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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries.

Wasson, R. Gordon; Ruck, Carl A.P.; Hofmann, Albert (1978).
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

ISBN: 0-15-625279-1 paperback

Description: Paperback, 126 pages.

Contents: Foreword, 6 chapters.

Excerpt(s): We can even find evidence that Greek wine sometimes was hallucinogenic. At the Anthesteria, a Dionysian festival that was not part of the Mysteries but which nevertheless bore some relationship to the ceremonies at Agrai, 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, whose 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. Still more explicit is the scene with which the Wasps begins, for there two slaves attempt to escape their misery by drinking a potion called Sabazios, who was a Thracian analogue of Dionysus: 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. ...

Certain aspects of this herbalist lore are particularly pertinent to the ceremonies at Agrai and to the worship of the god Dionysus. Psychotropic plants were apparently related to particular animals that were thought to guard the plant and personify its spiritual powers. Thus, for example, Dionysus had taurine manifestations. The gathering of plants was a hunt and the plant itself, both as the child of earth and as the source of ecstatic possession, had a sexual identity necessitating some form of erotic mimesis. (pages 93-94)

The Eleusinian traditions that we have examined clearly indicate that the two levels of the Mysteries were both involved with psychotropic herbalism, each with a plant related to the other as brother to brother in a pattern that balanced destruction with its complement, the redemption of human life and society through the arts of cultivation. It was the grain, ceremoniously gathered in the Rarian plain, that presented the ultimate mediation with the wild and deadly bulbous plant hunted at Agrai. These two plants, the winter bulb and the toxin that was linked either physically or symbolically to the barley of Triptolemeus, induced the ineffable experiences and visions that were the essence of the Eleusinian initiation.

Cultivated grain, the symbol of the Eleusinian compact with the forces of the chthonic world, was thought to be unlike other plants in that it easily reverted to a more primitive form if it was improperly grown in the wrong conditions. This primitive form was aira, 'darnel' or Lolium temulentum. ... Lolium, however, as the weed amidst the harvest, not only represented the renascent primordial form predating cultivation, but it also signified the delicate balance that must exist between the staff of life and the irrational ecstasy that brought the maiden into the keeping of her chthonic lord; for Lolium is commonly infested with a parasitic fungoid growth, ergot, the sclerotium of Claviceps purpurea or 'rust' named erysibe in Greek by the same metaphor of reddening corruption. Barley, the Eleusinian grain, was thought to be particularly prone to this infection and it would have been quite evident how continually the cultivated grain was threatened by the wilder form with its infectious corruption. Demeter, herself, had the epithet Erysible, as though her gift of grain could exist only through the aversion of the darker persona that was her own and its antithesis.

The ancient Greeks were quite aware of the psychotropic properties of aira. Since Dr. Hofmann has shown us that Lolium itself has no pharmacological activity, the ancient traditions about aira or thyaros, the 'plant of frenzy,' as it was also called, must be understood as indicating an awareness of the psychotropic properties of ergot itself. Aristotle, for example, considered aira a somniferent causing a heaviness analogous to the effect of certain wines. We can know, moreover, that he was speaking of the ergot that grew on the aira in Greece, for Theophrastus tells us that the aira in Sicily differed from that of Greece in lacking such psychotropic properties. In Latin, too, we have specific testimony of Lolium's hallucinogenic activity, for a character in a Plautine comedy tells someone that he must have been eating lolium since he sees things that are not there. Ovid, too, mentions the plant's effect upon the eyesight and Pliny records that bread made from flour contaminated with lolium caused vertigo. Greek farmers customarily removed the aira from the cultivated grain by using a sieve-like implement called the airapinon or 'aira-drinker,' a word that was apparently a folk metaphor for the blear-eyed drunkard intoxicated on aira. In Roman times in Asia and Greece, bath attendants would drive their loitering clients home by drugging them with the steaming fumes of aira.

We may surmise that at Eleusis the initiates partook of this drug that so obviously threatened to spread its corruption of primitivism and chthonic possession from the worthless wild seed aira onto the cultivated harvest of barley, upon which mankind depended for life. In this communion, they would have shared in the earth-mother's ancient passion, her loss of the maiden and the burial of the seed; with appropriate pageantry, as the candidates spent the Mystery night huddled together within the initiation hall, life was reclaimed from its chthonic captivity and they all shared in the joy of a rebirth that reconfirmed the metaphysical compact with the sources of life in the dark realm of death. Upon this compact depended the entire civilized community and its institutions for their continuance. We should note, moreover, that ergot's obstetric properties were recognized in antiquity and would have lent further appropriateness to the drug's usage in such a pageant of deliverance. Our conclusions about the role of aira or erysible in the Mystery ceremony is further strengthened by their absence from all mythological involvement: this can be seen as a result of the Eleusinian taboo inasmuch as the other common source of ergot, Paspalum distichum, is rich in ancient lore. ...

