It was the worst of times for the believers of Demeter and Persephone. The triumph of Christianity across the empire dealt a serious blow to the famous city of Eleusis. The crowds of initiates, the exquisite votive offerings, the bronze statues and the generosity of the emperors who protected and maintained the monuments were little more than distant memories. The last hierophant saw the end approaching and tried to warn the remaining adherents of the old religion about what was coming.
According to a prophecy recorded by the Greek sophist and historian Eunapius (who had been initiated into the Great Mysteries by the last hierophant), the sanctuary of Demeter and the whole of Greece would soon be laid to waste. A man with no right to become a hierophant would occupy the position, despite the fact that he worshiped other gods and was neither a citizen of Athens nor a member of the Eumolpidae (the family of priests who maintained the Eleusinian Mysteries since the very beginning). It was not too long before the people of Eleusis experienced all that had been foretold. When the last legitimate hierophant (and prophet) passed away, the post was occupied by a priest of Mithras from the town of Thespiae. Shortly after ( in 396 CE) the Visigoths invaded Greece under the leadership of their king Alaric I. When they reached Eleusis, they sacked both the sanctuary and the city.
When the lights go out
When the Visigoths departed, the city of Eleusis slipped into obscurity and the ruins were largely abandoned to their fate. There was no longer any imperial interest in providing financial resources to repair the damage, while the number of believers had dropped dramatically. But if the authorities and the visitors forgot the once glorious Telesterion, the people of Eleusis were still there and had to somehow rebuild their lives. Only now their devotion and their faith found new means of expression.
The first (?) church of Eleusis
The most obvious change in the urban landscape of Eleusis was the appearance of churches in the city. The ruined sanctuary of Demeter was an ideal source of ready-made building material. Well-made pieces of marble were transported to other parts of Eleusis to be used for the construction of new public and private buildings. A small basilica was erected about two hundred meters from the main entrance to the ancient sanctuary. It had two narthexes (antechambers) and a separate room that served as the baptistery. The latter was probably built by a man called Artemisios; there is an inscription in situ that mentions his name. The outer narthex hosted those who were still receiving instruction in preparation for Christian baptism or confirmation; they were not allowed to attend the Divine Liturgy but they could listen to what was being said. Among the ruins of the basilica, there is also a marble throne with lion’s feet, another relic from the sanctuary.
The fate of Triptolemus
The small size of the church may be an indication of the city’s desolation, while its location outside the Telesterion may indicate that there were still residents who remained faithful to the ancient gods (or that their temple had only recently been abandoned and therefore the site was still considered polluted). It is, however, a fact that the builders of the Early Christian basilica used abundant stones from the Telesterion. Among the material reused in this way was the famous Eleusis relief, depicting the mission of Triptolemus. The Christians placed the sculpture very carefully on the floor of the church without damaging it. It remained in this location for centuries, until it was discovered by the Greek archaeologist Dimitris Filios in 1859.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
The early Christian basilica was abandoned at an unknown date. During the Ottoman period, a new church was erected among its ruins. It was the chapel of Saint Zacharias and, once again, we observe the extensive use of broken ancient stones pieces of marble (there is an inscription to the right of the mosaic depicting the prophet Zacharias above the main door, referring to Nicostrate, a woman who had been initiated into the Great Mysteries). Saint Zacharias was a priest in Jerusalem, as well as the father of Saint John the Baptist. In Eleusis, he is considered the patron saint of bakers. It is just one of the many links that connect him to the ancient religion. It is notable that Theophanes the Branded, bishop of Nicaea, called Saint Zacharias a hierophant, a theophantor, and sacred initiate; all these titles are direct references to the vocabulary and titles of the priests of Demeter. The saint’s portable icon was made in 1912, while his memory is celebrated on September 5.
The church of Saint Zacharias played an important role in the modern history of Eleusis. It was the only building in the village to escape total destruction during the Greek War of Independence. The first elementary school for male students was built next to the church (the school no longer exists) and the students used the church as a meeting place. At some point, three students dreamed of Saint Zacharias standing in the schoolyard with the Gospel in his hands, telling them that the church was his home. The residents of Eleusis immediately cleaned and restored the church. During the years of the great archaeological excavations in Eleusis, the area around the church was used as a storage site for the archaeological finds. Today, the chapel of Saint Zacharias is a precious relic of the past that encapsulates the whole history of Eleusis.