Has the Mystery of the Eleusinian Mysteries been solved?
Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness,
Issue 3, 1994, pp325-336. ©VWB - Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 1995.
In ancient Greece near Eleusis, about 20 kilometers north-west
from Athens, a special event was celebrated every September. According
to the tradition the goddess Demeter was said to have been reunited
here with her daughter Kore, who was also known as Persephone,
after she had been kidnapped by the god of the underworld Pluto.
The festival of the mysteries took place twice a year, in spring
and in autumn, but the former was not so great and important as
the latter. The mysteries, whose origins date to the prehellenic
era, became particularly popular when Eleusis came under sovereignty
of Athens. In the 5th century B.C. the telesterionthe great
hall of mysteries was built there. In this building the most important
part of the ritual is supposed to have occurred: the ingestion
of the kykeon, the mysterious sacrament that caused in
participants intensive psychic changes, which cleared their souls,
and made them accept death not so much as harm as a blessing,
as one of the ancient diarists reported. In the late Roman period
the mysteries no longer took place every year, and the cult was
finally destroyed in 395 A.D. or the year after it when the troops
of Alaric demolished the temple at Eleusis.
The organization of the September' s ritual, which lasted nine
days, was supervised by two families who passed the performance
of their duties from generation to generation. They were forbidden
to reveal the essence of the mysteries, the slightest revelation
was threatened by death penalty. The secret of the mysteries had
been extremely well guarded, so that with the rise of Christianity
the sure knowledge about the essence of the mysteries and especially
of the nature of the Eleusinian sacrament has been lost forever.
Anyone who spoke Greek could be initiated, even slaves and women
(GOLDHILL, 1993), which leads to the conclusion that the ingestion
of the kykeon must not have had a detrimental effect on possible
pregnancies. Initiates were promised a special life in the underworld
after death, and during the Roman era the festival became a cosmopolitan
event. Great processions went from Athens to Eleusis with songs
and other ritual celebrations on the only road built in ancient
Greece before the arrival of the Romans. The dramatic enactment
of the myth of Demeter and Kore was the most famous and widely
celebrated cult in the ancient Greek world.
The central mystery of the Eleusinian mysteries pertains to the
nature of the kykeonthe mixture drunk by initiates at the autumnal
Eleusinian festival. It was no doubts of palpable nature, so that
something was drunk in the telesterion in reality and not only
in effigy as some historians supposed. This is well supported
by the infamous scandalous event that took place in 415 B.C. when
the powerful political and military leader of Athens Alkibiades
stole the kykeon at Eleusis and entertained by it himself and
his friends. Another conclusion can be inferred from this incident:
the ingestion of the kykeon must have been a pleasant and therefore
sought-after experience. This was confirmed by many writers of
antiquity who participated at the mysteries, and to my knowledge
there are no reports on bad trips in the ancient texts that have
On the contrary, many wrote about the joyful, revealing, truly
psychedelic or entheogenic experience (ta hierathe holy
was the only term that initiates were supposed to say when describing
their mysterious experience).
The ingredients of the kykeon were revealed in the seventh century
B.C. in the so called Homeric Hymn to Demeter (it was written
by an anonymous poet and not by Homer) as follows; water, barley
and blechon or glechona fragrant Mediterranean
mint, probably Mentha pulegium or Mentha aquatica (RÄTSCH,
1992). This is the only known reference to the composition of
the kykeon and it seems somehow incompatible with the secret tightly
guarded by the two hierophantic families who were in charge of
making it and dispensing at Eleusis. After all, if the recipe
for the kykeon had been as simple as that mentioned in the Homeric
Hymn, many in ancient Greece would have been mixing their own
kykeon, which was, of course, not the case.
As to who first surmised that the kykeon had had psychedelic activity,
I have come across three references. According to different sources
it was in 1956 or 1962 or 1964 that the hypothesis was proposed
that the kykeon might have contained a psychedelic substance.
