During the weeks that followed, we saw each other every day. Yet I came to know the Hierophant no better. On any subject not connected with the mysteries, he refused to speak. I gave up talking to him, accepting him as what he was: a palpable link with the holy past but not a human companion.
I need not describe the celebrations which precede the initiation, since they are known to everyone. Though I may not describe the mysteries themselves, I can say that in this particular year more people took part in the festivities than usual, to the chagrin of the Galileans.
The whole business takes nine days. The first day was hot and enervating. The proclamation was made and the sacred objects brought from Eleusis to the Eleusinion, a small temple at the foot of the acropolis where—among other interesting things—there is a complete list of Alcibiades’ personal property, seized when he profaned the mysteries one drunken night by imitating on a street corner the Hierophant’s secret rites. The sacred objects are contained in several jars tied with red ribbons. They are put in the Eleusinion, to be returned to Eleusis during the main procession, which is on the fifth day.
On the second day, we bathed in the sea and washed the pig each of us had bought for sacrifice. I chose the beach at Phaleron, and nearly lost the pig I had bought for six drachmae. It is an amazing sight to watch several thousand people bathing in the sea, each with a squealing pig.
The third day is one of sacrifice, and a long night.
The fourth day is sacred to Asklepios; one stays at home. On the fifth day the procession starts from the Dipylon Gate to Eleusis.
It was a lovely sight. An image of the god Iacchos, son of Demeter, is borne in a wooden carriage at the procession’s head. This part of the ceremony is sacred to him. Though all are supposed to walk to Eleusis, most of the well-to-do are carried in litters. I walked. My bodyguards complained, but I was exalted. I was crowned with myrtle and I carried not only the sacred branches tied with wool but also, according to tradition, new clothes in a bundle on a stick over my shoulder. Macrina accompanied me.
The day was cloudy, which made the journey pleasanter than it usually is at that time of the year. All told, there were perhaps a thousand of us in the procession, not counting the curious, which included a number of Galileans who shouted atheist curses at us.
On the outskirts of Athens, just off the main road, Macrina pointed to a complex of old buildings. “That is the most famous brothel in Greece,” she said with her usual delight in such things. “The shrine of Aphrodite.” Apparently, people come from all over the world to visit the shrine, where for a price they enjoy the “priestesses”. They pretend it is religion. Actually, it is mass prostitution. I could not disapprove more.
Just beyond the shrine there is an old bridge. Here the ordeal begins. On the bridge’s parapet sit men with faces covered by hoods. It is their traditional function to remind important people of their faults and to condemn their pride. I consoled myself by remembering that Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius had preceded me on this bridge. If they had survived humiliation, so could I.
“It won’t be bad.” Macrina tried to be reassuring. “They’re much too frightened of Constantius.” But I recalled how Hadrian had been jeered for his love of Antinoüs, and Hadrian was a reigning emperor, not mere cousin to one. I was sweating as we reached the bridge. All eyes were upon me. The hooded men—at least thirty of them—had just finished tormenting a local magistrate. They turned now to me. Macrina held my arm tight. Heart beating fast and eyes cast down, I walked slowly over the bridge. The jeering and curses were formidable. At first I tried not to listen, but then I recalled that this humiliation is an essential part of the mysteries: to rid oneself of pride. I listened. I was accused mostly of falseness and pretension. I was not a true scholar. I was a poseur.I looked like a goat. I was a coward and afraid to serve in the army (this was unexpected). I hated the Galileans. This made me nervous indeed but happily, it was said only once. After all, my tormentors were of the true religion and not apt to hold my dislike of the Galileans against me.
Finally, the bridge was crossed. The ordeal ended. Feeling purged and relieved (the worst is never so bad as one fears), I walked the rest of the way to Eleusis, with Macrina grumbling at my side. I’m afraid she taunted me quite as much as the men on the bridge. But as I drew closer to the mysteries, I was filled with such a sense of expectancy that nothing could disturb my mood.
