Eleusinian Mysteries

A.E. Stallings

The bay of Elefsina. Photo © Davide Mauro

The old road from Athens to Elefsina – the modern name for Eleusis – is still called the Sacred Way, though there is also a modern highway that does the trick. In ancient times, the initiated, or those wanting to become initiated, would travel the ten-odd miles from Athens to experience the ‘Eleusinian Mysteries’: well-guarded secret rites that seem to have involved re-enacting the abduction of Persephone by Hades, the god of the underworld, and her recovery by her mother, Demeter, the goddess of the earth. There was an annual festival in the ancient month of Anthesterion (the Month of Flowers) – late February for us – and a larger one every four years at harvest time. The mysteries were open to men and women, enslaved and free, Greek and foreigner alike; the only people excluded from seeking enlightenment were murderers and Barbarians (that is, non-Greek-speakers).

In the intervening centuries, Elefsina has lost its allure. Christianity held out stronger promises, not to mention outright persecution of pagan rites. Eleusis became a sleepy village of fewer than a thousand residents, an Athenian ex-urb. Roald Dahl was briefly based there in 1941 with the No. 80Squadron RAF: ‘The aerodrome I had landed on,’ he wrote in Going Solo, ‘was no more than a grassy field and wildflowers were blossoming in blue and yellow and red in their millions all around me.’ But even by Dahl’s time, Elefsina was well into the process of a steep degradation, a polluted industrial zone, with massive soap, cement and steel factories, and huge oil refineries. What was once idyllic become an eye-sore, of rusted-out ships in the bay, chimneys of abandoned factories, and the plutonian flames of fossil fuel distillation licking the blue sky with their scarlet tongues and oily iridescent breath.

Aeschylus was born in Eleusis, and the town makes some appearances in modern Greek poetry: Angelos Sikelianos wrote about the Sacred Way, and Cavafy about Demeter’s interrupted attempt to make a mortal infant immortal. But it would take Nikos Gatsos (1911-92) to write about the contemporary decline of Elefsina in ‘The Nightmare of Persephone’ (set as a song in 1976 by Manos Hatzidakis):

There where the pennyroyal and wild mint grew,
And the earth put forth her first cyclamen,
Now the villagers haggle over cement
And the birds fall dead into the factory furnace.

The poem goes on to describe tourists tossing cigarette butts, and the oil refinery. The refrain is no cheerfuller:

Sleep, Persephone, in the earth’s embrace
And do not come out ever again onto the world’s balcony.

But a revival of Elefsina may be at hand. The town has been selected as a 2023 European Capital of Culture: a counterintuitive choice but also an appropriate one. As the need to turn away from fossil fuels becomes ever more urgent, could Eleusis become a symbol once again of nature’s rejuvenescent cycles and the soul’s rebirth?

On a Sunday in Anthesterion, with the early flowers in abundance (mostly stars of Bethlehem, chamomile and daisies), my husband and I, our 13-year-old daughter and my ninety-something mother-in-law took a day trip to Elefsina. It was the height of Apokries, Greek carnival, and the town was full of children dressed as Spider-Man, Batman, Elsa and other princesses, kings, lions, ninjas, pirates, cops and robbers, clowns and monsters of all stripes. Loud music drifted over the archaeological site from the town’s main drag, traditional Greek songs giving way to ‘The Macarena’. The renovated museum was closed until the end of the month so we made do with exploring the site, impressive in the size of the ruined elements and its extent. My mother-in-law made her way carefully over the uneven rocks on the arm of my husband (her dancer’s balance has served her well); my daughter, of an age perhaps with Persephone, scampered and climbed ahead, plucking flowers.

The original temple complex was burned down by the Persians in 484 BC, and a new one was built by the architect of the Parthenon, Ictinus, in gleaming Pentelic marble, and with pedimental sculptures depicting the story of Persephone, Hades and Demeter. That was just the beginning, though. The Romans added a triumphal arch and temples to the empresses Faustina and Sabina, among other outbuildings. We saw where piglets – the usual offering to Demeter – were sacrificed and roasted on the sacred Eschara. (From the town, the aroma of pork cooking on the grill – the skara – drifted over on the breeze.) Gigantic column drums lay toppled, monumental Latin inscriptions tumbled among the smaller dedications of the Greeks.

Outside the main temple complex, with a retaining wall to separate it, is the Ploutonion, an entrance to the Underworld and a precinct sacred to Hades, in the shadow of a great concave rock, with little lunette holes behind which the darkness of an actual cave glooms. In the pit in front of the rock were the scattered remains of several smashed pomegranates. A few bouquets of anemones and other wildflowers had been placed at the windows to the cave. My daughter was intrigued by these contemporary offerings to the god of the dead. Tourists or locals? The previous day had been a Psychosabbato – Soul Saturday, when the souls of the unburied or the recently departed are consoled by the living with offerings – usually koluva, a traditional (if not ancient?) and very Persephonic mixture of pomegranate arils, boiled wheat, nuts and parsley, topped with powdered sugar.

Climbing up through the site we saw plaques with images of excavated objects that were now in the museum. One that I had particularly wanted to see was the colossal head of one of the Elefsina caryatids, balancing her sacred basket. I had recently visited her twin at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. According to the plaque the twin was ‘stolen’ by E.D. Clarke, a Cambridge mineralogist, in 1801 – incidentally, or not, the same year that removals were begun by Elgin’s agents on the Parthenon. But the case of the Caryatid is different. Her abduction was unequivocally legal – Clarke had obtained clear permission from the authorities for her removal – but also entirely immoral. Clarke didn’t have Elgin’s theoretical (if disputed) claim to archaeological altruism, rescuing a neglected monument from the depredations or indifference of the locals; the locals revered the statue, piling dung about her to bless their fields, crowning her with flowers, lighting candles before her. And as her face is eroded featureless, there could be zero claim to artistic value.

He wanted her because she was hard to get. In his own words:

I found the goddess in a dunghill buried to her ears. The Eleusinian peasants, at the very mention of moving her regarded me as one who would bring the moon from her orbit. What would become of their corn, they said, if the old lady with her basket was removed! I went to Athens and made application to the Pasha, aiding my request by letting an English telescope glide between his fingers. The business was done.

Locally she had been known as ‘St Demetra’, a saint not otherwise attested in Orthodoxy – it is entirely possible the statue was once the ‘oldest continually venerated object from the ancient world’.

It was only when I visited the Fitzwilliam a few weeks ago that I realised how massive she is (Clarke reckoned she weighed two tons), and how huge the undertaking. Though she only survives from the midriff up, she is taller than a man, and of solid marble. It took nine hours with ropes and rollers to get her to the sea (a distance of perhaps three hundred yards), and then the quay had to be repaired for loading. Yet somehow Clarke not only got her to the ship, but salvaged her when the ship was later wrecked off Beachy Head. (He appears not to have been completely without compunction – he later returned to Elefsina to confirm that the crops did still continue to grow.)

With Elefsina a cultural capital this year, it occurs to me that returning the Caryatid – kept high in an alcove in the Fitzwilliam where few visitors even look up to see her – would be a splendid gesture. I suggested this to a friend who teaches Classics at Cambridge. Though somewhat sympathetic to the idea, he pointed out that moving it back would be no easy matter – like dragging the moon from her orbit. When the Fitzwilliam was renovated, the one thing that had to remain in place was the Caryatid.

Has Elefsina even asked for her back – does the museum even want her? She is no Parthenon frieze. But I am haunted by the idea that, as she represented the forces of regeneration in the fields, she might be a (symbolic) catalyst in returning Eleusis from a rusted-out industrial zone to a place where nature is revered again.

Leaving the archaeological site, we drove down Persephone Street back to the Sacred Way in search of a late lunch, then to the seaside for a coffee. Seagulls swarmed overhead, pecking at old loaves of bread someone had dumped into the sea. A large ship rusted at anchor a little way off. But the water was still intensely blue, the islands across the water green.

On the quayside stands a modern monument in honor of Cynaegirus, Aeschylus’ brother, one of the fiercest fighters to fall at Marathon. The inscription on the monument quotes Herodotus and the relief shows the moment when ‘Cynaegirus … gripped with his hand the poop of one of the ships and had his hand chopped off with an axe and so died.’ His is one of the few individual deaths described by Herodotus in his record of the momentous battle.

It’s a reminder, on the post-industrial seaside, of the centrality Eleusis once had to Athens, and maybe to the world. And, from the distant past, perhaps it puts us in mind of the dark mysteries of the future, and our souls that we have given away with our getting and spending, in need of a rebirth.


  • 29 March 2023 at 5:36pm
    ChrisK says:
    "Her abduction was unequivocally legal – Clarke had obtained clear permission from the authorities for her removal – but also entirely immoral."
    [E.D. Clarke]"I went to Athens and made application to the Pasha, aiding my request by letting an English telescope glide between his fingers. The business was done."

    Puzzled a bit by the "unequivocally legal" part - if I let something glide into the hands of Sadiq Khan today and got his permission, could I legally take a monument from London with me?
    Isn't the state required to give its permission in such cases, instead of some local administrator/ruler?
    And even if at the time it wasn't required for the state to give its permission (somehow doubt it), isn't the self-admission of bribery enough to cast at least some doubt ("unequivocally"?) to the legality of the act?

  • 29 March 2023 at 6:19pm
    Alex Hacker says:
    Fascinating read, thank you. I would like to point out, however, that the description of Clarke's removal of the caryatid seems at moments to almost exonerate him and casts doubt on the conception of that removal as theft. There is surely no need to attribute the idea that the caryatid was stolen to the plaque in the museum, and even less of a need for the quotation marks on the word. The caryatid was stolen, period. There is nothing "unequivocally legal" about obtaining permission by bribing a state official. That Clarke could write about his actions so openly and unabashedly is testament to a blind cultural arrogance, and the telescope used as currency for the bribe is a fitting symbol of the technological superiority that fuels such attitudes, even today. His attempts to check on the growth of the crops were obviously far too early. The return of the caryatid would indeed be a splendid gesture, and one of necessary atonement, no matter how difficult.

  • 30 March 2023 at 10:51am
    Greg Hill says:
    No doubt it should be returned. I wonder if the locals would renew their veneration, or would it then simply become a tourist attraction, a relic of the past rather than a continuing tradition brought to an end by its removal?

  • 30 March 2023 at 3:37pm
    MattG says:
    I don't get all this 19th century romantic pan-hellenistic nationalist messaging.

    In Britain many of us are now looking at the legacy of slavery and empire and the way it spread into art and public monuments. It's an uphill struggle. But in Greece the finance behind Ictinus work is irrelevant? As long as it is "Greek" and in white marble.

    Second: articles like this relay on a racist construction of ethnicity. It was "Greek" in 500 bce therefore the current inhabitants of an Athens suburb must own it. Obviously. Greece has a long history of ethnic cleansing from the Athenian slaughter on Melos to the population exchange.

  • 30 March 2023 at 5:21pm
    David Levine says:
    My heart leaps every time I see a mention of my dear old friend, Nikos Gatsos. Plus, it's a late song I didn't know about. But now that the song archive is at Harvard, I assume there'll be a lot more of them we'll be discovering.

  • 3 April 2023 at 3:23am
    Kelly Winsa says:
    A complete elegy for the statue and the mooring of colonial action, thank you.

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