Sunday, 5 August 2007


The Argonaut Mystery :
Aeschylus' Chain and The Eleusis Triumph

Spring 2000 and I've been teaching in the port of Volos on the east coast of Greece for a couple of months. But right now it's the weekend and I have visitors from England. My parents, to be exact.

The previous night had been a somewhat wild one. I finished teaching around ninish and the Aged Ps had only just arrived in a car hired down in Athens. We'd gone straight to a taverna just off the seafront and followed several carafs of wine with the contents of a mysterious plastic bottle. Having been told that we couldn't have ouzo because of something to do with licenses, my father had asked the waiter if we could have some of whatever it was that was being plied to the Greeks on the next table out of this plastic bottle.

I was soon flying. My parents got into a conversation with these Greeks neighbours. Their daughter was coming to England to study. Arrangements were made to meet them the following evening.

Then the dancing started. Blindingly, amazingly fast bouzouki playing and foot-blurring Greek circle dancing, with three figures visible amongst the throng who seemed to be dancing out an unorthodox pattern: my father, my mother and myself.

I did my best, but in situations like this when you don't even know what it is that you are supposed to be doing your best at, it didn't count for much.

My parents went off to their hotel room overlooking the bay and I meandered back towards my apartment. On the way I heard a familiar sound drifting out of another taverna...more bouzouki music! I was quite the expert now, so in I went. More octopus. More ouzo. Every bit the integrated traveller. Dionysian. Bon viveur. Greeker than the Greeks. And with this little cephalopodic dessert course now consumed, I stood up, patted my stomach in satisfaction, thought better of more dancing, went back out into the night air to resume my journey, and promptly threw up.

Ah yes, the octopus.

I don't remember much after that but I woke up in my own bed.

With a headache...


If I understand correctly, ouzo, or rather the local Volos version - tsiporo - is made by fermenting the left over sticks and stuff after the soft, luschious parts have been used to make wine. A terrible idea. All sorts of impurities.

But here I am the next morning awaiting the arrival or the Ps in the hire car. We are due to take a drive up and over Pilion, the great double-peaked mountain that looms over Volos. Up there is where Chiron the centaur has that wild school whose rollcall of illustrious past students includes Jason and Achilles. I look up at the mountain. Something is different. White bits. Oh my god, it's snowed! My parents have come down to the Sunny South to put the English winter behind them, and I offer snow, by Dionysos!

The top parts of the mountain are red-gold, the Sun's beams striking that higher place already, then the gold snakes its way groundward as the Sun comes up.

Soon enough the parents arrived, and didn't the whole city know about it.

Toot toot!

By some freak of engineering each time the car was steered to the left the horn sounded. I climbed in and we headed off, waking up the locals wherever we went. We passed a couple of early risers, old ladies waiting patiently at the side of the road. We hallooed them with more jubillant toot-toots. What jolly types we must have seemed!

Of the journey up Pilion I shrink from speaking in any detail. Suffice it to say that ouzo hangovers and precipitous winding mountain passes don't mix. We stopped at the top when we came upon hoards of people skiing, then wound down the north side to a beach.

Later that evening back in Volos we met the Greek family as arranged, plus the daughter and a grandmother who was not able to remember for more than a minute that we were not native Greek speakers. They then took us to an intruiging site - a large candle-filled cave out of town in use as a church. I wondered what it had been used as in pre-Christian times.

The following morning, my constitution back to normal, we undertook another adventure, this time heading to the quayside and embarking eastward in a big yellow motorized catamaran, just as Jason and crew had embarked eastward from this same harbour in the Argo on their quest for the Golden Fleece all those years ago.

It was good to have my stomach back in order. I never drank ouzo again. Apart from those few times in Larissa with fellow English teachers (waking up in an apartment sandwidged between two Greek churches both in the habit of scaring the b'Jesus out of the faithfull first thing on Sunday morning with mechanized tuneless untuned bell chimes. Not particulalry heavenly.)

Oh yes and the time when my sister came to stay in Volos in the Summer, with a lawyer friend of hers.
"We'll stay out for another drink if you buy the next round," my sister had said to me.
"I'll get the next round if the next bar we go into gives it to us for free," I said, and we went straight into another bar, and saw a line of drinks on the counter.
"Help yourself," said the girl behind the bar, "They're free. We're closing up."

