Eleusinian Enigma

Publication Year: 
1963

Image retrieved from clavielle.com on September 17th, 2014.
Image retrieved from blogspot.com on September 17th, 2014>

We often think of mysteries of antiquity as a manifestation of Primitive religion. Let me point out certain parallels between our Mexican rite and the Mystery performed at Eleusis. The timing seems significant. In the Mazatec country the preferred season for “consulting the mushroom” is during the rains, when the mushrooms Grow from June through August. The Eleusinian Mystery was celebrated in September or early October, the season of the mushrooms in the Mediterranean basin. At the heart of the Mystery of Eleusis lay a secret. In the surviving texts there are numerous references to the secret, but in none is it revealed. Yet Mysteries such as the one at Eleusis played a major role in Greek civilization, and thousands must have possessed the key. From the writings of the Greeks, from a fresco in Pompeii, we know that the initiate drank a potion. Then, in the depths of the night, he beheld a great vision, and the next day he was still so awestruck that he felt he would never be the same man as before. What the initiate experienced was “new, astonishing, inaccessible to rational cognition.”* Aristides in the second century A.D. Pulled the curtain aside for an instant with his fragmentary description of the Eleusinian Mystery:

Eleusis is a shrine common to the whole earth, and of all the divine things that exist among men, it is both the most awesome and the most luminous. At what place in the world have more miraculous tidings been sung, where have the dromena called forth greater emotion, where has there been greater rivalry between seeing and hearing?


And then he went on to speak of the ”ineffable visions” that it had been the privilege of many generations of fortunate men and women to behold.
It is most striking that the Mystery of antiquity and our mushroom rite in Mexico are accompanied in the two societies by veils of reticence that, so far as we can tell, match each other point for point. The ancient writers' words are as applicable to contemporary Mexico as they were to classical Greece. It also seems significant that the Greeks were wont to refer to mushrooms as “the food of the gods,” broma theon, and that Porphyrius is quoted as having called them “nursling's of the gods,” theotróphos* The Greeks of the classic period were mycophobes (that is, they shunned mushrooms), perhaps because their ancestors had felt that the whole fungal tribe was infected “by attraction” with the holiness of some mushrooms and that they were not for mortal men to eat, at least not every day. We might be dealing what was in origin a religious tabu.
In earliest times the Greeks confined the common European word for mushroom, which in their language was sp(h)óngê, to the meaning “sponge,” and replaced it by a special word, mukês in Greek is a homonym of the root of the Greek word for “Mystery,” mu. A bold speculation flashes through the mind The word for “Mystery”comes from a root that means the closing of the apertures of the body, the closing of the eyes and ears. If the mushroom played a vital and secret role in primitive Greek religion, what could be more natural than the falling into disuse of the standard word for “mushroom” through a religious tabu (as in Hebrew, “Yahweh” gave way to “Adonai”) and the substitution of an alternative fungal term that was a homonym of “Mystery”? We must remember in considering this problem, that in antiquity the ecology of Greece and the Greek isles was different from now. Deforestation and the goats had not left the mountains naked to the sun. on the wooded isles and in the forests of the mainland, there must have been a wealth of mushrooms.
Let us consider possibilities other than the mushroom. In the Mazatec country the Indians, when there are no mushrooms, have recourse to alternatives. Thanks to the brilliant work of Dr. Albert Hofmann of Sandoz, the Swiss pharmaceutical firm, we are now sorting out and identifying a whole series of substances with remarkable psychotropic properties. It was Dr. Hofmann who isolated the active agents in some of our Mexican mushrooms: psylocybin and psilocin, two tryptamine derivatives and members of the indole family of compounds. The magic indoles are present in other plants used widely among the Indians of Mexico, such as ololiuqui, from which Dr. Hofmann in July, 1960, obtained three active principles. Two of these were d-lysergic acid amide and d-isolysergic acid amide, both related to LSD-25 and known heretofore only as derivatives of ergot. Thus it comes about that, as a result of the achievements of our biochemists, we may be on the brink of rediscovering what was common knowledge among the ancient Greeks. I predict that the secret of the Mysteries will be found in the indoles, whether derived from mushrooms or from the higher plants or, as in Mexico, from both.
I do not mean to imply that only these substances (wherever found in nature) bring about visions and ecstasy. Clearly some poets and prophets and many mystics and ascetics seem to have enjoyed ecstatic visions that answer the requirements of the ancient Mysteries that duplicate the mushroom agapé of Mexico. I do not suggest that St. John of Patmos ate musrhooms in order to write the Book of Revelation. Yet the succession of images in his Vision, so clearly seen but such a phantasmagoria, means for me that he was in the same state as one bemushroomed. Nor do I suggest for a moment that William Blake knew the mushroom when he wrote his telling account of the clarity of “vision”:

