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The Jason Triumph and the Greater Mysteries of Eleusis
Jason went to the city of the Golen Fleece
Where the Sun's swift rays are stored
In a Golden Chamber by the Ocean's lips.
Mimneros (tr. Barnstone)
Flush every thing that hath a vermeil hue,
Let the rose grow intense and warm the air,
And let the clouds of even and of morn
Float in voluptuous fleeces o’er the hills.
Towards evening, at Orpheus request, they beached their vessel
on the island of Atlas’ daughter Elektra, that by learning
those sacred rites, with their benign initiations,
they might steer in greater safety across the chilling deep.
Of such rites I say no more, but bid farewell to
The island itself and its indwelling deities, whose
Are the mystery cults, which here we may not mention.
The Argonautika, Apollonios Rhodios (tr. Peter Green)
Mysteries of The Sun Reborn
The theory outlined in this chapter was the result of pretty much my first investigation into the Mysteries, occurring to me while I lived in Greece in 2000. I didn’t have then as full and rounded a knowledge of these matters as I do now; so, did I when reviewing it recently find it in need of an overhaul? Actually, no; I just found more reasons to consider that I really was onto something.
In the last chapter we followed Lucius’ partial disclosure of the secret initiations into the Mysteries of Isis and Osiris, noting how he had been (presumably in a symbolic dramatization) taken down through the Underworld, where he witnessed the Night-time Sun, and was then crowned like the Sun at dawn, just as Osiris was crowned at dawn after his rebirth in the passion play of this festival way back in the nnth dynasty, as detailed on the stele in Abydos.
The night-time journey followed by rebirth at dawn as the Sun was the chief element of the story described and depicted on the Middle (or New?) Kingdom tombs of the pharaohs in Thebes from around xxx B.C. and it informed the (somewhat later?) Book of the Dead, the book that gave its initiates the same type of knowledge as was imparted in the Greek Eleusis Mysteries: directions for entering the paradise fields of the Afterlife. One of the most intriguing features of this Egyptian night journey of the Sun is that it involved passing through Underworld lands where the inhabitants walked upside down. This is factually correct, of course, and it pre-empts the equivalent Greek story of the Antipodes.
In other words certain of the Egyptians of that earlier period seem to have understood the spherical nature of the Earth.
Looking at this part of a depiction of beings in the Underworld from The Book of What is in the Duat from xxx B.C. we see a being with two heads, seemingly those of some kind of long-necked bird. Apparently the same character, though the heads are more serpentine, was painted onto the ceiling of the Ptolemaic Temple of Hathor-Maat in Deir El Medina, near Thebes, on the western side of the Nile, shown here.
From near here, in the Valley of the Kings, the pharaohs of the ... period began their own journey from the tomb towards rebirth. Two serpents – cobras, actually – were said to guard each of the gates that the Sun passed through on his night journey, as Shaw and Nicholson tell us in their Dictionary of Ancient Egypt.
For all intents and purposes, precisely the same image is engraved onto just such a gate – the Gateway of the Sun – in Tiahunaco in Peru, in South America, sporting a crown of solar serpent-rays.
When the Sun shines down on the American continent, it has already set on Egypt, and will not rise on the Egyptian eastern horizon for some hours. Could this have been commissioned as a representation of one of the gates of the Sun’s journey through the Underworld?
And was the secret content of the Mysteries, which Lucius is forbidden to reveal, something to do with imparting this knowledge of the spherical shape of the Earth? If so, how could this have been demonstrated by something tangible and observable?
My Family and Other Tsiporo Drinkers, 1
Spring 2000 and I've been teaching in the port of Volos on the east coast of Greece for a couple of months. But right now it's the weekend and I have visitors from England. My parents, to be exact.
The previous night had been a somewhat wild one. I finished teaching around 9ish and the Aged Ps had only just arrived in a car hired down in Athens. We'd gone straight to a taverna just off the seafront and followed several carafs of wine with the contents of a mysterious plastic bottle. Having been told that we couldn't have ouzo because of something to do with licenses, my father had asked the waiter if we could have some of whatever it was that was being plied to the Greeks on the next table out of this plastic bottle. We were admitted to their Mystery; we partook of the sacred drink.
I was soon flying. My parents got into a conversation with these Greek neighbours. Their daughter was coming to England to study. Arrangements were made to meet them the following evening.
Then the dancing started. Blindingly, amazingly fast bouzouki playing and foot-blurring Greek circle dancing, with three figures visible amongst the throng who seemed to be dancing out an unorthodox pattern: my father, my mother and myself.
I did my best, but in situations like this when you don't even know what it is that you are supposed to be doing your best at, it didn't count for much.
My parents went off to their hotel room overlooking the bay and I meandered back towards my apartment. On the way I heard a familiar sound drifting out of another taverna...more bouzouki music! I was quite the expert now, so in I went. More octopus. More ouzo. Every bit the integrated traveller. Dionysian. Bon viveur. Greeker than the Greeks. And with this little cephalopodic dessert course now consumed, I stood up, patted my stomach in satisfaction, thought better of more dancing, went back out into the night air to resume my journey, and promptly threw up.
In Chapter 2 we only considered the Mysteries of Daphnis and Chloe from the young goatherd’s point of view. The young shepherdess Chloe, the female protagonist, has an equally important role in the novel, and she too is a lost-and-found child. Chloe, like Daphnis, has a connection to the Mysteries.
She remains technically a virgin until the last part of the book, so that her temporary abduction by pirates can be see as an intentional link to the old Greek myth of the abduction of the maiden daughter of Demeter, Persephone, all the more so because the name Chloe is a Greek word meaning fresh, new, green shoots, bringing to mind Persephone as the goddess of new plant life, and her mother, Demeter, the fruitful soil. In fact Demeter Chloe was a cultic name used in Athens. Persephone, in the myth that we know was central to the Eleusis Mysteries, was carried off into the Underworld where she became the bride of the Lord of that place - who in one tradition is stated to be Dionysos, which, it is said, was why Demeter, sorrowing at her daughter’s disappearance, refused to drink wine. This is how we know the cheering drink that she took, the prototype for the sacred drink imbibed by the Eleusis initiates, was something other than wine. Persephone became queen of the Underworld, which meant also of the Elysian Fields, the paradise located there to which the blessed were granted access. In the Mysteries of Eleusis - the largest and most famed of all the ancient initiation ceremonies - Persephone's return from the Underworld was celebrated in September, as the Sun rose in the constellation of Virgo, the Virgin, at dawn, preceded by the rise of the constellation of the Herdsman, sometimes called Boötes and at other times Ikarios. While in the Underworld the new husband had seeded Persephone with his own next incarnation, and the Second Degree initiates at the Eleusis Mysteries celebrated not only the reappearance of the Virgin but also the birth of Iacchos, the infant Dionysos, quite possibly at the moment of the heliacal rise of the bright star on the lap of Boötes, Arcturus. So it was, indeed, that the Shepherd was the first to witness the birth of the Divine Child of the Virgin - the Adoration that was grafted into the Christian story, as was the Springtime Ascension, of course.
The Thy Birth : Seated Long-Bearded Dionysos bearing a thyrsos, with his own infant self Iacchos bearing a vine on his lap: Arcturus on the Lap of Pointy-bearded Boötes.
In the myth of Persephone the Underworld Lord appeared as a rider in a chariot who appeared from out of the Earth, took her up into the chariot, and then went back down into the Underworld. In Daphnis and Chloe the two young lovers ‘wait for the end of winter as from a resurrection from death.’ Could the author have had in mind the springtime reappearance of the Boötes and Virgo constellations in the East?
My Family and Other Tsiporo Drinkers, 2
Ah yes, the octopus.
I don't remember much after stepping outside the second taverna, but I woke up in my own bed.
With a headache...
...SENT UP FROM THE NETHER DEPTHS OF HADES ITSELF!
If I understand correctly, ouzo, or rather the local Volos version - tsiporo - is made by fermenting the left-over sticks and stuff after the soft, luscious parts have been used to make wine. A terrible idea. All sorts of impurities.
But here I am the next morning awaiting the arrival or the Ps in the hire car. We are due to take a drive up and over Pilion, the great double-peaked mountain that looms over Volos. Up there is where Chiron the centaur has that wild school whose roll call of illustrious past students includes Jason, Achilles and Aristaeus. I look up at the mountain. Something is different. White bits. Oh my god, it's snowed! My parents have come down to the Sunny South to put the English winter behind them, and I offer snow, by Dionysos!
The top parts of the mountain are red-gold, the Sun's beams striking that higher place already, then the gold snakes its way ground-ward as the Sun comes up.
But when radiant Dawn looked out with eyes of brightness
On the high peaks of Pilion, and the morning
Breeze stirred the sea, left the headlands calm and clear
Then Tiphys arose, and roused up his companions
To board the ship, and set their oars for rowing.
The Argonautika, Apollonios Rhodious, tr. Peter Green
Soon enough the parents arrived, and didn't the whole city know about it.
By some freak of engineering each time the car was steered to the left the horn sounded. I climbed in and we headed off, waking up the locals wherever we went. We passed a couple of early risers, old ladies waiting patiently at the side of the road. We hallooed them with more jubilant toot-toots. What jolly types we must have seemed!
