Can Psychohistory Illuminate the Mysteries of Eleusis?
Todd Swanson, MPA, MA

So very difficult a matter is it to trace And find out the truth of anything by
Plutarch: Life of Pericles

A Skeptic’s Query

Picture the disciplines of history And psychology as great rivers
cascading down the timelines of human existence.  One can vividly
imagine the turbulence generated at their confluence.  This image
represents the tumult that has characterized the field of psychohistory
since its early twentieth century origins.

A skeptic might ask:  If twenty-first century science is unable to fully
determine the cause of an action of an individual or group in modern
America, how can one hope to explain actions of groups in Greece, eight
centuries before the birth of Christ?

Let’s amplify the skeptic’s concern.  We are separated, s/he may insist by
time, culture, language And experience.  We may have written documents,
but do we understand what the words meant when they were written? We
may have access to visual arts, but do gestures And symbols contained
within convey the same meaning over thousands of years?  Lastly, even if
one could dutifully trace the etymology of a word, or development of a
symbol over time, how can one discern meaning of an event purposefully
hidden, whose history is lost or at best hidden in shadows?  
This precise situation faces the person who studies the greatest of
classical religious movements:  the Eleusinian Mysteries.  What we know
of this cult born in Eleusis are often mere fragments bracketed with
silence, warnings,  And somewhat suspect accounts of apologists.  
Adherents to the cult were bound by silence; opponents to the cult
generally did not participate in it.  An example of the former is the Roman
Emperor Julian (known as “the Apostate”), who attempted to revive Greek
And Roman religion And ritual after the triumph of Christianity.  He
pondered:  “Ought I to say something on this subject also?  And shall I
write about things not to be spoken of And divulge what ought not to be
divulged?  Shall I utter the unutterable?”   An extreme example of the latter
is Diagoras of Melitos who is said to have told everyone the secret of
Eleusis making it seem unimportant.   Sadly, although Diagoras shouted
in the marketplace, his words were never quoted in the ancient writings.

Aristotle wrote the Mysteries contained “not a lesson to learn, but an
experience to undergo And a condition into which they (the initiates) must
be brought, while they are becoming fit (for revelation”).   In another place
describing the cathartic cures of drama, Aristotle describes the results of
initiation:  “All who use these rites experience release mixed with joy.”

The historian Plutarch noted the similarity of the Greek verbs teleutan (to
die) And teleishai (to be initiated).  He observed that people who die And
people who are initiated undergo comparable transformations.    

The Experience Described

Revealing the Mysteries was considered an act of impiety punishable by
death.  This accounts for classical authors’ reticence on this matter.  One
method of obtaining a general sense of the experience is to assemble the
accounts from a variety of sources describing the Mysteries.  This is
perilous because these accounts are disconnected by hundreds of years.  
However, taking this leap, the following description coalesces.  The
initiates’ testimony speak of the Mysteries as “the most frightening And
most resplendent.”   
Imagine a multitude gathering two thousand years ago.  As dusk falls,
thousands of torches blaze under star strewn skies. Suddenly, those
gathered are thrust into a frenetic dance.  Loud cries punctuate the din of
stamping feet.   They push And jostle each other amid tumult And
shouting.   The initiates wander, And run about in circles over uncertain
roads.   So much dust rises from this human stampede that from miles
away an army mistakes the dust cloud for an opposing army on the
march.  Almost violently, the initiates try to gain entrance to the great hall
of initiation.  Night falls.  Suddenly a gong sounds.  An enormous burst of
fire fills the sky.  The initiates experience the most bloodcurdling
sensations of horror And the most enthusiastic ecstasy of joy; then, just
before the end, There are all kinds of terrors, with shivering, trembling,
sweating, And utter amazement.   Filled with horror And astonishment,
initiates are seized with loneliness And total perplexity.  Unable to move a
step forward, they are at a loss to find the entrance to the way that leads to
where they aspire.   Filled with horror And astonishment, initiates able to
find their way thrill with rapture.”   A goddess appears.  The initiates enter
clean And verdant meadows, where gentle voices, choric dances, And the
majesty of holy sounds And sacred visions surround.  Looking down
upon the uninitiated And unpurified crowd below in the mud And fog,
trampling itself down And crowded together, initiates are unable to believe
in the blessings that lie beyond.”   The metanoia And conversion that
results leave the initiates feeling “thrice blessed” because “Only for them
is There life; all the rest suffer an evil lot.”   Mystic views abound, along
with strange sounds.  Darkness And light appear in sudden changes.    
Beauty shone bright amidst these visions.   “The thing is great, it is
mystical,”  the initiates proclaim.  At the conclusion, the initiate “came out
of the mystery hall feeling like a stranger.”

