From Arrival to Revelation
From Eleusis to Delos
The story that started once upon a time in Eleusis, at the site where the Eleusinian Mysteries took place, continues at what Callimachus calls the “most sacred of all islands” and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the island of Δήλος/Delos.
The name of the island comes from the Greek verb δηλόω which according to the Great Dictionary of the Greek language (Ancient & Modern) by Dimitris Dimitrakos (Δημήτρης Δημητράκος) has multiple meanings with the most relevant ones being: to manifest, show, reveal, make known, visible, bright, clear, announce, verify, come true, explain, signify.
Eleusis means arrival1. To go from Eleusis to Delos is to go from arrival to revelation. It is no accident that this was the birthplace of Apollo, the god of light, knowledge, and prophecy, nor that in 1956 the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in a letter to Aldous Huxley used the same root verb, preceded by the Greek word for soul, ψυχή/psyche, to coin the word psychedelic, for the substances that manifest and reveal the soul.
A geological examination of the island shows that it was created either because of volcanic activity, upon which it manifested in the surface, or it was revealed after a withdrawal of waters that had once flooded the surrounding areas. The etymology of its name plays with both views, either that of sudden manifestation or revelation, as the relevant Homeric hymn admits2.
Located in one of the areas in Greece that receives the most sunlight throughout the year with strong winds that often offer unparalleled visibility to all the nearby islands, the Cyclades, which were named that way because they were around (“cyclic”, κυκλάς) the sacred island of Delos, it is also the reason why Callimachus mentions that another name for it was Ιστίη (related to Εστία/Hestia) which means hearth, fireplace, altar3. It’s as if Delos was the sacred fire around which the other islands sat in ceremony to receive its light.
I accepted an unexpected invitation to visit with a few foreigners who were visiting from overseas. We started walking the island on a sunny morning. A unique feature of Delos is that it has temples of many religions. From one of the oldest Jewish synagogues in the world, to temples to Isis, and inscriptions mentioning Anubis, Harpocrates, and Sarapis4, to just mention a few, all are found in different parts of Delos.
Iamblichus notes5 that Delos had its own Mysteries, similar to the Eleusinian ones. In an attempt to purify the island given its sacred importance and make it fit for worship, the Athenians under instruction by the Delphic Oracle, eventually dug up all those who were buried there, reburied them in nearby islands, and issued a prohibition of deaths and births on the island6.
It was the center of the Delian League and its treasury, till Pericles decided to move it to Athens, which according to some scholars marks the transition of Athens “from idealistic hegemon to predatory ruler”7 which sets the stage for the Peloponnesian War.
It’s hard to take in the significance of the island on a single stroll. I slowed my pace, those who accompanied me marched on. Walking past ancient symbols, their combinations are often bizarre to the modern eye.
At the sanctuary of Dionysus you see a phallus on top of a marble relief of a rooster. Have you ever wondered why today the other word for rooster, namely the word cock, is associated with the penis, even though roosters don’t have one? Maybe this ancient association holds the answer to this riddle. But half-joking aside, let’s attempt to decode what this association could mean.
According to Maria Maragou’s excellent book Eleusinian Mysteries8, the rooster was a sacred animal to Persephone9, the Queen of the Underworld, and mother of the first Dionysus, Zagreus. The ancient Greek word for rooster is αλέκτωρ/alector which can etymologically be broken down to ἅλιος (Doric version of ήλιος/helios which means sun) and ἕκτωρ (which means the one who possesses), so the word in this etymological interpretation means the possessor of the light – apt, being in the island of Apollo.
As for the phallus (in Greek φαλλός, suspected to originate from the Indo-European root *bhel- which means “to blow, swell” but also to “shine, flash, burn”10), it represents potency and the fecund spirit of nature associated with fertility. Because the ancient Greek word for nature, φύσις, is correlated with the verb φυσώ, which means "to blow", and the word for spirit, πνεύμα, has its roots from the verb πνέω which also means to blow, and explains why the Greek word for breath, αναπνοή, is made out of ανα- which signifies repetition, and πνοή which is the noun for πνεώ, given that breathing resembles a repetitive kind of blowing. The other meaning, swelling, correlates with what is rising, growing, hence connects with the other verb related to φύσις, which is φυώ which means that which born, rises, becomes, and brought to light.
So the combination of those symbols, the rooster and the phallus, could simply mean that you need to be the possessor of the light in order to rise and shine. For the rooster crows at sunrise, when we become possessors of the light, which for many men is often accompanied with a morning erection, which directly correlates with potency.
