Triptolemos at Eleusis

Outside the entrance to the Eleusinian sanctuary stood a temple of Triptolemos, seen by initiates just before they went in. Triptolemos had brought Demeter’s grain to the Greeks, but also some unspecified additional “hope”. The ancient sources are mute about his role in the Eleusinian Mysteries, but since he was regularly and repeatedly depicted in art linked to Eleusinian initiates, it seems likely that Triptolemos played a role in the cult.
Recently Patrick Hunt has theorised that Triptolemos was a key part of the ‘secret’ of Eleusis.

After his condemnation by the Athenians, Socrates is attested as saying:
“If on arrival in the other world, beyond the reach of these so-called judges here, one will find there the true judges who are said to sit in judgment in those courts, Minos and Rhadamanthys and Aeacus and Triptolemos, and all those other demigods who were upright in their earthly life, would that be an unrewarding place to settle?”
Plato, Apologia 41a (Hunt’s translation.)

Hunt sees this as evidence of Socrates having himself been an Eleusinian initiate, and hinting at the secrets of the Mysteries in his last speech – he had been condemned to die for impiety, and was beyond further charges. There were usually only three judges in Hades: Rhadamanthys, Minos and Aeacus. Triptolemos was not attested anywhere else as a judge, and his role as one may well have been one of the secrets of Eleusis. Socrates certainly thought that Triptolemos acted as a mediator between the Eleusinian initiates and the gods, offering them hope of a better afterlife. Images of Triptolemos found in tombs can possibly be used to identify them as interments of initiates; images of Demeter and Kore were too general to denote a specific association with the cult.


The Eleusisian Mysteries: bathing and sacrifice as purification

On the 17th Boedromion the potential initiates went to the sea to be purified. Originally they seem to have been purified individually by a priest, but as their numbers grew it was no longer possible to do so; bathing in the sea was a later alteration to the ritual, to accommodate larger numbers.

We know that the men and women bathed together, fully clothed from a fourth century BC incident.

A courtesan called Phryne, famed as the most beautiful woman in Greece, decided one year to remove her clothes. The Athenians were scandalised.

She was tried for impiety, but acquitted - on the basis that her great beauty could only have been a gift of Aphrodite.

Phryne went on to be the model for Praxiteles’ statue of the Cnidian Aphrodite, the first naked cult statue of the goddess, and the subject of countless tales of over-amorous men trying to commit unspeakable acts with her effigy. The cult of Aphrodite at Cnidus in Turkey was one of the rare Greek cults of Aphrodite as goddess of erotic love. These cults often had associated ritual prostitution, which so shocked the later Christians. In most temples Aphrodite was venerated as the goddess of marital love.

Drawing source: Cnidian coin depicting the Aphrodite.

After bathing, each initiate sacrificed a piglet on an altar, and some of the blood was sprinkled on the donors to further purify them. Female animals tended to be sacrificed to goddesses, so these were sows.

Animals were luxuries and expensive – most Greeks only ate meat at religious festivals - but a piglet had to be purchased for sacrifice, probably from the priests. We know of other sanctuaries, such as the Temple at Jerusalem, where animals could only be purchased from the priests to ensure they were of sufficiently high quality; this usually involved a mark-up on the cost of the animal, and provided an additional income for the sanctuary. The Eleusinian sows seem to have cost three drachmas a piece in the Classical period, and since slaves were initiated, were not beyond their means.

Small sculptures of piglets were dedicated to the goddess, so when they are found in an archaeological context usually indicate a shrine dedicated to Demeter.

The sanctuary itself needed state slaves to work in it, and seeing as only those who had been initiated could enter the sanctuary, they too naturally had to be initiated.

Some inscribed financial records from the sanctuary survive, therefore we know that it cost 30 drachmas for the initiation of two state slaves into the Lesser Mysteries at Agrae in 328/9 BC. These seem to have been slaves who worked within the sanctuary.

A few years later, the sanctuary needed some repairs, which none of the sanctuary’s slaves could undertake; as a result in 327/6 BC five slaves trained as builders were initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. They repaired the Telesterion, and in all probability went on to Elysium as a result of the mysterious knowledge they gained from the Mysteries.