Genesis of a Cult

Within the classical world of Greece And Rome, the Eleusinian Mysteries
were the largest And most famous of the Mystery Cults.  Burkert defined
the Mystery Religions as “initiation rituals of a voluntary, personal, And
secret character that aimed at a change of mind through experience of the
sacred.”   Begun as a local cult over three thousand years ago in the city
of Eleusis, a day’s walk from Athens, the Eleusinian Mysteries presented
an intense family drama.  Held annually in late September- early October
over a nine-day period, the Mysteries were open to all who understood the
Greek language And were without, or purified from, bloodguilt.    

Participation in Groups

Until modern times, mass gatherings of people occurred primarily in wars,
revolutions And religious movements.  The original Olympic Games, an
event in Classical times as thoroughly sacred as athletic, drew up to fifty-
thousand participants, vastly larger than the populations of most city-
states of the period.  The Eleusinian Mysteries rivaled this concentration
of humanity.

In the contemporary world, why are sports stadiums packed with
spectators  when the vast majority could better see And follow the game
watching on TV?    The answer lies partly in the excitement And
immediacy of the crowd that generates And channels powerful,
stimulating emotions.  

There’s a connection between spectators in a modern soccer stadium, the
original Olympic games straddling the border between the sacred And the
profane And mystery cults such as Eleusis.  At Eleusis, prayer was raised
in the midst of a glorious clamor.  The sky pierced with shouts, the earth
threaded with activity.  This generated movement swirled like rushing
water into a hollow, spinning, winding And thrusting out to follow a course
predetermined by all events surrounding it.  

Such would be the mood of the procession of Iacchos, one of the great
events that initiated the Mysteries.  The clamorous procession danced its
fourteen miles from Athens to Eleusis.  Before the assembly entered the
temple precincts, a bridge wide enough only for a single person at a time
to pass had to be crossed.  Atop it waited men with heads covered.  They
hurled insults And pointed jabs on the well known within the crowd.  This
rough jesting was an opportunity to puncture the pride of the eminent.  
This had two effects:  it evoked merriment from the crowd And acted as a
“leveler”, a coarse “democratization” of the assembly. The crowd now
entered a sacred space, where nothing was quite the same as before.

Psychohistory postulates that groups are driven by emotions And
fantasies.  Behaviors And motives are due essentially to emotions felt by
persons and/or emotions felt, experienced And reacted to, in shared
contexts such as families or groups.   These emotions are expressed in
group fantasies that develop over time, are shared And created by
individuals.   DeMause states that traumas expressed by the Group
Fantasies are related to “our deepest fears” And that these are “so intense
And compelling that they take on a life of their own.”  According to
DeMause, history, therefore, is a dissociative disorder designed to help
achieve homeostasis by discharging increasing anxieties experienced in
common with others.   This paper examines the ways the fears expressed
by the Homeric Hymn to Demeter relate to sexual trauma And infanticide.

The Group Fantasy Portrayed in the Eleusinian Mysteries

In many ways, the stories of the gods of the Greeks And Romans reflect a
dream world expressing the emotional life of citizens of the Classical
World.  A perfect example of this is the group fantasy at the core of the
Mysteries.  The Homeric Hymn to Demeter was put in its final form about
800 B.C.  The Hymn describes how the god Hades, brother to Zeus And
Demeter, with Zeus’ permission, abducted Demeter’s daughter.   

The Maiden had been playing among the flowers when “the wide-path
earth yawned…And the lord, Host of Many, with his immortal horses
sprang out upon her…”(5-15)   The Maiden screamed as she was torn into
the underworld.  

