Whenever you read about Athens and the Classical World you quickly bump into the phrase “Eleusinian Mysteries”. One of those mysteries we still haven’t completely figured out yet. The other mystery is easier to solve: this archaic and arcane ceremony was based in Eleusis.
Eleusis was a small town with a big name, located in the bend of Attica as it stretches down into the Isthmus of Corinth.
Now it is a soul-scorched industrial suburb of Athens, twisted out of all recognition. With the exception of the Sanctuary of the Mysteries.
Another ancient legend to start this account: Hades was the God of the UnderEarth and all that was there, from its wealth to the dead. One day, while walking the sun-bright land above, he saw a fair maiden, Persephone. Being a God he simply made off with her, dragging her down to his realm below.
The problem was (how in Hades was he supposed to know?), Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, Goddess of Abundance and the Harvest. Desperate to find her daughter, Demeter abandoned everything to find her. The World sunk into a barren and fruitless wasteland. The other Olympians could not accept this state of affairs, as all they heard were the wailing humans below.
By the order of Zeus, a compromise was struck in this custody battle: Persephone got to live with her mother for eight (six in the Roman version) months of the year, returning to Hades for the other four (or six). That, of course, explains Summer and Winter.
So where does Eleusis fit into the story? Not knowing who she was, its king and his daughters offered Demeter shelter and hospitality when she turned up there during her search. Hospitality is a key and prized component of Greek culture to this day, by the way. In gratitude, Demeter revealed to them the secret of abundant life by planting a field with wheat. In happy shock and awe, the Eleusinians quickly dedicated a temple to this important deity.
The Mystery was born. Quickly wrapped up in a bacchanal of wild, weird and incomprehensible ceremonies, with special status for the several degrees of initiated (think Freemasons), this message of rebirth and resurrection was vitally important in the period before the Christian era arrived with its own message. The Christians quickly suppressed, then adopted, this particular legend and you still get to hear of it now in the story of St. Demetra (even the name…).
Put into context, for ancient Greeks, Eleusis was the Lourdes, the Varanasi, the Bodh Gaya of their world. See these broken remains in that light and you will feel the wild surge excitement in the Mystery too.