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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 World of Classical Myth: Gods and Goddesses; Heroines and Heros

Ruck, C.A.P., & Staples, Danny. (1994).
Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

ISBN: 0-89089-575-9

Description: Paperback, xvi + 366 pages.

Contents: Preface, acknowledgments, 12 chapters divided into 4 parts: 1. Orientation, 2. Transmutations, 3.The Liminal Hero, 4. Liminal Heroines, maps and charts, illustrations, a note about geography, ancillary readings, suggestions for further readings, index.

Note: Not all entheogenic items are cross-listed, so users of the index may want to look up the following: alcohol, Amanita muscaria, barley, datura, entheogen, kykeon, lotus eaters, mushrooms, poppy, narkissos, rust, smoke-herb, and soma.

Excerpt(s): Semiology or semiotics as a method applied to myth refines the linguistic approach and attempts to find the 'words' of its universal language, without regard for what they refer to in individual cultures. For example, mushrooms are mediators, always effecting a reconciliation of whatever binary opposition they are involved in. As hermaphroditic, they mediate male versus female; as cultivatable wild plants, they mediate the wilderness versus civilization; as edible poisons, they mediate life versus death. And so on. Such a function can be noted without speculating upon the cause. (page 4)

As the Mycenaean Greeks imposed their own way of life upon the former female rulers of Mycenae, they even gave the city's name a new interpretation. By a false etymology, they could claim that it was named for their own Indo-European religious traditions, rather than the sisterhood of the Goddess. Along with their deities and other aspects of their culture, the migrators brought with them their ancestral attitudes toward sacred plants. The classification of plants and animals would have been their earliest science. In the botany of foods and medicines, a specific mushroom had special sanctity for the Indo-Europeans and they maintained remembrance of the tradition wherever they migrated, often substituting other plants as surrogates for the original, either because it was no longer easily available in their new lands, or because it better suited their evolving notions of religion or culture. This plant was a mushroom, the fly-agaric or Amanita muscaria. By this new interpretation, Mycenae (Mykenai, in Greek) was named for the mushroom or 'mykes.' The city got its new name when the hero Perseus, a son of Zeus born at that place, refounded it for the Indo-Europeans. That, too, is a story that we will return to later. Other cities that were taken over by the Mycenaean Greeks have similar traditions realigning the former peoples and their religion to the culture of the Indo-Europeans.

Amanita figured in Indo-European shamanism. The mushroom contains mind-altering chemicals that allowed the priest or 'shaman' to escape from the body and commune spiritually with the deities in their celestial domain. Apart from the celestial orientation of their traditional, usually male-dominated shamanism, the mushroom's wild, uncultivatable manner of growth fit the Indo-European nomadic style of life as a special found magical plant, mediating as a sacred drug with other of the Amanitas, that include edible mushrooms, as well as deadly poisonous ones. The thunderbolt of Zeus was itself a mediation between the Father God's realm and earth, as the ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson has shown in demonstrating the wide-spread belief that mushrooms appear where lightning strikes the earth. Amanita was divine food, not something to be indulged in lightly, not something to be profaned. It was the food of the gods, their ambrosia, and nectar was the pressed sap of its juices. (pages 25-26).

Pillar Lady of the Labyrinth

The excavation of Knossos led to further discoveries on Crete and the islands of the Cyclades and elsewhere, from which a clearer notion of the Mother Goddess in the Greek lands has emerged. Since she is the original deity from whom the women on Olympus evolved, through the assimilation of the Minoan religion by the Mycenaean Greeks, it is essential to grasp certain aspects of her symbolism.

... In her new role as a huntress, she was forced to abandon certain aspects of her Minoan identity and made to conform to the nomadic traditions of the Indo-European homeland. From that alien northern environment, she even acquired the reindeer, a hind with golden branching antlers, as her special beast, an animal not native to her own Mediterranean and Anatolian origins. It replaced other animals that were originally associated with her as a Mother Goddess. The hind is an animate manifestation of the power residing in the sacred plant of the ancient Indo-Europeans' shamanism, for Amanita is an inebriating mushroom that the reindeer is fond of grazing upon, and the animal's branching horns, supposedly of the same golden color as Amanita, easily suggest botanic affinities with a magical tree. The hind replaced not only the Goddess's other animals, but also the sacred plants that they represented in her former Minoan shamanism. ...

