Retracing the Steps of the Eleusinian Procession: A Mortal Experience

Athina Mitropoulos

Perhaps you have never heard of the Eleusinian Mysteries? Or perhaps you have, but mysteries they still remain. To explore this remarkable example of Greek cultic behaviour, we need to journey back into the misty realms of mythology. The Eleusinian Mysteries, you see, were celebrated annually in honour of the mother and daughter goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Their tale combines, in an everlasting cycle, the universal subjects of grief and of hope.

While roaming the meadows to pick flowers one day, Persephone was abducted by the god of the Underworld, Hades. Demeter wandered the world looking for her daughter, utterly distressed by her loss. She stopped caring for agriculture and crops, her chief area of responsibility, and soon enough humans and animals starved. Owing to her implacable grief, she was given hospitality at Eleusis in Central Greece. Finally, Zeus had to intervene, allowing Persephone to live half the year with her mother in the upper world of Earth, and half with Hades in the Underworld. Demeter thanked the King of Eleusis for his kindness by revealing secrets that somehow guaranteed any mortal who knew them a blessed afterlife. These Mysteries were revealed to initiands (those due to be initiated) each year as the climax of the Eleusinian Procession.

I have long been fascinated by the Eleusinian Mysteries, in particular by their secrets – secrets that have been successfully kept from the ancient world through to the modern. Appropriately enough, the word ‘Mysteries’ comes from μύστης (mystes), the term for those who partook in them: it literally means ‘the person who stays silent’, deriving from the verb μύω (muo), ‘I keep silent.’ Secrecy and silence were thus fundamentally integral to the cult.

I decided to research this cult further during my university studies, giving particular focus to the famous procession. To my surprise, I found that the topographical, literary and iconographic evidence had not been fully combed and combined by previous scholars. So, during the Easter holidays of 2008, I decided to retrace the steps of these ancient pilgrims, in the hope that I could make the silent speak.

The Sanctuary at Eleusis (Elefsina)

Let us first put the procession in its place. It started from the slopes of the Athenian Acropolis, at the City Eleusinion, and finished at Eleusis, a sanctuary twenty kilometres west of Athens. It is rather weird to start a journey with your back to the Acropolis – the religious heart of Athens – and journey outwards, but that is exactly what they did, emphasising both the Sanctuary of Eleusis, which was outside Athens, as well as its intimate link with Athens herself.

The procession travelled along the Panathenaic Way to the outskirts of the city, where it went through the Kerameikos, the cemetery of Athens. This gave a palpably sombre start to the procession, which began at dawn due to its sheer length. It is at this point, at the Sacred Gate which divided the city of Athens from the Kerameikos, that a statue of the god Iacchus would appear, and the participants would let out an Iacchic shout. The verb used in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (7th/6th BC) when Persephone was abducted is the onomatopoeic ἰαχειν (iacchein, ‘to let out an Iacchic shout’, ‘cry iache!’). If you want to get a sense of this mysterious Iacchus, in the image at the very top of this article you can see him as the central standing figure, raising his torch to Demeter and Persephone above.

As initiands walked past tombs, therefore, they may have engaged on a personal level with Demeter’s loss of Persephone, re-enacting her sense of grief and suffering, and thus deriving a sense of closeness with the divinity. On a quiet, sunny day, I too felt that sense of mourning as I passed the monuments that have survived, each commemorating not mere strangers but someone once intimately loved. This was a place of memory and reflection; a place where those who had experienced loss could derive some sure comfort from knowing that a goddess as powerful as Demeter had endured similar pain herself.

The Panathenaic Way in the Agora, leading up to the Acropolis

The procession then continued through the landscape of Attica, passing altars and temples that were all, in one way or another, connected with Demeter. Nowadays, a modern road is built pretty much exactly atop the Sacred Way that led to Eleusis. Since it’s not a very safe part of Athens, I decided to take a taxi. Much of the character of the initial journey is lost, as the city of Athens is built upon the ancient countryside, but as you enter the suburbs and leave the city, you can really re-connect with the ancient route.

Many of the ancient temples are now churches or other religious buildings, a famous example being the monastery of Daphne in the north-western suburbs of Athens. This was probably once a temple adorned with statues of Demeter, Kore (a common name for Persephone), Athena and Apollo, as Pausanias, the travel-blogger from the second century AD, recorded. Although closed for renovations when I visited, the archaeologist on site was so curious about my interest that he led me up a ladder where I could glimpse the ancient building materials used in the Byzantine monastery.

The procession then climbed Mount Aegaleus, a peak that rises to nearly 500 metres, where they would find the temple of Aphrodite and – we may guess – take a well-earned rest. Sadly, it proved impossible to go into the temple, which was gloomily fenced off. Still, it was at this point of the journey that my taxi driver, who had patiently waited as I made multiple stops to take photos and write notes, came out to ask just what I was looking at so intently and why. After explaining a little, he too became fascinated and joined me in the search for an entrance. They say that Greek taxi drivers are often the most interesting and interested people, and he was no exception! He ended up not charging me for all our stops, as he said he was enjoying learning about the past too – Greek generosity at its finest.

