Angelos Sikelianos Museum, Lefkada

Sikelianos in Eleusis

The soil of Eleusis nourishes poets and her people can proudly claim to have rubbed elbows with the greatest of them. Aeschylus, the “most holy, and indubitably Eleusinian”, defended his homeland and used his plays to immortalize its traditions. Two and a half millennia later, another poet, Angelos Sikelianos, turned Eleusis into a universal symbol with four lectures he delivered in November and December 1935 before a large crowd at the Telesterion, among the “grand ruins” and the stones condemned to silence by Time and human indifference.

Dancing in the Telesterion

The archaeological site of Eleusis has hosted many performances since it came back to light in the 19th century. The people of Eleusis, Mandra, Magoula, Aspropyrgos, and Salamis used to dance here on the last two Sundays of the carnival. The ceremonial celebration included questions addressed to the Earth regarding the secret powers it has that allow it to bring forth fruit. At the same time, the assembled crowd loudly proclaimed Demeter as their goddess and life-giving force. 

In 1925 there was a performance at the Telesterion inspired by the abduction of Persephone.

Two years later, Vassos and Tanagra Kanellou embarked on the most ambitious attempt to establish a dance theater in Greece. The renowned choreographers formed a group of dancers and presented (for three years) the legendary performance of “Eleusinia” (inspired by the myth of Demeter and Persephone) at the archaeological site with the participation of 200 young girls and 100 boys.

The abduction of Persephone – The Kanellou performance at the Telesterion (1930) // P. Poulidis Archive – ERT S.A. Archives

The poet and the fisherman

The connection of Sikelianos with Eleusis began at a young age when the poet had a vision of a procession of hierophants heading towards the sanctuary of Demeter while he was standing on the slopes of Mount Egaleo. It was cemented, though, when he met Georgios Domestichos, the husband of Amalia, daughter of the General Theodoros Pangalos. The couple held a salon and dinner every Thursday, so Sikelianos would often spend the night at their house. The next morning he would invariably get in the boat of the Eleusinian fisherman Nikos Gamiliaris and cross to the island of Salamis, where he would spend the day at a two-story house provided by the Faneromeni monastery. Gamiliaris took particular care of the poet and ensured his well-being and comfort even during stormy weather. He was always there to pick him up and bring him back to Eleusis.

The Eleusinian Testament

Following his divorce with Eva Palmer, Sikelianos turned his attention to the Eleusinian Mysteries and delivered four lectures at a spot among the pines on the Sacred Way or among the ruins of the temple of Demeter. For him, the Telesterion was much more than a backdrop for ancient drama performances. Eleusis was a symbol of the struggle against authoritarianism and a rising Caesarism that threatened to spread its strangling tentacles across the face of the earth. Eleusis is also a sacred site that offers humanity the opportunity of regeneration through the return to Nature and to Mother Earth. The “false and artificial masculinity of later civilizations” imperil the values of protection and love. Patriarchy is connected to money and killing machines, while Matriarchy offers an endless affection that connects all the people of the world. And the poet (Aeschylus being a prime example of this) is a kind of prophet with the power to lead these people to an initiation that will bring them to the light and the truth.

A port in a storm

Three years after reading the “Eleusinian Testament”, Sikelianos fell in love with Anna Karamanis, the wife of the physician George Karamanis, who had founded a renowned sanatorium in Pelion. The couple’s private residence, next to the sanatorium, had become a literary salon frequented by the most important Interwar writers and intellectuals (Palamas, Myrivilis, Triantafyllidis, Sikelianos, etc.).

The love of the 59-year-old Sikelianos for Anna, who was 20 years younger than him, caused a scandal. The divorce was a difficult and soul-sucking process for all those involved. It is therefore perhaps not paradoxical that the poet chose to marry Anna in Eleusis, since in the “Eleusinian Testament” he had described the sanctuary as “the refuge of a persecuted [religion] that sought a corner of the earth on which to hold on to, in order to lie low and take root.”

The most beautiful wedding ceremony

In the early evening of June 17, 1940, Angelos and Anna arrived at the archaeological site and climbed the steps to the chapel of Panagia Mesosporitissa. At this point, reality and myth became inextricably linked as the priest pointed to a small altar outside the church and claimed that it was the Agelasta i.e. the stone on which Demeter rested during her search for Persephone. Sikelianos was thrilled and asked that the wedding service take place right there, outside the church, in an imposing setting illuminated solely by the light of the rising moon and the candles held by him and Anna.

Bibliography

Αγνώστου (1930). Το ζεύγος Κανέλλου κι ο Σύνδεσμος Καλών Τεχνών. Νέα Εστία, 82 (1930), σελ. 548. [in Greek]

Λιάπης, Βαγγέλης (1997). Η Ελευσίνα στα νεότερα χρόνια (συμπληρωματικά στοιχεία), Ελευσίνα. [in Greek]

Λιάπης, Βαγγέλης (2005). Η διοικητική πορεία της Ελευσίνας (1835-2000), Ελευσίνα: Δήμος Ελευσίνας. [in Greek]

Λιάπης, Βαγγέλης (2007). Της θάλασσας και της στεριάς, Ελευσίνα: Media Press Χρήστος Καραμπάς. [in Greek]

Psoni, Anastasia (2018), The Image of the Feminine in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats and Angelos Sikelianos, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 

Σικελιανός, Άγγελος (1981). Πεζός Λόγος Γ’, Αθήνα: Ίκαρος. [in Greek]

Σικελιανός, Άγγελος (2009). Γράμματα στην Άννα, Αθήνα: Ίκαρος. [in Greek]

Σφυρόερας, Βασίλειος (2005). Ιστορία της Ελευσίνας: Από τη Βυζαντινή περίοδο μέχρι σήμερα, Ελευσίνα: Δήμος Ελευσίνας. [in Greek]

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