13th May 2014
I have managed to pack nearly everything I have planned to see on this trip already, deliberately having left this day blank on the itinerary so that I could catch up if need be. I’m surprised to have been so efficient, if I’m honest! Now all I have to do is work out what to do with the day. I have a few options but end up choosing Eleusis, home of the Mysteries, a religious festival to honour Demeter.
I could tell you about the Mysteries, but then I’d have to kill you. Seriously, the sacred rites were a closely guarded secret and any initiate who blabbed about what occurred at the sanctuary faced execution. The secret was so well kept over the centuries that no historian has managed to find out what the rites comprised of. They were a mystery to outsiders during antiquity, they’re a mystery to us today.
The festival honoured Demeter and Persephone/Kore, possibly better known now by their Roman names of Ceres and Proserpina.
Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and his sister Demeter. Whilst walking happily in the countryside, Persephone picked a narcissus flower and disappeared. Demeter was distraught, searching for her daughter in the Heavens and on the Earth. She interrogated her fellow immortals hoping to find a witness, finally convincing Helios the sun god to explain what had happened.
When Persephone had picked the narcissus, a great crack appeared in the ground and she was pulled beneath the surface. Eventually Zeus admitted that he had promised Persephone as a bride Hades, Lord of the Underworld.
Demeter was heartbroken at the betrayal of her brother and the loss of her daughter. As goddess of grains and growth, she grew so depressed that she neglected her duties. No plants grew and people began to starve.
Demeter, unwilling to live on Mount Olympus with her treacherous brother, wandered Greece. Like the plants, she withered.
Demeter came to Eleusis where she was taken in by King Celeus to nurse his sons Demophon and Triptolemus. To reward Celeus for his hospitaluty, Demeter decides to make Demophon immortal by feeding him ambrosia and immersing him in flames. She is interrupted by Queen Metaneira as the boy is engulfed in fire, causing Metanira to scream. Startled, Demeter is unable to complete the immortalisation and berates Metaneira for her lack of respect to ritual, revealing herself as a goddess.
Demeter calls for a temple to be built for her at Eleusis by way of apology. Meanwhile drought and famine continue to ravage the land as Demeter, the only one who knows the secrets of agriculture, refuses to work until she is reunited with her daughter.
Meanwhile, Persephone has become Queen of the Underworld as the wife of Hades, who is deeply in love with her. Zeus, desperate to end the famine, sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone to placate Demeter. Unwilling to lose his wife, Hades offers Persephone some pomegranate seeds. If she eats anything in the Realm of the Dead, she will be unable to leave. Persephone eats some of the seeds. Unhappy at being tricked, Zeus strikes a new deal. Persephone must spend two thirds of the year above ground with her mother, and one third in the Underworld with her husband.
In spring when Persephone is reunited with Demeter at Eleusis, Demeter is so happy that plants start to shoot up from the ground. Demeter spends happy summers with her daughter, gladly causing the plants to thrive and be fruitful. The leaves start to turn brown in autumn as Demeter prepares to say goodbye. When Persephone returns to Hades, Demeter is too sad and lonely to let anything grow or survive the winter.
Agreeing to the plan, Demeter offers to pass the secret of agriculture to mortals, teaching Triptolemus, younger son of Celeus, how to make plants grow. Celeus and Triptolemus became her first priests and the first to witness the Mysteries.
Anyone could become an initiate to the Mysteries as long as they spoke Greek (no barbarians, please!) and didn’t have any killings they hadn’t been purified of. In a culture where women and slaves were excluded from many activities it is noteworthy that both groups had the same opportunities at Eleusis as freeborn men.
There were two events. The Lesser Mysteries happened in the spring and the Greater Mysteries occurred in Autumn. Initiates must have taken part in the Lesser Mysteries before they would be allowed to witness the Greater Mysteries.
A first time initiate was known as a mystes, and having acquired the necessary sponsorship from a great Eleusis family, they would be introduced to their mystagogos, someone who had already experienced the rites and could guide the novices through the festival. After mystai were inducted into the cult they became known as epoptes.
The sacred road was 118 stadia from the Sacred Gate in the Kerameikos quarter of Athens to the sanctuary at Eleusis, ie about 13 miles.
On the eve of the festival, sacred cult objects hidden from public view in round boxes are taken from the sanctuary to Athens. On the first day of the festival the mystaiwould gather in the agora for an opening ceremony. The following day they then went to the Bay of Phalaron to ritually bathe. Sacrifices, usually of pigs, were made and feasting followed for two days.
The sacred objects were then processed back to Eleusis, followed by the joyous mystai, crowned with myrtle. The procession of 13 miles was all by foot and took the entire day. Nearer to the sanctuary, men in masks would accost initiates to remind them to be humble in the presence of the goddess Demeter, patron deity of the festival.
There was then a day of quiet fasting, only broken with drinks of water mixed with grain meal. The fast is followed by the day of which we know the least about. Mystai entered the Telesterion, a huge hall that could seat 3,000 people, for the most secretive rites in the ancient Greek world. Most other Greeks didn’t even dare speculate as to what occurred inside the Telesterion. An all night feast followed with music and dancing and the sacrifice of a bull. There is no final ceremony, initiates slowly making their way home in quiet reflection instead.
Several writers were initiates to the Mysteries, including Sophocles, Aristophanes, Plutarch and Pausanius, but even these industrious scribblers knew better than to commit what they had witnessed to paper. Historians believe the Mysteries may have been the secret to life after death and that the rites may have included hallucinogenic visions. No one will ever know!
