Before we jump into the excitement of the mysteries, let’s introduce the sanctuary.
The sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis, is located roughly 18 kilometers from Athens (Fantham et al., 1995, p. 37), a city which is often considered the main hub of Greece in antiquity. Because it is now in ruins, we cannot know for sure what the sanctuary looked like in its day, but the remains certainly provide a basis for us to assume that it was an alluring structure!
You are now entering through the gateway of the sanctuary… discovery awaits!
To clarify, a sanctuary is considered to be a place of sacred or religious value where worship takes place (Leonard, 2016). This sanctuary in particular was dedicated to the worship of two well-known goddesses: the first being Demeter, the goddess of harvest, agriculture, and fertility, (Green, 2019, p. 449-450) and her daughter, Kore (Persephone) who is also, like her mother, a goddess of vegetation (Green, 2019, p. 472). Kore is the wife of Hades, and together they are known as god and goddess of the Underworld (Fantham et al., 1995, p. 13-14).
FUN FACT – the name “Kore” means “maiden” in Greek (Sakoulas, 2002).
The town of Eleusis as a whole proves to be rich in various types of archeological history, and for this reason it serves as a jackpot in today’s age for both archaeologists and visitors alike. Scholars believe that Eleusis may have first been settled in the Mycenaean Bronze Age, or in more understandable terms, around 1500 B.C.E. (Evans, 2002, p. 230).
Once surrounded by lavish defenses, the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis is hypothesized by modern scholars and archaeologists to have been formalized around the 6th century B.C.E. (Evans, 2010, p. 117). We can imagine that the entrance to the sanctuary was monumental until the Roman period, and magnificently structured, arch-like, and colossal in size which may be indicative of the significance that this location held for the citizens in antiquity. There was also a granary (storehouse for grain) inside of a grand gate, which has been interpreted to have been a method of serving grain to the people in attendance as a way to celebrate Demeter’s contribution of grain to them. There is also remanence of a cave-like structure inside of a rock, which is believed to have represented the entrance to The Underworld. Heinrich Hall has even suggested that perhaps this was the area in which Persephone was believed to have exited/entered between the two locations (Hall, 2014).
Near the centre of the sanctuary was a structure known as the “Telesterion”, an enormous, roofed building in antiquity (Evans, 2010, p. 116). The Telesterion was rebuilt and expanded multiple times throughout antiquity, notably under Perikles (the general of Athens from 495-429 B.C.E.), whereby it became the largest building in Greece! (Fantham et al., 1995, p. 38). During the Persian invasion of 479 B.C.E., much of the sanctuary was destroyed, but it was rebuilt during the 5th century B.C.E. Parts of the foundation that remain confirm that it was fairly large in size, which would have allowed many people to gather in the area. What exactly took place here is not clear, however inside the Telesterion was a palace known as “Anaktoron” where special items were kept hidden. These items of course cannot be confirmed, however, Kevin Clinton has speculated in his journal article that there is a chance that one of the items may have been an obol, which is a Greek coin (Clinton, 2004, p. 87). Because of the fact that the rituals that took place here were initiation mysteries, not a lot of what happened inside of those walls would have been written down or recorded in any way (Fantham et al., 1995, p. 38).
Let’s explore what I consider to be the driving force behind the construction of the sanctuary – myth!
According to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Demeter’s daughter Kore (also known as Persephone), was a beautiful maiden who attracted the eye of her uncle, Hades, god of the Underworld. He desired her to be his wife, so he kidnapped her and lead her to The Underworld: the dark, final destination of the dead in Greek mythology. Upon their arrival, Hades managed to coerce Kore into eating the seeds from a pomegranate, an act which symbolically “sealed the deal” into her staying with him in the realm of the dead. The pomegranate in this interpretation represents marriage, creating a union between the two of them.
FUN FACTEating food from the Underworld binds a person to it, which is why the pomegranate attaches Kore not only to Hades, but also to the Underworld.
Meanwhile, her mother Demeter searched tirelessly for her throughout all corners of the earth. She became so saddened and exhausted by the loss of her beloved child, that she did not want to complete her duties, causing the crops to wither and die. Demeter then dressed as an old woman to disguise herself and continued to search for Kore. She grew weary and decided to rest on a structure known today as the Kallichorion well, near the settlement of Eleusis. Shortly thereafter, she was discovered by king Keleos’ (Celeus) daughters who approached her to help. They were so kind to her that she chose to stay there.
