How Marcus Aurelius was Initiated into the Cult of Demeter
How Marcus Aurelius was Initiated into the Cult of Demeter
For I made a vow, when the war began to blaze highest, that I too would be initiated… —Marcus Aurelius, quoted in Lives of the Sophists
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD) is best-known today as the author of The Meditations, a collection of personal reflections on ethics and self-improvement inspired by Stoic philosophy. While researching my recent book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, I visited several locations associated with key events in his life. One was Carnuntum, in Austria, the legionary fortress where he stationed himself while fighting the Marcomannic War, and where part of The Meditations was written. Another was the Greek town of Elefsina, just outside Athens, which was known in antiquity as Eleusis, the home of the famous Eleusinian mystery religion, based upon the myth and rites of the goddess Demeter. Marcus became a patron of Eleusis and was initiated there toward the end of his life.
You can still see a bust of Marcus Aurelius in the extensive archeological site which contains the ruins of the ancient Temple of Demeter. Marcus is quite well-preserved, although his head has either broken off recently or been removed for repairs. This bust adorned the pediment (the top section) of the Greater Propylaea, a monumental gate at the entrance to a large fortified complex containing the temple of the Eleusinian mysteries. This gate was apparently part of a rebuilding project undertaken after the temple was sacked by a Sarmatian tribe called the Costoboci, around 170 AD. They rode all the way from their homeland, north of Roman Dacia (i.e., somewhere in the area of modern-day Ukraine), down through the Balkans, and finally besieged the temple and looted its treasures, before being driven back by the Roman army.
Following the sack of Eleusis, Marcus had the telesterion (initiation hall) completely rebuilt, and in 176 AD he visited Athens in person to be initiated.
Marcus was very interested in religion. We know this from his private correspondence and various details provided in the Roman histories. His father’s side of the family even claimed to be descendants of King Numa, who, according to legend, founded the ancient priestly colleges and rites of the Roman religion. As emperor, Marcus served as pontifex maximus, or high priest, and took his duties in this regard very seriously. Following the sack of Eleusis, he had the telesterion (initiation hall) completely rebuilt, and in 176 AD he visited Athens in person to be initiated.
The mystery religions were sworn to secrecy. That makes them very frustrating for historians because while we know they were very influential, we know very little about their doctrines or rituals. Marcus had probably already been initiated into the Cult of Mithras, while commanding the legions in Carnuntum, near modern-day Vienna in Austria, during the First Marcomannic War. Mithraism was very popular with Roman soldiers and many temples to Mithras, or mithraeums, have been unearthed at Carnuntum. There happens also to have been a mithraeum at Eleusis, alongside the main temple, which was dedicated to the goddess Demeter. However, in this article we’ll focus on the Eleusinian Mysteries and their relationship with the writings and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.
The Worship of Demeter
Demeter was the Olympian Greek goddess of the harvest, responsible for the art of agriculture. She was sometimes called simply the goddess of grain. She was also associated with fertility, and to some extent with nature in general. Her worship at Eleusis was part of a very ancient tradition, bound up with her myths and with the symbolism of growing and harvesting crops.
The site at Eleusis still contains archeological remains depicting poppy flowers and corn (wheat or barley) sheaves, two of the main symbols of Demeter. Poppy flowers, which like to grow in wheat and barley fields, also adorned the pediment containing the bust of Marcus Aurelius. He had linked his own image, in stone, with the symbolism of the goddess.
More generally, Demeter is associated with agriculture and the harvesting of cereals, fruits, and other crops. For instance, when Demeter was in distress, the Attic king Phytalus showed her kindness and hospitality. In return she taught him how to cultivate fig trees. As we’ll see, there are several quite striking references to ears of corn and fig trees in Stoic writings, which employ symbolism quite reminiscent of the mysteries of Demeter.
The Abduction of Persephone
The latter part of the word Demeter happens to mean “mother” in Greek (meter). There’s some debate as to whether the first part (de) originally meant “earth” or “grain” — she could be either named earth-mother or grain-mother. We happen to have a book titled The Compendium of Greek Theology by a Stoic called Cornutus, which links Demeter with Hestia, goddess of the hearth, and states bluntly “both seem to be none other than the earth.”
Since it gives birth to everything and nourishes it like a mother, the ancients called it ‘De-meter’, as if it were Earth-Mother; or else ‘mother Deo’ because the earth and the things on it ungrudgingly produce what men can divide among themselves and feast on; or because on it they meet with, i.e. find, what they seek. — Cornutus, Compendium of Greek Theology
Whatever its origins, though, the name Demeter was bound to evoke the notion of motherhood. Indeed, Demeter had a beloved daughter called Persephone, sometimes known as Kore, meaning a young girl, virgin, or maiden. One day as she was picking flowers, she was abducted by the god Hades. He took her to his dark underground kingdom where she was forced to become his unwilling queen. Demeter was distraught at the mysterious disappearance of her daughter, and travelled the earth searching for her in vain. In other words, the Eleusinian mysteries were based around tragic and highly emotive symbolism — the abduction and rape of a child. Perhaps we would even describe this as a story about “sex trafficking” today.
