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Eleusis, One of the Most Important Religious Sites in Ancient Greece

Eleusis
The sanctuary of Demeter and Kore and the Telestrion, where the initiation rites took place for the Eleusinian Mysteries. Credit: Carole Raddato /CC BY-SA 2.0

Eleusis, the site of the eponymous Eleusinian Mysteries, was the center of worship for the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, who returned to the Underworld every year in the Autumn.

The mysteries celebrated in honour of these goddesses were regarded as the most sacred of all the the mysteries in the Ancient Greek religion through the centuries until the fall of paganism.

Located about 18 kilometers (11 miles) northwest of the center of Athens, it is part of the metropolitan area of the Greek capital.

The area which figured so prominently in Greek mythology and ritual was also the birthplace of the great playwright Aeschylus. Today, Eleusis is the home of the Aeschylia Festival, the longest-tenured arts event in the Attica region.

Eleusis and Athens were linked in ancient celebration of Eleusinian Mysteries

The word Eleusis first appears in recorded history at the Orphic hymn “Δήμητρος Ελευσινίας, θυμίαμα στύρακα.”

Hesychius of Alexandria maintained, however, that the even older name for Eleusis was Saesaria (Σαισάρια). Saesara was the mythic daughter of Celeus, who was the king of Eleusis when the goddess Demeter arrived for the first time, as well as the granddaughter of Eleusinus, the first settler of Eleusis.

Eleusis, situated opposite the island of Salamis, possessed three major natural advantages for its settlement. It was on the road from Athens to the Isthmus of Corinth; it was on a very fertile plain; and it was at the head of an extensive bay, formed on three sides by the coast of Attica, and enclosed on the south by Salamis.

One of the caves on the shoreline of Eleusis is said to be the very spot where Persephone was abducted by Hades; the cave was considered a gateway to Tartarus, the deepest abyss of the Underworld. At the very spot this abduction was said to have taken place there was once a sanctuary, or Ploutonion, dedicated to Hades and Persephone.

Once a year those taking part in the great Eleusinian procession traveled from Athens to Eleusis, along the Sacred Way.

Eleusis’ place in mythology and its long history

Eleusis may have derived its name from the supposed advent (ἔλευσις) of Demeter, although some trace its name back to its supposed first founder, Eleusis. It was one of the twelve independent states into which Attica was said to have been originally divided.

“When Athens had only just become Athens, it went to war with another city built thirteen miles away, Eleusis,” Roberto Calasso says of the ancient provenance of the relationship between this temple-city and the Attic seat of power.

“It was a war usually described as mythical, since it has no date. And it was a theological war, since Athens belonged to Athena and Eleusis to Poseidon. Eumolpus and Erechtheus, the founding kings of the two cities, both died in it,” Calasso and his coauthor Richard Dixon state in their work “The Celestial Hunter,” published in 2020.

Eleusis temple
The East Triumphal Arch, built by Antoninus Pius, at the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis. Credit: Carole Raddato/CC BY-SA 2.0

The story goes that during the reign of Eumolpus, the king of Eleusis, and Erechtheus, the king of Athens, there was a war between the two states, in which the Eleusinians were defeated. After that time they agreed to acknowledge the supremacy of Athens in every thing except the celebration of the mysteries — which they would carry out themselves.

Even after it became an Attic deme, in consequence of its great religious importance, Eleusis was allowed to retain the title of polis, and even to coin its own money, a privilege possessed by no other town in Attica outside of Athens.

The Eleusinian Mysteries

The Mysteries of Demeter and Kore, the rites which became popular in the Greek-speaking world as early as 600 BC, attracted initiates for centuries, continuing even during the Roman era of Greek history.

These Mysteries, which revolved around a belief that there was a hope for life after death, are linked in many ways to the changing of the seasons, as the Spring and Summer “disappear” for a period of months before they are “allowed” to return to the Earth, just as Demeter’s daughter Persephone was dragged down to the Underworld for months before being allowed to return to the Earth.

The central myth of the Mysteries was Demeter’s quest for her lost daughter (Kore, the Maiden, or Persephone) who had been abducted by Hades.  During the initiates’ ceremonies as part of the Eleusinian Mysteries they were shown a number of things, including the seed of life in a stalk of grain, historians believe.

It was here that Demeter, disguised as an old lady who was abducted by pirates in Crete, was sad to have come to an old well where the four daughters of the local king Keleos and his queen Metaneira (also known as Kallidike, Kleisidike, Demo and Kallithoe) found her and took her to their palace as a nurse for Demophoon, the son of Keleos and Metaneira.

Demeter raised Demophoon, anointing him with nectar and ambrosia, until Metaneira discovered this and insulted her. Demeter arose, casting off her disguise of a mortal woman, and, in all her glory, instructed Meteneira to build a temple to her.

Keleos, informed of this the next morning by Metaneira, ordered the citizens to build a shrine to Demeter, where a statue of the goddess was seated majestically; part of her worship involved people praying to Zeus to make the world provide food once again in the Spring.

The Eleusinian Mysteries may even have involved the use of a hallucinogenic substance, as researchers now know that the drink used to sustain the initiates during their initiation fast contained ergot, a fungus which produces hallucinations.

