Ergot and Eleusis
The following was inspired by a post over at Rune Soup which mentioned ergot as the likely “secret ingredient” of the drink served at the Eleusinian Mysteries. While I highly recommend this blog to anyone interested in magic and mysticism, on this one point I had to dissent. My back-and-forth with Gordon in the comments inspired me to set this all down in my own blog – mostly for future reference, as this issue has a way of resurfacing periodically.
So here’s the deal. We have a sacred drink dispensed at the Eleusinian Mysteries over 2,000 years, called the kykeon. Ancient authors give the ingredients as water, barley and pennyroyal (and sometimes a few other things, like honey). No primary sources, to my knowledge, explicitly say that the kykeon was psychoactive. However, it was an important element in the Mystery rite, a rite which ended in a revelation for the initiates. Many modern scholars thus draw the conclusion that the kykeon must have contained a psychoactive ingredient. And of those, many have settled on ergot.
Ergot is a fungus that sometimes grows on grasses like rye and barley. Throughout ancient and medieval times, there were occasional outbreaks of ergotism – or ergot poisoning, also known as St. Anthony’s Fire – due to contaminated grains in the food supply. Symptoms include seizures, diarrhea, itching, psychosis, headaches, vomiting, hallucinations and gangrene. Oh, and sometimes death.
Perhaps you can already see where I’m going with this. First of all, I don’t think ergot has ever been purposefully cultivated, and I’m not sure if anyone knows if that’s even possible. It’s always an unwanted invader. Could the ancient Greeks have successfully and reliably cultivated enough ergot to use on up to thousands of initiates each year, regardless of weather conditions? And kept this entirely secret from outsiders too, since otherwise we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
Next, the problem of dosage. How would they have accurately measured the active chemicals in order to send those hundreds or thousands of initiates on exactly the right sort of trip (and most if not all would never have tripped before) – not too much for them to handle psychologically, and more importantly, not too much to start exhibiting the intensely bad effects of ergot poisoning. Remember, hallucinations are only one symptom among many, and the rest are physically devastating. Even if they usually got it right (assuming one can even “get it right” at all when it comes to ergot, and produce a mild trip with no ill effects), all it would take is one mistake in dosage for there to be a tragedy. And I think we’d know about it if all the initiates in a given year got gangrene, or went mad, or died. (Certainly it would have been used against the pagans by later Christian authors seeking to discredit the Mysteries.)
But to me, all of this is secondary to the most pervasive issue at hand. And that is the blatant assumption behind all of these searches for the magical secret ingredient. Whether from psychedelic proponents or from musty old academics who are suspicious of any alteration of consciousness (and are often more likely to attribute such to drugs rather than to simple religious fervor), the end result is the same: a rigid assertion that such deep mystical experience, coordinated on behalf of thousands of people at a time, must have required an entheogenic substance.
Now, I’m as fond of entheogens as anyone, and I use several of them regularly in my practice. They are a useful tool, but they are just one of many well-known, tested methods of altering consciousness. What’s more, they are perhaps not the best tool to use en masse with inexperienced individuals when you are aiming for a very specific result. The deeply mystical effects of the initiatory rites at Eleusis were produced by many documented ritual elements, all of which are cross-culturally known to alter consciousness in the participant. There’s actually no need to look for some hidden drug.
The initiates were purified. They fasted. They walked in a very long procession to the site from Athens, along the way singing and engaging in ritualized acts like the bawdy jokes. They danced where Demeter once sat. They spoke sacred formulae. They were led together in a series of rituals older than they could even comprehend, on sacred ground, in a place where the veil between this world and the underworld was thin. They had a good deal of psychological investment and religious faith in the process. They built up anticipation and expectation.
And of course, the gods were there. They set up the Mysteries in the first place, and it was a revelation of the gods’ power that formed the climax of the ritual. Now, most scholars don’t believe in the gods, and so this isn’t a factor they can take into consideration, but it’s certainly something we need to remember.
And speaking of the scholars, let’s also note that the most prominent proponents of the drugs-at-Eleusis theory are well known for finding drugs behind almost every ancient religious experience. To hear them talk, the ancient Greeks were just rolling around in marijuana, belladonna, henbane, ergot, magic mushrooms, and a dozen other psychoactive plants, even though none of this has come down to us in any concrete form in any texts or archaeological evidence. (In fact, I just read a fascinating article on the supposed use and knowledge of marijuana in ancient Greece, via the Scythians, where the author systematically tracked down every actual ancient reference and what specifically was said, and found there wasn’t nearly as much evidence for its use as a drug as people tend to think.)
All we know is they had a ritual drink. It is our own bias that causes us to assume that it was an entheogenic drink. As if only entheogenic plants are sacred. As if, for instance, just being made with barley – which is sacred to Demeter, one of the main goddesses worshipped at Eleusis (the one who actually directed the formation of the Mysteries) – couldn’t possibly make it meaningful enough.
There are other instances of this sort of assumption in Classical studies. For years, scholars assumed that the Pythia chewed bay leaves (which we know from primary sources) because they got her “high” in some way. Finally, one of them decided to actually test the theory, ate a whole bunch of bay leaves, and found out they did nothing whatsoever. Bay leaves are sacred to Apollon – that’s why they were part of the process. (I can tell you from experience that they are a powerful part of the oracular ritual, though not a physiological trigger.) Not every plant in a religious context is an entheogen.
Or another example – the ancient Greeks were well known for watering down their wine. Because of this practice, some scholars jumped to the conclusion that the wine must have been spiked with some other substance (a popular choice was belladonna, for some reason), and therefore too potent to drink straight. Of course, there is no evidence of the widespread belladonna growing operation that would have had to exist to supply all of Hellas’ wine-adulterating needs, nor the occasional overdoses and deaths that would have surely occurred, but even besides this, they overlooked a much simpler explanation. If you look at ancient Greek wine-drinking habits, they loved to drink vast quantities (especially during symposia) and yet discouraged slovenly drunkenness. Therefore, watering down wine was an easy way to keep it flowing all night long and yet not get stupid drunk. To see some heavier drug involved there is just a projection.
These examples show how easy it is for people to view ancient culture through the lens of their own cultural (or sub-cultural) bias, without even realizing it. Scholars aren’t saints, and many of them have an agenda, a pet theory to prove, an unconscious assumption to validate. Information then gets passed down over and over again until people quote it without really knowing where it came from, or why, or what the original sources said.
There is not, to my knowledge, any hard physical or textual evidence that an actual entheogenic plant or fungal substance was employed at Eleusis. It’s all conjecture. Now, it’s possible they’ll someday be proven right, but I think we should be careful at equating a theory with a proven fact. Especially when the scholars promoting the theory are not themselves polytheists or mystics, and don’t seem capable of understanding the non-physiological (or at least, non-entheogenic, since some other methods are still physiological) contributing factors to mystical religious experiences.