Of the journey up Pilion I shrink from speaking in any detail. Suffice it to say that ouzo hangovers and precipitous winding mountain passes don't mix. We stopped at the top when we came upon hoards of people skiing, then wound down the north side to a beach.
Later that evening back in Volos we met the Greek family as arranged, plus the daughter and a grandmother who was not able to remember for more than a minute that we were not native Greek speakers. They then took us to an intriguing site - a large candle-filled cave out of town in use as a church. I wondered what it had been used as in pre-Christian times. Was this where Chiron has his school?
The Mystery Calendar : The Maiden and the Chariot Rider throughout the Year
In fact, before we go any further, it will serve us well if we get really clear on what exactly Virgo and Boötes do throughout the year and how this is connected to the Athens-Eleusis calendar. I’ve taken the date of 600BC, and a latitude of 38°, that of Athens and so also close to that of Eleusis and indeed Sicily, the home of Daphnis and the place where Persephone goes down in some versions. These then were the figures I fed into my astronomy software. The main time of day that concerns us is evening; we want to know about how constellations were revealed when the curtain of sunlight was drawn back after sunset and the stellar performance commenced. What was happening at dawn is also of significance at particular times. (For an idea of what the constellations do in the current period, add a month or so to each event.)
Let’s start in mid October, which is shortly after the time of the Eleusis Mysteries, and follow the year through to the next Mysteries. In October 600 BC Virgo was already set before sunset, and Boötes the Herdsman (and in the Eleusinian context the Ploughman?) was setting on the western horizon. Virgo in fact remained absent from the evening skies from October through to February (the Maiden back with Hades during the Winter), with Boötes also being partly set by sunset, and effectively completely so in midwinter – “Dionysos descent into the Underworld” as in the Athenian festive calendar, and expressed in Dionysos’ visit to Hades in Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs, performed at the Lenaia festival in January.
But in March they were both, Virgo and Boötes, visible just after sunset, not in the West anymore but rising on the eastern horizon, just as nature warmed up and plant growth burgeoned. This was the time of the Anthesteria (28th of February), the festival in which the Athenians celebrated Dionysos’ return from the Underworld.
From March through to June Boötes and Virgo were (and still are) seen higher and higher and further across the sky (from East to West) when the Sun-curtain went up each evening, and Boötes actually reached the very top of the evening sky in June, “Daphnis at Heaven’s Gate” in Virgil’s Vth Eclogue (now in July).
The two constellations then began to get lower in July and August, i.e. as the Dog Days set in, Daphnis on the wane as in the First Idyll of Theokritus, and perhaps also Daphnis going down to the stream in the Virgil Eclogue. In August Virgo was only visible for a short time in the evening before she set in the west.
Then in September at sunset Virgo was setting with the Sun (going into the Underworld in the Golden Chariot of the Hymn to Demeter?), indeed the Sun was in Virgo, and at Dawn too the majority of Virgo was not yet risen. Only the stars Beta Virgo and Epsilon Virgo may have glimmered dimly through the pre-glow of Dawn, but not the bright star of Virgo, Spica. So at this time the Maiden was absent both in the morning and in the evening, and indeed all through the night – “The Disappearance of Persephone” during which Demeter searched in vain for her beloved daughter.
“Then for nine days queenly Demeter wandered
over the Earth with flaming torches in her hands.”
Some of Boötes was risen before Dawn at this time, but not yet his bright star, Arcturus.
By the middle of September, however, bright Arcturus rose just before the Sun, as if heralding the immanent return of the Maiden.
“But when the tenth enlightening Dawn had come, Hecate, with a torch in her hands, met her, and spoke to her and told her news…”
“And the daughter of rich-haired Rhea answered her not, but sped swiftly with her, holding flaming torches in her hands. So they came to Helios, who is watchman of both gods and men, and stood in front of his horses.”
Then by the end of September, at last, Demeter’s wait was over as the bright star of Virgo, Spica, rose clearly before the Sun, “The Return of the Maiden from the Underworld” celebrated by the initiates at Eleusis. The day of initiation at Eleusis was Boedromion 20, October 1st. And that brings us back to where we started.
“And Aidoneus, ruler over the dead, smiled and obeyed the behest of Zeus the king. For he straightway urged wise Persephone, saying:-
"Go now, Persephone, to your dark-robed mother, go, and feel kindly in your heart towards me: be not so exceedingly cast down; for I shall be no unfitting husband for you among the deathless gods, that am own brother to father Zeus….
And when Demeter saw them, she rushed forth as does a Maenad down some thick-wooded mountain, while Persephone on the other side, when she saw her mother's sweet eyes, left the chariot and horses, and leaped down to run to her, and falling upon her neck, embraced her.”
In such a way was the climax of the Mysteries expressed in the sensitive, humanistic and evocative Homeric verses.
Being clear on this cycle will greatly help us in understanding the Greek agricultural Mysteries, both those of the Grape that we looked at in Chapter 2, and those of the Grain that we look at here in Chapter Four. For the full Athenian calendar with festival dates, see http://www.antonineimperium.org/athenian_calendar.htm
My Family and Other Tsiporo Drinkers, 3
The following morning, my constitution back to normal, we undertook another adventure, this time heading to the quayside and embarking eastward in a big yellow motorized catamaran, just as Jason and crew had embarked eastward from this same harbour in the Argo, the archetypal ship with its own constellation, on their quest for the Golden Fleece all those years ago.
On that day all the gods in heaven were spectators
Of the ship and this race of demigods, valiantly steering
Over the deep. On the topmost peaks of Pilion,
The nymphs gazed in amazement as they witnessed
Athena of Iton’s handiwork, and the heroes themselves,
Fists gripping and plying the oars.
The Argonautika, Apollonios Rhodious, tr. Peter Green
It was good to have my stomach back in order. I never drank ouzo again. Apart from those few times in Larissa with fellow English teachers (waking up in an apartment that was sandwidged between two Greek churches both in the habit of scaring the b'Jesus out of the faithful first thing on Sunday morning with mechanized a-melodic untuned bell chimes. Not particularly heavenly, as far as I could see.)
Other than that, that was it for me re the ouzo. Oh yes and the time when my sister came to stay in Volos in the Summer, with a lawyer friend of hers.
"We'll stay out for another drink if you buy the next round," my sister had said to me.
"I'll get the next round if the next bar we go into gives it to us for free," I said, and we went straight into another bar, and saw a line of drinks on the counter.
"Help yourself," said the girl behind the bar, "They're free. We're closing up."
So we shrugged off our disbelief and helped ourselves, got to know the manager, then found ourselves being whisked off in his four-wheel drive to a night club around the bay. According to my sister my catchphrase from this point on was the cringeworthy "I think I'm in there," even with reference to a Greek girl who was standing right next to her boyfriend.
While my sister was visiting with her friend we also hired a yacht (with crew) and sailed out from the port of Skiathos, coming that bit closer to the journey of Jason on that ancient ship of myth. We pulled into a uninhabited little bay of the island of Skopelos, first settled by “Grape”, son of Dionysos and Ariande, myth informs us. Here we ate well and drank good wine, then sailed on a little, and swam ashore. Eventually we set sail back in the direction we had come from.
In the tracks of a rustic herdsman sheep by the thousand
Hurry back to their steading, glutted with good grass,
And he goes ahead of them, skilfully playing a country
Air on his shrill pipe, so the fishes followed,
And an ever-freshening breeze blew the vessel onward,
Till Skiathos showed in mid-sea....
The Argonautika, Apollonios Rhodious, tr. Peter Green
Tales of ouzo induced woe lead us appropriately enough into a darker side of the Dionysian Mysteries, the tragic theatre. I've said that before we get to the dawn we will first have to look at the darkness, and this is more the case for the first part of this section than it was in the last, as we investigate the weighty drama of the Agamemnon saga, but the hour of illumination is close at hand.
Mysteries Thinly Veiled : Aechylus' Agamemnon
The obvious predecessors of the novels in the Greek world were the plays of the Greek stage. Written on scrolls as books the plays continued to be read, and, we can assume, it was then only a small step before alterations were made to make them more suitable for the reading experience, or they inspired dramatic stories intended only to be read.
That the serious plays of the Dionysian Theatre of Athens evolved out of the Dionysian religion is no secret, and with this in mind it becomes less of a surprise to realise that the novels, too, were based on the Mysteries.
Those plays that bear the closest resemblance to the novels are the ones with happy resolutions such as certain of Euripdes' works, like Alkestis and more notably Ion, named after a child who, like Chariclea in the Ethiopian Story novel, worked in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, was royal, lost-and-found, and narrowly evaded being killed by his own mother prior to recognition.
But even the dark and heavy Orestes trilogy by Aeschylus ultimately ends with a solution and optimism for the future. It is the first part of the trilogy which primarily concerns us here, and words like "lighted-hearted" don't immediately spring to mind.
