The Psychedelic Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Greece
Eleusis was a religious cult of ancient Greece, situated about twenty kilometres north west of Athens near the Isthmus of Corinth. In the Classical period, from as early as 1700 BCE, right up until the Roman Empire, Eleusis was the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries. These were sacred rituals revolving around Demeter (mother goddess of the grain) and her daughter Kore/Persephone. The ritual seems to have given the hope for life after death for those initiated. The traditional outlook at that time was that after death one would cross The Styx, the river of the Underworld. The Eleusinian Mysteries gave Greeks hope of a better life in Hades. These Mysteries were considered to be one of the most important in ancient times and were a major festival during the Hellenic period. The rites, ceremonies, and beliefs were secret, but appear to have involved sacred visions of the Afterlife. It is generally accepted by scholars that the initiates used a potion to induce a psychedelic experience.
One line of thought by modern scholars has been that these Mysteries were intended “to elevate man above the human sphere into the divine and to assure his redemption by making him a god and so conferring immortality upon him.” (1).
The only requirements for initiation were a lack of “blood guilt”, in other words having never committed murder, and not being a “barbarian” (unable to speak Greek). Men, women and even slaves were allowed initiation (2).
There were four categories of people who participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries:
1. Priests, priestesses and hierophants
2. Initiates, undergoing the ceremony for the first time.
3. Others who had already participated at least once. They were eligible for the fourth category.
4. Those who had attained epopteia, who had learned the secrets of the greatest mysteries of Demeter.
Much of the information about The Eleusinian Mysteries was never written down. For example, only initiates knew what the kiste, a sacred chest, and the kalathos, a lidded basket, contained. The contents, like so much about the Mysteries, are unknown. However, one researcher writes that this Cista (“kiste”) contained a golden mystical serpent, egg, a phallus and possibly also seeds sacred to Demeter (3).
There were two Eleusinian Mysteries, the Greater and the Lesser. According to Thomas Taylor:
…the dramatic shows of the Lesser Mysteries occultly signified the miseries of the soul while in subjection to the body, so those of the Greater obscurely intimated, by mystic and splendid visions, the felicity of the soul both here and hereafter, when purified from the defilements of a material nature and constantly elevated to the realities of intellectual [spiritual] vision.
According to Plato, “the ultimate design of the Mysteries … was to lead us back to the principles from which we descended, … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual [spiritual] good”
The ancient calendar was different from the Gregorian. On the 14th Boedromion, the Greater Mysteries began by bringing the sacred objects from Eleusis to the Eleusinion at the base of the Acropolis. On the 15th, the priest carried out sacrifices and on the 16th celebrants began cleansing rituals, washing themselves in the sea at Phaleron. On the 17th, participants celebrated the Epidauria. It was a “festival within a festival” in honour of Asklepios, god of healing, and his daughter Hygieia.
The procession to Eleusis began on the 19th, and started at the Kerameikos. This is the ancient cemetery in Athens (well worth a visit – lovely museum – take a picnic and sit amongst the ruins!). The celebrants would walk along the Sacred Way, which is still visible. At one point they would shout obscenities in commemoration of an old woman who had made Demeter laugh as she mourned the loss of her daughter Persephone.
On reaching Eleusis there was a day of fasting, again commemorating Demeter’s fasting as she searched for Persephone. The fast was broken when the celebrants drank a potion called the kykeon, and on 20th and 21st they would enter the Telesterion. This was the most secretive part of the Mysteries and those who had been initiated were forbidden ever to speak of the events that took place in the Telesterion. The penalty was death.
Some believe the priest revealed the visions which were of life after death, but others believe the experiences must have been internal and caused by ingesting a hallucinogen as part of the kykeon mixture. We can certainly find evidence that Greek wine sometimes was hallucinogenic. At the Anthesteria, a Dionysian festival that was not part of the Mysteries but was similar to it, specific mention was made of a drug in the wine that was responsible for opening the graves and allowing the departed spirits to return to Athens for a banquet. Its hallucinatory nature can be seen on many of the choes vases depicting scenes from the festival. In fact, someone in Aristophanes’Acharnians wishes his enemy a bad trip at the Anthesteria by hoping that he encounters a mad hallucination. Wasps also begins with two slaves attempting to escape their misery by drinking a potion called Sabazios, a Thracian analogue of Dionysus (god of wine, R. Bacchus): it causes them to experience a so-called “nodding Persian sleep”, during which they see strange things. Furthermore, such well known hallucinogens as mandragora and henbane were often compared to wine with respect to the drunkenness they induced.
Whatever else happened at the Eleusinian Mysteries, the use of psychotropic hallucinogens seems to have been a definite part of it, with visions inducing an ecstatic spiritual experience for the initiate. There are several theories about what the kykeon might have consisted of. Some have suggested that, as the ritual was in honour of Demeter, it might have been partly made of Lolium (or ‘aira’). Improperly grown in the wrong conditions, it seems this cultivated grain reverted to a more primitive form which was also susceptible to the growth of the ergot fungus. Ergot poisoning can cause very serious effects, including seizures, spasms, mania, psychosis and hallucinations. In severe cases, even death.
The Lesser Mysteries seem to have been linked to the ingestion of mushrooms. Mushrooms, or mykes (from where we get the word mycology),are also linked to the myth about Perseus who founded Mycenae in the spot where he picked a mushroom. A Greek amphora from southern Italy depicts a variant of the same foundation myth in which Perseus’ decapitation of the Gorgon, Medusa, is equated with his harvesting of a mushroom. Traditional folklore has associated the decapitation of Medusa with giving birth to a son, Chrysaor, and a flying horse, Pegasus – symbolic of perhaps inspiration and transportation. Chrysaor’s name means “he who has a golden armament”. He was depicted as a golden sword-wielding giant.