ALBERT HOFMANN (1983) cites KARL KERÉNYI'S work (1962)
as the first having made the statement that the kykeon was a mixture
containing a hallucinogenic drug. JONATHAN OTT in Pharmacotheon
(1993) says that this idea was first suggested by R. GORDON
WASSON in 1956, while TERENCE McKENNA in Food of the Gods (1992)
gives this credit to ROBERT GRAVES in 1964. Be that as it may,
both, WASSON and GRAVES believed that the intoxicating beverage
most probably contained mushrooms. WASSON thought that the secret
of the mysteries would be found in indoles, while GRAVES gave
more credence to the fly agaric hypothesis, although he conceded
that also a psilocybian mushroom (Panaeolus papilionaceus)
may have been added to the kykeon. (A collection of GRAVES'
work, published in London in 1962, sets the origin of this text
in 1960.) What catches one's attention is that mushrooms are quite
unlike any of the ingredients of the kykeon, according to the
Let us for a moment digress to a similar mystery to that of Eleusis:
the nature of the famous Vedic medicine soma and its Iranian variety
haoma. In Rig Veda and Atharva Veda there are many references
to the appearance as well as the action of soma, and based on
them numerous hypotheses were proposed about its botanical identity.
Researchers suggested that soma was fly agaric, Syrian rue, ephedra,
mandrake or other tropane derivatives containing plants, hemp,
psilocybian mushrooms (e.g. Stropharia cubensis) and a
couple of other plants, each differing from one another more than
perceptibly in its shape and the psychoactive effects it induces.
Today the mystery of soma lies unresolved as so many of the passages
in the Vedas that refer to soma are too vague and much more unreliable
in their meaning than presumed by WASSON and other scholars who
attempted its solving. Is there any possibility that this is the
case also for the Eleusinian mysteries, that the reference in
the Homeric Hymn of the kykeon is not only unreliable but even
deceptive in order to hide the true nature of the sacred libation?
For this and other reasons that will be mentioned, some researchers,
in recent years most notably T. McKENNA, believe that the mystery
of the Eleusinian mysteries has not been satisfactorily solved.
Researchers who attempted to solve the Eleusinian mystery according
to the Hymn to Demeter directed their attention to barley since
few if any mints are psychoactive. Barley has been known to have
been infested like other grains by rust-ergot fungus (Claviceps
purpurea and Claviceps paspali) since ancient times
Many written testimonies exist about that. Ergot does have established
psychedelic effects, it is after all the source of Iysergic acid,
the precursor of many psychedelic substances, among them LSD.
It seemed only natural that the parasitic fungus growing
on barley rendered to the Eleusinian sacrament its psychedelic
The theory that the kykeon derived its psychoactive effects from
ergot was proposed at the Second International Conference on Hallucinogenic
Mushrooms near Port Townsend, WA on October 28th, 1977, by R.
GORDON WASSON, ALBERT HOFMANN and CARL A. P. RUCK. Next year appeared
the famous book The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the
Secret of the Mysteries by the same authors. In it, at first, Wasson
gives an account of his experience with Mexican psilocybian mushrooms
and explains why he thinks that the drinking of the Eleusinian
potion involved a similar experience.
The second part, written by A. HOFMANN, offers an explanation
of how in ancient Greece a psychedelic potion could have been
prepared from the ergot fungus. HOFMANN explains that ergoline
alkaloids more or less fall into two categories: non-water soluble
peptide alkaloids, which exert more toxic effects, and water soluble
Iysergic acid derivatives with psychedelic effects more pronounced.
Of the latter that appear in nature the most important are ergine
(D-lysergic acid amide) the psychoactive principle of many
species of Convolvulaceae, and ergonovine (D-lysergic acid-L-2-propanolamide).
HOFMANN reports that he ingested 2.0 mg of ergonovine maleate,
which is about six times the normal dose used in medicine for
ceasing postpartum haemorrhaging He experienced some psychedelic
activity that lasted more than five hours, although WASSON and
RUCK, who later also took ergonovine maleate at the same dose,
did not experience any distinct psychedelic effects. HOFMANN stated
that the ancient Greeks, or at least some of them, could have
made a safe psychedelic beverage with an aqueous infusion of ergot
thereby separating the water soluble alkaloids from more dangerous
But when GORDON WASSON asked HOFMANN the question: Whether early
man in Greece could have hit on a method to isolate a hallucinogen
from ergot...", his answer to this challenging question considered
two possibilities: one was the above-mentioned aqueous extract
from ergot of barley with ergonovine as a possible psychoactive
agent, and the other was what one could call the Paspalum-ergot
hypothesis. Claviceps paspali, which only very seldom infest
barley, is often found on the Mediterranean wild grass Paspalum
distichum, which must surely have grown also near Eleusis.
ALBERT HOFMANN writes in his contribution to The Road to Eleusis
that this finding may prove to be of the utmost importance
in considering WASSON'S question: the main alkaloids isolated
from ergot of Paspalum are the same as those found in the ancient
Mexican sacred drug ololiuqui, i.e. ergine and Iysergic acid hydroxyethylamide.
