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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 12 September 2016

"The Road to Eleusis" by Gordon Wasson, Albert Hoffman and Carla Ruck

Eleusis was a place where Athenian used to travel to take part in a religious rite which unlocked some sort of secret about the meaning of life; they were forbidden to reveal the secrets under pain of death and this prohibition seems to have been successful although in 415 BC Alcibiades and his chums were accused of "celebrating the Mystery at home with groups of drunken guests at dinner parties" (p 47). Perhaps it was not so much that the Mystery shouldn't be told but that it couldn't: "Even a poet could only say that he had seen the beginning and the end of life and known that they were one, something given by god. The division between earth and sky melted into a pillar of light." (p 47)

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

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