Eleusis in History & Today

The site of Eleusis dates to at least the fifteenth century bc, and by the seventh century bc, when the Homeric Hymn was written down, the Mysteries enjoyed local prestige. By the mid-sixth century bc Eleusis was annexed by Athens. Although control of the Mysteries remained in the hands of Eleusinian priests, the Athenian tyrannos (sole ruler) Peisistratus, striving for international recognition, encouraged initiates to attend from the wider Greek world.

In 480 bc the Persians burned the sanctuaries of Attica. Eleusis was no exception. However, days later the Greeks defeated the Persian navy in the Bay of Salamis, directly opposite Eleusis – probably on the very day on which the Mysteries should have been performed. Herodotus records how before the battle ‘a cloud of dust [was seen], like a cloud raised by 30,000 marching men, coming from Eleusis and the sound of voices like the hymn to Iacchus, sung at the Mysteries. The dust-cloud rose into the sky and drifted across to Salamis, where the Greek fleet was stationed.’

Eleusis in History & Today Photo Gallery

When the Athenians rebuilt their temples, they incorporated a talismanic band of Eleusinian limestone into the bastions flanking the entrance to the Acropolis and the frieze of the Temple of Athene Polias (Protector of the City). They also proclaimed the Eleusinian message of rebirth in the Parthenon frieze. Meanwhile, at Eleusis they enlarged the Telesterion and built a wall around the sanctuary.

The Mysteries thrived. In the fourth century bc, the courtesan Phryne caused a stir by bathing naked in the sea during the purification rites. Under the Romans, initiation became de rigeur among intellectuals and the upper classes. Cicero proclaimed them the best and most sacred of all ‘Athenian’ institutions, declaring that ‘from them we have gained the ability not only to live contentedly but to die with greater hope’.

Hadrian enhanced the site. Pausanias was warned in a dream against writing about its buildings. And after Costoboc tribesmen plundered and destroyed much of the sanctuary in ad 170, it was immediately restored by Rome’s emperor Marcus Aurelius. The Mysteries were eventually banned by the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius in ad 392. Four years later Alaric the Goth ransacked Eleusis, and the town went into gradual decline.

By the late eighteenth century, Eleusis was once more on the map, a magnet for antiquarians and looters. Early the next century, Edward Dodwell recorded: The present inhabitants lament the loss of Ceres [Demeter]; whose colossal bust was removed in 1802, by Dr. [Edward] Clarke. In my first journey to Greece this protecting deity was in its full glory, situated in the centre of a threshing floor, amongst the ruins of her temple. The villagers were impressed with a persuasion, that their rich harvests were the effect of her bounty; and since her removal, their abundance, as they assured me, has disappeared.


Surrounded by modern factories, but ringed, too, by pleasant cafes, Eleusis (also signposted Elefsina) is a curious oasis of tranquillity, especially in spring, when wild flowers grow among the ruins. From the entrance, the path leads to the Greater Propylaion, a second-century AD gateway built into the fifth-century BC circuit wall, containing Demeter’s well. Next comes the first-century BC Lesser Propylaion, leading to the sanctuary itself. Right is the Plutonion, the cave sacred to Haides (or Pluto), where Persephone was believed to have returned from the underworld. Ahead are the somewhat confusing remains of various phases of the Telesterion, which in its heyday accommodated 3,000 initiates.

On the rocky outcrop above the site, the Museum contains objects relating to the Mysteries, including a marble votive piglet, a kernos or ceremonial vessel, and the celebrated ‘Fleeing Kore’, a representation of Persephone attempting to escape Haides’ clutches. Another headless statue is of Demeter, while the torso-less head of a caryatid from the Lesser Propylaion may represent the goddess wearing a crown containing corn, poppies and a kernos. There is also a copy of the marble relief showing Demeter, Persephone and Triptolemus – the original is in Athens’ Archaeological Museum. A second caryatid (Dodwell’s ‘colossal bust’ of Demeter) can be seen in England at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

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