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Athens in Pieces: What Really Happened at Eleusis?

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ATHENS — It was time to take a journey into the Underworld.

Long before I arrived here in January, I was curious about the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most important ritual site in ancient Athens, whose fame spread around the ancient world. What is so intriguing about Eleusis is that, despite the fact that many thousands of initiates took part in the ritual over so many centuries, no one ever divulged the secrets of what took place. That’s surprising because the ancient city was, to say the least, a very chatty place — everything seems to have been up for discussion, dissection, polemic and comic ridicule.

One reason for the silence is obvious: Speaking about the ritual was a crime punishable by death. There is a story that the dramatist Aeschylus was prosecuted for revealing truths about the Mysteries in his plays but was found innocent. Alcibiades, Socrates’ beloved student and double-crossing political opportunist, is said to have played out scenes from the Mysteries in his home in Athens. But we in fact know little.

So what really happened at Eleusis? I set off to try to find out.

My good friend Nadja Agyropoulou arranged for the chief archaeologist of the site, Kalliope Papangeli, or Poppy as she is known, to be our guide. Poppy has spent her entire career at Eleusis and has been working there for over 30 years out of sheer love for the place.

We drove looking east out the car window. There was snow on the caps of the mountains of Penteli. Gazing ahead, the area around the modern town of Elefsina came into view, a sprawling maze including the largest oil refinery in Greece and the rather gothic-looking remains of disused industrial buildings.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Elefsina was a major industrial port. It is a place where ancient past and modern industrial history collide awkwardly, apparent in the names of many of the factories: the Kronos alcohol production plant, the Isis paint and polish factory, the Heracles and Titan Cement companies. (Titan Cement is still in business and its tall chimneys closely surround the sanctuary.) There are wonderful photographs from 1955 by the Greek surrealist Andreas Embiricos that capture this counterpoint of antiquity and industry. Even today the town is expressive of what the Nobel prize-winning Greek poet George Seferis called “the ancient monuments and the modern sadness.”

We arrived at the site and met in a cafe close to the entrance. The place was packed with locals and the air was thick with the aroma of coffee and enough lush cigarette smoke to make a New Yorker nostalgic. When the cafe was built, the proprietors asked Poppy what it should be called. She suggested Kykeon, which was the name of the drink that was given to initiates before the Mysteries began. They drank it after three days of fasting and a night of ritual dancing. Kykeon has been the subject of much fevered speculation. It is widely believed that the drink had hallucinogenic effects, similar to LSD, because of the presence of ergot, a potentially psychoactive ingredient.

So, were the initiates tripping during the Mysteries? I put the question in a couple of different ways to Poppy, hoping for something a little racy. But she was very clear. Kykeon was composed of barley, mint and water. Nothing more.

Psychedelic or indeed ecstatic and orgiastic fantasies abound everywhere in the discussion of the Mysteries. In Poppy’s view, the fact that we want to believe such things says a lot more about us than it does about antiquity. Whatever took place in the Mysteries, it was an enormously powerful experience, the effects of which........

© The New York Times