Demeter heard her daughter’s screams.  “Bitter pain seized her heart And
she…sped, like a wild-bird…seeking her child.  But no one would tell her
the truth, neither god nor mortal man…  For nine days she wandered the
earth with flaming torches in her hands.” (40-50)

Her search was in vain.  She came to the town of Eleusis And assumed
the form of an old woman.  The King’s daughters found her And brought
her to the palace.  There, the queen, Metaneira, sensed Demeter is “nobly
born” (215) And offered her a job as nursemaid to her youngest son,
Demophoon.  The Queen repeats a second time a passage which her
daughters had earlier cited:  “But we humans endure the gifts of the gods,
even under grievous compulsion, for a yoke lies upon our neck.” (216-
220)  The fact that this is the only line which is repeated speaks to its
importance.  By day Demeter anointed Demophoon with ambrosia, And at
night she would hide him like a brand in the heart of the fire.  As a result,
Demophoon “grew beyond his age; for he was like the gods face to face.”  
Demeter, by this magic, planned to make Demophoon “deathless And
unageing.”  But the Queen, one night saw Demeter place her child in the
fire.  “She wailed And smote her two hips, because she feared for her son
And was greatly distraught in her heart.”  (235-245) Then Demeter drew
Demophon from the fire, thrust him at his mother's feet, And said:
“Humans are short-sighted, stupid, ignorant of the share of good or evil
which is coming to them.  You, by your foolishness have hurt him beyond
curing.  Let my witness be the oath of the gods sworn by the intractable
water of Styx, that I would have made your son deathless And ageless all
his days, And given him imperishable honor.  But now it is not possible to
ward off death And destruction.  Still he will have imperishable honor
forever since he stood on my knees And slept in my arms; in due season,
as the years pass around, the children of the Eleusinians will conduct in
his honor war And the terrible battle-cry with each other for ever And ever.”

She commanded the citizens of Eleusis to build her a temple.  After its
completion “she caused a most dreadful And cruel year for mankind over
the all-nourishing earth; the ground would not make the seed sprout, for
rich crowned Demeter kept it hid…She would have destroyed the whole
race of man with cruel famine And have robbed them who dwell on
Olympus of their glorious right of gifts And sacrifices, had not Zeus
perceived And marked this in his heart.”(300-310)  Zeus sent one god after
another to placate Demeter, unsuccessfully.  Demeter vowed that “she
would never set foot on fragrant Olympus nor let fruit spring out of the
ground, until she beheld with her own eyes her own fair-faced daughter.  

Zeus relented And sent Hermes to Hades to release her daughter “that her
mother may see her with her own eyes And cease from her dread anger
with the immortals.”  The Maiden emerged from the earth.  Her mother ran
to her “like a madwoman” And embraced her.  The mother asked the
daughter if she had eaten anything while in hades, because if she did,
“you must go back again beneath the secret places of the earth, There to
dwell a third part of the seasons each year.”(400)

The Eleusinian Group Fantasy as the Expression of Sexual Trauma And
Infanticide in Prehistoric And Classical Civilizations of the Mediterranean

Why did this particular Group Fantasy resonate throughout the ancient
world?  Life in classical And archaic times was difficult.  A harsh winter
would foreshadow famine.  War was an ever-present threat.  The victors
watched their surplus waste away.  The losers faced death And slavery.
Infanticide And sexual abuse were rampant.  This had a far broader
influence Greek society than is reflected in calculations or arguments
about numbers of infants actually exposed or killed.

The theme of rape is explicit in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.  The group
fantasy appears to refer to the status of women in Greek culture.  In
Athens There was a class of women known as epikleroi.  As Michael Grant
maintains, they were “assignable, compelled to marry their nearest relative
on their father’s side, in a fixed order of priority, starting with his brother.”   
This clearly reflects the status of Persephone.   The fact that, as a result of
Demeter’s anger, she could escape her husband’s abode for nine months
a year represents a liberation unavailable to other women in Greek culture
literally removed from sight.  The Mysteries, though, were of supreme
importance for both females And males.  Does an examination of the
Hymn focusing on the behavior of participants reveal a second,
complementary interpretation?  I propose this embedded group fantasy
implicitly refers to the practice of child exposure And infanticide.  

