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Mysteries

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.

Comments

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
mercyorbemoaned
Feb. 4th, 2005 09:54 am (UTC)
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.

Or unless you read Terence McKenna or Robert Anton Wilson, hang out with any of the large number of early acid trippers still available all over the place, or look at Erewhon?

There's something deeper and more sinister going on here than plain suppression. The information is there and easily accessible. What's been suppressed is any legitimization of the information, and any possible long term mentoring - another way to say this is what's being suppressed is the possibility of a tradition forming.

You know the points that you were making about how any adult who would have sex with a teenager in this culture is too irresponsible for the relationship to serve the purpose sexual mentoring served in ancient Greece? Same thing is true for psychedelics. Any perceptive person, any person whose lust for pleasure doesn't blind her to reality, knows that the big guns are out for drug culture of all sorts, and no distinction is made between the really destructive stuff and the stuff that is, or could be, sacred.

So I can't take my children out to the woods and initiate them. I can only tell them, I had these experiences and they are closed to you, because I had them before mandatory minimum sentencing. And I risk an immense amount even being willing to tell them that.
mercyorbemoaned
Feb. 4th, 2005 09:58 am (UTC)
Oh, and another thing: this has caused a warping in the subcultures that use these substances away from children and away from traditional patterns of thought and toward patterns of thought that prioritize immediate experience - hedonism and individualism; and it's caused a simultaneous warping in subcultures that do raise children and are slightly more traditional toward excessive planning for the future at the expense of the present and vicious anti-hedonism. It's turned us into a nation of ants and grasshoppers.
old_hedwig
Feb. 4th, 2005 02:20 pm (UTC)
This is certainly true in our society in general. Hell, even in the 50s the folks would abandon the kiddies to some local teenager baby-sitter for a night of drinking and dancing to rat-brat tunes. Now the hot New year's parties for anyone with children are alchohol-free, and they have clown and activities for the kiddies. You have to sign a pledge that you do not use any illegal drugs to be a boy scout volunteer! No one willing to admit to expanding their consciousness wanted here!

At least I'm Catholic, so its Ok for the grownups to drink in front of the kids, and let them have sips from the cup, so they can look forward to getting slightly lit up around the dinner table too.
fleabear
Feb. 4th, 2005 12:33 pm (UTC)
I am interested in reading the book and would be willing to pay for photocopies, or do you have access to a scanner?
bradhicks
Feb. 6th, 2005 08:54 pm (UTC)
The thing is, Flea, that one copy is a 20+ year old paperback that's already pretty worn, and the other is an increasingly rare hardcover whose spine I don't want to risk breaking.

I know you, and you're in town, and I certainly trust you with a book. If you want to come up to north county to pick it up and bring it back in a couple of weeks, I'm certainly willing to lend you my copy.
kyrene
Feb. 4th, 2005 01:14 pm (UTC)
You keep on churning out these excellent posts, and I'm going to have to continue posting about you on my lj. ;)

I was talking with ononion recently and I must agree with her that the Eleusinian Mysteries were like the Hellenic equivalent of a Muslim's pilgrimmage to Mecca--very important and essential. I look forward to the day when we have enough of our exoteric structure under wraps that we can start to rebuild them.
nancylebov
Feb. 4th, 2005 02:36 pm (UTC)
Just for the heck of it, I've emailed Loompanics with a suggestion that they look into reprinting _The Road to Eleusis_.

I was hoping that you'd do an article about how much of the classical Greek religion and values can be imported into modern life.
naath
Feb. 4th, 2005 07:26 pm (UTC)
I was hoping that too...
mercyorbemoaned
Feb. 4th, 2005 08:27 pm (UTC)
I'm taking applications for slaves for my hestia, if you'd like to experience some authentic Hellas.
bridgetester
Feb. 4th, 2005 10:41 pm (UTC)
One of my undergraduate professors was very interested in Eleusis. And Demeter. and Hesiod. etc.
trommelfeuer
Feb. 5th, 2005 01:09 am (UTC)
Hello bradhicks, fleabear knows me.

She said you were posting a lot about Eleusis and suggested I read them so I lost no time in friending you. I'm actually feeling like this is a case of deity intervention.

Warning, most of my posts are pretty personal so you may see me post seldom, but you're welcome to friend me.

riverheart
Feb. 5th, 2005 04:35 am (UTC)
Quite a few years ago (maybe 2 decades?), Oberon and Morning Glory Zell, Tom Williams, Anodea Judith, and a number of others worked for several years on recreating the Eleusinian Mysteries as closely as possible for the Church of All Worlds.

Of what takes place there, I cannot write, as I am bound by the oath of an initiate not to reveal it. I can say that the recreation, from all that I have read of it, is fairly accurate, and that none of the sacred elements have been left out.

It was in all ways a life-changing experience for me and for everyone I know who has undertaken that sacred journey.
nancylebov
Feb. 5th, 2005 12:52 pm (UTC)
Can you talk about how your life was changed?
hick0ry
Feb. 6th, 2005 08:04 pm (UTC)
The Road to Eleusius
Amazon seems to have missed that the publisher of the second edition of The Road to Eleusius still lists it on their website for $50 plus shipping; oddly enough though, they are offering it for $40 plus shipping at the Antiquarian Book Sellers Association.


neowiccan
Feb. 21st, 2005 02:49 am (UTC)
what an amazing post. thanks to kyrene for linking it.
i'm going to take a chance and friend you, cuz i'd love to read more. naturally i'll reverse it if you don't want this random unknown chick having on her friends' list.
blessed be
suz
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )