I hadn’t. Despite the fact that it was a really big thing in ancient Greece. I had to find myself occasionally in the small town of Elefsina, about 20 km west of Athens (and I want to stress there is a city bus to it!) in order to learn about that Way and the once famous Elefsinian Mysteries. Everything started, according to legend, with Hades deciding to steal himself a lassie. Hades, for those un-acquainted with ancient Greek mythology, was the screwed-up brother among the three sons of the chief titan Chronos. Zeus ended up with the position of a supreme god; Poseidon laid hands on the seas, and the poor Hades was stuck in the Underworld. The story of the Sacred Way starts with Hades deciding to abduct Persephone, daughter of his own sister Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility. I agree it is kind of grose to yearn for your own niece but let’s not forget we’re speaking of Greek mythology. Above, I have placed a photo of the cave in Elefsina where they claim the famous abduction took place.
Demeter went to look for her daughter and, as it suits a real ancient Greek myth, she finally found her although not quite, as Persephone still had to spend part of every year with uncle Hades bellow ground. Her homecoming to mommy Demeter became the basis for the famous (though not to me until recently) Eleusinian Mysteries. What EXACTLY those Mysteries were about, is still a mystery as the punishment for anyone revealing even a bit of it was death. Surely, the whole thing included some sacrifice to the gods, and a massive one, as the above ‘altar’ (let’s confess it, a real oven) could easily take at least five Tourist Manyas at once.
We know for sure that the Mysteries took place twice a year (Lesser Mysteries in the beginning of summer and Greater Mysteries in September) and included some serious trekking from the Acropolis in Athens to the small square above, which can be summarized as 20 kms for a single day. The whole thing started with a ceremonial transfer of the so-called ‘Sacred Objects’ from Elefsina to Athens – no one knows what these objects were, mostly because people were either silent or dead. This was followed by various festivities in Athens, aiming mostly I think to concentrate the candidates in one spot. On the fourth day, these candidates took the Sacred Way from the Acropolis to Eleusina, stopping on the route at several sanctuaries to perform secret (what else!?!) rituals. The night after their arrival in Elefsina was a Night of Vigil for Demeter, mourning about not finding her daughter.
On the next day, only the candudates were allowed into the mysterious complex called the Telesterion, while the guards remained outside at the pompous portal called the Great Propyleia. Well, what do you think were the guards doing while waiting? Of course they played games which can be seen from the numerous ‘game boards’ carved into the very steps of the Propyleia. In the meantime, the candidates were engaged with the secret rituals during the whole day and up to the evening when they celebrated the finding of Persephone through a grand party. Now there was nothing mystical anymore; it was common drinking, dancing and those three things. Me however, I’d like to share at the end something that has always impressed me, and that is the unique urban maintenance in ancient times, expressed via various small details like for example that rainwater shaft below. Looks much better than the modern ones, don’t you think?
If you are curious where I went right after Elefsina, you may check it out here.