The “Fleeing Maiden” from about 480 BC is a masterpiece of Late Archaic sculpture. She was probably part of a multi-figured pediment, most likely depicting Persephone being pursued by Hades.

Last week, Peter Sommer, Michael Metcalfe and myself visited the Acropolis Museum’s current temporary exhibition: Eleusis – the Great Mysteries.

The exhibit, open until the end of May (unless it gets extended!), offers a great opportunity to engage with one of the most fascinating, most significant and – certainly – most mysterious aspects of the Ancient World: Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries. We have posted about Eleusis before, briefly explaining the site itself, its mythology, what little we know of its Mysteries and its role in antiquity. The importance of the place and its story for our understanding of the Greek and Roman World in terms of religion and cosmology is second to none.

The current exhibit gives visitors a chance to encounter (or re-encounter) key treasures from the site, namely just over sixty very carefully selected artefacts, some of them very famous, others rarely noted. It is the first time that these objects, most of them sculptures, are the focus of a state-of-the-art exhibition, beautifully and intelligently arranged, very effectively lit and excellently labelled – in some cases making innovative use of electronic labels.

A famous clay plaque in the shape of a temple from about 370 BC, with an inscription noting that it was dedicated by a woman named Ninnion. The painted decorations are of immense complexity, showing human figures (on the left) approaching (much taller) deities to the right, perhaps at the end of the procession to Eleusis. The seated females ought to be Demeter and Persephone/Kore. Many motifs occur that we know to be connected to the Mysteries: lunar symbols, myrtle branches, torches, pottery vessels attached to the mortal women’s heads.

It is also worth noting that the display includes a number of unusual reliefs from the Sanctuary of Aphrodite at Daphni, along the Sacred Way, that have never been on show before. The Sacred Way makes another appearance in the exhibition’s centrepiece, a mock-up of the innermost shrine of Eleusis, surrounded by pillars imitating those of the Telesterion, the sanctuary’s ritual centre. Here, a 15-minute video traces the Sacred Way from Athens to Eleusis before giving a summary of the events during the Mysteries – as far as we know them.

To most modern visitors, it would never occur that Eleusis, modern Elefsina, now a somewhat provincial industrial town, was once a rival to the growing power that was Athens, until it was subsumed into the Athenian city-state in the 7th or 6th century BC. To be frank, most modern visitors to Greece never get to see Eleusis at all. More’s the pity: the heart of Eleusis is one of the most important and most unusual archaeological sites in all of Greece, a place of great beauty where Ancient Greek mythology, religion, history, politics and art all come together to reveal central aspects of Greek spirituality and thought.

Eleusis is, in the Ancient Greek world view, a place where things of enormous consequence happened. That is not unusual in itself: on the Athenian Acropolis, the gods Athena and Poseidon fought physically over the patronage of the city; on Delos, the divine twins Apollo and Artemis were born in difficult circumstances; at Delphi, Apollo slew a monster to gain the gift of prophecy; at Olympia, Herakles/Hercules set up athletic games in honour of his divine father, Zeus. What happened at Eleusis is much more significant than any of those key stories: its myth is central to the relations between gods and humans, between gods and gods, between humans and nature, and between life and death. It also determines the seasons, the cycle of nature itself.

Detail of a superb red-figure clay plaque depicting the main deities of Eleusis, a seated Demeter, evidently still in mourning, with Kore beside her. To the right (fragmented and not shown here), it also included Triptolemos with his chariot and the somewhat mysterious Iakchos. The masterful drawing is influenced by the “Rich Style” of Attic sculpture.

In other words, Eleusis is the venue of events that made the world what it is, some of the most important events ever to happen in this world and to this world, according to Greek mythology. It is where Demeter, goddess of motherhood, nature and vegetal fertility, engaged with our world. It is the place most closely connected to the abduction of Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, by Hades, god of the underworld, the land of the dead. During her desperate search for her lost daughter, Demeter, wandering in deep and utterly joyless mourning, is said to have found sympathy, affection and succour only from the mortal humans at Eleusis, becoming nursemaid to the offspring of the local rulers. Eleusis is also where the final conciliation between Demeter, Hades and Zeus, the father of the gods, took place, namely the compromise that made Persephone spend part of the year with Hades and part with her mother, creating the seasons.

Eleusis is therefore where immortal Demeter rewarded humankind for the help she received. Her first reward was the gift of agriculture, of growing wheat to make bread, and she enlisted a local prince, Triptolemos, to spread it across the world. Her second reward was the Mysteries: a distinctive knowledge that would make humans live better in this world and be more confident about the next one, but a knowledge that could be communicated only at Eleusis, its recipients beholden to strict secrecy.

A fully preserved votive relief, from between 470 and 450 BC, depicts Demeter herself, seated on a throne, wearing rich garments and holding a pole/sceptre and a sheaf of wheat. She is being approached by a younger female, almost certainly Persephone/Kore, holding two torches. Note the sense of rapid movement conveyed by the upper torch: is this the moment of Persephone’s temporary return from the underworld?

For many centuries, Athenians, Greeks and non-Greeks flocked to Eleusis to participate in the annual initiation as part of a ten-day festival, and over the years and centuries, the appeal of the Mysteries grew into a phenomenon across the Ancient World. Participants were sworn to secrecy, but we know that they underwent a defined series of rituals in defined places at Athens and Eleusis to reach initiation, including two processions, from Eleusis to Athens and back, and a culminating night-long experience at Eleusis, an event that made them initiates and that apparently changed their view of life in this world and beyond this world for the better.