However, the crops could not stay withered forever. Although Demeter found temporary comfort, she still needed her daughter. Who came to the rescue? None other than the all-powerful Zeus who is the brother of Demeter and Hades, as well as Persephone’s father (odd scenario). He was able to make a deal with Hades, which allowed Persephone to return to be with her mother on the Earth for two thirds of the year but required her to spend one third of the year in The Underworld with Hades (Fantham et al., 1995). Demeter was so delighted to receive her daughter once again, that she could return to completing her duties of ensuring healthy crops and growth. While Persephone was on the Earth, the crops were fruitful and lush, but when it was time for her to go back to The Underworld her mother would return to a state of grief and the crops would wilt. This created the seasonal cycles whereby the wintertime was a time of mourning. Because Demeter was so humbled by king Keleos’ daughters’ generosity, she commenced to gift them with the knowledge of agriculture. Some scholars interpret the “Eleusinian Mysteries”, a collection of sacred understanding, to be another gift from Demeter that was to be passed on throughout Eleusis. The sanctuary itself where the mystery rituals were held, was created by ancient civilians of Greece on the account of Demeter, who ordered a temple to be built immediately in her honour (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, trans. Nagy).
The Eleusinian Mysteries were rituals held annually in ancient Eleusis at the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore and the culmination of events took place within the building called the “Telesterion”. We know little about these gatherings; again – because they were secret, and those in attendance were sworn to secrecy. We are able to get some information though, on rights of the rituals in The Symposium written by Plato during Diotima’s address (Hunter, 2004, Plato’s Symposium), and well as whatTitus Flavius Clemens, also known as Clement of Alexandria, includes in his writings. Clement of Alexandria was a teacher, philosopher and theologian in Alexandria that lived from 150-215 C.E. Clement of Alexandria wrote in “Exhortation to Heathen” a bit about the mysteries. Here is what he says,
“I have fasted, I have drunk the cup; I have received from the box; having done, I put it into the basket, and out of the basket into the chestClement of Alexandria, “Exhortation to Heathen” (from https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/020802.htm)
This gives us an idea of what the ritual may have looked like – fasting, drinking from a particular cup, receiving something from a box and putting it into a basket, then into the chest. Clearly this description is still meant to be ambiguous, so as to protect him from being penalized for revealing the ritual. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, there is also mention of a special drink whereby, “so she [Metaneira] made the kukeôn and offered it to the goddess, just as she had ordered” (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, trans. Nagy, line 210).
Due to the secretive nature of the sanctuary, not many literary sources were even created because the participants did not want the mysteries to be written down, and any information that was documented directly from the participants did not survive from antiquity (Clinton, 2004, p. 85). It was actually against the law for participants to discuss the events outside of the sanctuary or with anyone who had not been initiated, and this offense was punishable by death – so, of course, no one wanted to leak the classified information (Barrett). However, we do have access to surviving primary sources on the mysteries from well-known thinkers that lived in ancient Greece, such as, Plato and “Homer”. Homer specifically, provides us with a detailed account of the myth and a bit of information on the structure of the sanctuary. In line 300 of the hymn we see, “…the temple grew bigger and bigger, taking shape through the dispensation of the daimôn“, which refers to the deity in discussion – Demeter (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, trans. Nagy, line 300). Many things that we know about the mysteries have been hypothesized by modern day scholars and archaeologists through a careful analysis of the archaeological remains, simply because we do not have access to a lot of textual evidence.
“At Eleusis, the climax of the mysteries was held at night…”Bookidis et al., 2015, p. 18
I feel that the above passage highlights the mystery part of what took place at the sanctuary, since the most vast section of ritual took place under the cover of the night.
In addition, some pottery and art that illustrate aspects of the Mysteries did in fact survive and they help us to understand what happened here and when it happened (Fantham et al., 1995).
It is believed that the rituals began around 1600 B.C.E. and lasted a few hundred years into C.E. The Mysteries occurred annually (Hawley, 1995) and lasted for a total of nine days at a time, beginning with a long walk along “The Sacred Way” from Athens to Eleusis (Fantham et al., 1995, p. 38). Along the journey, the initiates (man or woman) brought with them an assortment of unknown sacred items. The mysteries were divided into two sections, the Lesser and the Greater Mysteries (Fantham et al., 1995, p. 38). Participants must attend the Lesser Mysteries first, in order to be deemed a “mystai” which means initiate, only then would they be permitted to attend the Greater Mysteries. Based on interpretations of the rituals from Mara Lynn Keller, it seems as though anyone could become an initiate as long as they were 1) capable of understanding the Greek language – and 2) had not committed murder (Keller, 2009, p. 30). The participants would engage in a sacrifice, that led into a ritualistic bathing of sorts along the way, and perhaps made some individual sacrifices to Demeter and Kore (Evans, 2010, p. 230). They drank a substance with the name “Kykeon” during the festival which has been interpreted many different ways. It is possible that this drink was alcoholic or that it contained some form of mind-altering substance. However, some scholars believe it was just water mixed with herbs (Cosmopoulos, 2003). The initiates would take part in dance around the well in the sanctuary called “Callichoron Spring” (Kallichorion well) to honour Demeter and Kore (Fantham et al, 1995). It is no surprise that the secret portion of the Mysteries occurred at night in the dark, under the light of a torch (Bookidis et al., 2015). Though the rituals went on for many years, the mysteries are thought to have been banned in the year 396 C.E., due to the invasion of the Visigoths.
