And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
in Plato’s Phaedrus.
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The Psyche Mystery :
The Water-Carrier’s Ascent from the Underworld
Crystalline brother of the belt of heaven,
Aquarius! To whom king Jove has given
Two liquid pulse streams ‘stead of feathered wings,
Two fan-like fountains – thine illuminings
Do I remember my visit as a young child to the Athenian Acropolis with my sister and parents? I certainly remember the magic of watching my father’s cine film of the holiday. There in the living room of the Buckinghamshire home, a seventies carpet in full effect, the clicking and whirring of the cine projector combining with the soundtrack of Greek music that my father had managed to dub onto the film, we sat in wrapt attention reliving the bright sunshine of this holiday that had combined with the Greek Easter. The projector threw a warm light onto the light-painted wall of the living room, as the evocative Greek music played over the opening shots of the iconic Caryatids of the Erectheum temple up on the Acropolis. The Caryatids are the maidens acting as pillars holding up the exquisitely carved porch of this benchmark of temple beauty.
“Don’t climb onto that rock, Annabel.” My mother’s voice, talking to my twin sister. “William’s shoes are more grippy than yours.” I was allowed to clamber on this white rock up on the Acropolis, the Parthenon gleaming timelessly in the background. Walking back down through the heritage park we passed a pond on which swam a black swan, if I remember correctly.
Perhaps it was just from the cine film, but what is certain is that the image of these famous stone maidens was engraved deeply on my consciousness while I was still a young child, which may in part explain the great feeling of mystery with which they seem to me to be endowed. In fact their Mystery, I have now realised, goes much deeper than my own childhood; back into the childhood of Western Culture.
The theme in this piece is that of the Mystery of the Caryatids. It is my contention that Mystery initiations tended to revolve around constellations and they’re associated myths, and that the Novels of Late Antiquity worked these covertly into their stories. The ancient novel which sheds light in this case is the Golden Ass and more specifically the sub-story of Eros and Psyche.
Psyche Revived by the Kiss of Eros
In this story Aphrodite has the beautiful Psyche, not yet made immortal, go down into the Underworld to request of Persephone that she be allowed to take a portion of Beauty back up to give to Aphrodite. Aphrodite tells her she must not look into the box that she is carrying. This element of the story derives from an intriguing cult festival of great antiquity and mysterious importance that took place on the Athenian Acropolis, the Arrhephoria. At night, two maidens carried some mystic object on their heads down from the Acropolis via the underground passage that lead to the precinct of Aphrodite in the Gardens, on the northern side. The two maidens themselves had no knowledge of what was in the boxes they carried. Says Pausanias: “They leave down below what they carry and receive something else which they bring back covered up.” The Caryatids of the Erectheum, the female statues performing the role of pillars for the porch of this small exquisite temple on the Acropolis, may well have originally represented these maidens with the mysterious arks upon their heads; in fact, when one looks into it further, it seems strange to suggest otherwise, never mind that they have become known as Caryatids. We can also understand why the Pandora myth was depicted below the great statue of Athena in the Acropolis. It was Athena’s priestesses who gave the maidens the secret objects, and Pandora was similarly told not to open a box – the proverbial Pandora’s box. It turns out from the archaeology that the box-carrying rite of Athens seems to provide an unbroken link from Classical Greece back to the older culture, that of the Mycenaean–Minoan world of the Middle Bronze Age.
The underground descent, the box not to be looked in, the connection to Aphrodite – all these aspects of the Athenian cult identify it as the source of this part of Cupid and Psyche, the sub-story which takes up three books in The Golden Ass. Psyche is told she certainly must not look into this box. Arrhephoria,it has been observed, is very close to Errhephoria, “Dew Bearers”, and the Erectheum is next to the site that was held to be the tomb of Kekrops, the early Athenian king whose name is in turn quite clearly derived from kerkope, “cicada”, the dew-eater of myth. In fact this Arrhephoria was sometimes called the Hersephoria after the daughter of this same Kecrops. Hopper, in his book The Acropolis, notes this connection.
