Thursday, 27 December 2012

Lost Cities of Greece Part IV: Eleusis & The Eleusinian Mysteries

If entrances to the Underworld, famous emperors, famous play writes, magical potions & a 5000 year old secret sound interesting to you then you may want to make a trip to Eleusis. For many different reasons I have always had an interest in Eleusis and the Eleusian Mysteries, but for one reason or another I had never made the journey there. The Eleusian Mysteries held in Eleusis was the most important, or the most populous,  Religious Event in Ancient Greece for the Greeks and the Romans. We can say that these mysterious religious ceremonies went as far back as the Mycenaean Period and didn't end till 392 ACE when Roman/Christian Emperor Theodosius I closed the sanctuary down by decree. Of course before Theodosius came in on the scene, Christianity was gain much popularity and the sacred rights of the Eleusian Mysteries began to loose its importance. The last  Roman Emperor to be initiated in these sacred rights was Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus, or simply put, Julian.

Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus

The Mysteries were actually ceremonies held every year for the cult of Demeter andPersephone. It’s interesting because these ceremonies were broken up into two; the so called "Lesser Mysteries" and then the "GreaterMysteries" and were held in three "phases": the descent, the search and the ascent (the reunion of Demeter and Persephone). We have information and clues as to what went on during these "Lesser Mysteries", but as to what unfolded during the "Greater Mysteries" we have very little knowledge of. One thing we do know is that during the Greater Mysteries a special drink was taken which many scholars believe was most certainly a psychoactive entheogen. In a book, "The Road to Eleusis" Dr. Hoffman and two other scholars do their best to prove their point. One interesting hypothesis is that the psychoactive agent in question could possibly be Ergot which is a Clavicep (type of fungus) that grows, or infects, grain. With that said, it is very ironic that Demeter was the goddess of Harvest who presided over grains, and that one of the main cult icons at Eleusis are bundles of grain. Fact or fiction we will never know for sure.

The 14th of September was quickly approaching, which according to the Attic Calendar this would have been the 14th Boedromion which would have been the opening day of the Mysteries. This of course meant that I had no choice but to go. Because Eleusis, or Elefsina, was very close to Athens I could easily make it a quick half-day trip. Because I'm not a big fan of traveling alone (I like to share experiences with others) the first person that came to mind was of course Mike the Actor. It took one call and Mike was up for it. "You know," he said, "I've always wanted to see that place." And so the adventure began.

Mike met me at the metro stop armed with fruit, cheese pies (τυροπιτα) and a cup of coffee. The car was already gassed up so off we went. We choose to take the national road as it looked to be the quickest and simplest way to get to Elefsina. Because I was familiar with the route and knew it was well signed it turned out to be a stress free drive. The bad thing was that the drive wasn't a very scenic one, but then again I've never been on a "scenic" highway before.

Once on the highway just follow the signs to Elefsina

Once you get to Elefsina just follow these brown signs to the site...too easy!

Just before we got into the modern town of Elefsina the first image to grace our vision was what looked like a oil factory or refinery, equipped with a large tower that was spiting out a very nice flame! The whole thing actually reminded me of  the film, "Mad Max, Beyond the Thunderdome". Mike and I laughed and started to wonder what in the world this place, and the site, would offer us. Once in the town of Elefsina we saw the usual Greek Village/Town stuff: souvlaki (σουβλακι) dinners, coffee shops, churches, the town square and a few banks and gas stations; nothing really to write home about. On the main road that went right through the center of the town we saw many signs pointing the way to the archeological site. The only thing that was difficult was the fact that every so many feet, in the middle of the main-road, large holes were opened up and gated off, thus causing a bit of confusion for the drivers. My first reaction was that the plumbing must have been really bad in Elefsina, but later Mike and I discovered that all of these holes in the middle of the main road were actually excavations that were taking place. Peering down into these giant holes we saw archeologist slowly discovering and meticulously recording what was probably the ancient surroundings of the sacred site of Eleusis. I would reckon that these discoveries would be hotels/guest houses and shops where one would have been able to buy all their necessities for the religious festival, those sacred pine torches, that sacrificial piglet, maybe a special garment perhaps.