In my humble opinion, it would be extremely beneficial to the field of Classics if there were somehow a way that archaeologists/historians could debunk the mysteries and tight-lipped portions of what took place at the site, but it proves to be a nearly impossible task. My reason for saying this is the fact that there are no physical sources detailing the expeditions that went on within the sanctuary. Personally, I believe that the Eleusinian Mysteries have a significant impact on the study of the role of women in antiquity, because we see that these two female goddesses were at the forefront of the secrets that took place during the Mysteries. People living in ancient Greece took part in ritual for these goddesses, believing it would enhance their afterlife (Fantham et al., 1995, p. 15). Many important writers and philosophers from antiquity whose work survives today, such as Plato, were initiates of the mysteries. We can infer this from The Symposium. This reinforces the idea that the Mysteries were very astounding if individuals of high status, wealth, and knowledge desired to be a part of them.
I think that one of the factors that makes the sanctuary and the events that took place at the site so intriguing, is the mysterious nature of it all. I feel that because it is so secret and hidden, we are left to wonder what it is that could have possibly happened here. As intellectual beings, we tend to take interest in the unknown. Perhaps if we were able to uncover everything, it would take away from the mystifying essence that it has left behind. On the contrary, discovering all aspects of these rituals from antiquity would be absolutely engrossing to learn about. The information that we do have on the sanctuary is certainly an asset to the development of the fields of History and Classics, providing us with at least some insight into the past. It is extraordinary how much we can learn from the people who dwelled before us, and what we can infer about their society and views based on their behaviours and activities. Though these ancient rituals remain a mystery, we can enjoy attempting to uncover them and appreciate them!
Barrett, M. (n.d.). The Curse of Eleusis. Matt Barrett’s Survival Guide. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://www.athensguide.com/eleusis/#:~:text=To divulge the secret of,in ancient Greece, after Delphi.
Bookidis, N., & Pemberton, E. G. (2015). The Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore: The Greek lamps and offering trays. Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443/lib/acadia/reader.action?docID=4392657.
Clement of Alexandria. (n.d.). Exhortation to the Heathen (Chapter 2). Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/020802.htm.
Clinton, K. (2004). Epiphany in the Eleusinian Mysteries. Illinois Classical Studies, 29, 85-109. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23065342.
Cosmopoulos, M. B. (2003). Greek mysteries: The archaeology of ancient Greek secret cults. London: Routledge.
Evans, N. (2010). Civic rites : Democracy and religion in ancient athens. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443.
Fantham, E., Foley, H. P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B., & Shapiro, H. A. (1995). Women in the classical world: Image and text. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443.
Gardner, C. (2021). Classical Greece: “Athenian Women and Laws; Priestesses & Female Cults; Medicine and Skeletal Remains”. Acadia University. Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Giesecke, A. (2020). Classical Mythology A-Z an Encyclopedia of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, Heroines, Nymphs, Spirits, Monsters, and Places. New York, New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.
Green, P. (2019). The Odyssey Homer A New Translation by Peter Green. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
Hall, H. (2014, April 10). Eleusis: The ancient sanctuary of Demeter in Greece. Retrieved April 2, 2021, from https://www.petersommer.com/blog/archaeology-history/eleusis#:~:text=Another interesting and very conspicuous,small temple of Hades here.
Hawley, R., & Levick, B. (1995). Women in antiquity: New assessments. London: Routledge.
Homer. (n.d.). Homeric Hymn to Demeter (G. Nagy, Trans.). Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://uh.edu/~cldue/texts/demeter.html#_ftnref6.
Hunter, R. (2004). Plato’s Symposium. Oxford University Press.
James, S. L., & Dillon, S. (Eds.). (2012). A companion to women in the ancient world. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443
Keller, M. L. (2009). “The Ritual Path of Initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries”. Retrieved April 2, 2021 from https://www.ciis.edu/WSE/WSE%20Documents/WSE%20PDFs/07_keller.pdf.
Leonard, J. (2016, August 11). Anatomy of a Sanctuary. Retrieved April 2, 2021, from https://www.greece-is.com/anatomy-of-a-sanctuary/.
Plato. (1989). The Dialogues of Plato. Yale University Press.
Rayor, D. J. (2014). The Homeric Hymns: A Translation, with Introduction and Notes. University of California Press. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:9443/lib/acadia/reader.action?docID=1644383&query=.
Sakoulas, T. (2002). Kore / Korai. Retrieved April 2, 2021, from https://ancient-greece.org/art/korai.html.