Chapter XXI. The Great Festivals of Athens.
198. The Frequent Festivals at Athens. - Surely our "Day in Athens" has been spent from morn till night several times over, so much there is to see and tell. Yet he would be remiss who left the city of Athena before witnessing at least several of the great public festivals which are the city's noble pride. There are a prodigious number of religions festivals in Athens.[*] They take the place of the later "Christian Sabbath" and probably create a somewhat equal number of rest days during the year, although at more irregular intervals. They are far from being "Scotch Sundays,"[+] however. On them the semi-riotous "joy of life" which is part of the Greek nature finds its fullest, ofttimes its wildest, expression. They are days of merriment, athletic sports, great civic spectacles, chorals, public dances. To complete our picture of Athens we must tarry for a swift cursory glance upon at least three of these fete days of the city of Pericles, Sophocles, and Phidias.
[*]In Gulick ("Life of the Ancient Greeks," pp. 304-310) there is a valuable list of Attic festivals. The Athenians had over thirty important religious festivals, several of them, e.g., the Thesmorphoria (celebrated by the women in honor of Demeter), extending over a number of days.
[+][NOTE from Brett: A "Scotch Sunday" refers to the practice of the Sabbath day in Scotland. During the Sabbath day (at the time of the author of this work) in Scotland no activity goes on except for Church. There is no travel, no telecommunication, no cooking, not allowed to read the newspaper, etc. A "Scotch Sunday" therefore, represents a day of religious austerity.]
[is needless to point out that to the Greeks, as to many other ancient peoples, - for example, the Hebrews, - DANCING often had a religious significance and might be a regular part of the worship of the gods.
199. The Eleusinia. - Our first festival is the Eleusinia, the festival of the Eleusinian mysteries. It is September, the "19th of Boedromion," the Athenians will say. Four days have been spent by the "initiates" and the "candidates" in symbolic sacrifices and purifications.[*] On one of these days the arch priest, the "Hierophant," has preached a manner of sermon at the Painted Porch in the Agora setting forth the awfulness and spiritual efficacy of these Mysteries, sacred to Demeter the Earth Mother, to her daughter Persephone, and also to the young Iacchus, one of the many incarnations of Dionysus, and who is always associated at Elusis with the divine "Mother and Daughter." The great cry has gone forth to the Initiates - "To the Sea, ye Myste!" and the whole vast multitude has gone down to bathe in the purifying brine.
[*]Not all Athenians were among the "initiated," but it does not seem to have been hard to be admitted to the oaths and examination which gave one participation in the mysteries. About all a candidate had to prove was blameless character. Women could be initiated as well as men.
Now on this fifth day comes the sacred procession from Athens across the mountain pass to Eleusis. The participates, by thousands, of both sexes and of all ages, are drawn up in the Agora ere starting. The Hierophant, the "Torchbearer," the "Sacred Herald," and the other priests wear long flowing raiment and high mitres like Orientals. They also, as well as the company, wear myrtle and ivy chaplets and bear ears of corn and reapers' sickles. The holy image of Iacchus is borne in a car, the high priests marching beside it; and forth with pealing shout and chant they go, - down the Ceramicus, through the Dipylon gate, and over the hill to Eleusis, twelve miles away.
200. The Holy Procession to Eleusis. - Very sacred is the procession, but not silent and reverential. It is an hour when the untamed animal spirits of the Greeks, who after all are a young race and who are gripped fast by natural instinct, seem uncurbed. Loud rings the "orgiastic" cry, "Iacche! Iacche! evoe!"
There are wild shouts, dances, jests, songs,[*] postures. As the marchers pass the several sanctuaries along the road there are halts for symbolic sacrifices. So the multitude slowly mounts the long heights of Mount Aegaleos, until - close to the temple of Aphrodite near the summit of the pass - the view opens of the broad blue bay of Eleusis, shut in by the isle of Salamis, while to the northward are seen the green Thrasian plain, with the white houses of Eleusis town[+] near the center, and the long line of outer hills stretching away to Megara and Boeotia.
[*]We do not possess the official chant of the Myste used on their march to Eleusia. Very possibly it was of a swift riotous nature like the Bacchinals' song in Euripides "Bacchinals" (well translated by Way or by Murray).
[+]This was about the only considerable town in Attica outside of Athens.
The evening shadows are falling, while the peaceful army sweeps over the mountain wall and into Eleusis. Every marcher produces a torch, and bears it blazing aloft as he nears his destination. Seen in the dark from Eleusis, the long procession of innumerable torches must convey an effect most magical.
201. The Mysteries of Eleusis. - What follows at Eleusis? The "mysteries" are "mysteries" still; we cannot claim initiation and reveal them. There seem to be manifold sacrifices of a symbolic significance, the tasting of sacred "portions" of food and drink - a dim foreshadowing of the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist; especially in the great hall of the Temple of the Myste in Eleusis there take place a manner of symbolic spectacles, dramas perhaps one may call them, revealing the origins of Iacchus, the mystical union of Persephone and Zeus, and the final joy of Demeter.