By SMCK Magazine

The bridge of Eleusinian Kifissos. Photo: Chr. Ziegler.

For 2,000 years, a farming community close to Athens was the spiritual center of the ancient world. Pilgrims from all over came to Eleusis (modern-day Elefsina) to be initiated to the mysteries – secret ceremonies befriending them with death. Men, women, free people, and slaves, Greeks, and foreigners watched the myth of Persephone staged and revived at the sacred site of Eleusis, witnessing the young goddess returning from Hades.

Sacred rituals including recitation, performance, and presentation of sacred objects taught initiates the secret of immortal bliss. Had it not been one of the most important religious ceremonies of the ancient world, it could have been one of the most glamorous art events of all times.

In 2023, Elefsina was one of three cities holding the title European Cultural Capital. As the year ends, we invited artists to interpret eternity, immortality, promise, revelation, fraternity, or bliss through their work.

Title. Photo: Chr. Ziegler.

How important these elements might have been can be inferred from the fact that the advanced degree of initiation, the epopteia, was attained solely by the inspection – followed by contemplation – of the Eleusinian sacra, exhibited to the initiates by the hierophant in a striking manner. As a matter of fact, the title of that high dignitary of Eleusis, hierophant, means “he who displays the sacra, the sacred objects.”

…The importance of the deiknymena (the shown objects) and the legomena (the spoken words) may further be inferred from the ritual acts, exhibits, and doctrines we find in the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches of our day. (Indeed, it is highly possible that ritual acts and exhibits, like the elevation of the sacred host of the Christian mysteries, were borrowed directly from the Eleusinian rites.)

…For two thousand years, civilized humanity was sustained by those rites. Then we shall be able to appreciate the meaning and the importance of Eleusis and of the cult of Demeter in the pre-Christian era. When Christianity conquered the Mediterranean world, the rites of Demeter having perhaps fulfilled their mission to humanity, came to an end…The doctrine which inspired the world for so long was gradually forgotten, and its secrets were buried with its last hierophant. After all, this seems to be the eternal law: one source succeeds another, and a doctrine must die so that another may be born. Yet the story of Demeter and her cult at Eleusis will live forever in the memories of man because it belongs to the cycle of popular myths that can never die.”

Excerpted from “Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries” by George E. Mylonas, published in The Classical Journal, volume 43, number 3, December 1947.