On the Road to Delphi (Part 2)

6 September 2022. The Sanctuary of Eleusis, Elefsina, Attica.

“To Meter Antaia [Demeter]. Basileia Antaia [Demeter], of celebrated name, from whom both men and Gods immortal came; who widely wandering once, oppressed with grief, in Eleusis’ valleys foundest relief, discovering Persephone thy daughter pure in dread Aides, dismal and obscure. A sacred youth while through the earth you stray, Dysaulos [Iakkhos], attending leader of the way; the holy marriage Khthonios Zeus relating, while oppressed with grief you rove. Come, much invoked, and to these rites inclined, thy mystic suppliant bless, with favouring mind.”

Orphic Hymn 41, To Demeter

As in the US, the Greek road system is organized as right-hand drive, with roads, exits, towns, etc. well marked, and with well-maintained roads. Because of this, the drive to Elefsina from Eleftherios Venizelos Airport in Athens (where we picked up the rental car after our trip to Kerameikos) went smoothly. Road signs in Greece are closely spaced and legibly printed in both the Greek and Latin alphabets.

Greek traffic (especially around Athens) has a reputation for being aggressively single-minded, but it’s really no more so than in many large US cities. I’ve driven in both LA and NYC at rush hour, and Athens was certainly not as bad as either of those places.

Our biggest problem once we arrived was finding a parking place for the rental car. Even though the Eleusis site was sparsely attended when we arrived, there was no parking to be had. This is a persistent problem at nearly all of the archaeological sites in Greece, so it pays to plan your visits well. In Athens, ditch the car. If you stay near the Acropolis, nearly everything is within walking distance in ~15 minutes anyway. And for those things which aren’t, taxis are readily available. Fortunately, Paul dropped us off at the entrance and found a parking spot for the SUV within a couple of blocks of the Eleusis site.

Poppies and barley, both sacred to Demeter. Next to each poppy flower is a pyxis, or lidded cylindrical box, that may represent containers which held sacred objects important to the rites.
Sculptural elements from the Greater Propylaia.

The area of modern Elefsina where the Eleusis archaeological site is located is a heavily industrialized international port. This means that the nearest edge of the site is only ~600 feet from a shoreline occupied by wharves, warehouses, petrochemical storage facilities, and the like. It had to be so. Otherwise, how else would the initiates of times long past have been able to use the surf of the Saronic Gulf to wash the squealing piglets which they had brought for sacrifice to Demeter? If you attempted that in this industrial zone now, you’d probably have to wash the pigs after washing the pigs.

The ancient celebrants of the Mysteries started out at the Eleusinion at the foot of the Athenian acropolis. From there, they walked the Sacred Way through the Athenian agora and out of the walled city through the propylaia at Kerameikos all the way to Eleusis – a distance of some 20 kilometers. Historian Michael Wood produced an interesting documentary of this trek along the Sacred Way.

Great Eleusinian Relief of Demeter (L) and Persephone (R). The middle figure is either Triptolemos or Iakkhos, the child of light and hope born in the Underworld.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

For over 2,000 years, the Eleusinian Mysteries were performed here every September (about the time of our visit) but one, that being when the Persians destroyed the site in 479 BCE during their second invasion under King Xerxes I. Eleusis is a sanctuary of Demeter (Δημήτηρ) and Her daughter, Persephone (Περσεφόνη), also known as Kore (Κόρη), or Maid. The rites performed there reputedly involved the mysteries associated with agriculture which were used as an allegory for the fate of humanity in the afterlife. Followers of Orphism believe these Mysteries to be linked to those of Dionysos (Διόνυσος). In The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries and Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion, R. Gordon Wasson surmises that the kykeon of the Mysteries involved the use of entheogens.

“Thrice-blessed among the mortals are those who having seen these sacred rites enter Hades: for them alone there is life, but for the others all is evil.”

Sophocles, fr. 837 Pearson-Radt
Map of the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis. North is to the upper right corner.

The site of Eleusis was expanded over its long history – unsurprising for a ritual center which may have existed since the time of the Mycenaeans – to eventually include hostels, baths, a gymnasium, and other facilities for guests, as well as buildings associated with the administrative staff and priesthood. Eleusis also functioned as a fortified citadel, and its defensive walls were substantially improved after the destruction of the site by Xerxes I.