Augustus' Pig-coin

I found these other examples of the strange coin of Augustus and Agrippa mentioned earlier today - and none of them have the pig's leg attached. The issue was clearly designed to be anti-Egypt, anti-Cleopatra propaganda, but why the Nimes example(s) had a pig's leg added to it (the join can be seen clearly on the obverse in this larger image), I still cannot work out. The books I've looked up are not 100 % clear, but there seem to be other coins found at Nimes, also with hind legs added, and excavated coated in mud - the interpretation is that they were thrown into the source of the town's water / a fountain, for votive reasons.

Agrippa of course was the admiral at Actium, where Anthony and Cleopatra where defeated (31 BC); many veterans from the campaign settled in Colonia Nemausus and the province.

Interestingly, before the Colony was founded by Tiberius Nero (Livia's first husband), the town had supported Sertorius, a Marian rebel in Spain. The town, founded by the Greeks, stood on the Via Domitia, the main road from Italy to Spain, so was important strategically for Gaius Marius' follwer.

Oxyrhynchus Papyri on religion

Many of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri deal with religion, and can tell us a lot about both pagans and Christians: for example, an invitation to a feast of Serapis.

We know that pagan in Egypt needed certificates to confirm that they had performed sacrifices during the summer of AD 250 as several survive - Decius was persecuting Christians, so this pagan wanted to be sure his religion was clear. Four such certificates survive from Oxyrhynchus from the same month, and another 42 from elsewhere in the Empire. Subsequent emperors continued the persecution of Christians, and an arrest warrant survives from the persecution of Christians in AD 256.

In Oxyrhynchus Thursday was the day off in circa AD 313, when the city was still pagan - a dozen years later Chritianity was the dominant religion, and so Sunday was the day of rest in AD 325.

A fragment preserves the question posed to a Roman oracle; and its answer - "yes".


A strange Augustan coin

This coin struck me as so unusual, that I have included the text from the British Museum's web site. Obviously it was designed as anti-Cleopatra propaganda.

Bronze coin of Augustus and Agrippa, with pig's trotter appendage
Roman, AD 10-14
From Nîmes (Nemausus), France

The chained crocodile of Egypt

This coin was produced at the town of Colonia Nemausus, ancient Nîmes in the south of France, in about AD 10-14. The designs show Augustus, the first Roman emperor (reigned 31 BC - AD 14) on the right, with his general, Agrippa (died 12 BC). They are shown as victors of the great Roman civil war against Augustus' rival, Mark Antony and his lover, Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt. The war was portrayed by the victors very much as a battle against 'foreign' domination, despite the involvement of the distinguished Roman, Mark Antony. To emphasize this, the crocodile is used to symbolize Egypt - chained to a palm tree to indicate its defeat and occupation by Rome.

This coin is certainly not a typical example of this issue as is has an appendage in the form of a pig's leg! Although we cannot be certain, peculiar coins such as these are likely to have been used for some form of religious offering.

Length: 47 mm (including leg)

CM RPC 526/2 (1867.1-1.2246)

Room 68, Money, case 3, panel 4, no. 23

A. Burnett, M. Amandry and P.P. Ripollès, Roman provincial coinage, vol. 1 (London, The British Museum Press, 1992), pp. 152-4

T. Cornell and J. Matthews, Atlas of the Roman world (Phaidon, 1987), p. 131


The Timing of the Eleusinian Mysteries

The chief priest of Eleusis (the hierophant) summoned potential initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries to the Stoa Poikile in the Agora – always on the 19th Boedromion.

The date of the start of the Eleusinian procession was immovable, literally carved in stone, and was presumably linked to the harvest. Its celebration was compulsory, so clearly was wheat linked with food and living, and Persephone with eventual death, its opposite.

During the Persian wars Xerxes sacked Attica and the Athenians fled to the island of Salamis. On the 19th Boedromion 480 BC the Athenians were too busy preparing for what would become known as the battle of Salamis, and failed to hold the procession.

Instead, the historian Herodotus (VIII.65) records, a procession of non-humans rose up from the underworld, first to enact the procession, and then to help the Athenians defeat the Persians on the following day. The Greeks still believed their mythical heroes assisted them in times of need, and that Theseus had helped them defeat the Persians at Marathon.

Since Eleusis was tied to the fate of Greeks, their ancestors in Hades could not let it celebration lapse. Two Greeks amongst the Persian camp saw 30,000 ghosts take part in the march, in reverse, from Eleusis; if the ghosts represent the numbers that took part in the procession each year, it suggests that the entire population of Athens joined in. Although we can doubt the authenticity of the episode, it underlines the idea that Eleusinian Mysteries could not be instituted at another time of year, nor elsewhere: they were location specific, as well as time specific.