It’s also the key as to why there is a temple to Isis in Delos. For the myth of Dionysus Zagreus and his dismemberment at the hand of the Titans mirrors the myth of the dismemberment of Osiris, the consort of Isis. Both Dionysus and Osiris are gods associated with death and rebirth. In the myth of Osiris, Isis is able to find all the pieces of Osiris except his phallus and orders the priests “to pay to it the honours of a god and to set it up in their temples in an erect position”12, which is exactly how the phallus is positioned in the temple of Dionysus at Delos. The connection between Osiris and Dionysus is made even more plausible if we consider Plutarch's suggestion that the Mysteries of Eleusis, where Dionysus plays a crucial role, and those of Isis and Osiris, bear more than a passing resemblance13.
It is unfortunately likely that this potent intercultural sacred symbol was desecrated by mobs in the name of Christianity14, symbolically emasculating the spirit of classical antiquity by breaking off part of the phallus. No wonder that ushered the Dark Ages. The cock suffered a spiritual erectile dysfunction. The fecundity of light was to be no more.
The foreigners had already left. Alone I walked back through the residential quarter and whatever was salvaged of their magnificent mosaics.
At the House of Dolphins, we see Erotes riding dolphins. The Greek word for dolphin is δελφίνι which relates to the word for womb/uterus, δελφύς, because dolphins, being mammals, have a womb. It also relates with the Apollonian sacred site of Δελφοί/Delphi, a site originally dedicated to the goddess Gaia (another word for Earth in Greek), it being a symbolic representation of the Earth’s womb15.
According to myth, Apollo arrives and kills the serpent Python living there, that could be seen as a symbolic representation of the umbilical cord, which would also explain why Delphi is later called the navel of the Earth (Gaia) since that’s what’s left after the umbilical cord is cut. For a newborn to step into the world of the light (Apollo) from the dark uterus of its mother (Earth/Gaia), it needs to have its umbilical cord (the serpent Python) cut. Apollo severs our connection to the Earth, matter, incarnation, in order for us at some point to become light (note that photons don’t have mass/“earth”).
In the myth, once he kills the serpent, he transforms into a dolphin and guides a group of Minoans to become the first priests of Apollo at Delphi16. The dolphin is an apt symbol for Apollo as it needs to head upwards towards the light in order for it to breathe, often flying out of the sea in the process. The ascent to the light, mirrors the erotic ascent of the soul towards the light of Beauty and the Good17, the place where our spirits can truly breathe, which is why Erotes ride the dolphins: both are heading in the same direction, and each of them flies in their own way.
Time flies too, and now the foreigners were waiting for me to return. I felt I needed to return to Delos with some natives who remember its significance. I called my friend Keon18. I tell him we need to return to Delos together. Do a ceremony there.
He told me there was an ancient Greek ceremony that took place in Delos, for the purpose of creating a sacred flame. The light of the sun and lenses were used to generate a fire in a ceremonial tripod. That sacred flame was then taken via boat first to the island of Lemnos and then to the Sanctuary of the Great Gods at the island of Samothrace, and used for the commencement of the Kabeirian Mysteries, which were even older than the Mysteries at Eleusis, and were dedicated to the Great Mother Goddess.
That sounded like a plan. The sacred light was to rise again.
To be continued. Subscribe to receive the next chapter and consider becoming a paid subscriber to support the work and the author
Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, § 28.151
From Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles, by Charles W. Fornara and Loren J. Samons II, University of California Press, 1991. See Chapter 3.
Her book is currently being translated to English but its Greek title is Ελευσίνια Μυστήρια: Η Οδός της Θέωσης του Ανθρώπου, a translation of which could be Eleusinian Mysteries: The road of the deification of man, published in Greek by Kaktos, 2020. The reference with respect to the rooster and its etymology is found in p.104.
There is a much longer story to be told with respect to why the rooster is a sacred symbol to Persephone and her relationship to Dionysus, that Maria Maragou reveals in her book about the Eleusinian Mysteries (already mentioned in footnote #7) and her other book on Dionysus (Διόνυσος: Ο Θεός και ο Άνθρωπος is the title in Greek, also published by Kaktos, 2020).
See for example Naked Power The Phallus as an Apotropaic Symbol in the Images and Texts of Roman Italy, with references to a similar function in ancient Greece, found in chapter 1.
Quote is from the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, found in the Wikipedia Entry for Zagreus, in the section about Osiris.
See The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, by Catherine Nixey.
There are geological reasons why the place (Delphi) and the name of the serpent (Python) were named that way, that are wonderfully explored in Scent of a myth: Tectonics, geochemistry and geomythology at Delphi (Greece).
That may be because Apollo sought expiation for the sin of killing Python at a Minoan priest called Karmanor.