Eleusinian Mysteries

“[A]mong the many exceptional and divine things your Athens has produced and contributed to human life, nothing is better than those [Eleusinian] Mysteries. For by means of them we have been transformed from a rough and savage way of life to the state of humanity, and have been civilized. Just as they are called initiations, so in actual fact we have learned from them the fundamentals of life, and have grasped the basis not only for living with joy, but also for dying with a better hope.” — Cicero

“[H]ow can one describe, as other than oneself, that which, when one saw it, seemed to be one with oneself? This is no doubt why in the [Eleusinian] Mysteries we are forbidden to reveal them to the uninitiated.” — Plotinus

“If you die before you die, you won’t die when you die.” — Greek saying

“Thousands of people were streaming in to a ten-day festival in September where they were planning — after a long burst of hard work — to find some chemical release, relaxation, and revelry. They found drugs passed around the crowd freely, to anybody who wanted them. Everyone who took them soon felt an incredible surge of ecstasy. Then came the vivid, startling hallucinations. You suddenly felt, as one user put it, something that was “new, astonishing, irrational to rational cognition.”

Some people came back every year because they loved this experience so much. As the crowd thronged and yelled and sang, it became clear it was an extraordinary mix of human beings. There were farmers who had just finished their harvest, and some of the biggest celebrities around. Their names — over the years — included Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero.

The annual ritual in the Temple at Eleusis, eighteen kilometers northwest of Athens, was a drug party on a vast scale. It happened every year for two thousand years, and anybody who spoke the Greek language was free to come. Harry Anslinger said that drug use represents “nothing less than an assault on the foundations of Western civilization,” but here, at the actual foundations of Western civilization, drug use was ritualized and celebrated.

I first discovered this fact by reading the work of the British critic Stuart Walton in a brilliant book called “Out of It”, and then I followed up with some of his sources, which include the work of Professor R. Gordon Wasson, Professor Carl Ruck, and other writers.

Everyone who attended the Eleusinian mysteries was sworn to secrecy about what happened there, so our knowledge is based on scraps of information that were recorded in its final years, as it was being suppressed. We do know that a special cup containing a mysterious chemical brew of hallucinogens would be passed around the crowd, and a scientific study years later seemed to prove it contained a molecular relative of LSD taken from a fungus that infested cereal crops and caused hallucinations. The chemical contents of this cup were carefully guarded for the rest of the year. The drugs were legal — indeed, this drug use was arranged by public officials — and regulated. You could use them, but only in the designated temple for those ten days. One day in 415 b.c., a partygoing general named Alcibiades smuggled some of the mystery drug out and took it home for his friends to use at their parties. Walton writes: “Caught in possession with intent to supply, he was the first drug criminal.”

But while it was a crime away from the Temple and other confined spaces, it was a glory within it. According to these accounts, it was Studio 54 spliced with St. Peter’s Basilica — revelry with religious reverence.

They believed the drugs brought them closer to the gods, or even made it possible for them to become gods themselves. The classicist Dr. D.C.A. Hillman wrote that the “founding fathers” of the Western world “were drug users, plain and simple: they grew the stuff, they sold the stuff, and more importantly, they used the stuff . . . The ancient world didn’t have a Nancy Reagan, it didn’t wage a billion-dollar drug war, it didn’t imprison people who used drugs, and it didn’t embrace sobriety as a virtue. It indulged . . . and from this world in which drugs were a universally accepted part of life sprang art, literature, science, and philosophy . . . The West would not have survived without these so-called junkies and drug dealers.”

There was some political grumbling for years that women were behaving too freely during their trances, but this annual festival ended only when the drug party crashed into Christianity. The early Christians wanted there to be one route to ecstasy, and one route only — through prayer to their God. You shouldn’t feel anything that profound or pleasurable except in our ceremonies at our churches. The first tugs towards prohibition were about power, and purity of belief.

If you are going to have one God and one Church, you need to stop experiences that make people feel that they can approach God on their own. It is no coincidence that when new drugs come along, humans often use religious words to describe them, like ecstasy. They are often competing for the same brain space — our sense of awe and joy. So when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and brought the Empire with him, the rituals at the Temple at Eleusis were doomed. They were branded a cult and shut down by force. The new Christianity would promote wine only in tiny sips. Intoxication had to be sparing. This “forcible repression by Christianity,” Walton explains, “represents the beginning of systematic repression of the intoxication impulse in the lives of Western citizens.”