It was night when we arrived at Eleusis. The city is a small one on the Saronic Gulf, with a view of the island of Salamis. Like most cities whose principal source of revenue is strangers, Eleusis is full of inns and cookshops and tradesmen eager to sell copies of sacred objects at ridiculously high prices. It is a wonder that any place remains sacred, considering the inevitable presence of those whose livelihood depends on cheating strangers. I am told that Delphi is even worse than Eleusis; while Jerusalem—which is of course “sacred” to the Galileans—is now a most distressing place to visit.
Torches blazed in every street of the town. Night was like day. Innkeepers solicited us, and at every street corner, men told of places to eat. Even vice was proposed, which shows how debased the local population is, for they should know better than anyone that during the pilgrims’ three days in Eleusis, they must fast, remain continent, and touch neither the body of one dead nor that of a woman who has just given birth; eggs and beans are also forbidden us, even after the first day’s fast.
Macrina and I followed the crowd to where the mysteries are enacted. Homer has described how the original temple was at the foot of the acropolis, in much the same spot as the present temple, or Telestrion, as it is called. This night everything was illuminated in honour of the Great Mysteries.
The entrance to the sacred enclosure is through a gate, even more noble than the Dipylon at Athens. We entered, passing through a roped-off section where guards and priests made sure that we were indeed initiates, remarkable by our dress and certain signs. The gate is so cunningly arranged that anyone looking through can see no more than a few yards of the sacred way; any further view of the Telestrion is broken by the large blank wall of the Ploutonion, a temple built over the original passage to Hades from which Persephone appeared.
Eyes smarting from torch smoke, Macrina and I ascended the sacred way, pausing first at the Kallichoros Well. I was overcome with awe, for this is the same well described by Homer. It is old beyond memory. It was here in the time when the gods walked the earth that the women of Eleusis danced in honour of Demeter.
Roman copy of Demeter after a Greek original from the
4th century BC. Compare it with the Roman mudblood kid
already at the beginning of the Christian Era in my previous post.
The opening of the well is several steps below the main terrace, and faced with magnificent marble. Near it stands a large basin containing sacred water. I bathed my hands and began to know Demeter and her grief. I was so moved that I almost neglected to pay the priestess the one drachma for the experience.
Next we entered the Ploutonion, which is set in a rocky hollow of the acropolis. The elmwood doors were shut to us, but the altar outside, cut in living rock, was illuminated.
Finally we came to the long stoa of Philon, which fronts the Telestrion. Beyond this blue-paved portico the blank façade of the holiest building on earth is set against the acropolis, which provides its fourth wall. There are greater and more splendid temples in the world, but there is none which quite inspires one’s reverence in the way the Telestrion does, for it has been holy since almost the first day of man, a creation of that beautiful lost world when the gods, not beleaguered, lived among us, and earth was simple and men good.
Since we were not yet initiates, we could not enter the Telestrion. At this point we were joined by two priests who led us to the house where the Eumolpidae have lived for a thousand years. We were to spend the night there. The Hierophant, however, did not join us. On this night of nights, he fasted and meditated.
Macrina and I sat up until dawn. “You must be admitted to the mysteries.” I scolded her, as I had done before.
But she was perverse. “How can I? I’m not one thing or the other. I don’t like the Christians because they are cruel. I don’t like the mysteries and all the rest because I don’t believe anything can help us when we are dead. Either we continue in some way, or we stop. But no matter what happens, it is beyond our control and there is no way of making a bargain with the gods. Consider the Christians, who believe there is a single god…”
“In three parts!”
“Well, yours is in a thousand bits. Anyway, if by some chance the Christians areright, then all this”—she gestured towards the Telestrion—“is wrong, and you will go to their hell rather than to your Elysium.”
“But the Galileans arewrong.”
“Who can say?”
“Homer. Thousands of years of the true faith. Are we to believe there was no god until the appearance of a rabble-rousing carpenter three hundred years ago? It is beyond sense to think that the greatest age of man was godless.”
“You must argue with the Twins,” said Macrina; then we spoke of matters which I shall not record.