The philosopher Democritus once said: ‘A life without festivals is like a road without inns’ (B 230), but there can be little doubt that of all the Greek festivals it is the Eleusinian Mysteries that most intrigue the modern public. It is the aim of this chapter to take a fresh look at this festival at the height of the Athenian empire, the later fifth century BC. In contrast to older studies, the most recent detailed analyses, by Walter Burkert, Fritz Graf and Robert Parker, have given up on the attempt to offer a linear reconstruction of the initiation proper. Yet there is something unsatisfactory in such an approach, as it prevents us from seeing the course of the ritual and appreciating its logic. Ideally, we should reconstruct a linear ‘thick description’ (to use the famous term of the late Clifford Geertz [1926–2006]) of the experience of the average initiate, mystês. We are prevented from doing this because some of the main sources of rather scanty literary information are Christian authors, who often wanted to defame the ritual, and, in some cases, lived six or seven hundred years after Athens’ heyday. Nonetheless, it also seems unnecessary to limit ourselves strictly to pre Platonic evidence. Plato’s allusions to the Eleusinian Mysteries had a huge influence, but the Mysteries continued to exist for many centuries, and there is no reason to assume that other ancient authors were merely repeating Plato rather than drawing on their own experiences or those of otherauthors. For these reasons, our account will be ‘thin’ rather than ‘thick’ andtentative rather than assured. In fact, almost all analyses of ancient festivals are nomore than probable, a historical scripts or templates, because we cannot access the original performances, and must confine ourselves to static outlines of festivals, however unsatisfactory that may be. This is certainly true of the Eleusinian Mysteries: it is highly unlikely that this festival remained unchanged for a whole millennium.
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