The history of the theatre starts with a type of Greek song called the dithyrhamb. A sacrifice accompanied the singing of the dithyrhamb, and the songs themselves were about the birth of Dionysos. We might recall that in Egypt a song was song by the lector priest to accompany a dance in honour of the bull-god at the time of the bull sacrifice. The same paradoxical ambiguities surround the dithyrhamb. The purpose of the sacrifice of the goat to Dionysos is clear - the blood of the animal soaked into the soil and fertilized it. Greek sentimentality created certain complexities around this rite. They wanted to be able to feel that the slaughter was just.
In fact, if we are to assume that the dithyrhamb actually evolved out of the hymn to the bull god sung in Egypt - and the bull did precede the goat as the Dionysian animal in Greece, as Kerenyi outlines in Dionysos : Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life - if we make this assumption, then we can clearly see the Greek mindset of the later age expressing itself in the altered approach, more sentimental, and, as a result, more intellectually contrived, yet on the plus side also looser and more creative.
The wine did its work so that the dithyrhamb became improvisational, with all the creativity that entailed. But the Ma'at which the Egyptians had accepted in the order of nature was not enough, and the Greeks attempted to make use of an intellectualisation in order to feel that the killing of the goat was morally justified. This intellectualisation was based on the fact that if goats manage to get into a vineyard they will set about eating the vines.
For this offence the goat is slaughtered to Bacchus at all the altars,
and the ancient games come upon the stage,
and the sons of Theseus set up their prize for genius about their villages
and the corners of their streets,
and, amid the merriment of their cups,
danced in the velvet meadows on oiled goat skins.
The Georgics, Book II, Virgil
So the sacrifice was viewed as a punishment for this crime against Dionysos, and the evolution of that motif is seen in the dramatic punishment of flawed protagonists in the plays that grew out of the dithyrhamb. So for example in the second part of the Orestes trilogy it is the evil Aigisthos, "Goat Strength" who suffers, and then there were the tragic protagonists whose flaw was to oppose the Dionysian, rather as the goat seemed to do when chomping on the vine.
The goat was, in fact, quite innocent of this supposed crime, and intellectual justifications of that nature are not healthy. The higher quality of tragedy is simply Dignity - respect for the animals who help us in various ways, such as the provision of meat. Dances for the soul of a slaughtered animal are to be found in old shamanic cultures around the world, and the dignity of the animal is honoured simply by the lack of frivolity, and we may think of this as the older, less neurotically fanciful version.
Nevertheless, it was from this complexity that theatre was born, which in turn lead to the novels, and so a lot of creativity has come out of it, and it did allow the likes of Aeschylus to present ideas of morality to the Athenian audience.
In some cases the connection to the animal sacrifice was particularly explicit, as we shall see next.
Aechylus wrote somewhere between seventy and ninety plays, only seven of which have survived. A story tells how he was told in a dream by the gods to start writing these plays. His craft was then well-honed. It was fifteen years after he started writing before he carried away the winner's wreath from the Theatre of Dionysos.
What is particularly interesting with regard to our current investigation is that Aeschylus was taken to court accused of revealing the secrets of the Greater Mysteries of Eleusis in one of his plays. A story relates that he was acting in the play himself when initiates among the audience began to suspect the disclosure, and that the playwright had to seek sanctuary by running to the altar of Dionysos when they stormed the stage.
We have not said a great deal so far in this book relatively speaking about the Mysteries of Eleusis, but perhaps it is time we did so, for these were by far the most renowned, majestic and monumental of the Greek initiation ceremonies. Great writers of the time spoke of the Mysteries in glowing terms and with the utmost respect. An Athenian named Isocrates, to pick one example, said that the ceremony ‘inspires in those who partake of it sweeter hopes regarding both the end of life and all eternity’. Cicero, a Roman, wrote ‘among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries.’ And the poet Pindar wrote ‘Blessed is he who has seen these things before he goes beneath the earth.’
They took place every year in autumn for over a thousand years, and were spread out over a number of days. The city of Eleusis is located a lengthy walk north-west of Athens, and this walk was undertaken by the thousands of initiates each year as a great procession at the start of the initiation. Textual evidence from the ancient world attests to there having been something really rather awe-inspiring about these Mysteries, which were concerned with, on one level, grain and the agriculture goddesses Demeter and her daughter Persephone, and on some other but related level with eternal life, as with the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Nothing was thought to compare with the Mysteries of Eleusis. Even wars were stopped temporarily to allow people to attend. (A modern equivalent could be a day without cars in Athens and the suburbs to allow Greeks to walk this old route in peace and consider their heritage, the Greek Dreamtime. I visited the ruins on the site in September of 2001 on a pleasant sunny Autumn day and found that it retained an air of invigoration.)
A democratic spirit predominated, for anyone, male or female, upper class or lower, could become initiated, as long as they had enough Greek to understand what was said.
Certain secret things went on, were said and observed which left people feeling happy, and it was forbidden for anyone to reveal them to the uninitiated. But Aeschylus, himself a native of the city of Eleusis, had done just this, it was claimed, in one of his plays. He was, however, found not guilty by the court partly, it is thought, because he had served valiantly as a soldier, and ostensibly because he claimed not to have been an initiate at Eleusis.
Exactly which play contained the disclosure is not included in the anecdote that has come down to us. With only about a tenth of his plays having survived, we might need the will of the gods on our side for the play in question to be one of them. As far as I can see, however, his Agamemnon is that very play.
In the opening scene a kind of prologue is uttered by a watchman outside the palace of Argos. This prologue makes reference to certain things that will be spoken of that will be understood only by those in the know.
"A great ox has laid his weight across my tongue. But if stones could speak, these stone walls would have a tale to tell. Myself, I can speak to those who already know; if another asks me, I forget."
As if this reference to information only for the initiated wasn't enough, while it is being spoken events are going on in the play that are very reminiscent of certain things we do know went on in the Great Mysteries of Eleusis. The watchman finally sees, after years of waiting, a distant beacon fire that signals the end of the Trojan War, and, he hopes, the return of his king, Agamemnon. The watchman hails this beacon as the "kindler of dark, O daylight birth of dawn."
He then asks that word of this signal be carried to Agamemnon's queen inside the palace, so that she may
"Rise like dawn, and lift in answer strong,
To this glad lamp her womens' triumph song"
to quote from Gilbert Murray's excellent rhyming translation. The watchman speaks then of a celebration dance and says that he himself "will tread the dance before all others."
The watchman then completes the prologue with the reference to secret things that I mentioned before. Within the story line this is applicable to Clytemnestra's affair with Aigisthus, which those who didn't go to Troy but stayed back working in the palace would have known about, but the Watchman is speaking to the audience, his speech fulfilling the role of a prologue, so the question of who among the audience might not know about this is one that returns us to the other level of interpretation, the more literal one, a reference to certain Mysteries.
Next, after this speech, the triumph cry is heard in the palace. The handmaidens and attendants then appear on stage bearing torches and incense is kindled on altars. Then the day begins to dawn.
It may well have been at this point that the initiates in the audience of the Theatre of Dionysos below the Acropolis in Athens stormed onto the stage and Aeschylus, playing the watchman, sped off to the altar of Dionysos for safety, because all of this is reminiscent of the Eleusis ceremony. Most obviously, dances at night by dancers holding torches were one of the aspects of the Mysteries that could not be kept secret from passers by. We also know that at the climax of the Mysteries, with the initiates all standing inside the vast darkened initiation hall, a light shone in through a small hole in the roof shortly before dawn, and a great fire was lit as a triumph cry went up in honour of the birth of Iachos the Torch-Bearer and child-self of Dionysos, self-begotten son of the Maiden who had been impregnated in the Underworld. We also know from Aristophanes' Frogs, in which we see a mock procession of initiates of Eleusis dancing in the Elysian Fields, that this Iachos was "the light-burning star of the nocturnal Mysteries." As such the distant beacon, the torch and the appearance of a star all begin to seem in some way synonymous. After all in the Aeschylus' Agamemnon the beacon fire is described both as "a new star, the promised sign" and as a torch passed in a "relay of flame": "the third to receive the towering torch was Athos, rock of Zeus." (Tr. Philip Vellacott.)
In the Homeric hymn to Demeter, in whose honour the Mysteries were performed, we read how the goddess, who had been sorrowing and aging while looking for her lost daughter, was suddenly rejuvenated as a "light like lightening" shone into her house along with the fragrance of incense. This would appear to refer to the manifestation of Persephone that occurred in the Mysteries when a great fire surged up.
This is enough to rouse considerable curiosity. Let's read on and see what else the play has to tell us.
Agamemnon returns from Troy along with the Trojan priestess Cassandra. Clytemnestra, his wife, slays them both in vengeance for Agamemnon having murdered their daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice. Of course there was the other version where the daughter was saved by Achilles who then married her and fathered the line that lead to another hero who would help stop a sacrifice of a daughter by her own father - Theagenes of The Ethiopian Story. But Aeschylus worked in his trilogy with the version that would allow a trail of dramatic retributions to be worked out on the stage like the slaughter of the goat that attacks the vines, and in terms of dramatic intensity not even Shakespeare comes close.
Even in his own time Aechylus was considered a little obscure; Dionysos himself (in The Frogs of Aristophanes) confesses to having stayed up all night wondering what a horse-cockerel might be, and it is partly in these peculiarities of dialogue, an alibi of obscurity, that Aeschylus had hoped to be able to make what must surely have been deliberate references to a Thesmophorian style bull-sacrifice, and, perhaps, the related Eleusis Mysteries.