... She sometimes has her eyes closed, as if dreaming or asleep. Narcosis is the experience in her shamanism, unlike the enlightenment of Zeus, and her special plant is not wild, like Amanita, but a cultivar, in particular, the opium poppy, for which it, too, like Amanita, later has purely symbolic surrogates substituted, for example, the rose (for its similar flower and capsule-like hips) and the pomegranate (whose fruit also resembles the poppy capsule). (pages 30-32)

The olive became the new botanic attribute of Athena, displacing the plants, like poppy, that served in her former Minoan shamanism. The olive represents the evolution toward the culture of the Olympian age. The olive is a weedy growth, sending out many worthless shoots from its spreading roots; these must be repeatedly pruned away, forcing the wild olive to grow into the valuable fruit-bearing tree. Even its fruit, however, is usable only after further human intervention, either pressing the oil from its olives, or soaking the fruits in brine to wash away their bitterness. This olive tree on the Acropolis was claimed to be one of the first ever to grow in Greece; the olive originally was said to have come from the Indo-European homeland of the Hyperboreans-where, actually, it isn't native. The sanctity of the olive derives from its symbolism as a substitute for the sacred plant of the homeland which it commemorates, Amanita, which similarly in Indo-European tradition is 'pressed,' and called, in fact, in the Hindu tradition 'Soma,' the 'Pressed One,' for that act of pressing. The olive, perhaps was even better than the original Amanita, since it is cultivated and has no psychotropic properties for shamanism: the Indo-European tradition was never at ease with the need to depend upon the body to see the deities. (pages 62-63)

Entheogen: (W)oinos or 'Wine'

The drink that symbolizes the two worlds of Dionysus is wine ('woinos,' in ancient Greek). It contained the possessing spirit of 'the god within' it: for this reason, it is appropriately called an entheogen. No other term (like 'drug,' 'hallucinogen,' etc.) is correct or has the right cultural, psychological, or religious connotations: the spirit, for example, need not be chemical, as is the case with the ivy and the olive: and yet the god was felt to be within them; nor need its possession be considered something detrimental, like drugged, hallucinatory, or delusionary: but possibly instead an invitation to knowledge or whatever good the god's spirit had to offer.

The discovery of this drink called woinos was the vehicle that occasioned the god's return from Nysa to claim his Olympian birthright. It was this drink, too, that provided the vehicle for the men of the symposium to access their traditions of myth, the priceless, age-old knowledge that could surface miraculously into consciousness through the dangerous, but controlled irrationality of communal inebriation. It was the drink also that was the vehicle for the recidivist compensatory return to the ancient realm of Nysa through the female hysteria of the maenadic revel. Wine was the mediating vehicle, reconciling past and future, Minoan and Mycenaean traditions, men and women, validating the balanced roles assigned for each in Classical society.

Although we retain the term 'spirit' for the intoxicant in wine, alcohol was not isolated or known as a substance in antiquity. Isolation requires the art of distillation-a procedure that was discovered much later. ... And yet, it had more 'spirit' than any of those. As little as four cups, diluted with water, could exceed the boundary of propriety.

It was, however, recognized in Classical antiquity that fermentation was a fungal growth. It produced heat, and like cooking what would otherwise be raw, it hastened the softening that is characteristic of putrefaction, but controlled it, so that the end result was not like the poisonous moldering of the tomb, but-if not entirely edible-at least, a beneficial inebriant, a transmuted mediation with the chthonic realm of poison and death. As part of this mediation, woinos contained in its mixture not only the ferment from the juice from the grape, but also other entheogens, spirits from other botanical identities of the god, that accrued to him in the course of his evolution from the earlier times of Nysa-the 'bouquet,' as we still call it, of the wine, some purely symbolic, some chemically potent as inebriants. ...

The Indo-Europeans did not originate viticulture, which is not native to their homeland. When they encountered it in their migration, they named the inebriating ferment with the word for their own sacred drink, woinos (etymologically, a common pictograph for a mushroom cap as a spoked wheel). They recognized it as the entheogen of Zeus and of their own traditions of shamanism, the Amanita mushroom and the 'pressed' juice of Soma-but better, since no longer unpredictable and wild, the way it was found amongst the Hyperboreans; as befit their own assimilation of agrarian modes of life, the fungal entheogen was now cultivable. Dionysus became the 'Nysian Zeus,' inseminated upon the Earth-mother Semele by the thunderbolt-which was thought to be the origin for the sudden, unexpected growth of Amanita, thrusting its phalloid fruiting mushroom bodies upwards with a ground-shattering roar of quaking earth, proclaiming its chthonic birth amidst the fallen needles at the base of pines and other such trees, and bellowing like a bull to its awakened sisterhood of cows. Such are the metaphors that resulted from the amalgamation of the Indo-European and Minoan traditions. (pages 81-82)

