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.

~ by Dver on August 16, 2012.

27 Responses to “Ergot and Eleusis”

  1. This is why I think that the best modern work on the Eleusinian mysteries remains Thomas Taylor’s The Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries:

    • I wholeheartedly concur!

    • Taylor’s book is important. A must-read resource. But the mid-20th century produced considerably more (and more reliable) material. Burkert, Mylonas, Nilsson, and Guthrie are good places to start. More important, there have been quite a number of excellent scholarly books and articles written in more recent years that more directly address the Eleusinian Mysteries from ‘our’ point of view:

      Kerenyi’s “Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter”
      Graf’s “Dionysian and Orphic Eschatology”
      Downing’s “Goddess” and “Long Journey Home”
      Carpenter & Faraone’s “Masks of Dionysos”
      Suter’s “The Narcissus and the Pomegranate”

      Downing is a Jungian, as is Kerenyi, and so their take on Eleusis resonates deeply with my own worldview — structured as it is by Jung’s model of the relationship of the collective and personal unconsciousnesses to the spiritual understandings of the conscious mind.

      Graf and Carpenter/Faraone are mythologists. Suter describes herself as an archaeologist of literature — also as a feminist, but an academic (rather than ideological) feminist. If you ever wondered what the difference might be, read this book.


  2. I agree when one dos some research on ergot it seems so completely implausible. And all of elements of the long and physical components of the Eleusinian process would lead people out of ‘ordinary’ consciousness. However, I think there’s another important angle, which was also part of it. Modern humans are so amped up, or sedated or simply used incredible barrages of neural stimulation through the entertainment and advertising industries, and just the type of environment most live in that it takes something very amplified to knock them out of their consensus reality. Many plants used in indigenous traditions don’t seem psychoactive to the average American like tobacco. Or ephedra. Or even fennel. I work with some plants that most people would not consider to change consciousness but they do for me, and I should add, this is within a ritual context.

    So there’s something sitting right there in the open: pennyroyal. Pennyroyal is a member of the chemically rich mint family and is a potent plant. And I think it is highly suggestive that it is specifically mentioned as part of the kykeon drink that Demeter drank at that key moment of her quest.

    • Yes, I know about pennyroyal, and it’s at least a more likely contender than ergot. I mean, we know for sure it was an ingredient, just not in what quantities and for what purpose. I’d agree with Suz that it’s more likely that the mint was symbolic – either representing barrenness, or perhaps the connection with Haides – but maybe it was both that AND the added bonus of it being mildly psychoactive.

      You’re absolutely right though that we overestimate what kind of push was needed for the average ancient person to feel the psychotropic effects of a given plant. We have dulled our senses immeasurably.

  3. i have prepared a kykeon for my EM celebrations many times, and at least once had a significant mystical occurrence. my kykeons do not contain ergot (and for that matter only a token bitsy of pennyroyal, which is dangerous as fuck.)
    i think pennyroyal’s addition is more about barren-ness (it’s a potent abortifacient) than anything psychotropic.
    if my own little odd lonely solitary chopped up poorly reconstructed rites can get me in a state of mind where She can get through to me, i’m betting that the epoptai were in a far better position to experience wonder.
    killer fungi not a factor.

    • I have to wonder in what quantities they used the pennyroyal, given that I’ve never seen any indication that they warned off pregnant women from undergoing the rites?

      • i would guess it had to be tiny. its psychotropic effects are minor compared to its ability to stop the heart and breath. it’s really dangerous. i wonder if there have been mistranslations over the years and it was some other variant of mint. but the abortifacient properties seem significant to me, insomuch as that feels connected to demeter’s mourning.

        • Its toxicity notwithstanding it was a common culinary herb. Its found in recipes in Apicius’ Roman cookbook. It’s also known as pudding grass, as it was used to flavor puddings in medieval times.

          • not being an experienced herbalist, i’m always puzzled by the dire warnings about pennyroyal vs its common usage as a culinary additive. that’s why i wonder if it’s actually 2 different mints whose names have got mixed up over the years. i grow tons of mint as well as pennyroyal, and the pennyroyal looks very different from the other mints, which all resemble each other closely.

  4. Good arguments. And don’t forget the people who “explain” the Dephic priestess by saying that she was out of her skull from breathing vapors seeping from below. So what about all the other famous ancient oracles? Were they all located on similar geological features? (crickets)

    • Yes, even with the more recent scientific evidence suggesting there might actually be something to those Delphic vapors (and they make a compelling case for ethylene), the supply at Delphi would have been inconsistent at best, and it would be non-existent at most other oracular shrines, so it’s clearly not the “cause” of the experience. At most, it was just a helpful boost sometimes. No different, really, than all the other ritual elements they used which, in concert, helped the priestess reach an altered state of consciousness. But it’s so much *sexier* to speculate about dangerous fungi and mysterious subterranean gases!

  5. Thank you for such an excellent analysis of this subject. Too many scholars (and for that matter, too many spiritual practitioners) have completely warped our reading of the past due to their own lack of faith in the Gods, combined with a complete inability to understand the real, living faith of the ancients. I’m reading Dwelling on the Threshold right now (and loving every single page – I don’t want it to end!), and I’ve noticed that it’s a running theme in your work to point out this unfortunate tendency that permeates both academia and many in the pagan community. And this is an excellent example, as ergot is one of those things that many of us just uncritically accept because “that’s what the scholars say.” I commend you for pointing out such logical fallacies and backing up your assertions with a combination of evidence and common sense. Your perspective is a much-needed corrective/antidote to a lot of the rubbish out there!

    • I’ve noticed that it’s a running theme in your work to point out this unfortunate tendency that permeates both academia and many in the pagan community

      I guess it is! Regarding academia, I think it’s extremely important for those of us who rely so much on their findings to remember their biases too (critical thinking skills are really lacking these days). Regarding pagans, I am constantly shocked at how atheistic many of them actually are when it comes down to it.

    • And glad you like the book – would love you to write a review of it if you end up having the time and desire to.

      • I *absolutely* intend to write a full review when I’m finished! I’m also going to have a post up soon of recommendations based on my current reading, highlighting well-written books by extremely intellectual and cultured pagans/polytheists *who actually believe in and worship the gods.* (I’m shaking my head and sighing that such a distinction apparently needs to be made now.)

  6. […] big “Hear, hear!” to this at A Forest Door regarding the Eleusinian […]

  7. Excellent piece, thanks for writing it.

  8. Reblogged this on Magikos Musings and commented:
    A really interesting article about the Eleusinian Mysteries.and herb usage.

  9. I think it interesting that just after you wrote this piece, Brendan Myers’ wrote his on The Wild Hunt. I guess he never came across your blog.

  10. […] questions whether ergot could have played a role in the Eleusinian mysteries: Next, the problem of dosage. How would they have accurately measured the active chemicals in order […]

  11. I think you will find that after fasting for a long period even a mildly alcoholic drink will have very powerful effects

  12. […] Also, ergot wasn’t used by ancient “Mystery Religions” (whatever those are: try opening an academic book written in the last 40 years, folks) for reasons that Dver carefully explains here. […]

  13. Excellent piece!

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