ATHENS — It was time to take a journey into the Underworld.
Long before I arrived here in January, I was curious about the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most important ritual site in ancient Athens, whose fame spread around the ancient world. What is so intriguing about Eleusis is that, despite the fact that many thousands of initiatestook part in the ritual over so many centuries, no one ever divulged the secrets of what took place. That’s surprising because the ancient city was, to say the least, a very chatty place — everything seems to have been up for discussion, dissection, polemic and comic ridicule.
One reason for the silence is obvious: Speaking about the ritual was a crime punishable by death. There is a story that the dramatist Aeschylus was prosecuted for revealing truths about the Mysteries in his plays but was found innocent. Alcibiades, Socrates’ beloved student and double-crossing political opportunist, is said to have played out scenes from the Mysteries in his home in Athens. But we in fact know little.
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