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Demeter’s Lament

Tim Addey

A paper given at the Prometheus Trust Conference 2008 -
‘Philosophy and Divine Speculation’


“Oh foolish mankind, who do not know when good or evil approach.”

This paper examines the interrelationship between the myths re-enacted in the Mysteries and philosophy: in particular the myth of Persephone and Demeter and the philosophy which is now known as Platonic. I will show how the two are based upon a single truth – that the self of each human being is immortal, but to a greater or lesser degree each one of us isunaware of this immortal nature and powers. I will then examine how each approaches a remedy for this state of affairs: the one primarily addressing the vivific side of our soul, the other the gnostic side.

I will argue that, just as someone who listens to the story of Persephone and Demeter without a philosophic understanding will miss its most important message, so someone who reads Plato without a mythic understanding will miss his most important and subtle message. 

I will also put forward the idea that both Platonic dialogue and mystery enactment must be judged on their power to move the listening self into the story, so that the initiate and the philosopher subsume their identity to those of the characters of the myth or dialogue – and not just that of the leading protagonist, but in truth, all the characters. In this way, I will argue, we raise ourselves to the Gods, rather than attempting to lower the Gods to our limited understanding of what they should be.

* * *

The mysteries of Eleusis, celebrated a day’s procession from the city of Athens, were, like other mystery celebrations of the ancient world, guarded by strong vows of secrecy – we know only hazy details of them from hints in pagan writings and largely antagonistic and unsympathetic descriptions in Christian writings. Nevertheless we do know that the myth of Persephone and Demeter was central to the initiations of the sanctuary and that the re-enactment of the story was used to move the participant to a deeper level of understanding regarding his or her life.

Our experience today, when the great archetypal myths are told well, still echoes, I think, the kind of experience the initiates of antiquity underwent, even though the reverence for the divinities named in the action has been virtually exorcised by many centuries of Christianism and Scientism. The vast amount of time, effort and money the human race expends on film, theatre, books of fiction, opera, and all the other arts which are used to retell variations of those stories which in the words of Sallustius “never did happen but always do” manifest the value we place on the experience of following the trials and triumphs set within such tales. There are good story-tellers and bad story-tellers in each of these arts, but when we come across a good story told well, the result is always the same – at the end of the telling we feel different about ourselves and our world. Outwardly nothing may be obvious, but inwardly we have grown in some significant way.

To return to the myth of Persephone and Demeter as an exquisite example of this universal effect with which Plato would have been very familiar: we can see three distinct phases to the story, which we might call innocence and descent; search and initiation; discovery and ascent. In the first phase the innocent Persephone plucks a flower which allows Hades to arise from the dark underworld and abduct the maiden; in the second phase her mother Demeter searches for her and in her mourning for her lost daughter withdraws her powers of growth and fruition from the outer world and in their place teaches the royal house of Eleusis her Mysteries; in the third phase there is a struggle between the apparently conflicting wants of the gods which results in an agreement that Persephone should be brought out of the underworld guided by Hermes, but that as a result of her consumption of the seeds of a Pomegranate, the sometimes maiden, sometimes spouse of Hades, should spend a proportion of her time in the upper world of light and the rest in the darker kingdom below. 

Whether the story was told in the flickering light of a night fire, or in the sacred precincts of Eleusis, the listener will have identified with the terrified Persephone, with the distraught Demeter, with the crafty seed-bearing Hades, and with the two rejoicing and reunited Goddesses as Hermes brought the long-lost daughter into the light again. This sense of identification lies at the heart of every contract between story teller and listener in which the former agrees to relate an absurd fiction and the listener agrees to believe it, ignoring all the impossibilities which surround the plot. The reward that the contract offers is an increment of enlightenment – sometimes great, sometimes small.

Now Plato was not a philosopher who was careless of his audience: he too sought to change the reader of his dialogues and the student who heard him in the quiet of the academy. His ideal, as stated in the Phaedrus,1 is for the philosopher to “plant and sow discourses” in the soul of the student so that the wisdom thus cultivated is living and fertile – this, he explicitly writes, brings immortal benefits and renders its possessor “blessed in the highest degree.” A phrase, indeed, which should bring to mind the closing lines of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter which says,2 “Blessed is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiated and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom.”

