Episode 11 – Show Notes

The thematic questions of this episode:

  1. Did the ancient Greeks have a secret, psychedelic ritual that allowed them to merge with, or become one of, the gods?
  2. Has a close historical relationship between psychedelics and meaningful spiritual practice been lost, hidden, or suppressed?
  3. Will increased use of psychedelic drugs herald a revival of spirituality in America…or the unleashing of destabilizing psychic forces?

Deep questions to explore in Discussion:

  1. Could these rituals have played a role in the birth of philosophy and higher levels of abstract thinking? Could psychedelics have been the accelerant that drove classical civilization to the heights it achieved?
  2. Brian Muraresku describes the psychedelic kykian as a necessary component in a religious practice that “held the ancient world together” – suggesting that when psychedelics are integrated into communal spiritual practices, then they can unlock an incredible social power. He also contrasts the power of the Eluesian Mysteries with the Roman Catholic Church, which he describes as a stale, bureaucratic social force, that “invented the war on drugs” and perpetuated that war throughout millenia as a component of social control. Does this not imply that psychedelic religion has the potential to unleash radical social change?
  3. How important is it to have a communal and ritualistic practice around the psychedelic? Does this not invoke Timothy Leary’s (1961) warnings about the importance of “set and setting” in the use of LSD?  Should people maybe NOT be taking these drugs without first programming themselves ?
  4. Related to this question – could there be certain potions or substances that allow us to talk with beings from another dimension or a higher realm? And could it be that set and setting (in Leary’s language) or communal practice and ritual are essential to calibrating oneself for the experience that they’re going to have?
  5. Many scholars have suggested that the ancient Greeks saw themselves as “merging” with Gods or becoming Gods because of these drugs. Can we contemplate a theology in which there are secret processes for obtaining immortality? What would this imply for all the people who aren’t lucky enough – rich enough or connected enough – to gain access to these secret processes.

Content notes:

  1. Muraresku, a trained classicist intuited a connection between drugs and religion. He read about the studies being done on psychedelics as a treatment for end-of-life anxiety in the terminaly ill. He hypothesized that the immortality (or sense of immortality) conferred by initiates to the Elusian Mysteries was a healing psychedelic vision.
  2. As noted in Muraresku’s book, John Hopkins University researchers published results on a study of psilocybin’s effects on anxiety and depression in cancer patients. They found 87 % of the 29 volunteers reporting increased life-satisfaction or well-being for months afterward. 70% of participants reported that their single experience with psychedelics was in the top five of the most meaningful experiences of their entire lives, comparing it to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Dr. Roland Griffiths, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Psychadelic Research unit has said that the drug-induced ecstasy of psychadelics, is “virtually identical” to that reported by prophets and visionaries throughout recorded history.
  3. One of the people in the John Hopkins Study was Dinah a woman diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. She laid on a couch with a sleep shade over her eyes and listening to classical music on headphones. Then she went on a six-hour psychedelic journey. She saw “a big black lump like coal under my rib cage, on the lefthand side, which was not where the cancer was.” She yelled at it and it vanished. She drifted away “living in the music like a river” when she felt the love of “God” enter her. She described a process of the “dissolution of the self” and the “melting away of barriers” including a moment where concepts like internal and external no longer held true. And then she realized that “birth and death don’t actually have any meaning” because she enjoys a state of always being she described as “always being. So being now and always. There’s no beginning and no end. Every moment is an eternity of its own.”
  4. So, Muraresku said, this reminds me of what people reported after they were initiated into the Eleusian Mysteries. L-OOOH-SIN-IAN
  5. Sources say “those who participated in the mysteries were forever changed for the better and that they no longer feared death.” (
  6. Plato’s Phaedo, a dialogue on the immortality of the soul, takes place in the context of the mysteries. Plato alludes to a “blessed sight and vision” he witnessed “in a state of perfection”  And Plato writes: ” our mysteries had a very real meaning: he that has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods”
  7. Cicero, the Roman Statesman and philosopher wrote in a letter: 

    “For it appears to me that among the many exceptional and divine things your Athens has       produced and contributed to human life, nothing is better than those Mysteries. For by        means of them we have been transformed from a rough and savage way of life to the state of humanity, and have been civilized. Just as they are called initiations, so in actual fact we have learned from them the fundamentals of life, and have grasped the basis not only for living with joy, but also for dying with a better hope.”
  8. Greek philosopher and historian, Plutarch had this to say about the mysteries: “because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries…we hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal. Let us behave ourselves accordingly”(Hamilton, 179). Further, he says, “When a man dies he is like those who are initiated into the mysteries. Our whole life is a journey by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of qutting it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances and holy apparations” (Hamilton, 179)
  9. The playwrit, Aeschylus, was charged with revealing the mysteries by alluding to them in a play.
  10. So, how could all this have come about? It sounds very much like the experiences that people had in the John Hopkins psychedelic mushroom experiments. And that’s a major line of argument in Muraresku’s book: the experiences are so powerful and widely reported by highly reputed sources that they must have involved a psychedelic substance.
  11. Let’s give some background on the Eleusinian Mysteries: Eleusinian Mysteries (L-OOH-SINIAN) (Greek: Ἐλευσίνια Μυστήρια, romanizedEleusínia Mustḗria) were initiations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at the Panhellenic Sanctuary of Eleusis in ancient Greece. They are the “most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece”.[1] They lasted from 600 BCE – 392.  [Wikipedia]
  12. All the elites of the ancient world, including Plato, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, would travel to Elusis at some time in their life – a Greek town 14 miles west of Athens. There they had a “direct encounter with the goddess” and lost all fear of death. We know that the Elusian Mysteries involved a pilgrimage walk from Athens (only 14 miles), and they involved ritualistic ceremonies, certain portions of which had to be kept secret according to Greek law, on pain of death. There were both Minor and Greater Mysteries.  We know that the Minor Mysteries revolved around the story of Diameter, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone, and the story of Persephone going down into the underworld. No one knows what the Elusian Mysteries consisted of, because the secret was kept for 2,000 years. But, they were said to have held the panhellenistic world together. The Roman emperor Theodosius ended the mysteries In 392 A.D. as part of the Christianization of the Roman Empire. In 396, Alaric The Visigoth invaded Greece and destroyed the Telesterion – which was the main hall at Elusis where the Greater Mysteries were celebrated. 
  13. Those who did write about Elusian Mysteries would talk: (1) a vision, (2) an initiation into a secret, and (3) a kykeon (mixed drink), and (4) becoming immortal.  [Muraresku]
  14. Because Demeter is an agrarian God. He thinks that the kykian must have involved wheat or barley. Some sources say that ingredients included barley and pennyroyal. Muraresku argues that the ancient Greeks were able to brew a psychedelic kykian by using ergot – a fungus that grows on wheat. This would be further consistent with the Elusian Mysteries being an agricultural ritual.
  15. But ergot produces about two dozen alkaloids. And none of them have ever been isolated and found to produce the same kinds of effects as mushrooms.
  16. Muraresku uses the story of Circe as evidence that psychedelic kykian or pharmakon were common.
  17. “Have a look at line 290 where Homer mentions the pharmaka. He even uses the noun kukeo for the ‘mixed potion’ that Circe uses to turn the men into pigs. Just like the kukeon from Eleusis.” The director knows exactly which passage I’m referring to and begins reading the ancient hexameter out loud. The music of the language transports me to younger days. In English, Hermes’s classic warning to Odysseus goes like this: “she [Circe] will mix thee a potion (kukeo), and cast drugs (pharmaka) into the food.” I ask the director to flip back another page, just to the right of my one-word note to self, “potion.”
  18. The word Kukeo used in the original Greek, is similar to the word for the drink consumed at Elusis, Kykeon. And the Pharmaka means drugs. (note: in my version of Homer’s Oddyssy, it describes Circe as Polypharmakos a potion-brewer – Dane.)
