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ATHENS AND ELEUSIS


CHAPTER X



From Athens to Eleusis is a journey of about twelve miles by a road
which follows very much the line of the Sacred Way, along which the
great procession went for the celebration of the Mysteries. The
starting-point was close to the Dipylon Gate, of which there are still
sufficient remains to enable us to understand its structure. It was the
most strongly fortified point in the city wall, being the part most
exposed to attack; and it was there that the city was taken by the Roman
general Sulla, who had recourse to the erection of a mound in the
neighbourhood. The gate was a double one, as its name implies, not
merely in the sense of being a divided gate with a pillar in the centre,
but as a combination of two separate gates with a walled court between
them, so that an enemy who forced his way through the outer gate would
find himself (as Philip V. of Macedonia once did) exposed to attack not
only in front but also from the sides, and would be glad to make good
his retreat from such an untenable position.

For miles from this point the Sacred Way was lined with tombs,
especially in the immediate neighbourhood of the gate. A number of the
ancient tombstones are still standing in their original place, but many
have sunk out of sight, and not a few were used as materials for
fortification after the Persian war, and again after the battle of
Chæronea. Indeed, some of them are still to be seen built into portions
of the wall. It was outside the Dipylon that the bones of those who had
died in battle were interred. One of the most sacred obligations of a
Greek army after an engagement was to recover the bodies of its dead,
and whenever a truce for this purpose was asked by the defeated side it
could not be refused without a breach both of honour and of religion. At
the interment it was customary for a funeral oration to be delivered in
praise of those who had given their lives for their country. On one of
these occasions, as Thucydides tells us, when Pericles was the speaker,
he gave such a noble address that the women mourners in their gratitude
and enthusiasm crowned him with wreaths, as if he had been a
conqueror.[6] Funeral honours paid to the brave dead were not a mere
expression of sentiment, for provision was at the same time made out of
the public funds for the support of their children till they came of
age.

The existing tombstones, as a rule, depict scenes illustrative of the
life of the departed, or else they
represent in a simple and impressive way the last farewell, by the
mutual clasp of the hands, or by figuring the deceased as in the act of
going on a journey. It was different, however, with the earthenware
vases, called _lecythi_, which were placed within the tomb, for they had
usually depicted on them a funeral scene of some kind, either borrowed
from real life or having reference to the unseen world, Charon and his
boat being frequently introduced in this connection. In some few cases
the dead man is represented as partaking of a banquet, suggesting the
idea that he still survived to claim the ministrations of his friends as
a hero or demi-god. There was one form of large, two-handled vase in
particular, generally of marble, which when deposited on a tomb
indicated that the person interred there had died unmarried. As its
name, _loutrophoros_, signifies, it was the jar used for carrying water
from the spring Callirhoe for the bridal bath, and its presence on the
tomb symbolised the belief that a marriage with _Hades_ (Pluto) awaited
those who had died in their virginity.

The ground, both inside and outside of the Dipylon Gate, was called
_Cerameicus_ (“Inner” and “Outer”), its name being derived from the fine
red clay which for two or three thousand years has yielded material for
one of the chief branches of industrial art in Athens. The Dipylon vase
was well-known as early as the eighth or seventh century B.C. Its style
of decoration was geometrical, with varieties of the “key pattern.” The
men and horses depicted on it are conventional and angular; and from an
artistic point of view it is inferior to the earlier style. Towards the
end of the seventh century it gave way to the “Phalerum” vase, which was
smaller and more delicate, with some oriental features, borrowed
apparently from the woven fabrics of the east. In the sixth century
Attic pottery underwent great improvements, both as regards the
preparation of the clay and the decoration of its surface. It became
famous all over the western world, and thousands of specimens have been
found in the cemeteries of Etruria, as well as in the Cerameicus and
elsewhere. Instead of the figuring being in black on the red ground, the
terra-cotta began to be reserved for the figures, which were thus
rendered much more attractive. Though so largely used for funeral
purposes the fact that so many vases have been found on the Acropolis
among the ruins left by the Persian invasion shows that that was not
their only use--otherwise they would not have been suitable for
dedication to the gods. Many of them seem to have been placed on the
grave-mound, or near it, as useful and ornamental articles, which might
supply the wants of the departed. The _lecythi_, which, as already
mentioned, were specially intended for funeral purposes, were generally
decorated with black silhouette figures on a fine white ground. Some of
the vases placed on tombs had no bottom, so that when a libation was
poured into them it sank into the grave.