Focusing on behavior, the action of the story is as follows:  A child plays
alone.  Someone swoops down, carries the child away, And hides her
underground.  The mother begins a frantic search.  Inquiries are met with
silence.  A second child is offered to the mother.  This child she places in a
fire.  The earth is cursed.  Famine covers the land.  Sacrifices cease.  
Finally, the father relents.  The daughter is brought up from underground
And reunited with the Mother.
Group fantasies are often conveyed by subliminal messages rather than
clear, overt language.  Groups speak this embedded language when they
are in a group trance.   On the level of symbol And image, the method of
exposure is similar to what is depicted in the Hymn.  Practiced throughout
the classical world, it was the most common method of disposing of a
child “not worth the rearing.”   The second century B.C. historian Polybius
criticizes the practice of child exposure as one of the causes of the
serious depopulation of Greece that occurred in the second century B.C.   
In the Politics, Aristotle speaks of “the offspring of the inferior, And any of
those of the other sort who are born defective, they will properly dispose
of in secret, so that no one will know what has become of them.”   Aristotle
prefaces his comments on infanticide And possible objections to the
practice with the absolute requirement that no deformed child shall be
reared.   In a metaphor used in the Republic (460c) Plato speaks of
something maimed or mutilated that should be hidden away in some
secret place. “The offspring of the inferior, And any of those of the other
sort who are born defective, they will properly dispose of in secret.”

A child, when alone, could be seized And taken away.  The mother in her
grief would search for it.  Although this happened in front of everyone, no
information on the child’s location would be given.  

In the Hymn, Demeter attempts to give the king’s son immortality by
burning off his mortality in the fire.  This may have reminded the initiates
participating in the ceremonies of the amphidromea, (the “walking
around” the hearth) a rite that took place five days after a child was born.  
The child was carried around the fireplace, And through this ritual was
accepted in the family.  The ritual was not conducted if the child was to be

Part of the joy And relief experienced by the initiates at Eleusis may relate
to their selection or adoption (And therefore protection) by Demeter.  On
the fifth day of the Mysteries, the initiates arrived at Eleusis in a joyous
procession And began the initiation ceremonies.  An inscription at the
entrance to the sanctuary of Meter at Phaistos in Crete proclaims that the
goddess is offering “a great miracle” to those “who guarantee their
lineage,” but is averse to “those who wrongly force themselves into the
race of the gods.”   During the initiation, There was a special function of
the “boy who is initiated into the Mysteries from the hearth of Athens.”  He
seems to have been a young boy (in later years it could also have been a
girl), who belonged to one of the aristocratic And important families of
Athens And was elected to be initiated at the expense of the State.   
The actual penalization of exposure came in 374 A.D. from the Christian
Emperor Valentinian, twenty-five years before the suppression of the
Eleusinian Mysteries that were then at their height of influence.  Some
fragments of evidence from the time of the Severi suggest that pagan
disapproval had already reached considerable proportions.
The exposure of infants resulting in death was widespread in many parts
of the Roman Empire as well.   In the foundation myth of ancient Rome, the
god of war raped a vestal virgin.  She gave birth to twins (Romulus And
Remus) And abandoned them.  They are found And suckled by a she-
wolf.  This image of protection by a wolf may have grown up to
compensate for the parental fear of what may happen to a child that was
exposed.  DeMause points out that the “parental holocaust of children that
has been the central cause of violence And misery throughout history.”   
It was precisely this passion that consumed Demeter when her daughter
was taken away that initiates repeated in the festival.  It was this passion,
And its katharsis, that lead to the visions And joy that thousands
experienced every year.  As Arbman points out, certain very acute
religious crises – states of inner duress, tension, conflict, struggle And
anguish, clamoring for a solution frequently find their release in
hallucinatory experiences.

Enthusiasm, Possession And Altered States of Consciousness

It was a different world.  Shape shifting gods walked the earth.  Oracles
were consulted.  Vapors issuing from the earth threw priestesses into
prophetic frenzy.  The future was divined from careful examination of the
flight of birds, the examination of entrails of sacrificial animals, the
whispering of wind through the leaves of trees, the random chattering of
children.  Manic gods entered the hearts of individuals And crowds And
imposed their will.  
These behaviors, so weird And abnormal, caught the interest of
philosophers.  Plato And Aristotle offer a somewhat systematic rendition
of human psychology.  Both dwell in a number of areas on mania And
enthusiasm (literally “entering of the god”) on behavior.  For example, in
the Phaedrus, Plato describes the effects of a curse And how the
madness it caused led to recovery:
When grievous maladies And afflictions have beset certain families by
reason of some ancient sin, mania has appeared amongst them, And
breaking out into prophecy has secured relief by finding the means
thereto, namely by recourse to prayer And worship; And in consequence
thereof rites And means of purification were established, And the sufferer
was brought out of danger, alike for the present And the future.  Thus did
madness secure, for him that was maddened aright And possessed,
deliverance from his troubles.  
Here is, perhaps, an explanation of the rites of Eleusis.  The curse of
infanticide, a “grievous malady And affliction” lay at the heart of the
Classical world.  By madness were initiates cured.  

