There are many fables of these parts relating to Ceres, Proserpine, and Triptolemus, as Eleusis is said to be
the scene of their story. (..) Coming towards the bay, I saw some broken pillars
both towards the sea and to the right; this might be the place called
Erincon, from which, they say, Pluto carried Proserpine (see the statue by Gian Lorenzo Bernini) to his infernal regions.
Richard Pococke - A Description of the East and Some Other Countries - 1745
Ceres, says an Athenian orator, wandering in quest of
her daughter Proserpine, came into Attica, where some good
offices were done her, which it is unlawful for those, who
are not initiated, to hear. In return she conferred two unparallelled benefits: to wit, the knowlege of agriculture, by
which the human race is raised above the brute creation, and
the mysteries, from which the partakers derive sweeter hopes
than other men enjoy, both as to the present life and to
Richard Chandler - An account of a tour made at the expense of the Society of dilettanti - 1775
Initially the ceremonies held at Eleusis were a fertility rite and the celebration of a society based on farming. It is generally thought that the earliest beliefs in Greece and Asia Minor revolved around the cult of a goddess, a Mother Earth named in different ways. A relief found at Eleusis portrays two women (Demeter and her daughter Kore/Persephone) bestowing ears of wheat on Triptolemus, the son of a King of Eleusis, but in this context a personification of mankind. Triptolemus was supplied with a wooden plough and taught how to use it. Demeter is thought to mean Earth-mother; her Roman equivalent is Ceres, goddess of grain.
The presence of caverns which were thought to give access to the underworld indicates another aspect of the myth of Demeter/Ceres.
She had a daughter, Kore, to whom she was very attached; at one point the girl disappeared; she was abducted by Hades, God of the Underworld, as she was picking flowers in a meadow near Eleusis. For nine days and nights Demeter sought Kore; she then came to the court of Celeus, King of Eleusis, where Triptolemus, who herded his father's cattle, told her that ten days before a chariot drawn by black horses appeared in the fields, its driver's arm clasping around a shrieking girl. In retaliation against Zeus who had allowed the abduction to occur, Demeter forbade the trees to yield fruit and the herbs to grow and she swore that earth must remain barren until Kore had returned. Eventually a compromise was reached: every year Kore (with the name of Persephone) was to spend three months with Hades, as Queen of Tartarus and nine months with her mother (for the Romans this myth was referred to as that of Proserpina and Pluto). The Greeks worshipped Demeter and Kore together with Hecate, a crone (see a relief at Selinunte).
It was the popular opinion, that the Eleusinian
goddesses suggested prudent counsel to their votaries, and influenced their conduct; that these were respected in the infernal
regions, and had precedence in the assemblies of the blessed;
while the unhallowed were in utter darkness, wallowing in mire,
or labouring to fill a leaky vessel. The Athenians were sollicitous to secure these advantages to their children, by having them
initiated as soon as was allowed. (..) The Propylaea or vestibules
of the temple were opened, the curtains withdrawn, the
hidden things displayed. The initiates were introduced by the hierophant who showed them the mysteries.
The splendor of illumination, the glory of the temple and of
the images, the singing and dancing which accompanied the
exhibition, all contributed to sooth the mind and to render the wondering devotee tranquil and self-satisfied. Chandler
The shrine of Eleusis was located fifteen miles north-west of Athens on a gulf which is almost entirely closed by the island of Salamina. The fame of Eleusis was due to its initiation rites (Greater Mysteries and Lesser Mysteries); those admitted gathered in the Telesterion, a large hall which was rebuilt several times; Telesterion means "place for initiation"; the initiates sat on rock cut benches and they were lectured about the content of the ceremonies and shown the sacred relics kept in the shrine.
Access to the shrine from Athens (the image used as background for this page shows two gigantic columns on the ground near the entrance to the archaeological area)
We travelled in that road which was called the Sacred way, because they
went by it in procession to the temple of Ceres and Proserpine. (..) In the plain near the north foot of the hill, are many
pieces of stones and pillars, which probably are the remains of the temple of Diana Propylaea, which was before the gate of the city. Pococke
The present road is nearly in the same direction; (..) instead of the sepulchres, altars, and temples, now occur solitary churches, and a few traces suggesting unsatisfactory conjecture. Chandler
The initiation ceremonies were preceded by a procession from Athens to Eleusis. This explains the orientation of the various buildings making up the complex of the shrine: the initiates gathered in a large esplanade where they ended a period of fast by drinking kykeon (a mixture of water, barley, honey and leaves), which is thought had psychoactive properties.
