The Eleusinian Mysteries
Once a month here on the Molten Sulfur Blog, I run content taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!
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Eleusis was a city in ancient Greece where, according to Homer’s Hymn to Demeter, the earth goddess Demeter traveled, disguised as an old woman. She was searching for her daughter, Persephone, who had been abducted by the god of the underworld, Hades. Demeter’s grief caused crop failure and famine. After some time, Zeus, the king of the gods, persuaded Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Hades agreed, but only to return Persephone for half of the year. During this half, Demeter’s joy caused the world to be fruitful, but while Persephone was back in the Underworld, plants withered. Thus were the seasons explained. When Demeter’s grief was strongest during her search for Persephone, she took shelter in Eleusis. Thus, mortal celebrations of Persephone’s travels were tied to the city, hence the Eleusinian Mysteries.
There were two kinds of mysteries. The Lesser Mysteries took place in the spring, supposedly celebrating Persephone’s return to Earth. The Greater Mysteries occurred in the fall, supposedly celebrating her return to the Underworld. Initiates specially chosen for the Lesser Mysteries would start their journey walking along the Sacred Way, a path from Athens to Eleusis. Along the way they called out for Persephone, re-enacting Demeter’s search for her daughter. At Eleusis, they would rest and fast, then drink a beverage called Kykeon. Kykeon was supposedly a barley and mint drink infused with the psychotropic fungus ergot. After drinking, the initiates entered an underground theatre where the true mysteries took place. The Greater Mysteries included a ritual cleansing bath and completion of another unknown central rite. These acts completed initiation.
The rites, cultic worships, and beliefs were kept secret. They were believed to unite the worshippers with the gods and grant them divine power and rewards in the afterlife. Something was recited, something was revealed, and acts were performed, but to this day, no specifics have been discovered. Since the rituals were tied to Persephone, it is believed they centered around rebirth. Whatever did happen in the underground theatre radically changed those who participated, as initiates supposedly no longer feared death.
Anyone who was a ‘celebrity’ of the ancient Greek world was likely an initiate in the Mysteries at some point, but speaking about the rituals was forbidden. One man by the name of Diagoras of Melos revealed a secret and supposedly acted out the Mysteries in the town square. Athens put a price on his head: one talent if killed, two talents if captured alive. To put it in perspective, one talent was enough to pay for a warship, both equipment and the crew’s wages, for a month. The politician and general Alcibiades – beloved by the Athenians at the time – profaned the mysteries and was nearly executed for it. One of the only ways to escape conviction was to prove you were never initiated.
The only information discovered that may detail the Mysteries are from Christian writers who tried to condemn them as pagan abominations. The Eleusinian Mysteries were shut down by the Christian Emperor Theodosius in 392 A.D. He saw the rites as resistance to Christianity and the truth of Christ. The temple of Demeter and every sacred site in Eleusis were demolished by Christians in 396 A.D.
Eleusinian Mysteries in Play
The best thing about mysteries is that they can be anything at the table given the right context. Maybe deities visited the mortals during the Mysteries and granted them divine power. Maybe your PCs are invited to be initiates. Perhaps they aren’t, but try to spy on the rites, risking severe punishment. The Mysteries are good events for your party to meet some important NPCs as fellow initiates. The Mysteries could also be a place where some of your PCs are blessed with magic from the divine, or cursed if they are spies.