The connection between the Eleusinian Mysteries and Christianity is complicated. In the nineteenth century, many scholars claimed that mystery cults provided the foundations for many Christian sacraments. This view was later abandoned in favour of the Jewish roots of Christianity. Linguistic evidence had a profound influence on the evolution of our understanding. The adaptation of mystery terminology and metaphorical applications to the new concepts introduced by the Christians was slow and slight.
Some Christian groups were influenced by the Mysteries’ high prestige and adopted various elements. Most Christian authors, though, combated the Mysteries, attempted to expose their perceived falsehoods, and attributed their content to the machinations of the Devil. Some pagans pointed out similarities between Christian rites and their practices and argued that Christians had no reason not to participate in pagan ceremonies. Baptism was a hotly debated topic. Tertullian accepted the similarities between baptism and various pagan rituals but rejected the latter as ineffective since the Holy Spirit did not attend them. As pagans and Christians fought in the arena of intellectual and religious supremacy, Christian authors launched blistering attacks aimed at discrediting traditions that had survived for many centuries. Clement of Alexandria described those who introduced the mysteries into Greece as “the fathers of their impious myths and deadly superstition, who sowed in human life that seed of evil and ruin: the Mysteries”. He went on to claim that these pagan orgies were “full of imposture and quackery” and invited all initiates to learn from their errors and “laugh at these myths of yours which have been held in honour”.
Despite these harsh words, though, Clement realised that the mystery terminology could perfectly describe the Christian experience. So, after opposing Christianity to the pagan mysteries, he proclaims: “O truly sacred mysteries. O pure light. In the blaze of torches I have a vision of heaven and God. I become holy by initiation. The Lord reveals holy things; He marks the initiate with His seal, illuminating him, and commends him, when he has believed, to the Father’s care, where he is guarded for ages to come. These are the revels of my mysteries. If thou wilt, be thyself also initiated”.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were among the oldest, most popular, and most venerable pagan cults in the Mediterranean. It was, therefore, only natural that the Early Christian Fathers would invest considerable time and effort in discrediting the rites of Demeter and Persephone. Their writings are full of statements to the goddesses and her secret cult, but their sources were not always the most reliable. Syncretism and the equation of ideas and practices originally independent of each other or even contrary to each other was a common occurrence meant to serve the need of polemics against pagan errors. As a result, many authors ended up attributing to the Eleusinian Mysteries whatever they happened to know, read, or hear regarding the practices of any cult to discredit the sacred rites of Demeter.
Clement of Alexandria is an excellent example of this propensity. He was an educated person with some general knowledge of the mystery cults and may have had personal experience of the mysteries performed in a suburb southeast of Alexandria called Eleusis, after the sanctuary in Attica. In Protrepticus, Clement of Alexandria gave the “password of the Eleusinian Mysteries”, but it is unclear whether he referred to the rites in Egypt or Attica. Elsewhere, he confuses Eleusinian and Orphic practices and myths, providing a bewildering mixture of names and stories that obfuscate rather than clarify the traditions of the Eleusinian priesthood. But to Clement, it mattered little whether his description matched reality. The main point of his work was to demonstrate the fallacy of pagan religion and not accurately record Demeter's rites.
As Christianity gained new converts and became better known in the course of the third century, a new development occurred. The pagan mysteries became less of a threat and became open to Christian influences. As the fear subsided, Christians began to adopt words such as “mysterion” for baptism and described the Eucharist as a “Mystery”. The Church Fathers talked about the Eucharist as daduchia and epopteia, the former being the function of an important priest of the Eleusinian Mysteries and the latter the highest degree of initiation in Eleusis. Athanasius claimed that Christians ought not to “parade the holy Mysteries before the uninitiated, lest the pagans in their ignorance mock them”, thus ascribing to the sacraments the same status as the sacred objects kept in the Anaktoron in Eleusis.
This lengthy process of language appropriation and practice rejection culminated in the late fourth century with a radical new official policy. The Roman emperors had embraced Christianity and were determined to eradicate paganism throughout the empire. The Emperor Theodosius I ordered the closure of Demeter’s sanctuary in Eleusis in 392. A few years later, the Visigoths burned the town and the temple. Within a few decades, the ancient rituals were gone. The triumphant Christian church stood on the ruins of the age-old tradition and proclaimed a new theology and a novel answer to humanity’s quest for meaning and comfort. Only traces of the ancient Mysteries survive in the vocabulary and rituals of the Christian tradition, a compelling reminder of a whole world that once thrived in this corner of the Mediterranean Sea.