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Full Review
The Road to Eleusis
by R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Carl A.P. Ruck
William Daly Rare Books 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Lux, 2/13/2007

In The Road to Eleusis, R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Charles Ruck offer a provocative argument: that the kykeon, the brew that was ritually consumed during the ancient Greek mystery rites of Demeter, was a hallucinogenic potion derived from the sclerotia of the parasitic fungus Claviceps purpurea, or ergot. Anyone familiar with these three authors will not be surprised to learn that The Road to Eleusis is a beautiful and fascinating book. However, it is important to recognize that, while the argument of the book is taken for gospel in some circles, the authors’ hypothesis has not been established with certainty.

Wasson and Hofmann are, of course, beloved icons of psychoactive research culture, and their titanic stature imparts credibility. But the events described in The Road to Eleusis are remote, and the details of the rites in question were a closely-guarded secret. It may well be that the nature of the rites of Eleusis is an intriguing but insoluble problem.

It is generally accepted that the mystery rites of Demeter were practiced annually for about 1,400 years in the city of Eleusis, until they were forcibly discontinued during the Christianization of the Roman Empire in 392 A.D. At the climax of the Eleusian rites, initiates gathered in the great telesterion, or initiation hall, where they would participate in a ritual which included imbibing a drink called kykeon. The contents of kykeon are not described in any known text, and it is not known how central it was to the ceremony. The night-long ritual is described by many great figures of classical Greece as being profound and transformative. Sophocles wrote “Thrice happy are those of mortals, who having seen those rites [of Eleusis] depart for Hades; for them alone is granted to have a true life there. For the rest, all there is evil.”

Wasson begins the book with an account of his first experience with psilocybin mushrooms. He recalls, “That there might be a common denominator between Mexican mushroom Mystery and the Mystery of Eleusis had struck me at once. They both aroused an overwhelming sense of awe, of wonder.” Wasson gradually became convinced that the agent in question was derived from ergot, the same parasitic fungus from which LSD was derived. Wasson offers evocative descriptions of his experiences with psilocybin and argues that, owing to their affinity with the visions described in Eleusis literature, there may be a common origin.

This argument is rhetorically persuasive, but it cannot be taken as evidence. The literature of mystical traditions from all over the world describes ecstatic visionary experiences, and they are often characterized in very similar terms. Visionary states arising from meditation, prayer, or spontaneous visions are often marked by amplifications or distortions of sensory fields, an experience of awe, and by a sense of unity with all things. Surely these traditions are not all rooted in hitherto-unknown hallucinogens. There is, for example, good reason to believe that no significant tradition of psychoactive use occurred in Buddhist meditation culture, a tradition whose literature frequently describes visionary states of this kind.

Albert Hofmann recalls how Wasson enlisted his participation in the project. He writes:

In July of 1975 I was visiting my friend Gordon Wasson in his home in Danbury when he suddenly asked me this question: whether Early Man in ancient Greece could have hit on a method to isolate an hallucinogen from ergot that would have given him an experience comparable to LSD or psilocybin. I replied that this might well be the case and I promised to send him, after further reflection, an exposition of our present knowledge on the subject, which I already suspected would support my tentative position.

Hofmann focused his attention on the ergot-derived alkaloid ergonovine. He undertook a bioassay with two milligrams of ergonomine hydrogenmaleinate, and experienced mild changes to affect and perception. “[T]he trees in the nearby forest seem to live, their branches moving in a threatening way,” (+ 1:10). Then, “motives and colors have become clearer, but bearing still some hidden dangers,” (+ 3:40). This dreamy experience does not exactly evoke the life-changing visions described by the thrice-blessed. However, Shulgin and Shulgin note in a discussion of ergonovine in TiKHAL that “[T]here are several reports of LSD-like action at oral levels of between two and ten milligrams.” Lysergic acid amide (LSA), the active principle of Morning Glory, is also found in ergot.

Both ergonovine and LSA are water-soluble. It should therefore be possible to separate the hallucinogens from the toxins by soaking ergot in water. (Owing to the potentially-fatal consequences of making an error in this process, I strongly urge against experimentation.) “With the techniques and equipment available in antiquity”, Hofmann concludes, “it was therefore easy to prepare an hallucinogenic extract from suitable kinds of ergot.”

Hofmann persuasively established that such a concoction was possible, and that it could generate the expected psychoactivity. However, he did not present evidence that this in fact occurred, and therein lies the rub. The hard work of proving Wasson’s theory falls to Charles Ruck, a classicist and specialist in ancient Greece.

Ruck is in an unenviable position, for he must work with the available evidence, which is primarily literary. His argument therefore relies on the assumption that a strong enough correlation exists between the Demeter myths and the mystery rites such that the nature of the rites is deducible from the surviving literature.

Certainly we can grant that there is some relationship between the myths and the rites, but the nature of the relationship is an open question. If the identity of the communion wafer were a carefully-guarded secret, could the Eucharist be deduced from a close reading of the Bible, or of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? Perhaps. But when a scholar sets out to support a theory by examining fragmentary evidence, that scholar is, in principle, open to charges of cherry-picking, whether intentional or unintentional.