Agamemnon has gone inside the palace; Cassandra the Trojan prophetess he brought back with him stands outside uttering her predictions about the events shortly to occur. Realizing that her schemes of murderous revenge may be rumbled if the prophetess continues, Clytemnestra complains that there is no time to stand around listening to such crazed utterances because there is a celebratory sacrifice to be carried out:
"How long must I stand dallying at the gate?
Even now the beasts to Hestia consecrate
Wait by the midmost fire, since there is wrought
This high fulfilment for which no man thought."
The "beasts" who are to be sacrificed are Agamemnon and Cassandra herself; this is what Clytemnestra wants to get done sooner rather than later.
But Cassandra continues to describe her visions and as they become clearer she cries:
"Ah, look! Look! Keep his mate from the Wild Bull!
A tangle of raiment, see;
A black horn, and a blow, and he falleth full,
In the marble amid the water. I councel ye."
Here, then, Agamemnon is the wild bull, and the bull's mate, who must be kept from him, is his wife, the queen, Clytemnestra. Aeschylus repeats this same apparent allegory of animal sacrifice several times in the play. When Cassanda, still seeing visions, speaks of
"death drifting from the doors, and blood like rain!"
the leader of the elders of the palace tries to reassure her:
" 'Tis but the beasts at the altar slain."
Cassandra sees that she herself will die, but walks on into the palace, at which point the leader asks:
"Knowing they doom, why walkest thou with clear eyes,
Like some god-blinded beast, to sacrifice?"
After the act in question has been carried out in the play, (an act which is imagined to have occurred off set), Clytemnestra appears at the doors of the palace holding an axe, the instrument that was used in the sacrifice of bulls at Delphi in the classical period as it had been in Minoan Crete long before. That it was the Double Axe or labyrs may be inferred from a reference to it later in the play as "double bladed iron".
It is unusual for a poet to make use of the same allegorical image in such a repeated way. Normally poets use an array of images to fill out the picture from various angles. That Aeschylus should allude to the sacrifice of a bull who is the mate of the queen, and that this queen should reign at Argos, to which were brought the Thesmophoria from Egypt, according to myth, namely the bull sacrifice rite from the harvest festival of Min Bull-of-his-Mother - this all suggests that perhaps it is not a poetic allegory at all, or rather the allegorical process is the other way round - bestial in actuality and human poetically, dramatically, an audience-thrilling personification. Not that bull-sacrifice was the secret of the Eleusis Mysteries of course; no, it was something more inspiring and out of the ordinary. We shall come to it presently.
Another interesting reference in the play is where the mourners sing:-
"Ah, sorrow, sorrow! My king, my king!
How shall I weep, what shall I say?
Caught in the web of this spider thing,
In foul death gasping thy life way!
Woe's me, woe's me, for this slavish lying,
The doom of craft and the lonely dying,
The iron two-edged and the hands that slay."
In Minoan Crete wild bulls were captured by means of a net, allowing them to be brought back alive so that they could, for example, be sacrificed during a rite. This would appear to be behind the reference to the "web of this spider thing". The live capture may also have been the original way that the Perseus bull-throwing integrated with myth.
But if this bull-sacrifice was not the big secret of the Greater Mysteries, what was? It is time now to look into that mysterious light that shines into the dark.
The Golden Fleece
A striking similarity between the Eleusis Mysteries and the Egyptian Festival of Min is that at the end of the former the hierophant wordlessly held aloft an ear of corn to the assembled crowd, while in the depictions of the Egyptian festival we see the pharaoh cutting a sheaf of corn with a sickle as part of the rite.
There is in fact a reference to harvest in The Agamemnon. Clytemnestra says, to dissuade Aigisthus from continuing the spree to the defiant elders:
"Let us work no evil more
Surely the reaping of the past is a full harvest."
What might a light shining in through the roof of a dark hall have to do with harvest? The answer might lie in the Mesopotamian flood story, the story of Atrahasis. Like Noah he builds an ark as the waters rise, but this ark is not a floating boat but a rectangular chamber that remains water-tight during the flood, underwater. When the waters finally recede he is able to open a door in the roof, and light shines in. Tears of joy stream down Atrahasis' cheeks that the flood is finally over. Atrahasis looks out and sees fourteen mountain tops.
Might this story have come originally from Egypt where a great flood was an annual occurrence, and one tied in intrinsically to the harvest cycle? If so, all suddenly makes sense. Depictions of the Festival of Min show four birds being released to the corners of Egypt to announce a triumph. Noah released a dove which conveyed the message of a mountain top having risen above the waters of the flood. In Egypt the Primordial Mound, Ta Tenen, "Risen Land" was a potent symbol of the beginning of the recession of the water that would allow them to sow the seed in the fertile silt that had been left behind. Here was a sight all Egypt waited to see, and of course it would occur upstream days before it occurred downstream, as that is the nature of rivers. Carrier pigeons may indeed have been used to convey this message north from Thebes to the Delta where the news of the continuing cycle was eagerly awaited.
Messages and mountaintops - doesn't this bring us back to The Agamemnon and that chain of beacons so central to the start of the play? But, and notwithstanding the importing of the Thesmophorian harvest Mysteries to Argos from Egypt, neither in Argos nor in Eleusis was an annual flood a part of the harvest cycle. What message did they wait to receive from the East? The Eleusis Mysteries were concerned with the return of the Maiden from the Underworld, and they were held in the Autumn when Virgo, the Maiden, ends her period of absence from the sky (daylight had outshone her stars), by first rising just before the Sun, then earlier each day through Autumn and Winter until She is rising as an evening constellation again by Springtime. It is conceivable that the sight awaited was the rise of Arcturus, the star that sits on the lap of Boötes, just as the infant Dionysos, named Iachos, was depicted sitting on the lap of his adult self, and born from the thy of Zeus while his mother (Persephone, the Maiden, in the Orphic version) was burned up by the light of Zeus having asked to see him in his full glory. Could this be the rise of Arcturus shortly before the Sun rises to obliterate the light of Virgo? The star could be seen as a distant beacon, the torch of Iachos, the Torch-Bearer whose statue was carried from Athens to Eleusis at the start of the Mysteries. It all makes extremely good sense.
But what of the light that shone into the initiation hall shortly before dawn? Conceptually, such a beam could be seen as the agent by which Dionysos seeds himself from the future in the Womb of Night. But how do you get a beam of daylight to shine into the hall before dawn?
Noah built his Ark and from it let a dove fly forth to find land. Jason sailed in the Argo with his crew, and sent forth a dove so as to pass through the clashing rocks. Tears streamed down Atrahasis' face when the light shone in through the opening in the roof of his rectangular ark. This too is very strongly reminiscent of a scene in the Argonautika, the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece as told by Apollonios Rhodios.
Jason had obtained the fleece and he and his crew were nearly home. But then "night suddenly fell, a terror they call the Shrowd of Darkness...too thick for starlight or moonbeams to pierce, it came as a black void out of heaven or...from the nether depths..."
Then Jason stretches out his hands and invokes Apollo, Son of Leto, "while down his cheeks agonized tears ran", reminding us of Atrahasis. Then, paraphrased:
"Son of Leto, you heard him quickly and descended lightly from heaven to the Melantian rocks, that lie there out in the deep. You sprang on one of their twin peaks brandishing in your right hand your golden bow, which gave off a dazzling light all around."
A small island was then revealed by this light to the Argonauts, which they sailed to and then cast anchor and went ashore. Shortly after this day dawned. They built a shrine there for Apollo and invoked him as Phoibus the Radiant "because of the far-beamed radiance", and they named the island "Revelation". They had no wine to pour libation, and were forced to pour water, at which point the handmaidens that had come with them back from Colchis, where they had obtained the Golden Fleece, were unable to hold back their laughter at this sight, since they were used to the most sumptuous libations being poured.
"The heroes returned the laughter with indecent language, flinging insults, exchanging mockery, all in fun."
Many might after brighter visions stare:
After the Argonauts, in blind amaze
Tossing about on Neptune’s restless ways,
Until, from the horizon’s vaulted side,
There shot a golden splendour far and wide,
Spangling those million poutings of the brine
With quivering ore – ‘twas even an awful shine
From the exaltation of Apollo’s bow;
A heavenly beacon in their dreary woe.
The light-hearted mockery of Media’s handmaidens brings us back to Eleusis, for the Mocking Jests are another of the features of the Mysteries that we know about, and which we shall look at a little later in this section, as of course is the light of revelation that shines into the Eleusis hall shortly before dawn, and indeed just as the dawn comes up shortly after the message of fire has sped to Argos in The Agamemnon. So too is it shortly after Apollo has revealed to the heroes the island that the dawn arrives.
We may now ask ourselves how a beam of light could spring off a double peak and reveal an island by means of 'far-beamed radiance' shooting through the darkness. Sunlight obviously hits mountaintops before the sunrise occurs at ground level, but what about this beam of light? How were the Greeks placed in terms of mirrors? Well, the Pharos Lighthouse made use of them to send light far out to sea, and Archimedes devised a weapon that focused beams of sunlight from mirrors onto approaching enemy ships so as to burn them. There are a few mountain peaks around the Eleusis site. Should we be wondering whether it was all done with mirrors?
