Henryk Siemiradzki, Phryne at the Festival of Poseidon in Eleusis
A week after I arrived in Athens I met the Hierophant of Greece. Since I did not want the proconsul to know of this meeting, it was arranged to take place in the Library of Hadrian, a not much frequented building midway between the Roman and the Athenian agoras.
At noon I arrived at the library and went straight to the north reading room, enjoying as I always do the musty dry odour of papyrus and ink which comes from the tall niches where the scrolls and codices are kept. The high room with its coffered ceiling (for which we must thank Antinoüs’s protector) was empty. Here I waited for the Hierophant. I was extremely nervous, for he is the holiest of all men. I am forbidden by law to write his name but I can say that he belongs to the family of the Eumolpidae, one of the two families from which Hierophants are traditionally drawn. He is not only High Priest of Greece, he is custodian and interpreter of the mysteries of Eleusis which go back at least two thousand years, if not to the beginning of our race.
Those of us who have been admitted to the mysteries may not tell what we have seen or what we know. Even so, as Pindar wrote: “Happy is he who, having seen these rites, goes below the hollow earth; for he knows the end of life and he knows its god-sent beginning.” Sophocles described initiates as “Thrice-happy mortals, who having seen those rites depart for Hades; for them alone is it granted to have true life there; to the rest, evil.” I quote from memory. (Note to secretary: Correct quotations, if they are wrong.)
Eleusis is a city fourteen miles from Athens. For two thousand years the mysteries have been celebrated in that place, for it was at Eleusis that Persephone returned from the underworld to which she had been stolen by the death-god Hades and made his queen. When Persephone first vanished, her mother Demeter, the harvest goddess, sought her for nine days, neither eating nor drinking. (As I tell this story initiates will see the mystery unfold. But no one else may know what is meant.) On the tenth day Demeter came to Eleusis. She was received by the king and queen, who gave her a pitcher of barley water flavoured with mint which she drank all at once. When the king’s eldest son said, “How greedily you drink!” Demeter turned him into a lizard. But then, remorseful over what she had done, she conferred great powers upon the king’s youngest son, Triptolemus. She gave him seed corn, a wooden plough and a chariot drawn by serpents; he then travelled the earth teaching men agriculture. She did this for him not only to make up for what in her anger she had done to his brother, but also because Triptolemus was able to tell her what had happened to her daughter. He had been in the fields when the earth suddenly opened before him. Then a chariot drawn by black horses appeared, coming from the sea. The driver was Hades; in his arms he held Persephone. As the chariot careered at full speed into the cavern, the earth closed over them. Now Hades is brother to Zeus, king of the gods, and he had stolen the girl with Zeus’s connivance. When Demeter learned this, she took her revenge. She bade the trees not to bear fruit and the earth not to flower. Suddenly, the world was barren. Men starved. Zeus capitulated: if Persephone had not yet eaten the food of the dead, she might return to her mother. As it turned out, Persephone had eaten seven pomegranate seeds and this was enough to keep her forever in the underworld. But Zeus arranged a compromise. Six months of the year she would remain with Hades, as queen of Tartarus. The remaining six months she would join her mother in the world above. That is why the cold barren time of the year is six months and the warm fruitful time six months. Demeter also gave the fig tree to Attica, and forbade the cultivation of beans. This holy story is acted out in the course of the mysteries. I cannot say more about it. The origin of the ceremony goes back to Crete and, some say, to Libya. It is possible that those places knew similar mysteries, but it is a fact that Eleusis is the actual place where Persephone returned from the underworld. I have myself seen the cavern from which she emerged.
Now: for those who have been initiated, I have in the lines above given in the form of a narrative a clear view of what happens after death. Through number and symbol, I have in a page revealed everything. But the profane may not unravel the mystery. They will merely note that I have told an old story of the old gods.