The central story underlying the Eleusinian mystery was that Hades, the God of the Underworld, abducted Persephone from her mother, Demeter. Demeter roughly translates to “mother earth”. She was the Goddess of harvest and agriculture. After abducting Persephone, Hades then took her to the underworld.
Demeter searched ceaselessly for Persephone. During her search, she fasted. Her search also took her on mini-adventures, such as taking a job as a nurse and avoiding Poseidon’s romantic advances; the point of these stories was to convey how Demeter passed on her agricultural wisdom to humans. Celebration within the Eleusinian mystery included a period of fasting, followed by a ritual where initiates drank a Barley-Mint drink called Kykeon. Kykeon was alternatively made with wine, barley, and grated goat cheese.
One of the levers Demeter, the mother-earth Goddess, pulled to compel her brother Zeus to force Hades to return Persephone was her ability to cause drought. The leverage the drought gave Demeter was that it decreased the number of sacrifices humans could make to the gods (less rain=less crops=less animals to sacrifice). Zeus eventually gave in (or perhaps Demeter’s search prevented her from giving proper maintenance to the earth), and sent Hermes to accompany Persephone on her voyage from the underworld, back to her mother.
Because Persephone consumed pomegranate seeds in the underworld, she was forced to return to the underworld every year for some portion of the year (4-6 months depending on the source). Persephone’s yearly stay in the underworld explains why Demeter annually neglected the Earth during Greece’s dry summer months. In her grief, she neglected to tend to the Earth, just like when she was searching for her daughter.
There were 3 phases to Persephone’s abduction: the loss (descent), the search, and the (re) ascent. These phases depict Persephone’s resurrection, and were displayed in dramatic reenactment festivals which were called The Lesser Mysteries and the Greater Mysteries.
In the Lesser mystery (performed in the Spring), plays were performed that would signify misery in the soul while it was in the body. The Greater mysteries (performed in late Summer) contained similar performances as the lesser mystery dramatic performances, but the Greater mysteries would be more abstract, and they were characterized by appeals to mystical visions. The Greater mysteries also lasted longer, and they included a journey around Greece, and ended with rituals, wild parties, and animal sacrifices.
The subtext of the mysteries was that humans should be led back to the principles from which we descended. Anyone of any gender or nation could belong to the Eleusinian Mystery Religion; this detail contributed to its enormous popularity throughout the Roman empire.
During the Greater Mystery celebration, there was a “festival within a festival” that celebrated Asklepios, the God of medicine and son of Apollos. The legend of Asklepios includes a story where, because of kindness Asklepios gave to a snake, the snake revealed a secret wisdom (Gnosis?), which gave him medical super powers. Though the relationship between Demeter and Asklepios is not obvious, there are symbolic links between them – they both make offerings to mankind – Demeter offers agriculture, while Asklepios offers medicine.
I suspect the Asklepios snake myth was influential to the Ophite religion, which was a slight forerunner to Sethian Christianity (both the Sethians and the Ophites were in the same geographic area, Alexandria); a key Ophite tenet was their high regard for snakes. The Sethian myth integrated this reverence for snakes in its depiction of Sophia’s manifestation as the snake in the Garden of Eden; the snake was the one who gave Eve the “Divine Spark” in an attempt to free Adam and Eve from Yaldabaoth’s tyranny.
One point of interest is that a later iteration of Demeter was Ceres, the Roman mother Goddess of Agriculture, who had 12 helper Gods. Compare this to Demeter’s Grandmother Gaia, who birthed 12 Titans, or Gnostic Christianity’s Sophia, who created 12 archons. 12 was a common number in these myths, and Christianity is no exception (12 disciples, 12 tribes of Israel, crown of 12 stars, etc)…
But what does the Eleusinian Mystery have to do with Christianity?
In my hypothesis, Marcion had multiple tiers in his theology, similar to the Valentinians. The Gospel was an earlier tier, and the Paul letters and Revelation came later (alternatively, Paul was also introduced early). Given the penchant mystery religions had for this dual-tier system (The Lesser mystery vs. The Greater mystery), this multi-tiered system is quite plausible, given my earlier assumptions that Marcion was a student of Cerinthus, who wrote Revelation; Marcion makes reference to Cerinthus in 2 Corinthians 12. I also propose that Cerinthus brought Christianity to Northern and Western Turkey, and might have even brought it to those Northern Turks that Pliny the Younger noticed in 112.
Beyond that, this hypothesis also fits the general template: The Lesser mystery depicts suffering in dramatic form, while the Greater Mystery is more abstract, and gives broader insight into the theology’s underpinnings, and ultimately tie in the high-minded principles. The Gospel of Mark, which I think had heavy contribution from Marcion, reads like a play or dramatic depiction, rather than a biography – Ken Humphreys has a Youtube video about that detail. Could it be that the Gospel of Mark was the outline for a dramatic performance that was to be performed in Christianity’s own mystery gatherings? A copycat of the Eleusinian mysteries?
Another aspect of plausibility of this connection lies in geography and timing. The Eleusinian mysteries continued to be popular at precisely the time that Christianity was ramping up, the mid-2nd century. The Eleusinian temple to Demeter was destroyed in 170, and promptly rebuilt by Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was emperor between 161 and 180. Incidentally, that was the same time frame as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus were beginning to emerge as the orthodox victors. By this point, Christianity had already spread to Rome, and (I suspect) was engaged in heavy lobbying campaigns (eg Justin Martyr’s 1st apology, chapter 26).
Consider a line in Galatians 3: 1, one of the most obviously Marcionite of all the Pauline epistles:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.
“Clearly Portrayed”, says the author. The Greek word is Prographo (προγράφω). “Paul” used this same term in Romans 15:4 and Ephesians 3:3 (this amplifies my suspicion that most of Ephesians is indeed “authentic”, save for a few passages).
The term Prographo gives a clue that Paul is not saying Jesus was crucified. It is saying that Jesus was portrayed as being crucified. This contributes to the plausibility that what we’re looking at in many of the early New Testament texts is a snapshot of an emerging mystery cult that had all sorts of influences from other mystery cults, including the Eleusinians, along with cultural, philosophical, and mythological inputs of the day.