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Ancient Site of The Mysteries


Demeter, Persephone and Triptolemus at Eleusis.

Demeter, Persephone and Triptolemus at Eleusis.

From "A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities" by Dr. Oskar Seyffert 1902 Edition.
Eleusis is located only a few miles outside of Athens, but it is often skipped by visitors. Part of this is because it is located in an industrial area which is not as picturesque as, say, Cape Sounion or the Acropolis. But the ruins are fascinating and worth visiting, if only to follow in the literal footsteps of so many thousands of ancient Athenians, all of whom believed that undergoing initiation at Eleusis would bring them blessings and a better spot in the afterlife.

Understanding Eleusis

Eleusis was the home of the major temple of the mother goddess Demeter. One of the twelve Olympian gods, Demeter's own roots are shadowy and may stretch back into ancient Minoan Crete and beyond... one early tale states she disguises her divine nature by saying she was stolen away from Crete by pirates who brought her to Greece. She had a daughter named Persephone, or more simply "Kore", the maiden. This maiden was generally assumed to be the daughter of Zeus as well but the earliest myths are a bit cloudy on her parentage, and some of them seem to indicate that Demeter managed the pregnancy all by herself. Persephone is a beautiful young maiden, and in a story that recalls Europa's kidnapping by Zeus in sea bull form, she one day is gathering flowers in a meadow when Hades in his chariot bursts from a fissure in the earth and snatches her away. Seems he had asked his brother, Zeus, for her hand in marriage, but neither male thought it was necessary to mention this 'permission' to Persephone or her mother.

Distraught, Demeter searches fruitlessly for her daughter. All the gods and goddesses are sworn to secrecy, but finally the Sun tells her what has happened. Enraged, brings all plant life on earth to a standstill and imposes an instant winter until her daughter is returned. Various ruses and negotations follow, with the result that Persephone will be allowed to return to her mother - but during her stay in the underworld she has eaten a few pomegranate seeds, either by choice or by Hades' trickery. Because of this consumption of a seed, though it is never defined exactly why, she cannot return permanently but only for a portion of the year.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were a powerful re-enactment of this story, with additional "secrets" which no ancient author appears to have ever revealed. The most sacred object said to be revealed was a sheaf of grain. Those in attendance would drink a mixture of barley-water and mint, a kind of milky beverage roughly similar to almond "milk"; it may have also been sweetened slightly, probably with honey. Participants in the sacred mysteries would travel the Sacred Way from Athens to Eleusis, part of which modern visitors will mindlessly follow simply by driving the roads. Demeter's main festival was held every five years and lasted nine days.

Eleusis in the Demeter myth was a site where Demeter came in her search for Persephone. She sat down by a well when four daughters of the local ruling couple, Keleos and Metaneira, came to her and brought her to the palace. Thinking her an old woman, she was made a nurse to the royal children, and amused herself by making one of them, Demophoon, immortal by burning away his mortality in a sacred flame each night. Metaneira discovered this process one night, was horrified that Demeter was "hurting" her child, and Demeter revealed herself. In apology the royal family erected the temple of Demeter. Later, Demeter gave the secrets of agriculture to one of the other princelings of the area, Triptolemus, perhaps another name for Demophoon.

Visiting Eleusis Today

Eleusis, depending on your point of view, may be more dominated by Hades and the riches of the underworld today - it's the site of a major oil refinery. But the site itself is surrounded by residential housing and the Saronic Gulf beyond provides a nice backdrop. You'll see "Elefsis" or "Elifsina" on some signage as the "u" is pronounced "f" in modern Greek. If you're driving into Athens from the airport, you can take the Eleusis exit and make a quick stop at the site, or allow enough time to see it when you're leaving Athens.

The signs will read Ελευσίνα - Elefsina

While most visitors make it just a stop for an hour or two, you can stay nearby in modern Eleusis. One option is the Hotel Elefsina, which includes a nod to Demeter and Persephone in their interior decorations.

A Modern Real Mystery at Eleusis

For reasons that meteorologists don't fully understand, the area of Eleusis is one of the hottest in Europe. Long before "global warming" was on the radar, this site commemorating the goddess who brought a state of permanent winter to the world in myth recorded one of the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Europe. Some blame the local petroleum industry, some blame an odd interaction between the waters of the gulf and the winds creating a hot spot, but nobody really knows. If it's hot in Athens, expect it may be sweltering at Eleusis and dress accordingly.

The Archaeological Museum of Eleusis holds some of the finds from the temple and its surrounding area. It's located within the archaelogical site itself.

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