Friday, April 07, 2017


The Sacred Way

Henry Miller (1891-1980), The Colossus of Maroussi (London: Secker & Warburg, 1945), pp. 42-44:
Along the Sacred Way, from Daphni to the sea, I was on the point of madness several times. I actually did start running up the hillside only to stop midway, terror-stricken, wondering what had taken possession of me. On one side are stones and shrubs which stand out with microscopic clarity; on the other are trees such as one sees in Japanese prints, trees flooded with light, intoxicated, corybantic trees which must have been planted by the gods in moments of drunken exaltation. One should not race along the Sacred Way in a motor car—it is sacrilege. One should walk, walk as the men of old walked, and allow one's whole being to become flooded with light. This is not a Christian highway: it was made by the feet of devout pagans on their way to initiation at Eleusis. There is no suffering, no martyrdom, no flagellation of the flesh connected with this processional artery. Everything here speaks now, as it did centuries ago, of illumination, of blinding, joyous illumination. Light acquires a transcendental quality: it is not the light of the Mediterranean alone, it is something more, something unfathomable, something holy. Here the light penetrates directly to the soul, opens the doors and windows of the heart, makes one naked, exposed, isolated in a metaphysical bliss which makes everything clear without being known. No analysis can go on in this light: here the neurotic is either instantly healed or goes mad. The rocks themselves are quite mad: they have been lying for centuries exposed to this divine illumination: they lie very still and quiet, nestling amid dancing colored shrubs in a blood-stained soil, but they are mad, I say, and to touch them is to risk losing one’s grip on everything which once seemed firm, solid and unshakeable. One must glide through this gully with extreme caution, naked, alone, and devoid of all Christian humbug. One must throw off two thousand years of ignorance and superstition, of morbid, sickly subterranean living and lying. One must come to Eleusis stripped of the barnacles which have accumulated from centuries of lying in stagnant waters. At Eleusis one realizes, if never before, that there is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy. At Eleusis one becomes adapted to the cosmos. Outwardly Eleusis may seem broken, disintegrated with the crumbled past; actually Eleusis is still intact and it is we who are broken, dispersed, crumbling to dust. Eleusis lives, lives eternally in the midst of a dying world.
Jan N. Bremmer, Initiation into the Mysteries of the Ancient World (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014), pp. 5-8 (footnotes omitted):
On the morning of the 19th Boedromion, after three days rest (a free period of time that had made it possible to intercalate the Epidauria festival for Asclepius), the prospective initiates assembled again in the agora and formed the procession to the sanctuary of Demeter and her daughter Persephone in Eleusis. At the front went the Eleusinian dignitaries, dressed in their full glory, the priestesses carrying sacred objects on their heads in special baskets closed by red ribbons, and, in later times, the ephebes, the Athenian male youth. They were followed by a huge cavalcade of Greeks, each holding a kind of pilgrim's staff consisting of a single branch of myrtle or several held together by rings and accompanied by their donkeys with provisions and torches for the coming days. The procession now left the city, and it would have been quite a few hours before they completed the roughly 15 mile journey, which was repeatedly interrupted by sacred dances, sacrifices, libations, ritual washings, and the singing of hymns accompanied by pipes. It was hot and dusty, but the crowds did not care and rhythmically chanted 'Iakch', o Iakche', invoking the god Iakchos at the head of the procession, who was closely related to and sometimes identified with Dionysos. Later reports told how during the battle of Salamis (480 BC), 'a great light flamed out from Eleusis, and an echoing cry filled the Thriasian plain down to the sea, as of multitudes of men together conducting the mystic Iakchos in procession'. At times, the scene must have resembled that of fervent Catholic or Shi'ite processions.

The participants were now in that transitory stage of betwixt and between, which, as the anthropologist Victor Turner (1920–1983) has taught us, is often characterised by reversals and confusions of the social order. During the journey the young mocked the old, at the bridge over the Athenian river Kephisos a prostitute hurled mockery at the passers by, and the wealthier women who rode in buggies reviled one another. Although some couples must have been initiated together, in general the occasion presented an opportunity for the two sexes to take a close look at one another in a way that would have been unthinkable in normal circumstances. Aristophanes even has one of his male characters peep at a slave girl who had performed a Janet Jackson act with her top. That will have been wishful thinking, but Phaedra, a kind of Athenian desperate housewife, first saw Hippolytus when he came to Athens for, to quote Euripides, 'the viewing of and initiation into the most solemn mysteries' (Hippolytos 25).

At the end of the day, the procession finally reached the sanctuary 'together with Iakchos', and they entered it from the east through the relatively new Propylon that had been constructed around 430 BC. The night fell early, and the flickering of the thousands of torches must have produced a near psychedelic effect among the weary travellers. Recent neurological research has stressed that a good walk can produce euphoric effects. I take it therefore that the 'pilgrims' were already in a state of excitement when they reached their goal, which can only have increased that mood. At the entry to the sanctuary was the Kallichoron Well, literally meaning 'Beautiful dancing', which was the location for dancing during the Mysteries cited by Euripides in his Ion (1074); apparently, the 'pilgrims' danced their way into the sanctuary. Demeter is portrayed several times as seated on the well, so the place clearly had a marked symbolic significance.

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