The political and military leader, Alcibiades, caused a huge scandal one year by stealing the kykeon and having a party with his friends! The conclusion being that the experience was both pleasant and very much sought after. Many wrote about the joyful and revealing holy experience the potion induced. Both Gordon Wasson and Robert Graves believe the kykeon contained psychedelic mushrooms, whilst Albert Hofmann believes ergot to be the psychoactive ingredient in the mixture, suggesting that the ancient Greeks could have made a safe psychedelic beverage with an aqueous infusion of ergot thereby separating the water soluble alkaloids from more dangerous peptide ones. After more research, he concluded that paspalum (a wild grass in the Mediterranean) and ergot were the most likely combination, rather than barley (Hofmann 1994). He goes on to say that barley may have been a nutrient ingredient and mint used to settle the stomach, as ergot preparations induce nausea. Both barley and mint are mentioned in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. However, after much self-testing of various different concoctions, all those that included any derivative of ergot, produced unpleasant side effects. This was not at all in keeping with the description of the kykeon! The Homeric Hymn describes the initiation experience at Eleusis thus: “Blissful is he among men on Earth who has beheld that!”. This description is verified by Pindar and Cicero.
Terence McKenna has pointed out that both Demeter and Persephone were associated with the poppy and that perhaps opium was an ingredient in the kykeon, reducing rather than enhancing its effect. Many agree with both McKenna and Graves that psilocybin mushrooms were also most likely an ingredient in the potion. We will probably never know, unless further archeological or textual evidence is found to tell us more.
As an aside, do please be extremely careful with experimentation of psychedelics. The Eleusinian kykeon recipe seems to have been a tried, tested and very safe concoction which was used for centuries without any deaths being recorded. That’s not to say that there wasn’t any. Whatever it was made of, the ingredients were obviously very carefully measured. It was also most likely deemed as safe. Many people took part year after year, enjoying the religious experience it brought them. Nevertheless, it was a respected potion, as all living things on this planet should be. It was not recreational but spiritual in nature.
Until next week. Your friend, A.D.
References and Further Reading
Bigwood, J., Ott, J., Thompson, C. & Neely, P. 1979 Entheogenic effects of ergonovine. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, Vol. 11 (1-2) Jan-Jun 1979(1 47-1 49)
Casti, J.L. 1990 Paradigms Lost: Tackling the unanswered mysteries of modern science. Avon Books, New York
Cole, J.R. & al. 1977 Paspalum staggers: Isolation and identification of tremorgenic metabolites from sclerotia of Claviceps paspali. J. Agric Food Chem., Vol.25, No. 5, (1197-1201)
Craig, J.R. & Metze, L.P. 1979 Methods of Psychological Research. W.B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia
Foley, H.P. (Ed.) 1994 The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, commentary, and interpretive essays. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
Gallagher, R.T., Leutwiler, A. & al. 1980 Paspalinine, a tremorgenic metabolite from Claviceps paspali, Stevens et Hall. Tetrahedron Letters, Vol. 21, Pergamon Press Ltd. (235-238)
Goldhill, S.: Greece; in: Willis, R. (Ed.) 1993 World Mythology. Simon & Schuster, London
Graves, R. 1992 The Greek Myths (Combined edition). Penguin Books, London
Hofmann, A. 1983 LSD-My Problem Child: Reflections on sacred drugs, mysticism, and science. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles
Hofmann, A. 1994 personal communication
Kerenyi, K. 1962 De Mysterien von Eleusis. Rhein-Verlag, Zurich
McKenna, T.1992 Food of the Gods: The search for the original tree of knowledge. Rider, London (available online here)
Ott, J. 1993 Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic drugs, their plant sources and history. Natural Products Co Kennewick, WA
Ott, J. 1994 personal communication
Ott, J. & Neely, P. 1980 Entheogenic (hallucinogenic) effects of methylergonovine. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, Vol. 12(2) Apr-Jun 1980 (165-166)
Rätsch, Ch. 1992 The Dictionary of Sacred and Magical Plants. Prism-Unity, Bridport, Dorset
Ripinsky-Naxon, M. 1993 The Nature of Shamanism: Substance and function of a religious metaphor. State University of New York Press, Albany
Ruck, C.A.P.1981 Mushrooms and philosophers. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 4, (179-205); 1983 The offerings from the Hyperboreans. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 8, (177-207)
Sankar, D.V.S. 1975 LSD-A Total Study. PJD Publications, Westbury, NY
Sheridan, Ch.L. 1976 Fundamentals of Experimental Psychology (2nd ed.). Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York
Shulgin, A. 1994 personal communication
Shulgin, A.T. & Shulgin, A. 1991 Pihkal: A chemical love story. Transform Press, Berkeley 1993 Barriers to Research; in: Rätsch, Ch. & Baker, J.R. (Eds.): Jahrbuch für Ethnomedizin und Bewusstseinsforschung 2. Verlag fur Wissenschaft und Bildung, Berlin
Springer, J.P. & Clardy, J. 1980 Paspaline and paspalicine, two indole-mevalonate metabolites from Claviceps paspali. Tetrahedron Letters, Vol. 21, Pergamon Press Ltd. (231-234)
Valendid, Ivan 1993 Mistery elevzinskih misterijev. Razgledi 18(1001), 30f
Wasson, R.G., Hofmann, A. & Ruck, C.A.P. 1978 The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the secret of the mysteries. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York
(1) Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion “The Religion of Eleusis” New York: Columbia University Press, 1947. pages 42–64
(2) Smith, William. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, London, 1875.
(3) Taylor, Thomas. Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries. Lighting Source Publishers, 1997. p. 117
(4) ibid p.49.