The Mystery religions in Athens involved a large number of initiates each year in a parade on the Panathenian Way to Elefsina (Eleusis). The initiates pledged to release no information about the Mysteries. No writing directly about the Mysteries survives.
Yet one can learn many features of the Mysteries from surviving objects. In the National Archaelogical Musuem in Athens, a huge marble votive stone from Eleusis depicts a great figure Demeter offering wheat to a young king Triptolemus. On the other side of him stands a large Persephone, her daughter, occasionally called kore (girl or maiden).
He is smaller than the two of them, naked. He is not humbled in their presence but they overshadow him. Demeter is dressed in a peplos, Persephone in a chiton. Every year, Athenian women wove a peplos for 9 months which was then carried in the procession and presented to a priestess (probably representing Demeter). 9 months is the period of pregnancy.
Demeter means the mother, with a prefix which indicates the people or demos. When I took students to the Archaelogical Museum with Athanassios Bobos (the teacher of my student, Jonilda Dhamo), he explained that Demeter derives from Crete and the mother-goddess there, Sito. In fact, from another object in the Museum, it is clear that women were the center of the Mysteries, Demeter and another woman receiving the procession, Persephone leading it with a torch. Other torchbearers followed. The ceremony was at night. Women as well as men participated.
Demeter is the great mother and Persephone, her daughter. They carry into Athens the role of the feminine suppressed as much as possible in Athina (Athens), for whom the city is named, sprung from the head of Zeus, a warrior, of no woman born. In the votive marble, Demeter gives Triptolemus wheat. Her story is that of the earth connected to fertility and agriculture. The surviving myth of Demeter and Persephone is a story of the seasons, Persephone is kidnapped, when she is among the flowers, by Hades, and dragged to the underworld. She consumes some pomegranate seeds. Demeter searches for her daughter and the earth goes barren. When Zeus reclaims Persephone for her mother, she has only 9 months in the sunlight (the time of weaving of the peplos by the Athenian women initiates, also the period of pregnancy) before she returns for winter to the underworld. Winter is the grieving of Demeter.
As we have seen here and here. the religion of old Crete (roughly 3000 to 1550) and the Cycladic islands was centered on women (see Riane Eisler’s chapter on Crete in The Chalice and the Blade* and her and Marija Gimbutas’s account of the Neolithic, agricultural civilization of the goddess in old Europe). Minoan Crete was comparatively egalitarian, with the houses roughly of the same size (on the so-called “palace” of Knossus, see here). Eisler mentions, but offers no proof of a connection between Crete and Athenian democracy. But the Mysteries are a living connection as I just discovered listening to Thanos, between Crete and Athens.
In Athens, a great struggle for democracy occurred over several hundred years. In 1200, revolts of the poor all over the region destroyed a caste system like India’s and created peoples among each of whom democracy was possible. More class struggle from below over time helped to give rise in Athens to the democratic measures of Cleisthenes and Pericles, among others, and Athenian democracy is often seen as being rooted in the Peiraeus (the port district), and the rowers who made up its powerful navy. Of Crete, one might say, observing Athens, that the patriarchy had triumphed and imprisoned women. See here. Women were charged in ancient Hellas with mourning. Thus in Sophocles’ play, Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, covers with dust her brother, Polynices, who has fought against the city. The new king Creon has forbidden Polyncies’ burial. Creon has her killed because she honors the duty of women, to take care of the dead and the underworld. But the vultures tear at the corpse and spread its unclean flesh over the city, and before night, Creon is brought down. In love with Antigone, his son joins her in death, sealed in a cave. Discovering what has happened to her son, the Queen, too, takes her own life. Still despite this continuity, it is easy to see Athenian and Hellenic civilization as locked in mortal battle, with Zeus and the patriarchy pitted against the goddess and the spirit of the earlier, island civilizations.
There may be another commonality. In the Archaelogical Musuem in Iraklio (Herakleion) in Crete, late statues (1300 BC) survive of the goddess with poppies rising from her hair. This connection with opium is linked also to goddess figures who have snakes in their (or as) hair. Poppies may have provided some of the experience of the Mysteries as they did the rituals of Dionysus. But this is speculative.