So important were the Mysteries of Eleusis, that when men were otherwise engaged, the gods intervened to ensure than the Persian non-believers did not conquer Greece and prevent them from taking place. This is not an event that occurred at any other cult or sanctuary.

Another anecdote clarifies how inflexible the date of the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries was.

Pythodorus is recorded as the dadouchos (torch-bearer, second priest) who had to explain to the Macedonian king Demetrius Poliorketes why he could not be initiated into the Mysteries when he wanted, during a random month of his royal choice.

The Athenians needed to appease Demetrius – this successor of Alexander was after all the king who kept his whores in the Parthenon – but they could not alter the sacred calendar.

Instead they changed the name of the month of Mounichion (April) in 302 BC: first to Anthesterion (February), so that Demetrius could be initiated into the Lesser Mysteries at Agrae, then to Boedromion (September) for the Mysteries at Eleusis.

The letter of religious law was kept.


Oxyrhynchus Papyri on buildings

Oxford has a virtual exhibition on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Several of the papyri relate to buildings and building work.

One long scroll dated to AD 315-316 deals with repairs made to buildings. Some of the scroll deals with unidentified public buildings that were repaired in the centre of town, detailing repairs and building materials needed. We know that some of the workmen were injured, since the scroll also records a doctor who treated them. (Another scroll deals with a doctor inspecting the body of a man found hanged, an early form of autopsy in AD 173).

Another scroll deals with a 7th century AD irrigation cistern.

This scroll with a dedication to Diocletian and Maximian (AD 285-305) may have been used as a template for an inscription on a public building.

Most fascinating is this unique ground plan of a house preserved in a scroll. The Severan Marble Plan of Rome in the Templum Pacis depicted Rome, but this second century Oxyrhynchus ground plan is far more detailed (see enlarged illustration above, from the Oxford web site).


How well do Greek philosophers reflect Athenian religion and society?

In my tour of Athenian religion, I've noted that many of the leading Greek philosophers were charged with impiety by the Athenians. First, Anaxagoras in the 5th century, then Socrates. Aristotle was charged with sacrificing to his late wife and her father Hermeias, Tyrant of Atarneus (Troas). Socrates chose death, the other two exile. It strikes me that we might place too much emphasis on writers like Plato as sources for Greek religion, since both his teacher (Socrates) and his student (Aristotle) were officially charged by the state and tried for impiety.

My suspicions were aroused when reading that the so-called Orphic gold lamellae from Thurii were produced by a Pythagorean and/or Orphic sect. Orphism now believed to be a largely modern creation, but Pythagoras existed and had well attested successors. But was there are large Pythagorean 'sect' in Southern Italy, whose existence is 'proven' by the discovery of the gold lamellae? I doubt it.

Pythagoras had a definite following in later 5th century BC Crotone, mostly as a result of his work in science: we still use his theorem when calculating the internal angles of triangles. How many followed his lifestyle 'prescriptions' is less clear, and the emphasis we put on his important scientific discoveries has skewed the evidence - just because he was admired as a mathematician does not mean that the people of Crotone adopted his lifestyle wholesale.

In fact we know that the men of Crotone objected to his preaching marital fidelity, which went against the grain for Greeks.

The 5th century BC philosopher Empedocles used the story of the Titans cannibalising Dionysus to justify not eating meat, and advocating Pythagorean practices of vegetarianism. Vegetarianism was equally problematic to the Greeks: it put one outside mainstream society, since it meant one had to refuse to make or eat animal sacrifices made to the gods, and this in turn placed people outside the normal order of state religion. Even today vegetarians can struggle. Pythagoras and a few of his followers took purity to an extreme, and by doing do marginalised themselves to the point of being seen as 'deviant' by other Greeks.

Pythagoreans were told to wear linen rather than wool. An inscription from Delos tells us that the wearing of wool was banned within the sanctuary of the Egyptian gods. Herodotus (2.37.2) notes that the Egyptians wore linen for rituals, and not wool. Since Pythagoras claimed to have studied with the Egyptians - a claim many philosophers made to explain their superior knowledge - his prescription that his followers wear linen rather than wool may have been an affectation based on his 'Egyptian background'. Linen shrouds were found in the Thurii tumuli, but shrouds were often linen. It might not have been as practical as wool in the wold though.

