The ancient testimony about the religious experience offered to thousands of pilgrims in the sanctuary of the Goddess in the tiny village of Elefsina (Eleusis) some eleven miles west of the great city of Athens is unanimous. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter declares that it was essential to the art of living: “Whoever among men who walk the earth has seen these Mysteries is blessed, but whoever is uninitiated and has not received his share of the rite, he will not have the same lot as the others, once he is dead and dwells in the moldering tomb beyond where the sun goes down.” The initiates were sworn to secrecy and the event was termed a Mystery. The rite was performed annually for two thousand years, beginning in the mid second millennium BCE, in roughly the same place, modified and enlarged over the course of time to accommodate the ever-growing number of participants. Construction of the sanctuary obliterated the archaeological record of the earlier occupation of the site, but it is probable that it was sacred from Neolithic times, if not before.
In the sixth century BCE, it passed under Athenian control and became the defining influence that produced the mentality that characterized the Classical Age, which became the fountainhead of ensuing European civilization. Almost every one of importance, as well as the common man and woman, foreigner and Greek alike of every status in society, sought out the initiation at least once in a lifetime. In the Roman period, the orator and philosopher Cicero declared it the greatest gift of Athens to the world, the essential impetus for humankind’s elevation from savagery, imparting the power not only to live with joy, but also to die with better hope. “For among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth and contributed to human life, none, in my opinion, is better than those Mysteries” (Cicero, De legibus, 2.14.36).
Eleusis was named like Elysium, a mirror of the paradisiacal fields (Les champs Élysées) that received the dead upon their arrival in the otherworld. It was sacred to the Goddess and her daughter, the two holy females, the ‘Mother’ and the ‘Maiden,’ who could be ascribed names, after the patriarchal revision that established the Classical version of the Mystery, as Demeter and Persephone, although more sacredly, they were just the two nameless goddesses (tó theó), interchangeable as mother produced daughter and daughter in turn became mother. The male essential for their replication was the personification of the joyous shout of the initiates as they walked in procession to the place of arrival, Iácchos—a punning calque upon the word for ‘drug or toxin’ (ia-trós, ‘druggist’) and upon the deity who led the ecstatic procession along the Sacred Road from Athens toward Elefsina, Dionysus/Bacchus, the god of wine and intoxicants, strongly suggesting that an altered consciousness was necessary to access the Mystery. He was identical here with his chthonic persona as Hades, the lord of the netherworld, named as the ‘unseen one,’ which was also the name for the invisible realm into which the living disappeared upon their arrival in the luxurious fields of the otherworld paradise.
A third female shadowed the personae of the two goddesses, the postmenopausal, but still nursing mother, who went by the dread name of Hecate, the patroness of witchcraft, who fed the living with the milk intended for her dead child. But all three roles were interchangeable, since the mother could become the wet nurse of the daughter’s child, and it was this third that joined the two holy ladies into a triumphant trinity. In her iconography, she was represented by three young women, back to back, holding sacred emblems of the initiation.
The paradigm uniting life and death was the seed implanted into the ground, entrusted to the darkness of the earth, in the expectation that it would return and sprout, without which there could be no life here in the realm above. What the initiates experienced was a journey of the spirit to a reality in a parallel dimension, establishing pathways of communication and rights of friendly reciprocal visitation, so that life was nourished by the accord or testament that defined the terms for humankind’s relationship to Gaia. It was more than a mere metaphor. The initiates were offered the opportunity to identify themselves with the most basic cycles of nature at the deepest level of their existence.
The mystery of the seed reborn was personified as the son born from the holy trinity, which had the mystery title of the Lady named Brímo, the terrible queen-ship. He was their child, named after them in matriarchal fashion as Brímos, but he had another less frightful name befitting the benevolence of this trinity as the ‘triple warrior,’ Triptólemos. It was he who was entrusted with the art of living and he planted the first crop in the surrounding Rarian fields. He was the pacified antithesis to the psychoactive toxic analogues of his parentage, life born from death. He was also named for the trípolos, the sacred field whose inaugural plowing, repeated symbolically as an annual rite, required restitution in the form of some offering to Gaia to compensate for the intrusion of the phallic plowshare into the furrow of Earth’s vulva, by which the wilderness was converted to cultivation. The first plowman was offered as sacrificial victim1. In the myth of the Mystery, he was represented by his brother Demophóön (‘victim offered in the name of the people’), the child whose mortality Demeter had attempted to burn off in the fire of the hearth. In honor of him, each year a child from Athens was initiated at public expense.