So we shrugged off our disbelief and helped ourselves, got to know the manager, then found ourselves been whisked off in his four-wheel drive to a night club around the bay. According to my sister my catchphrase from this point on was the cringeworthy "I think I'm in there," even with reference to a young Greek girl who was standing right next to her boyfriend.

Such tales of ouzo induced woe leads us appropriately enough into a darker side of the Dionysian Mysteries, the tragic theatre. I've said that before we get to the dawn we will first have to look at the darkness, and this is more the case for the first part of this section than it was in the last, as we investigate the weighty drama of the Agamemnon saga, but the hour of illumination is close at hand.

Mysteries Thinly Veiled : Aechylus' Agamemnon

The obvious predecessors of the novels in the Greek world were the plays of the Greek stage. Written on scrolls as books the plays continued to be read, and, we can assume, it was then only a small step before alterations were made to make them more suitable for the reading experience.

That the serious plays of the Dionysian Theatre of Athens evolved out of the Dionysian religion is no secret, and with this in mind it becomes less of a surprise to realise that the novels, too, were based on the Mysteries.

Those plays that bear the closest resemblance to the novels are the ones with happy resolutions such as certain of Euripdes' works, like Alkestis and more notably Ion, named after a child who, like Chariclea in the Ethiopian Story novel, worked in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, was lost-and-found, and narrowly evaded being killed by his own mother prior to recognition.

But even the dark and heavy Orestes trilogy by Aeschylus ultimately ends with a solution and optimism for the future. It is the first part of the trilogy which concerns us here, and words like "lighted-hearted" don't immediately spring to mind.

The history of the theatre starts with a type of Greek song called the dithyrhamb. A sacrifice accompanied the singing of the dithyrhamb, and the songs themselves were about the birth of Dionysos. We might recall that in Egypt a song was song by the lector priest to accompany a dance in honour of the bull-god at the time of the bull sacrifice. The same paradoxical ambiguities surround the dithyrhamb. The purpose of the sacrifice of the goat to Dionysos is clear - the blood of the animal soaked into the soil and fertilized it. Greek sentimentality created certain complexities around this rite. They wanted to be able to feel that the slaughter was just.

In fact, if we are to assume that the dithyrhamb actually evolved out of the hymn to the bull god sung in Egypt - and the bull did precede the goat as the Dionysian animal in Greece, as Kerenyi outlines in Dionysos : Archetypal Image of Industructible Life - if we make this assumption, then we can clearly see the Greek mindset of the later age expressing itself in the altered approach, more sentimental, and, as a result, more intellectual, and also looser and more creative.

The wine did its work so that the dithyrhamb became impovisational, with all the creativity that entailed. But the Ma'at which the Egyptians had accepted in the order of nature was not enough, and the Greeks attempted to make use of an intellectualisation in order to feel that the killing of the goat was morally justified. This intellectualization was based on the fact that if goats manage to get into a vineyard they will set about eating the vines. So the sacrifice was viewed as a punishment for this crime against Dionysos, and the evolution of that motif is seen in the dramatic punishment of flawed protagonists in the plays that grew out the dithyrhamb.

The goat was, in fact, quite innocent of this supposed crime, and intellectual justifications of that nature are not healthy. The higher quality of tragedy is simply Dignity - respect for the animals who help us in various ways, such as the provision of meat. Dances for the soul of a slaughtered animal are to be found in old shamanic cultures around the world.

Nevertheless, it was from this complexity that theatre was born, which in turn lead to the novels, and so a lot of creativity has come out of it, and it did allow the likes of Aeschylus to present ideas of morality to the Athenian audience.

In some cases the connection to the bull-sacrifice was particuarly explicit, as we shall see next.

Aechylus wrote somewhere between seventy and ninety plays, only seven of which have survived. A story tells how he was told in a dream by the gods to start writing these plays. His craft was then well-honed. It was fifteen years after he started writing before he carried away the winner's wreath from the Theatre of Dionysos.

What is particularly interesting with regard to our current investigation is that Aeschylus was taken to court accused of revealing the secrets of the Greater Mysteries of Eleusis in one of his plays. A story relates that he was acting in the play himself when initiates among the audience began to suspect the disclosure, and that the playwright had to seek sactuary by running to the altar of Dionysos when they stormed the stage.

