The Eleusinian Mysteries

In many parts of the Mediterranean basin there were annual religious festivals in which the consumption of some psychoactive substances was very important. None of these events were as impressive and lasting as the one held at Eleusis. For more than two thousand years, each September, an enigmatic festival was held near Athens. Greek mythology tells that in this place the goddess Demeter met her daughter Persephone, who had been kidnapped to the underworld by Pluto.

The festival, called the Eleusinian Mysteries, was also celebrated in a more limited way in spring, to greet the rebirth of nature. At harvest time, the great mysteries were celebrated. People from all over the old world attended this annual meeting with unwavering faith. What happened during the Eleusinian mysteries to captivate the people of two millennia? The classical texts do not clarify what happened during the ceremonies, since it was forbidden, under severe penalties, the diffusion of the rituals.

Given the ignorance of the psychoactive properties of many plants, historians have had serious difficulties in explaining the festivals of the eleusinian harvest. Inspirations or representations of a sexual or symbolic nature were considered, but it is clear that there was something else, something very powerful and captivating. Due to the lack of concrete information about the mysteries that have come to us, it is known that in Eleusis each participant ingested something “magical” that transformed his life forever, a potion that opened the doors of heaven to the Initiate. Gordon Wasson was one of the first to attack the problem from another front. During a conference in San Francisco in 1977, ethnobotanists said that psychoactive substances were eaten. This would be ergot from rye, a parasitic fungus that contains psychoactive LSD. The idea is not unattractive. In the Eleusinian Mysteries the cereal, a central element in the harvest feast, was present as the axis of the ceremony. The ergot grows in rye and other cereals, its consumption in concentrated form generates complex visions. With these indications Wasson came to a conclusion: ergot was the main ingredient in the beverage consumed in Eleusis.

But Wasson’s theory presents a problem. The ingestion of ergot, for example through infected wheat, is known to be unattractive. Ergot is toxic, for centuries there have been periodic epidemics in Europe during which thousands of people have died. The cause: bread made from flour obtained from cereals infected with ergot. Ergotism, the disease associated with these cases, generates symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, gangrene in extremities, convulsions and delusions. Some cases of historical diabolical possession can be explained, in light of pharmacology, based on the effects of toxic intake of ergot-contaminated flours, such as the burning of Salem witches.

Under the intuition of the English writer Robert Graves, psilocibic fungi could be the answer, not the ergot. The Eleusinian Mysteries would thus become the last human celebrations that took part in the divine Soma, before the arrival of Christianity would eliminate forever the last vestiges of archaic religion. Pindaro, the classical Greek poet, wrote about those who participated in the mysteries:

Happy of him who, having attended the rites, goes beyond the hollow Earth, because he knows the end of life and his divine principle.