On some mystifying language used by Pausanias in referring to the Eleusinian Mysteries

2020.07.10 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. I have run into a problem in trying to come up with an adequate translation of Pausanias when he talks about the Eleusinian Mysteries. Part of the problem, I think, is that Pausanias himself is mystifying in his language about the Mysteries. He seems guarded about giving the impression that he is in any way about to reveal to his readers whatever was periodically being revealed to initiates in the Great Hall of Initiation at Eleusis. My purpose in this brief essay is not to attempt a reconstruction of what was actually revealed. Nor do I aim to solve the mystery of what Pausanias thinks is the essence of the Mysteries—any more than I would hope to understand the Eleusinian Mysteries as represented by Dirck van Baburen in his painting Mistérios Eleusinos, dating from the seventeenth century of our era, a suitably dark copy of which is featured as the cover illustration of my post here. No, all I intend to do here, as I already said, is to produce an adequate translation of the mystifying language used by Pausanias in his reference to the Mysteries. But I must add that my translation is not meant to be mystifying: rather, it is meant to convey the actual language of mystification that is being used here by Pausanias.

“Mistérios Eleusinos,” by Dirck van Baburen (1594–1624).
“Mistérios Eleusinos,” by Dirck van Baburen (1594–1624). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


§1. Here is where Pausanias speaks of the Eleusinian Mysteries, as mysteries. I show the Greek text, followed by my tentative translation (Pausanias 5.10.1):

πολλὰ μὲν δὴ καὶ ἄλλα ἴδοι τις ἂν ἐν Ἕλλησι, τὰ δὲ καὶ ἀκούσαι θαύματος ἄξια· μάλιστα δὲ τοῖς Ἐλευσῖνι δρωμένοις καὶ ἀγῶνι τῷ ἐν Ὀλυμπίᾳ μέτεστιν ἐκ θεοῦ φροντίδος.

There are many things to be seen and to be heard in the Greek world [= among the Hellēnes] that are worthy of wonder [thauma]; but the greatest share [of all these wondrous things]—from the standpoint of a [generic] god’s way-of-thinking [phrontis]—goes to the rituals [drōmena] at Eleusis and to the competition [agōn] at Olympia.

§2. There is of course nothing mysterious here about the Olympics—and Pausanias will spend two whole scrolls, V and VI, talking expansively about this most prestigious institution of the Hellenes. But the drōmena ‘rites’ at Eleusis are another matter. Here and elsewhere, Pausanias touches on the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries only selectively. In the case of this other most prestigious institution of the Hellenes, he is dealing with some matters that are not to be revealed. And it is up to the gods whether Pausanias can tell about everything, as in the case of the Olympics, or about only some things, as in the case of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Pausanias can be open about the divinities who preside over the Olympics, where Zeus is pre-eminent, but he must be guarded about Demeter and Persephone, the Great Ladies of the Eleusinian Mysteries. This two-sidedness of divine self-presentation is what I think helps explain the attenuated expression ἐκ θεοῦ φροντίδος, which I translate tentatively as ‘from the standpoint of a given god’s way-of-thinking [phrontis]’. This expression signals not only the unquestionable fact, as Pausanias sees it, that the Olympics and the Eleusinian Mysteries are the most wondrous of all Greek institutions, bar none, but also something else that our traveler views as a fact that likewise cannot be questioned. For Pausanias, it is a fact of life that there are different rules for speaking about different divinities. In the case of the Eleusinian Mysteries, there will be constraints that do not apply in the case of the Olympics.

§3. I see comparable feelings of constraint being registered also at earlier moments in the narrative of Pausanias about his travels. There is a striking example in his text at 1.14.3–4, where our traveler is talking about his visit to a hieron named the Eleusinion, located in downtown Athens. Even the name Eleusinion, ‘the place of Eleusis’, indicates that such a place is a placeholder, as it were, for the Eleusinian Mysteries. In this context, Pausanias has a special way of expressing what I have just described earlier as his feelings of constraint. Here is the text (1.14.3):

πρόσω δὲ ἰέναι με ὡρμημένον τοῦδε τοῦ λόγου καὶ ὁπόσα ἐξήγησιν ἔχει τὸ Ἀθήνῃσιν ἱερόν, καλούμενον δὲ Ἐλευσίνιον, ἐπέσχεν ὄψις ὀνείρατος· ἃ δὲ ἐς πάντας ὅσιον γράφειν, ἐς ταῦτα ἀποτρέψομαι.

I was getting ready to go further in connection with this thing-that-is-said [logos], telling about however many things the sacred-place [hieron] has available for interpretation [ex-hēgēsis]—I mean, the sacred place in Athens that is called Eleusinion, but a vision [opsis] that came from a dream [oneiar] held me back. As for things that it is divinely-allowed [hosion] to write down [graphein] in addressing everyone, I will turn [implied –trepesthai] to these things while turning away [apo-trepesthai] from other things.

(There seems to be a slight disruption of the textual tradition where we read ὁπόσα ἐξήγησιν. The edition of Rocha-Pereira 1989 shows in the apparatus a variety of conjectures made by modern editors in their attempts to restore the original text, and I prefer the simplest mode of restoration here: ὁπόσα ἐς ἐξήγησιν.)



Rocha-Pereira, M. H., ed. 1989. Pausaniae Graeciae Descriptio. 3 vols. Leipzig.