If we could unbind ourselves from the wheel of history and behold the same mysteries of deep time as the Ancients once did at Eleusis, we might very well cry out:
Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.
Yet there is a gradually arising movement in various disciplines and international communities to reclaim these ancient, sacred sites where such visions were (and perhaps still are) possible.
This proposal, from Classicist Carl Ruck at Boston University, one of the authors of the groundbreaking work The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries, is gaining momentum, already receiving the support of the mayor of Elefinsina (modern day Eleusis), the lead archaeologist of the site, and the local art communities.
The Gaia Project:
Renewal of Ancient Mysteries
Carl A.P. Ruck
The ancient testimony about the religious experience offered to thousands of pilgrims in the sanctuary of the Goddess in the tiny village of Elefinsina (Eleusis) some ten miles west of the great city of Athens is unanimous. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter declares that it was essential to the art of living: ‘Whoever among men who walk the earth has seen these Mysteries is blessed, but whoever is uninitiated and has not received his share of the rite, he will not have the same lot as the others, once he is dead and dwells in the mould where the sun goes down.’ The rite was performed annually for two thousand years, beginning in the mid second millennium BCE, in roughly the same place, modified and enlarged over the course of time to accommodate the ever-growing number of participants. Construction of the sanctuary obliterated the archaeological record of the earlier occupation of the site, but it is probable that it was sacred from Neolithic times, if not before. The rite as practiced through the Classical and Roman periods represents a transition from female dominance to an accommodation with patriarchal traditions.
In the sixth century BCE, it passed under Athenian control and became the defining influence that produced the mentality that characterized the Classical Age, which became the fountainhead of ensuing European civilization. Almost every one of importance, as well as the common man and woman, foreigner and Greek alike of every status in society, sought out the initiation at least once in a lifetime. In the Roman period, the orator and philosopher Cicero declared it the greatest gift of Athens to the world, the essential impetus for humankind’s elevation from savagery, imparting the power not only to live with joy, but also to die with better hope.
The paradigm uniting life and death was the seed implanted into the ground, entrusted to the darkness of the earth, in the expectation that it would return and sprout, without which there could be no life here in the realm above. What the initiates experienced was a journey of the spirit to a reality in a parallel dimension, establishing pathways of communication and rights of friendly reciprocal visitation, so that life was nourished by the accord or testament that defined the terms for humankind’s relationship to Gaia. It was more than a mere metaphor. The initiates were offered the opportunity to identify themselves with the cycles of nature at the deepest level of their existence.
I was a member of a team in the 1970s that sought to uncover what actually happened in the sanctuary, for the initiates were sworn to secrecy and the event was termed a mystery. I revisited the topic in the 1990s and summarized our findings and subsequent research. When I asked my colleague the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann shortly before his death at the age of 102 to provide a comment, even if only a sentence, in view of his frailty, he wrote: ‘Only a new Eleusis could help mankind to survive the threatening catastrophe in Nature and human society and bring a new period of happiness.’
Elefsina is a place particularly blessed by Nature, a fertile plain bounded by mountain ranges surrounding the acropolis. The initiation hall was carved from the rock face of its southern slope, an architectural similitude of a subterranean cavern, and marked as sacred by its alignment to the depression between the twin peaks called the ‘Horns’ (Kerata) that terminate the mountain to the west. Such alignment is typical of other Minoan and Pelasgian religious sites and identified the sanctuary by a sexual metaphor as the entrance, nestled between the breasts and spread legs of the Goddess, to the secrets that lay within her body. It was here in the surrounding plain that barley, the grain plant that was the staff of life, first sprouted. The place was further blessed topographically by the island of Salamis that lies nearby along its shore, providing a superlative nearly land-locked shelter for ships in its bay. Most people know of it from the account of the Battle of Salamis, when the Athenian admiral in charge of the allied fleet used his knowledge of the lay of the land to his advantage against the vastly superior forces of the invading Persian King Xerxes.
Eleusis was named like Elysium, a mirror of the paradisiacal fields (Les champs Élysées) that received the dead upon their arrival in the otherworld. It was sacred to the Goddess and her daughter, the two holy females, the ‘Mother’ and the ‘Maiden,’ who could be ascribed names, after the patriarchal revision that established the Mystery, as Demeter and Persephone, although more sacredly, they were just the two nameless goddesses (tó theó), interchangeable as mother produced daughter and daughter in turn became mother. The male essential for their replication was the personification of the joyous shout of the initiates as they walked in procession to place of arrival, Iacchus—a pun upon the deity of the ecstatic possession necessary to access the mystery, Dionysus/Bacchus, the god of wine and intoxicants. He was identical here with Hades, the lord of the netherworld, named as the ‘unseen one,’ which was also the name for the invisible realm to which the living disappeared for their arrival.