Small Propylaea (Latin inscription by Consul Appius Claudius Pulcher)
At the north foot of the hill, on an advanced ground, there are many imperfect ruins, pieces of pillars and entablatures; and doubtless: I here saw the same sort of Doric
capitals as those at Athens, except that they had only three lifts in the
quarter round of the capital, and probably are very antient; I saw likewise a fine Ionic capital, and one of a pilaster of the Corinthian order, which probably belonged to some later improvements of the temple. Pococke
The English traveller realized that some of the remains he saw were built during the Roman rule over Greece which began in the IInd century BC and did not impact on the fame of the shrine; the rule which restricted the initiation rites to the Athenians was in various ways circumvented to allow access to all citizens of the Empire. Cicero, who was very critical of Greek influence on Roman customs, nevertheless praised the Eleusinian Mysteries "for by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called initiations, so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope".
Consul Appius Claudius Pulcher, a contemporary of Cicero, built a new entrance to the acropolis of Eleusis; its decoration is still referred to the traditional celebration of farming, but at that time (as Cicero's words testify), the rites were already seen as a mean to gain an insight into the mystery of life (and afterlife). The inscription dictated by Appius Pulcher is written in Latin, whereas in the following centuries the Roman emperors preferred to use Greek for their inscriptions.
The secrecy, in which the mysteries were enveloped, served
to enhance the idea of their consequence, and to increase the
desire of participation. It was so particular, that no person was
allowed even to name the hierophant by whom he had been
Emperor Hadrian was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries; he and his successors Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus all protected the shrine and contributed to its embellishment; it is thought that the changes were completed by Commodus after a raid by Sarmatians damaged the sanctuary in 170. In particular the changes included a new grand entrance with columns of a colossal size and two triumphal arches.
The story of Ceres and Proserpine was both verbally delivered, and represented in allegorical show. (..)
gathering flowers when she was stolen by Pluto. Hence the
procession of the holy basket, which was placed on a car
dragged along by oxen and followed by a train of females, some
carrying the mystic chests, shouting. Hail Ceres.
kanephoros is a particular type of caryatid or herm; a very fine example of kanephoros embellished the House of Augustus in Rome. A statue of Antinous was worshipped in an underground temple; the head is very similar to that of a (much superior) statue at Delphi, but the body is that of another statue.
The museum attached to the archaeological area houses many exhibits of the Roman period.
The IInd century Roman enlargement/reconstruction of Eleusis included several references to the women of the imperial family; unfortunately for archaeologists and historians inscriptions usually referred to either Sabina or Faustina, names which often occurred in the imperial family during the IInd century. It seems most probable that a temple was dedicated to Vibia Sabina, wife of Hadrian, and another one to Annia Faustina, wife of Antoninus Pius. This was part of a policy implemented by Antoninus Pius in order to show that the Roman emperors abided by family values.
Roman engineering works: (left) a series of fountains; (centre) water pipe; (right) underground cistern
the east end of the hill are ruins, and on the top of it are many cisterns
to receive the rain water. Pococke
When visiting an archaeological site the history of which includes a Roman period, it is not unusual to find complex engineering works aimed at providing and distributing water; this happens in Eleusis too.
(left) Ancient walls; (right) Roman walls
After the 170 Sarmatian raid and most likely after the 267 invasion of Greece by the Heruli, the walls of Eleusis were strengthened; excavations have brought to light some ancient sections of walls with fine examples of isodomic masonry (i.e. composed of stones of uniform size).
The life of the shrine spans more than a thousand years: the exact date of its foundation is unknown, but it is generally set in the VIIth century BC. In 392 AD Emperor Theodosius declared the Christian faith the sole religion of the Roman Empire and he decreed the closure of Eleusis as well as that of other non-Christian shrines and oracles. The interest towards the ceremonies performed at Eleusis did not vanish immediately and in the Vth century Neoplatonist philosophers and in particular Proclus looked at them as a way to develop a universal faith. In 529 the closure of the Academy of Athens decreed by Emperor Justinian and the policies he implemented to eradicate non-Christian beliefs led to the abandonment of the shrine.
Sarcophagus portraying the hunting of the Calydonian boar by Meleager (the twins near the boar are Castor and Pollux whom the Romans included among the hunters)
|Other ancient oracles/shrines in this web site:|
The Oracle of Delphi
The Asklepion of Kos
The Asklepion of Pergamum
The Shrine of Dodoni
The sanctuary of Venus at Afrodisia
The Oracle of Didyma
The sanctuary of Apollo at Delos
The sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Sounion
The sanctuary of Apollo at Hierapolis
The Artemision at Ephesus
The sanctuary of Leto at Letoon
The sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace
The Shrine of Ba'al at Baetocece
The Oracle of Jupiter Heliopolitanus at Baalbek
The Asklepion of Epidaurus
The sanctuaries of Dion
The sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina