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Back to the Roots? The Eleusinian Mysteries and Contemporary Antwerp Theatre

The Antwerp theatre environment has given the world two significant names that revolutionize the idea of dramatic art: the theatre group tg STAN (Stop Thinking About Names) and the multidisciplinary artist Jan Fabre.

Fabre works with various media and his creative activity, which causes unceasing controversy, includes the use of the image of animals (stuffed animals), repetitive actions, and in general often refers in his figurative expression to ritual practices. Fabre's theatre productions are extremely and often uncomfortably psychological, do not follow a linear plot, appeal more to the unconscious than to consciousness (Wesemann & Ulvaeus, 1997).

John Stathis, Performance of tg STAN's Klytaimnḗstra, 2022.

Tg STAN, who democratized their work and made it their rule to include all participants in the process of live creation of the production, also completely moved away from the traditional theatrical forms. Their theatre is an organism, each part of which experiences the process on the stage individually, sharply and without a specific initial task. STAN's revision of Aeschylus' tragedy Agammenon, titled Klytaimnḗstra, was first shown in the tragedian's birthplace in Eleusis (2023 Eleusis - European Capital of Culture, 2022), which may serve as a symbolic reference point for proving that revolutionary ideas can find roots, influences, or analogies in history.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were essential practices in the formation of Ancient Greek religious tradition. They were initiation rites in the cults of the fertility goddesses Demeter and Persephone, held annually in Eleusis, and according to some archaeological evidence they may have begun as early as the 1400s BCE (Mylonas, 1961). Mythologically, the Mysteries base on the story of the abduction of Persephone by Hades, and used to ceremonially recreate the meeting of the goddesses at the Persephone's return from the realm of the dead to her mother Demeter on earth, in the Eleusinian sanctuary, where the latter was held to have spent time apart from her daughter (Eliade, 1978).

Admission to the Mysteries was considered not only a great honour, but also a “culminating experience of a lifetime” (Wasson, Ruck & Hoffman, 1978, p. 45). They were called "mysteries" because their secret was kept in the strictest way and none of the participants under any circumstances could disclose it. That is the reason why very little precise information about the mysteries is at the scholars’ disposal.

Participants in a mystery became witnesses of "visions" that caused them to sweep away strong emotions, feelings and even physical responses. This collective reaction may have been caused by the use of some kind of hallucinogen (Wasson, Ruck & Hoffman, 1978; Graves, 1964).

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Rape of Proserpina (fragment), 1621-1622 (Winner, Coliva & Schütze, 1998).

Despite the accepted interpretation of both the myth and the tradition of holding the Eleusinian Mysteries in connection with the cult of fertility and the symbolic annual resurrection of nature (Eliade, 1978), the importance of the mysteries for Ancient Greek culture was rather given by the fact that the participants in the initiation, the so-called “purification”, were believed to be brought closer to the gods, in contrast with the doomed uninitiated ones, and were guaranteed a happy existence in the afterlife (Moore, 1916).

“But whoever is uninitiated in the rites, whoever takes no part in them, will never get a share [aisa] of those sorts of things [that the initiated get], once they die, down below in the dank realms of mist” (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, trans. G. Nagy, lines 481-482)

The Eleusinian Mysteries were held twice a year: the Lesser Mysteries were held at the very beginning of spring, and the Greater Mysteries in the middle of autumn. For the participants, including those traveling to Athens specifically for this purpose, the full sequence took more than six months (Wasson, Ruck & Hoffman, 1978), and according to other scholars (Kerényi, 1967) more than eighteen months, as participants in the Lesser Mysteries may have only been allowed to enter the Greater Mysteries in the fall of the following year. Nevertheless, initiation involved long wait and preparation, including several preliminary animal sacrifices (Cosmopoulos, 2015).

Panagiotis Karderinis, Archaeological site of Eleuisis, 2020.

During the procession to Eleusis along the Sacred Way at the Greater Mysteries, which lasted nine days, some of the rituals performed were associated with the god Iacchus, who was perhaps connected to the figure of Dionysus (Jiménez San Cristóbal, 2012). Another important religious festival, the Dionysia, held in Attica every spring, has led to the emergence of the theatre (Levi, 1986). Comparing these two traditions, which included certain experiences associated with the reconstruction of mythological reality, it is important to stress the semantic division of them: while the experience of the participation in the Eleusinian Mysteries presupposed a seemingly genuine contact with the divine (Wasson, Ruck & Hoffman, 1978), the traditions of the Dionysia were based on an act, which has become the still existing definition of theatrical action.

