The history of the 20th, and the nascent 21st century, has been trying to reconcile our species with the suddenly-modern condition. This jarring transition has involved the most destructive and inhuman wars in history, but also, out of that wreckage, a search for meaning. These last 100+ years have made us re-evaluate our relationship with death in ways that aren’t always understood. Through this, we’ve tried to figure out how we can live better, slower, and more introspective lives in a world that is suddenly moving faster than ever.
It is some comfort, then, to look back and to realize that not everything that happened had to happen this way. There are tendrils of alternative histories, of paths not chosen, and of a spiritual awakening that never had to sleep. We see that the therapeutic value of psychedelics, which are used to let us find a place in the world, was known at the dawn of our civilization, and used by some of the greatest minds of all time. It’s a continuity between the past and the present. We’ve always looked to natural substances for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Understanding why the ancients used them can help us understand ourselves, our place in the world, and our clouded relationship with death.
It’s All Greek To Us All
In the time of ancient Greece at the dawn of Western civilization, a great mystery tradition thrived that many scholars believe involved the taking of a psychedelic sacrament. Beginning in pre-Greek antiquity and lasting for roughly two thousand years, some of the most influential thinkers, philosophers, and rulers of the ancient world underwent a closely guarded and widely respected group initiation ritual known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. At the height of this enigmatic bi-yearly ritual that took place in Eleusis, Greece and involved acting out the mythology of Demeter and Persephone, people imbibed a possibly psychoactive drink known as the Kykeon, and were taken into a great underground temple where the deepest mysteries of life and death were revealed, emerging the next day fully initiated and allegedly glowing with a lifelong realization that abolished the fear of death.
Theories of a Psychedelic Kykeon
One of the core elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Kykeon drink, was said to have contained barley and mint, but its full ingredients list and method of preparation was a closely guarded secret and has thus been lost to antiquity. Listening to the poetic rantings of those who underwent the ritual make it very easy to believe that the brew may have been psychedelic in nature, and there are many theories about how that may have been achieved. One popular theory is that the psychotropic fungus ergot, which grows on barley, could have been used and given an LSD-like experience. Another idea popularized by Terence Mckenna is that some form of psilocybin-containing magic mushroom could have been integrated into the drink. Yet another hypothesis is that the hierophants of this ancient culture understood how to make an orally active DMT-containing brew similar to ayahuasca, as plants high in DMT and other plants that have MAO inhibitors grew profusely across the region. We may never know the exact ingredients of the Kykeon, much like we still guess at the true ingredients of the Indian soma, but the visionary results of these beverages and their significance in their cultures is undeniable.
Overcoming Fear of Death
One of the oft-reported effects of people who underwent the initiation at Eleusis was the overcoming of the fear of death. An inscription at the ritual site read: “Beautiful indeed is the mystery given us by the blessed gods: death is for mortals no longer an evil, but a blessing.” An interesting parallel with modern psychedelic therapy is the contemporary research surrounding psychedelics as a tool to alleviate end of life anxiety. Research at NYU and Johns Hopkins University has shown that psychedelic therapy involving psilocybin is hugely successful at alleviating anxiety in the terminally ill and helping them to move beyond the fear of death. Beyond that, mushrooms have also been shown in numerous studies to reliably produce mystical experiences that most people consider one of the most significant experiences of their entire lives, another feat that the mystery school at Eleusis delivered on for thousands of years. Whether Mckenna was correct or not in assuming psilocybin could have been used in the Kykeon, we can say that the function of the sacred rites was essentially the same as a psychedelic journey, and both were similarly “mind manifesting”.
While graduates of the Eleusinian Mystery experience include figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero, and Augustus, the rites were also open to common men, women, and even slaves. Going through the Eleusinian Mysteries once in one’s lifetime was in vogue much in the same way that modern scientists, philosophers, and tech industry leaders today laud the value of experimenting with psychedelics, and it essentially served the same purpose of breaking down mental barriers and expanding the sense of self and awe of the universe. Whether the enigmatic Kykeon brew contained psychoactive ingredients or not, this ceremonial ordeal shares much in common with both indigenous psychedelic rituals and modern psychedelic therapy, and highlights the vital role that formal initiatory experiences play in the journey of personal and collective growth.
The Mysterious Roots of Western Culture
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the mysteries of Eleusis is how it exposes the gnostic roots of Western civilization. When Eleusis was sacked by Arian Christians and Goths around 400 AD and the mystery tradition ended, the West began a legacy of monotheism and later materialistic science and philosophy that prevailed from the Holy Roman Empire up until today. Rather than our greatest minds and leaders valuing a direct and integrative experience of divine realization, we relegated spiritual experiences to a religious elite and did our best to dissect and dominate the natural world rather than experience a communion with it.
In many ways, the new psychedelic renaissance that we are experiencing today is a return to the perennial pre-Abrahamic roots of Western civilization, and a return to understanding the immense value of immersing oneself in the mystery of being alive. Of course, there is no need to leave behind the beauty and importance of monotheistic religious traditions or our many great scientific discoveries, but indeed there is also no reason to deny the endogenous impulse for experiential wisdom that initiation rites like those of Eleusis and other psychedelic traditions exemplify.