If the aim of Plato’s philosophy is akin to that of the initiatory retelling of myth, we might expect its method to have similarities. And this, I suggest, is exactly what a careful inspection shows us in almost every Socratic dialogue: where the myth has innocence and descent, Plato has ignorance, a blind reliance upon doxa or unexamined opinion, and the sudden realization that what had been taken as the solid ground of truth has been exposed as a yawning chasm of darkness by Socrates’ initial questions. Just as Persephone has taken hold of the flower with both hands for the promise of the joy which it holds only to find terror, so the seemingly easy rewards of an exchange of words with Socrates finds Meno, or Alcibiades, or Theaetetus or some other innocent, suddenly abducted into the dark and winding paths of a kingdom from which there seems to be no escape.

Where the myth has the search of Demeter, with its questions to Helios, the long torch-lit hunt aided by Hecate for the daughter, the withdrawal of powers from the outer world and the beginnings of initiations, the Dialogues have the dialectical hunt guided by Socrates. Here the seeker of truth is encouraged to turn away from the appearances of things in order to find what things are in reality. The Homeric Hymn describes the abduction of Persephone and her eventual ascent in a few lines but this middle part of the story, the search during which Demeter gives up the comforts of eating, drinking wine, bathing and Olympic ease, provides the main body of the work. So it is with the Platonic dialogue: the middle section requires the hard work of disciplined thought, an arduous and lengthy exploration during which we are initiated into the lesser mysteries of reasoned truth.

Where the myth has discovery and the ascent of Persephone, in which the complexity of her situation is resolved so that she may embrace the whole of reality from Olympic heights to deepest Underworld, so the dialogues take us to the point at which we see the apparently conflicting elements of the philosophical problem in a greater whole. The full light of the upper world fills Persephone’s eyes, just as the full light of philosophic truth is revealed in a final – often mythic – vision. 

This threefold pattern can also be seen in the three degrees of initiation at Eleusis: telete – muesis – epopteia. The Telete is the novice who responds to the call of the mysteries and is purified by a descent into the sea with a small sacrificial pig. Muesis is the first proper initiation into the mysteries: the word itself means “a closing of the eyes” which we must take to mean a turning of the mind from outward concerns towards an examination of inward meanings.  Epopteia is the final initiation: the word means vision. The stage of telete is akin to the descending Persephone who has responded to the lure of the flower and likewise the early stage of a Socratic dialogue where a character responds to the enticement of philosophy, and is purified of that worst of all ignorances – the ignorance of one’s own ignorance. Muesis, the closing of the eyes to outward things, is akin to the search of Demeter when the outward activities of earthly growth are abandoned and the Goddess hunting diligently for her daughter finally retires to the inner recess of her temple in Eleusis and reveals her initiations to her first priests. It is also akin to the middle part of the Socratic dialogues where the hunt for stable truth truly begins. Epopteia is akin to the reunification of the mother and daughter in the light of the upper world in which Persephone is enabled to relate her entire cycle – a relation, she says, that is “without error” for she then sees herself and her situation clearly.  This stage is also akin to the final stage of the dialogues in which the clarity of the philosophic mind is obtained and the truth pursued is revealed.

Perhaps the best example of this interplay between myth, initiation and philosophic advance is the Symposium which is not only sprinkled with clear references to the mystery celebration at Eleusis, but also has the most obvious dramatic presentation of all the dialogues, with the possible exception of the Phaedo.

The references to the mystery celebrations are clear enough to us even today – to Plato’s immediate students who would have had direct experience of the initiations they would have been unmistakable, and indicated how seriously Plato wanted to draw the parallels between them and the philosophy he was presenting. I will run through a few of these references:

Firstly, in the central passage of the dialogue, in which the words of Diotima to Socrates are being passed on, she explicitly calls her teachings “mysteries” in this passage: “In the mysteries of Love thus far perhaps, Socrates, you may be initiated and advanced. But to be perfected, and to attain the intuition of what is secret and inmost, introductory to which is all the rest, if undertaken and performed with a mind rightly disposed, I doubt whether you may be able.” (210a) The word translated in this passage as ‘initiated’ is ‘myētheiēs’ which is related to the second degree of the Eleusinian mysteries, and where Taylor has ‘inmost’ [mystery] the Greek word used by Plato is ‘epoptika,’ which is related to the word ‘epoptēs’: Steven McGuire provides good evidence that Epoptēs was used in the specifically initiatory sense only with regard to the mysteries of Eleusis.3 By the way, all true initiation is a test – and tests can result in success or failure: initiation is, therefore, always accompanied by doubt, which is why Diotima rightly ensures that before Socrates faces the second and inmost initiation, doubt is expressed. 

Secondly, as the speech of Alcibiades reaches its visionary climax (which I will show later has the place of the epoptic vision in the dialogue) he breaks off his narration of his dealings with Socrates and says, “But let the servants, or any other profane and rustic person that may be present, close their ears with mighty gates.”  Which is a distinct reference to the practice of clearing the Sanctuary of Eleusis of those not authorised to participate in the mystery rites with the words “Far off, far off, even ye profane” as well as to the inscription at the entrance to the Eleusinian grove4 “not to enter into the adyta of the temple, if they are uninitiated in the highest of the mysteries.”

Thirdly, there are obvious parallels between those who acted as mystagogoi (leaders of initiation) during the rites at Eleusis and Diotima and Socrates – the former within the speech of Socrates, the latter throughout the dialogue as a whole.

Francis Cornford certainly notices the embrace of the language of the Eleusinian mysteries at the point at which Diotima reaches her description of the absolute Beauty, in his Principium Sapientiae5 – “Plato here borrows from the Eleusinian mysteries the language of the Sacred Marriage and of the final revelation . . .”

Finally, the part that Dionysus played in the rites is somewhat unclear although the evidence is that he had a significant role – he seems to be identified with Hades, at least by Heraclitus6 - and the whole of the Symposium is soaked in the spirit of the God, who is patron of drama, of wine, of liberation.

The sanctuary and rites of Eleusis were known as those of the two Goddesses, and, of course, there were two separate celebrations of the mysteries: we should not be surprised, therefore, to find Plato presenting the threefold pattern we have discussed in a twofold fashion.  The first unfolding of paradigm of purification, teaching, vision (or telete, muesis, epopteia) is to be found within the speech of Socrates as follows:

The telete or cathartic stage can be seen in Socrates’ questioning of Agathon which purifies him and the other participants of the symposium from the error which has emerged previously – the false idea that Love is the highest and most beautiful god. You will see that by the end of this questioning Agathon says – and we must take it that he speaks for the rest of the company – that he is unable to challenge Socrates. This reduction to a passivity recalls the abduction of Persephone, whose response to the appearance of Hades is a shrill call which, in the words of the Homeric hymn7 “no one, either of the deathless gods or of mortal man heard.”  The clever theorizing of the previous five speeches are revealed as no more related to the solidity of truth than the seemingly solid earth of the flowery meadow which yawned wide to allow the ‘Lord of Many’ to ride out to gather up the petrified virgin into his awful chariot.

The Muesis stage is represented by the first part of Socrates report of Diotima’s teaching – here the inner reality of the ways of love are explored carefully with the emphasis upon the rational and dialectical which is to replace the doxa of appearances. An initiation presents the mythic account of the birth of Love from the union of Resource and Poverty in the Gardens of Zeus after the celebration of the birthday of Aphrodite before Diotima moves on to reveal that love is ultimately the desire for the never-ending possession of Beauty and to generate within that beauty. This stage is, as we have now come to expect, by far the longest part of the three stages.

The final stage of epopteia is represented by the second part of Socrates’ recollection of what Diotima had shown him. It is in this smaller section that we are brought to the final vision of the Beautiful – “the gaining a sight of which the aim of all his preceding studies and labours had been directed.” The culmination of the mysteries reveals that all the purifications and labours within the muesis stage are entirely so that we are receptive to the divine vision of epopteia. In this stage the words of Diotima move away from the rational, gradually transforming into the ecstatic and inspired words of a prophetess filled with the God. In her revelation we see the ascent of the soul, for, says Diotima,8 the lover of this true beauty “begetting true virtue, and bringing her up till she is grown mature, he would become a favourite of the Gods; and at length would be, if any man ever be, himself one of the immortals.”

Thus in what many consider to be the central speech of the dialogue we find the myth and initiatory pattern. However, I contend that this is the logos-bound presentation – and that there is a more profound presentation which is to be found in the drama, as follows:

The first part of the dialogue sets the time, place and circumstances of the dialogue – it is a celebration of the victory of Agathon in the contest of plays dedicated to Dionysus, some ten days after the celebration of the Lesser Mysteries. This celebration is not the participants’ first – the previous evening a much less sober party had been thrown and it is now suggested that a more moderate approach be adopted and that to amuse there should be speeches made in honour and praise of Love. The initial proposal came from Phaedrus (who is to speak first) and it is eagerly adopted by Agathon (who is to be the last speaker before Socrates): both characters are shown by Plato to be enthusiastic for philosophy but rather naive. It is they who play the part of Persephone who takes hold of the joyous but fatal flower with both hands – just as it is the part of the whole company to eschew hard drinking in order to restore themselves somewhat after their previous night’s revels. There is then, an agreement to purify at least from the excesses of partying: this is the dramatic form of telete or innocence and descent phase, and it is signalled as completed when the piping girls are dismissed in order allow the participants to hear the logos of the coming speeches. 

Plato has thus ensured that the spirit of muesis is conjured: perception is moved from outward sounds to more inward ones. I suggest that the whole of the following six speeches are embraced by muesis – or, in myth terms, search and initiation. The first five speeches are various theses which the teaching of Diotima through the mouth of Socrates considers and rejects through reason and inspired insight. Gradually the simplistic concepts concerning love are turned into true thoughts by means of dialectic questioning and initiatory revelations. Again this stage takes up the greater part of the dialogue, and takes us as far as words can, the final description of absolute beauty being characterised as much by negations as by affirmations. The second part of Socrates’ speech presses hard against the boundaries of what can be spoken in philosophical terms and, so to speak, begs for the revelation of truth in terms beyond speech.

Now comes the genius of Plato: the pipe, which was the instrument of the mysteries,9 sounds just as Socrates completes the ordinary philosophic examination of Love and his desire for never-ending beauty. Remember the company had dismissed the flute girls as they started the muesis phase, but now a wine-filled Alcibiades breaks in (with, it seems, a retinue including pipers) and carries out a series of actions which bring a kind of Dionysian chaos to the proceedings. We have passed therefore, from the rational preparatory stages of the mysteries to the highest super-rational culmination – epopteia. At the beginning of the evening the company had agreed that the deliverer of the best speech should be judged by Dionysus himself: and one of the actions that Alcibiades carries out is to crown Socrates with some of the tainiai (ribbons) he had originally given to Agathon as the winner of the Dionysia. Thus the man most overwhelmed by the wine of Dionysus spontaneously carries out the judgment of the God – for Alcibiades was certainly not present to hear the original agreement. The words, too, that he uses when he sees Socrates are significant: “O Heracles! what is this? Are you again sitting here to ensnare me? as it is usual with you to appear suddenly where I least expected to find you.” Heracles was the most famous initiate of Eleusis, and the character of the epoptic vision is always suddenness – thus Diotima has described the arrival of the vision of the Beautiful to the initiate as in the following words, “suddenly he will discover, bursting into view, a beauty astonishingly beautiful . . .”  The vision is sudden, of course, because it is not a thing of gradual rational steps but must either be before the inner eye or not.

The purpose then of the seemingly incongruous entry and drunken speech of Alcibiades is to crown the man who has, if ever any mortal has, “become a favourite of the Gods . . . and immortal.”  The first six speeches have sought to praise love, each speaker in his own way, but the last speech is clearly one in praise of Socrates. What does this tell us? That Socrates himself has become so thoroughly identified with Love that there is no longer an object-subject relationship between the two but the mysteries of love and the mystical philosophy he has pursued have completed their work upon him. As Sallustius tells us,10 “the object of the mysteries is to conjoin us with the world and with the gods.” We are now very obviously in the epopteia stage of the drama, and the discovery and ascent of the mythic journey is upon us. What is especially noticeable about the history of Persephone is that she is both above upon the Olympic heights and below as the co-ruler of Hades – in other words she is essentially in the eternal world of causes, but simultaneously energising in the world of effects, as symbolised by the realm of Hades, the Lord of Many. So it is with the ramble of Alcibiades that Socrates is shown to be master of both the profoundest contemplative understanding, and of the most demanding of earthly duties.

Only Alcibiades could have made this speech: it is his simplicity which allows him to speak the unspeakable – the significance of it is rarely understood, and many commentators ignore it, and claim that there are only six speeches. One thing is certain, however: the last person to understand what Alcibiades is really saying is Alcibiades himself – for he is speaking under the mania of Dionysus.