From an early period there was a tendency to extravagance in connection
with funerals. In Solon’s time it seems to have been excessive
demonstrations of grief that needed to be restrained; but before long a
law was passed that “no tomb should be built with more elaboration than
could be effected by ten men in three days.” In the beginning of the
fourth century Demetrius of Phalerum, who was then in power at Athens,
forbade the erection of anything more than a mound of earth with a
column not exceeding three cubits high, or a simple slab, or a
water-vessel. We can judge of the extravagance which occasioned such
regulations from the fact that Harpalus, to whose care Alexander the
Great confided his treasures before invading India, had recently erected
a tomb on the Eleusinian way in memory of his wife Pythionice, who was
originally a slave, at an expense of more than £6000, which, Pausanias
tells us, was the tomb best worth seeing in Greece. The same man built a
still grander memorial to his wife at Babylon, at a cost of about
£36,000. Even this was a trifle, however, compared with the two or three
millions of pounds expended by Alexander himself on the funeral
obsequies of his friend Hephæstion, shortly before his own death--which
was brought on by the fierce intemperance in which he sought to drown
his grief. A more precious tribute of affection was paid to the remains
of the statesman Phocion by his widow. As the Athenians in a frenzy of
excitement had found him guilty of treason, he could not be buried in
his own country, and his body was therefore carried into the adjoining
territory of Megara and burned there. His wife brought back the bones in
her bosom by night, and laid them near her own hearth, with the prayer:
“Beloved Hestia” (the Goddess of the Hearth), “I confide to thee these
relics of a good man. Restore them to his own family vault, as soon as
the Athenians shall come to their senses.” Before long the prayer was
fulfilled, for the Athenians ordained a public funeral in honour of the
condemned man, and erected a statue to his memory.

Besides the road westward to Eleusis, there were two other ways from the
Dipylon Gate, the one leading in a north-westerly direction to the
Academy, the other south-west to the Piræus. On the latter road were the
tombs of some famous men, including Socrates, Euripides, and Menander,
but the way to the Academy was the favourite place for monuments in
honour of those who had fallen in war or had otherwise distinguished
themselves in the service of their country. Cicero, who, like so many of
his countrymen, studied at Athens, speaks with admiration of these
monuments; and we can imagine that a walk in the neighbourhood must have
been as interesting and inspiring to an Athenian as a visit to
Westminster or St. Paul’s is to a modern Briton. Many of the monuments
were in honour of large bodies of men who had lost their lives in
battle; but, as Pausanias tells, there were also to be seen the tombs of
great statesmen like Solon, Cleisthenes, and Pericles; great warriors
like Chabrias, Phormio, and Conon; great benefactors like Thrasybulus
and Lycurgus; and great philosophers like Zeno and Plato.

The Academy was about three-quarters of a mile from the gate. No remains
of the ancient buildings have been found, but there are still trees to
remind us of-- the olive grove of Academe
    Plato’s retirement, where the Attic bird
    Trills her thick-warbl’d notes the summer long.

