Travelling on the road between Athens and Corinth, around 22 kilometres from the centre of the capital, we reach the town of Elefsina (the modern name for Eleusis). A visitor’s first impression on approaching is one of industrial chaos: a landscape blemished by abandoned factories and other commercial premises – so why should anyone want to stop here ? Following the signs to the archaeological site of Eleusis, the answer will soon be revealed.
On a ridge above the bay lay the ruins of the city of Eleusis, whose walls enclose the Sanctuary of Demeter, the goddess of fertility and crops. From the Bronze Ages, till polytheism was outlawed by Christian rule in 390 A.D., this was the second most important site in Ancient Greece – second only to Delphi – and this is evident from the blend of architectural styles visible in its ruins.
The big attraction here was the secret rites – the Eleusinian Mysteries – which took place here annually. What exactly went on there was such a well-kept secret that only the participants knew what they were all about. But it must have been a pretty fulfilling experience as participation was much sought after in the ancient world. Theories and analyses abound, from Homer to Carl Gustav Jung, far too many to cover in a few paragraphs. So here is a taster of the delights to be expanded on during our tour.
The legend behind the Temple of Demeter is one of the best-known in Greek mythology. Although Demeter and Zeus happened to be siblings, this didn’t get in the way of them having a daughter together. Anything went in the land of the gods, especially where they made the rules! This immortal girl was Persephone, who was happily gathering flowers one day in a meadow near Eleusis when she caught the lustful eye of the god Hades. Taking a fancy to her, Hades kidnapped her and took her off to be his wife in the Underworld.
In her search for her daughter, the distraught Demeter came to Eleusis disguised as an old woman. The daughters of King Keleos (Celeus) took pity on her, so their mother Queen Mataniera offered to put her up in return for raising her baby son, Demophon.
The child’s unusually rapid development and strength aroused Mataniera’s curiosity to the point where she tried to spy on Demeter to find out how this growth was achieved. Seeing the goddess holding her son over a fire, she let out a scream, giving her presence away. Demeter was annoyed. She revealed her own identity, saying that she could have made Demophon immortal, given her privacy. One version of the tale relates that the baby Demophon died in the fire, and then the Panhellenic Eleusinian Games were held to honour his memory.
Demeter ordered the Eleusinians to build her a temple where she could teach them her sacred rites. When it was built, she locked herself inside, grieving for her lost daughter, Persephone. As a result, the crops died, and farmlands lay barren causing widespread famine. All the other gods from Mt Olympus came along and made individual attempts to coax her to return home with them, to no avail.
Eventually, Hermes managed to pass into the Underworld to reason with Hades to save the mortal world. Hades compromised, allowing Persephone to leave his dark kingdom, but tricked her into eating some pomegranate seeds before leaving. Their magical power meant that she had to return to him for part of each year. Demeter was pleased enough to emerge from the temple and bring the earth back to life. This was how the ancients explained the changing of the seasons when winter fell each time Persephone made her annual return to Hades.
Persephone gave the first grain of wheat to the king’s son, Triptolemos, teaching how to cultivate and harvest crops. Then Demeter taught the Eleusinians her sacred rites, and so the long-standing tradition began.
From the Bronze Age, Eleusis was originally a Mycenaean city, and the discovery of a Mycenaean shrine under the Sanctuary backs up the theory that the cult of Demeter was underway by then.
Around 750 B.C., the first Telesterion, a building to host the sacred rites, was built. A larger one, the Solonian, appeared in 600 B.C., followed by another as the Sanctuary was doubled in size as the Mysteries grew in popularity.
Basically, it appears that the Mysteries were connected to the celebration of life, death and resurrection. The rituals took place twice a year: once in the early spring, celebrating Persephone’s resurrection from the Underworld; and then in the third month of Greek summer, probably as a kind of harvest festival, the larger celebration happened. The latter involved, among other things, a procession from Athens to Eleusis along the Sacred Way (Hiera Odos). Prior to this, those arriving by sea for the event first bathed in the sea to cleanse themselves at Phaliron, the main Athenian port. Upon arriving at Eleusis, the initiated entered the Telesterion for the rites. It is widely believed that hallucinatory substances of some sort were involved to induce a trancelike meditative state. When they emerged from the Telesterion, there ensued an all-night feast of drinking and dancing.