If this interplay between myth, the mysteries, and Platonic dialogues is accepted, then there is a case for re-examining our understanding of Plato in the more subtle light of initiatory myths. Perhaps two general points and two specific examples will suffice for this paper.

The first concerns what can and cannot be spoken in philosophy. We can see from both the mystery cults and from myth that there is either an explicit or implicit recognition that there are truths which cannot be expressed in words and which require a super-discursive approach. In the case of Eleusis, there was a strict rule of secrecy – extraordinarily well observed since many thousands went through the initiation every year for many centuries, and yet despite being the mystery centre of the most literate city of the ancient world, almost nothing is known with any degree of certainty about the actual teachings, practices or revelations of the sanctuary. As the Homeric Hymn says, Demeter taught “awful mysteries which no one may in any way transgress or pry into or utter, for deep awe of the Gods checks the voice.” We can, of course, take this to mean merely that the mysteries could be described were it not for the strict and seriously kept vows of silence imposed on those who had participated in them – but we must also concede that an equally valid interpretation is that the mysteries were intrinsically beyond the power of human speech to reveal: as Aristotle says,11 “the celebrants of the mysteries have not a lesson to learn, but an experience to undergo.” Experiences are, ultimately, never fully told but only communicated by another undergoing the same or similar experience; and if the experience is of divinity, then only those who have followed the path through initiation to epopteia can share in its unutterable truth.  Myth too implies an experience of truth which is beyond rational description – the listener must move with the characters within its story if it is to be more than a sum of its spoken parts and yield the living truth at its heart. If Plato saw his philosophy as similar in kind to myth, then we must accept that we must move with the characters within the dialogue in order to find what the divine philosopher has not written down – and although a purely discursive understanding allows us to grasp the parts and their relationship, yet far beyond this is what Plato urges us towards. There are things in philosophy, myth, and mystical initiations which if told in ordinary language and to those who have not been through the correct preparation will seem ridiculous or trivial. We may note, for example, that Socrates says in the Phaedo,12 “Those who are conversant with philosophy in a proper manner, seem to have concealed from others that the whole of their study is nothing else than how to die and be dead.” And, further, that Simmias on hearing this suggests that non-philosophers hearing such an assertion would indeed consider philosophers better off dead.  It is, by the way, at the end of this passage that Socrates praises the founders of the mysteries who in an obscure manner have said “that whoever descended into Hades uninitiated, and without being a partaker of the mysteries, should be plunged into mire; but that whoever arrived there, purified and initiated, should dwell with the Gods. For, as it is said by those who write about the mysteries, ‘The thyrsus bearers numerous are seen, But few the Bacchuses have always been.’ These few are, in my opinion, no other than those who philosophize rightly . . .” 

We may also see that not only does Socrates consider the written word an unsatisfactory vessel for the most profound philosophical truths – explicitly stated in the Phaedrus and the Second and Seventh Epistles,13 but that when he moves towards the very highest truth concerning the One he makes it clear that this cannot be encompassed even by the best of speakers. For, in the Republic,14 immediately before Socrates uses the divided line to show how truth and the perception of truth is of a fourfold nature, there is a discussion on the nature of the Good: Socrates says that it is above essence but that what it is exactly is beyond their powers to discuss, and that, dismissing such an enquiry, he is only willing to describe “the offspring” of the Good – which are ideas. When pressed to reveal more of the nature of the father of these offspring, he replies, “I could wish, both that I were able to give that explanation, and you to receive it, and not as now the offspring only.” We see after this passage, that Socrates relates his famous story of the cave and its prisoner, who escaping the illusions of the cave’s shadow eventually is able to look directly at the sun, which Plato has already established as standing symbolically for the Good. The former prisoner having attained this vision is drawn back into the cave in order to pass on the message of this possibility to others – only to find that he is rejected and even subject to threats of death should he continue to talk such nonsense.

For Plato then, whether we are talking about the multitude, or those who have progressed in philosophic training, there is an area of experience which is beyond definition or description: a point which, in the words of Plotinus, the alone calls to the alone. Ultimately, then, philosophy itself is not something to be learnt, but something which must be experienced.

