TWD Video Downloads TWD Home Page TWD News Page TWD Journal Archive TWD Image Archive TWD Photo Gallery TWD Musings Index

Eleusis 1989

Map of Sikyon to Athens

5/15/89 - The new day began for me somewhere around Sikyon as my narrow guage train rattled through the night. According to Pausanias, the first king and founder of Sikyon was the hero Aigialeos, whose dynasty lasted for one thousand years (26 kings). The fourth king in the dynasty (Pelops) gave his name to the peninsula (island of Pelops). In the eleventh century B.C.E., the Dorians came into the area. Sikyon was one of the very few towns in the Peloponnese which resisted the invading Dorians. The city was surprised by night and conquered. Argos, Corinth, Phlius, Epidauros, and Troezen all submitted to the Dorians without any resistance. Subject first to Mycenaean and later to Dorian Argos, Sikyon regained her independence in the 7th century B.C.E., when the Achaean family of the tyrant Orthagorides took control and governed the city for one hundred years.

According to the Sikyonian Anagraphe, the innovation of singing with a kithara was attributed to Amphion of Sikyon and the innovation of solo kithara playing to Lysander of Sikyon. The latter was also considered to be the inventor of chorus and changing one instrument with another during the performance of music and various musical aulos tones that could be played with kithara. The first orchestra playing (enaulon kitharisin) was originated here by the pupils of Epigonos, who were performing with aulos, kithara, epigonion, singing, etc. Epigonos, an immigrant from Ambrakia who lived at Sikyon and opened a school of music, was also the inventor of Epigonion (epi gonatos) a kind of kithara with forty strings that was placed and played at one's knees. Another innovator was Ibykos who made the musical instrument called the sambyke.

The great innovations of Sikyon in music were paralleled with dance innovations. A local dance known as Aleter was a sober kind of dance. Another dance, the one Hippokleides danced at the feast given by Kleisthenes and lost the hand of his daughter Agariste, was a comic and uncontrolled Kordax. Dances which involved the throwing of a ball, as for example the one mentioned by Homer in his Odyssey, with Nausika dancing with other girls and a ball, was also a Sikyonian innovation.

Later in the morning my train passed by the ancient city of Megara. In historical times, Megara was an early dependency of Corinth, and its colonists founded Megara Hyblaea, a small polis north of Syracuse in Sicily. Megara then fought a war of independence with Corinth, and in 667 BC founded Byzantium (now Istanbul), as well as Chalcedon. In the Peloponnesian War ( 431 BC - 404 BC), Megara was an ally of Sparta. The Megarian decree is considered to be one of several contributing "causes" of the Peloponnesian War. The Megarian decree was issued by Athens with the purpose of ruining the Megarian economy. The decree stated that Megarian merchants were not allowed in territory controlled by Athens. The most famous citizen of Megara in antiquity was Apollo, the legendary founder of Byzantium in the 7th century B.C.E.. The 6th century B.C.E. poet Theognis also came from Megara. In the early 4th century B.C.E., Euclid of Megara founded the Megarian school of philosophy which flourished for about a century, and became famous for the use of logic and dialectic. The people of Megara were proverbial for their generosity in building and endowing temples. Jerome reports "There is a common saying about the Megarians […:] 'They build as if they are to live forever; they live as if they are to die tomorrow."

Finally, at about 4:00 AM we arrived at the Elefsina train station and the conductor helped me to unload my bicycle from the engine area where it had been stowed. I laid down on the station bench with my arm through the fork of my bike so that I would be awakened if someone tried to take it while I slept until daybreak. Elefsinia is the modern Greek city near the ruins of the ancient city of Eleusis where the cult of the goddess Demeter existed for many centuries and where the most famous religious festival, called the Eleusinian Mysteries were performed in honor of the deity.

Demeter/Kore Myth
According to the "Homeric Hymn to Demeter" (7th century B.C.E.), the goddess Demeter left the company of the deathless gods and came to Eleusis desperately looking for her daughter Persephone (Kore) who had been kidnapped by Aidoneus (Hades). Here, she appeared as a crone by a well, alone and mourning. She was approached by four daughters of King Celeus who took her home to meet their mother Queen Metaneria. In gratitude to the queen, Demeter took care of her son Demophon. Each night she brought the boy near the fire to strenghten him toward immortality. She also fed him with the nectar and ambrosia of the gods. One night when the child´s mother saw what was happening, she was astonished and somewhat troubled to see her son lying in the burning coals. To quiet the screaming queen, Demeter revealed herself in all her immortal splendor and said "You mortals are thoughtless and unknowing, you cannot distinguish between evil and good. Demeter then left the palace and demanded that a great temple be built for her nearby. She cloistered herself in the new temple, still troubled for her Persephone, and did not allow any seed to grow from the fields or fruit from the trees until she saw her daughter again. To pour oil on these troubled waters, Zeus decided that Persephone would spend one third of a year with Aidoneus in the underworld and the other two thirds with her mother, Demeter. Demeter then restored the fertility of the earth for eight months of the year. She also celebrated her partial victory by teaching the restoration rites to mankind, initiating all who desired to her mysteries. As a final gift, she selected one of the noble youths of Eleusis, Triptolemos, and instructed him in the arts of cultivation, so that mankind could settle in one place and enjoy the fruits of agriculture.

Meaning of the Myth
Modern interpretations of the Demeter/Kore myth fall into three categories: those who see the myth in terms of nature and an explanation of seasonal cycles of growth and decay; those who see the myth primarily in human terms, both of human cycles of birth, death, and resurrection and of psychological cycles of separation, initiation, and return; and finally as a description of the triumph of the soul's struggle with earthly desire.

The Classical understanding of the existence of the human soul (or psyche) as a unique and structured entity within each individual was developed by Socrates (as related to us by Plato). He taught that the soul, or psyche, was the center of life, the reason for being, and the object of philosophical and spiritual attention. The soul had a sructure, just as an individual did. And as this soul was both present and vital to existence, it became important to discover the nature of the soul and the rules by which it operated. The myth of Demeter/Kore is related to these new Classical ideas about the soul in that the Mysteries, which grew out of the myth, were intended to be the initiation of the individual soul into the brotherhood of the saved. The soul struggled just as the individual did to deal with its earthly and divine situation. It sought release through the perfection of its divine attributes, striving for rhythm (eurythmia) and harmony (eurharmostia) with the gods.

Although the myth has agricultural connections and can be read at this simple level, it also has psychological connections which can be applied to physical and mental existence, the most important interpretations have to do with spiritual transformation. There are certain themes which have become associated with the Eleusian Mysteries and its Homeric myth which occur again and again in he history and conduct of the rites. The first is the marriage of the Olympian sky gods to the chthonic (underworld dieties), or the marriage of conscious and subconscious forces and the resulting containment and transformation of the latter. Demeter is the Olympian (or Apollinian) spirit of the earth, a force of conscious spiritual power. Hades is an underworld god, king of the dead, keeper of souls, a symbol of subconscious power, but still a spiritual force as the brother of Zeus. Persephone is an innocent maiden abducted to the underworld against her will. She is a savior for mankind, and yet virgin (pure spirit) on Olympus where she lives eight months of he year with her mother. Her return is the affirmation of immortality possible inthe purified soul of man.

The second theme of importance in the Mysteries is the initiation ceremony and its spiritual significance. Here the themes of spirit (consciousness), earthly desire (subconsciousness), repression (separation and denial), and sublimation (transforming subconscious desire into consciousness) are played out in the myth. Persephone is the innocent early desire attracted to the sensuous narcissus and swept underground to marry Hades (repression). If she eats of the food of death (the pomegranate provided by Hades), she will forever repress her desires and become a captive to them, unable to transform them into conscious spirit. Because she represents the human condition in his myth, Persephone eats a seed from the pomegranate taken from Hades orchards and appears condemned. Thus, she has that within her which must be sublimated and transformed. Demeter represents that spirit which exists unblemished by earthly desire and which has the power of transformation.

As a result of intervention by Zeus (pure Consciousness), Persephone is permitted, despite having eaten of the fruit of death, to return for most of the year. She is able to transform her state through grace and the power of her mother's power over nature. To sublimate rather than to repress desire means to keep a pure spirit and heart in spite of contrary desires and to be obedient to the spiritual powers who are working on behalf of salvation. Thus the key to this mystery is the difference between unhealthy, destructive repression, and healthy, life enhancing sublimation.

Repression means to cover, to separate, to deny, and to hide. It means to internalize to the point of spiritual stagnation. It is the route of cynicism, the path of darkness, and it produces destructive guilt. Sublimation, on the ther hand, means to transform, to uncover, to affirm, to open. It involves trust and conviction, and it is the path of light. To know the difference when faced with earthly desire is to know the proper path to enlightenment. To be able to exercise the will to follow that path is to know enlightenment. To accept help from spiritual guides and gods is to understand the nature of human limitation and is the key to successful sublimation.

Eleusian Mysteries
The Mysteries celebrated at Eleusis from Mycenaean to Late Roman times were part of a long tradition of initiatory rituals among Greek speaking peoples. Some of these rituals and their elements must have been inherited from Near Eastern sources going back another four or five thousand years and transmitted through Crete and the Minoans in the Bronze Age. Other elements arrived from the north from as early as Paleolithic times in the rituals of the nomadic hunting tribes. Purification, procession through a labyrinth, sacrifice, isolaton in the darkness, and final epiphany in the light are all characteristics of initiatory rites. The Mysteries were rituals of death and rebirth, both seasonal and personal. The mystai (initiates) "died" to the old self just as seeds "die" awaiting germanation in the earth, and then , like the spouting grain, the new souls were reborn into the company of those who have gone before (epoptai). In the rebirth was an implicit affirmation of immortality, a hope closer in concept to the Christian belief than to the traditional Olympian system. In fact, in the Mysteries, the Virgin Mother bears the "Savior" for mankind. Also, the Mysteries were bound up in the lunar and solar movements, with the dying of the sun in winter, and the rebirth of the light in the form of a "son".

Another major difference between the Eleusian Mysteries and traditional beliefs was the focus at Eleusis upon the worshipper rather than upon the god who is worshipped The mystai were the center of the attention, and the Telesterion where the final secret was unveiled was designed for human and divine habitation. The purpose of the ceremony then, was not so much to invoke an epiphany of the goddess within the ceremonial space, but rather to induce an internal epiphany in the participant, to re-create the myth of Demeter/Kore for the individual. Therefore, in its in its internal sense the great secret of Eleusis was ineffable (arrheton), which means unknowable as well as "under the law of silence". Ineffable though it may have been, however, the experience was very real, and its reality has made the ceremony an event of considerable interest and importance throughout subsequent history.

History
In the ancient word, Eleusis was the site of the Mysteries, that secret ritual of initiation which for two thousand years was so central to Greek life. So important was it that in A.D. 364 when the Emperor Valentinian ended all nocturnal rites, he was persuaded to lift his ban on the Eleusian Mysteries on the grounds that life would end for the Greeks without them. The Greeks believed, in fact, that the Mysteries held the universe together, that without them the cycle of birth, growth, decay, deah, and rebirth would cease. If the Olympian gods were remote, even indifferent to human suffering, the Mysteries revealed a compassionate and immediate Mother who promised eternal life to the initiate. The origins of the Mysteries at Eleusis are obscure. This much is known, settlement on the slopes of the hill of Eleusis has een traced back to the eighteenth century B.C.E. or the Middle Helladic Period, prior to the domination of the Mycenaean culture. The early structures appear to have been simple houses, and no temple or sanctuary has been located. Later, during the Mycenaean Period, about 1500 B.C.E., a simple megaron was built on the spot where much later the famed Telesterion, or ceremonial chamber, appeared. The megaron seems to have been designed and built for ritual purposes and may mark the beginnngs of the annual rites.

Tracing sources and influences during this period is difficult but the sense seems to be that the Mysteries were inaugurated during the fourteenth century B.C.E. and took shape from Minoan, Mycenaean, and Thracian influences. Early myths tell of the warfare between the Athenians and the Thracians for the control of Eleusis, control of both the rites and the trade routes from the north, west, and south which converged at the Eleusian marketplace. From the Late Mycenaean times Eleusis seems to have been under the control of the Athenans, who incorporated the initiatory rites into their own festivals.

Rape of Pesephone by Hades Persephone in Hades Demeter Triptolemos Teaching Cultivation

The ruins at Eleusis are too jumbled and complex for most tourists so the tour buses do not stop here. At first the place looks like the dust covered aftermath of a terrible explosion surrounded on all sides by the modern city where most of Greece's crude oil is imported and refined. It was going to be hard, closed eyed work to try and imagine what it would have been like to be an Athenian initiate approaching the site in the fifth century B.C.E.

The Mysteries would have begun on on the fourteenth of Boedromion which we generally associate with September 22. and lasted for nine days, corresponding to the wanderings of Demeter in search of Kore. On the first day the officials from Eleusis, including the high priestess, the Hierophant (high priest), the Daduchus (torch bearer) left from the sanctuary at Eleusis and marched along the Sacred Way to Athens, a distance of just over twelve miles. The procession was met by youth's from Athens asigned to conduct the officials to the Eleusinion in theAgora where the cult objects (heira) were deposited temporarily. The next day, September 23, was regarded as the first official day of the Mysteries. On this day the officials of the Athenian polis including the Archion Basileus, whose task t was to maintain the Athenian religious calendar, met with the Eleusinian party to inaugurate the Mysteries. Sacrifices were made on the Acropolis to ask Athena for her blessing, and a ceremony took place in the Agora giving a blessing to the mystai.

On September 24, early in th morning, throughout Athens was heard the cry, "Mystai to the sea." A procession formed in which each initiate took a sacrificial pig to the sea, washed it and himself, sacrificed the pig and then buried the body ina deep pit. This sacrifice was intended to enacta symbolic death for each initiate, a letting of blood, and a burial in which the personal self or ego died so that the new greater self could be born at Eleusisduring the secret nocturnal ceremony. The sacrifice of the pig, one for each participant, is a significant act. The death of the animal, especially on such a personal, individual basis, created a genuine psychological space within the initiate an emptyness which had to be filled or replaced with something else. The intention was that the space would be filled with light and would signal the birth of a new life for the soul. In this way the death and burial of the pig as a substitution forced the initiate to strip away theold, material view of existence and to live with the resulting emptyness until such time as it was filled, more than a week later, with a new spiritual realization.

The next two days, Sepember 25 and 26, was spent in preparation for the procession to Eleusis. Additional sacrifices were made, and the participants from different cities were gathered tgether. A special celebration for Asclepios was held, honoring the god of healing, and affirming the ancient practice of allowing special dignitaries to enter late into the ritual as legend had it, Asclepios himself had done. It is also worth noting that Asclepios, in his capacity as healer, was associated with Hades, god of the dead. Having power over life and death, made Asclepios an integral part of the ritual.

On September 27, all the participants gathered for the procession to Eleusis. The day was known as agyrinios, the gathering. This day marked the beginning of the ruke of secrecy. As a result, the details from this point on are sketchy and intriguing, since we realize that the rule of secrecy meant that what was regarded a arrhetton, or ineffable,contained within its awesome aspect the power to create a mystical experience among the mystai. The procession formed in the Eleusinion of the Agora. From the Eleusinion, the procession of mystai were led by priest and priestess through the Athenian Agora to the Kerameikos, Athens ancient cemetery and then out the Sacred Gate and along the Avenue of Tombs. At the head of the procesion, a priest carried a wooden statue of Iakchos, the boy god (aka Dionysis, Bacchus, Bassareus, Trietenicus and Liber) whose birth would be the culminating event in the secret ritual.

Myrtle leaves were woven into the hair of the marchers and each initiate carried a myrtle bough, sacred to Iakchos and symbolic of the death of the old life and the birth of the new. The participants also sang hymns along the way and chanted sacred words and phrases all designed to keep the mind focused on the object of devotion, in this casethe statue of Iakchos. Next, the mystai were led across a bridge spanning the Kephistos River where gephyrismoi, or 'bridge gests' were preformed. This consisted of what we would call hazing, or mockery. The 'gests' were highly personal, and were intended to further 'kill' the individuals concept of self. After the gephyrismoi the procession began the long climb up to the pass at Daphni, where ritual stops were made at temples sacred to Apollo and Aphrodite. In Euriptdes' Helen we learn that it was Aphrodite who managed with beautiful music to relieve Demeter's mourning during Kore's confinement with Hades. Such gifts and the power to relieve sadness were celebrated during the solemn procession. At this point the procession came in sight of the twin peaks of the island of Salamis whch to mystai of the Classical Period would have suggested the great victory over the Persians and the miraculous advent of the mystical mystai on that occasion. As night fell on the procession, the torches were lit and the throng approached the sanctuary at Eleusis. The darkness must have matched the mood of the participants who by this time were tired, thirsty, and hungry. During the Archaic period, a large dancing ground outlined the famous Well of the Beautiful Dances, where initiates or especially chosen dancers enacted in rtual movements the arrival of Demeter in Eleusis after her nine days of fruitless searching. Other ceremonies took place at the nearby Cave of Hades, which was thought to be the entrance to the underworld, as recounted in the Hymn to Demeter.

Pig Sculpture from Eleusis Eleusinion in the Athens Agora The Kerameikos Sacred Gate
Avenue of Tombs Iachos, Dionysus, Bacchus, Bassareus, Trietenicus, or Liber Well of the Beautiful Dancers Cave Entrance to Hades

As the initiates arrived in Eleusis and entered the sanctuary, they came, as had Demeter, searching for Kore which in their case meant searching for the return of an innocent "soul" from the ravages of the underworld. The actual events are obscured by the rule of secrecy. What is available to us are unconnected details, the descriptions from literary accounts, illustrations from pottery and sculpture, and interpretations based on archaeology and anthropology. In the abstract the initiates were exposed to the horrors of the underworld, its darkness, uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. Even in a crowd thi experience must have left each participant feeling isolated, filled with an emptyness which resulted from this temporary but vivid separation from all that was ordinary and familiar. For the next two days the individual was exposed to the drama of the Demeter-Kore myth.

First, the mystai had had been prepared for this moment by days of fasting (to what degree is uncertain) and the day-long march. Before the candidates entered the Telesterion, they took part in further sacrifices and rites of purification, both at or near the ancient well and at the cave of Hades, or as it was known then, the precinct of Plouton, god of the underworld. At the entrance to this cave was an omphalos, the world navel which marked the transition between the world of light and the world of darkness. This momnt and this place marked the symbolic descent by Kore into the underworld , the place of death from which only the purified may return to "live again". Within the Telesterion, the huge building specifically designed for this ceremony, the participants moved among a grove of columns in dim light provide by torches and then stood, perhaps for hours, on rows of narrow steps which line the sanctuary. n the middle of the Telesterion was another small building, the anaktoron, entrance to which was reserved for the high priests and priestesses and from which a great fire would burst at a crucial moment of the ritual. Outsideof this building, among the columns was erformed the drama of Demeter's wrath and Kore's return.

A Christian writer, Hippolytos, wrote that at a designated moment in the ceremony the high priest shouted out, "The Mistress has given birth to a holy boy, Brimo has given birth to Brimos, that is, the Strong One to the Strong One." Piecing together the evidence has led to the conclusion that it was here that the young boy, representing both Demophoon in the Homeric myth and Iakchos in the Orphic tradition, played his part in the ceremony. Ringed by torches, the boy emerged in a fiery birth from the womb of the returned goddess. The transformation sought by the mystai is here represented by the birth of the new soul in fire. a burning away of the old self and the birth of the new out of the ashes. There is evidence of cremation near the Telesterion which would connect the sacred fire with the ceremonies of death and rebirth. I can't help but think of the symbols used by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now and the copy of James George Frazer's Golden Bough in the Colonel Kurtz "temple." Frazer wrote "The killing of the god, that is, of his human incarnation, is therefore merely a necessary step to his revival or resurrection in a better form. Far from being an extinction of the divine spirit, it is only the beginning of a purer and stronger manifestation of it." (from The Golden Bough).

During the Demeter-Kore drama, which may well have involved symbolic or actual intercourse between the high priest and priestess, the participants enacted ritual movements, and actions with the sacred objects kept in the baskets that had been carried to ad from Athens the week before. The baskets contained sacrificial cakes, sheaves of gran, and phallic objects which were used during the ceemony to mimic the implanting of the seed of life into the fertile goddess of the earth. Evidence also suggest the sacrifice of ram by the high priest. during the ceremony to communicate with the underworld. According to Clement of Alexandria, wh wote a tract condemning the Mysteries, the actions involving the ram were undertaken as expiation by Zeus for the rape of Demeter that had produced Kore. Clement writes: "Zeus tore off a ram's testicles. He brought them to Demeter and threw them into the folds of her dress, thus doing false penance for his rape, as if he had castrated himself.

If this action waspart of the ceremony, it would have been undertaken as part of the drama of sacrifice and atonement in which the participants enact the abduction and rape of Kore, and celebrate th birth of the savior who will re-establish a ne divine and human order. In this sequence, the return of Persephone as arranged by Zeus is an atonement for his original rape of Demeter, the re-establishment of a higher order of divine justice, and the gift of immortality in which human beings now have their fair portion.

Finally to the awesom sounds of a huge gong or drum which must have filled the Testerion and the surrounding country with thunder, a great light bursts forth from the anaktoron and in it appeared the Kore in an epephany. The appearance of the kore at the crucial moment in the ritual affirmed all of the contnt of the myth and the hope of the mystai for a renewed life. How this epiphany was accomplished is, of course, the central question of the Mysteries and its great secret.

Eleusian Gates Panathenic Temple at Eleusis Demeter with King Celeus of Eleusis The Telesterion
The Telesterion The Telesterion Steps of Telesterion Drawing of Telesterion

Early in the afternoon, I retrieved my bike and rode the now very profane Sacred Way from Elefsinia to Athens where I found a nice room overlooking the Plaka near which I could safely store my bike and sleep in a real bed for the first time in three days.

Top of Page