This short story is about the Eleusinian Mysteries–a nine-day festival and initiation into the cult of the Earth goddess, Demeter. What happened during the initiation was the best-kept secret of ancient Greece. People were forbidden, under penalty of death, from revealing this. It is altogether possible that Socrates was condemned in part for having participated in a private enactment of the central rite of the festival’s culminating initiation. For many centuries, great numbers of people in the Greek and Roman world were initiated into this cult, including such luminaries as Plato and Cicero.
“Dana,” said Peter, still clinging to the doorway of the shop. “I need to work on my paper. Today sometime. Well, maybe not ‘need,’ but I want to.”
An Assistant Professor of Classics at Boston University, Peter had been puzzling over a possible interpretation of an ancient Greek spell, one of a number of spells known as the Ephesia Grammata (“Ephesian words”). According to the 2nd century lexicographer Pausanias, this spell had been inscribed, “in ancient times,” onto the pedestal of the cult figure of Artemis at Ephesus. Like the khrēsmoi, or utterances of oracles, the Grammata were gnomic. Some had concluded that they were nonsense phrases, like certain Hindu mantras, to be repeated over and over to achieve a trance-like state. (The Greeks hadn’t been as obsessed with reason and order as the myth perpetrated by Western Civ classes would have it.) At any rate, the interpretation had been plumping in Peter’s head for days and seemed just about ready to pop into the oven.
Of course, the more common metaphor for interpretation was not the proofing of bread but, rather, the fitting together of pieces. Nothing as tantalizing as a fragment, Peter thought. Well, almost nothing. There was Dana.
“I just want to look at these dresses,” said Dana. “They’re cute. Come on, you said you wouldn’t work today. We’re on vay-cay-shun.”
Baking. Would people think his interpretation half-baked? Dough, fermenting. A good metaphor for the unconscious work that the mind did on these intoxicating problems. These were his thoughts, but to Dana he said, “Jesus, Dana. I watched the video, didn’t I?” Despite his lofty education, Peter often evoked the name of the Christian tribal god when he was impatient or provoked. You could take the boy out of the country, Dana sometimes said.
On this particular day of a short summer vacation, Peter and Dana had driven from their hotel in Clearwater, where Dana’s parents lived, to Tarpon Springs, the Greek village on Florida’s West Coast, north of Tampa. They had wandered the main street along the harbor, poking into the Greek patisseries and shops. The shops sold sea shells, Orthodox icons, the usual tourist T-shirts with funny sayings that weren’t funny, and a not-so-various assortment of deep-sea sponges (the village specialty). The salt smell of the sea combined with that of the fetid, dying seaweed and algae on the winched-up nets of the sponge boats, giving the town its characteristic odor, like that of bath houses or locker rooms. The boats rose and fell languidly, tugging at their bowlines and anchors. Humid, turgid air lay heavily upon the green sea like a glass from a child’s science kit made for magnifying the July sun and frying the flesh of delicate creatures like kelp and classics scholars.
Except for a couple dragging their porcine children along the sidewalk, Peter and Dana seemed to be the only tourists in town on this particular day, in what was, after all, the off season in an off new century.
Tarpon Springs had suffered the general fate of many tourist destinations that used to be popular in the mid-twentieth century—a precipitous decline in interest. People now had more significant things to do with their time, such as web surfing for pics of pop stars and lol cats. The sponges that used to bring carloads of tourists to Tarpon Springs and that still filled the shops in ugly abundance now barely provided subsistence to a few sons of sons of sons of Greek sponge divers and their families. Dana had insisted that they watch, in one of the shops, a video on the sponge diving. Why people would drive miles out of their way to buy a sponge or to watch videos about sponge diving was beyond Peter’s imagining.
“I’ll just be a second,” Dana said, heading toward the center of the shop, where racks of toga-like, pleated, cinctured Greek summer dresses hung. She would look quite the goddess in one of those, Peter thought. Dana in such a dress would be worth the cost.
While Dana looked at dresses, Peter wandered past the seashells and Greek sailors’ caps on the shop’s shelves. He picked up the silliest of the sailors’ caps and popped it on his head. It was three sizes too small. “There are bigger ones above,” said the elderly Greek woman at the front of the store.
“That’s OK, really” said Peter. Then, correcting himself, “Thank you.”
He caught up with Dana. “Find anything?”