As we drove around the town square a parking space was more than easy to find, and in front of the archeological site! At first glance of the site through its wrought iron gate the first thing I noticed was the large marbled fore-court, sections from a massive doric styled column (probably from the greater propylaia), fragmented architraves and pediments. For any Philhellene and lover of  Roman architecture it won’t take them long to identify the site as being very important and utterly amazing to explore!
That large Doric column you can see from the gate.
The ticket booth at the entrance to the site was fully equipped with 2 workers talking to the ticket booth lady, all of which smoked cigarettes and sipped on frappe (φραπε) while a stray dog laid in the sun on some "important rock". I always wondered how these people felt working every day at such an important site without seeing a steady flow of people, or actually without seeing anyone at all on most days? Regardless, once we purchased our tickets and faced the near empty site a rush of excitement came over me.
The first area of interest for me was the Temple of Artemis which happened to be near the Eschara. Supposedly the Eschara, which dates from the Roman era, was a pit to burn, or rather roast, the sacrificial meats that were for the Chthonic(pronounced Hee-Thon-Ik) deities, or simply put, sacrifices for any deity living in the underworld. Mike and I talked about how we could imagine thousands of people gathered around this pit like an ancient concessions stand, the smell of meat and the sight of lite torches at the main entrance, we imagined, would have probably likened the entrance to a modern day festival or fair. 
At first entering...Welcome to the Pentelic Marble Fore-Court!

Metopes & Triglyphs...its all that's left of the Temple of Artemis.

BBQ Baby!

Although I was quite anxious to check out the remains of the Grand, or Greater, Propilyia (North Gate) I investigated the fragmented remains of the East and West Roman arches first. It is written that Hadrian spent a great deal of time and money to build up and expand the sacred site. It is also written that he was an initiate himself. These two roman arches that flanked the Greater Propilyia had a particular interest for me as they were built in the same way and in the same style as Hadrian’s Arch in Athens, an arch I pass by nearly everyday. Unfortunately nothing really remains of these two arches. However, the East arch’s fragments are poorly arranged to give visitors a rough idea (very rough) on what the pediment may have looked like. Both arches, like Hadrian’s arch in Athens, are constructed out of pentilic marble, and both bare the inscription “ΤΟΙΝ ΘΕΟΙΝ ΚΑΙ ΤΩ ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑΤΟΡΙ ΟΙ ΠΑΝΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ” or “The Panhellenes to the two Goddesses and the Emperor”. I suppose the funder of these arches, Antonius Pious, was in a way honoring Hadrian for his works. To me this would make sense as Hadrian was the founder of the Panhellenion  and the emperor that succeeded his adoptive father Hadrian. If it weren’t for the weathered signage at the site I may have never know that there were once arches there at all. 
Poorly arranged East Arch

See what I mean?

Just like the old man's arch in Athens!

 Just beyond the East arch there is a path that will lead you along the Peisistratid fortification wall. Here one will discover a variety of unbaked brick and polygonal stone. Some of this masonry goes back to the Geometric Period of Greece, around 750 BCE.
Unbaked Brick, and still good!...well, some of it.

This is near the entrance but would recommend that on your way out of the site to exit through the South Gate (near the museum) for better views of the fortified walls.

I think the sign said this was a polygonal wall done in the Lesbos style?

As we neared the West arch we saw a very large fragment of the Greater Propilyia's pediment. What's interesting about this, if not for its size alone, is the cuirassed bust of a man thought to be Marcus Aurelius, the last of the "5 Good Roman Emperors". No one knows for sure if this gigantic shield-bust is actually Marcus Aurelius, but due to the hair style and the fact that Marcus Aurelius picked up where his predecessor, Emperor Hadrian & A. Pious, left off one can almost certainly say its M. Aurelius him self.  One thing that really fascinated me was the fact that from afar the shield-bust doesn't look so large; its only when you're standing next to it that you realize how big it really is, and with that how Great the Greater Propilyia would have been. 

Ladies and Gentlemen.....

....Marcus Aurelius!

Note Aurelius at the end.
Told you it was big!
Sacred Torches, or pine torches, are one of the popular cult icons.

Debris from the arches scattered everywhere.

Or not so triumphal.

More pieces.

The plan of the Greater Propylaia.

Up the steps of where the Greater Propylaia would have been.

Not a lot left of that magnificent gate.

As we made our way up the steps of where this Greater Propilyia would have been, to our left we came across the Kallichoron. This "well", according to Pausanius, is where the women of Eleusis danced and sang for the goddess Demeter to console her after the abduction of her daughter Kore, or commonly known as Persephone. This would have been a place where initiates gathered and did a choreographed ritual dance by torchlight. Even through the Roman times this "well" was respected and left virtually untouched during the various expansion projects. 
Demeter was here.

