The small town of Eleusina/Ελευσίνα, located about 20 km southwest of Athens, has been designated European Capital of Culture for 2023. Here, for two millennia, perhaps the largest and most important religious ceremonies of the ancient world took place – the legendary Eleusinian Mysteries.
The concealed Mysteries
“I begin to sing of Demeter, the holy goddess with the beautiful hair and her daughter Persephone, the one with the delicate ankles, whom the King of the Shadows seized“
The Homeric hymn to Demeter gives us an insight into the mystery and sacredness associated with the town of Eleusina.
The goddess Demeter had a daughter, named Persephone. She was also called Kore/Κόρη – which means daughter in Greek. Persephone was abducted one day by Pluto, the personified Hades – the ruler of the underworld. He made her queen and kept her in his dark kingdom. Demeter became desperate and started searching for her daughter Kore all over the world. In her search, Demeter stopped in Eleusina. There she was well taken care of by the king and the people. In return, she taught them how to grow grain, gave them knowledge of agriculture and established the Mysteries.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were held every year for two millennia, between the 17th century BC and the 4th century AD. They consisted of a series of rituals that took place in a large sanctuary in the town. Only the initiated – the so-called mystai /μύσται – were allowed to participate in the ceremonies. It was strictly forbidden to reveal details of what went on there. The punishment for revealing the secrets was death.
“Hidden are the mysteries of Eleusis, but if they were revealed, they would constitute a unique experience for every human being,” writes Herakleitos, the famous philosopher who lived in the 5th century BC. (for English subtitles, click on the small wheel symbol)
Participating in the Mysteries was considered to be of enormous importance to the ancient Greeks. Held over several days, the ceremonies were an opportunity for people from all over ancient Greece to come together and exchange ideas. The rituals were also considered to provide an understanding of life’s own mysteries and insight into the deeper meaning of human existence. Pindaros, Herakleitos and Cicero are among those said to have participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
After the Roman conquest of Greece, the Eleusinian Mysteries gradually lost their importance and popularity. In the latter part of the 3rd century AD, the Christian Emperor Theodosius banned all pagan ceremonies, including the Eleusinian Mysteries.
After this ban, the mysteries and the city of Eleusis fell into oblivion as Christianity became the dominant religion.
In the early 20th century, Eleusina experienced a period of rapid industrialization. The city became one of the most important economic centers of Greece and transformed from being a small village to an industrial port town.
In the 1920s, Eleusina underwent another dramatic change when it became a receiving point for Greek refugees after the Greco-Turkish war and the 1922-1923 migration. Over 1.5 million Greeks were forced to leave their homes in Asia Minor. A large number of them settled in Eleusina, resulting in a doubling of the city’s population in just a few years.
The refugee arrival in Eleusina came at a time of political unrest and economic instability throughout the country. Many of the tens of thousands of refugees from the Ionian coast who sought refuge in the town had strong ties to the sea, which affected Eleusina and led to the emergence of several industries related to shipping.
Oil refineries and ship graveyards
Eleusina continued to expand industrially after World War II, leading to a significant increase in population. In the 1950s and 1960s, many people moved from the countryside to the town in hope of finding work in industry. However, this rapid growth led to problems with infrastructure congestion, poor living conditions and poor urban planning.
Many of the major oil refineries were established during this time and have since been the city’s main workplaces. Unfortunately, this also led to significant pollution of the environment.
During the 1980s, Eleusina faced economic and social challenges. Many industries closed down or reduced their production, leading to unemployment and an emigration of residents. Environmental problems also increased due to industrial impacts, further weakening the city’s attractiveness.
“I came to Eleusis and was more impressed by its ugliness than by anything else. It has been fully industrialized, with all the dirt, grime and misery that entails. The land is barren and factories loom over the ancient sacred sites, spewing smoke and flames. The once beautiful coastline has been destroyed and is now an eyesore“. Quote from a travel blog by David Hughes, who visited the city in the 1990s.
European Capital of Culture 2023
In recent years, however, great efforts have been made to address environmental degradation and revive the cultural heritage. Indeed, Eleusina has undergone an impressive reconstruction. The city has thus started to re-establish its reputation as an important cultural destination. This is why it was also designated as one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2023.
From the EU’s official motivation for the nomination:
“Eleusina, a city with a rich cultural heritage, has developed an innovative and ambitious cultural program that can inspire and engage people from all over Europe. Eleusina has a long history as a place of artistic and cultural creation, and through its program it wants to revive and renew its cultural identity”.
As one of the European Capitals of Culture, Eleusina will host a variety of events and performances this year. Visitors will have the opportunity to experience the city’s unique atmosphere that combines culture, history and natural beauty. In our blog, we will have several opportunities to get to know Eleusina and its legendary mysteries.
The temple area of Eleusina is central to the city center. It is considered one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Greece. Besides this, there are several museums worth visiting, including the Archaeological Museum, with its exceptionally well-preserved finds, and the Naval Museum of Eleusina.
Eleusina has undergone many changes over the years, but has finally managed to preserve its soul and identity. It is fascinating to visit a place with such a rich history that at the same time looks forward to an exciting future. A city that has been transformed, forgotten and resurrected, now ready to welcome visitors from all over the world to discover all the captivating attractions it has to offer. As the saying goes, Eleusina always has a secret to share with its visitors.
Note: Ancient Greek: Ελευσίς/Eleusis. New Greek: Ελευσίνα/Eleusina. The letter pair “ευ” is pronounced “ef” in Greek, so all variants of the name are equivalent: Eleusis, Eleusina, Elefsina.
Note: The other two cities appointed as European Capitals of Culture for 2023 are Timisoara (Romania) and Veszprém (Hungary).