Yet in every generation after, some humans would try to rebuild their own Temple at Eleusis — in their own minds, and wherever they could clear a space free of local Anslingers.” — Johann Hari

“The key to the powerful transformation that the initiates experienced in the course of the Eleusinian mysteries was the sacred potion kykeon, capable of inducing visions of the afterlife so powerful that it changed the way participants saw the world and their place in it. They were freed from the fear of death through the recognition that they were immortal souls temporarily in mortal bodies.

An impressive testimony for the power and impact of what transpired in these events is the fact that the mysteries conducted in the Eleusinian sanctuary near Athens took place regularly and without interruption every five years for a period of almost 2000 years. They were observed regularly from ca. 1600 BC until 392 AD. Even then, they did not simply cease to attract the attention of the antique world.

The ceremonial activities in Eleusis were brutally interrupted when the Christian Emperor Theodosius interdicted participation in the mysteries and all other pagan cults. Shortly afterward, in 395 AD, the invading Goths destroyed the sanctuary.

In the telestrion, the giant initiation hall in Eleusis, more than 3,000 neophytes at a time experienced powerful experiences of psychospiritual transformation.

The cultural importance of these mysteries for the ancient world and their as yet unacknowledged role in the history of European civilization becomes evident when we realize that there were many famous and illustrious figures of antiquity among the initiates. The list of neophytes included the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Epictetus, the military leader Alkibiades, the playwrights Euripides and Sophocles, and the poet Pindaros. Another famous initiate, emperor Marcus Aurelius, was fascinated by the eschatological hopes offered by these rites. The Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero took part in these mysteries and wrote an exalted report about their effects on Greek and Roman civilization. …

The specifics of the consciousness-expanding procedures involved in these secret rites have remained for the most part unknown, although three respectable scientists — mycologist Gordon Wasson, discoverer of LSD-25 Albert Hofmann, and Greek scholar Carl Ruck — collected impressive evidence that the sacred potion kykeon used in the Eleusinian mysteries was a concoction containing alkaloids of ergot similar to LSD. They described their meticulous research in the book The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (Wasson, Hofmann and Ruck 1978). It is also highly probable that psychedelic materials were also involved in the bacchanalia and other types of rites. Ancient Greeks did not know distillation of alcohol and could not ferment drinks with a higher concentration than 14%, which stops the fermentation process. But according to the reports, the wines used in Dionysian rituals had to be diluted three to twenty times, and just three cups of it “brought some initiates to the brink of insanity.”” — Stanislav Grof

“Though we are liable to forget, Western civilization was not founded as a Christian enterprise. The Ancient Greece that invented democracy, and birthed all the arts and sciences we now take for granted, never heard of Jesus. Before Jerusalem, before Rome, before Mecca, there was Eleusis. If Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC was the true source of Western life in the twenty-first century, then Eleusis was our first, undisputed spiritual capital. Throughout classical antiquity, the quaint harbor town was ground zero for generations of seekers. But its religion wouldn’t last forever. In the battle for the sacred legacy of the West, Eleusis was a spectacular casualty. Its demise at the hands of the newly Christianized Roman Empire in the fourth century AD marked the beginning of an identity crisis that persists to this day. Are we Greek or are we Christian? Under the traditional view our Greek ancestors may have built the world as we know it, but Christianity saved its soul. Like the children of divorced parents, we try not to choose favorites or take sides. And we largely ignore the fact that the Greeks managed to find salvation long before Christianity showed up — a perfectly reasonable oversight, with the former center of the Mediterranean universe now scattered in ruins. …

The word “mystery” comes from the Greek muo (μύω), which literally means “to shut one’s eyes.” Under penalty of death, all visitors [of the Eleusinian Mysteries] were explicitly forbidden from revealing what they saw on the inside. Whatever happened in Eleusis, stayed in Eleusis. Frustrating as it is for modern historians, that policy served the Mysteries well. The wall of silence only fed the mystique and guaranteed fans in high places. In its heyday the temple attracted the best and brightest Athens had to offer, including Plato. To keep his experience classified, the godfather of Western philosophy used vague, cryptic language to describe the “blessed sight and vision” he witnessed “in a state of perfection” — the climax of his initiation into “the holiest of Mysteries.” Like all travelers, Plato was permanently transformed by whatever he observed in Eleusis. The latest in a long line of visionaries, men and women, with exclusive access to cosmic truths. Following their sip of an unusual elixir called the kukeon (κυκεών), and a night of spectacles in the temple, each pilgrim earned the honorary title epoptes (ἐπόπτης), which means something like “the one who has seen it all.” Beyond any doubt, they claimed, death was not the end of our human journey. We do, in fact, survive the physical body. And underneath this mortal clothing, we are all immortals in disguise — gods and goddesses destined to the stars for eternity. …

