ANNUAL THANKS-OFFERINGS

AMONG THE ANCIENT GREEKS

The Greeks, during their autumnal celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries, approached nearer a national thanksgiving that in any other of their numerous religious festivals. The seventh day was set apart for the great offering to Demeter of fruits and grains, and this was held in the outermost court in order that no unhallowed footprint might profane the temple proper. All the great festivals were under state direction, and, as the national life was based on state religion, impiety was a crime, amenable to law; yet their religion had a warmth and joyousness and a social life we moderns know nothing of. Indeed, the happy abandon of a Greek festival would be a revelation to a modern.

The beginning of their thank offering of fruit and grain was solemnly announced by a diademed hierophant standing amid a crowd of robed priests on a magnificent Stoa Poikle (orivariegated colonnade at the temple entrance), and there proclaiming all Greeks were welcome to attend the grand celebration who were free from civil or personal taint.

This proclamation was followed by sacrifice and prayer; the priests, surrounded by the peculiar members of the mysteries, in solid phalanx, and followed by a great procession, proceeded to the seacoast, where they were all solemnly purified; expiatory services were preceded by one day’s fast. The most touching of these heathen expiatory rites was the selection of a beautiful young child, either girl or boy, of pure Athenian race, called the "child of the hearth," because placed near the sacrificial hearth, and it offered the player for those seeking initiation into the solemn mysteries. It seemed the supplication coming from innocent lips would on that account be more acceptable to the gods. They believed it to be the redemption of all granted to a child.

Then followed the grand dramatic representation of the joy of Demeter upon the recovery of Persephone. The parched and withered earth had mourned with Demeter in her grief for the abduction of her child, and now at the command of the goddess was covered with bloom and laden with fruits upon her recovery. The grateful Greeks assembled from all directions to share her joy and render thanksgiving within the sacred inclosure at the call of the mysterious hierophant.

The distance between Athens and Eleusis was seventeen miles, and from early morn the whole way was covered with a joyous throng, led by white-robed priests, wreathed oxen, goats and other sacred animals led by youths adorned in festal attire. The young men of Athens wore short, pleated kitons, with graceful himation thrown over their shoulder, their heads garlanded and feet sandaled. The young girls bore flowers, fruits and some kind of sacred box. They were dressed in white, with gold-embroidered peplum. The matrons bore their offerings of wheat-sheaves, dressed in white kiton and dark-blue peplum, in honor of Demeter, whose dress when on Mount Olympus was always of that shade. The chorus-boys and regular musicians were appareled in holiday attire and filled the brilliant sunlit air with joyous strains of antiphonic music. The old men walked in stately, rhythmic measure in robes of office (every citizen was a dicast, present or prospective), and all that festival crowd, marching in the sweet morning air to the sacred inclosure, were given up to the great enjoyment of a national and social thanksgiving. On the march thy filled the time with music, banter, raillery and jesting. The procession reached Eleusis at night by torchlight and a stay of many days was made.

The entire celebration of the mysteries occupied nine days, and the seventh day was selected as peculiar for the offering of thanks for the fruits of the earth. The dram opened with the grief of Demeter for the loss of her child. The initiates clad in white robes, their hair caught up with golden grasshoppers and heads wreathed with myrtle, ranged themselves before the sacred doors, while the herald cried in imperious tones, "Let the profane, the impious, those dealing in magic arts, those who have shed human blood and all barbarians depart hence!" If any of these classes were found in the throng they could be put to death on the spot and flung out of the inclosure. The profane were not permitted to even see the temple, but the initiates approached as soon as the mystics ran through the inclosure carrying torches, shaking them so that showers of purging sparks were flung off, then passing them from hand to hand in token of the divine transmission of holy light and knowledge.

One after another the torches were extinguished and from the darkness came divine voices and appalling images, accompanied by flashes of lightning, groans issuing from the earth (apparently), chains clanked and terror fell upon all hearts. This was the most trying part of the ceremonies and tested the courage and faith of the initiated. Thenceforward the drama continued its development by sudden transitions from scenes of splendid light leading to the joys of the empyrean from the terrors of Tartarus. Countless lights lit up the temple and courts. Incense filled the air and the sanctuary was filled with radiance. Entrancing music from the choirs added joy to the worshipers. Rhythmic dances and sacred songs announced the completion of the ceremonies.

The mysteries closed by the veil falling, and Demeter stood revealed to her worshipers in all the splendor of her immortal beauty.

Of course, much of what was regarded as incommunicable in the mysteries was never disclosed, but to the Greek it was the rarest of privileges to witness this great thank-offering to Demeter. In the Homeric Hymn it is written: "Blessed is he who has beheld these rites; for he who is initiate and he who has not beheld these sacred rites has by no means the same fortune, though dead beneath the murky darkness." An Sophocles says: "To these alone are granted life."

Mysteries to the Greeks originally spoke to the eye; they were a religious drama rather than a moral or philosophic teaching. But the mind of the Greeks could not remain inert in these exciting scenes. Some observers stopped devoutly, with the legends; others, few in numbers, rose from the sentiment to the idea -- from imagination to reason -- and, aided by the elasticity of the symbols, gradually introduced doctrines that certainly were not there in the beginning, or were in an extremely vague condition. Dionysius and Persephone in the underworld represented the apparent death of the human race and their apparent restoration to life. Olympus typified renewed life and immortality. Later still, these ideas became more definite and there grew up amid the mysteries a purified polytheism, resembling in certain of its tendencies the spiritual character of the Christian religion.

Rebecca Lawrence.

The Call, San Francisco, Sunday, November 22, 1896, p. 17.