Half an hour’s drive from central Athens, along the main motorway that links the Greek capital with the south and west of the country, lies the suburb of Elefsina, known today for its petrol refineries, which are the main feature visible when driving by. But there is more to the place: entering its centre, one encounters a quiet early-20th town, the name betraying its very ancient origins: This is Eleusis, one of the most sacred places in the ancient world and one of the key archaeological sites in Greece.
Eleusis is one of the many highlights on our Exploring Athens tour, an atmospheric and intriguing place where we have a great story to tell. Or, to be more exact, a great story made of three interconnected narratives. One, and perhaps the most important, is myth, what the ancient Greeks believed happened at Eleusis and why that mattered to them. Arising from that is the second story, history, how the Greeks expressed or commemorated those beliefs and what rites they performed at Eleusis. The third, uniting the two previous strands, is archaeology, what remains there, what there is to see now.
Myth: a tale of loss and reconciliation
In Greek mythology, Eleusis was a place of unique significance, a location where the fates of gods and humans met and connected. The main protagonist is Demeter, the goddess of the earth, of agricultural fertility, responsible for plants bearing fruit and animals bearing offspring. One day, her beloved daughter, Persephone or Kore, literally disappeared from the face of the earth, throwing Demeter into deep mourning. Unbeknownst to her, Persephone had been abducted by her uncle Hades, the god of the Underworld, the shady domain of the dead, who wanted to take her as his wife.
Demeter searched the length and the breadth of the earth for Persephone, to no avail. Increasingly distraught, helpless and inconsolable, she was overcome by sadness, neglecting the plants that were her realm, allowing them to fade and wither away, leading to an endless winter.
Despondent, Demeter continued to travel across the world, disguised as an old woman. One day, she stopped outside the town of Eleusis, choosing a rock to sit on and weep. There, she was found by the daughters of the local king, Keleos, who took pity on her and made her welcome, the first instance of human kindness and compassion she was shown on her travels. On watching the clumsiness of the servant maid Baubo, Demeter had to laugh, the first such release since the disappearance of her daughter. She decided to stay and became nurse to Demophon, the king’s infant son.
Eventually, it became clear that Persephone was in the Underworld with Hades. Most unfortunately, she had accepted nourishment from her abductor, eating several pomegranate seeds, thus accepting hospitality and legitimising her presence there. Nonetheless, Demeter’s sadness and the resulting disappearance of vegetation could not be allowed to continue. It took the king of the gods, Zeus himself, brother to both Hades and Demeter and father to Persephone, to broker a deal. Henceforth, Kore/Persephone spent one third of each year with her husband in the underworld, and two thirds up above with her mother.
Cheered by her return, Demeter allowed the plants to grow again, thus beginning the annual cycle of the seasons, the winter marking Demeter’s mourning when her daughter is absent. Grateful for the hospitality she was shown at Eleusis, she rewarded her hosts with two major gifts: the knowledge of agriculture, which was to be spread throughout the world by Triptolemos, another son of Keleos, and the “Mysteries”, a specific and sacred knowledge to be experienced and passed on to others at Eleusis. Henceforth, Eleusis was Demeter’s chief sanctuary.
History: festival, pilgrimage and mystery
Leaving mythology aside, Eleusis is a very old settlement, with origins in the Mycenaean Bronze Age around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. It is located on a fertile coastal plain and controls one of the main land routes between the Peloponnese, Central Greece and Attica. Initially, the town would have been an independent rival to Athens, but by the 6th century BC, it had been subsumed in to the Athenian city-state and became one of its most important outposts.
Its significance as one of the most famous and most visited sites in the Ancient World, however, is due to the Eleusinian Mysteries. They became a central aspect of the Athenian religious calendar, and later on turned into the focus of an international pilgrimage, with visitors from throughout the Roman Empire. The mysteries of Eleusis are the most famous – but by no means the only – example of ancient mystery cults, religious observances involving stages of initiation and some kind of special secret knowledge.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were notable for being open to any adult Greek speaker, male or female, free or slave. Full initiation required three stages, performed at a variety of festivals in the Eleusinion, a branch of the sanctuary of Eleusis located in the heart of Athens (between the ancient Agora and the Acropolis), and at Eleusis itself. By the Classical period, most Athenian citizens were initiates, later, many prominent Romans also became so. Among the initiates were Perikles, Aristotle and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Every autumn, the Athenians held the week-long Great Eleusinian Festival. This began with preparations, purification rites and sacrifices in the city of Athens itself. On the fifth day, the participants moved to Eleusis in a formal procession along the 22km (14mi) Sacred Way. Several days of festivities at Eleusis followed, including the initiation proper, lasting an entire night.
Unfortunately, we do not and will never know quite what that initiation entailed, what knowledge or ideas were communicated in its course or what rites were performed. Since the participants were sworn to secrecy and disclosing the mystery was a capital offence, we have only very limited information, tantalising hints as to the Mysteries’ content, found in various ancient texts, as well as in artistic representations.
