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Human Mysteries and Behavior Therapy in Ancient Greece

One day someone asked Chilon of Sparta which were the hardest things of life. He replied without any hesitation:

“The possibility of keeping a secret.”

Yet there were those who knew how to keep secrets, such as the followers of particular religious rites that were well-known as the Eleusinian mysteries. The word mystery derives from the Greek verb miein, meaning

“Keep your mouth hermetically sealed.”

In fact, those who took part in the Mysteries were forbidden to reveal what they had seen and heard. The most famous of all mystery rites were celebrated in honor of the goddess Demeter and of the God Dionysus, also known as  Iaccus or Jacco (Bacchus) at Eleusis, a small town of Attica, near Athens. The celebration of the Mysteries took place from mid-September to the beginning of October. A large crowd of 25 or 30 thousand people flocked there. The gathering of the faithful took place in Athens, because already some days before the statue of Jacco had been brought from Eleusis.  Those who had committed some crime were not allowed to participate in the ceremony, if they didn’t want to incur the wrath of the god Jacco.

The next day, the crowd of faithful walked on the beach to cleanse themselves in the sea water. After bathing, during the next two days the crowd recited prayers together, making obeisance to Iacchus and other acts of devotion.  The morning of the third day, they went to Eleusis to accompany the statue of Iacchus. During the pilgrimage, everyone must walk, pausing at roadside shrines and chapels, so toward evening they came to Eleusis. When they stopped, they lit fires, dancing all around them, still singing hymns; then they rest in preparation for the ceremonies of the next day.  They were just the secret ceremonies of the Mysteries that were held during three consecutive nights in the temple of Demeter. Only initiates would be allowed to attend the secret rites, because initiation was reserved for those who had been engaged in acts of purification and those who were worthy (M. Griffith).

The Mysteries began with the celebration of religious services, during which some paintings representing the life of the Hades were visible to the spectators. The paintings showed the places where the good guys enjoyed their bliss and other places where the bad guys had their penises. After these performances, speeches were made by some priests to invite the faithful to think honestly, to practice all the virtues, to love and to help their fellow men, suggesting the most important criteria for honoring the gods.

The problem is that what we know about the Eleusinian Mysteries is based on external appearance, because, really, the prohibition of divulging the secrets of the Mysteries was always scrupulously respected by all the initiates. We only know a “mysterious formula” with which it is believed that the rites were concluded. It has been handed down to us by Hesychios, and it says:

Pax, konks, epifònema tois tetelesménois.” George Emmanuel Mylonas did an act of charity, writing that

“The meaning of the first two words is uncertain.”  But “it is suggested that they mean enough finished.”  No one has ever understood anything, so the Eleusinian mysteries remain a mystery. Chilon of Sparta would have been very pleased with this. On the other hand, a mystery that is not a mystery is a contradiction in terms.


George Emmanuel Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1961 [Paperback Edition 1969], p. 279.

Mark Griffith, Aristophanes Frogs, in particular the Chapter titled, Initiation and the Eleusinian Mysteries, New York, Oxford University Press, 2013.




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