The Eleusinian Psychedelic Rebirth Rites of Ancient Greece are Making a Comeback
The Eleusinian Mysteries were transformative rituals that took place in ancient Greece, extending out of Mycenaean traditions (approximately 1500 BC) and the Greek Dark Ages. For over two millennia this experience - which many claim may have been a psychedelic session - was not only tolerated by ancient civilization, but celebrated by it.
Men, women, slaves, and emperors all went to Eleusis to drink the magical potion called kykeon and to experience healing and spiritual insights. The only requirements to participate in the rituals and drink the kykeon were to speak fluent Greek and never to have committed a murder. So, the effects of taking part in this intensely life-affirming and healing experience were felt by vast numbers of people over the 2000 years that these rites took place.
A votive plaque known as the Ninnion Tablet depicting elements of the Eleusinian Mysteries ( CC BY 2.5 )
Celebrating Demeter and Persephone
The rituals were a celebration of the harvest cycles, principally based upon the Greek myth of Demeter, the goddess of grain and agriculture and her daughter Persephone, who was carried off by Hades, the god of the Underworld. In her desolation at her daughter’s abduction, Demeter caused the rivers to run dry. No crops could grow, and humans began to starve.
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Persephone became known as the goddess of vegetation, due to the intricate plant-based bargaining that led to her return. She was permitted to live above ground with her mother for nine months of each year. But because she had eaten three pomegranate seeds during her time in the Underworld, she was to return there to Hades for three months.
When Persephone returned to Demeter, the goddess of grain caused the rivers to run, plants to grow, and the sun to shine. When Persephone left Demeter each year to spend three months with Hades, Demeter would grieve, and make the weather harsh again. This is the mythical basis for the changing of the seasons. A primary focus of the Eleusinian Mysteries was to celebrate the yearly passing of winter and the restoration of the earth’s fertile periods.
The Return of Persephone. ( Public Domain )
What Was Kykeon?
What could be a more appropriate concluding element to these celebrations of nature’s changing states and agricultural potential than to consume kykeon, a usually grain-based drink which was understood to induce visionary states?
There are many different possible contenders for the brew’s entheogenic component: the most probable being ergot, a parasitical fungus that grows on barley and rye grain which contains the alkaloids ergotamine. Albert Hofmann, the scientist who synthesized LSD in 1938, believed that ergotamine was the psychoactive ingredient that fueled the Eleusinian Mysteries.
‘Hecamede mixing kykeon for Nestor.’ Tondo of an Attic red-figure cup, ca. 490 BC. From Vulci. ( Public Domain )
Reflecting on the hallucinatory qualities of kykeon, one initiate described what happened poetically; "At midnight I saw the sun flaring in bright white light". In coming together to unite, dance, consume the kykeon potion, and revel in its revelatory effects together, the people who took part fostered a powerful sense of connection to friends, family, and the wider world. In this sense, the Mysteries provided a potent antidote to feelings of isolation, depression, and social disenfranchisement.
Psychedelics Return to Light
With the advent of the Holy Roman Empire, the Mysteries were banned and the healing potential of kykeon, and of all psychedelic substances, began to go underground in the Western world. Until now. Something major, indeed an event of seismic proportions, has just happened.
In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized MDMA therapy as a breakthrough treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This amazing leap forward for (legal) psychedelic medicine has been brought to us by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. And, in the UK, approval has just been granted for the world’s first study investigating MDMA-assisted therapy as a treatment for alcoholism, led by Dr. Ben Sessa of the University of Bristol. In both projects, the once-forbidden psychoactive substance will be legally administered to promote healing and emotional health.
A few capsules, each containing approximately 0.1 grams of MDMA crystals. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
With one or more skilled healers present, the sessions, both psychedelic and non-psychedelic, are carefully supported and guided. This process, the intelligent management of psychedelic Set and Setting to bring about transcendence and togetherness, is exactly what a shaman does, and indeed, is designed to create an exact replication of the transformative, healing experience which the Mystery rites delivered to those who participated in them in Eleusis.