For a long time, Elefsina has been just a highway sign for me and there is a good reason for it. Elefsina and her surroundings are high on my list of the ugliest places in Greece (Ptolemaida still keeping the win). Between the dirty seaside full of abandoned buildings and decaying ships, the shabby town and the largest oil refinery in Greece it just didn’t seem like a place worth stopping.
It wasn’t always like this, though. In the ancient times, Elefsina or Eleusis was one of the five holy cities of Greece together with Athens, Olympia, Delphi, and Delos. It was primarily known for the Eleusinian Mysteries, a set of secret rituals performed in hope of ensuring better afterlife. Today, only the archeologic site of Eleusis allows a peak to the city’s glorious past.
Even if history is not your thing the archeologic site of Elefsina is worth a visit. The myth of kidnapping of Persephone, the Mysteries and the possible entrance to the underworld make this place all but boring.
Plus, during the winter every first Sunday of the month means free admission to the museums and archeologic sites all over Greece. This is a good opportunity to explore one of the lesser-known excavation sites that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Eleusina lies about 15 km west of Athens. It’s just a short car ride away from the capital following the highway to Corinth and Peloponnese. But even without a car, the site is easily accessible. The bus number A16 and 876 from Agia Marina will take you to Elefsina in about half an hour and for the price of the simple 1.40 euro ticket.
Once in Elefsina, get off at the last stop and continue along the coast for another couple hundred meters until reaching the Nikolaidou street lined by cafés and restaurants. It leads straight to the entrance of the archeologic site.
There is a museum inside of the Ancient Eleusis grounds housing the excavations from the site. It cannot be missed not only because it holds a collection of impressive statues and mortuary artifacts uncovered at the site. It also contains two scale models of the sanctuaries as they may have looked in their full glory. None of the buildings are standing today, therefore, seeing the replicas helps to better understand and appreciate the greatness of the temples and especially the central Telesterion (Initiation Hall).
From the terrace in front of the museum opens up an unusual view towards the sea and the Salamina Island. It’s a weird mixture of ancient statues and beautiful landscape hiding under the industrial mess of old factories and refineries.
It all started with the kidnapping of Persephone, a beloved daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility. Persephone was taken by Hades, the god of the underworld when collecting flowers on the meadows around Elefsina. Even though Zeus, her father, blessed the union between Hades and Persephone her mother wasn’t happy.
Demeter didn’t want to give up on her daughter so easily and searched for her everywhere. When she learned what happened she disguised herself as an old beggar and headed to Elefsina. She was well received by the royal family of the king Keleos and spent enough time in their hospitable lodgings. But mourning of the goddess of harvest meant nothing but suffering for the people of Greece in the form of drought and famine.
Zeus and the other gods tried to change Demeter’s mind promising her gifts and duchess but she was adamant. In the end, Zeus, afraid to lose his offerings and admiration from the suffering people of Greece, send Ermis down to the underworld to talk Hades into returning Persephone back to her mother.
Hades finally agreed but before releasing Persephone from the underworld he sneaked 4 seeds of pomegranate to her. As we all know eating the food of the underworld means that one can never leave. The same rules apply to the goods, too, making the poor Persephone return back to the underworld for four months of each year to live with her spouse.
The four months of her stay with Hades symbolize the dark and fruitless months of the winter while the spring bloom announces her return back to the Olympus and her mother. But all bad is good for something. Before leaving for Olympus Demeter, wishing to show gratitude for the hospitality shown to her during her stay in Eleusis, thought the Eleusinian Mysteries to the rules of Elefsina together with the art of agriculture.
As it goes with mythology nothing is very sure and the story changes depending on the narrator. I read few different versions of the myth of Demeter and Persephone before traveling to Elefsina with many aberrations and discrepancies. This article describes in detail the abduction of Persephone but there are plenty of others if you desire a bit of mythology self-study.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were one of the most important secret religious rituals in the Ancient Greece. They were based on the myth of Persephone and Demeter and their main purpose was to ensure better “life” after death. Revealing the secret of the mysteries was first prohibited by the goddess herself and later by the Athenian law. Breaking the law was punishable by death in the ancient Greece so there are no written sources of the most secret part of the rituals.
The mysteries consisted of two main stages the Lesser and the Greater Mysteries both including uncountable rites, offerings, pilgrimage from Athens to Eleusis and possibly hallucination drugs. The different stages and ceremonies of the Mysteries are described through the archeologic site and museum of Eleusina but if you wish to learn more details of the rituals and their historical background, check out this detailed article.
And when you finally fill up on all the history and mythology and your stomach starts rambling there is an abundance of cafés, taverns and souvlaki shops lining the streets around the grounds. We asked an elderly gentleman lounging nearby for a suggestion on where to eat and were directed to a tavern called Temeteron Trapezounta. Not only the meal was great but the outside tables offer a beautiful view of the whole archeologic site of Eleusina.