To make a long story short, according to the famous Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Zeus chose not to intervene between them when Hades, Zeus's brother and king of all the dead, kidnapped Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, to make her his wife and the queen of the all the dead. So Demeter staged a walk-out, a strike. She left the places of the gods, and took the power of nature with her. She assumed the form of a grieving human widow, and hid herself among the household servants of the palace at Eleusis, a tiny bronze age farming town that survived the city burners when its nearest (and older) neighbor, Athens, didn't.
When the story of the rape of Persephone ended as happily as it was going to end, Demeter rewarded the Eleusinian royal family for the kindness they'd shown towards her. To the king's three sons and their families, she gave three gifts. To the Triptolemans, she gave a new (to them) cereal grain that was better suited to the Rarian Plain, barley; his gift was shared with the rest of the world. To the Eumolpids, she gave the secret of the kykeon, whatever it was. And to the Kerykes, she gave the custody of the other, even less well known secrets of the Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis, the famous Eleusinian Mysteries. And even after Athens was rebuilt, outgrew Eleusis, and annexed it by force, the Athenians adopted the laws regarding the Eleusinian Mysteries as their own, including the sacred guarantee that the secrets of the Eumolpids and the Kerykes would be theirs alone.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were huge, in all senses of the word. As Pausanius documented many years later in his Guide to Greece, there were mysteries, that is to say secret initiations, all over the Greek speaking world. We know little or nothing about them, but not for the reason that we know so little about Eleusis. We know so little about the others because frankly, nobody cared. It was the Eleusinian Mysteries that captured the hearts, the minds, the imagination, the spirit of the ancient Greek-speaking world. And well they might, because everybody who went through there, and I mean everybody, agreed that there was nothing like it. Only the Mysteries at Eleusis changed a human being so powerfully for the better. Most famously, the playwright Sophocles said, "Thrice happy are those of mortals who, having seen those rites, depart for Hades. For to them alone is granted to have a true life there. For the rest, all there is evil."
Every year for over a thousand years, on a specific day in our month of September, this ceremony was held again. It didn't matter if you were Athenian, from other Greek nations, or even a barbarian, as long as you could understand spoken Greek. You could be free or slave, male or female. There were steep fees involved, but scholarships were a common gift. Originally it was attended by hundreds at a time; by the end, annual attendance was in the thousands. Half of those were returnees, there to assist new initiates. Still, hundreds of thousands of people were initiated into the Mysteries at Eleusis ... and none of them talked. There was a death penalty threat involved. That didn't stop everybody. Some of them tried to talk, especially those who later converted to Christianity ... and found that they had nothing meaningful to say, they couldn't really describe what had happened to them. Then in 392 CE, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian, ordered the Mysteries at Eleusis closed. The remaining members of the Eumolpid and Kerykes families converted to Christianity, and vowed (under duress?) not to reveal their secret so that somebody else could start them back up. They kept their word, and their secret died with that generation.
That secret stayed dead until 1977. Much of it is still lost to us, but two psychopharmacologists and the foremost expert on ancient Greek language of his time tackled the riddle of the kykeon, and solved it. That would be Gordon Wasson (the first white person to be able to confirm the existence of psilocybin mushrooms), Albert Hofmann (the famous discoverer of LSD), and linguist Carl A.P. Ruck. What was already known was that the kykeon was a potion consumed by initiates at some point in the ceremony. They correlated hints in a new and more accurate translation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter by Ruck, with a botanical survey of the history of the Rarian Plain by Wasson, then turned the results over to Dr. Hofmann to see if using bronze age techniques they could have extracted a safe and reliable psychedelic from any of those plants, and if the resulting techniques matched any hints in the text. They found one, a fungus called purpurea claviceps that grows only on a specific barley-like weed that only grows in a few places on Earth, one of them the barley field called the Rarian Plain at Eleusis. Hofmann tried an educated guess based on something Ruck found in the Hymn: he soaked it in wine, threw away the wine (because in this and only this context, Demeter says that she is "not permitted wine,") and then soaked the dregs in water. The wine dissolved and carried away all of the toxic ergotamines, and left behind only a moderately powerful natural hallucinogen: ergine, aka lysergic acid amide. From this they concluded that the Eleusinian Mysteries, the religious celebration that the whole civilized world of the time considered the founding point of western civilization, were a guided "LSD(-like) trip."
They presented their findings to the public in a 1978 book, The Road to Eleusis. The resulting firestorm of controversy cost Carl Ruck his career; in fact, for the longest time, as he documents in the introduction to the 20th anniversary 2nd edition, even his students, kids who had nothing to do with The Road to Eleusis who had only studied Greek language under him, were "radioactive" and unemployable. By 1978, the war on drugs was 60 years old, and the specific war on psychedelics four. Nobody in government or academia wanted to admit that anybody had ever derived any benefit from a drug trip, and they didn't want to hear anybody say so. After a single sold-out edition, the publisher yanked it from the catalog. (Those rare first editions are quite valuable, and I'm embarrassed to admit how cheaply I came by mine.) (Holy cats. In looking for a link for this article, I found out that the second edition is out of print too, and the few used copies I found are selling for $50 to $380. I'm glad I grabbed one while I could, and I'd better start being careful who I loan these to.) But their argument stood the test of time. At this point, pretty much every classics scholar admits that the Eleusinian Mysteries involved the use of psychedelics; the only quibbling remaining is over whether or not Hofmann and Wasson identified the right drug. Still, you don't see the books back in print, because there's ongoing pressure on potential publishers to keep this information from the general public. (Once again, Forbidden History.)