Dionysus and Ariadne

What the sisterhood prepared the Queen of Athens for in the Temple in the Swamps was the consummation of her sacred marriage to Dionysus. A sacred marriage is a union between someone living and a spirit, a bond between dissimilar creatures, at a magical place, such as the Swamp was, where two worlds come together at a common frontier, a place that is thought of as the 'axis of the universe' or the axis mundi, or the 'threshold' or limen to another world. It is a union between matter and soul, a union between what is living and whatever there is other than this present form of living. ... The sacred marriage often involves an entheogen (either chemical or purely symbolic) as the means for summoning the possessing spirit, and the axis mundi is sometimes thought of as a magical garden, a grove of trees, or a single special tree (the world tree or the cosmic tree), whose fruit is the entheogen. (page 90)

Just as Apollo caught up with her, she was metamorphosed into the laurel or bay tree, which is called daphne after her. Apollo adopted it as his special plant (entheogen). Chewing upon its leaves was supposed to induce a fit of clairvoyant possession, as was repeatedly done ritually by the many priestesses Apollo used as his spiritual brides in the shamanism of his prophetic oracle: for Apollo, as we shall see, was a god of prophecy. Like the werewolf tradition, Apollo's prophetic shamanism appears to derive from his role in both his Lycian and Hyberborean homelands, and it is the fundamental basis for his assimilation into his Hellenic manifestations.

The laurel (Laurus nobilis) contains, in fact, nothing that chemically would be active in inducing such prophetic seizures: it is purely a symbolic commemoration of the entheogens that once figured back in his homelands. Like Athena's olive, the daphne has Hyperborean associations, supposedly first transplanted by Apollo into the Mediterranean world via Thessaly; and like the olive, it is a surrogate for Aminita, the Indo-European sacred mushroom. But like the woinos of Dionysus, it also had Minoan antecedents: for Apollo, these included, as we have already seen, the Dirke Datura and the Lykos wolfsbane. In the assimilation of the two traditions of shamanism, the hysterical shrieks of Apollo's tormented brides became interpreted, not as a message from the chthonic underworld of the Goddess, but a clue to comprehending the mind of Zeus, himself. The fact that the possession was purely spiritual now, without any chemical inducement, made it even more appropriate to the aspirations of Olympian shamanism. (page 103)

Perseus] also was responsible for reorganizing the traditions of the Mykenai sisterhood of Mycenae, reinterpreting its name so that henceforth it would conform to the new shamanic customs of the Indo-Europeans and their entheogen, the sacred mushroom or mykes. (page 139)

The Proitides were cured of their madness eventually by an 'African' Melampous ('Black-foot'), who came from the 'Gateway' and brought the art of tempering wine with water to Greece, and who also discovered the magical properties of 'rust' (another fungal entheogen)-but those stories take us too far afield. (page 155)

The Hind of Mount Keryneia (or Cerynea) in the Arcadian highlands neighboring the Argive plain also belonged to the old Artemis: in those regions, she was known as the Woinos maiden. It had golden antlers, arboreal branches (entheogen), like the Hydra; and since it, too, was female, it was a hind of the reindeer family, for only those deer have horned females. ...

The special danger of the Hind was not her ferocity, but the mental effect she had upon her pursuer; for she became an obsession, forever enticing further pursuit, and yet eluding capture. Eventually, she too, could lure you to the otherworld. ... (page 173)

By 'sailing' farther westward from the shore of the Peloponnesos, Herakles confronted the same kind of netherworld problem that his father Amphitryon had encountered with the Teleboans. Herakles had to rustle the Cattle of Geryoneus. ... The cattle themselves were purple-red, with the magical color of the animate entheogen that would eventually confer the rights of rulership to whoever possessed it at several of the former Minoan-Pelasgian settlements, including Mycenae and Knossos, itself. ... (page 178)

