Eleusinian Mysteries

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.

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.

For more information: https://the-past.com/feature/eleusinian-mysteries/