The archaeologist John Travlos, who first excavated the temple in the 1930s, uncovered a series of votive remains at the sanctuary, including a small relief of Eros, an almost life-size female torso (presumably a cult statue), and votives in the form of female genitalia. This was in all probability a fertility cult, which thus marked a change in the mood of the procession: they had progressed past the mournful cemetery into an open landscape where they meditated on and prayed for new life.

Travlos’ sketch of the Temple of Aphrodite (1937) and the surrounding site today

The final section of the procession descended Mount Aegaleus crossing the streams of the fertile Thriasian Plains to reach Eleusis itself, all the while passing more shrines and temples along the way. The arrival at Eleusis was marked with dancing and singing, all conducted under torchlight now that night had fallen.

The route of the Eleusinian Procession (plotted by Davide Mauro)

To tell the truth, the arrival at Eleusis is not now quite the same, as the region has become an industrial area. The surviving sanctuary, however, is still very special: I would highly recommend people make time to go there, whenever they have the chance to visit Athens. For my part, I was most struck by an enormous cave you pass on your way to the Telesterion and museum, which was held to be one of the entrances to the Underworld. After a quick risk-assessment, I didn’t dare go too close.

The route therefore suggests that the procession, in moving westwards from Athens to Eleusis, progressed metaphorically and emotionally from sorrow to excitement. Initiands thus experienced both death and new life – two processes entirely appropriate and reflective of the very myth they were celebrating.

The remains of the Telesterion (initiation hall) at Eleusis

Although there are not many iconographic representations of the Eleusinian Procession, the ones we do have show a consistent image: men and women taking part in the procession. This is not unexpected, as anyone could join the march, so long as they could pay the fee, speak Greek, and, rather reassuringly, had not committed murder. But what’s really interesting is that men and women are shown side by side, gathered in one big group. This is significant, because we know how segregated Athenian, and more generally Ancient Greek, society was.

This rare phenomenon is best seen in the so-called Nigrinos Base, which was found at Eleusis but whose precise date is unknown. It shows a group of over ten people, each carrying sticks, which are plausibly taken to be torches. Although the men and women are distinguished by their clothing, they are standing together as one. We can assume that, since their torches are all held up, they were lighting the way of the final phases of the procession.

Nigrinos Base (2nd cent. AD?, Eleusis)

If we compare this image with the Parthenon frieze (443–437 BC), a depiction of the Panathenaic Procession, this point is made very clearly. This frieze shows all strata of Athenian society: cavalrymen, elderly men, musicians, water-carriers, tray-bearers and men leading cattle to sacrificial slaughter. It even shows metics, that is, foreigners who were resident in Athens. There are also women carrying objects such as an incense burner or libation bowl. All these groups, and most especially the women, are, however, distinct from one another.

The Panathenaic Procession as depicted on the Parthenon’s East Frieze (c. 440 BC, Athens; now in British Museum, London)

Crucially, there is no mingling of the sexes. While we know from our own experience of the realities of life that there must have been some interaction between men and women at such a public and busy event, the sculptors have purposefully chosen to separate the two groups. The aim, as with much of the frieze, is evidently to show the admirable ideal of Athenian society – admirable not only through its cavalry, its wealth, its muscular youths, its piety and its inclusivity, but also through its modestly separate depiction and distinction of women. While the Parthenon frieze therefore emphasises social hierarchy, the iconography of the Eleusinian procession is doing something quite different: it purposefully does not distinguish the two sexes, but in fact unites them.

The Eleusinian Procession channelled and juxtaposed various conflicts and oppositions. The duration of the procession joined day with night, light with dark. Since it took place in September, it marked the point where summer ended and winter began, inevitably echoing Persephone’s deathly descent to Hades. The procession was also a public ritual, but it culminated in a personal initiation that guaranteed any individual involved a blessed afterlife. The procession moreover moved from the urban to the rural: it started with a funerary tone and ended with a celebration, marked in the middle by a fertility cult.

Yet the Eleusinian Procession did something else of great communal significance. It served to unite all participants together, to dismantle the hard-bound rules about gender and societal interaction that governed normal life in Athens. We know that long and emotive journeys often break down barriers, as strangers are compelled to start conversations, to help each other over difficult terrain, to lend each other water, and to do whatever else the route may require. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (AD 1387–1400) makes this very clear. The initiands’ shared experience must inevitably have drawn them together, no matter their age, status or gender.

This is entirely appropriate to the purpose of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a cult focused not upon civic hierarchy but mortality. Fundamentally, it offered support to mortals in their universal anxieties about death and the afterlife. At the end of the procession, during the festival and the Mysteries themselves, the initiands gathered in the Telesterion and a revelation was given to them. It was this revelation that guaranteed their blessed afterlife, a revelation that’s remained a genuine secret for millennia.

By dismantling the barriers of society, the procession revealed the essential equality and unity of all when faced with our human mortality. Although the participants would go on to face death individually, they knew that it would in actuality be a shared experience. The Eleusinian Procession thus fostered and protected a common understanding between humans of their ultimate fate, spiritually preparing them for the actual revelation of the Mysteries – about which I’m not at liberty to say any more.

Athina Mitropoulos studied Classics before her Masters in Classical Archaeology from the University of Oxford. She co-authored two chapters for the revised A Level in Classical Civilisation: Greek Religion and Greek Art and Archaeology. She is currently Head of Classics at Queen’s Gate School, London.