"Happy is he who has gone through the mysteries, he knows the source and the end of life" -- Pindar (ca. 522-443 BC)
The central event of the cult of Demeter--the Greek goddess of the harvest--were the Eleusinian Mysteries--an annual ritual that remains one of the most enduring secrets of the ancient world.
Taking place at Demeter's temple in Eleusis, the Mysteries commemorated the myth of Persephone, Demeter's daughter. Even today, most school kids are familiar with Persephone's kidnapping and forced marriage to Hades, Demeter's long mourning period, and the mother and daughter's reunion, a cycle which the Greeks used to explaining the changing of the seasons. During the fall equinox, the Temple of Demeter held the Lesser and Greater Eleusinian Mysteries. (An initiate had to go through the Lesser Mysteries before they were admitted into the Greater Mysteries.) It was notable for not only allowing women to participate, but later slaves and foreigners as well. And while the Lesser Mysteries were held in public and described in detail, nobody in the modern world knows exactly what the Greater Mysteries entailed.
Initiates, called mystai were forbidden from speaking about the ritual, and despite flourishing for 2000 years, no written record of the Greater Mysteries exists. Even mystai who later converted to Christianity refused to give up Demeter's secrets.
It is known that the mystai were taken into a windowless hall in the temple known as the Telesterion. Engraved above the entrance to the Telesterion were the words "Know Yourself." Once gathered there, the initiates possibly witnessed or even participated in a dramatic recreation of myth of Persephone. Whatever happened in the Telesterion, it had a profound impact on many of the initiates. Rhetorician Sopatos said, “I came out of the mystery hall feeling like a stranger to myself.” And the great orator Cicero declared, "We have been given a reason not only to live in joy, but also to die with better hope."
Although the exact nature of the Eleusinian Mysteries will forever remain, well, a mystery, the Aquarian Tabernacle Church (ATC) tries to recreate that same sense of spiritual renewal initiates spoke about with their Spring Mysteries Festival.
Located in Washington State, the ATC was the first Wiccan church to be be recognized as a legitimate, tax-exempt religious organization in the US. For 27 years, they've held their Spring Mysteries Festival in Fort Flagler State Park in Nordland, Washington. Like the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Spring Mysteries is divided into Lesser and Greater Mysteries, with initiates having to go through the Lesser before being admitted into the Greater. Unlike the ancient Greek ritual, the Spring Mysteries are accompanies by workshops, an espresso bar, and a "Friday Night at the Apollo Theater" talent show.
The ATC asks initiates to not speak about some aspects of the Mysteries, but have been described in detail on the web. Priests and priestesses of the church play the role of Greek gods and goddesses ("drawing down the gods into them" in Wiccan terminology.) They wait in shrines which are apparently tucked away in the woods and initiates must actively seek them out. Morag Spinner attended the Greater Spring Mysteries this past April and wrote a good summary of what happened and how it affected her.
On Saturday, I went and spoke to the gods. I started with Zeus and Hera, who are terrifying. I did not stop shaking when I was in Their shrine. I had a question for Hera, because of a dream I’d had on that Thursday that had contained Her. She looked right into my soul and told me that dreams often lent themselves the faces of the gods to give themselves power, and then She told me the story of Hera’s Renewal. She suggested I look towards the good bounty of the earth to renew my spirit and said that perhaps my dream was a message from Gaia.
. . . I then felt drawn to Demeter, who gave me Her blessing, Her advice, and told me to seek out Persephone. Persephone also gave me Her blessing, and amazing advice, and a small glass pomegranate seed with specific instructions. [Hestia] gave me a cookie and a hug.
The story of Persephone and her mother is my favorite from all of Greek myth. It even made a previous appearance in the Cabinet of Curiosities. I am not a Wiccan, and probably far to jaded to go through any ritual this elaborate with an open heart, I can't help being a bit jealous of the deep, obvious impact this experience had on Spinner.
Plus, hey! Cookies!