The Sacred Way
Through the Ceramicus and over the Pass of Corydallus runs the white road to Eleusis--the Sacred Way. As the hills closed behind us shutting Athens from our view, it was as though some spell had fallen, as though the closing of the hills had shut a gate upon the outer world and brought us into an enchanted garden. Was it Pan who lingered here, or Apollo, or "dear Aphrodite," whose shrine and rock-cut inscription wait at the next turn of the road? Or was it the ghost-thoughts left by processions of singing Mystae who passed so many times along this road?
Early in the morning, not on such spring days as this, but in the burning month of September, the worshippers of Demeter left the Eleusinium at Athens and reached Eleusis by torchlight. Seeing that our sleepy horses only took two and a half hours to cover the twelve miles, it puzzled us to think how the Mystæ could have spent the whole day upon the road. To be sure there was the jesting at the bridge over the Cephissus, when masked peasants mocked the pilgrims and the holy Mystæ condescended to some buffoonery with their tormentors. No doubt also there were offerings to be made at the shrines of Zeus, of Cyamites the bean-giver, of Apollo, and "dear Aphrodite," and finally at the tomb of Eumolpus. Still even with these delays one cannot think that those who left Athens at dawn were the same as those who reached Eleusis by torchlight; it rather seems probable that all through the day the straggling procession of pilgrims poured out through the Sacred Gate. Some would prefer the early start and accomplish the dusty climb to Daphni before the heat of the day; others would be delayed by toilet or household affairs until mid-morning, and others again would start in the cool of the evening, and for them would be the dramatic arrival by torchlight in the Hall of the Mystae.
Besides, every Greek is born with right to a siesta after his midday meal, and our coachman willingly agreed to wait an hour at Daphni and overtake us at the little ruined temple, with rock-cut niches and the one remaining inscription to "Phile Aphrodite." The stones of the shrine have weathered to the same golden-grey as the surrounding boulders, and its ruins would be hard to find but for the crooked old olive that is our landmark.
From here the road descends and the pass once more opens as the blue Bay of Salamis flashes out. Landlocked as a lake it looks, shut in by the mysterious grey island which the ancients knew as Salamis, but which local affection calls "the baker's roll" (koulouri). Beyond this the road is less interesting. Beyond the ridge of ægaleus it runs between the seashore and the Thriasian Plain. The country inland is level and rather desolate, reminding one of the region round Phalerum. Both have salt marshes won from the sea, and not yet fertile. The salt lakes of Eleusis were sacred to Demeter and Persephone, though what such barren loneliness had to do with the goddesses of fertility it is hard to say. At the far end of the bay the white houses of Eleusis crown a bit of rising ground, and behind them the mountains of Megara show their double peak known as "Kerata," or Horns.
This stretch of road beside the Thriasian Plain is associated with that apparition of immortal mystics who came to succour their countrymen at the darkest hour of the Persian War. Herodotus tells the story on the authority of Dicæus, son of Theocydes, "an Athenian who was at this time an exile and had gained a good report among the Medes. He declared that after the army of Xerxes had, in the absence of the Athenians wasted Attica, he chanced to be with Demaratus the Lacedæmonian in the Thriasian Plain, and that while there he saw a cloud of dust advancing from Eleusis, such as a host of thirty thousand men might raise. As he and his companion were wondering from whose feet the dust arose a sound of voices reached his ear and he thought that he recognized the mystic hymn to Bacchus. Now Demaratus was unacquainted with the rites of Eleusis and so he inquired of Dicæus what the voices were saying. Dicæus made answer, 'Oh Demaratus! beyond doubt some mighty calamity is about to befall the King (of Persia's) army! "For it is manifest inasmuch as Attica is deserted by its inhabitants, that the sound which we have heard is an unearthly one and is now upon its way from Eleusis to aid the Athenians and their confederates. . . . Every year the Athenians celebrate this feast to the Mother and the Daughter. The sound thou hearest is the Bacchic song which is wont to be sung at this festival' . . . Such was the tale told by Dicaeus, the son of Theocydes, and he appealed for its truth to Demaratus and other eye-witnesses."
The ruins of Eleusis are better on the plan than in reality. The superimposed periods look delightful in their different colours shown on the excavator's plan and for English readers they have been lucidly explained by Dyer in his work on the gods of Greece. Standing on the spot it is a hard matter to trace the buildings of each period, and the spirit of the Mysteries vanishes among this jumble of grey stones lying bare to the sky. The beautiful view of sea and hills brings us no nearer to the past, for in the Hall of the Mysteries the outer world was forgotten. But wait till nightfall. Then in the darkness and hush, when the stones have melted out of sight, and the voices of the Albanian women have quieted themselves in the houses near, it becomes more possible to feel the way back to the heart of those mysterious rites and become one of the host of worshippers adoring "the great, the wonderful, the most perfect object of mystical contemplation, an ear of wheat reaped in silence." And yet how different the silence is even on a still night such as this. For though hardly a breeze stirs and the surf is but a ripple on the beach, faint sounds of animal life are coming up in the darkness. A dog barks in the village. The frogs croak discontentedly in the distant marshes and a bird or bat rustles against the old walls. The Greeks of old knew that silence is not a negative but a positive thing. There is never a complete vacuum of stillness, but only a hushing of the more dominant sounds. The silence of a northern night and of a southern noon, the silence of a forest, a moor, a sea--what resemblance is there between them, and how are they related to this silence of a worshipping multitude who come to Eleusis to learn "the fair and joyful truth that death is not an evil but a blessing to mortals"?