In his opinion the Paspalum-ergot hypothesis is much more probable
than the barley-ergot hypothesis, as it is well established that
these alkaloids have psychedelic activity. In the psychedelic
usage of seeds of Convolvulaceae he sees the convincing proof
that the Paspalum-ergot hypothesis is tenable (HOFMANN, 1994).
In the third part C.A.P. RUCK with the assistance of DANNY STAPLES
renders detailed explanation of the Hymn to Demeter and cites
the information from related Greek texts that pertain to Demeter's
Eleusinian cult. In this and two following writings RUCK (1981;
1983) expounds some historical evidence that ergot was the key
ingredient in Demeter's potion, from the fact that Demeter was
often called Ersybeergot to the purple colour of her robes,
which was supposed to reflect the dark purplish-brown hue of Claviceps.
It would seem that the kykeon containing ergot of Paspalum
is not the kykeon according to the Homeric Hymn any more. But
in HOFMANN'S opinion barley was not believed to be the psychedelic
principle, but a nutrient extract and mint as a stomachicum. The
admixture of mint fits well into the ergot hypothesis of the kykeon,
because it is well known that ergot preparations produce light
nausea which can be counteracted by mint (HOFMANN, 1994). There
is no doubt that principle ergoline alkaloids of C. paspali
produce a genuine psychedelic reaction.
The WASSON/HOFMANN/RUCK theory, albeit bold, seems to be well
argued. But, as the burden of proof is on those who assert, we
must ask along with T. McKENNA if it has been subjected to the
acid test (McKENNA, 1992): that means actually brewing the superior
psychedelically working kykeon from ergot infested plants. After
HOFMANN'S and his co-authors' self-experiments, there seem to
be only three more published accounts of similar trials. All were
with pure substances: ergonovine maleate (BIGWOOD ET AL.,
1979) and methylergonovine (OTT & NEELY, 1980), but
none were with an aqueous solution of ergot. In a recent letter
JONATHAN OTT (1994) informed me that to his knowledge no one has
yet shown by psychonautic assay that the WASSON/HOFMANN/RUCK kykeon
(a filtered aqueous infusion of ergot of barley, as he says) definitely
yields a psychedelic experience.
The results with the mentioned ingestion of ergonovine and
methyl-ergonovine, respectively, were not exactly impressive
and, in other words, not at all confirmative of the ergot of barley
hypothesis considering they were purported to assess it. JEREMY
BIGWOOD, JONATHAN OTT, CATHERINE THOMPSON and PATRICIA NEELY in
August 1978 repeated Hofmann's experiment with higher doses:
from 3.0 to 10.0 mg of ergonovine maleate (BIGWOOD ET AL., 1979).
The intoxication at 3.0 mg produced very mild visual alterations,
lassitude and mild leg cramps. The effects tapered off in seven
hours. At 5.0 mg, lassitude and cramps were more pronounced. The
psychic effects were also more intense, particularly eidetic phenomena,
but they were still mild, while the somatic effects were quite
strong. Only at 10.0 mg were visual effects comparable to a threshold
dose of LSD or psilocybin, but the physical effects (cramping)
were already painful and debilitating. The experimenters were
also in a kind of dreamy state, as the natural psychoactive ergoline
alkaloids, apart from LSD, show a pronounced narcotic component.
The researchers concluded that, although psychedelic effects of
ergonovine were similar to those of a minimal dose of LSD, its
somatic effects so much overshadowed the psychic ones that they
had no wish to ingest it at psychedelic doses any more. Two years
later J. OTT and P. NEELY (1980) attempted a similar experiment
with methylergonovine (D-lysergic acid-(+)-2-butanolamide)
at 2.0 mg each. Somatic effects included vertigo, salivation,
mild cramping, yawning, and psychic effects mostly excited imagination
and visualization from auditory cues. The trip was reminiscent
of LSD but much milder and more superficial. As with ergonovine,
a semi-narcotic state was experienced during it. Uncomfortable
somatic effects, again this time, were overshadowing bland psychic
changes, which were a far cry from what the Homeric Hymn tells
about the initiation experience at Eleusis: "Blissful is
he among men on Earth who has beheld that", or what PINDAR
and CICERO and others reported.
The latest published experiment with the ingestion of an ergoline
alkaloid is by MICHAEL RIPINSKY-NAXON, who in his book The
Nature of Shamanism (1993) mentions that he and his co-workers
ingested 6.0 mg of ergonovine without giving many details about
the setting. They had unimpressive psychic changes, mostly low
perceptual alterations, accompanied with leg cramps.