Proclus Diadochus in On the Signs of Divine Possession breaks down the
extraordinary variations in consciousness experienced in the ancient
world. “Inanimate objects are often filled with Divine Light, like the statues
which give oracles under the inspiration of one of the Gods or Good
Daemons. So too, There are men who are possessed And who receive a
Divine Spirit. Some receive it spontaneously, like those who are said to be
‘seized by God’, either at particular times, or intermittently And on
occasion. There are others who work themselves up into a state of
inspiration by deliberate actions. When divine inspiration comes There are
some cases where the possessed become completely besides
themselves And unconscious of themselves.  However, There are others
where, in some remarkable manner, they maintain consciousness. In
these cases it is possible for the subject to work the Theagogy on himself,
And when he receives the inspiration, is aware of what it [i.e. the Divine
Power] does And what it says, And what he has to do release the
mechanism [of possession]. However, when the loss of consciousness
(ekstaseôs) is total, it is essential that someone in full command of his
faculties assists the possessed".

From these authors, And There are many more, we see descriptions of
wide spread dissociation experienced by individuals And groups in the
ancient Mediterranean area.  

Trauma, Trance And Healing

It is impossible to ascertain whether There is a difference in quality or
quantity of “mystical” states experienced in the ancient world compared
to contemporary times.  Even in contemporary America, mystical
experiences seem to be surprisingly common, at least those of the mild
sort.  Several national random sample polls have investigated this
phenomenon over the last generation.  In one of the best known of these
studies, Greely polled 1,460 Americans And asked, “Have you ever felt as
though you were very close to a powerful, spiritual force that seemed to
lift you out of yourself.”  Thirty-five percent responded “yes.”
Traumatic events serve as powerful activators of the capacity for trance.   
This was demonstrated most recently in the terrorist attacks on Manhattan
And Washington D.C.  National commentators throughout the days
following referred to an entire nation “in a trance,” “in a daze,” or
describing the experience “as if we were dreaming.”   If infanticide And
sexual trauma are major precipitators of a dissociative trance state, then
an increase of dissociation And its manifestations would occur where
abuse is greatest, And decrease where abuse is lessened.  

In normal consciousness, spontaneous trances can either be internally
aroused (e.g. daydreaming, fugue state) or instigated by external cues
(fear, seduction, intense concentration.)  The individual is generally
unaware of the shifting into And out of this kind of trance experience And
hence it can be unstructured And undisciplined.     
Throughout time And cultures worldwide, religious rituals appear to have
served as preceptors for what appear to be trance like states.   As an
example, a classic text by Gregory Bateson And Margaret Mead, in a 1924
study of Bali, spoke of the “schizoid” nature of the Balinese character due
to the rapid And culture wide ability of individuals in Bali to enter a trance

Whatever the single or combined causes, it seems obvious that over a
period of over twenty centuries, the leaders of the Mysteries chanced
upon the emotional And dramatic forms that would elicit these states.    
Welch in an ingenious application of conditioning theory, pointed out that
trance induction begins with suggestions that are almost certain to take
effect And proceeds to ones that are more difficult.   
We can note a progression from simple to complex ritual behaviors in a
participant in the Mysteries over time.  An initiate would undergo months
of preparation beginning with participation in the Lesser Mysteries.  
During that time, There would be discussions And heightened
expectations.  A sacred truce proclaimed approximately one month before
the Mysteries began reinforced these expectations, allowed secure travel
to Eleusis And marked the boundary of sacred time.  

On the road to Eleusis, the ecstatic procession of the god Iacchos would
precipitate the first dramatic experience of altered consciousness.  The
initiate would have been conditioned And reinforced into suggestive
absorption of a complex of beliefs that constituted the sole, exclusive or
totally dominating object of consciousness resulting in ecstasy.   