The practicalities of making a modern trip yo the sancruary are fairly simple. From my base of Omonia Square it was a short walk down Pireos road to Platia Eleftherias AKA Platia Koumoundourou, a rather bland square with a large pigeon population. The square is not too far away from the Kerameikos, so I’m inadvertently starting my journey to Eleusis very close to where pilgrims began their journey there thousands of years before. Tickets for the bus can be bought from any of the small kiosks, along with a drink and a snack for the journey. A single is €1.20, making the journey there and back cheaper than the entrance fee. This is a bit of a public transport hub with several different bus stops, the buses to Eleusis depart from the southern side of the square. Look for bus numbers A16 and B16, both go to Elefsina, the modern name for Eleusis. There are timetables on the busstop, with each bus departing at about half hour intervals. The journey takes about an hour.
It’s not wonderfully clear where you’re supposed to stop, and as the only tourist on this bus I can’t follow the crowds. Hang on in there and don’t get off the bus until the end of the route, Elefsina doesn’t expect tourists and doesn’t cater to them. Don’t be put off by the industrial, unapologetic scruffiness of the modern town either. Once you get to the archaeological site the noise and unsightly buildings disappear. Signs to the archaeological area are few and far between and it took me a few attempts to find a local with good enough English to point me in the right direction. The entrance fee is €3. Once there I follow the suggestion of my Rough Guide and head to the Museum first, right at the other side of the misleadingly large site.
I’m admittedly nervous for this visit. Everything else I’ve seen on this trip I’ve researched in detail so that I have every site mapped out in my mind, able to recreate what the buildings looked like in my mind above the remaining foundations that I can see. This is a trip organised after an hour, I know little to nothing about the site or the layout. I’m not comfortable with this level of preparation (after all, it’s what tour guides do!) and the site will be buggered before it helps you. The signs are old, cracked, in some places faded to the point of being illegible. They hold little information and some don’t have translations at all. Do as I did, head to the museum first. I cannot stress this enough, BUY THE GUIDE BOOK. It is inexpensive and invaluably useful. At points I had to take photos of me pointing to the map inside so that I would later know what the next photo was of. I sympathise with the site, it doesn’t have the tourist draw of Delphi or Epidaurus, you won’t find any coaches stopping here. But the site is majestically sprawling and has a fascinating history, it deserves so much better than what it has now. A few new signs with a bit more information on them would do wonders for the visitors who do make the effort to come here. It’s evident that currently only major nerds head out here, they should be rewarded with at least a complimentary site map!
The museum has a couple of very helpful maps that help to explain the development of the sanctuary from the archaic origins to the Roman occupation.
My route around the site is haphazard, so I’ll describe the sanctuary as I should have visited it.
Once finished at the museum, head back to the entrance. As with Delphi, the entrance to the Greek sanctuary was extended by the Romans, this time with a large, paved court.
Once assembled and prepared, the crowds would head through the Roman Greater Propylaea, (Greater Gate) into the sanctuary proper. The Propylaea stood on an earlier, smaller Greek gateway built by Cimon.
Silos were situated beyond the Greater Propylaea to store the first fruits of harvest, a gift to Demeter.
There was then a smaller gateway, called the Lesser Propylaea, home to the carytid now housed in the museum.
Once through the second gateway there is a cave on the immediate right. It is the Plutoneion, the building being a small temple to Hades, known to the Romans as Pluto, God of the Underworld. The Gateway to the Underworld was thought to be here, where Persephone emerged to meet her mother.
As the Sacred Way begins to slope downwards you’ll catch your first glimpse (depending on whether you’ve been to the museum!) of the Telesterion, the Hall of the Mysteries. Head up on the right and climb to the top level of the steps for a great perspective of the Hall.
It is difficult to appreciate fully when I visit, long grass covers much of the building and hasn’t yet been cleared for peak season. I see a couple of groundskeepers during my visit, they have a big job ahead of them. You can walk right along the top and back down a set of wooden steps at the end closest to the museum.
The Telesterion grew from a small Mycenean building into a gargantuan, windowless building that housed a forest of internal columns. The original building always survived within the extensions as it was, becoming known as the Anaktoron. The Anaktoron was a kind of Holy of Holies, entrance to the inner sanctum was permitted to priests only.
Seating ran along each side so that the mystai all got a good view of the priests conducting the rituals.
Once you’ve seen the Telesterion, head up as if you were returning to the museum, but turn left instead of right. The sanctuary was fortified and you can walk around the walls, admiring the various stages of their construction.
First, you’ll pass a Roman portico and the old Bouleuterion (the meeting place of the citizen council.)
The Romans built a gymnasium for worshippers to use during the festival but all my photo shows is long grass!
There is even an inn built to house initiates during the festival. The religious rites were taken so seriously that prices were capped for room and board.
Following the path with the bathhouse and inn on your right, you’ll come back out into the Roman courtyard, having completed your day in Eleusis.
After a huge drink it’s time to catch the bus back.
I meet up with my friend Victoria and a few of her friends later that night in Plaka. When I tell them I spent the day in Elefsina they look at me as if I am insane for wanting to spend my time in a grubby suburb surrounded by industrial estates. They’ve forgotten the sanctuary is there and none of them have visited. Victoria (a huge anglophile,) explains that Greeks have their ancient heritage shoved down their throats from a young age, sometimes resulting in deep passion but more often leading to bored ambivalence. I empathise, I suffered from Tudor Fatigue for many years after school.
Personally, I found the day well worth the effort. I’d like to go back one day to a well manicured, well signposted site, but I guess the Greek government has more pressing matters to attend to right now!
After my drinks with Victoria it is time for bed, I have a busy day tomorrow before my flight departs in the evening…