The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries by Robert Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl Ruck explores the notion of natural psychedelic agents having been used in spiritual rituals across history and cultures. Drawing on their expertise from three separate disciplines, mycology, chemistry, and history, the authors explore the possibility that the sacred potion given to participants in the course of an ancient ritual may have in fact contained a psychoactive entheogen, and this has spurred an ongoing debate that is unsettled up to this date. The book touches upon themes concerning the universality of experiential religion, the suppression of that knowledge by exploitative forces, and the use of psychedelics to reconcile the human condition.
Summary Review of LSD – The Road to Eleusis
Author: Alex Criddle is an independent researcher, writer, and editor. He has a Masters in Philosophy, where his thesis was on the nature of healing in psychedelic experiences. He’s worked as a researcher at a clinic doing ketamine-assisted psychotherapy and as a psychedelic integration guide. His writing, psychedelic philosophy course, and contact information can be found at https://alexcriddle.com
When this book was first published it contained a groundbreaking, yet controversial thesis: that the ancient peoples were ceremonially using these substances and they aided in the development of Western civilization. It also offered a new name for psychedelics that has gained some traction since they proposed the term entheogens. This book contains insights from some of the most notable psychedelic researchers from the 50s and 60s on the pharmacology of ergot, the universality of religion, and the true nature of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Chapter 1 – The Wasson Road to Eleusis (Gordon Wasson)
- Wasson is looking to compare the Greek Mysteries of Eleusis to a cult of inebriating mushrooms in Mexico.
- He describes the journey of his ethnomycological investigations in Europe, Asia, and Mexico.
- He and his wife figured there were two attitudes towards mushrooms: mycophilia and mycophobia. It appears that many of the Indo-European people suffered from mycophobia or at least would not talk about them.
- He first found success in pursuing a hypothetical sacred mushroom in Mexico in 1952 with reports from 15th-century Spanish friars who reported a strange mushroom cult among the natives.
- He quotes Aristides the Rhetor in the 2nd century speaking of the Eleusinian mysteries and notes that it is a point by point description of the Mesoamerican mushroom rites.
- Mushrooms clear someone’s vision, allowing them to see the beauty of everything. This is the source of Plato’s philosophy.
- Wasson thinks that the Greek word ekstasis came into being to describe the effect of the Mystery of Eleusis.
Chapter 2 – A Challenging Question and My Answer (Albert Hofmann)
- Here Albert Hofmann gives the results of his searching into the Eleusinian Mysteries after Wasson asked him whether the ancient Greeks could have found a method to isolate a hallucinogen from ergot comparable to psilocybin or LSD.
- Ergot is a fungus on rye and other grains such as barley or wheat as well as some wild grasses. Ergot on rye is the most important of the bunch. It started as a poison but has become a treasure trove of useful pharmaceuticals.
- It was first mentioned as a remedy for childbirth in 1582. It was reported as useful for childbirth again in 1824.
- After his pioneering work with LSD, Hofmann synthesized and determined the structure of psilocybin and psilocin. Following that he wanted to tackle another Mexican plant, ololiuhqui.
- After analyzing them he found that they contained psychoactive principles via ergot alkaloids, closely related to LSD.
- The main constituents of the ololiuhqui, Mexican morning-glory seeds, are lysergic acid amide (ergine) and lysergic acid hydroxyethylamide–the main alkaloids in ergot growing on wild grass found in the Mediterranean basin.
- The Greeks didn’t have rye, but they did have wheat and barley. When ergot infects them it produces the same psychoactive products as the ololiuhqui.
- It would have been easily possible for the ancient peoples to separate the hallucinogenic agents with water from the non-soluble ergotamine and ergotoxine alkaloids.
- To answer Wasson’s question, Hofmann answers yes. It would have been possible for ancient Greeks to have a hallucinogen from ergot quite easily.
Chapter 3 – Solving the Eleusinian Mystery (Carl Ruck)
- Ruck begins by describing the circumstances surrounding the Mysteries: the journey to Athens, the Sacred Road, and diagramming the excavated remains of the Eleusinian sanctuary. He’ll try to piece together what we know about the Mysteries.
- Ancient writers were allowed to say that something was seen in the initiation hall. It was a vision. People encountered ghostly apparitions and the spirit of Persephone. It wasn’t merely a theatrical trick as well known playwriters and poets such as Sophocles and Pindar testified to the value of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
- There were physical symptoms associated with the vision such as fear and trembling in the limbs, nausea, vertigo, and a cold sweat. Then the vision came.
- The vision dissolved the division between earth and sky and the eyes had never seen what they then saw. The experience was incommunicable and poets could only say that they had seen the beginning and end of life and knew that they were one.