One of the few foods allowed during this time was the Kykeon. Its preparation was extremely simple: it was made of water, rye flour, and Roman mint (γληχων).There were many experiences of visions and apparitions during the Eleusinian Mysteries, during which it was thought that one could have direct contact with the world beyond and with the deities being celebrated.

Scientific study has identified alkaloids in the fungus that interact with the serotonin receptors in our brains.

Additionally, we know that the ergot fungus contains lysergic acid as well as its precursor, ergotamine. Lysergic acid is a precursor for the synthesis of LSD.

It can be said then, that the visions common to initiates during the Eleusinian Mysteries can be attributed to the psychotropic effects of the fungus — much like other types of fungus, notably mushrooms, which can be highly hallucinogenic.

The ancient temple of Demeter at Eleusis was burned by the Persians in 484 BC in the Greco-Persian Wars; and it was not until the administration of Pericles that an attempt was made to rebuild it.

“A dream forbade me to describe” Mysteries

Under the Romans, Eleusis again enjoyed great prosperity, however, as initiation into its Mysteries became fashionable among Roman nobles.

The great cultural geographer of Ancient Greece, Pausanias, recorded a brief description of Eleusis. In his work “Description of Greece,” he says:

“The Eleusinians have a temple of Triptolemus, another of Artemis Propylaea, and a third of Poseidon the Father, and a well called Callichorum, where the Eleusinian women first instituted a dance and sang in honor of the goddess.

“They say that the Rharian plain was the first place in which corn was sown and first produced a harvest, and that hence barley from this plain is employed for making sacrificial cakes. There the so-called threshing-floor and altar of Triptolemus are shown. The things within the wall of the Hierum (i.e., the temple of Demeter) a dream forbade me to describe.”

The Rharian plain is also mentioned in the Homeric Hymn to Artemis; it appears to have been in the neighborhood of the city, but its exact location cannot be determined.

The temple of Demeter, sometimes called ὁ μυστικὸς σηκός, or τὸ τελεστήριον, was the largest in all Greece, and is described by Strabo as capable of containing as many persons as a theater. That may of course have meant thousands of individuals.

The plan of the building was designed by Ictinus, the architect of the Parthenon at Athens; but it was many years before it was completed. The names of several architects are preserved who were employed in building it. Its portico of twelve stately columns was not built until the time of Demetrius Phalereus, about 318 BC, by the architect Philo.

When it was completed, it was considered one of the four finest examples of Greek architecture in marble. It faced the southeast.

The great temple was tragically destroyed by the Gothic invader Alaric I in 396 AD, and it disappeared from history as a religious site at that time.

European travelers who toured the area during the Ottoman occupation of the country described Eleusis as having few inhabitants, but many ancient ruins.

Modern city of Elefsina grew from 250 to thousands during industrial era

In 1829, after the Greek War of Independence, Eleusis was a small settlement of about 250 inhabitants. By the late 19th century, however, Eleusis had changed drastically as new buildings were erected by the new merchant settlers. During that period it became one of the main industrial centers of the Modern Greek state.

After World War II, workers from all parts of Greece moved to Elefsina to work in the industries in the region. Industrial activity, however, unfortunately developed in a completely disorganized manner near the Ancient Greek antiquities there.

A large house which was through to have been the home of priests from the Roman era was discovered in 1962.

The annual “Aeschylia Festival” is held in honor of the great tragic poet Aeschylus, who was born in the city in 525 BC.

Established in 1975, the festival is currently the longest standing cultural event organized by the Attica Municipality. It is held annually at Palaio Elaiourgeio, a former soap factory by the waterfront which functions as an open-air theater. The festival usually begins at the end of August and runs during all of September. It includes stage productions, art exhibitions and installations, concerts, and dance events.

European Capital of Culture for 2023

The city of Elefsina will be the European Capital of Culture in the year 2023. This great honor had to be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic but the city will be all ready to take on the honors at that time.

“Transition to Euphoria” is the city’s theme for the preparations leading up to the big year. The municipality is involving residents and local art and culture associations in several arts programs which will celebrate the cultural designation.

The whole city is alive, with both young and older residents participating in cultural programs in residential areas and along the waterfront. Weekly meetings of young adults and teenagers are held where art and ecological projects are designed and created.

The city of Eleusis now looks like an endless workshop for the arts; exhibits with subjects ranging from artistic photography to the workers’ movement during the industrialization of the area are seen all over town.

“Eleusis is a big (gamble),” Sofia Avgerinou-Kolonia, the president of Eleusis, told reporters from the Athens Macedonian News Agency (AMNA). “We need to overcome shortcomings and move forward.

“The work of the Capital City board is not easy … we need to synthesize a lot of data and overcome procedural difficulties stemming from the institutional framework and the circumstances that the country has experienced in recent years,” she added.

Avgerinou-Kolonia continued, saying “We believe, however, that we have been making progress recently with the support of the Ministry of Culture, our municipality, our donors, the Ministry of Labor, especially the (unemployment agency) OAED, the Archaeological Service, and residents.”

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