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July 4, 2024 11 mins

Everything is Greek to us--including these two curious tales on offer today.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Menke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild.

Speaker 2 (00:12):
Our world is full of the unexplainable, and if history
is an open book, all of these amazing tales are
right there on display, just waiting for us to explore.
Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities. When there's snow in

(00:37):
the forecast, many kids hope that school will be canceled.
Some kids do anything they can to increase the chance
of snow. They may bang pots and pans, or wear
their pajamas inside out. Of course, it's unlikely that these
small rituals will have any effect, but they are a
fun way to make a wish about the weather. And
while today it's common for people to wish for enough

(00:58):
snow to cancel school, these of customs go all the
way back to ancient times, but back then such customs
were a bit more trying. Every fall in ancient Greece,
a strange event took place in the city of Eleusis,
just outside Athens. The event lasted nine days and consisted
of a series of rituals to honor Demeter, the goddess

(01:18):
of harvest, and Earth's fertility Now. According to the myth,
Demeter's daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and brought to
the underworld. Demeter embarked on a harrowin search for her daughter,
and after nine days they were reunited in Eleusis. Thousands
of people participated in the rituals despite this, though little
is known about what actually took place there, but here's

(01:40):
what we do know. On the first day, people gathered
at the Agora, the marketplace located within the Acropolis and Athens,
and once there, a magistrate made a welcome speech. In
this speech, the magistrate explained that only certain people could participate.
After the Greco Persian Wars, no one who had ever
committed murder was allowed to join. This was the first

(02:01):
sign that moral purity was of utmost importance during this event,
and the theme continued from there, and those who were
allowed to participate made their way down to the el Eusinian.
This was a sanctuary dedicated to Demeter and Persephony. The
el Usinian was comprised of three terraces. It was built
mainly from limestone, and grand columns stood at the front

(02:22):
and the back of the building. It was a grand
site before the participants could enter the sanctuary, though they
were required to wash their hands. On the second day,
the participants walked together to the nearby gulf. They brought
a small pig with them and bathed it in the
water there. Then they bathed themselves, and afterward they returned
to the city and sacrificed the pig. They likely sacrificed

(02:44):
other animals as well. The third and fourth days involved
more bathing or purification rituals and more sacrifices, and the
fifth day is when the participants departed Athens and headed
for Eleusis. This was a fourteen mile trek known as
the Grand Procession. The route they took was called the
Sacred Way. Priestesses of Demeter and Persephone led the group

(03:06):
while carrying sacred baskets. Most people journeyed on foot, but
the wealthy got to ride in carriages.

Speaker 1 (03:12):
How nice for them, right. One interesting thing is that
women and enslaved people were allowed to participate in this
event as long as they adhere to the other rules
set out. After the participants crossed a particular bridge, they
paused their travels to adorn themselves with ribbons. At sunset,
they continued until they reached the river, and there they
were met by a group of men whose faces were covered.

(03:34):
The men yelled insults at the people, and they mocked them,
and the people were expected to humbly endure this. Now
the sixth, seventh, and eight days mainly involved fasting. Occasionally
the participants drank certain wines or other libations that were
significant to Demeter's story, but at some point they were
ushered into a pitch black temple. This was the temple

(03:56):
of Demeter, known as the Telestian. The Telesphere was the
largest inclosed building in all of ancient Greece. It could
fit thousands of people, and without any fires inside, it
was pitch black. The participants had to find their way
to the front of the temple by simply feeling around
in the dark, and this was no easy task either,
considering that there was no light and thousands of other

(04:19):
bodies bumping into each other. And the goal was simple
to recreate the feelings of disorientation and fear that Demeter
experienced while searching for her daughter. And when all the
participants finally found their way, they were given light. To
their surprise, they stood before a small stage and there
priests and priestesses performed a pageant about the myth of

(04:39):
demeonter and persephony. It's possible that maybe the viewers also
sipped on hallucinogenic cocktails during the performance. On the ninth day,
the people returned to Athens. By now they were fully
initiated into a cult of people who had gone through
the same rituals they had. Only these people knew the
full truth of what took place during those nine days.

