at the culmination of the ceremony. Although we lack direct evidence, it seems likely that the story of Demeter and Kore played some role in the secret ceremonies. Participants likely participated in a re-enactment of the myth and identified with these divine figures, especially with the grief of Demeter in her search and with the joyous reunion of the two. We know almost nothing about the rest of the ceremonies since ancient authors who were initiates were careful not to let the secret out, and there were enforced laws for revealing the final secrets of the mysteries.
Later Christian authors, who were less concerned with keeping the secret and were also critics of the practices, hint at some of the key symbols and activities that they felt were involved. However, it is important to recognize that the church fathers are inclined not only to criticize the mysteries but also to blend together (and distort) practices associated with different mysteries. Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that Clement of Alexandria, for instance, preserves what he claims is a formula pronounced by the initiate-to-be: “I have fasted; I have drunk the kykeon; I have taken from the chest (kiste); having done the work; I have placed in the basket (kalathos), and from the basket into the chest” (Meyer 1987:18). This seems to allude to the initiate’s handling and viewing of sacred objects. Others, such as Hippolytus draw attention to the agricultural meaning of the activities, mentioning that the cry of “Rain! Conceive!” was central. Hippolytus also suggests that the most sacred object was, in fact, a single head of grain, but this, again, simply points to the well-known fact that Demeter's mysteries were linked with the agricultural cycle and fertility. As in the mysteries generally, it was the atmosphere and broader context in which the holy objects were viewed--more so than the objects themselves--which made this a highly significant experience for the initiate.
When initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries was complete, the individual initiates returned to their homes throughout the Greek or Roman worlds. Although not all initiates in the Eleusinian mysteries joined with others to form associations, there are indeed clear cases where devotees of Demeter and Kore, who also engaged in their own local mysteries (apart from Eleusis), did form such groups.