While Demeter wept, the earth became barren, and there was much suffering. Eventually, Zeus took pity on her, and arranged for Persephone to return to the world of the living. However, Hades had tricked her into eating six pomegranate seeds, for each of which she was fated to spend one month every year living with him in the Underworld.
Cornutus, says explicilty that the disappearance of Persephone symbolizes the planting of seeds.
There is a myth that Hades kidnapped the daughter of Demeter, because of the disappearance of the seeds under the earth for a certain time. — Cornutus, Compendium of Greek Theology
The fruits and grains of the harvest, sacred to Demeter, are provided by her, by Nature, only in due season, for part of the year. Persephone was likewise only with her mother for part of each year, symbolizing the cycles of nature, and the transience of all worldly things, even our loved ones. It’s a myth, in part, about coming to terms with loss, and impermanence.
The Rites of Eleusis
Every year, the rites would begin with thousands of initiates gathering to listen to a proclamation from the hierophant of Demeter at the Stoa Poikile, in the Athenian agora. This was, of course, the location where the Stoic school was founded and after which it was named. Five days of celebrations and ritual preparations followed, culminating with a torchlit procession along the Sacred Way from Athens to Eleusis. The ceremonies continued there for another four days during which time initiations were carried out.
For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called ‘initiations,’ so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope. — Cicero
The nature of these initiations was highly secret. We know they consisted of things said (logomena), things enacted (dromena) and things seen (deiknymena). It’s likely that dramatic scenes from the myth of Demeter and Persephone were acted out in theatrical performances — perhaps the actors even felt themselves to be representing the goddesses spiritually. In any case, the initiation must have been a highly-emotive experience. It was said to culminate in the epopteia or mystical vision — literally, “the seeing”.
Initiates drank a concoction known as the kykeon (“mixture”), which was perhaps a type of barley-water flavoured with mint leaves. However, some researchers now believe that it also contained powerful psychotropics. This was potentially due to the deliberate cultivation and processing of ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus that grows naturally on barley and other crops. This experience left initiates feeling somewhat less afraid of dying — to “die with better hope” as Cicero cryptically puts it. Perhaps they felt they had expanded their consciousness and glimpsed a vision of the afterlife.
Marcus in Eleusis
Although Marcus was devoted to Stoicism, a philosophy founded in Athens, he had never actually been there, as far as we know, until a hiatus in the Marcomannic Wars allowed him to tour the east in 176 AD. There are many references to the fact he was initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries while at Athens. This was clearly a well-known fact and probably considered one of the most significant events of his reign.
After he [Marcus Aurelius] 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. — Historia Augusta
While Marcus was there he set up funding for several chairs in philosophy and rhetoric at Athens.
When Marcus had come to Athens and had been initiated into the Mysteries, he not only bestowed honours upon the Athenians, but also, for the benefit of the whole world, he established teachers at Athens in every branch of knowledge, granting these teachers an annual salary. — Cassius Dio
Another historian, Philostratus, quotes from a purported letter of Marcus Aurelius in which he asks the famous Sophist Herodes Atticus, his old Greek rhetoric tutor, to officiate at his initiation in Eleusis.
[Marcus wrote to Herodes Atticus:] demand reparation from me in the temple of Athena in your city at the time of the Mysteries. For I made a vow, when the war began to blaze highest, that I too would be initiated, and I could wish that you yourself should initiate me into those rites. — Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists
Marcus may have meant the famous Temple of Athena Parthenos, known as the Parthenon, on the Acropolis, in the centre of Athens.
The process of being initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries actually took several days and began in Athens. After some initial rites there was a procession from the Sacred Gate of the Kerameikos, or cemetery, in Athens, to nearby Eleusis. The Sacred Way, as the road from Athens to Eleusis was known, measured 22km, and could probably be walked in about four or five hours. It’s notable that the procession began among the tombs of the Kerameikos as much of the symbolism relates to Hades and the concept of an afterlife, but also to the notion of coming to terms with our own mortality.
We can certainly take note of several parallels between the Stoic ideas expressed by Marcus and the imagery of the Eleusinian mysteries.
If Marcus vowed during the height of the First Marcomannic War that he would be initiated, that almost certainly means he made this promise while he was in the middle of writing The Meditations. We cannot know whether passages in The Meditations were influenced by teachings from Eleusis or not. However, we can certainly take note of several parallels between the Stoic ideas expressed by Marcus and the symbolism of the Eleusinian mysteries.
The Mysteries in The Meditations
Major themes found in the Stoicism of The Meditations clearly resonate with the myth of Demeter, such as coping with loss, accepting mortality, and viewing these things as processes of universal nature. For example, the following passage quotes a lost tragedy of Euripides, and could hardly sound more Eleusinian:
Life must be reaped like the ripe ears of corn. One man is born; another dies. — Meditations, 7.40
Marcus obviously loved this line because he quotes it again later in The Meditations (11.6). He clearly means that we should accept death as a natural process, like the reaping of corn that is growing old. As the plant begins to die, it sheds seeds, which are sown in order to grow new crops.