Rams' fleeces seem to have been draped over the stools which the initiates at Eleusis sat upon during purification rituals at some point in the proceedings. It seems that the Quest for the Golden Fleece may be of particular relevance here.
Jason's city was ancient Iolchis. This is where the Argo was built, and it was where the crew set off from on the start of their eastward adventure in search of the Fleece, and to which they returned. This city, now called Volos, is where I lived during 2000. This was before I had read Apollonios Rhodios' version of the Argonaut story, featuring Apollo's beam springing off the mountain peak, but the theory I have just outlined formed in my mind at that time, while I had been pondering the Golden Fleece myth, the Eleusis Mysteries and the Aechylus beacon chain. The wonderful moment when the idea came to me could hardly have been more elegant.
Sitting in the classroom while my students worked on a task, I looked up out of the window at the twin peaks of Mount Pilion. Suddenly I saw a bright flash of light at the very top of one of the peaks. A ski resort is located up there and the Sun must have been reflecting off a window or a metalic surface, the ray happening to shine in my direction, and planting in my mind as it did so the seed of the theory here outlined.
So you can imagine how delighted I was when, some considerable time later, and after having returned to England, I read Apollonios' version of the Jason story and read, in the last part of the book, the incident where Apollo's beam reflects off the mountain peak in a moment of revelation. According to Mathew Dillon in Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in Ancient Greece Plutarch wrote that during the battle of Salamis a great light was seen flashing from Eleusis, and Dillon supposed that this may have been the light which we know caused amazement in the initiates when it shone forth in the dark hall of the Telesterion.
In Egypt in Cleopatra's time a beacon chain system was used to communicate with the distant mines out in the desert, while in the daytime a system of mirrors was used to communicate over the hundreds miles using flashes of sunlight. Such systems are not mere flights of fancy, but entirely workable. Not that a whole chain of mountain tops would be necessary. The light of the rising Sun could be reflected down from a high mountain to ground level where it was not yet dawn.
A more elaborate and impressive version would do what Archimedes' ship-busting weapon did - the ray would ignite a fire. This fire would then be one ignited by the light of a future day. It would be a sacred fire.
"Kindler of day, O daylight birth of dawn."
Such were the words with which the Watchman greeted the mountaintop blaze ignited by the message arriving from the East in The Agamemnon.
A suggested scenario, the most likely from the evidence in The Agamemnon and The Argonautika:
Inside the Hall of Initiation in Eleusis all is now darkness; the last of the torches held by the priests have been extinguished, and all are now in prayer for illumination. Up on a nearby mountain top the rise of Arcturus is noted, giving warning that the Sun will shortly rise, and it will of course do so up here sooner than it does for those observing from lower down. The sunlight of this newly risen Sun is then mirrored from up here, focussed from several large mirrors into a very bright beam that is aimed through the roof of the initiation hall shortly before dawn. In comes shining in like the most awesome revelation, a light from a day yet to dawn, sharply contrasted with the darkness in the hall. All gathered there stare in amazement. This bright beam, perhaps via a lens burner, ignites the sacred fire in the Holy of Holies and the triumph cry is raised. A priest lights his torch from the sacred fire, and the flame is then passed around from torch to torch and the initiates perform the traditional dances, rather like the passing of the sacred fire from candle to candle in the Greek Easter ceremony.
The scenario is feasible, it fits with the hints in Aeschylus, Apollonios, the Homeric hymn and anecdotal evidence, and it also explains the sense of wonder and awe that the initiates felt about the Greater Mysteries of Eleusis. It’s still just a theory, of course, because no explicit record of these goings on has been passed down. But as theories go, it has something about it, I feel.
Furthermore, it also fits into the greater thematic context and purpose of the Eleusis Mysteries, which is known to have been some form of direction about how to be reborn in the paradise fields of the Afterlife. We noted at the start of this chapter that this is the same purpose that lay behind the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and that the Egyptian traditions of rebirth have a lot to do with the Night Journey of the Sun, with the rebirth occurring at dawn when the Sun rose up as Kepher on in the East after its long journey through the Underworld. We noted how the Osiris statue was crowned at dawn after a rebirth following a night vigil, and Lucius’ initiation into the Mysteries of Osiris and Isis also culminated in his being crowned light the Sun at dawn after a journey through the Underworld.
And as we think more about it, the Golden Fleece fits snugly into this context. A symbol of the Sun, it is stolen from the East and raced back to the West in the ship named Argo, which means "Swift". The Argo has to outrace the fleet of the king of Colchis, who is closely identified with the Sun, Helios.
For example, Book III, 1225 of the Argonautika:
"He [the king] put on a golden, four crested helmet equal in brilliance to the dazzling haloed luminescence of the Sun when he first climbs up out of the ocean."
And come to think of it, this king of Colchis is in fact a very son of Helios, and rides in a chariot "drawn by the horses that Helios gave him." The Greeks imagined that Helios, the Sun, rode in a chariot across the sky.
So there is great significance in the way that the Argonauts manage to outrace this king on their way back to Greece in the West. This significance is made all the more powerful by the fact that the Golden Fleece itself in Apollonios' epic poem is said to shine as if catching the first rays of the Sun. Paraphrased:-
"At that early hour when huntsmen scrape sleep off their eyes Jason and Medea stepped out of their vessel and went ashore into a grassy meadow called the Ram's Rest. They followed a pathway to the sacred grove where the Fleece was spread out over a great oak tree just like clouds that flush ruddy gold as they catch the first rays of the rising Sun."
This beautiful symbolism of sunrise almost seems to outshine Homer himself and lies at the core of both the Golden Fleece myth and the epic version of it woven by Apollonios. From this golden wool the entire tale was spun, we might say. In this sense, it is as if Jason is the archetypal artist, the one who captures the light of beauty.
But there is also an element here of scientific experiment. If a beacon chain was to be lit at some eastern location, to communicate along the chain at high speed, the message could arrive at a western site before dawn, scientific proof for the ancients that the Sun rises in the East before it rises in the West. Such a system could even be used to measure longitude, by noting the different position of a star at the two places at the same, or almost the same time. Livvio Stechhini suggested that a system similar to this (although operating during the night rather than at dawn), was used by the Egyptians to measure longitudes.
There is a chain of inter-visible islands across the northern Aegean from Troy it East to the Greece, and the Pagasitic Gulf where Iolchos (Volos) is located. Homer mentions Zeus with his thunderbolts looking out to these islands from his vantage point on the top of Mount Ida near Troy.
Perhaps a rich romantic with a sense of fun will take this torch and run with it, duplicating in our own time this feat of outracing the day's fire chain of beacons, and/or mirroring a beam of sunlight that ignites a fire before sunrise. I like to imagine this will be the way that the Olympic Torch is lit for the London Games in 2012.
If the theory were correct we might expect to come across other references that accord with it. Sure enough, the scenario we have looked at reminds us of the words of J.G. Fitzgerald in The Golden Bough: ‘…in the land of Bisaltae, a Thracian tribe, there was a great and fair sanctuary of Dionysos, where at his festival a bright light shone forth at night as a token of the abundant harvest vouchsafed by the deity’, and bear in mind that the Thracian priests, according to historian Karl Kerenyi, are thought to be precursors of the priests at Eleusis. Notice that this light shone at night (in an age before electric lighting), and ensured an abundant harvest.
There may also be some kind of reference to this extraordinary hidden high mystery tradition of the Greeks, a mystery dramatizing the triumph over the illusion of the solar death, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. The people of Thebes call out to the gods and goddesses to help them stop a plague which has been ravaging their city:
…Life on life goes down,
You can watch them go
Like seabirds winging west, outracing the day’s fire
Down the horizon, irresistibly
Streaking on to the shores of Evening.
"Outracing the day's fire" is our theme here, so let's read on. A few lines on we hear:
Torches flaring over the eastern ridges
Ride Death down in pain!
…Dionysos…Come with the lightning
Come with torches blazing, eyes ablaze with glory!
Burn that god of death…
Here we have explicit references not only to outracing the day’s fire, but also to torches on mountains in the East.
And there also seems to be a reference to these goings on right in the most obvious place to look, the story of Demeter and Persephone. Demeter was in sorrow after her daughter had been taken down into the Underworld, and 'when it was dark, the goddess (Demeter) lighted two torches at the flaming summit of Mount Aetna, and continued her search. She wandered up and down for nine days and nine nights. On the tenth night when it was nearly morning, she met Hecate, who was carrying a light in her hand, as if she, too, were looking for something. Hecate told Ceres how she had heard Prosepine (Persephone) scream, and had heard the sound of wheels, but had seen nothing. Then she went with the goddess to ask Helios, the sun-god, whether he had not seen what happened that day, for the sun-god travels around the whole world, and must see everything. Ceres found Helios sitting in his Chariot, ready to drive his horses across the sky. He held the fiery creatures in a moment, while he told Ceres that Pluto, the king of the Underworld, had stolen her daughter and carried her away to live with him in his dark palace.' (From Favorite Greek Myths by L.S.Hyde.)