To move onto a couple of minor examples before looking at my last general point, once we have seen that Plato weaves into his writings references to myth, various puzzling concepts within the Dialogues become somewhat more comprehensible. So, firstly, in the Republic there is a curious suggestion that the founders of the republic being built in the imagination of the speakers should have what is sometimes called the “royal lie” – that is to say that all classes within the republic (not, you will note just the less well educated masses, but also the highly educated governors) should be told that although it appears they have been born from separate mothers and individually educated and furnished with the various instruments of their professions and trades, this is not so, and that this is merely a dream. They will be told that in reality they were not only born from the earth who is therefore their mother but also formed and educated by her, and given their armour and other utensils by her. I think you will see, now that we have considered Plato’s close relationship with the myth of Demeter, that rather than being an advocate of state propaganda – which is how some read this piece – he is again drawing us back to the idea that we are all Persephones. Demeter, whose name means literally “earth mother” or according to the Plato’s Cratylus “bestowing mother”, is she who brings forth all living things, she who educated the Eleusinians in the ways of the mysteries, and who taught all humankind the secrets of agriculture, the instruments of which played an important part in the mystery celebrations. The underlying reality is that in comparison to our joint universal experience of birth from the all-bestowing mother as well as our experience of descent and dark confusion in the world of material effects, the particular twists and turns of a single mundane life are but dreams. And that until we see ourselves from the greater perspective of souls undergoing the mythic cycle of innocence and descent, search and initiation, discovery and ascent, we will continue in our dreamlike state. Plato, by his otherwise inexplicable suggestion, asks us to consider the universal reality before the particular actuality of our lives – or, in the words of the Eleusinian mysteries, “I have fasted, drank the Kykeon, taken from the big basket, ritually worked upon it, placed it in the little basket, from whence I returned it to the big basket.”15 

Secondly, we may also see that Socrates’ condemnation of Homer and other tellers of poetic myth should not be taken at face value – he certainly does not want the young and uneducated to be misled by the literal interpretation of the powerful corpus of Greek myth which seems to suggest that the gods are less than perfect. But once he has finished purging the republic of these dangerous stories he then says,16 “But if there were a necessity to tell them, they should be heard in secrecy, by as few as possible; after they had sacrificed not a hog, but some great and wonderful sacrifice, that thus the fewest possible might chance to hear them.” And we have seen that the initial sacrifice offered before undergoing the two inner initiations was a pig. Once we see the symbolic meaning of this passage in the Republic, myth, which seems to be despised by Plato, turns out to be the very thing which will bring about the progress of the wise and initiated.

I’d like to conclude with a final general point about myth and philosophy, and how each strengthens the other. First, a quote from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which is from the moment at which Demeter’s attempt to give the princeling Demophoon (who is under her care in her disguise as a old nurse) actually immortality is thwarted by the misguided intervention of his mother:

“Witless are you mortals and dull to foresee your lot, whether of good or evildemeter, that comes upon you. For now in your heedlessness you have wrought folly past healing; for – be witness the oath of the gods, the relentless water of Styx – I would have made your dear son deathless and unageing all his days and would have bestowed on him ever-lasting honour, but now he can in no way escape death and the fates.”

Here, then, is the Hymn’s despair over the human condition – Demeter’s lament for mortals who act from the appearance of things rather than see the reality which lies behind such appearances. It is, of course, the lament of a mother who has lost her child to Hades, the kingdom of “worked out effects”, and who longs for the return of her much-loved child – a child who is striving, according to the Commentary of Damascius17 to “elevate herself to the causes of her being in Demeter.” What immediately follows this lament is the founding of the mysteries, which are to serve those creatures in the universe which are both intellectual and yet involved with materiality – creatures who are lovers of wisdom and beauty as Diotima points out. The lament and the instituting of the mysteries are at the heart of the path of the soul.