- The sights were offered to thousands of initiates each year dependably upon schedule, so a hallucinogen must have caused it. Additionally, we know that a special potion was drunk prior to the experience and there was a scandal uncovered in the classical age when they found that many aristocratic Athenians had begun celebrating the Mystery at home with groups of drunken guests.
- Ruck suggests that to identify the drug we have to find the pattern underlying the Mystery. The story guiding the mysteries is the alleged Homeric hymn to Demeter, an anonymous poem dating to the 7th century B.C.
- The goddess Persephone was abducted by Hades to the realm of the dead when she picked a special 100-head narkissos while gathering flowers. The Greeks thought that narkissos was named because of its’ narcotic properties.
- Plato gives a rationalized version of the story where the companion of the maiden is Pharmaceia (“use of drugs”). So Persephone’s abduction was a drug-induced seizure.
- Key in the ancient agrarian religions was this Sacred Marriage where the priestess communed with spirits in the earth to renew the agricultural year. The myths regarding the founding of Mycenae (Mykenai) say it was founded when the female lost her head to the male of the new dynasty who had picked a mushroom. Mykenai comes from Mykene or mykes meaning mushroom.
- Dionysus utilized the agency of other plants in his inebriants (he wasn’t just the god of wine). One of his symbols was the phallos or the mykes (mushroom). Mushrooms were also considered a fermentation of the earth.
- The Greeks diluted their wine with at least three parts water producing only slightly inebriating properties. Their distillation process could have only yielded alcohol at a max of 14% by volume.
- Drunkenness in Ancient Greece designates a state of raving madness. Some wines were so strong they had to be diluted with twenty parts of water or it could kill. This was because they mixed other herbal toxins into their wine.
- In Homer’s Odyssey, Helen prepares a special wine by adding nepenthes to the wine. The Greeks had a spectrum of ingredients for their drinks, each with its own properties.
- Ruck then makes the case that barley, and ergot, were Demeter’s plants, linking her presence in the stories of the Mystery with the actual plant utilized in the Mysteries.
- A fragment of Demes, a comedy written by Eupolis in the 5th century B.C. confirms that it the profanation of Athenians drinking the Mystery at home occurred through the sacred kykeon. In the fragment, an informer explains to a judge that he came across someone who had been drinking the potion because he had barley groats in his moustache.
Chapter 4 – Ancillary Data
- Months of learning and rituals preceded the revelation on the Mystery night providing further detail, meaning, and substance of the coming vision.
- The herbalists’ dosages were secret, being passed on by word of mouth to apprentices. The apprenticeship took years before being completed.
- In Mexico, a few gifted Spaniards spent considerable time and effort trying to take down the virtues of the Mexican plants from natives but were too ignorant to capture it fully.
- In both the Greek and Mexican rituals, participants refrained from drinking alcohol for days prior.
- In Greece, the aristocratic families of Eumolpus and Kerykes guarded the Eleusinian Mysteries while in Mexico each village had its elders who were custodians of the rite.
- The authors suggest that the rites were not secret in Mexico, but rather secrecy was imposed by the white man due to their lack of intelligent and sympathetic curiosity.
Chapter 5 – The Homeric Hymn to Demeter
- In this chapter, Danny Staples provides a new translation of this hymn which was central to the Mysteries.
Chapter 6 – Documentation (Ruck)
- In this chapter, Ruck provides his documentation and citations of the ancient sources that support their conclusions regarding the Mystery of Eleusis. The previous chapters were lacking in citations and sources but it seems that the majority of the claims made by the authors find their support in this chapter. The reader could essentially skip chapters 3 and 4 and read this chapter instead. It provides the citations and makes the same claims, while also providing more of an argument for them, as the previous chapters.
Chapter 7 – Entheogens
- In this three-page chapter, the authors make the case that the terms “hallucinogenic” or “psychedelic” are problematic because they impose judgement on the experiences and stem from problematic research. They instead propose the term “entheogen” as a better alternative.
Afterwards – The Message of the Eleusinian Mysteries for Today’s World (Hofmann)
- If the hypothesis that an LSD-like consciousness-altering drug was present in the kykeon is correct, then the authors suggest that the Mysteries have relevance for us in both a spiritual-existential sense and in attaining mystical insights into the riddle of life.
- Greeks’ experience of reality had the ego separated from the exterior world. And an ego capable of confronting an exterior world was a precondition for Western scientific research.
- The perspective of man in opposition to nature has done catastrophic damage to the earth and its people. It has caused the individual to lose connection to the spiritual worldview and the ground of all being.
- The Eleusinian Mysteries were a way to heal and transcend the division between mankind and nature.
- A prerequisite for meaningful use and proper experience of these entheogens or Sacred Drugs are a proper external environment and a spiritual preparation. The Mexican people thought that if the substances were taken by an impure person (one who hasn’t fasted and prepared for the ceremony) it could cause insanity or death as was sometimes seen in the 1960s.