The second ‘scholarch’ of the Stoic school, Cleanthes, died in 232 BCE.
In what would have corresponded to Oct. 6th of that year (15th of Boedromion), one of the most significant religious event occurred in Athens under the Stoa Poikile: the registration of new initiates (mystai) into the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries.
Surely, Cleanthes and his teacher, Zeno, would have had a great familiarity about this cult of the “Two Goddesses” (Demeter and Persephone) considering it’s prominence among the Ancient Greek world and its use of the very Stoa that would serve as the namesake of Stoicism. It wouldn’t be surprising if Cleanthes was himself initiated into the mysteries considering the religious sentiments expressed in his Hymns to Zeus. Here’s one that Epictetus seemed to appreciate (Handbook 53; Cf. Discourses 3.22.93, 4.1.131, 4.4.34):
Lead me, Zeus, lead me, Destiny,
To the goal I was long ago assigned
And I will follow without hesitation. Even should I resist,
In a spirit of perversity, I will have to follow nonetheless.
Whoever yields to necessity graciously
We consider wise in God’s ways.
Though we can’t be certain Cleanthes was actually initiated into the mysteries (or any Greek Stoics for that matter), the fact that Marcus Auerlius was initiated 400 years later and that he considered it one of the most important events of his life indicates that the teachings that the mysteries conveyed where in some sense consistent with the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius (and likely that of Epictetus). According to the Historia Augusta, Marcus made a point to be inducted into the Greater Mysteries when he encountered a brief reapite during the Marcomannic Wars (in 176 CE):
After [Marcus] had settled affairs in the East he came to Athens, and had himself initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries in order to prove that he was innocent of any wrongdoing, and he entered the sanctuary unattended. (Life of Marcus Aurelius 27.1)
It seems like Marcus was allowed to be initiated alone and perhaps in an expedited fashion (the perks of being an emperor), but normally thousands of initiates would spend an entire week preparing for and carrying out the initiation rites. During the time of Cleanthes, this would take place from the 13th to the 2oth day in the month of Boedromion. In 232 BCE (again, the year of Cleanthes’ death), this would correspond to Oct. 4th up through the 10th. The following is the description of the initiation into the Eleusinian Greater Mysteries day by day.
Oct. 4th (13 Boedromion): On this day, young Athenian soldiers (the epheboi) travel to Eleusis so that they may escort the Eleusian High Priests (Hierophantes) on their journey to Athens. Eleusis (modern-day Elefsina) was about 14 miles from Athens.
Oct. 5th (14 Boedromion): On this day, the Athenian epheboi escort the Eleusinian Hierophants and their entourage on their journey to Athens—which itself was very ceremonial. The priests carry with them “the sacred things” (hai hierai) which were in small round boxes (kistai) tied with purple ribbons. Nobody now knows what these “sacred things” were, but scholars speculate that they were ceremonial instruments left over from an ancient Mycenaean shrine that survived from the 13th Century BCE in the Eleusis region. The Hierophants and the boxes are conveyed in a wagon most of the way. When the “sacred things” arrive in Athens, the custodian of the Eleusian temple in Athens [called the “Cleaner [of the Two Goddesses] (phaidryntes)] notifies the priestess of Athena on the Acropolis as a sign of courtesy and deference to the patroness of Athens. During their residence in Athens, the “sacred things” are kept in a shrine consecrated to Demeter and Persephone called the Eleusinion which was actually set under the Acropolis.
Oct. 6th (15 Boedromion): The first official day of initiation was called “The Gathering” (Agyrmos). All those seeking initiation into the Greater Mysteries that year were to gather under the Stoa Poikile in central Athens where the Eleusinian Hierophantes (lit. “those who reveal the sacred things”) would make a announcement to the crowd, officially beginning the rites. Each would-be initiate publicly declares to have “a soul conscious of no evil and [to] have lived well and justly” (Inscriptiones Graecae II.2.1078). They would then be officially registered before moving on to the next stage.
NOTE: There was no distinction of age or sex, and both freed men and slaves (and emperors!) were in theory equally entitled to admission. In practice, though, the initiation fee of 15 drachmas —at least ten days worth of a laborer’s wages—may have barred entry to people like our friend Cleanthes, who was known to have been relatively impoverished.
Oct. 7th (16 Boedromion): The second day of the initiation was known as “Seaward, Initiates!” (halade mystai). Though the initiates (mystai) declared the day before that they were unconscious of defilement, a positive act of ritual cleansing is needed before the official initiation. As the name implies, the initiates set out in carriages and carts to drive the eight miles to the Piraeus (the port of Athens)—specifically, the beach of Phaleron. There, they then purify themselves in the saltwater along with their own piglet that they brought along. When they return to Athens, each initiate would sacrifice their pig to Demeter and sprinkle themselves with its blood (presumably, the day would end in a feast of suckling pig).
Oct 8th (17 Boedromion): The third day of the initiation was probably known as “Hither the victims” (hiereia deuro). Not much is known about what happens on this day, but it appears to be the day of the main state sacrifice in Athens for the Two Goddesses. Those who can afford to show their piety in a public manner will make their own offerings on this day.
Oct. 9th (18 Boedromion): On the fourth day, the initiates (mystai) are required to spend the day indoors (This doesn’t sound as strange to modern ears, but it would have been very strange since much of life was spent outside). Presumably, this is a time of quiet contemplation which would be suitable preparation for the spiritual experience of the two final days. The day is known as Epidauria or Asklepieia, due to another transplanted festival that originated in Epidaurus in honor of Asclepius; it is celebrated by the city while the initiates are absent.