As I have already mentioned, there are no reports on experiments
with water soaked ergot rust, which is completely understandable
keeping in mind the historical evidence about the ingestion of
ergot infested grain. Ergotism killed thousands of people, and
very unpleasant experiences can be logically expected by those
who set out to prove the ergot of barley hypothesis. Reservations
about this part of WASSON/HOFMANN/RUCK theory are best summarized
by T. McKENNA (1992): how could an ergotized beverage have been
taken for so many centuries without unpleasant side effects, becoming
a part of the legend? As it was clearly shown, even water soluble
alkaloids exert painful somatic effects. How is it that no ancient
writer who wrote about the Eleusinian initiation mentioned the
similarities between it and ergot poisoning? They were all deeply
impressed by the experience in a positive way, and reports exist
only on truly psychedelic and even transcendental experiences.
There are no reports on bad trips accompanied with somatic tormentation
and pain that always result from ergot ingestion.
Despite the fact that certain ergoline alkaloid containing fungi
are used in psychedelic preparations in some parts of the world
(OTT, 1993), it is clear that they are used only as additives
to another component that has the central psychedelic role in
a preparation, and that they tend to produce a much more deliriant
entheogenic experience, especially when used alone.
Is there any possibility that the kykeon might have contained
other ingredients besides those mentioned in the Hymn to Demeter
that alleviated the unpleasant effects of ergoline alkaloids?
Some researchers (RÄTSCH, 1992; RIPINSKY-NAXON, 1993) suppose
that opium was an additive to the kykeon. Demeter as well as Persephone
were associated with poppy and many iconographic motifs of the
two goddesses with poppy pods have been found. It is well known
that more or less all depressants (e.g. neuroleptics, barbiturates,
benzodiazepines) suppress an LSD induced psychedelic reaction,
and among some LSD consumers the easiest way to abort the trip
is by smoking some heroin.
I asked some researchers about the possible interaction of ergoline
and opium alkaloids. J. OTT (1994) is skeptical of presumed anti-LSD
activity of heroin and other opiates, whereas A. HOFMANN (1994)
and ALEXANDER SHULGIN (1994) believe that opiates must have, like
other downers, a diminishing effect on a lysergic acid derivative
induced trip. Since no controlled human studies seem to exist
about that interaction, there is only some animal work to refer
to (experiments cited by SANKAR, 1975). It showed a clear antagonism
between LSD and morphine in mice, rabbits and dogs, but Shulgin
says that he would look at SANKAR'S review with some care. As
we know that the psychedelic reaction is almost impossible to
observe in experimental animals, the definitive solution of this
problem cannot be expected until human trials are conducted in
accordance with relevant statistical criteria. Yet, I think, it
is plausible to conjecture that a possible opium addition to an
ergotized preparation could only diminish its psychedelic strength
and not enhance it.
And so, is there a reasonable probability that ergot of barley
or some of its alkaloids played the central psychedelic role in
the kykeon? In the opinion of some researchers, including me,
it is not very likely. Only by the ingestion of the kykeon, mixed
according to the first part of the WASSON/HOFMANN/RUCK theory
m a sufficient dose to produce a genuine psychedelic experience
without some dire consequences, can this hypothesis be irrevocably
proved or disproved. It is unfortunate for research but, I believe,
by all means fortunate for researchers, that no one has attempted
to do so. In one of his letters, JONATHAN OTT (1994) informed
me that he intended to test the ergot (of barley) hypothesis one
day soon. I think that we all should eagerly, but of course not
too eagerly, expect the results of his ergot-self-experimentation.
The Paspalum-ergot hypothesis is much less publicized and sometimes
even omitted in many a work that deals with the Eleusinian mysteries
as well as in letters I have exchanged with some of their authors
recently. In practically all writings after The Road to Eleusis
about this topic I have come across the emphasis on and sometimes
even the preoccupation with ergot of barley (C. purpurea) as
the central ingredient of the kykeon and ergonovine as its most
important psychedelic alkaloid (cf. just the most recent work:
RÄTSCH, 1992; OTT, 1993; ripinsky-naxon, 1993). This is no
doubts the consequence of literally sticking to the words of the
Hymn to Demeter, which I firmly believe do not contain the truth,
or at least not the whole truth about the composition of the kykeon.
As to the Paspalum-ergot hypothesis, I must say at first that
I have not come across any reference about the ingestion of C.
paspali by man, either accidentally or on purpose. It is
only known that a neurological disorder, Dalligrass poisoning
also called "paspalum staggers", occurs when cattle
graze Paspalum dilatatum infected with the fungus Claviceps
paspali (COLE & AL., 1977; SPRINGER & CLARDY, 1980;
GALLAGHER, LEUTWILER & AL., 1980). Clinical signs of paspalum
staggers are tremors, which are exaggerated by enforced movement,
hyperexcitability and ataxia. Mortalities from the disease are
generally caused by accident or inability of affected animals
to obtain water. Affected animals generally recover from the disease
if removed from the toxic pasture.
At least five tremorgenic substances were isolated from Claviceps
paspali, three of them were named as paspaline, paspalicine
and paspalinine. With the Paspalum-ergot hypothesis there
are two possibilities:
1) The paspali metabolites, which are soluble in most organic
solvents (COLE ET AL., 1977), are not water soluble, or at least
not in a sufficient grade to have been extracted in the kykeon.
If these alkaloids accumulate mostly intracellurarly in oleosomes
as do ergopeptides in Claviceps purpurea, then it is reasonable
to conclude that they were not in the kykeon in toxic quantities.
2) If the paspali metabolites are water soluble and accumulate
mostly extracellularly like simple Iysergic acid derivatives and
clavines, it would mean that the kykeon must have been tremorgenic
at least. There is, of course, some possibility that the paspali
alkaloids produce toxic symptoms only in cattle and mice, but
this is to my opinion extremely low possibility.
I would not consider the conclusion made by HOFMANN by analogy
with Mexican preparations of seeds of Convolvulaceae as a convincing
proof, which, I think, can come only through the ingestion of
the ergot of Paspalum infusion. Until either barley-ergot or Paspalum-ergot
part of the WASSON/HOFMANN/RUCK theory, or for that matter any
theory or hypothesis that tries to explain a phenomenon and can
be experimentally proved, is rendered proven in this way, it is
equally legitimate though not equally plausible, to hold any explanation
as convincing (CASTI, 1990). To my knowledge there has been not
a single attempt to ingest water soaked ergot with other putative
ingredients that would simulate the kykeon in a controlled environment.
What can be found aplenty in some writings are explanations of
ways, more or less very complicated, of how ergot could be ingested
safely. It is this discrepancy between theoretical discourse and
the lack of experimental evidence that my criticism is aimed at
in the first place. No wonder then that due to the lack of hard
data some recent work on the Eleusinian mysteries denies any psychoactivity
of the kykeon (FOLEY, 1994), or does not mention the kykeon at
all (GOLDHILL 1993).
In both hypotheses of the WASSON/HOFMANN/RUCK Eleusinian theory
we have a verifiable scientific hypothesis, but which seems that
it cannot be verified at no costs and dangers for experimental
human subjects. It would be difficult to comply with all moral
as well as methodological requirements that are required by a
scientific experiment with human subjects (cf. SHERIDAN, 1976;
CRAIG & METZE, 1979; SHULGIN & SHULGIN, 1993), which means
among other things that one self-experiment (although better than
none) cannot have general scientific validity. In what direction
should the future research proceed in elucidating more thoroughly
the action of the discussed possible ingredients of the kykeon,
among them primarily ergot of Paspalum? In the first place sound
models of its working in animals must be obtained (I hope no member
of animal rights groups is reading this). If the animal research
indicates that the toxicity of the Paspalum-ergot infusion can
be tolerated in estimated psychedelic dosage in man, then I see
for a very curious researcher only to proceed with self-experimentation
as described in SHULGIN'S Pihkal (1991): to start with
obviously insufficient doses, and gradually making the dosage
larger until either the toxic or psychedelic effects render it
But if future research shows that ergot could hardly be the mystical
ingredient of the Eleusinian mysterious mixture, some other psychoactive
plants must be supposed to substitute it. I agree with ROBERT
GRAVES and TERENCE McKENNA that there exists also reasonable possibility
that psilocybian mushrooms might have helped to produce the astonishment
and ecstasy in ancient initiates, who ascribed to the Eleusinian
mysteries a veritable transcendental quality. Of course, there
may exist other interactions among psychoactive plants that we
are not aware of today, but the information about them was no
secret to a priest clan in ancient Greece. Will we know one day
once and for all what was the essence of the sacred drink at Eleusis?
Maybe, if there is a sealed vessel, buried deep under the ruins
of the telesterion near today's Elefsina, waiting still to be
I am indebted to Albert Hofmann, Jonathan Ott, Christian Rätsch
and Alexander Shulgin for their help and critical comments.
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