The Secrets of the Past Revealed? The Exhibition on the Eleusinian Mysteries in the Acropolis Museum

Muse, sing to me of the Two Goddesses, the Mistresses of the Earth. Sing to me of the Mysteries of Demeter and Kore, who give great blessings.

In the small town of Eleusis, only about 20 kilometres away from Athens, the great Mystery cult of Demeter and her daughter Kore (better known as Persephone) brought in visitors from all over the ancient world. This cult, open to anyone, was focused on Demeter and Kore’s connection to the Earth and the Underworld, and promised a blessed afterlife to all who were initiated into the cult. These initiates, mystes, were shown secret objects, which were so sacred that even now we don’t know what they were. Authors did reveal rituals of the sacred  procession starting in the Eleusinion in Athens and the rites that were conducted in the Telesterion, the large temple/hall in Eleusis. The real secrets however, held in the Anoktoron, the smaller construction within the Telesterion, still remain a mystery.

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Our proud author, showing off the ancient remains of the Telesterion on a cloudy day in June. 

The new exhibition in the Acropolis museum in Athens, focused on the mysteries of Eleusis, is structured like the ancient sanctuary in Eleusis. While all the artefacts from the site are placed in a large exhibition room, they hold little value until one enters the artificial temple in the middle: in here, a short film explains the ins and outs of the Eleusinian Mysteries. In other words, one walks the same route as a newly initiated would, and the truth of the Mysteries lies in the inner sanctum. While this is very poetic, it makes the exhibition slightly confusing, especially for those not fond of videos.

The mysterious objects do hold a certain magic: the statue of a fleeing maiden, her skirts billowing around her legs and her face turned to look back in fear, immediately reminds one of the myth of the Abduction of Persephone. A stone pillar resembling a torch tells of the longevity of the Mysteries: only when the Roman emperor Theodosius forbade any sort of non-Christian worship were the Mysteries abandoned. The torch shows how the remains of the cult were recycled by Christians: it now carries a large inscribed cross on its side.

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The fleeing maiden.

The absolute masterpiece of the exhibition, however, is a small object known as the Ninnion tablet: a small ceramic tablet which shows a procession ending at the two goddesses, Demeter seated on a  rock and Persephone standing next to her. The elaborate details, such as the folds of Demeter’s dress, the crowns and wreaths that are worn and the brushstrokes used for the fire of the torches that the initiates carry make this small tablet an absolute delight.

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The Ninnion tablet. The Greek reads: Ninnion dedicated (this) to the goddesses.

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A close-up of the Ninnion tablet. Demeter seated on a rock, Persephone standing next to her.

This exhibition then, reveals a past that is yet still hidden: we can only catch glimpses of one of the largest cults of the Greek world, and its past can only be partly seen by the things left behind.

Muse, sing to me of the Two Goddesses, and the secrets they revealed to mankind, sing to me of glorious afterlife and a distant past.

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