This tradition is completely reimagined and rebuilt in the productions of the Antwerp artist Jan Fabre, who blurs the boundaries between the imaginary and the reality, making the experience of going to the theatre not an entertainment, but rather hard work. The amount work is sometimes overwhelming, such in the 24-hour production of Mount Olympus (Fabre, 2015), which requires great sacrifices on the part of the audience ranging from time and comfort to intellectual and emotional involvement. The intensity, pressure and provocative corporality of the image is intended to eventually lead to the “purification” practiced in the ancient mystical tradition (Moore, 1916). Another production referring to ancient mythology Resurrexit Cassandra (Fabre, 2019) is the solo performance of Stella Höttler, balancing on the verge of human and theatrical tragedy, hysteria and meditation, ephemerality and proximity to nature. Here classical theatre is completely sacrificed to its mythological ancestors, the heroes of antiquity, who come to life in a ritual action, in which the viewer can decide to participate or not.

Wonge Bergmann, Performance of Jan Fabre's Resurrexit Cassandra, 2019.

The Antwerp tg STAN too works with the ancient texts, proclaiming the actor as a co-author of the play and allowing the action to take on new forms with each appearance of the troupe on stage. Mythology here also, albeit in a different form, acquires corporality and living breath, existing not only on the stage, but among the audience. It follows them into everyday life, relieving itself of narrative duties and returning to the sphere of subconscious. Terrible, quivering, sensual and emotional women of antiquity in Les Antigones (tg STAN, 2003) and Klytaimnḗstra (tg STAN, 2022) together with other heroes of the past stop acting and begin living in the same space with the viewer, like a passerby or a mirror.

The cyclical nature of creative and spiritual searches is not tied to a specific geography, and two striking examples of the Belgian theatrical scene function here rather as markers of a new and drastic turn in the history of performative art that has acquired its new form over the past century. With various methods, the stage directors take the viewer beyond the framework of formal theatrical relations, into a meditative area reminiscent of ancient ritual practices and allowing viewers to find themselves and their personal meanings in this area.


Cosmopoulos M.B. (2015). Bronze Age Eleusis and the Origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries. U.S.: Cambridge University Press.

Daniels, V.; Devièse, T.; Hacke, M.; Higgitt, C. (2014). "Technological insights into madder pigment production in antiquity". British Museum Technical Research Bulletin (8), London: Archetype Publications, pp. 13-28.

Eliade, M. (1978). “A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries”. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 290-301.

Graves, R. (1964). “Difficult Questions, Easy Answer”. N.Y.: Doubleday, pp. 106-107.

“Homeric Hymn to Demeter”, Translated by Gregory Nagy

Jiménez San Cristóbal, A. I. (2012). “Iacchus in Plutarch”. Plutarch in the Religious and Philosophical Discourse of Late Antiquity, Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, pp. 123-135.

Kerényi, K. (1967). “Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter”. N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Levi, P. “Greek Drama”. (1986). The Oxford History of the Classical World. Boardman, J.; Griffin, J.; Murray, O. (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 177-213.

Moore, C. H. (1916). Religious Thought of the Greeks. L.: Harvard University Press, Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, pp. 40-73.

Murray, G. (1978). "Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy". Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mylonas, G. E. (1961). “Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries”. N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Parker, R. “Greek Religion”. (1986). The Oxford History of the Classical World. Boardman, J.; Griffin, J.; Murray, O. (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 306-329.

Smith, H. (1964). “Do Drugs Have Religious Import?” The Journal of Philosophy, 61(18), pp. 517–530.

Wasson, R.; Ruck, C.; Hofmann, A. (1978). “The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries”, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition, 2008. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Wesemann, A.; Ulvaeus, M. (1997). “Jan Fabre: Belgian Theatre Magician”. TDR, 41(4), pp. 41–62.

Winner, M.; Coliva, A.; Schütze, S. (1998). "Ratto di Proserpina" [Abduction of Proserpina]. Bernini scultore: la nascita del barocco in casa Borghese [The Sculptor Bernini: the Birth of Baroque in the House of Borghese]. Rome: Edizioni de Luca.

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Eugenia Ivanova

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