The predisposition an initiate would have would be dramatically
influenced by the set And setting of the ceremonies.   The dream like
quality of the experience was enhanced by the fact that most of the group
activities of the Mysteries took place at dusk And during night.  A pre-
electric, primarily agricultural society member’s usual day went from
sunrise to sunset.    

On the fourth night, the initiates meditated on Askleipios, the god of
healing, whose sleep incubation temples were famed throughout the
classical world.  Perhaps falling asleep, watching the Milky Way swirl
above them, the initiates awaited a dream oracle that would bring healing,
the first movement into an altered state.  The fifth night, immediately before
the initiation, was one of high expectations.  Initiates participated in a
raucous daylong journey from Athens to Eleusis.  It was an exciting
journey where they called out “Iacchos!!!  Iacchos!!!”, a name of a god that
symbolized ecstatic transport.  It was a day that was physically
demanding And emotionally inspiring, that left initiates feeling enthused,
in its original meaning, filled with a god.  Suidas notes that Iacchos means
‘a certain day’ ‘a certain song’ but he puts, first, what is the root diea of
Iacchos, he is ‘Dionysos at the breast.’ He is of the cradle, whom, year
after year, on Parnassos, the Thiades wakened to new life.   Again, the
image of infancy And new life is at the forefront.
The initiates would have been touched deeply by the highly emotionally
charged atmosphere of the Mysteries where the Group Fantasy of sexual
trauma And infanticide were enacted.  As both survivors, And potential
perpetrators of sexual trauma And infanticide, we can assume that nearly
all initiates had suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder.  The chaotic
experience that marked participation in the Mysteries would have
exacerbated this.  Herman states, “the alterations of consciousness…are
the third cardinal symptom of PTSD…And similar to hypnotic trance
states.  They share the same features of surrender of voluntary action,
suspension of initiative And critical judgment, subjective detachment or
calm, enhanced perception of imagery, altered sensation, including
numbness And analgesia, And distortion of reality, including
depersonalization, derealization And change in the sense of time.  While
the heightened perceptions occurring during traumatic events resemble
the phenomena of hypnotic absorption, the numbing symptoms resemble
the complementary phenomena of hypnotic dissociation.

Social And cultural expectations would also condition initiates to behave
according to group norms.  By engaging in rituals that enacted the group
fantasy, initiates could recall And work through experiences previously
blocked out of awareness but which continued to exert negative

In a society that condoned infanticide And exposure, a sufferer from
compulsions And prohibitions would behave as if s/he were dominated by
a sense of guilt, of which, however, s/he knows nothing.  This may, in
every sense, be called an unconscious sense of guilt.   While an individual
exhibiting these symptoms is unpredictable, social control of a crowd may
have offered more predictability.  

Benjamin Karney, building on the work of Kurt Lewin And others,
developed a new model on crowd behavior.  This consists of four major
1.        Weaken the power of authority.
2.        Establish a competing impulse (in many cases, people have reasons
to feel angry, people generally have transgressive impulses.)
3.        Strengthen the competing impulse
4.        Triggers  The first person takes a risk, the hundredth person does

Anyone who has studied Classical Greek Religion And society must be
struck by the oddly harmonious interplay of two apparently conflicting
impulses of reason And the manic impulse most clearly seen in festivals
And orgia.  Karney’s model of crowd behavior explains the transition well.  

1.        During the Eleusinian Mysteries, the power of authority was most
notably weakened when the initiates crossed the bridge over the river
Cephisus.  Hooded men stood atop the bridge And hurled insults at the
wealthy And powerful of the time to the vast amusement of the crowd.

2.        The competing impulse was established on the fifth day, on the
glorious pompe to Eleusis, where the entire crowd was whipped into an
ecstatic frenzy that was followed by all night dancing.

3.        This impulse was strengthened throughout the period leading to
(And including) the days of initiation when they were lead into group
exercises of the group fantasy that became increasingly manic.

4.        The trigger for the ecstasy, I believe, was the first person who
exclaimed, as did Hercules, “I have seen Kore!”
The result of this working through appears to have resulted both in a
sense of cathartic relief, And often ecstasy.  The therapeutic potential of
mainly spontaneous mystical experiences has been noted in relationship
to threats to life, solitary ordeals, unresolved grief And posttraumatic
stress disorders.   