We have not said a great deal so far in this book about the Mysteries of Eleusis, but perhaps it is time we did so, for these were by far the most renowned, majestic and monumental of the Greek initiation ceremonies. They took place every year in autumn for over a thousand years, and were spread out over a number of days. The city of Eleusis is located a lengthy walk north-west of Athens, and this walk was undertaken by the thousands of initiates each year as a great procession at the start of the initiation. Textual evidence from the ancient world attests to there having been something really rather awe-inspiring about these Mysteries, which were concerned with, on one level, grain and the agriculture goddesses Demeter and her daughter Persephone, and on some other but related level with eternal life, as with the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Nothing was thought to compare with the Mysteries of Eleusis. Even wars were stopped temporarily to allow people to attend. (A modern equivalent could be be a day without cars in Athens and the suburbs to allow Greeks to walk this old route in peace and consider their heritage, the Greek Dreamtime. I visited the ruins on the site in September of 2001 on a pleasant sunny autumn day and found that it retained an air of invigoration.)

A democratic spirit predominated, for anyone, male or female, could become initiated, as long as they had enough Greek to understand what was said.

Certain secret things went on, were said and observed which left people feeling happy, and it was forbidden for anyone to reveal them to the uninitiated. But Aeschylus, himself a native of the city of Eleusis, had done just this, it was claimed, in one of his plays. He was, however, found not guilty by the court partly, it is thought, because he had served valiantly as a soldier, and ostensibly because he claimed not to have been an initiate at Eleusis.

Exactly which play contained the disclosure is not included in the anecdote that has come down to us. With only about a tenth of his plays having survived, we might need the will of the gods on our side for the play in question to be one of them. As far as I can see, however, his Agamemnon is that very play.

In the opening scene a kind of prologue is uttered by a watchman outside the palace of Argos. This prologue makes reference to certain things that will be spoken of that will be understood only by those in the know.

"A great ox has laid his weight across my tongue. But if stones could speak, these stone walls would have a tale to tell. Myself, I can speak to those who already know; if another asks me, I forget."

As if this reference to information only for the initiated wasn't enough, while it is being spoken events are going on in the play that are very reminiscent of certain things we do know went on in the Great Mysteries of Eleusis. The watchman finally sees, after years of waiting, a distant beacon fire that signals the end of the Trojan War, and, he hopes, the return of his king, Agamemnon. The watchman hails this beacon as the "kindler of dark, O daylight birth of dawn."
He then asks that word of this signal be carried to Agamemnon's queen inside the palace, so that she may

"Rise like dawn, and lift in answer strong,
To this glad lamp her womens' triumph song"

to quote from Gilbert Murray's excellent rhyming translation. The watchman speaks then of a celebration dance and says that he himself "will tread the dance before all others."

The watchman then completes the prologue with the reference to secret things that I mentioned before (within the story line applicable to Clytemnestra's affair with Aigisthus), and then the triumph cry is heard in the palace. The handmaidens and attendants then appear on stage bearing torches and incense is kindled on altars. Then the day begins to dawn.

It may well have been at this point that the initiates in the audience of the Theatre of Dionysos below the Acropolis in Athens stormed onto the stage and Aeschylus, playing the watchman, sped off to the altar of Dionysos for safety, because all of this is reminiscent of the Eleusis ceremony. Most obviously, dances at night by dancers holding torches were one of the aspects of the Mysteries that could not be kept secret from passers by. We also know that at the climax of the Mysteries, with the initiates all standing inside the vast darkened initiation hall, a light shone in through a small hole in the roof shortly before dawn, and a great fire was lit as a triumph cry went up in honour of the birth of Iachos the Torch-Bearer and child-self of Dionysos, self-begotten son of the Maiden who had been impregnated in the Underworld. In the Homeric hymn to Demeter, in whose honour the Mysteries were performed, we read how the goddess, who had been sorrowing and aging while looking for her lost daughter, was suddenly rejuvenated as a "light like lightening" shone into her house along with the fragrance of incense. This would appear to refer to the manifestation of Persephone that occured in the Mysteries when a great fire surged up.

This is enough to rouse considerable curiosity. Let's read on and see what else the play has to tell us.

