The Eleusinian Mysteries were open to virtually everyone (only murderers, and people who could not understand the Greek language that was spoken in the rites, were excluded), and during the nearly two thousand years that they were celebrated, thousands of men, women, slaves, foreigners, common folk, and illustrious public figures (including Plato, Cicero, Augustus Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, and many others), all made the holy pilgrimage to Eleusis.
As preparation for the greater initiation to come, the Lesser Mysteries revealed the stark truth of our unpurified souls, imprisoned within the body, hypnotized by the world of the senses. Through stories, hymns, dances, theatrical performances, and rituals, the initiates experienced the horrifying abduction and imprisonment of their own souls, descending into the world of matter and illusion, which is symbolized by the abduction of Persephone and her imprisonment in the realm of Hades.
Demeter was away, and her daughter Persephone was playing with the other young goddesses in a meadow, filling baskets with beautiful flowers. She had no way of knowing that grim Hades, who had been walking on the surface to inspect the damage from an earthquake, had seen her, had been struck by an arrow of Eros (which Aphrodite had urged him to loose), and had fallen in love with her. Hades had then gone to his brother Zeus, Persephone’s father, and obtained permission to take the girl for his wife.
Now Persephone had wandered away from her companions, enticed by an extremely large and radiant narcissus plant with a hundred blooms, which Zeus had caused to grow as a snare for the girl. As she reached out her hands to touch the beautiful flower, the ground shook and opened wide beneath her feet, and Hades, charging forth in his chariot, sprang upon her and grabbed her and bore her down into the earth, despite all her screams. No one heard her cries, except for Helios, the Sun, who hears and sees everything, and his sister Hecate, the Moon, the goddess of darkness and the night. But her cries were echoed off the mountains, and Demeter heard them from far away. Yet she could see her beloved daughter nowhere.
In his subterranean palace, Hades forced Persephone to become his queen.
The human soul, the initiates learned, like Persephone, has its real home in the spiritual realm, free of the bondage of matter. Only there is it truly alive. The Lesser Mysteries represented the agony of the soul as it ‘dies’ to its real nature, and descends into the illusions and limitations of ‘life’ within a human body. Entranced by the transient beauty of the world (the narcissus and other flowers), and longing for experience in the world of the senses, the soul is trapped and it descends. The words and images of ‘descent’, however, are only figurative: we have no better language to describe the transition from ‘Heaven’ to ‘Earth’, which is not a change of location but only a change of condition.
The critical teaching of the Lesser Mysteries was that we will only be worse off after death, unless we take steps during this life to turn our longing for the illusions of the senses into a longing for the truths of the spirit – for this is Hades, the descent has already taken place, and if our soul sleeps through our physical life, it may continue to sleep through all eternity, passing back and forth from dream to dream. To drive this home, the Mysteries testified gloomily to the recurring descent into hell, and the endless aimless wanderings of unawakened and unperfected souls. At last, when the ceremonies ended, the participants were given the honorary title of Mystes, which means ‘one whose vision has been unclouded’, implying that one begins to perceive reality and sees what he or she must do.