At the point where the Sacred Way emerges from the narrow pass of Daphni, travellers and mystai came upon the Rheitoi lakes, the traditional border between Eleusis and Athens. The Rheitoi lakes were supplied by spring waters at the western foothills of Mount Egaleo, at a distance of about 300 metres north of the coast. The springs were located in depressions and formed two lakes dedicated to Eleusis's goddesses: the northern lake to Demeter and the southern lake to Persephone. The waters of the lakes flowed into the sea and formed swamps, which made it difficult to cross at this point. As a result, the initial course of the Sacred Way climbed the mountain and passed north of the springs. In classical times, however, artificial dams were built to hold the lake waters, and small bridges were constructed over the streams, allowing passers-by and carts to cross the area safely.
In 421 BCE, the Athenians decided to build a stone bridge, one and a half metres wide, so that the priests and priestesses of Demeter could carry the sacred objects to Athens safely. The bridge was deliberately narrow, so they could not cross it on carts. Instead, the bearers of the sacred objects had to travel on foot. The inscription referring to the bridge's construction survives at the Archaeological Museum of Eleusis. The stele is adorned with a relief depicting Demeter and Persephone with torches in their hands and the goddess Athena in armour, offering her right hand to a young man (Triptolemus or the personification of the deme Eleusis).
During the first summer of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE), a skirmish took place in the Rheitoi lakes between the Spartans and the Athenian cavalry. The Spartan king Archidamus was looting the Thriasian Plain to force the Athenians to leave their city walls and offer battle, or at least to cause discord among the urban population and the farmers who stood by helplessly and watched their enemies destroy their crops. However, the Athenians adhered to Pericles's proposal to avoid battle with the Spartan infantry and remained safely behind their walls. The exception was small cavalry units that made short forays to harass the Peloponnesians. One of these groups clashed with Archidamus' army at the Rheitoi lakes and was soundly defeated.
The water of the Rheitoi lakes was salty due to its proximity to the sea. As a result, the lakes were famous for their eels, although fishing rights was the exclusive prerogative of the priests of Demeter.
In the early 19th century, the water of the Rheitoi lakes was used to operate two coastal watermills. The French novelist Gustave Flaubert, who visited Eleusis in the late 1850s, crossed the Rheitoi lakes using a bridge and described the ponds as a flooded swamp. The area was neglected as the lack of resources, and state indifference did not allow the residents to maintain the drainage ditches. The salty water flooded large areas of arable land. A few small vineyards grew on the rocky shores, while malaria decimated the Arvanites of the nearby communities.
The two lakes remained practically intact until the 1950s. The north, now known as Kefalari, was drained and excavated in the 1950s during the construction of the Aspropyrgos refineries. The south lake still exists, although its waters remain mainly invisible to passers-by, hidden behind dense reeds. Its current name (Lake Koumoundourou) is due either to an old family of landowners to whom the wider area belonged in the 19th century or to the Prime Minister Alexandros Koumoundouros, during whose tenure in the 1860s, road construction works were carried out between the sea and the lake.
Researched and written by
Cosmopoulos, Michael. Bronze Age Eleusis and the Origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Kourouniotis, Konstantinos. Eleusis: a guide to the excavations and the museum, Athens: The Archaeological Society at Athens, 1936.
Mylonas, George. Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, London: Routledge, 1962.
Papangeli, Kalliopi.Eleusis: the archaeological site and the museum, Athens: Omilos Latsi, 2002.
1st (and last) image: Aerial drone photo of the Koumoundourou lake near the Aspropirgos industrial refinery in Attica, Greece / Aerial-motion
2nd image: Unknown: The Rheitoi lakes / Kostas Lykidis (private collection)
3rd image: Unknown (422-421 BCE): The Rheitoi Decree / Archaeological Museum of Eleusis
4th image: Sir William Gell (c. 1801-1813): The Thriassian Plain and the Rheitoi lakes / The British Museum