Michael P. reads the display describing the defensive wall built around the sanctuary by Pericles.

The Eleusis Museum was closed for renovations, which was an even greater disappointment than the closure of the Kerameikos Museum which we encountered that morning. Regardless, there was still plenty to see at the site, which covers ~26 acres. That being said, some places were closed off because Eleusis is still an active archaeological dig site. The photos below show excavations of the ancient staff housing area. UPDATE: The museum reopened in February of 2023.

Inside the site ticket gate and to the right one finds a Roman era sacrificial fire pit known as the Eschara, or grate, which was used for roasting those freshly-washed piggies which were brought as a sacrifice to Demeter (see photo below, left). Immediately south of the Eschara are the remains of a small temple (see photos below, right top and bottom) dedicated to Artemis Propylaia (Ἄρτεμις Προπύλαια), “Artemis of the Gate,” and Father Poseidon (Ποσειδῶν).

This temple to Artemis and Poseidon is located immediately outside the protective wall of the sacred precinct, standing guard just before the Greater Propylaia, which was the main entrance to the sanctuary built in Roman times by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. To the left of the Greater Propylaia one finds the Kallichoron Well (or “Demeter’s Well”), the place where Demeter stopped to rest after Her long search for Persephone. Just inside the Greater Propylaia lay the Lesser Propylaia – the original Greek entrance to Eleusis – from which the Sacred Way led to the Telesterion, where the climax of the Eleusinian Mysteries was performed. The Lesser Propylaia we see today is the ruin of a Roman gate built by Appius Claudius Pulcher in 54 BCE to replace an earlier Greek structure.

The Greater Propylaia with the caves of the Ploutonion in the background, left.
Columns from the Greater Propylaia, with Michael P. providing size reference.
The Greater Propylaia looking toward the entrance of the sacred precinct.
The Kallichoron Well of Demeter.
The Lesser Propylaia, with the Sacred Way leading away to the right.

Another of the areas which is currently being excavated is the Siros, where storage magazines were used to house “first fruits” of agricultural produce (mainly wheat and barley) which were tithed to Demeter by the surrounding demes (see photos below). The tall columns pictured are part of the Siroi built during the time of Pericles.

To the right (north) of the Greater Propylaia lay the shallow caves, shrine, and enclosure wall of the Ploutonion (see photos below). It is an area sacred to Hades (Ἁιδης). Zagreus (Ζαγρεύς) is sometimes identified as the son of Hades and Persephone in the Orphic Tradition, though more often He is said to have been “sired by Zeus when he mated with Persephone in unspeakable union” (Orphic Hymn 30. To Dionysos). Poseidon the Earthshaker, who was originally a chthonic deity said to pre-date Hades, is likewise said to have got a son upon Persephone, which may explain why Father Poseidon is one of the guardians of the Greater Propylaia. At Eleusis, perhaps more than anywhere else in the Greek world, one is witness to the collision of evolving mythologies spanning thousands of years that revolve around a single event.

Aaron is sitting on the foundation wall of the Ploutonion shrine. Unsure what Ἁιδης thought of that, but at least none of us entered it!

Just outside of the shrine to Plouton is a circular vothros pit which was likely used in sacrificial rites. I surreptitiously dropped a Greek €2 coin into the pit as an offering. I wasn’t the only person to have done so, as there were several other coins down there. I choose to believe that other Hellenists were responsible for this, rather than people merely engaging in their habit of casually feeding wishing wells with their spare change.

Greek €2 coin honoring Europa.
Vothros associated with Plouton.

Apart from being a Temple dedicated to Hades, experts are still not certain what use was made of the shallow cave recesses at the back of the Plutonion.

A totally unplanned camera flare, yet it still gave me a shiver when I first saw it. Paul and Michael P. seem singularly unimpressed.
The Sacred Way running from the Ploutonion past the viewing platform and Temple of Hekate (right) towards the Telesterion.

— Να εχεις μια ωραια μερα. —

Stepped viewing platform located next to the Sacred Way. A small temple to Hekate was located on the left end of the platform.
It has been theorized that the purpose of this carved platform was to allow honored guests and officials to watch the initiates as they processed to the Telesterion.
Foundation of the Temple of Hekate (Ἑκάτη) as seen from the Sacred Way.
Foundation of the Temple of Hekate as seen from the steps of the carved viewing platform.