Oct 10th (19 Boedromion): On the fifth day of initiation into the Greater Mysteries, the “sacred things” are escorted back to Eleusis by the epheboi and all the initiates. The procession starts near the Diplyon Gate in the northwest boundary of Athens and continues on the road known as the “Sacred Way” (Hiera Hodos). The participants wear garlands of myrtle and often carry bacchoi— branches of myrtle tied together with strands of wool. They walk the entire 14 miles to Eleusis, accompanied by flute and harp players, choirs of singers, and other pilgrim onlookers. The procession passes the Academus of Plato and— after climbing over Mount Aegaleus— the sanctuary of the famous ‘Oracle of Delphi’. When they enter the original territory of Eleusis (past the streams of Rheitoi), each initiate has a yellow woolen thread tied around their right hand and the left leg which was meant to provide some kind of magical protection. When they cross the bridge over the river Kephisos, the more distinguished initiates have insults hurled at them by the locals (this roasting of elites would pop up in other aspects of Greek and Roman culture). The initiates reach Eleusis itself after sundown by torchlight. The older ones rest while the more enthusiastic ones celebrate into the night. Special offerings to Demeter are made of different kinds of grains, peas, and beans placed into earthenware dishes called kernoi.
Oct. 11th (20 Boedromion): The sixth day of initiation take place entirely in Eleusis itself. Our information about what happens from here on becomes vague as we approach the secret part of the ceremonies. It’s likely that the initiates physically fast in order to spiritually prepare themselves. After sundown (the start of the seventh day), they break their fast with a special beverage called kykeon—a special concoction of water, flour, pennyroyal (and perhaps ergot, a hallucinogenic grain fungus). The initiates are then escorted into a special building known as the Telesterion (or, “Hall of Initiation”) where the final initiation ceremony begins…
The details of the ceremony are ultimately secret, but some things can be gleaned from the reports of early Roman historians and the early Christian Fathers (though we should be careful about much of their accounts since they were usually writing to discredit the Mystery).
The elements of the final ceremony are traditionally divided into ‘things said’, ‘things done’, and ‘things revealed’. The ‘things said’ are probably ritual formulae uttered by the priests and repeated by the initiates. The ‘things done’ may be ritual acts performed by the priests, but also mimetic reenactments of some of the myths of Demeter. The ‘things revealed’ come at the climax: these are likely the “sacred things” which had been escorted under the veil of secrecy to the Eleusinion in Athens and back to the Telesterion in Eleusis (they are usually kept in an inner sanctum—a holy of holies known as the Anaktoron where only the Hierophants might enter). After a period of darkness within the shrine, a bright light reveals the “sacred things” to the thousands of assembled initiates. Considering everything that they had gone through in the prior days, this collective visual experience likely provokes a lot of emotion (which may be amplified by the hallucinogenic ergot they ingested).
The Middle Platonist philosopher Plutarch compared the progress of the initiate to that of the philosopher seeking wisdom:
“at first it was all noise and confusion in a jostling throng, but at last it was a great light beheld in fear and silence.”
Whatever occurs within the mysteries themselves must have provided spiritual satisfaction considering the universal respect with which the Eleusinian rites were treated throughout the Hellenistic era (they were carried out for thousands of years!)
Oct. 12th (21 Boedromion): The next day was named Plemochoai after the ritual vessels used. Each initiate takes two plemochoai to the Rharian Fields (supposedly where Demeter first taught man agriculture), fills them up with water, and tips each over—one to the east and one to the west—while uttering a mystic formula. This is likely to encourage an early Autumn rain.
The initiation is officially complete.
The next day (22 Boedromion), the newly-initiated begin the long journey home, now as epoptai (lit., “those who have seen”).
How should we commemorate the occasion today?
I’ve thought about this a bit. Stoic philosophy is not a religion in the conventional sense. But it does ask us to foster feelings of sympathy towards others. We shouldn’t feel the unhealthy feelings of others, but we should acknowledge a deep interconnectedness and we should internalize a deep sense of community. Stoicism also asks us to foster what Pierre Hadot called a “cosmic consciousness”—a consciousness that we are part of the cosmos and a subsequent “dilation” of self.
With this in mind, there may be a place for religious or quasi-religious rituals like the ones described above. The important thing is that they actually foster healthy feelings, edify our character, and encourage us to continue our moral and intellectual development.
I’ll end with a few activities you can try. After sampling a few this weekend, consider integrating one or two of them in your weekly routine.
- Try insight meditation—for Buddhists, this practice provides “insight into the true nature of reality” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vipassan%C4%81). For Stoics, this would include themes of impermanence and mortality; the limits of agency and what’s truly “up to us”; the rational and social nature of human beings; and the beautiful cosmic order of nature. Contemplating this last theme can be supplemented by Robertson’s ‘View from Above’ script: https://donaldrobertson.name/2013/01/02/the-view-from-above-audio-recording/)
- Try mindfulness meditation—for Buddhists, this is a well-developed practice (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness). For Stoics, this just means regularly circumscribing the present and directing your intentions there; the present is where all action takes place so it must be attended to. Keep in mind that the present often includes other people.
- Start a tradition with friends or family—if you do not wish to visit a religious services, you can create your own weekly tradition of seeing friends or family or sharing an experience remotely (movie night, game night, dinner night, etc.). The key is to maintain this tradition as if it was a religious commandment. Often this will
- Listen to music that inspires and elevates you—music is often used to enhance religious sentiments; if there are songs that help you foster joy and that bolsters your enthusiasm for moral progress, make an effort to revisit them often. But a disclaimer: it seems important to avoid music that provokes unhealthy emotions like fear, distress, anxiety, or anger.
- Visit inspiring places—like Marcus Aurelius and the initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries, you can also become inspired by visiting remarkable places, both natural and man-made.
Let me know if you have other ideas. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.