Where the ritual dances were preformed!

Up the stairs of the Greater Propilyia we were taken to the location of where the Lesser Propilyia would have been. The first thing I recognized were two deep grooves on the marble floor from the propilyia's double-leaved door. Immediately to your right you can spot large fragments of its architrave that were fantastically decorated with the symbols of the cult: poppy flowers, bundles of wheat and sacred chests. At this point I'd urge any visitor to take time to read the sign about the Lesser Propilyia. Apparently on both sides of the monumental gate there were two very large Caryatids, one of which can be seen in the sites museum. Not only was it a very beautifully sculpted work, but there was also at one time running water coming from it which pooled around these caryatids and then ran off into a cistern. I'm not a scholar but I believe evidence of the aqueduct is still visible, or at least it appeared to be as such to me.
The cistern for the water flow from the Lesser Proilyia

Later I was told I was not allowed to go down into the cistern....sorry.

Continuing, Mike came across a cave that he had to check out. This cave was to our right and only a few feet away from the Lesser Propilyia. Like most caves in antiquity this cave was believed by the ancients to be a gateway into the underworld. Until fairly recently most believed this was a shrine dedicated to Pluto (Roman version of Hades), but today it is now identified as the Mirthless Rock (Αγελαστος Πετρα). According to mythology this would have been the spot where Demeter sat and wept for her abducted child, Persephone.
Another easily read sign.

The entrance into Hades. There's a small natural outcrop in the cave...possibly where Demeter sat and wept.

Once we finished with the cave Mike and I walked a bit further and came across a very large open area. This large open area was once the Telesterion. The Telesterion was truly the heart of the sacred grounds. This would have been the location were the participants would have undergone their initiation into the cult. Although the Telesterion under went various expansion projects through its many years of use, the last one must have been its greatest with a roof supported by 42 columns in hypostyle and a capacity to hold thousands of participants on its grandstand seating that lined all four sides of the building. In the center would have been Anaktoron, which would have been considered the "Holy of Holies". I was truly amazed when I came across this part of the temple mainly for the fact that on that very spot, where the Anaktoron was, thousands upon thousands of people participated in these initiations for thousands of years, but still we have no idea to this day what went on in the Anaktoron. It really made me think, what could have been so important, so special, so amazing that not one person, just one, would spill the beans? Absolutely amazing!  One can certainly tell this was a revered place as there are many plinths scattered about, all of them with dedications engraved on them. Mike and I had fun trying to decipher a few of them and were quite overjoyed at some of our success.
Coming up to the Telesterion you can see the refinery spitting out flames!

Note the hypostyle of the Telesterion.

Grandstand seating cut into the side of the rock during the course of one of the Telesterion's expansion periods.

Museum on the far left. Good views from the church on the far right.

Note all the plinths in the distance.

The Telesterion with the Anaktoron in the center.

 Near the Telesterion and the plinths stood a large tree that we stood under in a moment to reflect and gaze upon the ruins of this amazing place. As a moment of silence passed over us Mike perked up. "Well," he said with a cheerful glimmer in his eyes, "guess we have to pour out some libations?" Out of his bag came a bottle of wine, a small bottle of oil, a handful of wheat crackers and some homemade banana bread. "The wine and the oil and the crackers are for Demeter, but the banana-nut bread is for us." After our little ceremony for the goddess we sat on some beautifully carved stone and enjoyed that wonderful banana bread Mike made from scratch.
Cult symbols: Pine Torch & Poppy

Cult Symbols: Bundle of Grain & Sacred Chest

When we were done we slowly made our way to the museum but took a small detour to the south side of the site which bore a large architrave that read, "ΕΛΕΥΣΙΝΙΩΝ ΑΓΩΝΩΝ" or "Eleusinian Games". Mike and I saw it at the same time and said, "Eleusin Games" out load and at the same time. You could really tell that we were at the same level of excitement.  Some days later I had read that this was the best way to exit the site as one can get a better look at the fortified walls, cisterns and a nearly vanished aqueduct all of which were Hadrianic.

South Gate Architrave: Eleusian Games

At the south gate is where you should probably exit, which is near the steps to the museum and will give you a chance to see the fortified walls.

Not desiring to go further than this we made our way back to the steps that would lead us to the museum. Up the steps we got a pretty good view of the Telestrion, and walked past the museum to the church at the top of the site from which we had a birds-eye view of the whole site.
Views as we made our way to the church before visiting the museum.

