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Psychedelics and the Eleusinian Mysteries in Ancient Greece

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Demeter accepting an offering of wheat during the Eleusinian Mysteries. Credit: public domain

Although most people connect psychedelic drugs to the 1960s and 1970s, they were used extensively throughout much of human history, including in Ancient Greece.

Psychedelic drugs, or substances that may be either natural or manmade and alter one’s perception of reality and sensory input, were used in religious and spiritual rituals throughout time across the world.

In Greece, psychedelics were essential to religious practice and were used in the cryptic Eleusinian Mysteries.

Psychedelics in Ancient Greece

The Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated in honor of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, and were regarded as the most sacred of all the mysteries in the Ancient Greek religion.

Ancient Greeks partook in the festival each year from around 1600 BC to 392 CE, and it took nearly the whole year to prepare for the secretive rites.

From the little that is known about the ritual, experts believe that participants would walk along the Sacred Way in a parade that lasted ten days until they reached the Temple of Demeter in Eleusis, where they would take a sip of a sacred drink called Kykeon after days of abstaining from food.

Eleusis is located about eighteen kilometers (eleven miles) northwest of the center of Athens, and it is part of the metropolitan area of the Greek capital.

The ancient temple of Demeter at Eleusis was burned down by the Persians in 484 BC in the Greco-Persian Wars; it was not until the administration of Pericles that an attempt was made to rebuild it.

After drinking the substance, participants would dance ecstatically and re-enact the story of Demeter and Persephone.

The hidden rituals, which were kept secret under the threat of death if any participant exposed information, revealed information about the mysteries that likely involved the use of psychedelic drugs.

Researchers now believe that the drink used to sustain the initiates during their initiation fast contained ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus.

Eleusinian Mysteries likely involved consumption of Kykeon, a psychedelic substance

Ergot grows naturally on grains such as barley and rye and produces alkaloids in the body when consumed which can produce hallucinations, convulsions, and psychosis.

In small doses, the substance produces a psychedelic trip much like those of drugs such as LSD. This is because the drug LSD was developed by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in 1938 when he was conducting experiments with lysergic acid, which is produced by ergot fungus.

Experts believe that the drink kykeon, the concoction drunk during the secret rights, likely contained ergot fungus and produced psychedelic effects when consumed.

Although the ingredients used to create kykeon were shrouded in secrecy in antiquity, scholars have gleaned that the recipe likely contained water, rye or barely, and possibly Roman mint.

Homer mentions kykeon in two of his poems. The drink is said to be made of goat cheese, water, and barley in the Iliad. In The Odyssey, the witch Circe is described mixing honey with the sacred drink, which she then uses as a potion to turn Odysseus’ crew into pigs.

Scholars believe that the purpose of the Eleusinian Mysteries was for participants to reckon with death and human mortality, which weighed heavily on the Greek psyche.

The focus on the myth of Persephone and Demeter, which deals with life, death, and the afterlife, ties into the festival’s central theme of death.

Researchers believe that the use of a psychedelic substance in the form of kykeon during these rituals may have helped participants reckon with death and their own mortality, as users of such drugs have reported in accordance with their own experiences.

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