The Eleusinian Mysteries

 

Three thousand years ago in ancient Greece a mass religious event took place every year in which a sacred brew was drunk by initiates in a ritual setting.

"Blessed is he who, having seen these rites,
undertakes the way beneath the Earth.
He knows the end of life,
as well as its divinely granted beginning."
Pindar

 

The Mysteries were celebrated at Eleusis, from around 1500 BCE to the fourth century CE, in honour of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. After Persephone's abduction by Hades, god of the underworld, Demeter left Olympus and vowed never to return, nor to allow crops to grow on earth until she and her daughter were reunited. Demeter found refuge in the palace of the king of Eleusis, Keleos, and as a mark of gratitude, she founded a temple there. Fearing that humankind would become extinct without food, Zeus ordered that Persephone be returned so that Demeter would also go back. Before Demeter returned to Olympus she instructed the kings of Eleusis, Keleos and Triptolemus on how to celebrate the rites in her temple, which were to be 'Mysteries' (secret teachings).

Up to three thousand people were initiated each year - any Greek-speaking person who had not committed a murder could present themselves once for initiation. Among those underwent the rite were Aristotle, Sophocles, Plato, Cicero and a number of Roman emperors such as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. The celebration of the Mysteries began in the autumn, with four days of rites and festivities in Athens. On the fifth day, a solemn procession to Eleusis began, during which rites, sacrifices and purifications took place. On the sixth night, cloaked in secrecy, the climax of the Eleusinian ceremony took place in the inner sanctum of the temple, into which only priests and initiates could enter,.

"The initiates often experienced in vision the congruity of the beginning and the end, of birth and death, the totality and the eternal generative ground of being. It must have been an encounter with the ineffable, an encounter with the divine..." (1)

Before the climax of the initiation, a sacred potion made of barley and mint and called the kykeon was administered. The possible psychoactive ingredients in kykeon have been hotly debated. It has been suggested that the mint in the mixture might have provided the mind-altering element as the mint family contains the plant Salvia divinorum, used by the Mazatec Indians of Mexico in a divinatory context. Terence McKenna has suggested that Stropharia cubensis, or another psilocybin- containing mushroom, might be the key.

The most convincing theory about the nature of kykeon, results from extensive research by Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann and Carl Ruck. In 'The Road to Eleusis' (2) they argue that the parasitic fungus ergot, found on particular wild grasses, is the psychoactive component of kykeon. It would have been simple for an Eleusinian priest to collect the ergot from the wild grass growing near to the temple, grind it into a powder and add it to the kykeon. The theory is further supported by the fact that ergot is commonly found on grain, Demeter was the goddess of grain, and ears of grain featured prominently in the ritual.

LSD is a modern product of ergot, providing an intriguing link between the Greek religious rituals of many thousand of years ago, and today's entheogenic explorations.

As Albert Hofmann - inventor of LSD and investigator of the Eleusinian Mysteries - puts it:

"If the hypothesis that an LSD-like consciousness-altering drug was present in the kykeon is correct - and there are good arguments in its favour - then the Eleusinian Mysteries have a relevance for our time in not only a spiritual-existential sense, but also with respect to the question of the controversial use of consciousness-altering compounds to attain mystical insights into the riddle of life"

Notes

(1) Hofmann, A. (1997) The Message of the Eleusinian Mysteries in Forte, R. (ed.) Entheogens and the Future of Religion. San Francisco: Council on Spiritual Practices

(2) Wasson, R.G, Hofmann, A. and Ruck, C.A.P (1978) The Road to Eleusis. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

(3) Hofmann, A. (1997) The Message of the Eleusinian Mysteries in Forte, R. (ed.) Entheogens and the Future of Religion. San Francisco: Council on Spiritual Practices

© 1999 Michelle Pauli

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