Its name had originally no flavour of learning, being derived from an
early owner, Academus, whose greatness was of a vague and mythical
character. The place was of considerable extent. It was first enclosed
by Hipparchus, the son of Peisistratus, and was afterwards planted and
laid out by Cimon. It was famous for its great plane-trees, and
Aristophanes speaks of “the plane-tree whispering to the elm.” But there
were twelve ancient olive-trees which were still more highly prized.
They were called _Moriai_, in allusion to some legend connected with
them, and were believed to be offshoots from the sacred olive in the
Acropolis. It was at one time a capital offence to injure these
olive-trees in any way; and the oil derived from them was preserved in
the Acropolis, and jars of it given to the victors in the Pan-Athenaic
games. In the neighbourhood there was an altar of Prometheus--that
much-enduring Titan, who suffered for his sin in stealing fire from
heaven for the material welfare of the human race. This altar, with its
sacred fire, was the starting-point for one of the most famous contests
in the Athenian games, namely, the torch race. It was a race that was
sometimes run by individual competitors, sometimes by companies. In the
former case the prize was won by the man who first reached the goal with
his torch still burning. When it was a contest of parties, the object
was to pass the lighted torch from one member of the party to another,
till at length it reached the man stationed farthest ahead, who carried
it forward to the goal, the prize being awarded not to the individual
who came in first but to the company to which he belonged. No doubt it
is this form of the game that has given rise to the popular metaphor
about handing on the torch of truth. Funeral games were also held in the
Academy in honour of the soldiers buried in the neighbourhood, and there
was a sacrificial pit, at which worship was offered to them as heroes.
There was also a gymnasium, and so much open ground that a cavalry
parade was occasionally held in it. Plato dedicated a shrine to the
Muses in it, and it was his favourite haunt for about forty years,
though he was advised to quit it on account of its low and unhealthy
situation; it also continued to be the headquarters of his school for
several generations. He was buried in it, or very near it, by the
Athenians with great pomp, and the following was said to be his epitaph:
“Apollo created the two--Asclepios and Plato: Asclepios, that he might
save the body; Plato, that he might save the soul.”

A few hundred yards off, rather more to the east, lies Colonus, a knoll
some fifty feet high. There is little about it to remind one of the
description of it given by Sophocles, which has been thus translated by Prof. Lewis
Campbell--

    Gleaming Colonus, where the nightingale
    In cool, green covert warbleth ever clear,
    True to the deep-flushed ivy and the dear
    Divine, impenetrable shade,
    From wildered boughs and myriad fruitage made,
    Sunless at noon, stormless in every gale.

But you have only to go a short distance to the west and you will find
the olive woods, rich in all their ancient charms. For the Greek scholar
Colonus will always have a strong attraction as the birthplace of
Sophocles, and as the scene of his _Œdipus Coloneus_; but the
ordinary traveller will perhaps find his best reward for the excursion
in the very beautiful view which it affords of Athens and the Acropolis.

Soon after leaving the Dipylon Gate, on the way to Eleusis, the road
passes through the olive grove already mentioned, which borders the
course of the Cephisus for several miles, though the bed of the river is
often dry owing to the water being diverted from its course for purposes
of irrigation. It was at this point that a strange play of abusive wit
usually took place between the returning celebrants of the Mysteries as
they crossed the bridge, and the crowd of spectators. A little farther
on the spot is passed where Demeter is said to have presented Phytalus
with the first fig-tree. About midway between Athens and Eleusis, at the
top of the pass over Mt. Ægaleos, from which you have a charming view of
the city as you look back, there is a deserted monastery dating from
the thirteenth century, the work of one of the Burgundian Dukes of
Athens. It is built on the site of an ancient temple of Apollo, and has
inherited the name of Daphni, Apollo’s favourite, while its walls are
also enriched with marbles from the ancient edifice, though it was
deprived of three fine Ionic columns, which were transferred by Lord
Elgin to the British Museum. About a mile farther, where a stone has
been discovered bearing the letters Ζ _ex asteos_ (_i.e._ Seven miles
from the City), there are some scanty remains of a temple of Aphrodité,
and behind it a rocky wall with niches for votive offerings, some of
which have been recovered, especially doves in marble and bronze. It is
about this point that the bay of Eleusis comes into view, looking like a
lake, with Salamis, of glorious memory, enclosing it on the south-west.
A mile or two farther on there are salt springs quite close to the road,
called Rhiti, whose waters have been dammed up so as to form pools in
which there is said to be good fishing, once the exclusive property of
the priests of Demeter. The Thriasian plain is now seen on the right,
and by and by Eleusis itself is reached, an unattractive and unhealthy
village with about 1200 (Albanian) inhabitants, which would have no
interest for the visitor except as the birthplace of Æschylus, if it
were not for the sacred and venerable ruins on the adjoining hill.