Were the Greeks so naive that all you had to do was slip them a drug and they thought they'd had a mystical experience? No, they weren't. The Greeks were intimately familiar with at least three mind-altering drugs, and Greek men (and hetaerae) used them recreationally and with only minimal religious ceremony, at will, whenever they could spare the time. I'm sure that they figured, when they were handed the kykeon to drink, that they were being drugged, although the fact that no wine was detectable in the mix would have been unusual. Drugs were normally consumed in a wine-based herbal tincture; semi-pro experienced druggies called symposiarchs controlled and monitored the dosages at parties. But they had no other hallucinogens, and hallucinogens have been proven, scientifically, to mix well with religion in prepared subjects, in the 1962 "Good Friday Experiment" jointly conducted by the Harvard Center for Personality Research and the Harvard Divinity School. Further, the Greeks went far out of their way to make sure that this was the only time that people ever took hallucinogens. In the 4th century BCE, a rich kid successfully bribed one of the Eumolpids to smuggle him a small amount of the kykeon, and served it at a party. He, and everybody at the party, were caught, convicted, and sentenced to death, escaping with their lives on the condition that they never be seen in the Greek-speaking world ever again.
It wasn't the psychedelic experience as such, just any old psychedelic experience, that was so sacred and powerful at Eleusis. It was that whether through divine intervention (as they claimed) or through painstaking trial and error (as a skeptic would claim), the Kerykes and Eumolpid families perfected a predictable, repeatable, reliable, and beneficial psychedelic experience. We don't know the tools they used, and because the secrets died with that 4th century CE generation we probably never will. We do know that the initiates were prepared for six months in advance, starting more or less in March. We know that during the last weeks before the initiation, their diet was strictly controlled. We know that they gathered in Athens at sunset on the night of the 3rd quarter of the September moon; we know that at midnight, they began the march along the Sacred Road. (So far as I know, I'm the only one who's observed the significance of the date: that night is one of only two nights in any month when you can reliably tell without a clock when midnight is: that's when the 3rd quarter moon rises over the sea. They couldn't have used the other one, the setting of the first quarter moon; the rising land to the west of the Athenian harbor would have thrown off the time. And by making it the same time of year every year, the length of time between midnight and sunrise would be predictable within a few minutes.) Along the way, they chanted loud enough to be heard all over the city, that is to say, their breathing was controlled while they were exercising. They then entered a most uniquely constructed temple, the Telesterion, and stood or sat on rows of bleachers in the closed-off building and watched whatever took place around the mini-temple within the Telesterion that supposedly marked the place of Persephone's capture and re-emergence. Was the timing of the delivery of the kykeon as carefully calculated as I think it was? If so, then they would have been "peaking" right at the moment when the dark of the temple was shattered by the throwing open of the eastern doors to the rising sun, falling on the golden ear of corn that we know was held up at that moment, and it was precisely that moment that six months of education, two weeks of dieting, 36 hours of fasting, six hours of ritual preparation, an hour's hike, and several hours of theater prepared them for.
Could we duplicate it now? Almost certainly not. Never mind the legality, it's probably impossible. The law itself is no casual obstacle, of course; look how thoroughly the connection between psychedelics and mystical experience is suppressed in our culture, unless you're at least a quarter Native American and living in one of the tiny handful of states that recognize the right of the Native American Church to use peyote in their ceremonies. Various churches, lobbying groups, educators, lawyers, and so on have lobbied the DEA and Congress to permit further research into the Good Friday Effect for over 30 years, to no avail. But even if the government suddenly changed its mind and recognized the right of individuals to alter their consciousness according to the will of the gods as a form of free exercise of religion, would we be able to design a psychedelic experience that reliable and predictable? No, the expertise no longer exists; unless Demeter herself came back to give it to us again, it would take generations to perfect it. What's more, the secret of the kykeon is long, long out of the bag. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 24.4 million Americans have used LSD at least once in their lives, and that doesn't even count any of the other hallucinogens. The psychedelic experience is well documented in film, perhaps best in Roger Corman's The Trip starring Peter Fonda. Any postmodern American would recognize what had been done for them, and the impact would be lost; the "newness" and uniqueness just wouldn't be there.
Too bad. We better hope that Sophocles was wrong, or we're all pretty screwed when we die.
Almost done, I promise. Next, what I believe about life after death, then one final article on why the Greeks fell.