The Prophets describe what they saw in vision as real and existing men, whom they saw with their imaginative and immortal organs; the Apostles the same; the clearer the organ the more distinct the object. A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour, or a nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce. he who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing eye can see, does not imagine at all. [Italics mine. From The Writings of William Blake, ed. By Geoffery Keynes, vol. III, p. 108.]


This must sound cryptic to one who does not share Blake's vision or who has not taken the Mushroom. The advantage of the mushroom is that it puts many (if not everyone) within reach of this state without having to suffer the mortification of Blake and St. John. It permits you to see, more clearly than our perishing mortal eye can see, vistas beyond the horizons of this life, to travel backwards and forwards in time, to enter other planes of existence, even (as the Indians say) to know god. It is hardly surprising that your emotions are profoundly affected and you feel that an indissoluble bond unites you with the others who have shared with you in the sacred agapé. All that you see during this night has a pristine quality: the landscape, the edifices, the carvings, the animals – they look as though they had come straight from the maker's workshop. This newness of everything – it is as if the world had just dawned – overwhelms you and melts you with its beauty. Not unnaturally, what is happening to you seems freighted with significance, beside which the humdrum events of everyday are trivial. All these things you see with an immediacy of vision that leads you to say to yourself, “Now I am seeing for the first time, seeing direct, without the intervention of mortal eyes.” (Plato tells us that beyond this ephemeral and imperfect existence here below, there is another Ideal world of Archetypes, where the original, the true, the beautiful Pattern of things exists for evermore. It is clear to me where Plato found his ideas; it was clear to his contemporaries too. Plato had drunk of the potion in the Temple of Eleusis and had spent the night seeing the great Vision.)
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And all the time you are seeing these things, the priestess sings, not loud, but with authority. The Indians are notoriously not given to displays of inner feelings – except on these occasions. The singing is good, but under the influence of mushroom you think it is infinitely tender and sweet. It is as though you were hearing it with your mind's ear, purged of all dross. You are lying on a petate or mat; perhaps, if you have been wise, on an air mattress and in a sleeping bag. IT is dark, for all lights have been extinguished save a few embers among the stones on the floor and the incense in a sherd. It is still, for the thatched hut is apt to be some distance away from the village. In the darkness and stillness, that voice hovers through the hut, coming now from beyond your feet, now at your very ear, now distant, now actually underneath you, with strange ventriloquistic effect. The mushrooms produce this illusion also. Every one experiences it, just as do the tribesmen of Siberia that have eaten of Amanita muscaria and lie under the spell of their shamans, who display astonishing dexterity with ventriloquistic drum beats. Likewise, in Mexico, I have heard a shaman engage in a most complicated percussive beat: with her hands she hits her chest, her thighs, her forehead, her arms, each giving a different resonance, keeping a complicated rhythm and modulating, even syncopating, the strokes. Your body lies in the darkness, heavy as lead, but your spirit seems to soar and leave the hut, and with the speed of thought to travel where it wishes in time and space, accompanied by the shaman's singing and by the ejaculations of her percussive chant. what you are seeing and what are hearing appear as one: the music assumes harmonious shapes, giving visual form to its harmonies, and what you are seeing takes on the modalities of music – the music assumes harmonious shapes, giving visual form to its harmonies, and what you are seeing takes on the modalities of music – the music of the spheres. “Where has there been greater rivalry between seeing and hearing?” The ancient Greek's rhetorical question is highly apposite to the Mexican experience. All your senses are similarly affected: the cigarette with which you occasionally break the tension of the night smells as no cigarette before had ever smelled; the glass of water is infinitely better than champagne.