Ancient sources broadly agree that the initiation to the Eleusinian Mysteries focused on experience rather than on learning. Also, it appears that initiation somehow reduced one’s fear of death. Many writers imply that participation permanently and positively changed their lives. One witness to the profound impact of the initiation on the participant is the Roman politician Cicero, who states the following:
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. (Laws 2,xiv,36)
Unfortunately, Cicero’s remark does not give away any of the mysteries’ actual content. The 2nd century AD historian Plutarch, himself a priest of Apollo at Delphi, gives a vivid and atmospheric account of the initiation, indicating that it consisted of three parts (confusion, fear, relevation) but again, he does not betray the secrets of the event:
At first there is wandering, and wearisome roaming, and fearful traveling through darkness with no end to be found. Then there is every sort of terror, shuddering and trembling and perspiring and being alarmed. But after this a marvellous light appears, and open places and meadows await, with voices and dances and the solemnities of sacred utterances and holy visions. In that place one walks about at will, now perfect and initiated and free, and wearing a crown, one celebrates religious rites, and joins with pure and pious people. Such a person looks over the uninitiated and unpurified crowd of people living here, who are packed together and trample each other in deep mud and murk, but who hold onto their evil things on account of their fear of death, because they do not believe in the good things that are in the other world. (Quoted in Stobaeus, Anthology 4.52.49)
If we turn to Pausanias, the 2nd century AD author of the Description of Greece, essentially a guidebook with detailed accounts of many of the major sanctuaries, their contents and the rites performed there, we are disappointed once more – and served the ultimate put-down:
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. (Pausanias 1.38.7)
The popularity of the Eleusinian Mysteries, celebrated for at least eight centuries, and probably more, brought fame, affluence and importance to their location. Its presence on Athenian territory also added greatly to the prestige of that famous city. But all good things must end – with the advent of Christianity, the significance of Eleusis gradually faded; the ban on pagan observances decreed by Emperor Theodosius I in the 380s AD would have been the final blow here, as at most major sanctuaries of antiquity.
Archaeology: sacred rocks, a huge hall – and more mysteries
There is much to see at Eleusis. Hidden away among the lanes of a modern town dominated by very forbidding industrial structures, the sanctuary of Demeter comes as a surprise, a serene and beautiful oasis, nestled into the shelter of an elongated limestone outcrop, crowned by a modern chapel.
Excavated mostly by Greek archaeologists throughout the 20th century, the site boasts a whole series of fascinating and well-preserved structures, spanning more than two millennia of human activity.
The sanctuary is surrounded by impressive fortification walls and towers, first constructed in the 6th or 5th century BC, but repeatedly repaired and enlarged until the 3rd century AD. Outside them on the north-eastern side is a large paved area, once accessed by two arched gateways. This is where the procession halted and regrouped on arrival from Athens and before proceeding into the main sanctuary.
The entrance, built in the 2nd century AD, was a very grand structure, a reduced copy of the Great Propylaia of the Athenian Acropolis, then already 600 years old. Continuing into the sanctuary, the visitor, ancient and modern alike, passes a second (1st century BC) gate and a very large granary. Quantities of grain would have been a practical necessity needed to feed and supply those attending the festival, but of course, cultivated grain is also intimately connected with the myth of Demeter at Eleusis.
Another interesting and very conspicuous feature overlooking the sacred road is a large cave-like opening in the rock. Apparently, this was considered an entrance to the Underworld, and perhaps the spot where Persephone/Kore reappeared. There was a small temple of Hades here. Somewhere in the vicinity was the “Mirthless Rock”, the stone on which Demeter was said to have rested in her loneliness and despair before being so kindly received by the locals.
At the centre of the sanctuary are the remains of an enormous building, known as the Telesterion, an unusual structure that is very different from the conventional temple architecture typical of the age. It was an enormous pillared hall, enlarged and expanded at least four times throughout antiquity. From the 5th century BC onwards, the Telesterion was one of the largest roofed spaces in the world (50 by 50m or 165 by 165ft in its final phase). The hall was surrounded by theatre-like steps along the inside of its walls, which would have permitted large numbers of participants to observe whatever it was that happened here. Within it stood a smaller structure, called the Anaktoron (or palace), which maintained the same dimensions and location throughout the changes and enlargements of the building within which it stood.
The Telesterion is where the main revelation took place, probably centred on the Anaktoron. Much speculation prevails as to what exactly that entailed; suggestions include the re-enactment of some mythological scene, the consumption of mind-altering substances, and the use of darkness and dramatic light effects. There is only limited evidence and certainly no consensus, but scholarship is in broad agreement that the revelation was symbolically connected with the story of Persephone.
The site of Eleusis also contains remains of various further temples and shrines. It also has an excellent museum, where a selection of the rich finds from the sanctuary is on display.
There is a lot more to be discovered on a visit to the sanctuary of Eleusis, one of the most sacred sites of ancient Greece, and there are more stories to be told about its Mysteries. We’ll do just that in June on our Exploring Athens tour.