The great hall of initiation at Eleusis was an architectural similitude of a cave, whose antiquity as a motif can be traced back to the Paleolithic when humans first rose above the beasts as Homo spiritualis, not sapiens, but with the first inklings of spirituality, a remembrance of forgotten dreams.2 The cave was the womb of Gaia, the vulva to a world beyond and a gateway for birth into this realm of ordinary living. Plato used the ancient motif as his Allegory of the Cave (Plato, Republic, 514a-520b). What the cavernous hall of the Telesterion offered was release from the Cave of ordinary seeing.
The initiates on the night of the great Mystery rematerialized in the hall of the sanctuary, after their spiritual journey to Elysium, at the moment of the miraculous birth of this primordial plowman. They experienced themselves reborn, like him, a child conceived and born from death and destined like him to return to his chthonic family. The valence of death became positive through personal experience, and the lord Hades was recognized as a handsome youth of ‘good counsel’ (Euboúleus) and as the source of prosperity (personified as Ploútos) in both this real realm and the next.
What we know of the Mystery dates largely from the seventh century BCE, the probable date of the Homeric Hymn and its subsequent incorporation under Athenian control, but its origins go back at least to the mid-second millennium. Like all the great ancient religious sites of the Classical world, it represents an assimilation of a pre-existent sanctuary to the evolving dominance of the Indo-European Greek-speaking peoples, who migrated into the Mediterranean lands with their family of twelve Olympian deities, headed by the patriarchal father god Zeus.
In deference to this earlier existence of the religion, Demeter, who will teach the Mystery to Triptólemos, claims that that she has come from Minoan Crete when she first arrives at Eleusis. Hades had abducted her daughter, begotten by her brother Zeus, while picking flowers with a sisterhood of maidens. The spiritual rapture experienced as an abduction is a common mythological motif, and involves always the special fantasies of herb cutters, the gatherers of magical plants or entheogens. Such plants are toxic and grow wild, and the maiden is abducted, not married to the possessing spirit that materialized from the magical plant.
A myth is read as a dialogue in the language established by its structural polarities. With the institution of the Mystery, Persephone has become the wedded wife of her adductor, transitioning from matriarchal independence among a sisterhood of females into sequestered seclusion within the household dominated by her husband. The abduction is associated with fleabane, the concubine of Hades, named Mínthe (Mentha pulegium), pennyroyal, which is an abortifacient and a toxic insecticide. As wife, she has replaced her stillborn womb with the parturition of her child. The abduction is also associated with the magical flower called nárkissos (‘narcotic’), and narcosis, as induced by opium, is symbolic of death. The association of the opium poppy with the pre-Indo-European Minoan goddess is well documented, as well as the triple personae of her identity within a sisterhood of females. Furthermore, not only does abduction yield to marriage, but through death, Persephone yields life. She eats a seed of pomegranate as she leaves the underworld and becomes pregnant with Hades’ son. The pomegranate resembles the opium poppy capsule, but signifies the fertile womb instead of death. Its name in Greek (rhóa) identifies the seedy red matrix of its fruit with the bloody ‘flux’ of the menses.
Persephone should have been an Olympian, since both her mother Demeter and her father Zeus are Olympians, but she contaminated her eternal spiritual essence with physical matter since she has taken food and seed in the underworld, so that she now belongs like humans partially to her husband’s world. Demeter becomes the mother-in-law of Hades and has a grandson as the Mystery child born from the chthonic realm.
