Not an awful lot is known about the Eleusinian Mysteries, a strange cult worship that was celebrated annually in the classical and pre-classical period at a town called Eleusis 11 miles north west of Athens. Not much is known, because the happenings there were held in secret. It seems that the event celebrated rebirth, as the cult was connected to Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Some of you will know the story. Persephone had, in ancient mythology, spent six months of each year in the Underworld, before being allowed back to the Upper World for the next six months, thus developing the system of seasons – spring starting as Persephone returned to the Upper World to be with her happy mother, Demeter, the goddess of crops and fertility; and autumn falling as she fulfilled her duty and left her mother distraught to go back to the Underworld. What seems certain is that the initiates in this cult worship each year were distinctly honoured, as they expected their worship to confer upon them preferential treatment in their life after death. What I remember most being taught about the Eleusinian Mysteries was a throwaway line from a university lecturer, which I have never been able to prove or disprove, about the initiates themselves. It seems that they were mostly very well to do personalities, who left Athens each year to walk to their secret rites in Eleusis for the festival before returning a few days later to their highflying jobs at home. On the way, there was a bridge over which they had to pass. Lining the bridge were hundreds of lower-class people, peasants, farmers, slaves, who pelted fruit, mud, rubbish, anything they could get their hands on at the wealthy initiates whilst they crossed. The idea was that these famous Athenians be brought back down to earth once a year and reminded of the frailty of their upper-class existence.
I loved this story and have often thought about it, and this half term I read another similar story that reminded me of it. William Dalrymple writes magical books about India, and his book Nine Lives is essentially nine short stories about hitherto unknown individuals whose lives tell us great stories about the sacred religions of modern India. As many of you will know, for centuries (though less so today) the caste system has been at the heart of society in India, representing a layered stratification of people into, essentially, different social bands. At the top end are the Brahmins, representing (amongst other things) the priesthood and the highest of the four social castes; off the bottom end are the Dalits, or untouchables, those with no social standing at all and only the most menial of jobs. Dalrymple tells of his meeting only 10 years ago with a lowest caste Dalit man called Hari Das, who lives in a place called Kannur in southern India. A manual labourer for nine months of the year, Hari Das has two jobs: a prison warden in one of the most dangerous prisons in India; and a well digger for rich landlords. But for the other three months of the year, from December until January, he quite literally becomes a God. Putting on the clothing of the gods, being made up by professionals, Hari Das and some of his other Dalit friends become theyyam artists, professional dancers who sing and dance themselves into an ecstatic frenzy at night time in rural settings, as the gods literally take over their body: they are, for several hours at a time, possessed by the divine and they themselves become objects of worship. People of the highest classes come from the towns and villages to be part of this ritual, to see human manifestations of the gods, to be present with them for all-night performances. Part of the reason for their attendance is so that they can ask favours of the gods: for good crops, better health, fine jobs for their children; part of the deal is that the dancers take time out of their routines to grant them such wishes. This represents a complete inversion from the norm in India, where the Dalits are not allowed any power at all over the upper classes and have few rights. It is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the songs and dances performed by these theyyam artists are almost all telling ancient stories of social and moral injustices meted out by the upper classes upon their own class. These stories question the limits of acceptable behaviour, the abuse of power of the upper classes, and the disproportionate punishments dished out by them for trivial transgressions; yet, the upper class Brahmins not only take this all in, but seek goodness from it. As Hari Das himself put it, “There was one Brahmin last month who worshiped me during a theyyam, reverently touching my feet with tears in his eyes, kneeling before me for a blessing; then the following week I went to his house to dig a well as an ordinary labourer and he didn’t even recognise me”.
This modern world story of the breaking down, temporarily at least, of class divides and social norms, matches the Ancient Greek story rather nicely. Do we have something similar in the modern western world? Possibly the closest is a Mardi Gras; sadly the LGBT community receive regular abuse in their daily lives, but for a day’s festival in the year, they can celebrate and be cheered. Maybe the Paralympics or the Invictus Games manage to do for disabled people what society often fails to do? I am not sure. However, it seems to me that anything that can make us sit up and think about the basic humanity of all people, and not just the advantaged, must represent a good learning in our own day to day lives. We have a duty to each other, no matter what background we inhabit. If you are interested in the lives of truly unusual and extraordinary people, then I recommend Dalrymple’s Nine Lives. It is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.