Frederic Leighton, The Return of Persephone (1891).
Editor’s note: In Greek mythology, Persephone was the Queen of the underworld, the young maiden, and a daughter of Demeter and Zeus. Her story had great emotional power in the Ancient World: an innocent maiden, a mother’s grief over her abduction, and great joy after her daughter is returned.
Vidal’s novel recreates how Julian became initiated in such mysteries at Eleusis.
______ 卐 ______
The next three days were beyond imagination. I was admitted to all of the mysteries, including the final and most secret. I saw that which is enacted, that which is shown and that which is spoken. I saw the passion of Demeter, the descent of Persephone to the underworld, the giving of grain to man. I saw the world as it is and the world that is to come. I lost my fear of death in the Telestrion when, in a blaze of light, I looked upon the sacred objects. It was true.
More than this I cannot write. It is forbidden to reveal anything that one sees and hears during the two nights spent in the Telestrion. But I will make one general comment, a dissent from Aristotle, who wrote: “The initiated do not learn anything so much as feel certain emotions and are put into a certain frame of mind.” First of all, one must question the proposition that a new emotion is not something learned. I should think that it was.
In any case, I have yet to meet anyone who has been initiated at Eleusis who did not learn new things not only about the life we live now but the one to follow. There is such a logic to what is revealed on those two nights that one is astonished not to have understood it before—which proves to me the truth of what is seen, heard and demonstrated. We are part of a never-ending cycle, a luminous spiral of life, lost and regained, of death to life to… but now I begin to tell too much.
Priscus: He tells altogether too much. But that was his charm, except when he goes on altogether too long and becomes tedious. I know that you were initiated at Eleusis and doubtless feel much as he did about what is revealed there. I don’t. It is possible that if I had gone through all the nonsense of initiation, I might have had a “revelation”. But I doubt it. There are some natures too coarse to apprehend the mysteries. Mine is one. Nowadays of course we can write with a certain freedom of the mysteries since they are drawing to an end. The Emperor is expected to shut down the Telestrion as soon as he feels the time is politically fight. Naturally, the bishops lust for the destruction of Eleusis, which to me is the only argument for preserving it.
I am cool to the mysteries because I find them vague and full of unjustified hope. I do not want to be nothing next year or next minute or whenever this long life of mine comes to its end (of course it does not seem at all long to me, not long enough by half!). Yet I suspect that “nothing” is my fate. Should it be otherwise, what can I do about it? To believe as poor Julian did that he was among the elect as a result of a nine-day ceremony, costing some fifteen drachmae, not counting extras, is to fall into the same nonsense we accuse the Christians of when we blame their bitter exclusivity and lunatic superstition.
I had no idea Macrina was so sensible until I read Julian’s account of their conversation at Eleusis. She might have made him a good wife. I had always assumed she only told him what he wanted to hear, like any other woman. She was rare, in her way; but not to my taste.
The remainder of Julian’s stay in Athens was uneventful. He was personally popular. The Sophists all tried to curry favour with him. It is remarkable how men supposedly dedicated to philosophy and things of the mind are drawn to power; affecting scorn for the mighty, they are inevitably attracted to those who rule. When the powerful man is as amiable and philosophy-loving as Julian, the resulting attempt to capture him is all the more unseemly.
Libanius: How typical of Priscus! He can hardly restrain his jealousy of me, and his resentment of my influence over Julian. Yet my interest in Julian was not self-seeking. How could it be? When I turned down the title of praetorian prefect, I said that the title Sophist was good enough for me. My gesture is still much remembered not only here in Antioch but everywhere philosophy is valued. Those of us who wish to lead others to wisdom respond to any questioning soul, prince or beggar.
Sometimes, as in the case of Maximus, Julian showed bad judgment, but by and large he cultivated the best minds of our era. I also find Priscus’s remarks about Eleusis distasteful, even atheistic. Cicero, who was hardly superstitious, wrote that if all else Athens had brought the world was swept away, the mysteries alone would be enough to place mankind for ever in Athens’ debt. Priscus has got worse with age. Envy festers. He was never a true philosopher. I find myself pitying him as I read his bitter commentary.
Priscus: In any case, when Julian looked with adoration at that sheaf of wheat which is revealed with such solemnity at the highest moment of the ceremony…
Libanius: This is absolute blasphemy! These things must not be revealed. Priscus will suffer for this in the next world, while who ever betrayed to him our high secret will sink for ever in dung. It is appalling!
Priscus:… he felt duly elated, believing that as the corn withers, dies and is reborn, so it is with us. But is the analogy correct? I would say no. For one thing, it is not the same sheaf of wheat that grows from the seed. It is a new sheaf of wheat, which would suggest that our immortality, such as it is, is between our legs. Our seed does indeed make a new man but he is not us. The son is not the father. The father is put in the ground and that is the end of him. The son is a different man who will one day make yet another man and so on—perhaps for ever—yet the individual consciousness stops.
Libanius: I hate Priscus! He is worse than a Christian. Homer believed. Was Homer wrong? Of course not.
Priscus: Julian did nothing to offend the Christians in Athens, though it was fairly well known that he tended towards philosophy. But he was discreet. On at least one occasion he attended church.
The Hierophant liked him but thought he was doomed, or so he told me years later. The Hierophant was an interesting man. But of course you knew him for you were admitted to the mysteries during his reign. He realized with extraordinary clarity that our old world was ended. There were times, I think, when he took pleasure in knowing he was the last of a line that extended back two thousand years. Men are odd. If they cannot be first, they don’t in the least mind being last.