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The Psychedelic Cult That Thrived For Nearly 2000 Years

Illustration for article titled The Psychedelic Cult That Thrived For Nearly 2000 Years

The Eleusinian Mysteries are a set of traditions that have been practiced for 2000 years. The popular pseudo-religion invited all, accepting slaves, women, and men, regardless of financial standing and background.

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The origin of the group centers on a conflict between Greek gods, with the goddess of agriculture Demeter plunging the world into famine in order to save her daughter Persephone. Let's take a look at the background, the rituals, and a possible explanation for the popularity and longevity of the Eleusinian Mysteries, as well as a place where you can see a modern day recreation of their ceremonies.

Top image is of the cover of Persephone and the Pomegranate: A Myth from Greece by Kris Waldherr.

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Illustration for article titled The Psychedelic Cult That Thrived For Nearly 2000 Years

The origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries
The longest lasting "mystery" religion of the Greco-Roman period spanned nearly 2000 years, extending out of Mycenean traditions (approx. 1500 BC) and the Greek Dark Ages. The Eleusinian Mysteries are named for their origin in the city of Eleusis, but the religion centers on the story of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, and her daughter Persephone. One day, Persephone is captured by Hades. In order to coerce the other Greek gods to retrieve Persephone from the Underworld, Demeter causes a worldwide drought.

The drought deprives humans of food — but, more importantly, the Greek gods of sacrifices. Zeus orders Hades to return Persephone, but a dirty rule of the Underworld calls for anyone who consumes food within the Underworld to stay within its boundaries forever. Persephone ate several pomegranate seeds during her stay in Underworld, but a deal is struck that calls for her to return to Hades for four to six months out of the year, months when Demeter will be dissatisfied and once again prohibit the growth of plants. This story of Demeter and Persephone sets forth an understanding of the change in seasons against a backdrop of the Greek pantheon.

Initiation and Secret Knowledge
The cult of Demeter and Persephone allowed anyone in society to enter, as long as the individual spoke Greek and never committed murder. The individual's station in life did not matter — slaves, women, and the poor could enter into the group and access the fellowship and secret knowledge of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Eleusinian Mysteries featured a series of celebrations consisting of Lesser Mysteries and Greater Mysteries, with the Greater celebrated every five years or so. Most details of the mysteries did not survive to today, as members who revealed the more elusive secrets often met their demise at the hands of other members. The secrets of the mysteries are thought to revolve around hidden physical objects — the contents of a giant chest and an enclosed basket are known by low level imitates, with an increasing number of secrets revealed to tenured members and priests.

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Illustration for article titled The Psychedelic Cult That Thrived For Nearly 2000 Years


The Greatest Mystery and a psychedelic twist
The most important ritual for those involved in the Eleusinian Mysteries involved a ten day journey to Eleusis and a fast broken by drinking kykeon. The administration of kykeon, a peasant drink consisting of barley and the common cooking herb pennyroyal, is a subject of controversy for modern historians, as the kykeon served near the end of the journey likely contained a psychoactive ingredient.

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Ergot, a parasite that grows on barley, emits ergometrine and d-lysergic acid amide, a chemical precursor to LSD that exhibits similar psychedelic effects and a DEA schedule III drug in the United States. After ingesting the kykeon, the participant enters the final portion of the journey, wherein the most secret aspects of the mystery are revealed, with many experiencing visions pertaining to the possibility of eternal life. The influence of mind altering drugs is believed to bolster the individual's reaction to the final step and help the Eleusinian Mysteries survive for nearly two thousand years against a plethora of other mystery cults and the rise of Christianity in Rome.

Illustration for article titled The Psychedelic Cult That Thrived For Nearly 2000 Years
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The end of the 2,000 year celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries
Like many mystery cults of the time, the influx of influx of Christianity and Christian emperors of Rome led to the downfall of the Eleusinian rituals. Sarmatians, a group from the Eastern Balkans, robbed the Temple of Demeter on Naxos Island in the second century A.D. In 170 A.D., Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, author of The Meditations and portrayed by Richard Harris (the first Dumbledore) in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, repaired the temple. Emperor Theodosisus I, best known for the removal of the traditional state religion of Rome in 380 A.D. and replacing it with Catholicism, destroyed the remnants of the Eleusinian temples between 392 and 395 A.D.

Modern Recreations
If you would like to check out a modern production of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Aquarian Tabernacle Church uses the scant knowledge of the mysteries to recreate the known rituals every year around Easter during their Spring Mysteries Festival at the Fort Flagler State Park in Washington State. The ceremonies are open to anyone and provide a rare insight to one of the most popular societies of ancient Greece and Rome.

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Additional images courtesy of the Archaeological Museum of Eleusis. Sources linked within the article.

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DISCUSSION

charliejane
Charlie Jane Anders

Comment emailed from David Metcalfe at NYU:

As I mentioned on Twitter, I was just having a momentary bout of sensitivity based on a two day indulgence in idealistic and nuanced cultural critique, and perhaps a bit of sentimentality for the complexity of Mediterranean expressions of devotion.

The use of the term "pseudo-religion" sent me into a tailspin, which the comments by whoever is behind the Fennris30 handle did a bit to assuage. If you were using "pseudo-religion" in terms of it being a specialized branch of Mediterranean religion, that would make sense.

It's difficult to express in a single article the fascinating interplay of socio-religious ideologies in the Greco-Roman cultic system.

Jake Stratton Kent has written extensively on the various Mystery cults in his work Geosophia, which presents a detailed exploration of the pre-Grecian origins of these practices via the transmission and understanding of Goetic practice. It took him two massive volumes for that one book, and he just scratched the surface. Scholars have spent centuries debating the details of these practices, and it's only recently that many of the pieces (via advances in scholarship across a number of different disciplines) are falling into place for a more accurate understanding of what they were about.

In terms of contemporary revivals, I think something like Chris Knowle's Secret History of Rock & Roll gives a better understanding of the active potential in these rites than a reenactment group, but that's just my personal predilection for phenomenological approaches to understanding religious and cultic groups. Also looking at Masonic rituals, which use many of the same methods as the Mystery cults, would provide another active and contemporary example of what these groups of worshipers were doing.

When I read "psychedelic" I think of an active engagement with the psyche, not necessarily via an entheogen, and I think that this broader perspective is something that has been shown to be a very important part of the Mystery cults. Their use of mythological narratives, along with seasonally significant rites, manipulation of the senses, and dramatic elements, is very specific. All of these elements combine, in the case of the Eleusinian Mysteries, to form a structure that was known to cause irrevocable belief in the adherents who reached higher levels of initiation.

I think this is something that bears relevance to social critique. It provides a way to understand how contemporary media is effective at sculpting culture, as Ioan Couliano points out in his work Eros & Magic in the Renaissance.

So...basically I'm a bit tired after a long week, have spent too many years reading about these things, just got off a couple days of over-indulgent binging on fringe scholarship, and was hit sideways by reading an introductory article on a topic that I have deeply invested myself in.

The late Karl Kerényi (if interested) provides a beautiful and poetic glimpse into the depth of Mediterrenean belief. His work on Hermes is incredible: [www.psybernet.co.nz]

Unfortunately I couldn't find a link to an online version, or preview, of his work on Eleusis.

It was incredibly nice of you to offer a chance to respond and clarify my hesitancy with the article. Whatever aetheric cloud was burst by the term pseudo-religion was replaced with a warm sense of general communicative reciprocity by your gesture.