Elsewhere, Marcus quotes a notorious passage from the Discourses of Epictetus (3.24), which once again uses the reaping of corn as a metaphor for accepting mortality:
When a man kisses his child, said Epictetus, he should whisper to himself, “Tomorrow perhaps you will die.” — But those are words of bad omen. — “No word is a word of bad omen,” said Epictetus, “which expresses any work of nature; or if it is so, it is also a word of bad omen to speak of the ears of corn being reaped”. — Meditations, 11.34
He also quotes Epictetus (3.24) employing the metaphor of looking for figs out of season.
To look for the fig in winter is the act of a madman and such is he who looks for his child when it is no longer allowed. — Meditations, 11.33
The fig-tree was another symbol of Demeter, as we’ve seen. The loss of Persephone was strongly associated with the symbolism of crops being out of season and denied to us. At first, Demeter grieved terribly, and searched frantically for her child. Although Persephone was eventually returned, it was only temporary. Her mother was forced to accept recurring periods during which her child was absent, and to view this as part of the natural order. How could an ancient Greek or Roman have talked about looking for a child when it is no longer allowed without recalling the myth of Persephone?
The Stoic Cornutus, who had claimed that Demeter was “none other than the earth”, goes on to say:
Mythology tells that she is first and last because the things that were born from the earth and sustained by it are dissolved into it; and this is also why the Greeks start and end their sacrifices with her. — Cornutus, Compendium of Greek Theology
Marcus uses similar language and literally describes death as a mystery (mysterion) of nature — a phrase which perhaps sounds like an allusion to the mysteries of Demeter, the earth-mother and goddess of nature.
Death is such as generation is, a mystery of nature; composition out of the same elements, and a decomposition into the same; and altogether not a thing of which any man should be ashamed, for it is not contrary to [the nature of] a reasonable animal, and not contrary to the reason of our constitution. — Meditations, 4.5
By contrast, those who refuse to accept loss as part of nature remind Marcus of the sacrificial piglets who screech and wriggle beneath the blade. (A cruel image by modern standards but one that to which many ancient Greeks and Romans would be desensitised.)
Imagine every man who is grieved at anything or discontented to be like a pig which is sacrificed and kicks and screams. Like this pig also is he who on his bed in silence laments the bonds in which we are held. And consider that only to the rational animal is it given to follow voluntarily what happens but simply to follow is a necessity imposed on all. — Meditations, 10.28
The Greeks often sacrificed animals such as cattle and sheep. The sacrifice of piglets was not unusual but was, as it happens, particularly associated with the worship of Demeter and Persephone. Indeed, as we’ve already seen, worshippers would sacrifice piglets to these goddesses in exchange for the chance to be initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries. The psychodrama that followed was intended to cleanse them of their own fear of death, i.e., they all hoped to become unlike the sacrificial piglets.
The church father Hippolytus reported that after being initiated, celebrants would chant “Rain! Conceive!” (hye kye!). These words seemingly addressed the sky and earth respectively, and were a plea for crops to grow, especially fields of wheat and barley. This obviously resembles another Athenian rainmaking prayer admired by Marcus in The Meditations for its simplicity:
A prayer of the Athenians: “Rain, rain, O dear Zeus, down on the ploughed fields of the Athenians and on the plains.” In truth we ought not to pray at all, or we ought to pray in this simple and noble fashion. — Meditations, 5.7
Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, mentions that “Euripides says that when the earth is parched it loves rain, and the sublime heaven, when full of rain, loves to fall to earth.” Marcus seems to quote the same line from this lost tragedy of Euripides, which echoes the symbolism of the chant “Rain! Conceive!” once again:
“The earth loves the rain;” and “the solemn heaven is moved by love;” and the universe loves to make whatever is about to be. I say then to the universe, that I love as you love. And is not this too said that “this or that loves to be produced?” — Meditations, 10.21
Once more, a simple agrarian metaphor is used to express a spiritual or philosophical concept. In this case, the earth “loving” to receive the rain, in accord with nature, symbolizes the Stoic love of one’s fate (amor fati).
As noted above, we have no idea whether Marcus would have said these ideas were derived from the Eleusinian mysteries. However, as he was writing The Meditations, we know he vowed that one day, as soon as the war was over, he would go to Athens. That means he had long intended to stand before the Stoa Poikile in order to listen to the pronouncement of the hierophant, along with thousands of other worshippers. He would ritually bathe and sacrifice a screaming piglet to Demeter and Persephone. He would gather with others among the tombs at the Keramikos and proceed by torchlight along the Sacred Way to be initiated in the Telesterion at Eleusis.
It was with philosophical intent that they began to celebrate the ‘mysteries’ for her, rejoicing at the same time in the discovery of things beneficial for life, and in a festival which they used to bear witness to the fact that they had stopped fighting with each other over the necessities, and were replete, i.e. satiated. — Cornutus, Compendium of Greek Theology
With this end in mind, I feel certain, Marcus realized that his talk of “ears of corn”, “figs in winter”, and “mysteries of nature”, was echoing the famous symbolism of the Eleusinian mysteries.