Agamemnon returns from Troy along with the Trojan priestess Cassandra. Clytemnestra, his wife, slays them both in vengeance for Agamemnon having murdered their daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice. Of course there was the other version where the daughter was saved by Achilles who then married her and fathered the line that lead to another hero who would help stop a sacrifice of a daughter by her own father - Theagenes of The Ethiopian Story. But Aeschylus worked in his trilogy with the version that would allow a trail of dramatic retributions to be worked out on the stage like the slaughter of the goat that attacks the vines, and in terms of dramatic intensity not even Shakespeare comes close.

Even in his own time Aechylus was considered a little obscure - Dionysos himself (in The Frogs of Aristophanes) confesses to having stayed up all night wondering what a horse-cockeral might be, and it is partly in these peculiarites of dialogue that Aeschylus was able to make what must surely have been deliberate references to a Thesmophorian style bull-sacrifice, and, perhaps, the related Eleusis Mysteries.

Agamemnon has gone inside the palace, Cassandra the Trojan prophetess stands outside uttering her predictions about the events shortly to occur. Realizing that her schemes of murderous revenge may be rumbled if the prophetess continues, Clytemnestra complains that there is no time to stand around listening to such crazed utterances because there is a celebratory sacrifice to be carried out:

"How long must I stand dallying at the gate?
Even now the beasts to Hestia consecrate
Wait by the midmost fire, since there is wrought
This high fulfillment for which no man thought."


The "beasts" who are to be sacrificed are Agamemnon and Cassandra herself; this is what Clytemnestra wants to get done sooner rather than later.

But Cassandra continues to describe her visions and as they become clearer she cries:

"Ah, look! Look! Keep his mate from the Wild Bull!
A tangle of raiment, see;
A black horn, and a blow, and he falleth full,
In the marble amid the water. I councel ye."

Here, then, Agamemnon is the wild bull, and the bull's mate, who must be kept from him, is his wife, the queen, Clytemnestra. Aeschylus repeats this same apparent allegory of animal sacrifice several times in the play. When Cassanda, still seeing visions, speaks of

"death drifting from the doors, and blood like rain!"

the leader of the elders of the palace tries to reassure her:

" 'Tis but the beasts at the altar slain."

Cassandra sees that she herself will die, but walks on into the palace, at which point the leader asks:

"Knowing they doom, why walkest thou with clear eyes,
Like some god-blinded beast, to sacrifice?"

After the act in question has been carried out in the play, (an act which is imagined to have occured off set), Clytemnestra appears at the doors of the palace holding an axe, the instrument that was used in the sacrifice of bulls at Delphi in the classical period as it had been in Minoan Crete long before. That it was the Double Axe or labyrs may be infered from a reference to it later in the play as "double bladed iron".

It is unusual for a poet to make use of the same allegorical image in such a repeated way. Normally poets use an array of images to fill out the picture from various angles. That Aeschylus should allude to the sacrifice of a bull who is the mate of the queen, and that this queen should reign at Argos, to which were brought the Thesmophoria from Egypt, according to myth, namely the bull sacrifice rite from the harvest festival of Min Bull-of-his-Mother - this all suggests that perhaps it is not a poetic allegory at all, or rather the allegorical process is the other way round - bestial in actuality and human poetically, dramatically, an audience-thrilling personification. Not that bull-sacrifice was the secret of the Eleusis Mysteries of course; no, it was something more inspiring and out of the ordinary. We shall come to it presently.

Another interesting reference in the play is where the mourners sing:-

"Ah, sorrow, sorrow! My king, my king!
How shall I weep, what shall I say?
Caught in the web of this spider thing,
In foul death gasping thy life way!
Woe's me, woe's me, for this slavish lying,
The doom of craft and the loney dying,
The iron two-edged and the hands that slay."

In Minoan Crete wild bulls were captured by means of a net, allowing them to be brought back alive so that they could, for example, for sacrificed during a rite. This would appear to be behind the reference to the "web of this spider thing". The live capture may also have been the original way that the Perseus bull-throwing integrated with myth.

But this bull-sacrifice was not the big secret of the Greater Mysteries, I don't believe. It is time now to look into that mysterious light that shines into the dark.

The Golden Fleece

A striking similarity between the Eleusis Mysteries and the Egyptin Festival of Min is that at the end of the former the hierophant wordless held aloft an ear of corn to the assembled crowd, while in the depictions of the Egyptian festival we see the pharaoh cutting a sheaf of corn with a sickle.

There is in fact a reference to harvest in The Agamenon. Clytemnestra says, to disuade Aigisthus from continuing the spree to the defiant elders:

"Let us work no evil more
Surely the reaping of the past is a full harvest."

What might a light shining in through the roof of a dark hall have to do with harvest? The answer might lie in the Mesopotamian flood story, the story of Atrahasis. Like Noah he builds an ark as the waters rise, but this ark is not a floating boat but a rectangular chamber that remains watet-tight during the flood, underwater. When the waters finally recede he is able to open a door in the roof, and light shines in. Tears of joy stream down Atrahasis' cheeks that the flood is finally over. Atrahasis looks out and sees fourteen mountain tops.

Might this story have come originally from Egypt where a great flood was an annual occurance, and one tied in intrinsically to the harvest cycle? Depictions of the Festival of Min show four birds being released to the corners of Egypt to announce a triumph. Noah released a dove which conveyed the message of a mountain top having risen above the waters of the flood. In Egypt the Primordial Mound, Ta Tenen, "Risen Land" was a potent symbol of the beginning of the recession of the water that would allow them to sow the seed in the fertile silt that had been left behind. Here was a sight all Egypt waited to see, and of course it would occur upstream days before it occured downstream, as that is the nature of rivers. Carrier pigeons may indeed have been used to convey this message north from Thebes to the Delta where the news of the continuing cycle was eagerly awaited.

Messages and mountaintops - doesn't this bring us back to The Agamemnon and that chain of beacons so central to the start of the play? But neither in Argos nor in Eleusis was an annual flood a part of the harvest cycle. What message did they wait to receive from the East? The Eleusis Mysteries were concerned with the return of the Maid from the Underworld, and they were held in the autumn when Virgo, the Maiden, ends her period of absence from the sky (daylight had outshone her stars), by first rising just before the Sun, then earlier each day through Autumn and Winter until She is rising as an evening constellation again by Springtime. It is conceivable that the sight awaited was the rise of Arcturus, the star that sits on the lap of Bootes, just as the infant Dionysos, named Iachos, was depicted sitting on the lap of his adult self, and born from the thy of Zeus while his mother (Persephone, the Maid, in the Orphic version) was burned up by the light of Zeus having asked to see him in his full glory. Could this be the rise of Arcturus shortly before the Sun rises to obliterate the light of Virgo? The star could be seen as a distant beacon, the torch of Iachos, the Torch-Bearer whose statue was carried from Athens to Eleusis at the start of the Mysteries. It all makes extremely good sense.

But what of the light that shone into the initiation hall shortly before dawn? Conceptually, such a beam could be seen as the agent by which Dionysos seeds himself from the future in the womb of night. But how do you get a beam of daylight to shine into the hall before dawn?

Noah built his Ark and from it let a dove fly forth to find land. Jason sailed in the Argo with his crew, and sent forth a dove so as to pass through the clashing rocks. Tears streamed down Atrahasis' face when the light shone in through the opening in the roof of his rectangular ark. This too is very strongly reminiscent of a scene in the Argonautica, the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece as told by Apollonios Rhodios.

Jason had obtained the fleece and he and his crew were nearly home. But then "night suddenly fell, a terror they call the Shrowd of Darkness...too thick for starlight or moonbeams to pierce, it came as a black void out of heaven or...from the nether depths..."

Then Jason stretches out his hands and invokes Apollo, Son of Leto, "while down his cheeks agonized tears ran", reminding us of Atrahasis. Then, paraphrased:

"Son of Leto, you heard him quickly and descended lightly from heaven to the Melantian rocks, that lie there out in the deep. You sprang on one of their twin peaks brandishing in your right hand your golden bow, which gave off a dazzling light all around."

A small island was then revealed by this light to the Argonauts, which they sailed to and cast anchor and went ashore. Shortly after this day dawned. They built a shrine there for Apollo and invoked him as Phoibus the Radiant "because of the far-beamed radiance", and they named the island "Revelation". They had no wine to pour libation, and were forced to pour water, at which point the handmaidens that had come with them back from Colchis, where they had obtained the Golden Fleece, were unable to hold back their laughter at this sight, since they were used to the most sumptuous libations being poured.
"The heroes returned the laughter with indecent language, flinging insults, exchanging mockery, all in fun."

Which brings us back to Eleusis, for the Mocking Jests are another of the features of the Mysteries that we know about. As of course is the light that shines into the hall shortly before dawn. Just as the dawn comes up shortly after the message has sped to Argos in The Agamemnon, and shortly after Apollo has revealed to the heroes the island.

We may now ask ourselves how a beam of light could spring off a double peak and reveal an island by means of 'far-beamed radiance' shooting through the darkness. Sunlight obviously hits mountaintops before the sunrise occurs at ground level, but what about this beam of light? How were the Greeks placed in terms of mirrors? Well, the Pharos light-house made use of them to send light far out to sea, and Archimedes devised a weapon that focused beams of sunlight from mirros onto approaching enemy ships so as to burn them. There are a few mountain peaks around the Eleusis site. Should we be wondering whether it was all done with mirrors?

Rams fleeces were apparently draped over the initiates at Eleusis at some point in the proceedings. It seems that the Quest for the Golden Fleece may be of particular relevance here.

Jason's city was ancient Iolchis. This is where the Argo was built, and it was where the crew set off from on the start of their eastward adventure in search of the Fleece, and to which they returned. This city, now called Volos, is where I lived during 2000. This was before I had read Apollonios Rhodios' version of the Argonaut story, featuring Apollo's beam springing off the mountain peak, but the theory I have just outlined formed in my mind at that time, while I had been pondering the Golden Fleece myth, the Eleusis Mysteries and the Aechylus beacon chain. Wonderfully, the moment when the idea came to me could hardly have been more elegant.

Sitting in the classroom while my students worked on a task, I looked up out of the window at the twin peaks of Mount Pilion. Suddenly I saw a bright flash of light at the very top of one of the peaks. A ski resort is located up there and the Sun must have been reflecting off a window or a metalic surface, the ray happening to shine in my direction, and planting in my mind the seed of the theory here outlined.

So you can imagine how delighted I was when, a couple of years later, I read Apollonios' version of the Jason story and read, in the last part of the book, the incident where Apollo's beam reflects off the mountain peak in a moment of revelation.

In Egypt in Cleopatra's time the beacon chain system was used to commicate with the distant mines out in the desert, while in the day time a system of mirrors was used to communicate over the hundreds miles using flashes of sunlight. Such systems are not mere flights of fancy, but entirely workable. Not that a whole chain of mountain tops would be necessary. The light of the rising Sun could be reflected down from a high mountain to ground level where it was not yet dawn.

A more elaborate and impressive version would do what Archimedes' ship-busting weapon did - the ray would ignite a fire. This fire would then be one ignited by the light of a future day. It would be a sacred fire.

"Kindler of dark, O daylight birth of dawn."

Such were the words with which the Watchman greeted the mountaintop blaze ignited by the message arriving from the East in The Agamemnon.

A suggested scenario, the most likely from the evidence in The Agamemnon and The Argonautika:

Sunlight is mirrored from one of the mountaintops near the Eleusis site, focussed from several large mirrors into a very bright beam and aimed through the roof of the initiation hall shortly before dawn. This light, perhaps via a lens burner, ignites the sacred fire in the Holy of Holies and the triumph cry is raised. The sacred fire is then passed around from torch to torch and the initiates perform the traditional dances, rather like the passing of the sacred fire from candle to candle in the Greek Easter ceremony.

The scenario is feasible, yet it also explains the sense of wonder and awe that the initiates felt about the Greater Mysteries of Eleusis.

The Golden Fleece fits snugly into this context. A symbol of Sun, it is stolen from the East and raced back to the West in the ship named Argo, which means "Swift". The Argo has to outrace the fleet of the king of Colchis, who is closely identified with the Sun, Helios.

For example, Book III, 1225:

"He [the king] put on golden, four crested helmet equal in brilliance to the dazzling haloed luminescence of the Sun when he first climbs up out of the ocean."

This king is in fact a son of Helios, and rides in a chariot "drawn by the horses that Helios gave him." The Greeks imagined that Helios, the Sun, rode in a chariot across the sky.

So there is great significance in the way that the Argonauts manage to outrace this king on their way back to Greece in the west. This sigfnificance is made all the more powerful by the fact that the Golden Fleece itself in Apollonios' epic poem is said to shine as if catching the first rays of the Sun. Paraphrased:-

"At that early hour when huntsmen scrape sleep off their eyes Jason and Medea stepped out of their vessel and went ashore into a grassy meadow called the Ram's Rest. They followed a pathway to the sacred grove where the Fleece was spread out over a great oak tree just like clouds that flush ruddy gold as they catch the first rays of the rising Sun."

This beautiful symbolism of sunrise lies at the core both of the Golden Fleece myth and the epic version of it woven by Apollonios. From this golden wool the entire tale was spun. It is as if Jason is the archetypal artist, the one who captures the light of beauty.

Perhaps a rich romantic with a sense of fun will take this torch and run with it, duplicating in our own time this feat of outracing the day's fire with a beam of sunlight that ignites a fire before sunrise. I like to imagine this will be the way that the Olympic Torch is lit for the London Games in 2012.

The scenario we have looked at also reminds us of the words of J.G. Fitzgerald in The Golden Bough: ‘…in the land of Bisaltae, a Thracian tribe, there was a great and fair sanctuary of Dionysos, where at his festival a bright light shone forth at night as a token of the abundant harvest vouchsafed by the deity’, and bear in mind that the Thracian priests, according to historian Karl Kerenyi, are thought to be precursors of the priests at Eleusis. Notice that this light shone at night (in an age before electric lighting), and ensured an abundant harvest.

There also appears to be fairly explicit reference to this extraordinary hidden high mystery tradition of the Greeks, a mystery dramatizing the triumph over the illusion of the solar death, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex:

…Life on life goes down,
You can watch them go
Like seabirds winging west, outracing the day’s fire
Down the horizon, irresistibly
Streaking on to the shores of Evening.

"Outracing the day's fire" is our theme here, so let's read on. A few lines on we hear:

Artemis, Huntress,
Torches flaring over the eastern ridges
Ride Death down in pain!

…Dionysos…Come with the lightning
Come with torches blazing, eyes ablaze with glory!
Burn that god of death…

Here we have explicit references to torches on mountains in the East. We also find more words that fit the scenario in this section of the play:

I call Apollo, Archer astride the thunderheads of heaven -
O triple shield against death, shine before me now.


You who twirl the lightning, Zeus, Father,
Thunder death to nothing!

So this light from the East is associated with putting an end to death.

And there also seems to be a reference to these goings on right in the most obvious place to look, the story of Demeter and Persephone. When Demeter was in sorrow after her daughter had been taken down into the Underworld, 'when it was dark, the goddess (Demeter) lighted two torches at the flaming summit of Mount Aetna, and continued her search. She wandered up and down for nine days and nine nights. On the tenth night when it was nearly morning, she met Hecate, who was carrying a light in her hand, as if she, too, were looking for something. Hecate told Ceres how she had heard Prosepine (Persephone) scream, and had heard the sound of wheels, but had seen nothing. Then she went with the goddess to ask Helios, the sun-god, whether he had not seen what happened that day, for the sun-god travels around the whole world, and must see everything. Ceres found Helios sitting in his Chariot, ready to drive his horses across the sky. He held the fiery creatures in a moment, while he told Ceres that Pluto, the king of the Underworld, had stolen her daughter and carried her away to live with him in his dark palace.' (From Favorite Greek Myths by L.S.Hyde.)

Ceres is the Roman name for Demeter, while Proseperne is Kore, or Persephone, and Pluto is the Underworld Lord. Mount Aetna, be a vulcano and due West of Eleusis, was seen as an entrace to the Underworld, in the direction of which the constellations of the Zodiac, including Virgo, were see to set, so this was mythologically seen as a place where the Maiden went down into the Earth.

Here, in the story that we know most closely relates to Eleusis, we have a) torches being lit upon mountain tops, b) a reference to the way in which the Sun travels all around the world, and c) a visit to the place where Helios stables his horses, at a time d) that is shortly before dawn.