Melampous and his brother Bias were recent new arrivals from the Egyptian Blacklands. Melampous, himself, was a cattle rustler down at the Gate-city of Pylos, and a prophet; he had discovered a redeeming new entheogen called 'rust,' a fungal surrogate for Amanita, by taking the rust that had grown upon the sacrificial knife as it lodged in a sacred tree or axis mundi and using it to cure the impotence of the 'king's' son and intended victim. We will have more to say about 'rust' later, when we investigate the goddess Demeter. (pages 253-254)

Just as the vine had the ivy (kissos) as its poisonous wild ancestor, the edible grains were seen as civilized hybrids of inedible avatars, which, to some extent, is botanically true. The primitive version of barley (krithe) was supposedly the grass called Lolium temulentum (aira, in Greek): 'drunken Lolium' as the botanical Latin name means, because of the intoxicating and poisonous effect it had upon those who eat it, and affecting, in particular, the eyesight. (In English, it is called darnel, because it makes you 'dizzy;' and tares, because it makes you a 'fool;' it is also known as cockle; and as ivray, because it makes you 'drunk.')

Surprisingly, the plant itself has none of these effects. It is, however, commonly the host for a fungus or ergot which does, Claviceps purpurea or 'purple club-head,' which is also known as 'rust' (English, as well as in Greek; erysible) from its reddening color that spreads, like rust on iron, corrupting the grain (enlarging the infected club-like kernels) and returning it to its useless origins, like the manufactured metal back into its order. (This is the 'rust,'-from the sacrificial knife-that the seer Melampous used to cure the impotence of Iphiklos, and his fear of death.) Lolium is a common weed in fields of grain, and not only is its useless growth a threat to the tended crop, but its corrupting fungus spreads its poisonous contamination to the other grains. ... Barley, itself, it was thought, would revert to this apparently ecstatic and deadly Lolium, without the art that Demeter had imparted to her disciple Triptolemos. (In later Christian times, the deposed pagan deities typically became demonic: ergot was known as 'Mother-corn,' and the Goddess was blamed for the infested kernels, which were her wolf children: although even in Greek antiquity, 'Rust' was one of the names of Demeter, and she had other, more sinister, black manifestations as a Mare.) (pages 321-322)

The Sacred Drink of Eleusis

When Demeter accepted hospitality, and employment, in the House of Metaneira, the Queen offered her a drink of (specifically) red wine, but the goddess refused it, saying that it was not Right for her to drink it: presumably because in the division of foodstuffs, hers was the dry, whereas Dionysus was the liquid; but perhaps also because of the wine's maenadic implications of the narkissos and the Nysian abduction of Persephone (for which some even blamed Dionysus).

Instead, Demeter specified a new sacred mixture, the 'stirred' potion or kykeon (just as (w)oinos, too, was always a 'mixture'), a drink, however, that was symbolic of the dry foodstuffs: it was drunk thereafter at the Mystery as the entheogen. It contained barley and mint (pennyroyal or Mentha pulegium, called 'blechon' in Greek), mixed in water. The two plants represent the opposites that are reconciled. Barley is the cultivated foodstuff; mint represents the wild herb ... .

Neither plant, however, could have induced the visionary experience, the 'seeing' that was, by all reports, the central experience of the Mystery. ...

Ergot, however, is an ideal secret mediator: between the primitive and cultivated grains, and between the experiences of deadly ecstatic convulsive rapture (Persephone's Nysian abduction) and visionary sight (Persephone's birth of the Brimos child); and between the opiate shamanism of the chthonic Goddess and the fungal traditions of the Indo-Europeans. Amongst the several, and variable, alkaloid toxins contained in ergot, only two are soluble in water: the one commonly known as LSD; and ergonovine, a drug of use in midwifery, to induce the birthing contractions in the uterus.

Instead of narcosis, wakeful vision. Instead of seed that would not sprout, birth. Death was the ingredient in the cup; and life, its outcome. And even the wildness of Amanita, seedless and evading cultivation, was tamed and incorporated into the era of Olympian civilization: for the red club-like kernels (which are the sclerotic mycelia or mass of fungal root-like fibers) resemble enlarged seeds of grain; from them when planted sprout the fruiting bodies of mushroom. (page 323)

Perhaps only the more fortunate managed to go the whole way. But in the darkened chamber, there was, by all reports, a Great Illumination. ...

Those who had gone the whole Journey not only knew, but had experienced the birthing themselves, on that magical night of visions: it was something they could never speak of; but ultimately, something that was unspeakable, unreal, that had to be seen to be believed: the truth, that others call myth. (pages 326-327)

This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP