The Mystical Experience of Initiates
Just as persons who are being initiated into the Mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting,
and jostle against one another but when the holy rites are being performed and disclosed the people are
immediately attentive in awe and silence, so too at the beginning of philosophy: about its portals also you will see
great tumult and talking and boldness, as some boorishly and violently try to jostle their way towards the repute it
bestows; but he who has succeeded in getting inside, and has seen a great light, as though a shrine were opened,
adopts another bearing of silence and amazement, and "humble and orderly attends upon" reason as upon a god.
(Plutarch, Progress in Virtue 81e)
Thus death and initiation closely correspond; even the words (teleutan and teleisthai) correspond, and so do the
things. At first there are wanderings, and toilsome running about in circles and journeys through the dark over
uncertain roads and culs de sac; then, just before the end, there are all kinds of terrors, with shivering, trembling,
sweating, and utter amazement. After this, a strange and wonderful light meets the wanderer; he is admitted into
clean and verdant meadows, where he discerns gentle voices, and choric dances, and the majesty of holy sounds
and sacred visions. Here the now fully initiated is free, and walks at liberty like a crowned and dedicated victim,
joining in the revelry; he is the companion of pure and holy men, and looks down upon the uninitiated and
unpurified crowd here below in the mud and fog, trampling itself down and crowded together, though of death
remaining still sunk in its evils, unable to believe in the blessings that lie beyond. That the wedding and close union
of the soul with the body is a thing really contrary to nature may clearly be seen from all this.
(The passage from Plutarch's essay On the Soul survives today only because it was quoted by Stobaeus
(Florigelium 120). Grant, F. C. Hellenistic Religions p. 148)
"I was initiated long ago (or: elsewhere). Lock up Eleusis, (Hierophant,) and put the fire out, Dadouchos. Deny me
the holy night! I have already been initiated into more authentic mysteries.... (I have beheld) the fire, whence (...and) I
have seen the Kore.
(Kerenyi Eleusis p. 83-84)
Now the details of the initiatory rite are guarded among the matters not to be divulged and are communicated to the
initiates alone; but the fame has traveled wide of how these gods appear to mankind and bring unexpected aid to
those initiates of theirs who call upon them in the midst of perils. The claim is also made that men who have taken
part in the mysteries become both more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before. And
this is the reason, we are told, why the most famous both of the ancient heroes and of the demi-gods were eagerly
desirous of taking part in the initiatory rite; and in fact Jason and the Dioscuri, and Heracles and Orpheus as well,
after their initiation attained success in all the campaigns they undertook, because these gods appeared to them.
(Diodorus Siculus V, 48, 49)
It is reported that, in the middle of the fight, a great flame rose into the air above the city of Eleusis, and that sounds
and voices were heard through all the Thriasian plain, as far as the sea, sounding like a number of men
accompanying and escorting the mystic Iacchus, and that a mist seemed to form and rise from the place from
whence the sounds came, and, passing forward, fell upon the galleys. Others believed that they saw apparitions, in
the shape of armed men, reaching out their hands from the island of Aegina before Grecian galleys; and supposed
they were the Aeacidae, whom they had invoked to their aid before the battle. The first man that took a ship was
Lycomedes the Athenian, captain of the galley, who cut down its ensign, and dedicated it to Apollo the Laurel-
crowned. And as the Persians fought in a narrow arm of the sea, and could bring but part of their fleet to fight, and
fell foul of one another, the Greeks thus equaled them in strength and fought with them till the evening forced them
back, and obtained, as says Simonides, that noble and famous victory, than which neither amongst the Greek nor
barbarians was ever known more glorious exploit on the seas; by the joint valor, indeed, and zeal of all who fought,
but by the wisdom and sagacity of Themistocles.
(Plutarch Themistocles 15)
In the Eleusinian mysteries, likewise, the initiated are ordered to abstain from domestic birds, from fishes and beans,
pomegranates and apples, which fruits are as equally defiling to the touch, as a woman recently delivered, and a
dead body But whoever is acquainted with the nature of divinely-luminous appearances knows also on what
account it is requisite to abstain from all birds, and especially for him who hastens to be liberated from terrestrial
concerns, and to be established with the celestial Gods.
(Porphyry On Abstinence From Animal Food IV, 16)
Porphyrus gives us a description of initiation which includes legomena and seems to indicate also much of the
content and feeling of the Epopteia. Crowned with myrtle, along with the other initiates we enter the entrance hall of
the temple, still blind, but the hierophant who is within will soon open our eyes. But first, for nothing is to be done in
haste, let us wash in the holy water. We are led before the hierophant. From a book of stone, he reads to us things
which we must not divulge, under penalty of death. Let us say only that they are in harmony with the place and
circumstance. You would laugh, perhaps, if you heard them outside the temple, but here you have no desire to laugh
as you listen to the words of the elder (for he is always old) and as you look at the exposed symbols. And you are far
from laughing when, by her special language and signs, by vivid sparkling of light and clouds piled upon clouds,
Demeter confirms everything that we have seen and heard from her holy priest. Then, finally, the light of a serene
wonder fills the temple; we see the pure Elysian Fields; we hear the chorus of the blessed ones. Now it is not merely
through an external appearance or through a philosophical interpretation, but in fact and in reality that the
hierophant becomes the creator and the revelator of all things; the sun is but his torchbearer, the moon, his helper of
the altar, and Hermes, his mystical messenger. But the last word has been uttered: Knox Om Pax.
The ritual has been consummated, and we are seers forever.
(Schuré, Edouard The Great Initiates p. 406)
You ought to approach these matters in another way; the thing is great, it is mystical, not common thing, nor is it
given to every man.