Elsewhere I once wrote that the bemushroomed person is poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen. In truth, he is the five senses disembodied, all of them keyed to the height of sensitivity and awareness, all of them blending into the height of sensitivity and awareness, all of them blending into one another most strangely, until the person, utter passive, becomes a pure receptor, infinitely delicate, of sensations. As your body lies there in its sleeping bag, your soul is free, loses all senses of time,alert as it never was before, living an eternity in a night, seeing infinity in a grain of sand, What you have seen and heard is cut as with a burin into your memory, never to be effaced. At last you know what the ineffable is and what ecstasy means. The mind harks back to the origin of that word. For the Greeks ekstasis meant the flight of the soul from the body. I can find no better word to describe the bemushroomed state. In common parlance, among the many who have not experienced ecstasy, ecstasy is fun, and I am frequently asked why I do not reach for mushrooms every night. But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. After all, who will choose to feel undiluted awe, or to float through that door yonder into the Divine Presence? The unknowing abuse the word, but we must recapture its full and terrifying sense.
A few hours later, the next morning, you are fit to do work. But how unimportant work seems to you, by comparison with the portentous happenings of that night. If you can, you prefer to stay close to the house, and, with those who lived through that night, compare notes and utter exclamations of amazement.
As man emerged from his brutish past, thousands of years ago, there was a stage in the evolution of his awareness when the discovery of a mushroom (or perhaps a higher plant) with miraculous properties was a revelation to him, a veritable detonator to his soul, arousing in him sentiments of awe and reverence, and gentleness and love, to the highest pitch of which mankind is capable, all those sentiments and virtues that mankind has ever since regarded as the highest attributes of his kind. It made him see what the perishing mortal eye cannot see. The Greeks were right to hedge about this mystery, this imbibing of the potion, with secrecy and surveillance. What today is resoled into the effects of a mere drug, a tryptamine or lysergic acid derivative, was for them a prodigious miracle, inspiring in them poetry and philosophy and religion. Perhaps with all our modern knowledge we do not need the divine mushroom any more. Perhaps we need them more than ever. Some are shocked that the key to religion might be reduced to a drug. On the other hand, the drug is as mysterious as it ever was: “like the wind it cometh we know not whence nor why.”
If our classical scholars were given the opportunity to attend the rite at Eleusis, to talk with the priestess, they would exchange anything for that chance. They would approach the precincts, enter the hallowed chamber with the reverence born of the texts venerated by scholars for millennia. And what would be their frame of mind if they were invited to partake of the potion? Well, those rites take place now, unbeknownst to the classical scholars, in scattered dwelling, humble, thatched, without windows, far from the beaten track, high in the mountains of Mexico, in the stillness of the night, broken only by the distant barking of a dog or the braying of an ass. Or, if it is the rainy season, perhaps the Mystery is accompanied by torrential rains and punctuated by terrifying thunderbolts. Then, indeed, as you lie there bemushroomed,. Listening to the music and seeing the visions, you know a soul-shattering experience, recalling as you do the belief of some primitive peoples that mushrooms, the sacred mushrooms, are divinely engendered by Jupiter Fulminans, the God of the Lightning-bolt, in the Soft Mother Earth.

pp. 11-17 of The Harvard Review by Gordon Wasson (1963)

Temple of Demeter
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