I was a member of a team in the 1970s that sought to uncover what actually happened in the Eleusinian sanctuary.3 It is well-documented that the experience was visionary, and that it had been profaned toward the end of the fifth century BCE by inducing it unlawfully among groups of revelers at private drinking parties by employing the sacred entheogen as a recreational drug. We demonstrated that the initiates were afforded a glimpse into a transcendent reality by the ingestion of a powerful psychoactive agent derived from ergot (Claviceps purpurea) a natural substance similar to LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), LSA (lysergic acid amide), the same toxin that is the active agent in ololiuqui, as derived from certain morning glories in Mesoamerican shamanism,4 and apparently also known in ancient Greece and to European folkloric tradition as bindweed.
The initiates for the ceremony drank a special potion, called the kykeón or ‘mixture,’ whose ingredients in water as recorded in the Homeric Hymn were the wild fleabane and the cultivated barley. It was intended as a magical mediation of all the mythical structural polarities. It obviously should be something visionary or an entheogen, which neither the wild nor the cultivated ingredients are. Some, who admit that an intoxicant seems indicated, have assumed that the barley had fermented into a beer, but grain will not ferment unless it is mashed to convert its starch into fermentable sugar, and the indications of the episode of the profanations in Attic comedy make clear that the barley kernels were intact. A recent commentator suggests that the few raw barley kernels with an insecticide was intended as a nourishing meal to end the fast of the candidates for the initiation.5
A common weed in fields of grain provides the answer, tares or darnel, and perfectly fits the structural parameters established by the myth. Darnel is not grown as an edible grain crop, but it is an invasive wild grass in plowed land, named as Lolium temulentum, the specific botanical Latin nomenclature designating it as ‘drunken’ because it always is infested with the fungal parasite of ergot, whose toxins were recognized as causing altered eyesight or hallucinations. Darnel’s toxicity, however, derives solely from the ergot parasitic upon it. It is not toxic in itself. Grain from which the kernels of darnel were not sufficiently extracted was apparently made into a cheap kind of bread that caused one to see things that were there not there. Its exclusion from the harvested crop was also ritualized in the Roman festival of the Robigalia by the offering of a sacrificial victim, analogous to the primordial plowman, symbolic of its wild persona, to free the fields of the invasive contamination.1 Ergot’s red color is responsible for its common name as ‘rust,’ robiga in Latin and erysíbe in Greek. With this metaphor, it is involved in the mythical account that the rust from the knife employed in the sacrificial offering of the primordial plow-land was a medicinal cure for the impotency of a king’s son, who thought that his father was going to make him the human victim. In contrast to the abortifacient fleabane, ergot was employed by midwives to control postpartum bleeding.
In the context of the mediation between the wilderness and the cultivated field and between lethal and edible foods, darnel was considered a wild weed that like a disease could attack the cereal grains and, as such, it was thought to have the potential to reverse the hybridization of the edible crop back to the primordial or primitive grasses. The spread of the fungal infection from the darnel to the planted crop, and particularly to the barley, which seemed most susceptible to the infestation, was a clear demonstration of its recidivist threat. The most primitive of the cultivated grains from which barley was hybridized is spelt (Triticum spelta), mythologized as the food of olden days, which originally had only two red kernels or ‘split’ spikelets (hence its name). These resemble the protruding ergot spikes as they appear on barley, darnel, and the other grasses.6 Like most grasses, spelt, too, is infested with ergot, and like darnel, spelt was seen as the primitive weedy antecedent of the hybridized superior cultivated grains, fruiting with only the two kernels, whereas the hybridized grasses like barley produce an entire sheaf or cob.
Ergot is easily recognizable as fungal inasmuch as the infested grain kernels host the mycelium or root-like growth that permeates and enlarges the kernel, and when it falls to the ground, it sprouts into the fruiting stage as little clearly discernable mushrooms, making the ergot-infested kernel seem to be the seed for the otherwise totally wild and uncultivatable mushroom. The mushroom’s propagation by microscopic spores was unknown in antiquity, and hence the ergot, as a mushroom seed, seemed to mediate perfectly between the wild and cultivated plants.