In Antiquity the cicada was said to live on dew and in many stories was attributed the quality of immortality, so surely it was to Kecrops’ tomb that the dew-gift was carried. The cicada’s voice may have been connected with the spirit of the dead king, for in Homer the “lily voices” (or “dewy voices” according to R.Egan) of the cicadas stand for the voices of the Trojan elders. Another story, written by Aesop, actually links the Ass, (the animal that is the main protagonist of this Lucius novel, The Golden Ass, of course), with the Grasshopper, akin to the mystery recipient of the gift of the Dew Bearers, as well as with the dew itself: an ass was enchanted by the sound of the grasshoppers chirping in the grass, and asked them what food they ate. “Dew,” replied the insects, and so the ass copied them, eating only dew, and soon died of hunger. Aesop long predates Lucius Apuleius’ Golden Ass, and in fact there are a whole host of Aesop stories of asses in roles of servility and ignorance, some of which may well have influenced the author of this novel and its Greek precursors, which have a similar theme. The cicadas’ diet of dew turns up in Theokritus (4. 16.), and this creature also features in the love play of Daphnis and Chloe in the Longus novel, where the youth fetches it out from the maiden’s cleavage after it has crawled in their while she sleeps. Also, by the time of the novel, Plato had already established the cicada as a suitable companion for contemplations and discussions on Eros, for in Phaedrus when Socrates and the younger man sit down in a beautiful rustic setting where these insects are singing he says they are the spies of the Muses, watching for truth in their philosophical debate about Eros. He tells a myth of how they were once humans, but were so devoted to song that they forgot to eat, but when they died they achieved the full honours of the Muses. These connections cast a mysterious light over the question of why the Latin author chose to nest the Psyche story into the novel. The underlying message was of course meant to be simply that before he found Isis he had, like Apollo-spurning Midas, been an “ass”. Psyche’s ascent from the Underworld on the wings of Eros and being made immortal by this same winged god can be seen to prefigure Lucius the Ass’s elevation through Isis – that much has been suggested many times - but with an older story connecting a foolish ass with dew-eating cicadas and with the obvious connection to the rite of the Dew Bearers, we can suggest that becoming a cicada was itself of metaphor for being made immortal through the mysteries of Eros, after all it was because of Love that the Dawn made her lover, Tithonus, eternal, by changing him into a grasshopper, and Psyche is made eternal by Eros at the end of the inset story in the novel. Psyche incidentally means “butterfly,” so fittingly she is also an insect, and this identity also accords with the way that in the story the whole world falls in love with her beauty.There are even some Aesop fables about butterflies, such as the one who fell in love with the rose, and the one in the story of the ant who saw a chrysalis and pitied it disdainfully not realising it was due to turn into a beautiful butterfly, a precursor of the Ugly Duckling story. There are further insect connections in the Psyche story, for a group of ants help her with another challenge set by Aphrodite, namely to sort a large pile of grains.
I myself was very impressed with the cacophony of the crickets and cicadas when I first toured the Greek islands back in ‘96. It so happened I was reading books which encouraged me to tune into the cosmic information encoded into the Living Library of Earth (i.e. the natural world) and to listen to animal sounds as gateways to other dimensions. I found the cicada sound mesmerising and highly evocative, and you could be forgiven for seeing this as a foreigner’s romantic conception of the landscape, but in fact the Greeks themselves felt the same way about the cicada, as we know from many references in their poetry. I give here my own rhyming version of a translation of a poem of unknown authorship, at one time attributed to Anacreon:
Cicada, royally blest are you
Perched in yonder tree
You sip some dew and know you own
Everything you see
Harmless to the farmer's fields
Summer's prophetic voice
Beloved insect of mankind
The Muses' bard of choice
Apollo also holds you dear
Your clear song came from him
Wise un-aging Earth-born child
Play on, your divine din.
For the Greeks too the cicadas’ voices could open a doorway to other realms. “It is clear,” writes Rory Egan*, “that as intermediaries of the Muses the cicadas work in two directions. They not only report to the Muses on the activities of humans; they also communicate inspiration from the Muses to humans, as Socrates also hints in his quasi-epic invocation of the Muses at the beginning of his first speech on Eros.”
I loved the sound so much, in fact, that on returning to Britain I made a large tank habitat with glass windows – an ark shall I say - and put it in my flat and placed into it cicadas and crickets. In fact one or two of these escaped and would turn up from time to time behind a washing machine or in the back of a cupboard even many months later.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper's among some grassy hills.
On the Grasshopper and the Cricket, Keats
A great step forward in my understanding of the importance of the cicada in ancient Greek culture came when I read an essay on the Internet by Rory B. Egan of the University of Manitoba, Cicada in Ancient Greece. His brilliant insight comes from adding in some more knowledge of the life cycle of the cicada, which links to the ancient notion that they were ‘born from the Earth’. Part of the life cycle is a long subterranean phase, sometimes lasting for years, after which they emerge from the ground, wingless and dark colored, climb into trees, shed their outer skin, and sprout wings. Egan makes a link between these facts and the connections with immortality, and also the identification of insect models from Mycenaean tombs as cicadas in the subterranean stage, and by bringing these together he comes to the realization that in all probability the cicada was seen as a symbol for the soul. We may surely add to this the fact that the butterfly, which also sprouts wings after a larval stage, certainly was seen as an image of the Soul. Psyche ascends out of the Underworld with the help of Eros, and is then made immortal by him. So too does the cicada rise out of the ground and then, according to Plato’s myth, is made immortal by the Muses. In Egypt of course the scarab beetle was observed, similarly, being born from dung balls, and so was associated with spontaneous creation as the sunrise god Kheper.