A Suggested Integrated Reading Web of Pre-Christian Literature

1) The Main Greek Myths - a necessary starting place. Not the obscurities, but the dear old favorites, if they are or have become unfamiliar. Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus in Crete, Perseus and Andromeda, the Birth of Venus, Dionysos and the Pirates, and the like. Young Ancient Greek children heard these culture-cores from mothers and grandmothers, in that sense the women were the keepers of culture, while the men found ways to amplify the beauty through various mediums. Don't start with something dry, no Robert Graves or anything like that. Go with a compilation intended for children and perhaps supplement that with a book graced with poetry such as A.Guerber's Myths of Greece and Rome.

2) The Odyssey. This is and was surely the most-read and referred to work of Ancient Greece and is therefore useful further background reading. Choose a translation you feel comfortable with as it's a long book.

3) Having read The Odyssey you're in a position to enjoy a work that includes comic references to it, such as the genius Aristophanes' Wasps or Euripides' Cyclops. It should be said however that Cyclops is the closest you can come to throw-away Greek theater and its value lies in giving us at least some insight into the nature of the satyr play. But getting into Aristophanes at this early stage is a great idea. Barrett's translations are fun and being from the sixites their language brings the Monty Pythonesque side of Aristophanes out to the full.

4) If you enjoyed Aristophanes' Wasps then there are ten other surviving plays by him to choose from. This is the guy who first suggested we make love not war, that we'd be better off if women had the vote, more advanced kitchen appliances instead of slaves, and who payed posterity the immense service of providing a lovable, comic, Athenian version of the god Dionysos in perhaps the greatest of his masterpieces, The Frogs. The 'I need to dump my load' gags at the beginning work better now that we have an equivalent phrase in English, and so the more recent translation by Kenneth McLeish is worth a read.

5) More Aristophanes, check out his Clouds, enjoying the humourous image of the philosopher Socrates...

6) ... then get a more accurate picture of Socrates through some Plato: if you now read Plato's Symposium through then you'll get, in the latter parts, a true inisight into Platonic philosophy whilst also meeting your new friend the comic playwright Aristophanes, who turns up as one of the characters, complete with a rather amusing piece of philosophy, just as Socrates turned up in Aristophanes Clouds.

7) The Frogs has introduced you to this lovable and surprisingly human vision of Dionysian genius, and if you want to continue with more that is lovable and Dionysian then you could read your first ancient novel, the wonderful Daphnis and Chloe, and this will give you a sensous expression of the philosophy of Love expressed by Socrates in the latter parts of Plato's Symposium in action. Surely the best reading for a long, relaxed Aegean island-hopping holiday. To be savoured.

8) Some pastoral poetry - if you go to the First Idyll of Theokritus you will find
more on Daphnis, his death, as it happens, but don't worry, because then you can go to Virgil's Fifth Eclogue and you'll get his apotheosis.

9) Now that we've started on the poetry, you could delve further into one of the most delicious storehouses of ancient literature, that of Greek lyric poetry with its long list of poets from Archilochus in the seventh century right through the Golden Age, on through the Hellenistic period and then to the Romans who took up the baton. Included in this collection are the works of famous poets such as Sapho and Catullus, and even the odd one or two attributed to that same Plato whose Symposium you have read, just to keep it in the family.

10) Daphnis and Chloe, the novel you have now read, grows out of a description of a painting. What about something a little unusual? Philostratus' Imaganes describing paintings in an ancient gallery in Naples might sound dull, but isn't. No Ancient Greek paintings have survived, but according to the reports their realism was of the same degree of excellence that they managed in their statues. We can only imagine. Some very fine Roman paintings survive, however, many of which were based on Greek originals. I would recommend getting hold of a large colour picture book of the art and architecture of Pompeii.

11) If you're going to go ahead and read that other novelistic masterpiece, The Ethiopian Story, then why not start with a bit of Herodotus. For goodness sake don't try to read his Histories all through, but have a look at the intriguing section on Egypt.

12) The Frogs introduced you to the playwrights Euripides and Aeschylus, as characters, so why not have a look at some of their own work, perhaps Aechylus' heavy Orestes trilogy, and then the lighter but seminal Alkestis of Euripides.

13) With all of the above under your belt you will get more out of The Ethiopian Story. It's crying out to be made into a film, which will no doubt happen one day, but it won't be possible to get from a film that same sense of a work integrated with the library of anitiquity that we can get from the book.

There are of course many, many more great works from antiquity; I've mentioned the above because they can be read as one integrated group, a kind of reading web covering works from the dawn of European literature to the end of antiquity.