“Aristotle once said the initiates came to Eleusis not to learn something, but to experience something.” — Brian C. Muraresku

One inscription found on the site [of the Eleusinian Mysteries] says, “death is for mortals no longer an evil but a blessing.” Pindar, perhaps the greatest lyric poet of Ancient Greece and a fellow initiate, wrote in the fifth century BC, “Blessed is he who has seen these things before he goes beneath the hollow earth; for he understands the end of mortal life, and the beginning [of a new life] given of God.” For Sophocles, one of the most renowned playwrights of the time, the world could be divided into those who had set foot in Eleusis, and those who had not. Just like Plato and Pindar, he stresses the visual nature of the experience: “Thrice blessed are those among men who, after beholding these rites, go down to Hades. Only for them is there life [after death]; all the rest will suffer an evil lot.” …

Clearly the Greeks had a profound religious system at their disposal. One that seems to match the grandeur and sophistication of their many accomplishments, the many gifts we happily inherited to build a civilization from the ground up. Eleusis was an enduring tradition, said to provide concrete answers to timeless doubts, and optimism in the face of oblivion. It’s unavoidable: there was real religion before Christianity, which contradicts the running assumption that Greek spirituality was rather uninformed and idiotic. …

For those curious souls in need of a little more substance and a little less nonsense, Ancient Greece had a full menu of spiritual alternatives that proved more satisfying than the traditional fare. At the core of the mystery religions was “an immediate or mystical encounter with the divine,” involving “an approach to death and a return to life.” Like the mystics that would infiltrate Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in the millennia to come, the Greeks knew the ancient secret of dying before dying. However this one-on-one meeting with God was engineered, it’s what Aristotle meant by the initiates descending on Eleusis not to learn something, but to experience something. Those inquisitive, cynical Greeks were after bona fide evidence: proof of the hereafter. They would never blindly settle for empty promises of a future life among the heavens. They had to peek behind the curtain to see for themselves whether there was any truth to the matter. For them and for us, how could authentic religion be anything less? …

When one ill-fated classicist by the name of Carl Ruck at Boston University took charge of the pagan continuity hypothesis with a psychedelic twist in the late 1970s, he started by claiming that the sacramental potion known as the kukeon was a type of visionary brew. And that the inviolable secrecy surrounding the Mysteries of Eleusis had everything to do with protecting the psychedelic recipe that guaranteed immortality to the Greek-speaking world. …

The Greeks had to invent the psychedelic Eucharist. And then the Christians had to give it shelter. So to answer the second of the two questions baked into Huxley’s revolutionary prediction about the “revival of religion,” the same classicist at Boston University would later claim that some version of the Hellenistic sacrament had indeed been incorporated into the fledgling faith by Greek-speaking pockets of paleo-Christians all over the Roman Empire. And that their original Eucharist was therefore intensely psychedelic. …

When we look at The Last Supper, maybe we’re not looking at Christianity’s founding event. Maybe we’re getting a glimpse of the mysterious religion that was practiced by Plato, Pindar, Sophocles, and the rest of the Athenian gang. And just maybe this is how our identity crisis comes to a dramatic end: with a psychedelic plot twist. Rather than starting a new religion, was Jesus simply trying to preserve, or copy, the “holiest of Mysteries” from Ancient Greece? Or, more precisely, is that what his Greek-speaking followers wanted to believe? If so, that opens up a can of worms, making Jesus more of a Greek philosopher-magician than a Jewish Messiah. It means that the Jesus behind Leonardo’s table really belongs on the steps of The School of Athens with his fellow initiates. Because the earliest and most authentic communities of paleo-Christians would have looked to the miracle worker from Nazareth as someone who knew the secret that Eleusis tried so desperately to conceal for millennia. A secret that could easily win new converts to the faith. But a secret the Church would later try to suppress, according to the theory. And a secret that would render all the infrastructure of today’s Christianity virtually obsolete, uprooting 2.42 billion adherents worldwide. Back in the Garden of Eden, maybe the forbidden fruit was forbidden for a reason. Who needs the fancy building, the priest and all the rest of it — even the Bible — if all you really need is the fruit? …

“Not only is there evidence of psychedelic beer and wine at the heart of the Greek and Christian Mysteries, but also evidence of their suppression by the religious authorities.” — Brian C. Muraresku