Overall we can conclude that few followed the 'Pythagorean' lifestyle in the Classical period, and that it did not become popular until it was adopted by the late Neoplatonist philosophers. The gold tablets from the are can better be understood in the context of a local cult of Persephone, such as the one known at Locris.


An Indian at Eleusis

The importance of fire in the rituals of the Eleusinian Mysteries is illustrated by an episode from Roman history.

In 20 BC Augustus was wintering on Salamis when an embassy of king Poros arrived from India. One of the ambassadors expressed on interest in the Mysteries, so the Eleusinia held out of season to dazzle them.

Zarmaros (or Zarmanochegas) the Indian was so unimpressed that the following day, to make the point, he oiled himself and leapt onto a pyre on the altar of Demeter. He committed suttee.

Some details are clearly missing from the story, but it is clear that fire played a major role in the Mysteries at Eleusis. The Hindus saw self-sacrifice on pyres as a way of reaching the gods directly, which was also the point of the Eleusinian mysteries. Zarmaros’ act would have achieved the same aim, far more directly.

The story is in Dio Cassius (54.9.10), and in Strabo (15.1.4):
'But from India, from one place and from one king, I mean Pandion, or another Porus, there came to Caesar Augustus presents and gifts of honour and the Indian sophist who burnt himself up at Athens, as Calanus had done, who made a similar spectacular display of himself before Alexander.'

He was buried at Eleusis, where Strabo saw his tomb with the inscription (15.1.73):
'Here lies Zarmanochegas, an Indian from Bargosa, who immortalised himself in accordance with the ancestral customs of the Indians.'


What not to do in a Greek temple

As fascinating as what one had to do as part of the cult of a god, is what one could not do.

In 'The Elgin Marbles' I covered the scandal Demetrius Poliorketes caused by keeping his whores in the Parthenon. These were not religious objections - it was okay for Demetrius to sleep with the women there, because the Parthenon was not a temple. The Parthenon did not house the cult of Athena until the Late Antique period - for most of Antiquity her cult was housed in the Erechtheion. Sex in Greek temples was banned, and the Athenians were quite scrupulous in adhering to the sacred laws; they changed the names of the months to allow Demetrius to be initiated at Eleusis in the 'correct' month, for example. Exceptions were made at a few cults of Aphrodite, but that's another story.

Xenophon's biography of Agesilaus makes it clear that the Spartan king did not wish to be accused of any improprieties, so he slept in temples when traveling (5.7).

Herodotus tells us another story that illustrates how sacrilegious the Greeks thought sex in temples was (9.116-20). During the Second Persian War Artaykes captured the Chersonese, and set up house in the shrine of Protesilaus at Elaeus. (Protesilaus was the first Greek killed at Troy) The Persian looted the treasure, and slept with women in the shrine. He justified his looting to the king by claiming he was only taking back from the Greeks had taken from the Persians. The Athenians captured the shrine, and Artaykes tried to bribe them with its treasures. Instead, as punishment for having defiled the temenos, they crucified him. His son was stoned to death - he hadn't had sex in the sanctuary.

We know that births and deaths were not allowed in Greek sanctuaries (Asclepius as a medical cult may have been an exception). The whole of Delos was dedicated as a temenos to Apollo, and Delians had to leave the island to give birth or die. I assume that Delos made an exception for procreation.

So what about Christian claims of orgies at the Eleusinian Mysteries ?

Whilst most religion was public, where cults involved the revelation of a ‘secret’ the rites were a closely guarded secret. The Eleusinian initiation Mysteries were such a secret, and Roman historians did not write about them to avoid sacrilege. Although the stigma attached to discussing the Eleusinian Mysteries faded over time, in the second century AD Pausanias would not even describe the buildings within the sanctuary at Eleusis, omitting them entirely from his Guide to Greece. Well into the Byzantine era the name of the chief priest (the hierophant) was neither written nor spoken out loud. The secret ceremonies of Demeter and Persephone have to be pieced together from brief mentions and passing references over the centuries, just as the Telesterion in which they took place has been pieced together from a series of architectural elements excavated from the ground.