The Titaness Hekate served a crucial role in the Eleusinian Mysteries as a guide and guardian of the dead. One of Her symbols is the torch, carved examples of which can be found at the site (see photos below). Hekate used torches to lead the shades of the dead to their final resting place in the Underworld. And I like to believe that She still does. Torches undoubtedly played a key role in the revelatory aspect of the Mysteries.

Hekatê came to her [Demeter], holding a light ablaze in her hands.
            She came with a message, and she spoke up, saying to her:
            “Lady Demeter, bringer of hôrai, giver of splendid gifts, which one of the gods who dwell in the sky or which one of mortal humans seized Persephone and brought grief to your philos thûmos? I heard the sounds, but I did not see with my eyes who it was. So I quickly came to tell you everything, without error.”
            So spoke Hekatê. But she was not answered by the daughter [Demeter] of Rhea with the beautiful hair. Instead, she [Demeter] joined her [Hekatê] and quickly set out with her, holding torches ablaze in her hands.

Homeric Hymn to Demeter
A small statue of torch-bearing Hekate. From the author’s collection.

The Telesterion was a large hall and sanctuary at Eleusis. It was the spiritual center of the site where the culminating ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries took place. The hall could hold up to 3,000 people. That’s 3,000 people simultaneously undergoing a guided hallucinogenic trip in the dark, if the theory of Wasson, et al. is correct (and I’m inclined to think that it is).

Looking through the entrance porch into the Telesterion. The Sacred Path from the Lesser Propylaia runs from right to left halfway up the hill before descending the stairs to the left and circling around the building on the left and entering over the causeway (lower right) and through the porch. Photo credit: Copyright © Aaron Dye.
Interior of the Telesterion.
Photo credit: Copyright © Aaron Dye.
Interior of the Telesterion.
Photo credit: Copyright © Aaron Dye.

The site went into a slow decline as the Christianisation of the Roman Empire progressed. Flavius Claudius Julianus (aka Julian “the Apostate”), the last Pagan emperor of Rome, attempted to breathe new life into the cult during his short reign. Had he survived long enough he might have succeeded. But, sadly, he didn’t.* A successor, the Christian Emperor Theodosius I, closed the Eleusinian Mysteries in 392 CE. Just four years later, the Gothic King Alaric I sacked Eleusis with the gleeful help of a Christian mob. Thus ended 2,000 years of history.**

Incidentally, if you would like to read a fascinating (if fictionalized) account of the life of the Emperor Julian, then I highly recommend Julian by Gore Vidal.

For non-fiction reading, I suggest H. C. Teitler’s The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War against Christianity.

* You would be correct in assuming that I harbor some sympathy for Julian’s plight. He worked to stop the destruction of ancient Pagan temples and art. Within a generation of his death, many were gone forever.

** There is one final footnote to this story. While visiting the village of Eleusis in 1801, Cambridge professor E. D. Clarke stumbled upon a statue which he mistook for a representation of the Goddess Demeter. Archaeologists have since concluded that it is probably a caryatid from the Lesser Propylaia representing a priestess of Demeter. Clarke found that the villagers were venerating the object as “Saint Demeter.” As he noted, “the inhabitants of the village still regard [it] with a very high degree of veneration. They attributed to its presence the fertility of the land, and it was for this reason that they heaped around it the manure intended for their fields.’” After a series of well-deserved trials and tribulations, Clarke managed to steal the statue from the villagers and return with it to the Fitzwilliam Museum where it rests today. The sister caryatid of the pair resides in the Eleusis Museum. Eleusis residents are said to have conducted a torch dance in the vicinity of the site until the police put a stop to it in the 1940s. A modern annual torchlit procession, albeit Dionysian in nature, is celebrated on the island of Naxos in February. Like Hekate, He has a torch-bearing aspect (as Dionysos Lamptêr).

It was almost mid-afternoon by the time we finished our tour of the site. We stopped at a local kafeneío for refreshments and a very quick, very light, late lunch before fetching the SUV and heading north into hill country. Next stop, Thebes (Θήβα).

— Να εχεις μια ωραια μερα. —

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