More troubling is the God of organized religion and his army of spokesmen — those priests, rabbis, and imams who stand between superficial definitions of heaven and a common-sense public who have every right to demand proof. When the answer to their doubts is condescending moralism, contrived from an outdated and impenetrable holy book, it’s time to cut out the middleman in the private search for transcendence. …

If there’s a spiritual crisis in the West, it’s because the defenders of the three great monotheistic faiths have forgotten their roots. … “There is no other way to start a religion,” says the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast. “Every religion has its mystical core. The challenge is to find access to it and to live in its power.” In what he calls the centuries-long “tension between the mystical and the religious establishment,” the technicians who yearn for real experience are always butting heads with the authorities who are just trying to keep the house in working order. According to Brother David, “time has an influence on the system: the pipes tend to get rusty and start to leak, or they get clogged up. The flow from the source slows down to a trickle.” When that happens, the experience of Dinah’s God recedes into the mists of history. The written word that tries to capture the original encounter inevitably replaces the personal experience of awe. So that “live doctrine fossilizes into dogmatism,” and the ethics and morality that attempt to translate “mystical communion into practical living” are reduced to moralism. But despite the dogmatism and moralism that inevitably muck up the system, the mystics have always come along with an embarrassing reminder for the self-appointed enforcers of the establishment’s rules and regulations. When it comes to “God” — a word rarely used by the mystics — there is total unanimity on one crucial issue of paramount importance. God does not reside in a holy book. Whether it’s the Bible or the Qur’an, the mystics have never found God by reading about God. There is no class, no lecture, no homily that will ever bring you closer to God. Because there is, in fact, absolutely nothing you could ever learn about God. For the mystics, the only way to know God is to experience God. …

I present every piece of evidence that, taken together, finally convinced me of the psychedelic reality behind Western civilization’s original religion. A prehistoric ritual that survived for millennia, in the total absence of the written word, before finding a good home among the Greeks. A tradition that was later inherited by the first, Greek-speaking Christians, especially in Italy, where they came under attack by the Church Fathers. A vast knowledge of drugs that was kept alive through the Dark Ages by pagans and heretics. Until the witches of the world were hunted down for centuries, erasing all memory of the longest-running religion the planet has ever known. It doesn’t have a name, and probably never had one. But one thing is certain: that storied tension between the mystics and the bureaucrats has reached a breaking point. In order to find our soul again, a popular outbreak of mysticism could be just what the doctor ordered. And the prescription could be exactly what it was in the beginning: to die before we die, with a solid dose of the religion that started it all. The religion with no name.” — Brian C. Muraresku

From the day the Eleusinian Mysteries were violently banned by the State and the Church our civilization is slowly but surely moving towards an abyss. German psychiatrist Karl Wilmanns said that human “normality” is nothing but a mild form of dementia. How to cure it? How to open the eyes of the blind? Philosophy is a very weak tool, almost impotent; radical awakening experiences are required — the new Eleusinian Mysteries, for, speaking in the words of Cicero, by means of them we will be transformed from a rough and savage way of life to the state of true humanity, and will be civilized again. There is no other way.

“In AD 364, the Christian emperor Valentinian abolished all nocturnal celebrations in an effort to shut down the [Eleusinian] Mysteries. The almost two-thousand-year march of pilgrims to Eleusis was in serious jeopardy of screeching to a halt. The Greek historian Zosimus credits Praetextatus with successfully convincing the powerful Valentinian to backtrack, permitting “the entire rite to be performed in the manner inherited from the ancestors.” But it’s what the initiate says to the emperor that, among all the strange things about Eleusis, always struck me as the strangest by far. It’s a prophecy of sorts. Faced with the obliteration of “the most sacred Mysteries,” Praetextatus declares that the shortsighted law “would make the life of the Greeks unlivable.” Having drunk the kukeon and experienced the vision for himself, the priest points to Eleusis as the one place that “hold[s] the whole human race together.” The Greek word for “unlivable” is abiotos (ἀβίοτος) — literally, the absence or opposite of “life” (bios). It’s a rare, evocative word. The eminent Hungarian scholar Carl Kerenyi is fascinated by it in his seminal 1962 book on the Mysteries, written in German, Die Mysterien von Eleusis. Kerenyi concludes that the word was consciously chosen to inform later generations that the Mysteries “were connected not only with Athenian and Greek existence but with human existence in general.”” — Brian C. Muraresku