Friday 26 March 2021

Drugs and the Mysteries of Eleusis

Were initiates in the Mysteries at Eleusis high on LSD? Another book making this claim came out in September 2020: The immortality key, by Brian Muraresku. It’s a bestseller. Does his argument hold up?

No, it doesn’t. And it’s not even close. The ‘drugs at Eleusis’ theory isn’t based on any evidence at all. It was invented by Carl Kerényi in 1960. Three things fed into it:

  1. A difficult passage in Plato about the sacred objects, or deiknumena, shown to initiates at Eleusis.
  2. A 14th century argument about whether Christians get to go to heaven straight after dying.
  3. Kerényi taking two phrases associated with the above things, conflating them, and mistranslating a key word in Plato.
Barley, not LSD, was the most important ingredient of an ancient Greek energy drink or kykeon.

Pour yourself a whisky, and strap in. For a straightforward and accurate account of Eleusinian initiation, I recommend Michael Cosmopoulos’ 2015 book (see references, bottom). Here’s a quick list of corrections to some widely-believed myths.

  • There’s no evidence of life-changing rapturous ecstasies at Eleusis.
  • There’s no evidence of psychedelic drugs at Eleusis.
  • More generally, there’s no evidence for ancient Greek religious use of any mind-altering substance, except alcohol.
  • Initiation at Eleusis was a long, complex process that took more than a week. It didn’t consist of one ritual drink.
  • The ritual drink was a fairly commonplace porridge. Its role is almost certainly because it came at the end of a day of fasting. It was loaded with religious symbolism, but in practical terms there’s no need to imagine it as anything except an energy drink for hungry people.
  • Ergot fungus, the main candidate for the psychoactive ingredient in the drink, is toxic: it can cause convulsions, vomiting, diarrhoea, and stroke. Long-term, it can cause gangrene and death. Using ergot to make LSD is extremely difficult and requires many processes and chemicals that ancient Greeks definitely did not have access to, including diethylamine and pure hydrazine (the latter is very explosive).
  • Pennyroyal, another candidate, can also be toxic. Enough pennyroyal to cause an effect on the mind is also likely to cause death.

Mainstream scholars usually don’t like talking about the ‘drugs at Eleusis’ myth, because it’s exhausting. There’s no effective way to engage with an endless deluge of speculations, and myths repeated as truths, because the deluge never has to stop.

That style of argument is known as a ‘Gish gallop’, after the creationist debater Duane Gish. In Muraresku’s case, the strategy is to bring up sources and real archaeology; ask leading questions, so as to generate a speculative ‘maybe’; then treat that as ‘there is evidence’. A draught of wine and nightshade mentioned in Dioscorides, and one with juniper found at Tel Kabri in Israel, become evidence for LSD in a specifically non-alcoholic drink at Eleusis.

Once you get past the leading questions and the spurious parallels — as well as Muraresku’s adulation of ‘Western civilization’ and ‘our Greek ancestors’ — the theory boils down to one key premise. Eleusinian initiates had a life-changing ‘beatific vision’. Everything flows from that.

Except ... where does the premise come from?

The beatific vision isn’t in any ancient source. Kerényi invented it.

Kykeon ingredients selected from two different recipes in the Iliad and the Hymn to Demeter. Note: be CAREFUL with this recipe, especially if you’re pregnant. Pennyroyal has a nice fresh flavour, but as little as 5 grams (3/16 oz) can be toxic. (Source: YouTube)

Darkness and light

The main perk of becoming an initiate in the Mysteries was access to the afterlife. Uninitiated people could expect oblivion after death; initiates were given secret knowledge, saw secret sights, and knew secret routes and passwords that would guide them into the ‘meadows of Persephone’. This is the context for two references in Pindar and Sophocles that Muraresku cites (Pindar, fr. 137 Schroeder; Sophocles, fr. 837 Radt = fr. 753 Nauck).