The mushroom, furthermore, was seen as a ‘fermentation’ of the earth, and hence it partook of the whole symbolic complex of intoxicating fermented beverages and the leavening of bread. The two fundamental foods of humankind, the dry and the liquid, were paired as the gifts of Demeter and Dionysus. The wine of Dionysus was similarly involved in the ethnobotanical motif of wild and cultivated vines, with the grapevine and the civilized or sophisticated intoxicant yielded by fungal growth contrasted to the primitive vines, which resembled the grapevine, but are toxic in their natural state. These were the ivy and similar vines like bryony (wild cucumber) and smilax (wild morning glory, bindweed). The red color of the ergot also associated it with particular red psychoactive mushrooms and the whole complex of ritual lycanthropy and the wolf’s canine analogues, in particular the pelt of the red fox. The entire fox pelt was worn as the original version of the Phrygian cap, and the pointed snout of the fox was imitated in the felt hat. In European folkloric tradition, the ergot was caused by the grain mother passing like a wind rustling through the field with her pack of grain wolves (Roggenwulf, Roggenhund) infecting the sheaves of ergot or Tolkorn (‘mad corn kernels’). Children seduced by goblin creatures into the fields nurse on the kernels like the iron teats of the Roggenmutter and are rendered maddened. The enlarged ergot infected kernels are called ‘wolf teeth’ (Wulfzahn). The Phrygian cap and its motif of lycanthropy occurs in the folkloric tale of ‘Little Red Cap’ Rotkäppshen, known in its English version, which predates the collection of the Grimm brothers, as ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ whose hood indicates that she in on a journey of symbolic significance.7
Thirty years after our initial unveiling of the Eleusinian Mystery, I returned to the subject to present a clearer explanation, incorporating many of these new discoveries made in the intervening years.8 When I asked my colleague the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann shortly before his death at the age of 102 to provide a comment, even if only a sentence, in view of his frailty, he wrote: “Only a new Eleusis could help mankind to survive the threatening catastrophe in Nature and human society and bring a new period of happiness.”
Hofmann’s discovery of LSD in 1943 was an event that inaugurated a new awareness of our role in the cosmos, and looking back at the end of the century whose mentality he, probably more than anyone, influenced, he saw the crisis that we humans have created by our destruction of our planet Gaia and the possible extinction of our species. By a new Eleusis, he was proposing to heal the dangerous separation of humankind’s individual consciousness from its natural immersion in the surrounding environmental universe, which Nietzsche had characterized as the opposition between Apollonian and Dionysian modes of cognition.9
Elefsina is a place particularly blessed by Nature, a fertile plain bounded by mountain ranges surrounding the acropolis. The initiation hall was carved like a cave from the rock face of its southern slope, and marked as sacred by its alignment to the depression between the twin peaks called the ‘Horns’ (Kerata) that terminate the mountain to the west. Such alignment is typical of other Minoan and Pelasgian religious sites and identified the sanctuary by a sexual metaphor as the entrance, nestled between the breasts and spread legs of the bovine Goddess, to the secrets that lay within her body. It was here in the surrounding plain that barley, the grain plant that was the staff of life, first sprouted. The place was further blessed topographically by the island of Salamis that lies nearby along its shore, providing a superlative nearly land-locked shelter for ships in its bay. Most people know of it only from the account of the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE), when the Athenian admiral in charge of the allied fleet used his knowledge of the lay of the land to his advantage against the vastly superior forces of the invading Persian King Xerxes.
These blessings and the prosperity of the Eleusinian plain were also an invitation to abuse its natural gifts after the desecration of the sanctuary and the supplanting of its religion by the modern world. It is today a microcosm for the destruction that has spread around the planet—the catastrophe that looms threatening continued human existence. The bay of Salamis is clogged with tankers waiting to offload their cargo of crude oil to the mainland refineries that belch an air-polluting stench. The plain has dried into a desert that supports little agriculture. In addition to the refineries, two other industries process material wealth ravished from the earth, a cement factory and a foundry for iron. The cement factory until just recently has even been digging away at the backside of the Acropolis hill to convert its rock into useable cement and it owns the site of the bronze-age settlement on the summit, precluding its archaeological excavation. It is likely that many of the stones missing from the sanctuary suffered a similar fate. The symbolism could not be more obvious.
