Thoughts on Plato & Demeter’s Mysteries at Eleusis


Plato’s Great Vision in Demeter’s Temple at Eleusis
Illustration: Portrait of Demeter: Tetradrachm of Syros, 200 BCE

“Plato tells us that beyond this ephemeral and imperfect existence here below, there is another Ideal world of Archetypes, where the original, the true, the beautiful Pattern of things exists for evermore. Poets and philosophers for millennia have pondered and discussed his conception. It is clear to me where Plato found his ‘Ideas’; it was clear to those who were initiated into the Mysteries among his contemporaries too. Plato had drunk of the potion in the Temple of Eleusis and had spent the night seeing the great Vision.”

from “The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries,” pp. 29-30, by R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Carl A. P. Ruck, Huston Smith (2008)
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Demeter & Persephone’s Gift of Mystic Riches

“Just as initiation at Eleusis transformed the individual so that he would achieve salvation in the afterworld, the initiation of the philosophic theôros [contemplative], Plato claims, purifies and transforms the soul and guarantees it a blessed destiny. Plato’s philosopher, then, has much in common with the initiate at the Mysteries: in both cases, the theôros ‘sees’ a divine revelation that transforms […the] soul.”

from “The Philosopher at the Festival: Plato’s Transformation of Traditional Theôria.” in Elsner and Rutherford 2005, p.176, by A. Wilson-Nightingale.
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Prayer for Riches: Outer & Inner Side

“[In] the concluding prayer of Socrates [in the Phaedrus] the philosopher asks Pan and the other gods of the place to give him mystic ‘riches’ (279b8-c3). The ambiguous language of the prayer is typical of mystery ritual: it makes full sense only for the initiated, whereas the uninitiated cannot understand it. So, ‘the other gods’ venerated at the river Ilissus are Achelous, Hermes, and the Nymphs, while for the initiate they are Demeter and Persephone. The requested ‘riches’ (c.f. plousios, 270cI) are twofold as well: they have an outer and an inner side, a material and a spiritual connotation, like the mystic wealth (ploutos) of the initiate described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.” [L-486-489]

from “Plato as Author: the Rhetoric of Philosophy,” p.183, by Ann N. Michelini (2003)
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Tablets of the Great Mother

“Plutarch restates the ancient idea which found early expression in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and reiterated by Plato in the Phaedo: those who arrive in Hades unitiated will wallow in the mud, while those intiated (into the Eleusinian mysteries) will dwell with the gods. The same notion is repeated time and again in the texts inscribed on gold tablets which accompanied mystai, Dionysiac or Orphic, to the grave and were believed to guide their souls on their last journeys. The change in the mustê’s destiny underwent so dramatic a change that it could be perceived as an apotheosis, ‘Once human, you have become a god’ [θεος εγενου εξ[.] ανθρωπoυ] is the inscription on one of the tablets.”

from “Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind: Descending Underground in the Search for the Ultimate Truth,” p.228, by Yulia Ustinova (2009)
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Persephone’s Spring Mysteries

“Modern science explains the changes of the natural world by the hypothesis of certain unconscious forces; and the sum of these forces, in their combined action, constitutes the scientific conception of nature. But, side by side with the growth of this more mechanical conception, an older and more spiritual, Platonic philosophy has always maintained itself, a philosophy more of instinct than of the understanding, the mental starting-point of which is not an observed sequence of outward phenomena, but some such feeling as most of us have on the first warmer days in spring, when we seem to feel the genial processes of nature actually at work; as if just below the mould, and in the hard wood of the trees, there were really circulating some spirit of life, akin to that which makes its energies felt within ourselves. Starting with a hundred instincts such as this, that older unmechanical, spiritual, or Platonic, philosophy envisages nature rather as the unity of a living spirit or person, revealing itself in various degrees to the kindred spirit of the observer, than as a system of mechanical forces.”

from “The Myth of Demeter and Persephone,” in “Greek Studies: a Series of Essays, pg. 96, by Walter Pater (1875 / 1920)
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On Spiral Symbolism — Metaphysical Realities

“The function of symbolism is to go beyond the ‘limitation of the fragment’ and link the different ‘parts’ of the whole or alternatively the worlds in which these parts manifest: these worlds are successive windings of the spiral. Each symbol is a link on the same ‘cosmic rhythm’ or different planes of reality. […] We, like Plato’s prisoners in the cave, can see merely the shadows of the real objects, which themselves are only the manifestations of the Ideas and Archetypes (or Immutable Essences). In other words, even the ‘originals,’ let alone the physical manifestation of nature, are but symbols of the metaphysical realities….”

from “The Mystic Spiral, Journey of the Soul, ” p. 10, by Jill Purce (1974)
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To See, Oneself, Directly — to See!

“As Aristotle wrote when describing the sights one viewed at the Eleusinian Mysteries, “to experience (physically) is to learn” (pathein mathein [παθείν μαθεĩν] fragment 15). Vision was central not simply to the learning experienced at the Mysteries, but also to such institutions as the Athenian drama that reached its height in Plato’s youth. Even the word theory, which for us today has the most abstract and disembodied meaning, in the fourth century [BCE] had quite a concrete meaning: it meant to travel as a pilgrim to a religious site to see (theaomai) things related to the gods and to the sacred realm.”

from “Diotima and Demeter as Mystagogues in Plato’s Symposium” (in Hypatia, Volume 21, Number 2), p. 19. by Nancy Evans (2006)
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Synthesis: Recollection of “Archetypes” Initiates the Mysteries

“One must needs understand the language of Forms, collecting many sense impressions into a unity […] and remembering a knowledge we beheld aforetime. […] Whoever employs such memories rightly is always being initiated into perfect mysteries and alone becomes truly perfect.”

from the “Phaedrus / Φαῖδρος”
(sec. 249 b-c), by Plato (ca. 370 BCE)
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Seeing Persephone

“When the Hekate of our Hymn reports to Demeter and Demeter to Helios what they know of the abduction of Persephone, they both tell of receiving information by ear but having failed to see what happened. Later, when Demeter proffers her demand that Persephone be returned to the surface of the earth, she swears to withhold the fruits of the earth until she has seen her daughter with her own eyes. […] Visual clarity is an ideal and influences the way many [ancient] Greeks think about reality. […] For Plato, what is real in an object is its eidos, translated sometimes as form and sometimes as idea, but essentially it is the surface of an object, whose visual form can then be grasped as an idea, a concept. […] The culminating rite of the Eleusinian Mysteries is called the Epopteria which means the things that have been seen. […] What Demeter demands of the gods will be fulfilled in the presence of the participants of her rite — her daughter must be seen as she emerges from the darkness of the underworld.” [L-409]

from “Persephone Unveiled: Seeing the Goddess and Freeing Your Soul,” p. 30, by Charles Stein (2006)
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More on the meaning of Anodos

Meanings of ἄνοδος [ἄν-οδος, anodos, “way up”] include, e.g., the ascent to the acropolis at Athens, also a celebration on the first (or second) day of Demeter’s Thesmophoria — also refers to a journey inland, to ascend from the sea, and metaphorically (Plato) return of a being to its true self or original source = enlightenemnt.

~ see Thesaurus Linguae Graecae
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Gender Issues in Greek Literature, Plato, Demeter and Sappho

“Classical literature, far more explicitly than much later Western literature until the 19th century, virtually begs us to ask questions about gender. Plato and Aristotle confronted such issues directly. Most Greek comedies and tragedies commonly taught put gender at the heart of the plot and allow their female characters to challenge male authority and assumptions. […] What is largely missing, however, is a female perspective that could provide a glimpse of what ancient women meant to each other and the concerns that were of the greatest significance to them. Although we have very little to go on in this respect, the fragments of the poet Sappho have of late been successfully taught in translation to a broad general audience. In my view the text that can best supplement Sappho in putting the experience of ancient women and its symbolic importance into some perspective is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.”

from “The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Translation, Commentary and Interpretive Essays,” p. xi, by Helene P. Foley (1994)
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Ancient Greek Hymn to Demeter
English & Ancient Greek, Illustrations, Commentary