«Orestes returnes»

Thomas Oberender in conversation with Romeo Castellucci about his new production «Ma» in Elfesina, his understanding of the image, the sacred and the Eleusinian Mysteries. 


The Eleusinian Mysteries were a state cult of Athens that lasted 1100 years until their demise in the 4th century AD. This cult for the fertility goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone is considered the most famous and at the same time the most secret religious rite of ancient Greece. Its sanctuaries in Eleusis, today’s Elefsina, were a place of pilgrimage and transformation. At the centre of the Great Mystery was the return of Persephone from the underworld. The entrance to Hades, named after the ruler of the realm of the dead and Persephone’s abductor, was part of the temple complex. After several days of purifying preparation and a vigil, the initiates consumed a special drink, Kykeon, in the great hall. It was made by priests from barley and mentha pulegium, among other things, leading to speculation that it also contained ergot containing LSD. Over the course of two millennia, generations of priests refined this drug-based technology of expanding consciousness and crossing the threshold between life and death. In a sense, this potion was the ayahuasca of the European indigenous people, those Greeks whose thought, piety and cult practice formed the origin of our Western culture. Aeschylus, who was born in Eleusis, drank Kykeon, as did Socrates, Plato, many Roman emperors, slaves, people of all sexes, citizens and foreigners. Only matricides and barbarians, people who did not speak Greek, were excluded from the ceremony. The transgression of this former commandment is the starting point for Romeo Castellucci’s production of «Ma» in the ruins of the sacred sites of Elefsina. «Only through sacrilege can the sacred be reactivated,» writes dramaturg Lucia Amara about this project on the website of Castellucci’s Companie Societas. Over the course of eleven days, the audience wanders through the abandoned places of worship together with dancers and musicians and discovers Castellucci’s vision of the vitality and meaning of this place. Elefsina is European Capital of Culture in 2023, together with Timișoara in Romania and Veszprém in Hungary.


Thomas Oberender: There is a photo of you on the website of the «Genesis» project of the University of Thessaloniki. It is the only photo of you at the sanctuary of Eleusis that I could find.

Romeo Castellucci: I don’t know this photo.

It was taken in front of the walled entrance to the realm of the dead in the temple area of Eleusis. People still lay flowers there for their deceased. The place in front of the cave of Hades.

Ah, yes, at the Plutonion.

Why there?

Because of the cave. Other things happen in a cave. The cave is a tomb. The cave is a womb. I like this kind of place. Because it is a lack of something. It is a hole. Not an object. That’s beautiful. It’s a lack of something. I like that emptiness. It’s also a kind of via negativa. And I think, as Hans Blumenberg, the German philosopher, said, the first artist was a woman. According to palaeontologists, in prehistory, women stayed in place while the men were out hunting, had to feed the baby, and so they developed a different kind of power, Blumenberg said, they invented fantasy. And then they edited the history of the tribe. Women invented not only art, but also religion. Because only a woman knows the secret of life. To give birth is a mystery. And it was certainly a woman who invented the burial to return the corpses to the earth.

Demeter and Kore (Persephone), two women, were at the centre of the mysteries of Eleusis.

But you know, there is another figure. A man, Eubuleo. He was a little shepherd, a very young boy. He was in the field with his pigs and he witnessed the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades. After this event the myth says that Eubuleo establishes the Mysteries.

What were your reasons for carrying out this project in Elefsina, the sanctuary of ancient mysteries?

It is impossible to say «no» to such a proposal. Because for me, when I was a student, Eleusis was the starting point, the decisive point of everything. It was the beginning - in my personal work, but also for Western culture. Eleusis is the starting point. Probably more important than the theatre of Dionysus. It’s the origin. For me it was like a call. Not a call from someone, a call from the place. Eleusis is not important for some archaeological reasons, it’s the origin, the origin even now. Going there is a perfect rendezvous with theatre.