(05:00):
The event was perhaps the most secret ritual of its time.
Of course, some people did speak about their experience, though
just not in great detail. Many claim that the rituals
completely changed them and even removed any fear of death
they once had. This is ironic because speaking about what
happened during the event was punishable by death. Scotlars today

(05:22):
referred to this mystifying event as the Illusinian mysteries, And
although it carried on for at least a thousand years,
we still don't know exactly what drove people's devotion to
the ritual, other than their need for a good harvest.
So the next time you harbor a secret desire for
the weather to cooperate with your hopes and dreams, be
thankful that our culture leans on a groundhog's shadow and

(05:44):
not a pitch black temple to deliver a bit of hope.
History is full of memorable pranks, but one practical joke

(06:05):
in particular stands out for bringing about the collapse of
the world's oldest democracy. You see, on the morning of
June seventh of four point fifteen BCE, Athenian citizens woke
up to a startling discovery. During the night, someone had
gone throughout the city defacing statues of the god Hermes.
The vandal had smashed their stone faces in and hacked

(06:27):
off their formerly prominent Genitalia panic, of course spread. The
mass castration was a terribly unlucky omen, partly because the
statues were supposed to ward off evil, then partly because
Hermes was celebrated as the patron of travelers. The Athenian
fleet was getting ready to set sail for Sicily, where
they planned to attack the city of Syracuse. By mutilating

(06:49):
the statues, the perpetrators spooked the superstitious Athenian soldiers, undermining
their resolve at a critical moment. But who was behind
the attack, Well, Victually, everyone thought the work was done
by spies trying to sabotage Athens. On the eve of
its military campaign. But soon enough, suspicion fell on a
figure much closer to home. His name was Alcibiades, a

(07:12):
young politician and general who was supposed to lead the
expedition to Sicily. He was handsome, charming, brilliant, and obscenely wealthy,
not to mention a notorious philanderer and a party animal.
As a young man, he'd been a favorite student of Socrates,
and people still told stories about the philosopher dragging this
pupil away from brothels. More recently, though, Alcibiades had developed

(07:36):
a reputation for drunkenly interrupting sacred religious rights. But at
the end of the day, the big question is was
he actually guilty of vandalizing those statues, and centuries later,
it's impossible to say for sure. Maybe he did it
out of a misguided hope that the expedition would be postponed,
or maybe his political rivals did it just trying to

(07:57):
get rid of him. Whatever the case, he never got
the chance to defend himself. His enemies just waited until
his fleet departed, and then they tried him without himself
being present. They quickly found him guilty and sentenced him
to be executed upon his return. Unsurprisingly, the news made
Alcibides a lot less excited about carrying through with his mission.

(08:17):
He deserted his post and fled to the enemy city
of Sparta, trading military secrets in exchange for sanctuary. He
even advised the Spartans to intervene in the attack on Syracuse,
thwarting the expedition that he had once been in charge of.
It seemed like Alcibides had come out on top, but
his mischievous nature soon got him in a lot of

(08:38):
trouble again. He was exposed for having an affair with
the Spartan queen and promptly ran out of the city.
By this point, though, he had made enemies with two
of the greatest powers in Greece, so he fled to
Asia Minor, taking refuge in a Persian outpost. The Persian
governor there hated virtually all Greeks, but Alcibides somehow managed

(08:58):
to charm him and even helped broker a tenuous peace
deal between Persia and Athens. He probably could have lived
there comfortably forever, but the trickster was homesick. He longed
to return to Athens and decided that the swiftest way
to do so would be to get rid of the
government that had once condemned him to death, and so,
through some savvy political maneuvering, al Sabides masterminded a coup

(09:21):
against the Athenian government, replacing its democratic assembly with a
council of four hundred oligarchs. All charges against him were dropped.
He returned to Athens, where he was lauded as a
hero and given absolute control over the army. His revenge
could only have been more complete if he had ruled
the city himself, and he almost did. You see, Alcabides

(09:43):
became so popular that the Athenian citizens wanted to see
him installed as a dictator. His rivals managed to avoid
this by sending him off to battle once again, but
he shirked off his duties, leaving the army in the
hands of yet another general while he was visiting some brothels.
This got him kicked out of Athens for a second time, and,
just like before, he fled to Persia, where he was

(10:04):
finally tracked down and killed by Spartan assassins. Meanwhile, the
anti democratic government that he helped put in place was
soon overthrown allowing democracy to return to the city once again.
The trickster Sins had finally caught up with him, and
ultimately little had changed. But for this brief moment, Alcibides
interrupted a system of popular government that had lasted for

(10:26):
almost two centuries. Most scholars today think that he was
the very first man in history to bring down a democracy,
and that makes him a worthy study for anyone interested
in preserving our own At the very least, he's a
great reminder that sometimes liberty dies in the sound of
thunderous laughter. I hope you've enjoyed today's guided tour of

(10:51):
the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts,
or learn more about the show by visiting Curiosities podcast
dot com. The show was created by me Aaron Manke
in partnership with how Stuff Works. I make another award
winning show called Lore, which is a podcast, book series,
and television show, and you can learn all about it

(11:12):
over at Theworldoflore dot com. And until next time, stay curious.

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