The Eleusis triangle

Ptolemy II Philadelphus was very fond of luxury. During his reign, the court of the Ptolemaic court reached an unparalleled level of splendor. He organized grand processions through the streets of Alexandria with elephants, ostriches, lions, and a rhinoceros in honor of god Dionysus. He supported the Library of Alexandria and promoted Greek culture with great enthusiasm. He was also very fond of women. He repudiated his first wife to marry his own full sister, but he also had many mistresses, including actresses and flute players. Ptolemy did not hesitate to bestow splendid gifts on his beloved women, allowing some of them to live in great mansions or dedicate valuable offerings to the gods. This generosity enabled Stratonice, one of many royal favorites, to be buried in a remarkable sepulcher in Eleusis. But not the one you are thinking of.

An Eleusis on every country

The ancient world seems replete with towns called Eleusis. The cult of Demeter and Kore was popular and widespread across the Mediterranean, especially wherever Greeks established an active presence. The name “Eleusis” was repeatedly employed to identify sites associated with the two goddesses, even though it is very unlikely that any such location hosted Mysteries with the splendor and popularity of the ancient rites that took place in the Telesterion of the original Attic Eleusis. There was a city called Eleusis on the island of Thera (modern-day Santorini) and numerous Eleusis’ in Magna Graecia (southern Italy). None of them became famous enough to be worthy of anything more than a passing reference in ancient sources, except from two instances.

Plagiarism

On the shores of Lake Copais, in Boeotia, there was a town called Eleusis. According to a popular local story, as narrated by the geographer Strabo, this Eleusis was founded by Cecrops, when he ruled over Boeotia. This is a fairly confusing reference, since Cecrops was the name of the mythical king of Athens, who reigned for fifty years and taught the Athenians writing, marriage, and ceremonial burial.

Strabo does not clarify whether he is referring to this king, or perhaps a namesake who founded this second Eleusis. In an act of flagrant plagiarism, this Cecrops also founded an Athens next to Eleusis. Both towns were lost one winter as a result of a massive flood. We should mention here, though, that Lake Copais was also known as Cephisian…which is the name of the river that flows near the original town of Eleusis.

The mystery of the Mysteries

The other famous (and more historical) Eleusis was a suburb of ancient Alexandria in Egypt, to the east of the city by the Canopian Gate. The name may have been selected by King Ptolemy II, when he decided to establish a local cult of Demeter with features borrowed from that of Attic Eleusis. It is very unlikely that Ptolemy envisioned the enactment of an exact copy of the Eleusinian Mysteries, since such an act would have been considered impious.

The celebrations in Alexandrian Eleusis seem to have centered on an annual panegyris with recitations and dramatic scenes inspired by the story of Demeter and Kore, as well as musical and athletic competitions. Perhaps the aspect of this festival that was most closely associated (or inspired) by the Eleusinian Mysteries was the carrying of the kalathos, a sacred basket whose contents remain unknown to the present day.

Local celebrities

Besides the body of Stratonice, the royal mistress, there were a few celebrities who made Alexandrian Eleusis home. It was, after all, a suburb with numerous lodging-places, on the shores of the main canal and offered “commanding views to those who wish to engage in revelry” according to Strabo. Among them was Callimachus, a young and ambitious man who came to Alexandria from his native Cyrene, in Libya, to pursue a career as a scholar. He resided in Eleusis and worked as a schoolmaster while seeking royal patronage (which he eventually found to his great benefit). During the Roman period, local residents seem to have been of a more “adventurous” nature, with Strabo attributing to them a particular “shamelessness” that made Eleusis stand out.

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