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Elefsina, Greece

Eleusis, Elefsina

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The Curse of Eleusis

Most people know about Lord Elgin and the Parthenon Marbles. Less known is the story of Edward Daniel Clark and the curse of Saint Dimitra

The city of Eleusis, now known as Elefsina, a city between Athens and Corinth, was built around the sanctuary and temple of Demeter, the goddess of crops, which dated back to Mycenaean times. In the classical period the city was the site of the Eleusian Festival when thousands of pilgrims walked the sacred way from the Acropolis to be indoctrinated into the ancient mysteries. To divulge the secret of the Eleusinian Mysteries was punishable by death and for 1400 years these secrets were known only to the initiates. The site was the second most important in ancient Greece, after Delphi.

Goddess demeter, elefsis, GreeceThe story of the temple of Demeter at Eleusis is known to most people interested in Greek mythology and explains the changing of the seasons. Hades, the god of the underworld fell in love with Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of wheat and fertility. Persephone's father was Zeus who also happened to be her mother's brother. While Persephone was picking flowers one day near Eleusis, Hades nabbed her and carried her away to the underworld. Demeter searched everywhere and could not find her daughter. Finally she came to Eleusis disguised as an old woman and meets the daughters of King Celeus who see her sadness and take her in to meet their mother, Mataniera. In return for their hospitality Demeter agrees to raise Mataniera's new born son Demophon who grew strong, healthy and god-like under her care. One night Mataniera snuck up on the still disguised Demeter to see what she was doing that was making the boy so extraordinary. She peeked in as Demeter was passing her son over a fire. Mataniera cried out in fear. The startled Demeter was furious, (if a God can be startled) and revealed herself as the goddess and told Mataniera had she not interfered, her son would have been immortal. She then commanded the people of Eleusis to build a temple where she would reside and teach them the rites to perform and thus win her favor. The temple was built and Demeter moved in, still depressed over the loss of Persephone, shutting herself inside and causing a famine all over the earth. Zeus had to intervene to save the human race so he sent all the other gods one by one to coax her back to Mount Olympus, but she would not budge. Finally he sent Hermes to Hades who agreed to give up Persephone. But before she left he gave her some pomegranate seeds to eat which would insure that she would return to him for part of the year because the rule was that anyone who ate the food of the underworld had to return to the underworld. As soon as Demeter was reunited with Persephone, the goddess caused the earth to come alive again and taught her sacred rites to the king.

DemeterThe Hymn of Demeter which dates back to the seventh century BC says: "Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen the mysteries: but he who is uninitiated and who has no part in them can never partake of good things once he is dead, and in the darkness and gloom." The secrets were so carefully guarded that when two young men from Acarnania stumbled upon the procession and joined in the secret rites, they were discovered and put to death.

The sacred rites were such a well kept secret that they are still unknown, (though a very good description of the ceremony is included in ATTIKA:GREECE BEYOND THE GUIDEBOOKS by John Tomkinson), but all the well known Athenians became initiates including Socrates and Plato. People came from all over the Greek world to be initiated and later in the Roman period, the Emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius made the journey all the way to Eleusis for this purpose. The rites included fasting, meditation and spiritual visions, perhaps brought on my hallucinogenic drugs, or maybe a method of tapping the inner resources of the initiates. Whatever went on there, it certainly made an impression on the ancient world. Eleusis was truly one of the holiest places on earth.

Then something happened.

Edward Daniel Clark like Lord Elgin, was a collector of Greek antiquities at the turn of the nineteenth century. His greatest find was a colossal statue, a bust of a woman with a basket on her head which was held in veneration by the people of Eleusis. The locals called the statue Saint Dimitra, based on a local legend with amazing similarities to the myth of Demeter and Persephone, only in this story the daughter is carried away by a Turk and Dimitra is a Christian. Regardless, the ancient statue, which was buried up to it's neck, was regarded as the reason for Eleusis being so fertile. This statue became the object of desire to Clark who wanted to take back to England with him.

Needless to say, the locals were very upset and feared that the removal of the statue, which protected their corn fields, would be the end of their farming. But Clark got permission to take the statue from the Turkish Governor by bribing him with a telescope, and began the chore of removing it. When after much work and a few setbacks the statue was put on a boat, the locals were sure that it would be shipwrecked. They were right and the boat sank, but the statue was recovered and sits in a corner of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England where it is barely noticed by visitors.

Since then Eleusis has been transformed. The following year the harvest was good, but the next year it wasn't and things only got worse. Then a factory for making soap was built near the ancient site, followed by the industrial development that has turned what was once the sacred city of Eleusis into an industrial nightmare, the most polluted area in Greece, an ecological wasteland and testament to man's greed and short-sightedness, beyond anything the people of Eleusis could have imagined when their beloved statue was removed.

The Statue of Saint Dimitra or Demeter was perhaps the oldest continuously venerated statue in the world. Now you can't even find a photo of it searching with Goggle. Will the return of the Statue of Saint Dimitra or Demeter solve the problems of Eleusis? Maybe not. But it can't hurt and who knows if the power of the ancient Gods and Christian Saints combined can undo the damage modern man has caused?

Send an e-mail to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and ask them to return the statue of Demeter-Saint Dimitra to it's home of Eleusis, Greece:

You can click on any of the photos on this page and see them full size.

More Useful Information

Eleusis is 22.5 kilometers (14 miles) west of Athens. To get here by bus, take no. A16, 853, or 862 from Eleftherias Square off Leoforos Pireos near Omonia. Ask the driver to let you off at the Sanctuary (Heron), which is off to the left of the main road, before the center of town. If you're driving, take the National Road and exit at Elefsina. You can stop at the site on your way to Corinth or the Argolis if you are going with George the Famous Taxi Driver.

For information on the book ATTIKA:GREECE BEYOND THE GUIDEBOOKS by John Tomkinson you can contact the author by e-mail: 


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