The exact content of this initiation remains forever inaccessible to us. Apart from pictorial references, we have very limited textual information. Most famously, the 2nd century AD historian, Plutarch, states the following:

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 sweating 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.

Thus, fear, confusion and darkness, followed by resolution and light appear to have been key aspects of the experience. We also know that the initiation took place in the telesterion, the large structure at the centre of Eleusis, and we have reason to assume that it entailed the display of the secret objects that had previously been carried in procession to and from Athens.

Neck of a black-figure amphora, circa 540/530 BC, depicting finely clothed men carrying baskets. They are probably initiates on the way to Eleusis, bearing offerings.

Whatever the initiation into the Mysteries entailed, it was enormously popular throughout antiquity, for the best part of a millennium. Not only did all notable Athenians, from Pericles to Socrates and from Euripides to Aristotle, participate, but the Mysteries’ fame spread far and wide, making them significant also for the Romans. Prominent Romans considered them a key experience, Nero attempted to participate, the emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius did so. Cicero said that as a result of the initiation, “not only have we found the reason to live more joyously, but also that we may die with greater hope“. That same lasting popularity, from the 7th or 6th century BC to the 4th or 5th AD, is reflected by immense archaeological complexity: Eleusis was renovated, expanded and adorned again and again, some of its buildings have many succeeding phases of form and use.

An inscribed stele noting a decision by the Athenian Council to erect a new bridge for the Sacred Way to cross over the Rheitos Lake near Eleusis. The relief depicts Demeter, Kore, and, on the right, Athena greeting an Eleusinian hero.

Displaying this complexity is a challenge for any museologist. The Acropolis Museum’s curators have wisely chosen a very practical way to do so, by concentrating not just on the site’s rich symbolism, but also on the process of the worship of Demeter and of the celebration of the Mysteries, in other words on aspects of worship that were practical or technical realities and are thus recorded. As a result of this choice, the exhibit includes a number of very fine stelai combining relief decoration and inscriptions relating to the practice of the Eleusinian worship. Using this information as an introduction and framework, it also includes much more mysterious material: sculptures, painted clay tablets, parts of painted vases, and so on, all of it referring to the content of the Mysteries.

For us, it is wonderful to see material from Eleusis displayed with due respect for its beauty and its significance. It is also wonderful to have reams of oblique references or allusions to whatever the Mysteries contained thrown at us left right and centre (even by the souvenirs custom-made for this exhibit, which use emblematic images based on reliefs from the site): that’s exactly what much of Ancient Athens did to a knowing audience, and just now modern Athens does the same to a non-knowing one. This is not a facetious statement. We can safely assume that more or less all ancient Athenians (and educated Romans) were very well aware of whatever it was that the Mysteries contained and thus understood the visual allusions made to them especially in Athens. After all, Athens drew much prestige from its role as patron of the Mysteries. We can also assume that such references were carefully formulated in a way that would not reveal too much to outsiders while being meaningful, profound and relevant to those in the know.

The Acropolis Museum exhibit does not eventually solve or resolve the Eleusinian Mysteries: that is not possible, they do remain mysterious. What it does succinctly and efficiently is to present the iconography of Eleusis and much detail, technical, mythological and cultural, that arises from it.

There are many individual pieces of great beauty, great interest or great curiosity to be seen. The fine running female, perhaps Persephone/Kore herself, that first greets the visitor, is a superb example of Late Archaic sculpture in its full dynamism. The famous clay plaque bearing a complex iconography of worshippers and deities receives the focal attention it surely deserves here, as does the wonderful relief of an enthroned Demeter attended by her daughter. Both of them are shown above. A few more examples:

A very appealing Roman statue of a piglet, referring to the role of that animal as a common – and affordable – sacrifice to Demeter.

A number of smallish clay vessels and plaques bearing painted scenes of Eleusinian myth and ritual are beautifully displayed and can be appreciated in all their fascination, as can two fragments of Athenian white-ground wine cups with paintings of the highest quality, including this one from about 500 BC, depicting Athena slaying a giant.

Among the few items behind glass: a series of marble votive reliefs from the sanctuary of Aphrodite at Daphni, with depictions of female genitalia, is among the most unusual things on display.

The 2nd century AD marble model of an olive press, including much detail, such as the pressing base, settling basin and holding container (plus a bust of Athena), is an unusual object, and a highly instructive one.

A series of kernoi, clay vessels with multiple attached cups, are quite possibly objects directly involved in the Mysteries. Their function is, depending on whom you ask, either connected to light, or to sacrifice, or to both.

The Eleusis exhibition will certainly be an invaluable addition for those of our guests who spend an additional day or more in Athens before or after our tours in Greece, but if you are fascinated with Ancient Greece, it may well be worth a trip in its own right, in combination with the Sacred Way and the site of Eleusis itself. If you are interested in such an experience, contact us.

To encounter the myth of Eleusis in its many forms, starring Demeter, Persephone, Hades, Zeus and all the others, join any of our tours or cruises in Greece!

One response to ““Eleusis: the Great Mysteries” exhibition at the Acropolis Museum in Athens”

  1. Jim Cleary says:

    Very fine article, and I remember an excellent visit to the site with you. Sadly I’ve booked airline tickets via Istanbul for my next trip, so I think I’ll miss this one if they stick with their plan, but they do have a good record of extending popular exhibits, so maybe I’ll get to see it sometime.

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