A third female shadowed the personae of two goddesses, the postmenopausal nursing mother, who went by the dread name of Hecate, the patroness of witchcraft, but all three roles were interchangeable, since the mother could become the wet-nurse of the daughter’s child, and it was this third that joined the two holy ladies into a triumphant trinity. The mystery of the seed reborn was personified as the son born from the holy trinity, which had the mystery title of Brimo, the terrible queenship. He was their child, named after them matriarchal as Brimos, but he had another less frightful name befitting the benevolence of this trinity as the ‘triple warrior,’ Triptolemos. It was he who was entrusted with the art of living and he planted the first crop in the surrounding Rarian fields. He was the pacified antithesis to the toxic analogues of his parentage, life born from death. The initiates on the night of the great Mystery rematerialized in the cavernous hall of the sanctuary, after their spiritual journey, at the moment of his miraculous birth. They experienced themselves reborn, like him, a child conceived and born from death. The valence of death became positive through personal experience, and the lord Hades was recognized as a handsome youth of ‘good counsel’ (Eubouleus) and as the source of prosperity (Ploutos) in both this real realm and the next.
These blessings and the prosperity of the Eleusinian plain were also an invitation to abuse its natural gifts after the desecration of the sanctuary and the supplanting of its religion by the modern world. It is today a microcosm for the destruction that has spread around the planet—the catastrophe that looms threatening continued human existence. The bay of Salamis is clogged with tankers waiting to offload their cargo of crude oil to the mainland refineries that belch an air-polluting stench. The plain has dried into a desert that supports little agriculture. In addition to the refineries, two other industries process material wealth ravished from the earth, a cement factory and a foundry for iron. The symbolism could not be more obvious.
Few people now visit the sanctuary, or know of the ancient Mystery. Elefsina is not in the register of places recognized as a world heritage site, even though it was the center of a religion practiced for two millennia. The inadequate museum dates from the nineteenth century, and several of its treasures have been substituted with replicas. An effort is underway to improve the situation. The superhighway to Corinth now skirts the site, and the progressive local governments have worked to restore the village, with the streets around the sanctuary converted into pedestrian malls. The shore is planted with parklands and the sea is again clean enough for swimming. A large area of ruined and abandoned nineteenth-century factories adjacent to the sanctuary and below the present museum has been converted into a center for workshops and galleries for the display of art and theatrical performances.
We espouse to motto for the endeavor: ‘The Future Starts Here.’ As the place most desecrated for is abuse of Gaia, we propose that Elefsina become the nucleus and world center for humankind’s renegotiation of its compact with its planet Earth. To this end, we are seeking recognition of the village and the archaeological remains as a world heritage site and the soliciting of funding from international and Greek donors to build a new museum complex, incorporating the area and some of the abandoned industrial ruins that now comprise the art center. The symbolism is simple. We do not propose restore a defunct religion or to reverse the course of time, but to begin anew with a new contract with Gaia. To this end, the existing refineries, foundry, and cement factory cannot be removed, since they would merely have to reappear elsewhere. As in antiquity, we depend on the bounty of Gaia for prosperity.
The museum complex would be multifunctional. One of its tasks would be to investigate ways of mitigating the deleterious effects of exploiting natural resources. Industrial constructions are actually works of extraordinary complexity and ingenuity. At the new Elefsina, they will learn to operate cleanly, and surrounded by parklands they can be seen as monuments, gigantic sculptural testimony, functioning efficiently and beautiful, as their modern designers conceived them. An analogue is the way that the Mexican city of Monterrey proudly incorporates its disused factories from the nineteenth century into its cultural identity as works of art.
In addition to furthering research into the past and the study of the Eleusinian Mystery through seminars and conferences, the museum complex will look to the future. Among the sponsored activities will be investigations into rediscovering a personal commitment to Gaia through techniques of meditation, spiritual exercise, alternative medicine, and artist workshops. The center would also support research into environmental remediation and new sources of energy and safe methods of tapping the planet’s gifts.
Eventually we hope to see agriculture return to the Rarian plain, and make the museum a destination of pilgrimage again for the modern world.