Boedromion 19: The Procession to Eleusis

Early in the day the mustai, the Eleusinian officials, and all others gather in the main square of Athens, all wearing myrtle wreaths and white robes or other special garb. The priests and priestesses wear red or purple cloaks, and the Hierophant and Dadouches wear a strophion (a twisted piece of cloth, worn like a sash) and have long hair.  The statue of Iakkhos (in late classical times thought to be Dionysos as an infant) is brought from the Iakkhaion, to be carried on its annual visit to Eleusis.  The same band of epheboi serves as an escort for the Eleusinian priestesses, carrying the sacra in baskets on their heads, back to Eleusis to begin the celebration of the Mysteries. 

 The procession is headed by the pais ap’ hestia, the “child initiated from the hearth,” whose initiation is paid for by the state. Initiation is expensive; it adds up to at least 12 obols, about a month’s pay for the average Athenian.  Hence paying for someone’s initiation is a frequent gift, especially for slaves and courtesans (as we know from Demosthenes’ Against Naeara, 21), since it cannot be taken away from them. The child represents the entire Athenian people; he or she wears a garment that leaves the right shoulder bare, and a short chiton (to just above the knee), carries a myrtle staff, and is followed by all the other such children from preceding years who have not yet reached adulthood.  

 The 14-mile procession to Eleusis begins, passing out of Athens via the portico at the Keramicos.  There are many stops for resting and performing rituals at places along the way thought to figure in Demeter’s search for the lost Kore. One is a sanctuary devoted to Zephyrus, Demeter, Kore, Athena, and Poseidon, at the place where Phytalus invited Demeter into his home to rest, in reward for which she give him the fig tree (Harrison, Prolegomena, p. 151).

 At the Kephisos bridge, the crowd is entertained by Baubo or Iambe, telling “obscene” jokes and performing “obscene” dances (which certainly included exposing her genitals to the crowd; see Hesychius and the Suda under Gephuris).  There is apparently another purification in the salt lakes, the Rheitoi (see Hesychius on Rheitoi and Pausanias, Attica, 38.1-3), and after crossing the narrow Rheitos bridge, the mustai apparently are challenged by priests and must give passwords, then have a thread tied between the right hand and left foot (see Photius, Krokoun). Aristophanes’ rather mild parody in The Frogs, lines 324-459, gives us some idea of what sort of songs are actually sung during the procession to Eleusis.


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