(Epictetus Discourses III, 21)
M: Then what will become of our Iacchus and Eumolpidae and their impressive mysteries, if we abolish nocturnal
rites? For we are composing laws not for the Roman people in particular, but for all virtuous and stable nations.
A: I take it for granted that you make an exception of those rites into which we ourselves have been initiated.
M: I will do so indeed. For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought
forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have
been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and
as the rites are called "initiations," so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained
the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.
(Cicero Laws II, xiv, 36)
Fear and Awe
Within this hall, the mystics were made to experience the most bloodcurdling sensations of horror and the most
enthusiastic ecstasy of joy. Aristeides
But their procedure is like Bacchic frenzy - like the leap of a man mad, or possessed - the attainment of a goal
without running the race, a passing beyond reason without the previous exercise of reasoning. For the sacred
matter (contemplation) is not like attention belonging to knowledge, or an outlet of mind, nor is it like one thing in one
place and another in another. On the contrary - to compare small and greater - it is like Aristotle's view that men
being initiated have not a lesson to learn, but an experience to undergo and a condition into which they must be
brought, while they are becoming fit (for revelation).
(Synesius Dio 1133)
Entering now into the secret dome, he is filled with horror and astonishment. He is seized with loneliness and total
perplexity; he is unable to move a step forward, and at a loss to find the entrance to the way that leads to where he
aspires to, till the prophet or conductor lays open the anteroom of the Temple.
(Themistius Orat. in Patrem. 50)
In the most sacred Mysteries before the scene of the mystic visions, there is terror infused over the minds of the
(Proclus, Casavis The Greek Origins of Freemasonryp. 111)
When, under Pluto's semblance, Jove divine
Deceiv'd with guileful arts dark Proserpine.
Hence, partly black thy limbs and partly white,
From Pluto dark, from Jove ethereal bright
Thy color'd member, men by night inspire
When seen in spectred forms, with terrors dire;
Now darkly visible involved in night,
Perspicuous now they meet the fearful sight.
Terrestrial queen, expel wherever found
The soul's mad fears to earth's remotest bound;
With holy aspect on our incense shine,
And bless thy mystics, and rites divine.
(Taylor, Mystical Hymns of Orpheus.)
The result of soul and body commingled is the irrational or the affective factor, whereas of mind and soul the
conjunction produces reason; and of these the former is source of pleasure and pain, the latter of virtue and vice. In
the composition of these three factors earth furnishes the body, the moon the soul, and the sun furnishes mind to
man for the purpose of his generation even as it furnishes light to the moon herself. As to the death we die, one
death reduces man from three factors to two and another reduces him from two to one; and the former takes place in
the earth that belongs to Demeter (wherefore "to make an end" is called "to render one's life to her" and Athenians
used in olden times to call the dead "Demetrians"), the latter in the moon that belongs to Persephone, and
associated with the former is Hermes the terrestrial, with the latter Hermes the celestial. While the goddess here
dissociates the soul from the body swiftly and violently, Persephone gently and by slow degrees detaches the mind
from the soul and has therefore been called "single-born" because the best part of man is "born single" when
separated off by her. Each of the two separations naturally occurs in this fashion: All soul, whether without mind or
with it, when it has issued from the body is destined to wander in the region between earth and moon but not for an
equal time. Unjust and licentious souls pay penalties for their offenses; but the good soul must in the gentlest part of
the air, which they call "the meads of Hades," pass a certain set time sufficient to purge and blow away the pollution
contracted from the body as from an evil odor. Then, as if brought home from banishment abroad, they savor joy
most like that of initiates, which attended by glad expectation is mingled with confusion and excitement. For many,
even as they are in the act of clinging to the moon, she thrusts off and sweeps away; and some of those souls too
that are on the moon they see turning upside down as if sinking again into the deep. Those that have got up,
however, and have found a firm footing first go about like victors crowned with wreaths of feathers called wreathes
of steadfastness, because in life they had made the irrational or affective element of the soul orderly and tolerably
tractable to reason; secondly, in appearance resembling a ray of light but in respect of their nature, which in the
upper region is buoyant as it is here in ours, resembling the ether about the moon, they get from it both tension and
strength as edged instruments get a temper, for what laxness and diffuseness they still have is strengthened and
becomes firm and translucent. In consequence they are nourished by any exhalation that reaches them, and
Heraclitus was right in saying: "Souls employ the sense of smell in Hades."
(Plutarch The Face of the Moon 28)
…but in the case of Demeter they preferred that time for the sacrifice when the sowing of the corn is first begun, and
for a period of ten days they hold a festive gathering which bears the name of this goddess and is most magnificent
by reason of the brilliance of their preparation for it, while in the observance of it they imitate the ancient manner of
life. And it is their custom during these days to indulge in coarse language as they associate one with another, the
reason being that by such coarseness the goddess, grieved though she was of the Rape of Kore, burst into laughter.
(Diodorus Siculus V, 4)
I say nothing of the holy and awe-inspiring sanctuary of Eleusis, "where tribes from earth's remotest confines seek
Initiation," and I pass over Samothrace and those "occult mysteries which throngs of worshippers at dead of night
in forest covert deep do celebrate" Lemnos, since such mysteries when interpreted and rationalized prove to have
more to do with natural science than with theology.
(Cicero De Natura Deorum I, 52)
Aeschylus FRAGMENT 214 “With bright flashes, the torches’ might.”
|The The Mystical Experience
of the Initates
during the Eleusinian Mysteries as
Described by Classical Authors