Eleusinian Mysteries Part Four

References to the mysteries in ancient pagan literature 

The Eleusinian mysteries were definitely represented in the literature of their time. Although we do find many references to the mysteries in the writings of pagan authors, we unfortunately do not read of any of the specific inner workings of these rites because of the vow of secrecy. Even among others who have also shared in the rites, one's initiation could not be discussed, and this is reflected in the literature of the time. But by considering the allusions which the writers were permitted to make, it is possible to get some idea of at least the way these mysteries were viewed by Athenian and Roman society.

If we accept the broader meaning of literature, which includes any printed matter, we can consider the words of an Athenian epitaph, found on the grave of a hierophant of the mysteries. For this priest, "death was not an evil but a blessing." In a similar vein are the words of Cicero, also concerning the Eleusinian mysteries: "We have learned to live and to die with a better hope," he claims with confidence. Even Aristotle was familiar with the mysteries; his words give us more of an assurance that the emotional revelation was more important than any intellectual aspect. He explains that the initiate did not have to learn anything, but instead underwent an experience and was put into a certain state.

Pindar, too, helps to reassure us of the belief the initiates had of being blessed as a result of going through the mysteries. Clement of Alexandria quotes the following lines of Pindar, which refer to Eleusis: "Blessed is he who goes beneath the earth having seen these things. He knows the end of life, and he knows its god-given beginning." Although this is helpful, more interesting is the passage in which he compares dying to being initiated. Besides giving us some more welcome information on the rites, Pindar actually enables us to almost experience the sensations that must have been felt by an initiate:

"When a man dies, he is like those who are being initiated into the mysteries...Our whole life is but a succession of wanderings, of painful courses, of long journeys by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of quitting it, fears, terrors, quiverings, moral sweats, and a lethargic stupor, come over us and overwhelm us, with voice and dance and the solemnties of sacred words and holy sights."

Here we receive not only practical facts about the mysteries, but a description that stirs our emotions. This is one reason that an examination of literature enriches our understanding of Eleusis; it helps us to see how real, how meaningful, these ceremonies were to the pagan world. This is the case in the following excerpt of Plutarch, also, in which he powerfully describes the experience of an initiate:

"At first abortive and wearisome wandering about, a number of dangerous journeys into the dark that lead nowhere, then just before the celebration all manner of fears, shuddering and trembling, or silence and anxious wonder. Then a wondrous light breaks in on everything, pleasant landscapes and meadowland receive us and we become aware of voices and dances and of the glory of sacred songs."

Before turning from pagan literature, I will point out that although the Eleusinian mysteries were obviously taken quite seriously and held in awe, they are not neglected in Greek comedy, either. For example, they are mentioned humorously in Aristophanes' Peace. In the play, Hermes tells the hero, Trygaios, that he is planning out an act that Zeus himself has declared punishable by death. "Must I really die?" asks Trygaios. "Assuredly." "Well, do lend me three drachmas to buy a pig. I must get initiated before I die." These are only some of the many examples which can be found in pagan literature.

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