Eleusis goddesses bearing torches
Ceres is the Roman name for Demeter, while Proseperne is Kore, or Persephone, and Pluto is the Underworld Lord. Mount Aetna, a Sicilian volcano that is incidentally due West of Eleusis, was seen as an entrance to the Underworld, in the direction of which the constellations of the Zodiac, including Virgo, were seen to set (from the Athens, Eleusis, Arkadia latitude), so this was mythically seen as a place where the Maiden went down into the Earth.
Here, in the story that we know most closely relates to Eleusis, we have a) torches being lit upon mountain tops, b) a reference to the way in which the Sun travels all around the world, and c) a visit to the place where Helios stables his horses, at a time that is d) shortly before dawn.
Initiation by Fire
Having been brought down into the initiation hall in a bright-focused beam, how might this sacred fire have been used in an initiation? It has been suggested before that the initiates at Eleusis fire-walked. (I have walked on hot coals myself and it was a breeze.) There would be little point in speculating about this if it were not for the fact that purification by fire is a major motif in the story of Demeter's search for Persephone, the story around which the Eleusis Mysteries are built. Demeter, sorrowing because the young Kore ("Maiden") was lost, came disguised as a mortal woman to Eleusis and was there employed in the palace of King Celeus and his wife Meteneira as the wet-nurse of their newborn son Demophoon. The daughter of this couple, Iambe, tried to cheer Demeter up with comic lascivious verse and the old nurse Baubo persuaded her to imbibe a barley-water drink flavoured with mint for the same purpose, and it proved effective.
Demeter set about making the new prince Demophoon immortal by passing him at night through a sacred flame. However, the child's mother Meteneira saw her doing this, and thought that she was trying to harm him, so she ran forward and the process with disrupted.
Plutarch borrowed this exact scene with Isis instead of Demeter in his telling of the myth of Isis and Osiris.
So they may have walked on coals, although that is not a happy match with the Hymn. Perhaps the initiates jumped through the sacred fire for purification? Or perhaps not. In fact we shall see next that they were probably purified as lighted torches were waved around them.
The Four Elements of Eleusis
Lucius the ex-ass allows himself to say of his initiation into the Mysteries that he was "ravaged throughout all the elements." This lead me to a fuller understanding of the proceedings at Eleusis. Three of the elements, as far as I could see, are well accounted for. Most obviously there was the moment when it was announced "Initiates! To the sea!" They all then went down from Eleusis and took a purifying bathe. We have looked at the high likelihood of a purifying rite involving fire, corresponding to the part of the Hymn to Demeter where the goddess passes the child in her care through sacred fire. The element of Earth is of course accounted for since the Mysteries concerned a descent into the Earth. But what about the other element, Air?
As I thought about this it seemed to me that, since wind could not have been guaranteed, the obvious way to make air move, to generate a wind, is through the use of a fan. I immediately recalled that the winnowing fan had some mystical connotation in Ancient Greece, and this suddenly seemed highly appropriate to the context. Demeter taught mankind the arts of agriculture, and the winnowing fan was used to blow chaff away from the grain. Might the initiates at Eleusis, I wondered, have stood and felt a wind blow over them generated by the winnow? Might this have been seen as a ritual, symbolic, or etheric blowing away of psychic chaff, as with the purifications by fire and water?
A little research soon reminded me that Virgil wrote in the Georgics, his poems about farming, of the "Mystic Fan of Iacchos." Iacchos was seen as being born during the rites of the Greater Mysteries at Eleusis. Further research on the Internet kept bringing me back to the works of one Jane Ellen Harrison, who as far as I could gather was a Cambridge scholar who had written on the subject of this Mystical Winnow Fan. She was in no doubt that the winnow fan was seen as an agent of magical purification and that it was used as a charm to purify the initiates as well as a practical tool for separating away chaff from wheat. It seems to have become conceptually linked with the winnow basket, the liknon, which was held by Ancient Greeks in a marriage ceremony in which the words "I leave behind was is not good and move forward to what is better" were chanted, or words to that effect. In other words by holding the liknon they tuned into the idea which it symbolizes, the blowing away in the air of that which is not wanted. During this research I also read of one version of this liknon proclamation that was uttered while the person was daubed with mud and clay, which may give more insight into the nature of the purification through the element of Earth.
At this point I was already very encouraged to take Lucius at his word, namely that a large part of the Mysteries were structured around purifications via the Four Elements, and Hellenic Reconstructionism, now a recognised religion in the Greece of today, could perhaps take this into account. We tend to associate the Four Elements with contemporary New Agey versions of Native American ceremonies, but they were a concept used in Ancient Greece. Plato wrote about them, for example, in Timaeus.
Intrigued, I continued my research, and learnt from a work entitled Greek Mysteries: The Archaeology and Ritual of Ancient Greek Secret Cults what I regard as the most explicit depiction of what actually went on in the Eleusis Mysteries. This work describes two Roman works of art, the Lovatelli Urn and Torre Nova Sarcophagus. They both show Demeter on the left flanked by a figure who looks like Iacchos, and on the urn also by Kore and the initiated Hercules. Hercules is also shown both seated on a stool in the middle with a hood over his head (ram skin according to some - certainly he sits on a fleece on the sarcophagus). The drape over the head is a motif we have had occasion to mention earlier in this book in connection with Underworld initiation and Hercules. Myth records that Hercules was initiated at Eleusis after a purification ritual had been performed on him by Theseus. Anyway, the most interesting part of all is that on the sarcophagus there is woman purifying this hooded hercules with down-turned torches, while on the on urn there is a woman holding a winnowing fan over his head. On the one, then, we see the purification by fire, and on the other purification by air using the winnowing fan. Understandably I was very pleased that just by following through on the logic of Lucius' statement I had learnt of another of the elements of these secret rites.
It would seem that such rites were preparatory for the real initiation in the dark but then suddenly illuminated hall of the Telesterion. This is the implied order in The Golden Ass: that Lucius was ‘ravished through the elements’ and then he saw the Night-time Sun. This would seem to contradict my theory that it was from the sacred fire that blazed up there that the torches were lit that were used in the purification, unless that fire was kept alight as a flame ‘till next year – but that is pure speculation, although there were several examples in Antiquity of perpetual flames.
The Sacred Drink
A further unsolved mystery is the question of what was this sacred drink, the kykeon ("mixture"), that the Eleusis initiates drank. They were forbidden from telling non-initiates the recipe. There is an instance of an initiated Athenian getting into trouble for using this drink recreationally at a private dinner party, which suggests that it was actually an enjoyable drug, the most obvious candidate therefore being opium, especially since poppies grow in the wheat fields of Demeter. This part of the rite was modelled on the part of the Persephone myth where the depressed Demeter was given a cheering drink which returned the smile to her lips. One can imagine opium, which had long been in use, being given in Ancient Greece to a sorrowing woman seemingly past hope, as Demeter was when Baubo gave her the cheering drink. Such (all too temporary) cures for despondency, though the ingredients are not stated, are metered out in the Odyssey. Virgil in his writings on farming, The Georgics, says the poppy is dear to Ceres (the Roman name for Demeter.)
Or was the kykeon simply beer made from the grain, of which Demeter is patroness? The stress upon the fact that it was not wine could be read as implying that it was another alcoholic beverage, an alternative. This would take us back to the Egyptian Mysteries, for special grain grown in the temple precincts was there held to be full of the reborn essence of Osiris, and was used to make bread and beer that was eaten and drunk as part of rite thought to confer immortality, i.e. entrance to Osiris’ realm in the Afterlife. In the Pyramid Texts of Pepi II, circa 2200 BC, for example, there is a prayer for “thy bread of eternity, and thy beer of everlastingness.” Bread was certainly a food that the Eleusis initiates would have associated with Demeter, the Grain Goddess, and the same logic may have held true for beer. It is worth noting that in the making of beer grain goes through processes connected with the Four Elements. It is sown in soil, watered, then winnowed after harvesting, and may then be toasted prior to the making of ale. We’ve already noted that the initiates underwent cleansing rites connected with the Four Elements, such as the cleansing by wind from the winnowing fan. This being the case, we may certainly wonder if the initiates identified with the grain itself in their initiation, just as with the Welsh bard Taliesin, whose name if viewed in Graeco-Roman terms can mean “Initiate”. We shall see in a later chapter that he frequently refers to himself as an initiate in his poems. Not only did Taliesin change into a grain of corn, but in this form he was captured “in a place of smoke” and was tied into a leather bag. Furthermore, he says “I have been matured, I have been offered to a king,” showing that he is now the fermented product of the grain. The alcoholic content of beer means it will not go off as quickly as grain or water, and so if the individual is symbolically fermented then they have been made eternal, granted access to the Afterlife.
If it was beer that the initiates drank, this could also explain why Demeter cheered up when she drank it, but there is a problem with this theory, for there can have been no injunction against drinking beer recreationally. So if it was beer then it must have been of a type containing some extra ingredient. This would explain its name of Kykeon , “Mixture”. This could be where the poppy comes in, but there are other candidates. Iambe lifts up her skirts to reveal her genitalia, which helps to make Demeter see the funny side - Egyptian Hathor did exactly the same to cheer up Ra in the Contendings of Horus and Seth, and Hathor, it must be noted, is a goddess of beer. This suggests the further ingredient, for it was beer mixed with pomegranate that was particularly associated with Hathor. An Egyptian story connects her with beer mixed with pomegranate juice, and this was drunk in honour of her at a festival, while Kore is connected with pomegranate in the Greek story, for it was the seeds of this fruit that she ate while in the Underworld.
