Written by Halle Hovance ’20
After the longest airplane ride I had ever been on and back to back museum visits, my exploration of Greece whisked me towards a place with a beautiful name. The word Eleusis didn’t mean much to me upon arriving at the site of the Eleusian Mysteries and it didn’t mean much to me until I was able to process the magic that consumed me in this mystic city of ancient ruins.
A certain antiquated myth is told again and again regarding this famous site. This myth is one of motherhood, loss, and reunion. In the story of Demeter and Persephone (bear with me, some of the magic that I felt lies within the ancient Greek myth), Demeter is the goddess of the harvest, agriculture, and the Earth’s fertility, and Persephone is her delicate, virgin daughter who was taken from her by Hades, god of the underworld. Hades will not release Persephone from the underworld causing Demeter to make every fruitful plant on the Earth perish until her daughter is returned to her. Eventually Zeus, god of all the gods and goddesses, steps in and sends his messenger, Hermes, to retrieve Persephone. However, Hades will not be conquest so easily. He fabricates a bargain in which he keeps Persephone in the underworld for a portion of the year. This portion of the year is Autumn, when the Earth’s fertility is in decline. Finally, Persephone is returned to her mother and the Earth is fruitful again.
Is this the exact story that the ancient Eleusian Mysteries are founded on? Most likely no, but this is the story that has been passed on to today. Like a game of telephone.
The Eleusian Mysteries are based off of a secret ancient cult that specifically worshiped the goddess Demeter and her daughter. This cult was kept such a secret that historians know very little about the activities that went on within the cult. We can assume, based on artifacts found on and around the site, that animal sacrifices, rituals, and other elaborate celebrations were common with the cult.
My experience at this enchanted site of the Eleusian mysteries began with a stray dog. As soon as I stepped foot onto the site, I was greeted by a spirited and frolicking force of energy in the form of a skinny black puppy. Our group had learned the Greek word for dog and we joyfully chanted the word in praise of the dog throughout our visit. The pup lead our group around the site so happily and care free. It was almost as though the soul Persephone herself was giving us a tour of her kingdom, embodied by this spirited animal. The dog lead us straight to a shallow cave that is said to be the portal in which Persephone enters and exits the underworld. Even today, worshippers leave food in a small hole within the cave wall, as a sacrifice to Persephone when she is in the underworld. The ancient sacred grounds were built on a hill and when we arrived at the top of the hill, the view of the ocean and the mountains were spectacular. Split-tailed swallows had just arrived home for the Summer in this area and they cheerfully swooped through the sky with the ocean as the back drop.
On our descent from the top of the hill, a small portion of our group took an enchanted, nature-stricken path where we walked alongside an abundance of bright red poppy flowers and weeping olive trees. Tall green grass and wildflowers danced in the sunlight all around us as we strolled along this quiet path. Small white butterflies flicked their wings against the wind, chasing one another. Around us, the universe was at peace; it was whispering wise and beautiful things into our souls. I will never forget what the universe told me that day, its hushed words will sing within me forever. And now the word Eleusis is now a beautiful word with an even more lovely meaning.