Once, when your eyes were dazzled by a blanket of blue mist, he showed you it was sea holly, a whole colony whose thistle-like leaves had changed from green to blue. Another time, when you came across a field of chasteberry, he told you the legend that it cools the heat of lust, that women would use it as bedding during the festival for Demeter and Persephone. And thus began his giving you an education in Greek mythology, and thus began your passion for Persephone. You would go on to read Hesiod’s Theogony, you would go on to read the ‘Hymn to Demeter’ in The Homeric Hymns. What was it about that homeless girl, fated to ferry between two worlds, that appealed to you so? Was it her being an abandoned child, ravished and left on the cusp of girlhood, forever ambivalent toward her mother? Was it her descent into a secret world, her encounters on the boundary crossing? Or was it simply her blending of sexuality and play? Whatever it was, she provided you with a mirror to reflect on yourself. Is that why you consider Persephone your sister?
Do not swallow the pomegranate seed: On your pyjamas an owl stares out from her domain of darkness.
̶ The orphanage—when did he get out of it?
̶ When he turned sixteen. 1958. He was already an exceptional athlete; they saw his promise. Rome was 1960, Tokyo 1964.
̶ And when exactly did you find out about…
̶ All those horrible things?
̶ Just before we got married. One night, after we’d made love—
̶ How do you think you were conceived?
̶ All right, all right.
̶ One night, after we’d made love, he just started crying. Crying and crying and crying. And then it all came out…
Too late, too late, the owl has seen me swallow: Never shall I escape for long now into the light of day… Warm, warm, your tears flow, across the icy surface of history, trying to find a river to take you to the sea.
The following text is an abbreviated version of Chapters I and II of Agamben’s essay.
Giorgio Agamben & Monica Ferrando, The Unspeakable Girl: The Myth and Mystery of Kore (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2014)
The fifth-century Alexandrian lexicographer Hesychius refers to a lost play by Euripides in which figures an ‘unspeakable girl’. Hesychius explains that she is none other than Persephone. One of Persephone’s more common epithets is ‘little girl’—kore. Kore, the ‘divine girl’, seems at once to call into question and to annul the distinction between the two essential figures of femininity—woman (or mother) and girl (or virgin). Of the Eleusinian Demeter, the scandalized Church Father Clement of Alexandria asked, ‘Am I to call her mother or wife?’ Between daughter and mother, virgin and woman, the ‘unspeakable girl’ presents a third figure which puts into question all we think we know about femininity, and all we think we know about man and woman.
The Greek term kore does not refer to a precise chronological age. Derived from a root meaning ‘vital force’, it refers to the principle that makes both plants and animals grow. A kore can thus be old. Aeschylus calls the Furies, the terrifying avengers of blood crime, ‘korai’, as well as ‘ancient children with white hair’. It is telling in this regard that the rage and the implacable pursuit of vengeance which the tragic hero—and, in The Eumenides, Athena and Apollo—seek by every means to domesticate are embodied by children. One of these ‘aged girls’—benevolent this time—is Iambe, who appears in the myth of Persephone, of Kore—the girl par excellence. Kore is life in so much as it does not allow itself to be ‘spoken’, in so much as it cannot be defined by age, family, sexual identity or social role.
Erwin Rohde claimed that the Eleusinian mystery cult consisted of dramatic action or, more precisely, of a sort of ‘pantomime accompanied by sacred chants and formulae’ representing ‘the sacred story of the rape of Kore, the wanderings of Demeter and the reunion of the two goddesses’. Clement of Alexandria defined the Eleusinian mystery cult as drama mystikon or ‘initiatory drama’.
The verb myein, ‘to initiate’, means etymologically, ‘to close’—notably the eyes but, more importantly, the mouth. At the beginning of the sacred rites, the herald would ‘command silence’.
In his version of ‘Eleusinia’, Giorgio Colli asked what meaning the requirement of secrecy for initiates into the Eleusinian mysteries could have had so that the entire Athenian population was eligible for initiation.
The source materials make clear that everyone, including slaves, was eligible for initiation (as long as they had not defiled themselves through a blood crime). Colli, for his part, stresses that the officiating families of the Eumolpidae and the Kerykes undertook a careful selection of initiates, at least for the ‘grand mysteries’, culminating in what was called the ‘vision’.
It is nevertheless possible that the point of the silence was not to keep the uninitiated ignorant but intended for the benefit of the initiates themselves. In other words, it is possible that those who had been given an experience of the unknowable—or, at least, the discursively unknowable—were encouraged to refrain from attempting to put into words what they had seen and felt.
