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The city of Eleusis is located on a fertile plain outside Athens, Greece. Today, this famous city of the ancient world is mostly nothing but ruins surrounded by poppies. For nearly two thousand years, this was the site of the most important religious feast of ancient Greece. Although the Eleusinian Mysteries still are, as the name also indicates, mostly a white spot in the map of history, research suggests that we could see this cult as a “psychic vaccine” against flat-mindedness and pessimism in life. This incredible mystery cult lasted from the 14th century BC until it was banned by the intolerant Roman emperor Theodosius I in 392 AD. Everybody except the murderers and the barbarians could take part in it. In the 400s BC, the participation cost 15 drachmas. The event became a mystery partly because participants had to make a promise not to reveal its contents to outsiders. The violation was punishable by death. The word “mystery” is said to have arisen from this ban on “mouth shut”.

»Demeter revealed her sacred rites
to the kings who give justice, to Triptolemos,
horse-driving Diokles, powerful Eumolpos,
and leader Kaleos, teaching her Mysteries to them all,
sacred things not to be transgressed, asked about,
or uttered: great awe of the gods stops the voice.
Blest are earth-bound mortals who have seen these rites,
but the uninitiate, who has no share in them,
never has the same log when dead in the misty darkness.»

 The ritual took place twice a year, in spring and autumn, in which all Greeks, both men and women, could take part, but the rule was that everyone was only allowed to take part once. Very little is known about the content of the feast. It has only been said that something was drunk there and something was seen, but what exactly is not known. The lack of knowledge is due in part to the fact that the participants were bound by a vow of secrecy given to the gods about the events of the ritual. There can be seen also a bit of symbolism in the secrecy that seems to be related to the changes in the psyche. The base verb of the word mystery means “closure” and refers to the closure of the eyes and mouth in mysteries. It could mean that you weren’t allowed to talk about the experience—or maybe you just couldn’t talk about it…

The drink that was ingested in the cult was called Kykeon. There is no exact information about its composition, but it is believed that it was entheogenic, i.e. of the same type as Ayahuasca, for example. In 1978 Robert Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Puck presented a theory of ergot as the active ingredient in this mystery drink. The ergot could be made into beer, which then acted in the same way as psychedelic substances. LSD was later isolated from the same active ingredient, ergotamine. In Greece, therefore, was the longest known tradition of continuous use of psychedelic substances! 

In the book THE ROAD TO ELEUSIS, published in 1978, Robert Wasson, Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Puck presented the theory of ergot as an active ingredient in a Eleusinian mystery drink kykeon. Ergot could be made into beer, which then worked in the same way as psychedelic substances.

In this book Alfred Hofmann, chemist and discoverer of LSD also had to raise an ethical question about using psychedelics to manipulate the mind (mainly because the vast spread of LSD came under official surveillance in the United States): ”This brings us to a problem of our own time. This involves the question – much discussed today – of whether it is ethically and religiously defensible to use consciousness-altering drugs under specific circumstances to gain new insights into the spiritual world.” [pp. 142–3]. However, his own view was positive, and psychedelics offer something we can’t get from just about anywhere else. He also seemed to question the origins of Western science, a science that has placed man above nature and empowered the exploitation of it. He saw it starting from the philosophy of René Descartes and continuing in modern industrialisation and technicalisation. According to Hofmann, it has also led to spiritual materialism and a distancing from the spiritual side of existence.

In the Middle Ages, the odd effects of ergot were known as severe necrosis and circulatory disorders with the common name St. Anthony of Fire. It has been suggested that the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch were also caused by ergotamine. The disease was a mystery for a long time, but it was later discovered that the culprits were ergot formed in the cones of cereals. This was first elucidated by a French physician named Thuilliers around 1630, and a few decades later the botanist Denis Dodart wrote a more detailed memorandum on ergot to the French Academy. However, it took a total of a couple of hundred years before people were convinced of the dangers of these parasitic plants, known in France as ergot (meaning rooster spur). Hofmann later studied ergot for the purpose of developing an anti-migraine drug. People still died of ergotism in the 1950s.

Ergot fungus growing on barley

Although the Eleusinian Mysteries were secret, the effects were quite evident. The people returned from Eleusis happy and blissful, and their fear of death had vanished. According to one tombstone writing, the mysteries showed that death was not evil but something good. The effects are the same as those experienced by psychedelics in the treatment of mental illness in recent years. More and more evidence of the significant power of psychedelics is constantly being published. The evidence is not only scientific reports but also people’s own testimonies in which they openly praise the care with psychedelics. These are indeed easy to believe. 

Why don’t the facts convince politicians?

There are people who fear that psychoactive substances will become more common and affect people’s attitudes first, then the economy, and eventually lead to lasting resistance to those in power. As early as the 1960s, it was realised that the greatest risk of the proliferation of psychedelics was precisely political. I suppose, first and foremost, that LSD is not the answer only to those diagnosed with mental problems, but also to people who are suffering from the busy and stressful life caused by the global economy. 

In the United States, the possession of LSD was banned in 1968, and its effect resulted in The Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971. The decision was not really based on any health research or health policy. Although the 60’s LSD evangelist and counterculture icon Timothy Leary may be considered naive and attention-seeking, he may still have been farsighted that LSD should after all be available to everyone. That’s what the Greeks had done for almost two thousand years! They would hardly have done that if the Kykeon drink had become a problem (except for the Roman authorities)!

Video showing beautifully the ruins of ancient cult city Eleusis in Greece.

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