Secrets of Eleusis: Eleusinian Mysteries

The city of Eleusis (the Greek word for Eleusis is Elefsina), is an industrial port suburb of Athens but for centuries the Secrets of Eleusis were revealed here to the participants in the Eleusinian Mysteries. A simple trip from the center of Athens, the Sacred Way once led here to Eleusis, the site of the most popular religious cult in the Ancient World.  Read on to discover the heart of these Mysteries, what to see, and how to visit Eleusis

The Eleusinian Mysteries

The Eleusian Mysteries were the most sacred of all Ancient Greek mysteries and were practiced for over a thousand years.

Archaeologists can date evidence of the cult back to the Mycenean Era (1600-100 BC)

They focus upon the cult of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and the wife of Zeus, and their daughter Persephone. They were officially designated as rites to Demeter and a sanctuary established at Eleusis in the 8th century BC.

Marble carving at Eleusis of the performance of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Athens, Greece
Marble carving at Eleusis of the performance of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Athens, Greece

The Homeric Hymn to Artemis suggests that the goddess Demeter created the agricultural rituals in this fertile area of Attica.

Greek mythology tells us that Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, chose the plain around Athens, and Eleusis in particular, as her Sanctuary because of its fertility.

These secret religious rites of ancient Greece are known as ‘mysteries’ because the initiates were sworn to secrecy to never speak about what they had undergone or the knowledge they had gained.

We do know that the Sacred Rites of Eleusis focussed upon removing the fear of death and the Afterlife from its adherents, and offering initiates a happier life after their death.

Triptolemus, Demeter, and Persephone on Greek banknotes
Triptolemus, Demeter, and Persephone on Greek banknotes

Whilst a temple dedicated to the goddess Demeter has existed at the Panhellenic Sanctuary of Eleusis since the 15th century BCE, the Eleusinian mysteries were held from about the 6th century BCE (Athens had annexed the area a century earlier).

The Mysteries were enacted twice a year; the Lesser Mysteries took place in Spring. Those who had been purified during the rituals of the Lesser Eleusinian Mysteries could then partake in the Greater Mysteries in September.

These rites began during the Mycenean era and persisted for more than 2000 years and corresponded with the sowing and reaping of the agricultural annual cycle.

The Mythology of Eleusis

The secret religious and agricultural rituals of Eleusis honored the goddess Demeter and her daughter by Zeus, Persephone.

Eleusis Archaeological Site, Elefsina, Greece
Ancient Site of the Eleusinian Mysteries abutting onto the homes of people in Elefsina, Athens, Greece

More accurately, they were constructed around the myth of the King of the Underworld, Pluto or Hades, his abduction of Persephone, and Demeter’s journey to be reunited with her daughter.

Pluto fell in love with Persephone (also called Kore), and in abducting her to the Underworld, she died. Demeter searched the world for her daughter.

Learning Persephone was in the Underworld, she begged Zeus to get Pluto to give Persephone back to her.

According to the laws of the Underworld, Persephone would be doomed to remain with Hades for all eternity if she ate while there. She ate seeds from the pomegranate fruit and was doomed to spend each winter in the Underworld for eternity.

Demeter had settled at Eleusis until Persephone’s return to the world of the living. The Sanctuary includes the Well that Demeter sat upon, disguised as an old woman.

The Sacred Way

In the 6th century BC, Eleusis was part of territory annexed to Athens, and the Elussinian Mysteries became part of the Athenian annual cycle of rituals and rites.

The ancient Athenians created a mostly paved road from the center of Athens to Eleusis.

The Sacred Way and Street of the Tombs, the road from Athens to Eleusis, in Kerameikos, Athens, Greece
The Sacred Way and Street of the Tombs, the road from Athens to Eleusis, in Kerameikos, Athens, Greece

Beginning at the Agora of Athens, the Sacred Way passed through the central gates of the city of Athens, the Kerameikos Cemetary, and led to Eleusis where it ended at the Sanctuary of Demeter.

Two days before the greater Mysteries were performed at the autumn equinox, sacred objects were carried by youths on horseback from Athens to the Sanctuary of Eleusis.

Thousands of people made the journey along the Sacred Way from Athens to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. The pilgrimage symbolized the journey of Demeter and Persephone.

But the Sacred Way was more than just a road to travel to receive the Mysteries of Demeter, it is also a symbol of the journey to the Underworld that Ancient Greeks believed everyone took at the end of their life.

Greater Propylaea and the Lesser Propylaea

When you enter the archaeological site you first encounter the Roman entrance, the Greater Propylaea (pictured above), and then see the original Propylaea, known as the Lesser Propylaea.

The Greater Propylaea at Eleusis, Athens, Greece
The Greater Propylaea at Eleusis, Athens, Greece

During the Roman Era, the Greater Propylaea and the large Roman Court (4 0 m x 60 m) were constructed on the order of Emperor Hadrian. There were entrance gates, porticoes, and Triumphal archways leading in and out of the Roman Court.

Hadrian became an initiate and underwent the Eleusinian rites to be inducted into the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Trip Anthropologist
Relief medal of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (imago clipeata) with a large cross incised over the Gorogon mask that was carved on the bust in later centuries

The greater Propylaea was sited toward Athens and the Propylaea is an exact copy of the central part of the Propylaea on the Acropolis of Athens.

In the middle of the Roman Court was a temple dedicated to Artemis and Poseidon.

Here you’ll also see the Eschara, a four-sided well made of mud brick, also constructed during the Roman Era.

The Roman Eschara, Eleusis Archaeological Site, Greece
The Roman Eschara, Eleusis Archaeological Site, Greece

The Lesser Propylaea was the Greek entrance to the Sanctuary constructed in 54 BCE.

Telesterion – the Initiation Hall

The most significant building in the archaeological zone is the Telesterion. A Telesterion is a Hall of Initiation. used for the initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries.

The Telesterion of Eleusis, Athens, Greece
The Telesterion of Eleusis, Athens, Greece

But not just any initiation hall – it was built by Iktinos, the architect who built the Parthenon, and at the time it was the largest building in all of Ancient Greece.

The first Telesterion was replaced by this much larger structure once the rites became famous across the Hellenic world. It was constructed in 435 – 421 BCE. It was once part of the Temple of Demeter.

The rituals of the Eleusinian Mysteries involved fasting, purification, ritual animal sacrifice, and washing.

The Telesterion was the symbolic entrance to the Underworld where initiates descended and, after the rituals in the Telesterion, emerged.

The rituals within the Telesterion were the climax and most secret part of the initiation into the cult of Demeter and Persephone. It was overseen by a hierarchy of priestesses and initiates who were likely part of a sacred drama.

As they emerged from the Telesterion, the initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries were symbolically bringing life out of death.

Eleusis was abandoned, as were all religious sanctuaries in Greece, upon the orders of Emperor Theodotus in 395 AD.

The Plutonium

In Ancient times, Greeks believed that tombs and caves were entrances to the Underworld. The Underworld was called both Pluto and Hades after the King of the Underworld.

The Plutonium - the Cave leading to the Underworld, Eleusis, Athens, Greece
The Plutonium – the Cave leading to the Underworld, Eleusis, Athens, Greece

The Plutonium is a cave at the archaeological site and you will find offerings of pomegranates at the entrance to the Underworld.

Pomegranates are known as the “Divine fruit” in Greece because of the three pomegranate seeds Persephone ate while in Hades.

Visiting the suburb of Elefsina 

The people of Eleusis live squeezed along the edges of one of the most sacred cities of Ancient Greece, with homes and industrial development next to the ancient site.

Pieces from the Museum at Eleusis, Athens, Greece
Pieces from the Museum at Eleusis, Athens, Greece

They live beside the largest oil refinery in Greece and the Bay of Eleusis is known as the Bay of Shipwrecks. There is a lovely walk along the port and cafes, restaurants and simple tavernas line the waterfront.

The easiest way to get to Elefsina is by Uber – it’s a 20-minute drive.  Alternatively, the A16 bus takes 44 minutes and leaves from Ktel Attikis. You can find the timetable here

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