Now in the culmination of the Republic, which is actually about the constitution of the human soul, Socrates moves from a largely dialectic mode into the mythic mode of discourse, with the story of Er who is taken on a journey in which he sees the experiences of souls in between earthly lives. Before reincarnating, souls are shown many possible lives and required to make a choice: some rush and take hold of a life which is apparently attractive, but on closer examination is discovered to be full of unhappiness and suffering. Others choose carefully and with wisdom: at this point in the story, Socrates breaks off from the narrative to comment18 -

“There then, as appears, friend Glauco, is the whole danger of man. And hence this of all things is most to be studied, in what manner every one of us, omitting other disciplines, shall become an inquirer and learner in this study, if, by any means, he be able to learn and find out who will make him expert and intelligent to discern a good life, and a bad; and to choose every where, and at all times, the best of what is possible, considering all the things now mentioned, both compounded and separated from one another, what they are with respect to the virtue of life. And to understand what good or evil beauty operates when mixed with poverty, or riches, and with this or the other habit of soul; and what is effected by noble and ignoble descent, by privacy, and by public station, by strength and weakness, docility and indocility, and every thing else of the kind which naturally pertains to the soul, and likewise of what is acquired, when blended one with another; so as to be able from all these things to compute, and, having an eye to the nature of the soul, to comprehend both the worse and the better life, pronouncing that to be the worse which shall lead the soul to become more unjust, and that to be the better life which shall lead it to become more just, and to dismiss every other consideration. For we have seen, that in life, and in death, this is the best choice. But it is necessary that a man should have this opinion firm as an adamant in him, when he departs to Hades, that there also he may be unmoved by riches, or any such evils, and may not, falling into tyrannies, and other such practices, do many and incurable mischiefs, and himself suffer still greater: but may know how to choose always the middle life, as to these things, and to shun the extremes on either hand, both in this life as far as is possible, and in the whole of hereafter. For thus man becomes most happy.”

Thus commenting in the middle of the story, about a choice in a middle station between earthly lives, Socrates has shown what it is to be a creature of a middle position between the Olympus of Intellect and the Hades of the time-bound life.  The aim, then, of the mysteries and their myths, and the philosophy of the Platonic tradition is to bring about the final discovery and ascent. Like the settlement of the Gods, in which it is agreed that Persephone shall embrace both lives, giving due measure to the upper and lower worlds, so the Platonic answer is to raise the eyes of the soul to the eternal vision, but continue to play her part in the ordering and beautification of the manifested universe. As Socrates says, at the end of his story of Er,19 “But if the company will be persuaded by me; considering the soul to be immortal, and able to bear all evil, and all good, we shall always persevere in the road which leads above; and shall by all means pursue justice in conjunction with prudence, in order that we may be friends both to ourselves, and to the Gods, both whilst we remain here, and when we receive its rewards, like victors assembled together; and we shall, both here, and in that journey of a thousand years which we have described, enjoy a happy life.”



1  276e ff.

2  Hymn to Demeter II, 480

3  See his articles (especially note 4) at:

4 See Proclus’ Commentary on the First Alcibiades, 5.

5 Principium Sapientiae: The Origins of Greek Philosophical Thought, (Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1971) p. 86.

6 “For if it were not to Dionysus that they made the procession and sung the hymn to the shameful parts, the deed would be most shameless; but Hades and Dionysus, for whom they rave and celebrate Lenaen rites, are the same.” Frag. 15.

7 Homeric Hymn to Demeter, II, 22.

8 212a.

9 As asserted by Proclus, Commentary on the First Alcibiades, 198. “Motive instruments are adapted to enthusiastic energy: and hence, in the mysteries and mystic sacrifices, the pipe is useful; for the motive power of it is employed for the purpose of exciting the dianoetic power to a divine nature.”

10 Sallust, On the Gods and the World, IV.

11 At least as reported by Synesius, Dio 1135,6.

12 64a

13 Phaedrus 274b ff, Eps. II 341c and VII, 342c

14 Rep. IV, 506b-509c.

15 I suggest that one way of seeing this ritual password is that the fasting refers to our falling away from the intelligible nutrition of ideas; that the drinking of kykeon is that which forces us into material manifestation (rather like the waters of Lethe in the myth of Er in the final passage of the Republic). Kykeon is a drink of mixed barley and pennyroyal, and barley was the basic nutrition of the arable-based cultures of ancient Europe, but also produced a change in consciousness when infected by fungus; and pennyroyal is a mild abortifact. The taking from the large basket (the universal) and the working of intelligible ideas (into precipitated matter) before placing the results into the small basket (our individuated lives) is our story, which finds its conclusion in the conversion of the particular back into the universal through the consciousness which follows philosophic and mystical initiation.

16 At 378a

17 Commentary on the Phaedo, I, 130

18 Rep. 618c ff

19 Rep. 621c.

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