Clement of Alexandria was either himself initiated into the mystery cult at Eleusis or was told of the process by more or less reliable sources. He relates that, at Eleusis, the hierophant presented the initiate with a cut ear of wheat and recited the formula hye, kye (‘rain’, ‘render fertile’). ‘And this was the grand and inexpressible Eleusinian mystery,’ he contemptuously writes. In so doing, Clement displays the degree to which he had lost all sense of the role and meaning of the unspeakable in pagan religion. Through the mystery cults one was not held to learn something—such as a secret doctrine—about which one had to then remain silent. Instead, the initiate was meant to ecstatically experience his or her own silencing—‘when confronted with the gods great wonder silences the voice’. The initiate was thus to experience the power and potentiality offered to mankind of the ‘unspeakable girl’—the power and potentiality of a joyfully and intransigently infantile existence.
As Rohde remarked: ‘It was impossible to reveal “the mystery” because there was nothing to reveal.
In light of the preceding it should come as no surprise that, in Greek, the expression for ‘divulging the mystery’ is exorchesthai to mysteriai—literally, ‘dance it away’ or ‘dance it out’, which also means ‘fake it’ or ‘imitate it poorly’. What is more, in the Hymn to Demeter, it is said of the orgia kala (‘sacred rituals’) that it is not possible to ‘seek to know’ them.
At two points in esoteric dialogues which have been lost, Aristotle compared philosophical wisdom to mystical vision. The first of these was in Eudemus, where we read that ‘those who have directly touched pure truth claim to possess philosophy’s ultimate term, as in an initiation’ (Eudemus frag. 10). It was, however, in De philosophia that Aristotle makes the comparison most comprehensively. Therein, Aristotle affirms that ‘the initiates do not have to learn something but that, after having become capable, they experience and are disposed to it’ (De philosophia frag. 15). In that same work, Aristotle distinguishes between ‘that which is proper to teaching and that which is proper to initiation. The first comes through listening, the second comes only when the intellect itself is illuminated.’
It is important to eschew the facile interpretation of these passages which would have Aristotle veiling philosophical wisdom in clouds of mysticism and, instead, to carefully analyse them. This is necessary not only to understand Aristotle’s sense of supreme philosophical wisdom but also for the light they cast on the essence of mystical initiation.
If we recall the decisive role that the concepts of pathos and hexis play in Aristotle’s theory of knowledge as it is put forth in De anima, this fragment proves singularly illuminating. Aristotle distinguishes between two meanings for the term paschein. The first refers to someone in the process of learning something, for whom ‘to undergo’ implies the sense of ‘destruction through the working of an opposing principle or concept’. The second refers to someone who has already become familiar with a certain subject matter and for whom ‘to undergo’ implies ‘the conservation of potentiality in an act that is similar to it’. In the second case, ‘he who has a certain knowledge becomes a knower in act, and this is not an alteration because there is increase (‘supplementary gift’) both towards oneself and towards the act’.
The two modes of philosophical wisdom described here correspond exactly to the two types of knowledge presented in fragment 15: the didactic and the initiatory. Aristotle affirms this without reservation in a passage which may be considered an allusion to De philosophia: ‘The intelligent and thinking being should call that which leads from potentiality to actuality not learning but by another name’. In the esoteric dialogue, this ‘other name’ is drawn precisely from the language of the mystery cults—‘the initiatory’.
According, thus, to the testimony of Aristotle, that which the initiate experienced at Eleusis was not irrational ecstasy but a vision analogous to theoria, to supreme philosophical knowledge. What in both cases is essential was that the experience in question no longer concerned material which was learnt as much as it did a manner of experiencing, a way of undergoing, a giving of self and a completion of thought. And it was this completion of thought that Aristotle, at two decisive instances in Metaphysics, expresses through the term thigein (touch) which, in the fragment cited from Eudemus, is compared to the experience of initiates.
In Metaphysics, Aristotle says that, in knowing uniform things, the truth lies in ‘touching and naming’, and immediately specifies that ‘naming’ is not the same as ‘proposition’. The knowledge conveyed at Eleusis could thus be expressed in names but not in propositions; the ‘unspeakable girl’ could be named but not said. In the mystery cult, there is thus no place for assertion but only for the name. And in the name is something like a ‘touching’ and a ‘seeing’.
By likening philosophical knowledge to the mystery cults, Aristotle was returning to and taking up a Platonic motif. In Symposium, Diotima speaks of love’s ‘mysteries’ and ‘initiatory visions’; she affirms that in love’s mysteries there will not be ‘either discourse or science’ and that beauty ‘renders itself visible for itself and with itself in a single eternal vision’. In Phaedrus, the philosopher is compared to ‘a man ceaselessly initiated into perfect mysteries’ (this means that, in ancient Greece, philosophy seemed to locate itself with respect to mystical experience, just as, later, it sought its legitimation with respect to religion as vera religio).
When she was abducted by Hades, Kore was ‘playing with the girls of Ocean’. That a girl at play became the ideal figure for the supreme initiation and the completion of philosophy, the figure for something that is at once thought and initiation and thus unspeakable—this is the ‘mystery’.