This 30 year old book attempts to explain the secret of the Mystery as being a drug induced hallucination. It notes that "There were physical symptoms ... that accompanied the vision: feat and a trembling in the limbs, vertigo, nausea and a cold sweat." (p 47) It claims that "What was witnessed there was no play by actors, but phasmata, ghostly apparitions" (p 47). Athenians had plays, they would have been too sophisticated to be taken in by mere drama, it claims. The authors note that the Greeks diluted their wine although "Greeks did not know the art of distillation" (p 51); nevertheless "The word for drunkenness in Greek designates a state of raving madness. We hear of some wines so strong that they could be diluted with twenty parts of water and that required at least eight parts of water to be drunk" (p 51). From this they conclude that the Greek process of making wine led to a product that was adulterated with psychotropic impurities "capable of inducing different physical symptoms, ranging from slumber to insomnia and hallucinations" (p 52). The drunken dinner parties therefore connect with the Eleusian Mysteries.
I got a little confused at this point. The authors had a number of suggestions for the source of the drugs used in the mysteries: impure alcohol, ergot on rye grain, baked into bread, sacred mushrooms, etc. So this left a number of questions in my mind:
- If the Greeks were used to ingesting psychotropic substances by accident in undiluted wine, bread made from infected grain etc, why were the Eleusian Mysteries regarded as special?
- Given that most hallucinogens produce markedly different affects in different people, or in the same person at different times, (the authors themselves note symptoms "from slumber to insomnia", two ends of a spectrum) how did the organisers at Eleusis ensure that everyone had more or less the same visions? (This assumes that they did; maybe a lot of people left Eleusis without any religious conversion.)
I think the authors have made the following points successfully:
- Greek wine was unusually potent for some reason
- Greeks were not unused to ingesting psychotropic substances
- Greek myths contain references to hallucinogens in the rites of Persephone, Demeter, Dionysus etc; there are references to Helen adulterating wine with 'nepenthe'; there are references to gathering mushrooms etc; there seem to be words which could be codes for hallucinogenic substances.
- The ceremonies at Eleusis certainly involved all the celebrants imbibing something in preparation.
But what we still need desperately to know is what else happened at Eleusis to give it such immense power to affect people.
I was a little disappointed in the structure of the book. It seems a loose collection of articles by the authors. Two of the articles seem to contain repeated material.
September 2015; 139 pages