“Not sure. Maybe,” she said. “I want to think about it.” She turned and called to the shopkeeper, “What’s this?” and pointed to a low, curtained doorway. A crude sign, a piece of white printer paper with red ink-jet lettering, was taped above the curtain. It read,
Mysteries of Ancient Greece
“Theater,” said Peter, translating.
“It is the teatro,” said the shopkeeper, coming from behind the counter and heading toward them. “$10.00. Would you like to see?”
“Not another one, Dana; come on,” implored Peter.
“So what’s it about?” said Dana.
“If I answer this question, then there is no mystery,” the shopkeeper replied. “You will enjoy this. If not, I give you the money back.”
“How long is it?” said Peter.
“Not long,” said the shopkeeper. “And it is most interesting.”
Peter looked toward the door to the street.
“Come on,” said Dana.
“This is pretty funny, when you think about it,” said Peter.
“You want to waste time watching some tourist film about the ‘mysteries of ancient Greece.’ I want to get out of here so I can go work on an actual ancient Greek mystery. You’ve got to admit: it’s pretty funny. Well, maybe not funny, but ironic.” In a manner common to the academic world, Peter often magnified slight discomfitures into cosmic injustices.
“You will like it,” the shopkeeper repeated.
“I want to see it,” said Dana with finality.
“I tell you what,” said Peter, pulling ten dollars from his pocket and handing it to her (Dana had spent the last of her cash on some sandals half an hour before). “You sit and watch this film. I’ll go back to the car, get my notebook, and head to that pastry shop up on the corner to work–the one with the ugly baklava sign.”
“They all have ugly baklava signs,” Dana said to him, quietly.
“The next one down, that way. You stay, watch your film, and meet me after. Everybody’s happy.”
“Yeah, I think that would please ALL of us,” said Dana. She had long since given up on standing between Peter and his enthusiasms. Bright people have enthusiasms, and Peter was bright. Or maybe just obsessive. He wouldn’t let go of a problem until he’d solved it. This trait had earned Peter a tenure-track professorship when most people with his training were working as adjuncts, or worse, as restaurant managers or desk clerks trying to figure out how to repay a fortune in student loans.
“Enjoy your film,” said Peter.
Dana, in reply, stuck her tongue out at him.
“Later,” said Peter.
Peter ordered a cup of Greek coffee—that, at least, was a blessing—and opened his notebook.
ΑΣΚΙ(ΟΝ) ΚΑΤΑΣΚΙ(ΟΝ) ΛΙΞ ΤΕΤΡΑΞ ΔΑΜΝΑΜΕΝΕΥΣ ΑΙΣΙΟΝ (or ΑΙΣΙΑ)
Aski(on) kataski(on) lix tetrax damnameneus asión (aisia)
Shadowless Shadowy Earth Fourfold Sun Logos
Tetrax: Fourfold. That was the key. Both the four-fold goddess and the four seasons.
The shopkeeper pulled back the curtain to reveal a tiny room. Inside, nothing but a wooden bench and a small table, on the table were a tiny wooden chest and a woven, lidded basket. Where are the projector and screen? Dana wondered.
“Sit, please,” said the shopkeeper. “I will return.”
True to her word, the shopkeeper returned moments later with a porcelain cup, which she proffered.
“What’s this?” Dana asked.
“It is the kykeon, a special drink from my country.”
“What’s in it?” said Dana, sniffing it. It smelled of mint.
“The smell is of pennyroyal. Try. You will like it.”
Dana took a sip. It was delicious. Thick and sweet, but with an earthiness. Like nothing she had tasted before.
“Wait now,” said the shopkeeper, taking the cup. “Will begin soon.”
Hang on. Where’s the film? Dana started to say, but the shopkeeper was gone. On her way out, she had flicked off the light. Music began to play, nothing Dana recognized. Plucked strings, pipes or a flute or both, something Greek, she guessed, but not like the bouzouki and tambourine music that had accompanied the other film. This music was much older, as though drops of rain were the plucked notes of a lyre. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Dana could see the spots of afterglow the light had left on her retinas—entoptic phenomena. She hadn’t noticed that it had been that bright.