Ruck begins by arguing that the experience reported in the mystery rites of Eleusis was very likely triggered by a hallucinogen. “Even a poet could only say that he had seen the beginning and the end of life and known that they were one, something given by god. The division between earth and sky melted into a pillar of light. These are symptomatic reactions not to a drama or ceremony, but to a mystical vision; and since the sight could be offered to thousands of initiates each year dependably on schedule, it seems obvious that an hallucinogen must have induced it.”

Ruck examines the myth of Demeter as described in the apocryphal “Homeric Hymn to Demeter”, which is included in the volume. In this rendition of the myth, Persephone was picking a flower called a narkissos (named for its narcotic properties) at the moment she was abducted by Hades. This myth establishes a crucial link between Persephone, vision, hallucinogens, and the link between life and death. Ruck further argues that this constellation of images is recapitulated in the initiate’s ecstatic experience, which may logically be deduced to relate these same symbols in the same way.

Ruck offers linguistic evidence that the mystery cults were associated with fungi, perhaps ergot. For example, “Archeological remains from the Minoan-Mycenaen period of Greek culture frequently depict visionary experiences encountered by women engaged in rituals involving flowers….” The names of these flower-pickers, called Mykenai, may be derived from Myekene, or “bride of the mushroom”, though this is not universally accepted by classicists.

Dionysus, the father of mystery rites, is also associated with mushrooms by various artifacts of language and myth. However, Dionysus is not clearly connected to the rites of Eleusis, and is not named in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Ruck spends considerable energy to establish a link between Dionysus and Eleusis. He argues that Hades evokes Dionysus as well as the Lord of Death. Ruck’s Dionysus/Hades equivalence strikes me as tenuous, perhaps motivated by Ruck’s desire to bring a series of associations between Dionysus and Ergot into play.

Ruck persuasively argues that, if the kykeon was the agent of the visions, it did not contain mere alcohol. The amount of kykeon consumed was too small to produce dramatic effects, given that the art of distillation was not known to the Greeks. It is believed that the Greeks sometimes spiced their beverages with additional psychoactive agents. Such a scene is described in Homer’s Odyssey in which, Ruck reminds us, “Helen prepares a special wine by adding the euphoric nepenthes to the wine that she serves her husband and his guest. The fact is that the Greeks had devised a spectrum of ingredients for their drinks, each with its own properties.” Ruck concludes: “Thus the wine of Dionysus was the principle medium whereby the classical Greeks continued to partake of the ancient ecstasy resident in all the vegetative forms that were the Earth’s child.”

Wheat and barley were grown in the country surrounding Eleusis. Barley, which is sometimes host to ergot, is associated with the resurrection of Persephone in various myths, suggesting a possible connection between ergot and Demeter. In a crucial bit of evidence, Ruck refers to Eupolis’ play Demes, in which:

an informer explains to the judge how he had come upon someone who has obviously been drinking the potion [kykeon] since he had barley groats on his moustache. The accused had bribed the informer to say that it was simply porridge, and not the potion that he had drunk. By a possible pun, the comedian may even indicate that the incriminating ‘crumbs of barley’ were ‘purples of barley’.” (58)

The lines from the Eupolis play are strong, but they do not constitute the smoking gun that we need to establish certainty. Like most of Ruck’s evidence, this argument is plausible but hardly incontrovertible. His argument ultimately amounts to piecing together a number of small details, concluding that the aggregate picture is persuasive. But, as they say, the devil is in the details, and many of Ruck’s arguments leave the reader with the feeling that there are other plausible interpretations of the same data – sometimes better interpretations.

Wasson and Ruck have not conclusively established that hallucinogens were necessarily involved in the Eleusian rites. The authors do not consider the many techniques for inducing ecstatic vision that do not rely on psychoactive substances, such as chanting, group ordeal, meditation, prayer, or fasting. Many of these phenomena have been studied by science since the book’s original publication, and are known to occasion powerful shifts in consciousness. Is it really so hard to believe that a group of pilgrims, crowded into a dark temple at night, and participating in a ritual widely reported to be the holiest event imaginable, might regularly experience religious visions without hallucinogenic prompting?

On the whole, the many linguistic associations that Ruck marshals linking mushrooms, plants, death, rebirth, and the Persephone myth are simply not persuasive. The fact that death/rebirth myths often use plant symbols has been observed by every scholar of religion from Mircea Eliade to Joseph Campbell, but it goes unnoted in this volume. In fact, one of the earliest great works in the field of comparative religions, James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, is about the fact that this precise collection of images occurs as the central figure of myths and legends throughout the world. The reasons for this are clear – the life of human civilization is bound to the cycles and seasons plant growth, which looks to human eyes like the death and rebirth of the Earth. Ruck lets this important consideration pass without comment.

The Road to Eleusis is an entertaining and engaging read. It argues well, but not convincingly. We do not know for certain if hallucinogens were employed in the rites of Eleusis, much less if said hallucinogens were derived from ergot. The authors have made brilliant and sometimes strong arguments on behalf of their theory, but ultimately, and ironically, the conviction that Ruck and Wasson exude persuades the reader against their thesis, for it appears that in this matter there can be no certainty.

[Warning: Ergot contains deadly toxins. See the Ergot Vault for more information.]

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