Eleusis was one of the great shrines of antiquity. Its practices were based on two goddesses, Demeter and Persephone. These secret rites were so protected that any initiates who revealed them would be put to death, as would any non-initiates who entered the sanctuary.
The sanctuary is located next to a hill overlooking Eleusis bay and the island of Salamis. Today it is surrounded by industrial complexes, not exactly the sort of scenery to attract tourists!
Although organised tours speed by with scarcely a mention of the site, if you’re arranging your own travel a stop is worthwhile. There is also a very good museum, which has a model of the site as it would have looked when it was in use in ancient times.
The Elsusinian Mysteries
According to greek mythology the goddess Demeter found her daughter, Persephone, at Eleusis. Persephone had been kidnapped by Hades, king of the underworld. The king at the time was Keleos, and he helped Demeter. In return for his kindness Persephone gave Triptolemos, the king’s son, the first wheat grain, and showed him how to plant it in order to harvest crops. This knowledge he then passed on to others.
The mystery rites were held in Demeter’s honour. Athenians believed the goddess herself had asked for them to be carried out. There was probably a shrine to Demeter in the 7C BC, and the mysteries were celebrated until the 4C BC. The original archaic arrangement of the site was added to during the time of the Athenian leader, Pericles in the 5C BC. Later, the Romans used the site, and it lasted until 395AD when it was destroyed by the Visigoths.
It is thought the mysteries were to do with life, death and resurrection. Fertility was represented by the union of Demeter and Zeus, and the myth that Persephone was kept in the world of the dead for six months of the year represented the course of the seasons – nature keeping dormant for winter and coming to life in the spring.
The celebration of the mysteries involved a procession from Athens along the Sacred Way. Because the site was added to over the centuries, it is difficult to distinguish between the Archaic, Greek and Roman periods.
There was a Great Propylaia and Lesser Propylaia (from the Roman era), which then led to the main building, the Telesterion. This was almost a square structure, about 54m by 52m. It shows signs of having been added to and adjusted by everyone from the Mycenaeans to the Romans. The ground floor was just one large room with seating around the sides. The sacred objects – which were shown to the initiates at the end of the ceremonies – were keep in the room on the first floor.
On the southern side of the site the walls of the classical era are easily visible.