Few people now visit the sanctuary, or know of the ancient Mystery. Elefsina is not in the register of places recognized as a world heritage site, even though it was the center of a religion practiced for two millennia. The inadequate museum dates from the nineteenth century, and several of its treasures have been substituted with replicas. An effort is underway to improve the situation. The superhighway to Corinth now skirts the site, and the progressive local governments have worked to restore the village, with the streets around the sanctuary converted into pedestrian malls. The shore is planted with parklands and the sea is again clean enough for swimming. A large area of ruined and abandoned nineteenth-century factories adjacent to the sanctuary and below the present museum has been converted into a center for workshops and galleries for the display of art and theatrical performances.
As the place most desecrated for is abuse of Gaia, we propose that Elefsina become the nucleus and world center for humankind’s renegotiation of its compact with its planet Earth. To this end, we are seeking recognition of the village and the archaeological remains as a world heritage site and the soliciting of funding from international and Greek donors to build a new museum complex, incorporating the area and some of the abandoned industrial ruins that now comprise the art center. The symbolism is simple. We do not propose restore a defunct religion or to reverse the course of time, but to begin anew with a new contract with Gaia. As in antiquity, we depend on the bounty of Gaia for prosperity.
The museum complex would be multifunctional. One of its tasks would be to investigate ways of mitigating the deleterious effects of exploiting natural resources. Industrial constructions are actually works of extraordinary complexity and ingenuity. At the new Elefsina, they will learn to operate cleanly, and surrounded by parklands they can be seen as monuments, gigantic sculptural testimony, functioning efficiently and beautiful, as their modern designers conceived them.
In addition to furthering research into the past and the study of the Eleusinian Mystery through seminars and conferences, the museum complex will look to the future. Among the sponsored activities will be investigations into rediscovering a personal commitment to Gaia through techniques of meditation, spiritual exercise, alternative medicine, and artist workshops. The center would also support research into environmental remediation and new sources of energy and safe methods of tapping the planet’s gifts. Eventually we hope to see agriculture return to the Rarian plain, and make the museum a destination of pilgrimage again for the modern world.
The influence of the Thracian revisionist theology, attributed to Orpheus, added a new dimension to the Mystery tradition of Eleusis, which never really became officially incorporated into the Eleusinian tradition. After many returns, with purifying ordeals in both this world and the other, the incarnation would be nullified and the Apollonian spirit would ascend, divested of the burden of flesh, to its true home in the fiery empyrean beyond the stars for an eternal existence. That is the other alternative still today. The Earth polluted and desecrated of its bounty may require some few survivors to seek another home in the Cosmos.
(1) Ruck, C.A.P. The great gods of Samothrace and the cult of the little people. Berkeley, Regent Press; 2016.
(2) Herzog, W. Cave of forgotten dreams.
Documentary film of the Chauvet Cave discovered in 1994 in Southern France. Toronto Film Festival; 2010.
(3) Wasson. R.G., Hofmann, A., Ruck, C.A.P. The road to Eleusis: unveiling the secret of the Mysteries. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; 1978.
(4) Webster, P., Perrine, D.M., Ruck, C.A.P. Mixing the kykeon.” Eleusis: J psychoactive plants comp. 2000;4:55-86.
(5) Cosmopoulos, M. Bronze age Eleusis and the origins of the Eleusinian Mystery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2015.
(6) Watkins, C. An Indo-European agricultural term: Lain ador, Hittite hat-.“ Harvard stud class 1973;77:187-194.
(7) Ruck, C.A.P., Staples, B.D., González Celdrán, J.A., Hoffman, M.A. The hidden world: survival of pagan shamanic themes in European fairytales. Durham: Carolina Academic Press; 2007.
(8) Ruck, C.A.P. Sacred mushrooms of the goddess: secrets of Eleusis. Berkeley: Ronin Publishing; 2006.
(9) Hofmann. A. The message of the Eleusinian Mysteries for today’s world. Wasson et al., The road to Eleusis: unveiling the secret of the Mysteries. Los Angeles: Hermes Press; 1998; p. 141-149.