However, it is also worth pointing out here that there is an ancient Greek myth about a man called Glaucus, which name means ‘blue-green’ but which could easily in this case come from gleukos, "fresh juice", for he became godlike as a result of eating fresh grass, having observed fishes doing the same. Kore/Persephone was the embodiment of chloe, fresh new shoots, while many now take wheatgrass juice for health. Wheatgrass and barleygrass juice could be said to stand in a similar relation to Demeter, (bringing her closer to her rejuvenated self Kore/Persephone), as resveratrol and the polyphenols of the grape stand in relation to Dionysos, (which help him return to his rejuvenated self Iacchos). While the wilder claims made for wheatgrass are not supported by scientific research, the juice is universally acknowledged to be a rich source of vitamins, enzymes, amino acids, minerals and chlorophyll. The high levels of chlorophyll apparently give the juice the ability to strengthen cells and detoxify the liver and bloodstream. Work done at the Arthur Testing Laboratory by Dr. Thelma Arthur showed that wheatgrass strengthens the immune system.
Here then are the higher gifts of the Grain & the Grape. It may be noted that a key theme of the Hymn to Demeter is her ageing, being beyond the delights of Aphrodite (sex), but then rejuvenating. The kykeon which Demeter drinks in the story of her search for Persephone is a mixture of barley and water as well as a type of mint. The assumption has been that this was barley grain, but perhaps it was actually fresh barley grass juice, which would make sense of the addition of mint to mitigate the bitter flavour. The juicing bars in Brighton, I have noticed, have taken to adding a little fresh ginger to wheatgrass shots for this same purpose.
However, the great value that was placed on the Eleusis Mysteries must also at some level have had to do not so much with the health provided by the grain as with cultural benefit of having surplus. The people of Attica, certainly including the Athenians, were deeply aware that several aspects of the sophistication that their civilization had achieved were founded on agriculture, enabling a diversified societal structure in which there could be careers like architect, philosopher, poet and artist.
Some have suggested that the Eleusis drink was some kind of hallucinogenic brew, since this could help to explain the sense of awe that initiates felt. The theory, which I will not repeat here, has some strong points, and some weaker ones, as for one thing it sits uncomfortably with the tight choreography of the Mystic rites. It was no hippy freak-out, yet certain points in favour of the theory mean that it cannot be discounted.
Another perspective on the drink may be arrived at through considering again those light-hearted jests that we know formed a part of the Mysteries.
The Mocking Jests
Let’s return briefly to those rude, comic insults which we know played a part in the Mysteries. The initiates on their sacred walk to Eleusis from Athens crossed over a bridge where a lady uttered these jests. They come about to end a period of despondency, for they relate to the moment in the story of the disappearance of Persephone when the sorrowing Demeter was cheered by the bawdy Iambe, as just mentioned. So the deadlock that existed between Demeter and those gods who wanted her to make the Earth fruitful again began to loosen.
Margaret Anne Doody in her True Story of the Novel wonders about the meaning of this incident, and she discusses what might be the meaning of the female clown and the exposure of the genitals, within a chapter that looks at the importance of the figure of the Goddess in the novels.
But I think you will have gathered by now that my own approach in this book is not really to look for meaning, as such, in Mystery initiations. This is not so say that one approach is better than another, of course, but for me it is simply more rewarding and satisfying to look at these matters in the context of Dreamtime. Meaning has a much smaller part to play in Dreamtime traditions than it does in the world of psychology and literary criticism. The purifications in the Four Elements are more than Form and they aimed at an action beyond symbolism, but some of the more obviously mysterious and mythological elements of the rites may be more purely formal. I have argued since the first chapter of this book that “formal” here is far from a negative or even neutral term, but an essential part of a mechanism that facilitates a truly transcendental experience, very much as was meant by Plato’s Socrates when he used the word.
The result of being cheered by the jocularity of the bawdy Iambe clown was that Demeter agreed at last to take a restorative drink. Doody herself tells us that according to the Hymn to Demeter she took this drink hosies heneken, which, she tells us, could be translated as “for form’s sake” or “for the sake of the rite.” The emphasis there is on the replication of the ceremonial form, which suggests that an all-important function was the activation of resonance with the past. In the absence of further oracular instruction – and I would not insult the oracles by assuming all their information to be examinable according to psychological theories – in the absence of oracular utterance, traditional precedent was a much-favoured origin of cultic elements. So rather than viewing the myth as necessarily a simple encoding of the Mysteries, it is just as likely, even more so, that on some occasions the myth came first and that the Mysteries are Mysteries because they chose old mythological content. If Demeter took the drink hosies heneken, it seems to me likely that the mocking jests were also included “for the sake of the rite.” So where Doody makes a parallel between Iambe and a Polynesian female clown figure, she is looking at structural psychological matters unrelated to tradition for tradition’s sake, while in this book we would be more interested in the actual traditional origins than a psychological interpretation, not that the latter is not worth looking at by those who have such inclinations, i.e. the two perspectives are not mutually exclusive. I simply wish to suggest that there was a numinous glow for the initiates in dancing through the steps of previous initiates and, before that, an ancient myth.
Doing things for the sake of tradition raises eyebrows nowadays because we know that it can be used to enforce a dysfunctional system, and women in the Athenian period as much as in more recent centuries suffered more in the political sense as a result of such ‘traditions’ than did men, though the latter had their own burdens of course in time of war. This is why I advocate being awake within the Dreamtime, simultaneously able to experience it while also knowing what’s going on enough to avoid any pitfalls. And in the case of the Eleusis Mysteries we know we are on the territory of the Goddess. So it need not sit heavily upon us, even those with strong feminist feelings, if we accept that the numinous light of tradition can be reason itself.
I mentioned in the first chapter that I spoke at length with a Professor McGillivray due to his having arrived independently at the same idea that the Bull Leaper is Perseus. Of the many subjects we touched upon in our long chat one of them was Eleusis, and he told me that he was working on the theory that these Mysteries had as their origin the same Egyptian traditions that show up in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Just as the Egyptians wanted to reach the Fields of Reeds and the Fields of Satisfaction after death and so endeavoured to live good lives, so too did the Eleusis initiates expect that when passing on they would, if they had lived good lives as they were instructed to in the Mysteries, be granted access to the Elysian Fields. I seem to recall McGillivray telling me an Egyptian word for ‘field’ which sounded very similar to the word Eleusis, or it may have been the other way round - my memory of the details is blurred. We didn’t discuss many other details, but I might also point out that Plutarch’s story of Isis and Osiris has Isis going through elements of the Demeter story – beginning to make a child immortal using sacred fire. This is what Demeter did in the palace at Eleusis according to the Hymn to Demeter, the same place where Iambe performed for her the comic verse and Baubo gave her the kykeon. I have also noted above that there is a motif very similar to the Iambe incident in the story of the Contendings of Horus and Seth, which covers the next period in the life of Isis and her son. Again there was deadlock between the gods, for Isis (who the Greeks claimed was the same as their Demeter) wanted Horus to be the next king, while Ra, the Sun, wanted Seth, as we discussed in the previous chapter. These two, Isis and Ra, had retreated into angry reclusive silence, but the goddess Hathor danced before Ra, and showed her genitals. This cheered him up and broke the deadlock. One of the things which the battle between Seth and Horus represented was desert storms, just as the deadlock between the Greek Olympians represented a drought that had caused the Earth to dry up.
So when the Eleusis Mysteries were formulated, the inclusion of the Mocking Jests may not have been because the priesthood were interested in something akin to Freudian psychology or structural anthropology, or the symbolic meaning of the female genitalia, but may at least in part have been because of an already established tradition which used the same motif, in other words hosies heneken - as a resonant formality.
But things become tradition becomes they represent something that has meaning, in the sense of value, for the people, something cherished. So what if I was to swallow my words and look for meaning, for symbolism, in the taking of the drink by Demeter? Demeter, who is the soil, was sorrowing because her daughter was lost, and as a result she made the Earth barren. Then she was persuaded to take a drink, and the Earth began to rejuvenate. Was the kykeon in fact an equivalent in a sense to the rains that quenched the thirsty earth thus allowing the fields again to sprout? Plutarch in his Isis and Osiris mentions how in the Osiris festival in Egypt “the priests bring forth a sacred chest containing a small golden coffer, into which they pour some potable water...and a great shout arises from the company for joy that Osiris is found (or resurrected). Then they knead some fertile soil with the water...and fashion from this a crescent-shaped figure, which they cloth and adorn, this indicating that they regard these gods as the substance of Earth and Water.”