There were many influences on the initiate:  religious symbolism; group
effects on crowd behavior; working through of traumatic experience.  
These combined to form a unique constellation of events channeling the
initiates’ attention And resulting in a complete ideational absorption that
acquired a remarkable persistency.    The initiate underwent an
extraordinary enhancement in point of clarity And intensity And merged
into an ecstatic rapture or absorption.   One can suppose that like
participants in Cardena’s (1996) study, initiates would experience
aftereffects such as spontaneous reports of timelessness, bright light, a
sense of oneness with the world, And profound peace.

Modern Theories of Trauma And Recovery Bear Out the Insights Of the
Leaders of the Mysteries

Judith Herman has conducted exemplary research in the areas of trauma
And recovery.  She maintains the fundamental stages of recovery are
establishing safety, reconstructing the trauma story, And restoring the
connection between survivors And their community.”   When we review
the sequence of the Mysteries, we find that each of these conditions is
met.  Each initiate first took part in the Lesser Mysteries, in the early
Spring.  Each had a mystagogue, a friend, a leader who assisted the
initiate in preparation.  Although the initiation itself had aspects that were
fearsome, it all took place within the sacred space of the sanctuary.

The sacred drama of the abduction of Persephone, And Demeter’s frantic
search for her were acted out, quite probably with the initiates
participating in physically And emotionally demanding activities.  At the
conclusion of initiation, initiates found themselves in a new structure, one
where they could refer to other initiates as “brother” And “sister.”  A new
family structure was created.  In this way, initiates are lead to a recovery
based upon the empowerment of the survivor And the creation of new

Fantasy Analysis of Selected Documents Relating to Eleusinian Mysteries

Fantasy Analysis is a method developed by Lloyd De Mause to discover
the underlying content of the Group Fantasy preserved in historical
documents.   A fantasy analysis of three documents relating to the
Eleusinian Mysteries brought forth the following results:

The first is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.  
The second sample comes from Apuleus’ novel, The Golden Ass in which
the hero of the story describes an initiation into the Rite of Isis.  There is
strong scholarly support for the idea that the Eleusinian Mysteries were
initially the Mysteries of Isis.  In the Graeco-Roman world, Isis was
identified with Demeter.  This sample reveals, I believe, the fear of initiates
in revealing the content of the Mysteries.
threshold  (no images after)

The last sample comes from an opponent of the Mysteries, Clement of
Alexandria, considered to be one of the Fathers of the Church.  In his
Exhortation to the Greeks, Clement seeks to reveal the content of all of the
Mystery Religions.  An analysis brings out

This reflects to me, the real secret, the overturning of the powers that be,
to the extent where Zeus, father of the Gods, approaches Persephone And
Demeter for initiation.


Can PsychoHistory illuminate the Eleusinian Mysteries?  Over the years,
De Mause has offered evidence on the universal mistreatment of children
through the ages And cultures.  Contemporary psychiatry has delineated
the dissociative response to abuse.  Fantasy Analysis of classical
documents And the psychological/ philosophical/ historical writings of
ancient Greece reveal the dissociative states common to people of that

The experience And description of initiates resemble that of persons
traumatized And recovered from trauma.  De Mause predicted that
religious movements would be among the first to benefit from
psychogenic theory.   A society that western civilization looks back as
“golden,” we find afflicted with the trauma And abuse.  Within the
Eleusinian Mysteries, we find this trauma restaged in a religious ritual that
captured the emotions And imagination of entire civilizations for

Even though the rituals were successful in discharging pent up emotional
trauma, the initial preceptors of the trauma remained.  In the myth
contained within the Homeric Hymn, Demeter’s wrath was sufficient to
temporarily bring her daughter back to her for several seasons each year.  
However, it was not a permanent solution.  Each winter the trauma was
renewed, Demeter’s wrath reawakened.  The skies turned grey.  The
ground turned hard.  The wind grew chill And the earth ceased its bounty.

Todd Swanson, M.P.A., M.A., lived overseas for nearly a decade,
counseling in South East Asia And humanitarian relief with refugees in
former Yugoslavia.  He may be contacted at toddswanson@netscape.net.

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The following article
was first printed in the
Journal of Psychohistory
Volume 29, No. 4, Spring 2002, pp407-424