We can understand more of the Greek concept of comedy too by considering its connection to the mysteries of Eleusis. The rituals of Eleusis certainly went back to a pre-patriarchal era in neolithic Crete when religious experience seems to have turned round an initiatory encounter with an ecstatically transfigured divine female. Many features of the Cretan rituals connect them in turn with the ice age caves. The rites of Eleusis, therefore, may well be rooted in ceremonies which go back to the very beginnings of fully developed human self-consciousness in the upper paleolithic era. They enacted the myth of Demeter searching for her lost daughter Persephone and the lack of any Pluto figure in the Eleusis version of the myth points to its very ancient, pre-patriarchal, origin. Like the komos, the ritual took the form of a procession which began on the fourteenth day of the Athenian month of September, Boedromion, and did not reach Eleusis until the twenty second. As in the komos, the procession of those to be initiated, the mystai, walked along shouting out one of Dionysios’s names, Iachos Iachos. On the nineteenth they crossed the river Kephisos where, again in the tradition of the komos, they were entertained by a female comedian who cracked crude jokes. She lifted her skirt to expose her genitals in imitation of the attempts made by the goddess Baubo to cheer the weeping Demeter as she searched for Persephone. On the twenty first the first night of the mysteries was undergone. We know from the ruins of the Telesterion, the hall where the mysteries were undergone, that there could have been no kind of stage representation, for it was a forest of pillars and clearly not focussed on any kind of stage or proscenium. We know too that the mystai drank a hallucinogenic drug called the kykeion, almost certainly made from ergot. It was then that they were shown the contents of the kyste, a kind of closed chest, and recited the formula ‘I have fasted; I have drunk the kykeion; I have opened the kyste’. On the first night they underwent terrible and harrowing visions. Then the climax of the ceremonies came on the second night. These involved things spoken (legomena), things performed (dromena) and above all things seen (epopteia). It appears that in a great blaze of light the initiates then witnessed Persephone arising from the underworld. In a final revelation the hierophant held up a single grain of wheat. Afterwards the intiates passed out of the hall and spent the rest of the night and the next day dancing. Their reports are that after this experience they lost their fear of death and were filled with unspeakable joy and happiness.
Two interesting connections with the rites of Eleusis may shed light on them and enable us to understand them better. One connection is that with the ice age caves. As the mystai had to undergo terrifying experiences on the first night in order to achieve the bliss of the second, so the ice age shamans seem to have had to undergo terrifying experiences of psychic disintegration which are recorded in the cul-de-sacs of the caves, as a condition of encountering the idealized and blissfully voluptuous females expressed with such abstract sophistication in the venus figurines. Another interesting slant is given us by research that has been done, now some time ago, into the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. Writing in Scientific American in 1977 Ronald K. Siegel and his colleagues record that volunteers given doses of LSD reported seeing regular patterns of geometric shapes which developed into more complex patterns.including recognizable scenes, people and objects, many in cartoon or caricatured form. Subjects reported black and white images taking on blue hues and movements becoming more organized and pulsating. Common complex images included childhood memories and scenes associated with strong emotional experiences that the subjects had undergone. These images from memory were often edited and partially fictitious, as when in recalling an episode, for example, of swimming in the ocean you see yourself in your swimming trunks entering the water, though in fact you could not possibly have done so. Since the subjects were in an isolated chamber most of their images came from memory. But on being taken to a botanical garden imagery from the surroundings also entered in fantastically altered states into the hallucination. During the peak periods of the hallucinations subjects often described themselves as having become part of the imagery. The researchers came to the conclusion that hallucinogens release primitive memories from childhood. and work by shutting off the mechanism that normally acts as a gate to the flow of information from outside. A constant input of new information in the waking state inhibits the emergence and awareness of these primitive memories. If the input is impaired or decreased while awareness remains, such perceptions are then released and may be dynamically organized and experienced as hallucinations, dreams or fantasies. If Winnicott is right, that the two most primitive emotions of childhood are those of the disintegration of the self and the environment mother who saves the child from annihilation, then this would explain much about the experiences of the ice age shamans in the caves, which were very probably also drug induced, and also those undergone under the influence of argot at Eleusis. It would explain why in both cases experiences of horror and terror were followed by those of the redeeming woman and why, at Eleusis, the climactic emotion was one of profound peace and joy. Eleusis was initiatory because initiation is a return of repressed memories from the very beginning of life under controlled condition. It also explains the profound connection between the experiences of horror and the experiences of bliss. The redeeming woman is only experienced as redeeming because there was a previous experience of annihilation of the self which she saves the subject from. The feelings of annihilation do not annihilate the self, only because the redeeming woman saves the subject from them.