Part of the Sanctuary was destroyed in the Persian Wars, only to be rebuilt during the Golden Age of Pericles. All the well-known Athenians of the time, Plato and Socrates included, were initiated into the Mysteries, while the deviant General Alcibiades (Alkiviadis) was reprimanded for carrying out illegal ‘Eleusinian Mysteries’ in a private home.
During the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 B.C.), the Sanctuary remained unscathed, and continued to grow, as did the city of Eleusis. Even the Romans were enchanted! Officials and emperors, including Hadrian, took part in the Mysteries. The Emperor Julian made an unsuccessful attempt to revive the rites after the anti-pagan ban was enforced.
In the early nineteenth century, one of those unscrupulous English collectors of ancient artefacts, Edward Daniel Clark, dug up the colossal statue of a woman at the site. It had been revered by Christians as Saint Dimitra, their own variation of Demeter. Clark’s first attempt to transport it to England ended in a shipwreck. It was recovered and now remains in a small museum in Britain, while Eleusinians would be happy to see it returned home. They maintain that its removal was the downfall of the area, which had declined from being an agricultural paradise to an industrial hell. This was considered to be the Curse of Demeter.
The Site today
At the Sanctuary, lie the ruins of the Sacred Court where the worshippers used to meet at the end of their trek from Athens. The various building phases are visible in the foundations of the Telesterion, which was originally a large hall with six entrances. Inside there was eight levels of seating on each wall where the initiates would sit with the high priest in the centre.
The Triumphal Arches, Roman replicas of Hadrian’ Gate in Athens, still stand from the 2nd century A.D. So do the remains of the Propylaea, which Romans built to emulate that of the Acropolis in Athens.
Dating back to 5th century B.C. is a well called the Callichoron, which Homer suggested was Demeter’s resting place upon her arrival, and Pausanias mentioned, too, in his description of Eleusis:
[Pausanias 1.38.6] “The Eleusinians have a temple of Triptolemus, of Artemis of the Portal, and of Poseidon Father, and a well called Callichorum (Lovely dance), where first the women of the Eleusinians danced and sang in praise of the goddess. They say that the plain called Rharium was the first to be sown and the first to grow crops, and for this reason it is the custom to use sacrificial barley and to make cakes for the sacrifices from its produce. Here there is shown a threshing-floor called that of Triptolemus and an altar.”
[1.38.6] “The Eleusinians have a temple of Triptolemus, of Artemis of the Portal, and of Poseidon Father, and a well called Callichorum (Lovely dance), where first the women of the Eleusinians danced and sang in praise of the goddess. They say that the plain called Rharium was the first to be sown and the first to grow crops, and for this reason it is the custom to use sacrificial barley and to make cakes for the sacrifices from its produce. Here there is shown a threshing-floor called that of Triptolemus and an altar.”
[1.38.7] “My dream forbade the description of the things within the wall of the sanctuary, and the uninitiated are of course not permitted to learn that which they are prevented from seeing. The hero Eleusis, after whom the city is named, some assert to be a son of Hermes and of Daeira, daughter of Ocean; there are poets, however, who have made Ogygus father of Eleusis. Ancient legends, deprived of the help of poetry, have given rise to many fictions, especially concerning the pedigrees of heroes.”
The oldest ruins must surely be the foundations and two columns of the Mycenaean Megaron, which was rectangular temple.
Of geological as well as archaeological interest, we can also see the entrance to the cavern known as Ploutonion, said to be the entrance to Underworld.
Although some finds from Eleusis are in the Archaeological Museum in Athens, many are still here in the Archaeological Museum of Eleusis, including a fabulous marble sarcophagus with a relief depicting the hunt of the legendary Calydonian boar. A must-see on our tour, this museum also hosts a mock-up that gives us an idea of how the Sanctuary looked in its prime.