The Maiden Who Went Into the Earth
We've looked at the amazing ray of light, the sacred fire and the mystic wind and also at the sacred drink of Eleusis, but I've implied so far in this book that all the Mystery initiations have in the essence of their architecture a moment when the initiate comes into resonance with the collective (transpersonal) morphic fields of some long venerated Form. A set movement such as a traditional circle dance has a pattern, and traditional dances were danced at Eleusis, and indeed an act repeated in a rite, such as the taking of the drink, is for the sake of the form, but by Form I have been speaking so far in this book of some viewed static image that is preserved through the generations. The Mystical philosophy of the Second Sophistic, as voiced quite specifically in Leucippe and Clitophon and The Ethiopian Story, makes much of the way that spiritual energies can enter into a person's being via vision as if coming in through the eyes. Sure, the Second Sophistic is a late period, but it is a window onto ancient mindsets. So it is that sacred paintings are so important, and can be the core of the initiation. What was the Form beheld in sacred vision at Eleusis?
One answer might be gleaned from the writings of Clement of Alexandria, a Christian who wished to denounce the Mysteries. According to him the drink was taken after fasting, and then after the taking of the drink the initiates took a basket out of a chest, and then out of the basket took out and then replaced various cult objects, and he mentions cakes in the shape of pyramids and balls, lumps of salt, a serpent, fennel, an object the shape of a woman's pudenda, sesame cakes and other items. The spherical and pyramidal shapes are interesting here, reminding us of geometric ideas as universal, intelligible and eternal Forms. However, scholars seem to take Clement with a pinch of salt, few believing that he actually took part of the rites himself. Nor do these objects seem to have much to do with the Persephone mythology.
Features of the Eleusis landscape, however, are directly connected to this myth. The 'Earth Mysteries' writer Paul Devereux has done wonderful work in bringing together, documenting and popularising the work of various anthropologists upon the importance of landscape simulacra in ancient cultures on every continent of the globe. These are features of the landscape that resemble some intelligible, recognisable shape such as an animal, a person, a face and so on. Devereux spends some time describing the way that Ancient Greek temples at sites dating back into the Mycenaean and Minoan times are often orientated with their main axis directed towards a cleft peak mountain, and here he references the work of Vincent Skully. Such peaks were mythologized variously as horns, breasts, upheld arms and the female cleft. Clearly visible to the west from the Eleusis site is a cleft peak mountain, that of Mount Kerato, ("horns"). From the photo in Devereux's Symbolic Landscapes I accepted that this was the full extent of the symbolism of the mountain, despite it not having any particular relevance to the Ancient Greek myth associated with Eleusis.
In September 2001 I begun a return journey over land and sea back from the Kyklades across Europe to Britain. From Athens I travelled by train to Patras, but stopped for an hour or two on the way at Eleusis. Here I stood close to the spot where Devereux's photo of the cleft peak mountain was taken, but my position gave the photo a slightly different view taking in a wider panorama. It was from this expanded view that the revelation came.
Eleusis is the place where Kore, the Maiden, namely the constellation of Virgo, went down into the Earth. The constellation of Virgo is unique amongst those of the Zodiac because she does not stand upright, but rather lies on her back parallel to the ecliptic, with her head to the right and her body extending to the left. The motif of a Dreamtime figure 'going to Earth' is common in the Australian Aboriginal stories, where it refers to simulacra of the landscape that look like the figure in question. Going into the Earth is, within this mindset, more or less equivalent to the equally popular motif of figures being turned to stone, in other words becoming rocky features of the landscape.
Shown here is the photo I took of the mountain. It forms the image of a woman lying on her back. The cleft peak forms her two breasts, or their nipples, pointing sky-ward. To the right of them is her neck, and the low rise to the right of there is her face. To the left of her breasts the bulge suggests pregnancy. Her legs sink into the Earth to the left, the orientation being the same as with Virgo. Here then is the Virgo constellation gone into the Earth, which is exactly what is spoken of in the myth connected with this site. Persephone becomes pregnant with Iacchos the infant Dionysos while in the Underworld in the mystical version of the story. The mountain is off to the west of the Eleusis site, the direction in which constellations go to Earth.
I can’t number for you how many times I have felt exaltation when contemplating this mountain profile mythologized in this way. It gives me a very, very Greek, ancestral feeling, so beautiful that it makes me want to shout “Hooray!”, and I can almost so those maidens stepping lightly in a circle as they dance the old traditional dances in poppy-graced meadows.
It seems likely to me that long before the first sacred temple was built at Eleusis in the Middle Bronze Age, this simulacrum had been mythologized and venerated, and that it was from this that a strong collective morphic field built up around the Form leading to it becoming increasingly enriched, which in turn lead to the institution of the Mysteries at this site, the Classical superbly amplifying the Aboriginal, just as it does in the ideal.
It is interesting that the Eleusis Mysteries were seen as the gateway to the Champs Elysee, a passport to the Elysian Fields where the good live out their time in the Afterlife in happiness. A gateway to the goodness of the ancestral connection - this is precisely what, according to the theory, we would expect contact with such a Form to facilitate, and just what I feel, so for me this is glorious. In other words those Greeks who came to Eleusis and beheld the Maiden in the Earth came into resonant mental connection with the perception of countless generations of their ancestors that had done same, and all this accumulated ambrosia constitutes the Elysian Morphic Fields.
Seeing a photo is not quite the same as visiting a site and seeing it face to face. Probably a fine painting is the next best thing to being there in person, because all the while the artist is working on the image, with each attentive stroke of the brush, they are working with, contemplating and expressing the kurunba of the site, to use an Australian Aboriginal term. A full chapter on Morphic Resonance and the way it enables the Dreamtime is included towards the end of this book. By being there painting the artist makes themself and their painting more fully a part of the history of the site than a quip snap could ever be, although the latter could work in concert with the painted image.
You are incarnate. Where? In a place. What's a place? A shared 3-dimensional space. What do you mean by shared? Other's occupy and have occupied and will occupy the same space. The very essence of our being here on Earth is an agreement about location. The Dreamtime is part of the fabric that makes a place a place. To be fully here living an Earth incarnation we do well to invoke the Dreamtime, not shun the nurturing embrace of the Ancestors. It’s more than a luxury or metaphysical fancy; it’s something into which humans are supposed to be initiated, almost as if it could be appended to the declaration of human rights.
The Mysteries of Samothrace
We have explored in this chapter possible connections between the quest of the Argonauts and the Mysteries. We cannot therefore move on without mentioning the Mysteries of Samothrace, for Apollonios has the Argonauts being welcomed there by the gods of those Mysteries, and learning through them secrets “by which they might steer in greater safety across the chilling deep.” These Mysteries were held in high regard, almost as much as those of Eleusis. The goddess of this island in the northern Aegean was Electra, an Atlantis, or “Daughter of Atlas”, one of the Pleiades. Her name means “amber”. Amber when rubbed becomes electrified, and it is from this that we get the word “electricity”. Rubbed amber, being electrified, will attract chaff. We have already noted that in the Eleusis Mysteries a winnowing fan was used to purify initiates by blowing off the psychic and karmic chaff, that which is unwanted, leaving them pure. Was amber similarly used to purify initiates in the Samothracian Mysteries? Although a veil of secrecy hangs over these Mysteries, as with the Eleusinian, we do know that purification played a big part. We also know from ancient sources that initiates of Samothrace expected the Great Goddess to grant to them increased welfare when travelling on the sea. What might this have been about?
Just as the ancients noted how rubbed amber will attract chaff, they also observed the peculiar properties of magnetism in the attraction of iron, and this phenomenon was associated with Samothrace. The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius noted in his De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”): “I have even seen Samothracian iron objects dance, and iron filings all simultaneously go crazy in bronze basins when this Magnesian stone was placed underneath.” Initiates of Samothrace were presented with rings of magnetic iron, as signets of their initiation, and these have actually been found in burials on Samothrace. Pliny, (Hist . Nat. xxxiv . 42) wrote of how a temple was built for Arsinoe that was vaulted with magnetic stone so that it could house a hovering statue of this Ptolemaic queen, who was by then revered as a goddess. This temple was not in Samothrace but in Alexandria, but she had a strong Samthracian link because she had previously been banished to that island by her half brother.
In short, there was some definite connection between the Samothracian mysteries and magnetic iron, as well as a connection to enhanced seafaring capabilities. The link between these two is so obvious that it seems likely to me that I will not be the first when I suggest that the content of these Mysteries had something to do with the use of a magnetized apparatus for ascertaining magnetic north, and thereby improved navigation on the sea. Such equipment would have proved invaluable to Jason and his crew as they made their long journey in the Argo.
The magnetic signet rings of this island of Atlantis would even have had real healing properties. Magnet therapy has been found to be effective in the reduction of the symptoms associated with conditions such as arthritis by reducing swelling, increasing blood flow and reducing pain, when applied at the point of pain. Such treatments go back at least to Aristotle and Galen. It’s true that there has been a lot of pseudoscience and quackery with regard to magnetic therapy, but in 2007 Thomas Skalak, professor and chair of biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, and Cassandra Morris, a former Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at this university reported in the November 2007 edition of the American Journal of Physiology that their research showed that a magnetic force approximately ten times that of a fridge magnet applied to swollen tissue can significantly improve blood flow, thus reducing swelling, which in turn leads to reduced pain and accelerated healing. Here then may be a practical healing benefit at the core of the Mysteries.