Right up there with Jung and Joseph Campbell is a man named Carl Kerenyi. An exile from his native Hungary, Kerenyi wrote extensively on Greek mythology and played an important role in its revival. Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, fourth in a series of related books, is his attempt to reconstruct and interpret what really went on in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Like Jung and Campbell, Kerenyi writes from the perspective of psychology and humanism. At the same time, he distances his view from that of Jung in his introduction. Although Kerenyi uses the term "archetype" he does not mean it in the full Jungian sense. He speaks rather of "archetypal facts of human existence" (p. xxxii). The meaning of this is about as difficult to pin down as that of Jung's archetypes, but seems to refer in this case to the inescapable fact that all humans have mothers, and that mother-daughter relationships bear certain basic resemblances. It seems to communicate an appeal to human universals, without relying on the collective unconscious on the one hand or existentialist philosophies on the other. From this perspective, he attempts to recover what went on in the mysteries.
There is little in his reconstruction that is conclusive, and to an extent he is upfront about this. He says "My book should act as the kykeon of Eleusis in all probability did: as a stimulant" (p. xx). In other words, he intends to suggest and inspire, not to declare fact. This must be kept in mind by the reader, as Kerenyi has a slippery way of posing arguments. For example, in chapter two he concludes that the ineffable secret (arrheton) of Eleusis was a certain goddess, and the only evidence he provides at the time is the epithet "ineffable maiden" (arrhetos koura), which only she possesses. Kerenyi then defers further evidence till later, saying "This becomes comprehensible only as we gradually penetrate to the core of the Mysteries" (p. 26). But he never does put forward any more evidence, and the mere repitition of his thesis, stated in no uncertain terms over and over, threatens to lull the reader into agreement. This is a shaky foundation indeed for one of the core elements of his reconstruction. It is necessary to bear in mind this matter of style to avoid being misled.
What is most impressive about Kerenyi's Eleusis is the vast range of material pulled together. The entire gamut of literature, vase paintings, numismatics, and archaeology comes together to form this picture of Eleusis. Often it is quite difficult to discern what that picture is exactly, but nevertheless there are stimulants for research on every page that would take a lifetime for the amateur Classicist to accumulate. This is the greatest strength of the book.
A much lesser strength is the reconstruction itself. Kerenyi's conclusions are based on a wide variety of disjointed material, lined up and juxtaposed in interesting ways but hardly connected into a logical argument. Truthfully, I cannot put any faith at all in his hypotheses, except by recalling that they are intended as "stimulants." They do inspire, to be sure.
This book is recommendable to anyone looking to expand their Eleusinian horizons beyond the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. There are so many obscure and specialist references presented here that one cannot help but benefit. Those looking for clear, reliable answers will be frustrated, while those hungry for directions for contemplation will get their fill.