Dana shifted about. The spots hadn’t gone away. If anything, they were more intense. Starbursts. Zig-zags. Spirals. Weird. And only after a time did she recognize that she was getting smaller. Or rather, her body was. There was a difference. Funny that she didn’t usually remember that. That she was not her body. That she was a small sphere of light somewhere within that body. She watched as her arms and legs telescoped inward. Her feet no longer touched the floor. For a split second, her legs stuck off the end of the bench like those of a toddler in grandpa’s chair. Odd. Then her feet shriveled up and inward toward her like those of the Wicked Witch of the East when her sister attempted to remove the ruby slippers. Sometimes houses fall out of the sky. I should be afraid, Dana thought, as her body collapsed inward, around her, until she had something like the size and shape of a walnut shell. The shell kept on shrinking, and as it shrank, she noticed that through the crenelations of the shell shone a light. That’s me, she thought, glowing inside the shell. Then: funny that I usually can’t see from within and from without at the same time.
She fell down through the spaces between the molecules that made up the bench and hung there. She could see them, the molecules–like little, fuzzy lights. How? They were impossibly small and impossibly far away. Everything was mostly empty space, she remembered reading. If the molecules were so small and so far away through space, how could she see them so clearly? It was like that poem. Among twenty snowy mountains/the only moving thing/was the eye of the blackbird. How could that observer, the speaker of the poem, simultaneously see both an entire mountain range AND the eye of a blackbird somewhere within it? Only with a special kind of sight. Dana was proud of herself for remembering the line. She would have to tell Peter about that. But how could she get big enough, again, to tell him? And how could she see the molecules? Then she remembered. It’s like that flying dream that people have, she thought. You remember that you can fly, and the remembering is all that you need to do to be able to fly, and you wonder, in the dream, how could I have forgotten that I can do this–this amazing thing? She could see the molecules despite the vast spaces between them because distance is an illusion. It’s not, she thought, as if there’s me and those molecules, the not-me. This, too, was a remembrance, though it struck her with the force of revelation. And then she saw that the molecules were not separate entities at all but pulses in a field of light, interwoven, and she herself was no longer a point of light but one of these pulses, part of the weave of the beams of light, which were like a carpet, undulating, alive, and she rode upon the wave and the wave was her body but there was no her and really there was no body at all but just the wave.
And then the carpet of undulating light began to circle like a great spiral galaxy and she—There was that she again—How had she fallen back into that?—was at its center, and the whole swirled about her, increasing its speed and folding in toward her until she was in a kind of vortex, and she was the tip of the vortex and she felt herself falling as the vortex extended, like a funnel from a squall line, and struck through the floor of the room she had been sitting in and broke through the earth. And then she saw—or rather knew—that a great hole had opened in the Earth and was swallowing her, and she was a body again and tunneling, downward, downward into darkness. She could feel the earth giving way in front of her, falling back, dirt and roots and rock and intense heat and weight, and she felt as if she would be crushed and burned and was terrified. And then she remembered. This is just a form that is taken. And she relaxed and closed her eyes like a teenager being brave on a roller coaster.
Four goddesses, thought Peter. The maiden, the mother, the crone. The new moon, the full moon, the old moon. But there’s also the fourth, no moon at all. “Shadowless.” The logos casts these shadows, these forms, upon the Earth (a metonymy for the created universe), but it is itself nothing and all. “Shadowless.” That is what Plato saw. Plato, who like all educated Greeks of his day, partook of the Mysteries at Eleusis. But what to do about the connection of this reading of the Gramma with those notions about there being an ancient tradition of worship of the four-fold goddess? There is no scholarly validity to the supposed tradition that Gardner and the Wiccans created for themselves, and Frazerian comparative mythology is in deep disrepute. A paper connecting the spell to that nonsense would make its author a laughingstock. It’s OK, Peter thought. Maybe I can keep that part to myself–simply speak of the moon’s phases. But maybe, just maybe, that’s the discovery! A ground-breaking paper. Damn. No. I’ve been in the sun too long today. Half-baked.
On surfacing, Dana felt the priestess take her hand and lead her to the table. The old woman opened the chest and the lidded basket. Within the basket was a single fruiting stalk of barley. “Go ahead. Pick it up,” the old woman said. Dana reached for it, held it before her. It shone with a brilliance the like of which she hadn’t seen before. She saw each grain in its astonishing articulation, its beauty passing understanding. The world tree. The staff of life. She and the stalk of barley were one thing. And its very form, the mathematical arrangements of the grains, said as much. An analog of the spiral of a strand of DNA.
“Put it into the chest,” the old woman said. Dana stared at the beautiful object a bit longer, then complied. The old woman placed the lid back on the basket and closed the chest.
“You see, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Dana. “Birth and death are but moving from the one place to the other and back again. It is a game. Now you see it. Now you don’t. Even the very act of moving it from one place to the other seems incredibly silly. Absolutely funny. One might mistake this simple action as meaningless, but I motion with my hand, and the barley is beautiful and the hand is beautiful and the movement is the most beautiful of all, and these are enough in themselves. Both are moments in the play of the one mind–part of the pantomime, of the dance.”
“Yes. Good. The Hindus call this the rasa lila. The dance of Krishna and the Gopis.”
“I know you,” said Dana. “I know who you are.”
“Of course you do.”
“Hecate, of the liminal spaces, the crossroads, the entrance to the maze, the cave, the labyrinth, the underworld, the canal of birth and rebirth.”
“Yes. Of course. And you know that you can tell no one of what you have seen.”
“How could I?” said Dana. “There are no words.”
“Oh, there are words,” said the old woman. “They were carved long ago on the base of a statue of my sister Artemis. But they can mean nothing to anyone in this profane age.”
“I think I would understand them,” said Dana.
“Yes, now you would.”
“It’s all so very beautiful, so exquisite. This moment. The lines on your face. This room. For these things, there are no words.”
“Of course you are right,” said the old woman, “but trying to find the words is part of the dance that you chose to enact when you came back. Poetry, too, is manifestation.”
“I should get back to him, to Peter.”
“Of course. Don’t forget your dress. It’s on the counter. I wrapped it for you. A gift.”
“So how’s the paper coming?” said Dana, squinting against the light.
“Oh, there you are,” said Peter. “I don’t know. It could be crazy for me to try to publish this thing. Some topics you just can’t pursue. There was this guy in my department at Boston forty years ago, Carl Ruck. He and two other guys, Wasson and Hoffman, had this idea that the Eleusinian Mysteries had to do with drinking this potion that contained a hallucinogenic fungus that grew on barley. He might have been wrong about the fungus. It might have been Perganum harmala, Syrian Rue, the seeds of which are like Banisteriopsis caapi, or ayahuasca, but that’s not the point. The point is that when he wrote about this, he was basically blacklisted. After a while, people thought that even his scholarly work on Greek grammar was suspect. If I do it right, this paper could be really important. But done wrong, it could be a career-ending move.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dana.
“I don’t know. Perhaps I can work it out. I just have to be careful. So, tell me about your video. What ancient mysteries did you learn about while I was wasting my time here?”
“If I told you about them, they wouldn’t be mysteries, would they?” said Dana. A smile. But straight. No ironic chaser.
“OK. Be that way,” said Peter.
“Maybe I could help,” said Dana, “with your paper.”
“You really want to hear about it?”
“Of course, but you don’t have to expound. . . .”
“It’s kinda complicated.”
“Maybe it’s kinda simple.”
“In fact, I think it is,” said Peter. “But something’s being simple doesn’t mean that people are going to be open to hearing it. The readiness is all.”
“Hamlet,” said Dana.
“A pretty smart dude, that Hamlet. But he got himself in a helluva lot of trouble.”
“Maybe some things just shouldn’t be talked about,” said Dana. “The Eleusinian Mysteries were practiced for—how long?—two thousand years? And nobody ever spilled the beans about what they were about. They have to be the best-kept secret in the history of the world.”
“The video was about Eleusis? You’re kidding.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then how come you’re suddenly some kind of expert on this stuff?”
“I went to college too, you know. And I am married to a classics professor.”
“I can’t. Some things you just have to experience yourself. Not that there is a yourself, really.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t worry, Peter. I can love you even though you’re not a self because I can choose to see you in that way if I want to. Do you know the story about Mullah Nasreddin? He was standing on the bank of a river, and someone on the opposite bank yelled to him, ‘How do I get to the other side?’ and Nasreddin yelled back, ‘You’re already on the other side.’ It’s a matter of perspective.”
“I haven’t any idea what you’re saying. Are you OK?”
“Fine,” said Dana. “Never better. Look up there, Peter. Did you notice, while you were working on your paper? The clouds are laughing.”
“Laughing.” Then, seeing his look of concern: “But with you, silly, not at you.”
“For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called “initiations,” so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.” ─Cicero Laws II, xiv, 36
Copyright 2005. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.
Art: Frieze of poppy and sheaf of wheat from the Lesser Propylaea, Eleusis, Greece, by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Eleusis, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37877986
For more short stories by Bob Shepherd (and essays on the reading and writing of fiction), go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/short-stories/