Eleusinian Mysteries

Eleusis – modern Elefsina – is in the spotlight as European Capital of Culture. Dalu Jones visits its ancient remains to enter the realm of the Eleusinian Mysteries, secret rites honouring the renewal of life.


It has long been a common belief among modern visitors that  there is nothing left to see at Eleusis, yet the ancient Greek site was once one of the most famous Panhellenic sanctuaries and the most mysterious, the hub of the Eleusinian Mysteries performed  in absolute secret over centuries. But, since Eleusis (today Elefsina) was chosen as the 2023 European Capital of Culture along with  the cities of Timișoara in Romania and Veszprém in Hungary, it is  now – and deservedly – once again on visitors’ maps. 

The telesterion – with its stepped seating – in the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis. It was in this large pillared hall that  rites honouring the goddesses took place. Image: Dreamstime

Modern Elefsina, some 20km west of Athens, sprawls around  and over the scant but impressive remains of the ancient city.  In the late 19th century, Elefsina became, very rapidly, a booming industrial town. In more recent years, it experienced a similarly rapid decline. Chimneys tower over now abandoned warehouses  and disused factories along a polluted shoreline where shipyards,  relics of former economic wealth, are rusting away. Despite  this, an ongoing programme of restoration and conversion has transformed some of the abandoned structures, using them to stage cultural events and exhibitions of contemporary art. The archaeological museum – built in 1889, making it one of the oldest  in Greece – was closed for years as it underwent refurbishment.  Having reopened in February 2023, its treasures are now available again to be studied and enjoyed by the general public.

The museum sits almost at the top of the hill that dominates  the ruins where the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone once loomed large. The sweeping view from the terrace at the museum’s entrance is far-reaching and spellbinding: beyond the archaeological site and the modern city below, across the shimmering sea, one can clearly see the island of Salamis and the narrows that divide it from  the mainland. That is where the famous naval battle between the Greek and Persian fleets took place in 480 BC.

The great playwright Aeschylus was born here at Eleusis around 525/524 BC, and probably took part in the Battle of Salamis. One might imagine that he stood afterwards on this same elevated spot, bringing to mind his own experiences of that momentous historical event to compose The Persians, the earliest of his surviving masterpieces. First performed in 472 BC in Athens, the tragedy illustrates the Greek concept of hubris – inordinate pride leading to retribution or nemesis – and blames the Persians’ defeat on their king of kings Xerxes I, who, sitting on a gold throne on the slope of Mount Aigaleo nearby, was made to witness his own unimaginable downfall at the hands of the initially outnumbered Greek fleet. 

Despite the lack of substantial monuments still standing, the site where the Eleusinian Mysteries were continuously performed probably since Mycenaean times (c.1500-1100 BC) retains a profound, evocative, and compelling power. What Henry Miller wrote of his 1939 Grecian journeys, published in The Colossus of Maroussi in 1941, still applies today: ‘One should not race along the Sacred Way in a motor car – it is sacrilege! One should walk, walk as the men of old walked… At Eleusis one realises, if never before, that there is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy. At Eleusis one becomes adapted to the cosmos. Outwardly Eleusis may seem broken, disintegrated with the crumbled past; actually Eleusis is still intact and it is we who are broken, dispersed, crumbling to dust. Eleusis lives, lives eternally in the midst of a dying world.’ 

Marble relief showing sheaves of wheat or barley and a poppy, two of the main symbols of Demeter at Eleusis. From the Lesser Propylaea, the inner gateway of the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone, built c.50-48 BC. Image: Archaeological Site of Eleusis. Photo: Zach Jones

The cult of Demeter was the focus of the Mysteries, the arcane initiations that took place every year at Eleusis. Worshippers commemorated the myth of the abduction of Persephone (also referred to as kore, ‘the maiden’) by Hades, the god of the underworld, and her eventual reunion with her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest and the fertility of the earth. The outcome was  a pact between the gods that ruled that each year Persephone was to stay with Hades during the winter months and return to her mother in the spring, leading to the growth of crops in the season of her mother’s joy, after the crops’ death during the sorrowful months of absence.

Marble votive relief showing Demeter enthroned and her daughter Persephone or the goddess Hekate standing with two torches. First quarter of the 5th century BC. Image: Archaeological Museum, Eleusis. Photo: Zach Jones

While desperately searching for her daughter after her initial abduction, the distraught Demeter, disguised as a human, arrived  at Eleusis where she was taken in as a nurse. As a reward for the  city’s hospitality, she revealed herself and shared her secret rites  that became the core of the Eleusinian Mysteries. For Eleusis’ initiates, the rites would therefore symbolise the continuous  renewal of life throughout the seasons, and a promise of eternity passed on from generation to generation. 

The mythological tale and what could and should be revealed  of her cult were beautifully described by the Greek rhetorician Isocrates in the Panegyricus (c.380 BC). He celebrated the two  gifts that Demeter gave: 

the greatest in the world the fruits of the earth,

which have enabled us to rise above the life of the beasts,

and the holy rite which inspires in those who partake of it

sweeter hopes regarding both the end of life and all eternity –

The mystic rite we continue even now,

each year, to reveal to the initiates;

and as for the fruits of the earth, our city has, in a word,

instructed the world, in their uses, their cultivation,

and the benefits derived from them.

Statuette of a fleeing kore from the Sacred House in Eleusis, 490-480 BC. Image: Dreamstime

The mystic rites, ceremonies, and beliefs of the Eleusinian Mysteries remained secret throughout antiquity and to this day.  All that is known is that they consisted of things said (logomena), things enacted (dromena), and things seen (deiknymena), culminating in a mystical vision, ‘the seeing’ (epopteia). Scenes from  the myth of Demeter and Persephone might have been enacted in some theatrical form during the celebrations held at night inside  the initiation hall (telesterion). 

The telesterion was a large square pillared hall, very different  from the conventional temple architecture typical of Athens in  the 5th century BC. It was lined with steps along its four sides to  allow large numbers of participants to sit or stand and observe  the proceedings. Some of these steps are still visible today.  At its centre there was the anaktoron, a most holy closed structure that was also called abaton, ‘inaccessible’,  and used only by the priests and priestesses of the shrine, who belonged to specific Athenian aristocratic clans. The ceremony was based both on seeing and on hearing, and the architectural structure of the hall with  its many columns rather than solid walls indicates that hearing was at least as important as seeing. Torchlight effects glimpsed through the columns must have  also been highly dramatic. The telesterion was built and rebuilt at different times from the 7th century BC onwards until it was destroyed by Alaric I, the Visigoth king, in AD 396. Outside the sanctuary area, housing facilities, baths, and shops catered for the needs of the initiates. 

Marble relief with figures holding torches (an attribute of initiates of Eleusis) and an inscription below. Image: Archaeological Museum, Eleusis. Photo: Zach Jones

The Eleusinian Mysteries took place every year: the Lesser Mysteries were held in the month of Anthesterion (the Month of Flowers) in late February, when purifications and sacrifices were performed in Athens and the participants became mystai (initiates) worthy of witnessing the Greater Mysteries. These were celebrated in late summer during the Boedromion, the third month of the Attic calendar, around September or October. According to myth, Demeter searched for her daughter for nine days. Similarly, the performing  of the initiation rites in the Greater Mysteries took nine days to complete. After a series of purification rituals, fasting, and animal sacrifices, on the fifth day of the month of Boedromion, the opening ceremony would take place. The sacred and secret objects from Eleusis, which had been taken to Athens to start the ceremonies, were returned to the temple of the great goddess Demeter at Eleusis along the Sacred Way (Hiera Hodos) that connected the two cities. A great procession of pilgrims followed on foot. They arrived at night in front of the telesterion, where there would be an all-night vigil (pannychis) and where initiates drank the kykeion, a draught of barley and possibly drugs, producing altered states of consciousness. The only requirements for becoming an initiate were freedom from ‘blood guilt’ (never having committed murder) and not being a ‘barbarian’, a non-Greek speaker. Men, women, and even enslaved people could be initiated. All had to  swear a vow of secrecy on pain of death. 

Roman marble bust of the goddess Athena emerging from a flower. Image: Archaeological Museum, Eleusis. Photo: Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports

Excavations at ancient Eleusis by the Archaeological Society of Athens began in 1882. They uncovered the telesterion and its surroundings, providing the museum with some of its most telling artefacts. Other objects come from the ancient cemeteries of the city, which date from prehistoric to late Roman times.  New finds are being continuously unearthed and added to the collection, especially when construction is under way and reveals fragments of the ancient city beneath the modern one. 

Headless marble statue of the goddess Demeter.Probably from the workshop of Agorakritos in Athens, c.429 BC. Image: Archaeological Museum, Eleusis. Photo: Zach Jones

Many of the artefacts on view in the museum are the architectural fragments from the sanctuary, and clay figurines and offerings to Demeter, as well as reliefs showing episodes from the myth celebrated at the site. The two most important of these votive images are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, while the museum in Eleusis displays life-size copies. One is a relief, the 5th-century BC original carved into marble, which depicts Demeter with a sceptre offering ears of wheat to a youth while Persephone, holding a torch, blesses him. This young man is Triptolemos, who was either  a mortal prince, the eldest son of King Keleos of Eleusis, or, according to some sources, a demi-god, the son of Gaia and Oceanos. He was one of the Eleusinian royals who received Demeter when she was mourning the loss of her daughter. After Persephone returned from  the underworld, Demeter instructed him in the ways of agriculture  and provided him with a winged, serpent-drawn chariot to spread  her gift across the earth. The other depiction of Demeter and Persephone is a painted terracotta votive plaque (pinax) in the  shape of a naiskos (small temple), found at Eleusis in 1895. On it,  the two goddesses receive a procession of initiates bearing torches. Made in Attica around 370 BC, it was dedicated to the goddesses  by a woman named Ninnion.

Entrance to the Archaeological Museum of Eleusis. On the left is a 2nd-century AD marble sarcophagus with a scene of the hunting of the Calydonian Boar on the front. Salamis is visible in the background. Image: Archaeological Museum, Eleusis. Photo: Zach Jones

Among Eleusis’ more notable statues are a headless one of the goddess Demeter, from the workshop of the sculptor Agorakritos, a pupil of the great Phidias, and a lovely Archaic female figure in motion, known as the ‘Fleeing Kore’, from the decoration of the sacred house inside the sanctuary. As well as the central goddesses, historic figures were represented at the site too, reflecting its continued importance. There is a beautiful likeness of Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s lover. The Roman emperor was initiated into  the Mysteries in AD 125.

Particular prominence is given to the upper part of a huge caryatid from the Lesser Propylaea (a monumental gateway) of the sanctuary  of Demeter, dating from around 50 BC. Jacob Spon (1647-1685), a French doctor, antiquarian, and early explorer of the monuments of Greece, saw it when he visited Eleusis in 1676. He published a drawing of the caryatid in his Voyage d’Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grèce  et du Levant (1678), where he wrote that: ‘what she bears on her head is exquisite. It looks like a basket carved with relief wheat ears, flowers and bundles of poppies dedicated to her, she was the one who introduced Elefsinians to agriculture. I have drawn it rather  well for you to have an idea, but quite poorly to understand its beauty. It is three times larger than reality.’

The large statue was one of a pair that supported the lintel of a monumental gateway leading to the inner area of the temple of Demeter. It has been suggested by some scholars that they were idealised portraits of the daughters of Appius Claudius Pulcher, the Roman consul in 54 BC, who dedicated the gateway that they supported. Only the colossal torsos, heads, and headgear survive today, but each statue originally represented a full-length maiden – probably a priestess of Demeter’s cult – arms raised to hold a tall, cylindrical container that balances on her head. This is a cista, containing cultic objects or perhaps filled with kykeion, the hallucinogenic drink used during initiations. The cista is decorated  in relief with ears of wheat, poppies, rosettes, cakes, bundles of myrtle – all items used during the hidden rituals, and all symbols  of the Eleusinian cult. The young women wear tunics, secured by diagonally crossing straps with a gorgon’s head in their middle.

Upper part of one of the two caryatids fromthe Lesser Propylaea of Eleusis. Pentelic marble, made in Attica, c.50 BC. Image: Archaeological Museum, Eleusis. Photo: Zach Jones

The somewhat battered head and torso of the second caryatid, which is more than 2m tall, is housed now in Cambridge in the Fitzwilliam Museum, where it came in 1865 as a gift from Edward Daniel Clarke. Clarke had visited Elefsina in 1801 and first seen the caryatid, as he wrote in his 1814 Travels in Various Countries of Europe, Asia and Africa, ‘in the midst of a heap of dung, buried as high as the neck… 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.’ Because of its  high quality and importance, and despite its weight – around two tonnes – Clarke and his assistant John Marten Cripps decided to take the statue to England. Several foreign ambassadors had already submitted applications for its removal to the Ottoman authorities  in Athens. With the help of Giovanni Lusieri, an Italian artist working at the time for Lord Elgin, Clarke managed to bribe the governor and obtained an edict to allow him to remove the statue. Objections came from the people of Elefsina who had worshipped the caryatid as the likeness of their patron saint, aptly named St Demetra, and would adorn it with garlands to ensure her benevolence. The statue was shipped off, but the boat carrying  it and other artefacts collected by Clarke sank off the south coast  of England. Luckily, the antiquities were salvaged in due course.

Drawing  of the head of  one of the Lesser Propylaea caryatids  by Jacob Spon, 1678.  

It is most likely that we will never know what actually took place at night within the inviolate and hallowed spaces of Eleusis. Yet the site still resonates with birth and rebirth, while contemporary Elefsina, which, since 1975, honours its status as the birthplace of Aeschylus every August with an arts festival in a converted old olive-oil press, has been given a new lease of life.

Further information

  • The Archaeological Museum of Eleusis is within the archaeological site of Eleusis (phone: +30 210 554 6019).
  • More information is available from the Ephorate of Antiquities  of West Attica: http://www.efada.gr/en-us.
  • For more information about Elefsina as a European Capital  of Culture, visit https://2023eleusis.eu/en.