Davos Pilgrimage or Market?

“The force that drives the water through the rocks, Drives my red blood”

Last week I took a phone call from the PA of a Gulf Sheikh. “His Highness is wondering, will he see you in Davos?” The PA was referring to the annual ‘pilgrimage’ of political and commercial leaders who cram into the otherwise sleepy alpine town once a year for a huge jamboree of talking, eating and merry-making, and not a little horse-trading. A hub for capitalism, although not necessarily for either democracy or equality, might we think of Davos as the ‘Pilgrimage of Mammon’, or the ‘Feast of Cash’?

This annual human migration in the interests of securing the future is not new. It’s not even old, it’s ancient. And it’s not trivial: Gray Whales make a seasonal migration of up to 12,000 miles and Painted Lady butterflies of around 9,000 miles. These species have been around in one form or another for 50 million and 130 million years respectively. So it seems to be helpful.

Although homo sapiens appeared much more recently, over the course of millennia, our species has evolved a myriad of rituals that frame the same instinct for seasonal migration. One of the oldest of all pilgrimage festivals took place at Eleusis, about a day’s travel on foot from Athens. Thought to date back to the late bronze age, around 3,600 years ago, the Eleusinian Mysteries centred around initiation into an ancient agrarian cult founded on an early myth about the origins of agriculture, in which the dormant growing period of winter is explained as a consequence of some rather unfortunate events involving Persephone, Zeus and Demeter.

The cycle of initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries appears to have been complex and protracted, requiring many stages of admission into successively deeper layers of secrecy. (Visitors to Davos might want to bear that in mind when deciding whether to come back next year). In the case of the Eleusinian Mysteries, what kept initiates coming back was the promise of a more congenial afterlife – although the ritual consumption of kykeon, an intoxicating drink may have added to the appeal.

Looking in through my screen at this great cult festival in Davos I cannot decide whether to be scornful or wistful. Does the future really depend on what happens here? I turn to Homer, the master storyteller for a clue. His hymn to Demeter concludes

“Happy is he among men on earth who has seen these mysteries, but whoever is uninitiated [..] will have no share in these good things once they die, down below in the dank realms of mist.”

Oh dear, perhaps I should book for next year’s World Economic Forum after all!

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