Equality, however, is a great commonality between ancient Crete and democratic Athens (at least for men). If the Mysteries concerning Demeter survived into Athens, they brought a plainly egalitarian spirit which probably also contributed to the democracy. Another source on the Mysteries is Plato’s Myth of Er in the 10th book of the Republic. Er seems mortally wounded and goes to the underworld, but returns twelve days later to tell the tale. In this underworld, there is a transmigration of souls, much like what happens in the East, little like later Christianities, Hellenic or Roman. The runner Atalanta who stoops to swoop up three golden apples, loses a race, has to marry the victor and dies in childbirth. She chooses a guiding spirit (neither male nor female) and the body of a male athlete. There is a psychological connection between lives chosen, a kind of karma. But more importantly, the soul is neither male nor female, and one can choose the bodily form of either, In addition, the buffoon Thersites gets himself into the shape of an ape. Torn apart by the Maenads, Orpheus will not be born again of women, and chooses the life of a swan. As in Hinduism or Buddhism, all life is connected.
Socrates was a participant in the Mysteries and a number of the dialogues particularly the Symposium bear signs of this. At the beginning of the Symposium, he goes into a trance while the other participants in the dialogue are already inside and at dinner. But at the end, he remains awake long after even Aristophanes has fallen asleep and goes about his business, returning home to rest only the next evening. The metaphor of sleep and dreams – the Cave for example - as opposed to waking or agonized turning to the light is a central theme of Plato’s dialogues. Something of the Mysteries may also be captured in that metaphor, as in the story of Alcibiades, whose experience of Socrates reveals a similar agony without illumination, at the end of the Symposium.
In Meno, Socrates speaks in the last lines of whether virtue can be taught. He says perhaps that someone as wise as Tiresias the blind seer, who alone among the shades in Hades can see as Odysseus found on his journey there, could teach virtue. In the Republic, however, Plato shows Socrates teaching Plato’s brother, the military leader Glaucon not to be “hungry” (where’s the relish? Glaucon asks, offended at Socrates’s proposal of an austere city), not to become a tyrant. Odysseus is the one in the Myth of Er who chooses last and finds a private life, one outside the wars which he at last, in his long journeys, is beyond. He escapes what would be called in the Middle Ages the wheel of fortune. So does Tiresias, So does Socrates. Philosophy is to learn how to die, as Montaigne later said, in this case, to escape an ordinary psychological cycle or repetitive vacillation of which the Greeks were profoundly aware.
In Meno, Socrates asks his interlocutor to summon any of his slaves and gets the slave to prove, by questioning, an advanced theorem of Euclidean geometry. This is a difficult passage in the dialogue, but a central meaning which is often overlooked, for instance in the Harvard Philosophy Department when I was a graduate student – they knew that no Greek philosopher opposed slavery - or by Leo Strauss, in his semester-long course on the Meno which my friend Mike Goldfield took, is that each of us, including any slave, has from eternity knowledge which can be awakened – “recollected” –through questioning. This is radical egalitarianism. There is no distinction among souls of the sort Aristotle alleges in book 1 of the Politics between bodies and minds, such that some are natural slaves and others natural masters. (for the subtleties of Aristotle’s view, see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1) Socrates opposed slavery and, curiously enough, his student Plato as well. Even the modified Spartan hierarchy of the city in speech in the Republic in which one can just here Plato sneering – a little, bald headed worker in bronze bathes himself, marries philosophy and begets sophisms – has no slaves. Aristotle sought to answer Socrates and his teacher.
Socrates’ vision of souls who each have knowledge which can be stirred “as in a dream” by questioning is a dramatically egalitarian one. So to a lesser extent is his view of women, his learning from Diotima, not unshadowed (there is a comic remark about how the prophetess postponed the plague in Athens for 10 years which meant that it hit in the Peloponnesian War as staggeringly described in Thucydides; that her action was a benefit one might doubt) but real enough. Here is a feature of Socrates as a kind of radical democrat, one which accords with the idea of the Mysteries conveyed by the Myth of Er.
Slaves and women were famously not treated well in Athens. But here too, Atthanasios Bobos illuminated ancient Athenian practices. The notion of anthoropoi (humans) extended to slaves, implying an equality beyond that of citizenship. A slave who was beaten by his master could go to the Temple of Hephaestos near the Acropolis, and sit there. Everyone would see him. His act was a petition that he get a new, non-abusive master. The loss of a slave was a big financial loss for a master. The petition was almost universally granted.
Athens did maintain servitudes and empire. Nonetheless, the equality was extensive, undermining even some especially cruel features of slavery; further, (male) eccentrics were unbothered, as Pericles says, so long as they served in battle for a common good. The murder of Socrates, which has damned the democracy historically, occurred at a low point in Athens, 5 years after their defeat by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War. It was an exception. Though my thesis depends on some complex inferences, the novel idea that the great mother from Crete, in the role of Demeter in the Mysteries, extended the equality of the islands into Athens perhaps even to slaves ( also anthropoi) and helped give a deeper life to the democracy is clear and important.
*I am indebted to Paula Bard for telling me about Eisler and Gimbutas and for conversations about the goddess.