View of main entrance.

You can really get a better idea of what the Telestrion might have looked like from up here.
As we followed the steps up to the museum the first thing we saw was a  large sarcophagus made of Pentelic marble. Although the lid to this sarcophagus was not the original it did have some interesting depictions of the Meleager myth engraved upon it. Further reading about this sarcophagus led me to some interesting facts, with the most noted one being that one of Athen's major export throughout the Roman empire were sarcophagi. When entering the museum I was almost immediately drawn to a small clay pig, a votive offering no doubt. Turning to my right was a very large, about 5 foot tall, burial amphora done in the Protoattic style with a depiction of Perseus decapitating Medusa. The artistry on this amphora is a fine example from its era and has that horror vacui that we see so much in the geometric style. In the other room where the main entrance is I saw a large relief that looked very familiar. The relief is a copy of the original that resides in the National Archeological Museum of Athens. The relief is known as the Triptolemus which depicts Demeter, Persephone and what some to believe to be the son of King Celeus, Triptolemus. Through out the museum we saw many votive tablets and such, all of which gave obscure clues as to what might have happened in Eleusis long ago, but the center piece on display most certainly had to have been the remains of a Caryatid from the Lesser Propylaia. On her head she is carrying a ritual chest (kiste) which was supposed to hold the sacred objects in them (hiera). Beyond the Caryatid are models of Eleusis which will give any visitor a better idea about the sanctuaries evolution. In the room beyond this there are a number of glass display cases which contain various objects found on the site. The most interesting ones I saw were the ritual vessels, the kernos. These vessels had a multitude of small cups attached to them and was said by Polemo that in these cups were, “white poppy-heads, grains of wheat, barley, peas, vetches, okra seeds and lentils.” Other than this description I don’t believe anyone knows for what other purpose these kernos served. Although these vessels have been found all over the Mediterranean, most of them seem to be associated with the cult of Demeter, and some go back as far as 2000 BCE. when the world population was less than 50,000,000. 

    The sarcophagus

    More of the factory (view from the museum)

    Fleeing kore statue (probably Persephone)

    Huge Protoattic styled funeral amphora

    A glimpse into the Mysteries

    Just Beautiful!!!

    A kernos

    And yet another, but with larger cups.

    The Sanctuary

    The East & West Gates and I believe the small temple is that of Artemis.

    Obviously the Telestrion

    When we left the museum we went back through the site and stopped again at the Lesser Propylaia to see again its fragmented architrave. Eleusis was such an intriguing place that it gave me a desire to learn more about it and a want to return sometime in the near future.

    Getting There:
    Car: The best way to get to Elefsina (Eleusis) is to drive your own car. Being that it’s not far from the Center of Athens about 18 miles it makes for a easy road trip without a lot of travel time and/or hassle.You could always get a quote on rental cars from our website. Gas may set you back 15-20 Euros, but no more (current price per-liter is 1,65 Euros). Here's a map.
    From Athens to Elefsina (Eleusis)
    • From the Athens Metro Station Thisio you take the bus to MEGARA.  You get off at Rigos Bus Stop in Elefsina.  The site is a very short walk from here.
    From Piraeus to Elefsina (Eleusis)
    • From Karaiskaki Square you take the blue bus number 845.  At the end of the route, you change bus and take bus number 862 or 863 or 864.  You get off at the OTE bus stop. You'll be less that one block away from the site!
    From Athens Airport "El.Venizelos" to Elefsina (Eleusis)
    • From the airport you take Proastiakos train to Magoula. From Magoula station you take the bus number 863 to Elefsina.  You get off at Ethnikis Antistaseos bus stop.
    Taxi: From Athens to the site (one way) may cost around 75-100 euros.
    Archeological Site Information:

    Archeological Site Tel.+302105543470  
    Tickets: 3,00 Euros per-person (includes Site & Museum)
    Hours of Operation: Tuesday-Sunday 8:00-15:00

    Free admission days:
    6 March (in memory of Melina Mercouri)
    5 June (International Environment Day)
    18 April (International Monuments Day)
    18 May (International Museums Day)
    The last weekend of September annually (European Heritage Days)
    27 September, International Tourism Day
    Sundays in the period between 1 November and 31 March
    National Holidays

    A Weird Bonus:

    Little about Eleusis can be found on Youtube, but I found this strange/psychedelic video where the speaker, Terrence McKenna, talks about some pretty compelling theories surrounding the rituals preformed at Eleusis.

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