Echoes of Eleusis
Updated: Feb 23
Concerning the Eleusinian Mysteries, Mackey writes the following in his incomparable Lexicon of Freemasonry. “These were among the most important of the ancient rites, and were hence often called emphatically, "the mysteries." Cicero speaks of them as "the sacred and august rites of Eleusis, where men come from the remotest regions to be initiated." The qualifications for initiation were maturity of age, and purity of conduct. A character, free from suspicion of immorality, was absolutely required in the aspirant.”
To those who are initiates of our Order, this will sound hauntingly familiar. Though we know remarkably little of the rituals and ceremonies employed by the acolytes of Eleusis, the character and far-reaching influences of their institution are detailed in the records of Cicero and in the writings of our own illustrious Pike and Mackey. What I wish to present in this piece is not an exhaustive historical diatribe, but a limited illustration and emphasis of a few particulars which I find to be curious and of significance when compared with our own endeavors as Initiates.
For example, the following excerpt from Morals and Dogma is most illuminating:
“Nature is as free from dogmatism as from tyranny; and the earliest instructors of mankind not only adopted her lessons, but as far as possible adhered to her method of imparting them. They attempted to reach the understanding through the eye; and the greater part of all religious teaching was conveyed through this ancient and most impressive mode of "exhibition" or demonstration. The Mysteries were a sacred drama, exhibiting some legend significant of Nature's change, of the visible Universe in which the divinity is revealed, and whose import was in many respects as open to the Pagan, as to the Christian. Beyond the current traditions or sacred recitals of the temple, few explanations were given to the spectators, who were left, as in the school of nature, to make inferences for themselves. The method of indirect suggestion, by allegory or symbol, is a more efficacious instrument of instruction than plain didactic language; since we are habitually indifferent to that which is acquired without effort.”
The Eleusinian Mysteries became increasingly popular among Greeks, and, after suffusing that country, moved to Rome and beyond. Its popularity was likely due in a great measure to its use of Greek and Roman pantheonic symbolism, its narrative structure being based upon Persephone and Demeter and not necessarily to accessibility. I make this point in tandem with the above extraction to hopefully impress upon the reader two ideas pervasive among mystery schools of Antiquity; namely, that many of the most expressive and excellent lessons were not, could not be taught within the Telesterion, and were left to the driven Adept to discover for himself, with only the barest allusion thereof to fuel his searches; and also that the emblems and allegories designed by man are but a poor effort to imitate the revolutions and depths of Nature.
Much of what is taught in the Masonic Rites is intended to open to view a landscape of philosophy and spiritual contemplation, not necessarily to expatiate exhaustively and prosaically upon the mysteries themselves. All Adepts have known this to be a necessary attribute of the teaching process; that explicit exposition profits a student very little, and his own mind must be set free upon whatever path down which he chooses to search for enlightenment. Guidance in the mystical arena must be delicate and unobtrusive, unlike guidance in the moral directives which must be definitive and sufficiently unambiguous so as to prevent confusion concerning expectations of a student’s behavior.
The Eleusinians knew this, as nature worshipers were in great number among them, who profoundly influenced the narrative and allegorical structure of the Rites, a glimpse of which can be procured from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. What little we know indicates an extremely lengthy and mystically rich initiatic process, recounting to the candidate the story of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, and the symbolic significance of the annual descent into winter and the resurgence of spring. (A celebration of which was conducted at Athens, and pertains to the so-called Lesser Mysteries.) But the story is much more complex, allegorically speaking. The cycles of death and rebirth, descension and ascension, night and day, are common themes utilized by many schools, yet the impressiveness and effectiveness, if not the durability of the idea which underlies the theme are in a great measure contingent on the method of conveyance. Again, it is not exposition that most effectually assists in the illumination of the mind, but enticement and concealment, which spurns the mind of the faithful adherent to action and inspires him to develop his spiritual tools.
The least durable, shortest lived, and most demented schools were those that were plain when they should have been mysterious, and mysterious when they should have been plain. Those that essentially begged the profane to throw back the curtain and rend asunder the gossamer strands of mystery, were those that discovered the chambers of initiation to be lackluster and filled with empty promises, these the sole motivators sustaining their practices. Freemasonry, as the rightful successor to the ancient ways, is a nearly perfectly balanced blend of moral science and philosophical inquiry into the nature of the divinity of the cosmos. It admits that it has taken and preserved the wisdom of the ages, and it must necessarily have disposed of the refuse of the ancient blunders as well, continually improving and reconstructing, adhering not to dogma or superstition, making it almost entirely unique among similar institutions.
The similarities between our own Order and that of Eleusis, as you observed in the opening paragraph, do not end there. We read in the Golden Verses of Pythagoras that he placed an emphasis on civic responsibility and public circumspection while maintaining adherence and loyalty to the Great Teachings. This was done to avoid attracting unwanted and hostile scrutiny, but also to impress the initiate with a sense of patriotism that was not unbridled nationalism. Legend has it that the great Pythagoras was himself initiated into a mystery school in Egypt which was either influenced by or was a direct progenitor of the Eleusinian Rites. The Egyptians, being great and marvelous architects, used many architectural symbols in their mystical practices, and were major advocates of the sacred doctrine that geometry is the language of the universe and the foundation of practical philosophy, which Pythagoras developed in his own way.
In order to understand our mission as Initiates, I believe we must track the streams of profundity back to their splendid sources in the ancient past, and recover, in some ways, the glory of the glittering wellspring in order to effectually blend its luster with modernity. I hope you have enjoyed this short piece, and encourage you to return to this refuge anytime your mind desires to intermingle with the fascinations and peculiarities of the Freemasons, and those of others who in the darkness search for light.