  19. Muraresku uses Euripdes Bacchae as evidence that ritualistic psychedelic use was a widespread element of Greek society. 
  20. Muraresku has only a teeny bit of forensic evidence: they found ergot in the jaw of a dead man in ancient Spain. They found evidence of psychedelic kykian in a jar in the same area of spain: Hellenic community of Emporion, in modern Catalonia. It was founded in 575 B.C., by pioneers from Ionia, which was another Greek city-state. There the Greeks were mixing with Phocaeans – another ancient people now extinct – and local Iberians. There was a multi-cultural mileu in that community. The claim is that these people were involved in a duplication of the Elusian Mysteries copied and transported to Iberia. They think that because the mixing vessels that they find in the ruins of Emporion have symbolism suggestive of the cult of Diameter and Peresphone.   This is seen as evidence of psychedelic use by the ancient Greeks.
  21. Patrick McGovern, the scientific director of biochemical archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania has used chemical analysis to prove that many ancient beers contained psychoactive compounds other than alcohol.  The topic is discussed in his book Ancient Brews.
  22. So we can summarize the Muraresku’s argument:
    1. There’s the similarity between what psychedelic users report and what was reported about the mysteries.
    2. There’s the L-OOH-SINIAN mysteries being managed by a mystery cult dedicated to an agrarian God.
    3. There’s psychadelics found at other agrarian cults.
    4. There’s the textual evidence from Homer’s Oddyssy and Euripides’ plays indicating that psychoactive rituals may have been widespread in the ancient Hellenistic world.
    5. There is evidence of psychoactive beers in the ancient world.
  23.  Muraresku pushes the idea that religions throughout history were using drugs religiously. In fact, the second part of his book argues that the Ancient Greeks passed on a version of their kykian to the early Greek-speaking Christians. He thinks the original eucharist was a psychedelic ritual.  Some Christian groups used mind altering substances in their version of the Eucharist. They may have used toad venom. The Catholic Church suppressed these groups. Giordiano Bruno used a potion and had sci-fi-like visions of other planets. He was burned at the stake. The Cathars may have used a psychedelic potion. Medieval witches may have used psychedelics.
  24. Muraresku pushes the idea that psychadelics can offer real comfort, and meaning, while traditional religious practices are stale and their comforts ineffective. They succeeded because they destroyed their competition. If we use psychadelics we are returning to the religion that has no name, because it is the universal experience of transcendence shared by people using psychadelics throughout history.
  25. I want to talk about how gung-ho Muraresku is about the need for psychadelics to have widespread religious experiences. One critical book review complained that he is anti-religion and seems to think that only drugs can provide an authentic religious experience. But, I read Muraresku as saying that only the use of psychadelics (or some other physiological technique for inducing altered states) can make large swathes of society find religious practices deeply meaningful.

    In 1958, psychedelic pioneer, Adolous Huxley, wrote that psychadelics have the power to bring about a revolution in spirituality:

    “My own belief is that, though they may start by being something of an embarrassment, these new mind changers will tend in the long run to deepen the spiritual life of the communities in which they are available. That famous “revival of religion,” about which so many people have been talking for so long, will not come about as the result of evangelistic mass meetings or the television appearances of photogenic clergymen. It will come about as the result of biochemical discoveries that will make it possible for large numbers of men and women to achieve a radical self-transcendence and a deeper understanding of the nature of things. And this revival of religion will be at the same time a revolution. From being an activity mainly concerned with symbols, religion will be transformed into an activity concerned mainly with experience and intuition—an everyday mysticism underlying and giving significance to everyday rationality, everyday tasks and duties, everyday human relationships.31


Brian C. Muraresku. “The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name.” Apple Books.

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