The Eleusinian Mysteries were a cult associated with the god Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The cult rites were performed at Eleusis because it was there, according to the legend, that Demeter found her daughter again after the latter had been carried off by Pluto. Though the Mysteries may have been performed earlier, it was during the Classical period that they attained a special place in the religious life of Athens.

There are frequent references to the Mysteries in ancient writers, inscriptions, prosopographies of priests, and art. Yet the precise reconstruction of the rite and its philosophical underlay is extremely difficult. The basic reason for this is that a veil of secrecy surrounded the proceedings, inasmuch as the initiates pledged themselves not to make them common knowledge. Hints can be gleaned from Plutarch,

when he refers in his Life of Alcibiades to an attempt - "sacrilegious and ill-tuned " - he and some friends had made to copy the Eleusinian Mysteries and guy them in the privacy of their homes. From the archaeological data we have details about the place and the building in which the Mysteries were celebrated - the great Telesterium at Eleusis.

The festival of the Mysteria took place every year in the month Boedromion (late September). Organizing it was the privilege of two famous clans: the Eumolpids and the Kerykes. The hierophant - the person presiding over the secret rites - was always a Eumolpid; while the dadouchos (torchholder) - who played a key part in the process of initiation - and the hierokeryx (sacred herald) were always Kerykes. The female priest of Demeter worked closely together with the hierophant, residing permanently in the shrine of Eleusis.

It was not only citizen males who had the right to take part, but women, slaves, and non-Athenians. To take part did not necessarily mean that one was initiated, for initiation was a process of personal choice, and might happen either at Eleusis or in the Eleusinium overlooking the Agora at Athens. The aim of being initiated was reconciliation with death and expectation of a life beyond the grave. Hence it had great appeal for the people of that time. The 'Eleusinia' attracted people from not only Hellas but the whole of the Roman Empire later on, celebration of it surviving until the reign of Theodosius.

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