It is a remark of Pausanias that “there is nothing on which the blessing
of God rests in so full a measure as the rites of Eleusis and the Olympian games.” These two institutions
may be said to have been in some respects the counterpart of one
another, the one being the celebration of what is commonly called life,
the other of what is known as death; the one sacred to the god who rules
in heaven, the other to the infernal or Chthonian deities.

Of the myth on which the Eleusinian rites were based the earliest
account is to be found in what is called the Homeric hymn to Demeter,
though it is known to be the work of a later writer. According to this
tale, Cora, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter (“Earth-Mother”)--otherwise
called Persephone or Proserpine--was carried off by Hades while she was
playing with her companions in a flowery meadow. Her mother sought her
for nine days and nights with the aid of torches, but without success.
Overcome with grief and deeply offended that Zeus should have permitted
such an outrage, she withdrew from the society of the gods of Olympus.
In her wanderings she came, in the guise of an old woman, to Eleusis,
where she was kindly received by the ruler Celeus and his family. For a
time she acted as nurse to his infant son Demophoon, and would have
conferred upon him immortality, had not his mother, Metaneira, been
terrified one night to see her plunging him in fire, as she was in the
habit of doing to purify him from the elements of corruption. The
goddess, incensed at the mother’s interference, revealed her divine
rank, and commanded the family to build a temple for her on the hill,
which they did; and there she dwelt for a year, during which the earth
was visited with barrenness. At length Zeus consented to restore Cora to
her mother, on condition that she should return to Hades every year and
remain with her husband in the underworld for four months while the seed
was in the ground. Before leaving Eleusis, Demeter revealed to Celeus
and three others, in whose families they were to remain, the secret
rites which she wished to be celebrated every year in her temple.

According to a later addition to the tale, the goddess also taught
Triptolemus how to grow corn, an art which had hitherto been unknown
among men, and was first practised in the Thriasian plain. This version
was current among the Athenians, who, although not mentioned in the
hymn, ultimately assumed the chief responsibility for the celebration of
the rites, and introduced various modifications, in which Dionysus and
Iacchus had a prominent place. For hundreds of years before, the
“Mysteries” were entirely in the hands of the people of Eleusis, which
was then as independent of Athens on the east as it was of Megara on the
west.

The rites were of a mystical nature, and consisted largely of a dramatic
representation of the myth above referred to. They grew in popularity
and importance as faith in the traditional theology declined; and even
the philosopher found in them an aid to natural religion. So great,
indeed, was the importance attached to them that, at a later time, the
Christian apologists (to whom we are chiefly indebted for informationregarding them) felt it necessary to combat the idea that they embodied
the essential truths of Christianity.

After Eleusis was incorporated with Attica the Mysteries were celebrated
with a pomp and splendour unknown in any other religious service in the
Hellenic world--music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and dancing
being all laid under tribute for the purpose of rendering them
attractive and imposing. To heighten the expectations and deepen the
impressions of the worshippers there was a preliminary initiation into
the Lesser Mysteries in February at Agræ, a suburb of Athens, before the
chief celebration in autumn at Eleusis; and a year had to elapse after
participation in the latter before one could be admitted to full
communion. On the first day there was a great assembly at Athens; next
day they bathed in the sea; the third day they offered sacrifice; the
fourth day they marched in procession along the Sacred Way to Eleusis,
which they reached at sunset. During the night they wandered about the
shore with torches, looking for the lost Persephone. At length they were
admitted in a state of excitement, intensified by their long fast, into
a brilliantly lighted hall called the Telesterium, which has been
recently excavated. In this hall the strange events which had for some
days absorbed their attention were dramatically exhibited before them on
two nights, amid profound silence, the divinities concerned being
personally represented in appropriate costume. Certain sacred relics
which Demeter had shown to the daughters of Celeus were produced, to be
handled and kissed by the worshippers, who repeated the solemn formula
of initiation. Everything was fitted to awaken feelings of reverence and
awe, and the whole celebration seems to have held a similar place in the
religion of the Greeks to what the Mass has among Roman Catholics, the
Communion among Protestants, and the Easter Eve ceremonial among the
members of the Greek Church. While the sorrows of bereavement, the pangs
of inevitable death, and the mysterious gloom of the underworld could
hardly fail to be impressed on the minds of the celebrants, the return
of Persephone to her mother in spring seems to have inspired a hope of
immortality, for we are told that the culminating point in the service
in the Telesterium was the mowing down of a ripe ear of corn. It
requires no stretch of imagination to believe that it conveyed to the
devout worshipper something of the thought which Jesus Christ expressed
on the eve of His death to certain Greeks who came desiring to see Him,
when He said, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it
abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” The same
thought is echoed by St. Paul in writing to the Corinthians on the
subject of the Resurrection, when he says, “Thou fool, that which thou
sowest is not quickened, except it die.” This view of the Mysteries is
confirmed by the statement made by Cicero, who had himself been
initiated, that they taught men “not only to live happily but also to
die with a fairer hope.”

Like all symbolic rites, however, they depended for
their efficacy on the susceptibilities of the worshipper. Plutarch says
that it required a philosophical training and a religious frame of mind
to comprehend them, and Galen maintained that “the study of Nature, if
prosecuted with the concentrated attention given to the Mysteries, is
even more fitted than they are to reveal the power and wisdom of God, as
these truths are less clearly expressed in the Mysteries than in
Nature.”

There is no evidence that metempsychosis or transmigration of souls had
any place in the rites, and they appear to have been free from the
grossness of the Orphic and Phrygian Mysteries, as well as from the
superstition associated with Pythagoreanism. It has been suggested that
they may have been of Egyptian origin, and recently this theory has
derived some support from the discovery of three Egyptian scarabs in the
grave of a woman, who appears to have been a priestess, as more than
sixty vases of various kinds were found buried with her, besides a great
quantity of female jewellery, in gold and silver and bronze and iron.

The Eleusinian rites breathed quite a different spirit from the ordinary
religion of the Greek, and as soon as they were over he resumed his
enjoyment of the present world. There were games and theatrical
performances on the last day before leaving Eleusis, and on the way back
to Athens there were many ebullitions of mirth and wit, owing to the
reaction from the unwonted solemnity and gloom.

We have a token of the sacredness attaching to the rites in the fact
that one of the most solemn oaths which could be taken was in the name
of Demeter and her daughter. It was regarded as an extreme aggravation
of the guilt of Calippus, the Syracusan, who compassed the death of
Dion, Plato’s friend, that, when he was suspected of a hostile design
and challenged by Areté, Dion’s wife, he denied with an oath and went
into the sacred grove, touching the purple robe of the goddess, and
taking a lighted torch in his hand. To make the crime still worse, it
was perpetrated on the very day sacred to these goddesses when the
Coreia were celebrated, and it was through their initiation into the
Eleusinian Mysteries that the two men had become acquainted--showing how
little impression may be made on some minds by the most solemn rites of
religion. The Mysteries were open to women as well as to men, but not to
slaves or Persians, or infamous persons such as murderers whose guilt
had not been expiated.




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