Kerényi and his followers reinterpret that secret knowledge as a life-changing ‘beatific vision’ caused by hallucinogens. The main justification for this is a passage in Plato’s Phaedrus, 250b–c (Muraresku mistakenly cites the Phaedo).

In justice, moderation, and all other things precious in souls, there is no shine in their [earthly] images. Few people approach their likenesses, and when they do, it is through dark [ἀμυδρῶν] senses and with difficulty ... At one time people were able to see brilliant [λαμπρόν] beauty, a blessed sight and spectacle — we did it following Zeus’ train in a blessed procession; others, some other god — and they witnessed and celebrated rites that we rightly call the most blessed ... the sights we were initiated to and observed were perfect, simple, unshakeable, and blessed, in clear light [αὐγῇ καθαρᾷ] ...

Plato isn’t exactly clear. But the central themes here are sight, and light: ‘dark senses’, ‘brilliant beauty’, ‘observing’ things ‘in clear light’.

Plato’s darkness and light imagery will be familiar to anyone who has read his allegory of the Cave in Republic book 7. Darkness symbolises the material world (‘dark senses’); light symbolises philosophical truth (‘brilliant beauty’). But as well as that, literal darkness and light played an important role in Eleusinian initiation.

The gathering hall greater Propylaia, or gateway, to Eleusis as it appears today.

On the sixth night of the initiation, initiands were guided into the gathering hall in total darkness — possibly blindfolded. It seems their guides jostled them around with a fair amount of noise. Some of what happened in the hall was kept secret, but we do know that after a period of stumbling in the dark, the presiding hierophant rang a gong, and the hall or part of it was suddenly lit up. The hierophant (‘someone who shows the sacred’) then showed sacred things, the so-called deiknumena (‘things shown’) to the initiands, while participants surrounded the hall holding hundreds or perhaps thousands of blazing torches. Full initates were epoptai ‘observers’, people who had seen the secret deiknumena.

Here’s a passage from Plutarch, written half a millennium later, that uses similar imagery (On the soul fr. 178 Sandbach).

First there’s wandering and wearisome running around, and a sort of journey through darkness, which is scary and unending [ἀτέλεστοι also means ‘uninitiated’] ... after that there’s an encounter with a kind of wondrous light, and a welcome into open spaces and meadows, with voices and dances and the solemnities of sacred sounds and holy images ...

Here we’ve got the darkness, the light that appeared at the hierophant’s signal, and the deiknumena appear as ‘sacred sounds and holy images’. ‘Open spaces and meadows’ refers to the heavenly afterlife that initiates expect. Mystical texts from Thurii and Pherai, probably dating to the 4th–3rd centuries BCE, paint heaven as a ‘meadow of the blessed’ or ‘the sacred meadows of Persephone’ (Orphic gold tablets L8 and L13: see Bernabé and Jiménez San Cristóbal 2008: 95–98, 151).

Hail, hail; take the path to the right
towards the sacred meadows and groves of Persephone.

‘Beatific vision’: ancient Eleusis and 14th century Christianity

The main reason Kerényi and Muraresku cite the Phaedrus passage above is the word phasmata (φάσματα). Kerényi translates it as ‘“ineffable” and “holy” “Phantoms”’ (1967: 99; the three words come from three different ancient writers!). These ‘phantoms’ are the basis for his idea of ecstatic visions.

Now, in the right context, phasmata could mean ‘phantoms’. But literally it means ‘things shown’. The pha- root is the same as in ‘hierophant’, a ‘person who shows sacred things’.

In other words, the phasmata are yet another reference to the sacred deiknumena. And that’s exactly how they’re treated by more recent specialists, like Cosmopoulos (2015: 23: ‘sculptures illuminated’), Yunis (2011: 151, ‘sacred objects suddenly in view’), and Waterfield (2002: 34, ‘things shown to us’).

But the whole mess wasn’t caused just by the word phasmata, all by itself. Kerényi was also misled by another phrase in the same passage: ‘blessed sight and spectacle’ (μακαρίαν ὄψιν τε καὶ θέαν). By now you’ll realise that that’s yet another reference to the deiknumena.