Much of our knowledge comes from the writings of the early Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, who attached no taboo to writing about Eleusis. Since the Christians were against pagan mystery cults – they would rather people went to Mass - one naturally has to take their claims with a very large pinch of salt. Their allegations about various temples and cults range from human sacrifice to ‘sacred marriage’ (hieros gamos), used as a euphemism for orgies. Early Christian writings about the pagan were expressly designed as propaganda. Since the writers were Christian, they almost certainly did not belong to the cults they describe, instead repeating information heard third-hand. It is highly unlikely that orgies were ever held in the Telesterion at Eleusis, as Asterios Bishop of Amaseia claimed – ritualised sex was not part of the cult of Persephone.

Apparently Asterios’ orgies took place in tunnels under the Telesterion, but the building has been excavated down to bedrock and the tunnels do not exist. They were a product of his fertile imagination. The archaeological remains of the Telesterion, the main cult building at Eleusis, do not suggest that the building was conducive to orgies. Ancient architectural design was entirely shaped by its purpose: brothels had stone beds; dining rooms had doors that were off-centre to accommodate couches; and libraries double-shell walls to keep out the damp. As a result, most ancient buildings are architecturally distinct and easily recognisable in excavations – since there was no practical place to hold these orgies inside the Telesterion, it can categorically be stated that they did not take place in it.

The Haloa was a fertility-related Eleusinian festival of Demeter, whose use of phalli may well have influenced the Christian writers. Its ‘naughty’ nature is well attested but, unlike the Mysteries, it was restricted to woman; orgies are unlikely to have taken place as part of it, as men were not present.

Still, the slander has stuck - Greek men still use the suggestion of “going to Eleusis” as a euphemism for casual, meaningless sex.


Elgin's Istanbul

A decorative fresco with a view of Constantinople around 1750 - the city suffered from regular fires, but would not have been all that different when the Elgins arrived half a century later.

In the 'kalos ondas' (sitting-room) of the Mansion of Kyr-Yiannakis Nantzis, Kastoria (picture source)


Kykeon and beans at the Eleusinian Mysteries

The Kephisos River marked the boundary between Athens and Eleusis, and as soon as it was crossed the rituals leading up to initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries began.

The most important of these was the drinking of kykeon, after which the initiates began to chant. Demeter could not drink the wine offered to her in the Eleusinian myth, since Dionysus had connived in the kidnapping of Kore, so she invented kykeon.

Various theories have evolved that kykeon was made with ergot-diseased grain, whose mild dose of LSD would still be hallucinogenic, but the basic recipe that has come down to us suggests that enough ingredients with mind-altering properties were in play not to needed a dose of ergot.

Kykeon was made with barley, water and fresh mint, which fermented quickly and turned into an alcohol that must have had a particularly powerful effect on those used to drinking at most diluted wine (drinking wine neat was a sign of ‘Barbarians’). In addition, depending on the variety used, the oil of the fresh mint could be either a stimulant or a soporific. The initiates drank a gulp, rather than sipped, from the metal jars they carried on their heads.

The unique shape of the kykeon jar was represented on Athenian coins, another indication of the importance of the Eleusinian cult to the state. Here it can be seen on a Roman frieze that once decorated the exterior of the City Eleusinion in Athens.

Pausanias (1.37.4) also notes a temple to the God of Broad Beans on the sacred way to Eleusis, just after the Kephisos River, and hints at their role in the Eleusinian rites themselves by categorically refusing to discuss them.

In the Arcadian variant of the tale, Demeter gave them all the fruits of the soil except for broad beans. This one pulse that she withheld can be explained by its use in a variety of mystery cults.
Raw broad beans are rich in a form of dopamine (levodopa) – some varieties can be fatal if eaten in excess – and so were only prepared as part of select religious ceremonies. Modern medicine has also shown that many Mediterranean peoples suffer from a hereditary deficiency of the enzyme G6PD (Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase); this deficiency protects them from the full effects of malaria, but makes them more susceptible to the mind-altering properties of beans.

In order to prevent people eating broad beans at home, a variety of holy laws were created, with associated ‘explanations’ for why they were taboo, and so eating them made into a criminal offence. This taboo has permeated to this day in Greek cuisine - Israeli falafels contain broad beans, Greek ones only chick peas.

When dopamine, alcohol and mint were combined in this way on an empty stomach, LSD would have been superfluous. Although poppies were also associated with Demeter and Kore, this was probably linked to pain and death, rather than the use of opium at Eleusis.