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  • ‘Blessed Is He, Who Has Seen’:The Power of Ritual Viewing and Ritual Framing in Eleusis*
  • Georgia Petridou (bio)
Horn. Hymn. Cer. 480-2


Pindar, fr. 121 Bowra
Sophocles, fr. 837 Pearson-Radt

“Blessed is he, who has seen these, among the mortal men who live on earth; but he who is not initiated in the sacred rites, who has had no share in them, he does not have a lot of similar things when he is dead under the vast darkness,” says the author of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. These lines have traditionally been interpreted as referring to the spectacles offered to the initiates in the course of the secret initiation of the of Eleusis, often referred to as by our sources.1 Analogous emphasis on the visual aspect of the spectacle is also given by several other sources, which are conventionally taken to refer to the secret initiation ceremony of the Greater Mysteries of Eleusis: Sophocles, fr. 837 Pearson-Radt (“Thrice-blessed among the mortals are those who having seen these sacred rites enter Hades: for them alone there is life, but for the others all is evil”); and Pindar, fr. 121 Bowra (“Blessed is he who having seen these things has gone under the earth; he knows the end of life; but he also knows the god-given beginning”).2 None of these or any other of our sources gives us a detailed and reliable account of what the saw or, as a matter of fact, how the things seen conferred this [End Page 309] sense of blessedness, and in what ways this blessedness eased the pain (or was it the fear?) of entering the chambers of Hades, and made the after-death existence endurable. Scholarly speculation on the nature of the things seen (and undoubtedly heard too) by the initiates is abundant.3 A collage of textual evidence (consisting primarily of testimonies from late Christian and, therefore biased, authors) and iconographical evidence (not necessarily any less ambiguous) has been constructed and reconstructed in almost every possible way; and yet no account can be privileged without the essential leap of faith. Although a summary of some of the most learned reconstructions will be given here, the primary focus of the present essay is not so much on the nature of the things seen, as on the possible ways they were perceived by the initiates and the culturally defined scopic regimes that informed that perception.4

Vision, Visuality, and “Ritually-Centred Visuality”

A particular focus of this paper will be to introduce, and test the efficacy of, some recent and some more or less well-established developments in the disciplines of art history and visual culture in the study of the mysteric cults in general, and the study of the initiatory process () in the of Eleusis in particular. Effectively, I argue that, when studying the sources that speak of the process of mystic initiation in Eleusis, more may be gained if we shift our focus from the idea of unqualified and unmediated visual experience (vision) onto the cultural construct that mediates between the eye of the beholder and the things seen (visuality). The point of this exercise is to show that even if we could actually look at what happened within the , it is quite unlikely that we would be able to see what the initiates saw, as it is extremely difficult to reconstruct with any certainty the complex nexus of sociopolitical and cultural discourses that shaped their gaze, their ways of viewing. Furthermore, I examine Jaś Elsner’s notion of “ritual-centred visuality,” not as a possible conceptual framework for understanding the gaze of the pilgrim in the Imperial era, but for considering how ritual framing allows the in the Eleusinian to see sacred visions beyond the constraints of secular visuality.

What exactly is “ritual-centred visuality”? Elsner (2007, 25) defines as follows:

This ritual-centred visuality may be defined in many ways—as the putting aside of the normal identity and the acquisition of a temporary cult-generated identity, or as the surrendering of individuality to a more collective form of subjectivity constructed and controlled by the sacred site, or as the provision of a...


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