Kerényi, though, translates it as ‘beatific spectacle and vision’, and argues that it’s parallel to a phrase used in mediaeval Christianity: visio beatifica. ‘Beatific vision’ and ‘phantoms’, taken together, are the origin of the claim that Eleusinian initiation involved a hallucinatory experience.

He was wrong about visio beatifica too. We know, absolutely for certain, that the mediaeval Christian visio beatifica didn’t have anything to do with hallucinations, because their ‘beatific vision’ wasn’t something you experience while you’re still alive: it’s after death. The phrase emerged from a debate in the 1320s–1330s, the so-called ‘Beatific Vision Controversy’, about whether virtuous Christians get to go to heaven and behold God’s divine essence straightaway after dying, or whether their souls have to wait until the Last Judgement.

There’s a subtle difference in how heavenly bliss was articulated before and after the Controversy. Before, in Thomas Aquinas, heavenly bliss was expressed as a ‘beholding of the divine essence’ (visio divinae essentiae) (Summa theol. I-II Q.3 A.8). The Controversy produced a doctrine that the act of beholding, in and of itself, was the thing that made you blessed. So before, heavenly bliss was transitive: there had to be a thing that you were looking at, and it was that thing that was ‘beatifying’ (beatifica). Afterwards, heavenly bliss was intransitive, a state of being.

While the Controversy was underway William of Ockham (yes, the famous Ockham, of ‘Occam’s Razor’) wrote a tract called the Compendium of Pope John XXII’s errors, still using Aquinas’ phrasing: ‘beholding of the divine essence’. Heavenly bliss consisted of ‘seeing God, or the beholding of God’ (videns Deum vel visio Dei). Still all transitive.

The key logical shift came in a tract written by his opponent John Lutterell, Against the doctrine of William of Ockham, §6 (Hoffman 1959: 12).

non requirit obiectum visibile essentialiter ... igitur visio beatifica potest esse obiecto beatifico absente ...

It does not in and of itself require a visible object ... Therefore beholding (visio) can be beatifying (beatifica), in the absence of an object that beatifies (beatifico).

In 1334, just before Pope John XXII’s death, the Controversy was resolved with a formula that united both perspectives (Otto 1930: 228).

quod sanctorum anime exute et purgate sunt in celo, celorum regno et paradiso, cum Christo, angelorum consortio aggregate, videntque Deum et divinam essentiam, facie ad faciem, clare, secundum statum et conditionem separationis ipsarum, quam visionem credo fore beatificam.

For the souls of the saints are shriven and cleansed in heaven, in the kingdom of heaven and Paradise, with Christ, and are joined with the fellowship of the angels; and they behold God and the divine essence, face to face, clearly, according to the state and condition of their separation, which I believe will be a beatific vision.

It took a while for the new phrase visio beatifica to catch on. Pope John XXII’s sermons, which started the controversy, don’t use the phrase; neither does another tract by Lutterell, in spite of its title: the Letter about the beatific vision (Epistula de visione beatifica) — it obviously got its title later after the dust had settled. Shortly after the Controversy finished, Petrarch was already mingling the transitive and intransitive notions of ‘beatific vision’: he writes in a letter in 1336 about ‘the beatific vision of God, in which the consummation of human blessedness consists’ (beatifica visione Dei in qua consummata felicitas hominis consistit; Ep. familiares 2.12.9).

The long and short of it is that the actual meaning of visio beatifica is irrelevant for Kerényi and Muraresku. They just want a phrase that can be reinterpreted as ‘hallucination’. The mediaeval visio beatifica was a subtle point about whether it’s God, or vision in and of itself, that beatifies the dead saints; Plato’s ‘blessed sight and spectacle’ is a reference to the sacred deiknumena.