Egan’s realization in turn throws light on the connection with the Athenian cults. The Erectheon is the site connected with the start of the Earthborn-line of the Athenians. In myth Hephaestus tried to copulate with Athena, but she wiped his seed onto the ground. It seeded the Earth, Gaia, who then gave birth to Erecthonius. Athena brought up this child, and wanted to make him immortal. She placed him in a chest and gave this to a daughter of Kekrops, forbidding her to open it. The child later became king of Athens.
The maidens in the Arrhephoria ceremony of the Athenian Acropolis can hardly have carried actual dew, not the easiest thing to collect and keep, but there was in the cave on the northern side where they went down a cistern, a reservoir of rainwater. It would have been from this place that the ‘dew’ was taken. In fact in 1300 BC (right back in the Middle Bronze Age then) there had been a shaft with steps going down to a well in operation in the courtyard of the building whose remains archaeologists have identified as the House of the Arrhephoria up on the Acropolis. This well, according to the archaeologists, was closed in the twelfth century BC, and it is assumed that this is when the alternative journey down on the northern side became part of the rite (The Acropolis, Hopper, Spring Books.). The secret that Psyche brought up for Aphrodite was to enhance the goddess’ beauty, while unheated rainwater is a natural source of MSM – “organic sulphur” – a healthful component of modern skin creams. (It keeps skin walls healthy, helps in the production of collagen, promotes supple skin and scavenges free radicals.)
Ye tender bibbers of the rain and dew,
Young playmates of the rose and daffodil.
So, on their ascending journey, these maidens were Water Bearers. If they descend into the Underworld and ascend – like Persephone-Virgo in the Eleusis Mysteries and Dionysos-Boötes in the Athenian festive calendar – and they are Water Bearers ascending with the sacred water, an elixir of immortality, then, given what we have seen so far of the Greek Mystery Cults, we can identify their most likely setting and rising stellar Form: Aquarius.
Was the Aquarius constellation around in that period, i.e. in the Middle Bronze Age? We may be able to answer that question by going back to the place where we found the Bull Leaper Fresco, the palace of Knossos in Crete. Knossos was still standing in the Middle Bronze age, and its abandonment took place not long before the digging of the well on the Athenian Acropolis. We’ve already seen that the Bull Leaper fresco at Knossos represents constellations, Perseus and Taurus. But in the same building were other frescoes and figurines for which the same could well be true. The figurines of ladies bearing serpents could be the “Maenads, serpent-wreathed”, the Serpent Bearer. The leonine figures in the throne room could be Leo and Leo Minor. The doves fresco could be the Pleiades. These were suggestions I made to Professor McGillivray when we spoke on the phone and he seemed very open to the possibility, off the record. My other suggestion was that the fresco of the figure bearing the large vessel known as a rhyton may be the Cup Bearer of the Gods, Aquarius.
So the sacred water is carried to the king, Kekrops, just as in Minoan and Egyptian representations of lines of gift-bringers arriving before the king we frequently see figures bearing rhytons, while the later classical Greeks identified Aquarius as the cup-bearer of the king of the gods.
Then, later, some intriguing support for these notions came my way. I noticed that yHyHyginus in his Poetic Astrology wrote that “Eubolus says that Aquarius is Kekrops, citing the antiquity of his lineage and pointing out that Kekrops reigned before wine was invented, and that, before wine was known to man, water was used in sacrificing to the gods.” This Eubolus therefore seems to have been aware of the offering of water in the cult surrounding the figure of Kekrops, namely that of the Dew Bearers on the Acropolis.
Plato was an Athenian, and a member of the aristocracy, so he may well have known about this Kekrops cult. Could this even have been an influence on his book Phaedrus? An initiatory element does seem to be present in this Platonic dialogue. When I contacted Rory Egan to let him know how my theories were dovetailing with his own, he sent me an essay he had written entitled Eros, Eloquence and Entomo-Psychology in Plato’s Phaedrus.The“entomo-” prefix refers to matters to do with insects. In this essay Egan wrote that there is a ‘conspicuous strain of telestic allusion and imagery in the dialogue.’ “Telestic” here means pertaining to initiation. Egan also tells us that ‘According to the Hieroglyphica (2.55) of Horapollo, a Greek Egyptian writing in the fourth century, a cicada hieroglyph represented someone who had been initiated into the mysteries.”
That the Arrhephoria was the main influence for that particular part of the Cupid and Psyche story told in The Golden Ass I am sure, and it also makes great sense to relate this Mystery to the setting and rising of the Water Bearer constellation. If this hypothesis is correct then here is a way in which the Golden Ass has a striking hidden connection to those other ancient novels The Ethiopian Story and Daphnis and Chloe, with all three containing story elements that relate to what were by then old, old Bronze Age Mystery cults with connections to constellations and Minoan Crete.
*Rory Egan, Eros, Eloquence and Entomo-Psychology in Plato’s Phaedrus.