We can do no more than guess at the identity of the drug at the Lesser Mystery, but certain aspects of Dionysian symbolism suggest that the winter bulb may have been a metaphor or analogue for another plant that also seemed to grow suddenly from an egg-like bulb within the cold earth. This plant may have been the mushroom or mykes, the untamable fungoid sibling to the ergot of the grain harvest. Mykes resembles the word mykema, the roaring of a bull or of thunder, a pun that perhaps derives from the syllabary of the Mycenaen-Minoan period, in which the 'mu' syllable would have been written by the pictogram of a bull's head. The pun is most explicitly presented in a fragment of a fifth-century tragedy where the poet seems to have said, if the text can be trusted, that the land 'roared with mushroom bellowing.' The verse has been thought to be part of the poet's tragedy about Perseus, who was said to have founded the city of Mycenae at the place where he picked a mushroom, a tradition that indicates a folk etymology for Mycenae (or Mykenai) from mykes. 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 that is the fruit of the sacred tree. Here too traditions associated that decapitation with the mykema 'bellowing' sound that was said to have accompanied the 'queen' Medusa's ordeal in losing her head and simultaneously giving birth to a son and a flying horse, who was the source of transport and inspiration.

Such bellowing of bulls and of the thunder that shakes the earth is a common motif in the descriptions of the place where maenadic women enacted their mad rituals. ...

Dionysus himself had been conceived by a sister of Agave when she was struck by a bolt of lightning. This manner of conception from lightning was also thought to be the source of mushrooms because of their sudden appearance after rain. With the cult name of Bromios, Dionysus was called the 'thunderer' or 'roarer' and both his mother Semele and a kind of mushroom had the same epithet relating them to the thunderbolt.

The mykes, furthermore, because of its phalloid shape as well as its etymological derivation from the idea of 'mucus,' was an obvious metaphor for the phallos, the prominent emblem of the god Dionysus. The phallos metaphor occurs in what may be significant passage in Aristophanes' Wasps, where the comedian, by a complex series of obscene actions and puns, climaxes a scene involving the penis as 'lamp wick,' which was also called mykes, by noting its damp condition after intercourse as a presage of rain, an event that will favor the growth of some unnamed winter crop. Since only the cap of certain psychotropic mushrooms ordinarily is eaten, it is also suggestive that the mushroom's stipe was metaphorically called a thyrsos, the hollow staff into which an herbalist stuffed the plants that were gathered.

These observations, of course, cannot prove beyond a doubt that one of Dionysus' botanic transformations was some kind of mushroom or that the winter bulb of the Lesser Mystery was actually such a fungus. It has often been assumed, however, that the Greeks, both ancient and modern, have been as unaware of mushrooms as the scholars who have studied or lived in their country. This is not true. We can find mention in ancient authors of specific psychotropic properties for mushrooms, in particular one, associated with the oak tree, that was reputed to induce clairvoyance. Furthermore, stone grave markers in the shape of mushrooms have been found at various Greek sites, some of them as early as the archaic period. If we bear in mind the taurine manifestations of the mykes, there is even perhaps particular significance to a gold Mycenaen signet ring that depicts a divine epiphany as the seventh item in a series of bull heads in a scene showing women presenting flowers to a goddess seated beneath the sacred tree. Today, species of hallucinogenic mushrooms can be found in Greece. They are called 'crazy mushrooms' instead of poisonous and the country people recognize that they inebriate, as they say, like wine, although in an entirely different way.

It is even possible that the ancient Greeks suspected that wine was produced, as in fact it is, by the activity of a fungus, for the poet Nicander called the mushroom an 'evil fermentation of the earth.' The other world, in fact, must clearly have been the origin of all fungoid growths, for Hades was a place covered with mould, the parasitic growth that is itself a sign of the resurrection that lies just beyond decay and putrefaction.

The symmetry of the two Mysteries would thus be perfect, for the winter bulb and the rusting grain were both the god whose gift to society was the symposium, the institution of the communal drinking of his wine. In the winter he had been born to play the ancient role of his mother's abductor. By her primordial descent as the sacred bride into the nether realm, death first came into existence and the pathways between the worlds were opened. At Eleusis the initiates received the beatific visions of her glorious resurrection with the son conceived beneath the earth as they too joined in a communion upon the body of the lord with purple-blue hair, thereby renewing the balance that brought abundance and life to the civilized world. Henceforth, they would forever die with more confidence after a life of greater assurance for good luck and prosperity as the familiars of Ploutos himself. (pages 114 - 123)

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