The kykeon

Just a short note about the kykeon, the ritual drink that was supposedly the vehicle for the hallucinogens. Kykeon was a general term that literally means ‘mixture’, from the verb root kyka- ‘stir’. It wasn’t unique to Eleusis. It genuinely had a role in the Mysteries, at the end of the day of fasting on the sixth day. But there’s no indication that it had any unusual effect or that its ingredients were treated in any special way. It was linked to the fasting by a ritual formula ‘I fasted, I drank the kykeon’ (Clem. Alex. Protrept. 2.21).

The defining ingredient of a kykeon was barley meal, well-suited to rites involving Demeter. Two Homeric lists of ingredients (Il. 11.624–641, Od. 10.234–236) also include honey, wine, and goat cheese. The version used at Eleusis contained pennyroyal and expressly did not contain wine (H. Dem. 206–209).

Its appeal for the hallucinogen theory is that two sources link it to the word pharmakon ‘remedy, drug’. Hipponax fr. 39 West calls a kykeon a ‘pharmakon for wretchedness’; and in the Odyssey, Circe puts ‘harmful pharmaka’ in a kykeon that she serves to Odysseus’ men, designed to make them forgetful so that she can turn them into animals. In Hipponax the pharmakon is curative; in the Odyssey it’s clearly magical, but it and the kykeon itself are clearly separate things, and it has nothing to do with anything we hear about Eleusis.

The most common function attested for kykeons is medical, as a curative and refreshing draught (Delatte 1955: 28–29). In that capacity it was eminently suitable for initiands after a day of fasting. A scholion on the Iliad recipe is especially clear about this function: it observes that cheese and barley were considered to encourage phlegm production, wine was good for bloodflow, and onion was a diuretic; then states (sch. B on Il. 11.624)

The drink isn't given for medical treatment, but for refreshment. After all, Nestor drinks it too. The kykeon is suitable for people with ailments, since it provides both nourishment and drink at once.


Thanks to Mischa Hooker (@pseudepigraphon) for pointing out the ‘blessed spectacle’ in the Plato passage.


For a concise, up-to-date overview of initiation at Eleusis, see Cosmopoulos 2015: 14–24 (which supersedes older overviews by Mylonas and Burkert). On the kykeon, see Richardson 1974: 344–348; Rinella 2012: 85–87. On the role of light and darkness in the initiation rite, see Clinton 2003, 2004.

  • Bernabé, A.; Jiménez San Cristóbal, A. I. 2008. Instructions for the netherworld. The Orphic gold tablets. Brill.
  • Clinton, K. 2003. ‘Stages of initiation in the Eleusinian and Samothracian Mysteries.’ In: Cosmopoulos, M. B. (ed.) Greek Mysteries. Routledge. 50–78.
  • Clinton, K. 2004. ‘Epiphany in the Eleusinian Mysteries.’ Illinois Classical Studies 2: 85–109 (JSTOR link).
  • Cosmopoulos, M. B. 2015. Bronze Age Eleusis and the origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Cambridge.
  • Delatte, A. 1955. Le cycéon. Breuvage rituel des Mystères d’Éleusis. Les belles lettres.
  • Hoffmann, F. 1959. Die Schriften des Oxforder Kanzlers Iohannes Lutterell. St. Benno-Verlag (Leipzig).
  • Kerényi, C. 1967 [1960]. Eleusis. Archetypal image of mother and daughter. Trans. R. Manheim. Princeton. First publ. as Eleusis. De heiligste mysteriën van Griekenland, 1960; orig. text first publ. as Die Mysterien von Eleusis, 1962.
  • Otto, H. 1930. ‘Zum Streite um die visio beatifica.’ Historisches Jahrbuch 50: 227–232 (DigiZeitschriften link).
  • Richardson, N. J. 1974. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Oxford.
  • Rinella, M. 2012. Pharmakon. Plato, drug culture, and identity in ancient Athens. Lexington Books (Lanham, MD).
  • Waterfield, R. 2002. Plato. Phaedrus. Oxford World’s Classics.
  • Yunis, H. 2011. Plato’s Phaedrus. Cambridge.