Did the ancient Greeks use drugs to find God?

Brian Muraresku

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers/Firefly. Original image via Brian Muraresku.

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May 04, 2024

Brian Muraresku makes the controversial argument that the famous Eleusinian Mysteries were fueled by a psychedelic wine. And he speculates that this secret ceremony, with its mind-altering drugs, became the Eucharist — the foundational event of early Christianity.

Brian Muraresku

Scholar Brian Muraresku makes the controversial argument that the famous Eleusinian Mysteries were fueled by a psychedelic beer.


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May 04, 2024
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- [Steve] Hey, it's Steve Paulson, and this is Luminous, a podcast series about psychedelics from, To The Best Of Our Knowledge. There's been a lot of fascinating work on the deep history of psychedelics around the world, how plant medicines go back thousands of years in many cultures and there are a few grand theories about how hallucinogens actually shaped human history. Terence McKenna's "Stoned Ape Theory" comes to mind. And by the way, we did an early Luminous episode about it with Terrence's brother, Dennis. And then there's the extremely provocative theory that Brian Muraresku spells out in his book, "The Immortality Key, The Secret History Of The Religion With No Name." His basic idea is that the ancient Greeks used mind-altering drugs to experience the divine. There was some sort of psychedelic wine that unleashed heavenly visions. And what's astonishing is that the sacred ceremony of the Temple of Eleusis went on for 2,000 years all the way into the Roman Empire. And who's who of Greek and Roman philosophers and writers, Plato, Aristoteles, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, to name just a few, had this transformative experience, but they were all sworn to secrecy. Now, I should say, Brian didn't come up with this theory himself. He's building on the work of earlier scholars, but he unpacks it all, follows the threads of more recent archeological evidence, and he adds another layer, speculating that psychedelic experiences also shape the early history of Christianity. Just think for a moment about what those early Christians might have actually been ingesting when they took the Eucharist. It's a remarkable story, highly speculative, and Brian tells it very well. He's also just good company, and I really enjoyed this conversation. I hope you do too. Brian, there has been a ton of interest in psychedelic research over the past decade, but I have rarely heard people say psychedelics helped shaped the origins of religion. Why did you wanna explore this history?

- [Brian] Well, Houston Smith, one of the most influential scholars of religion in the 20th century, when he calls this the best kept secret in history, that's hard to just let go by the wayside. You know, Houston was famously a participant in the Harvard Psilocybin Project in the early 1960s, and described his experience with psilocybin as the most powerful cosmic homecoming he'd ever experienced. And before him, Wasson, Gordon Wasson had likened that experience to something like what may have happened in these ancient mysteries, the ancient mysteries that were celebrated 2,000 years ago in ancient Greece, and by the Romans as well, and just may have snuck its way into early Christianity. I mean, so altogether, this is kind of packaged as the best kept secret in history. And when you study a bunch of dead languages and have nothing better to do with your time on nights and weekends, it's the kind of thing you dive into.

- [Steve] And you are a scholar of ancient languages. You actually know a number of them, right?

- [Brian] Well, I once was, at least. I studied Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Arabic when I was an undergrad at Brown University. And because, you know, I didn't wanna be a priest or a classics professor, two of the only things you can do with that languages, I made a left turn into law school. But yeah, I've been studying them and you know, I read Greek at night for no particular reason. And these were the things that, you know, accompanied me throughout the '90s and early 2000s.

- [Steve] So you are proposing a radical rewriting of the history of religion, that psychedelic experiences had a profound influence on religion, going back to ancient Greece and then continuing into early Christianity. Just in a nutshell, can you briefly summarize your theory?

- [Brian] Sure, I mean, so I really stand on the shoulder of older scholars who have been taking a look at this idea since at least the 1970s, but I kind of pick up the scent in 1978, there was this inflammatory book called the "Road to Eleusis," which was co-authored by that same Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, who famously synthesized LSD back in the 1930s. And Carl Ruck, who's now the only surviving member of that trio, I mean, together, they hypothesize that something like beer laced with ergot, which produces LSD, it's the natural fungus from which we get LSD, that's some kind of ergotized potion, was somehow involved in these ancient mysteries in Greece. And that essentially, yes, psychedelics or visionary experiences were kind of at the root of Western civilization and these famous mysteries of Eleusis. And for the longest time, there was no hard science to really prove that. But in recent years, with the advent of archaeobotany, and especially archaeochemistry in recent years, we can now go out into these old chalices, these old vessels and see what our ancestors were actually consuming, see what they were putting in their bodies. And turns out there's some fairly psychotropic clues in the archeological record.

- [Steve] Wow! Well, we're gonna dig into that, but just to pause for a moment, you say something in your book that I found really surprising that you've had no personal experiences with psychedelics, which I have to say is very unusual. I mean, I've talked to a lot of people who study psychedelics and they've nearly all had their own experiences, and you spent 12 years researching this book. Why didn't you wanna have this experience yourself?

- [Brian] Well, you know, part of me just wanted to be the fly on the wall and just report the facts. You know, this is a very controversial idea and psychedelics themselves, although, they're becoming more accepted, thanks in large part, I think to the clinical research at places like Johns Hopkins and NYU, and UCLA, and elsewhere, you know, they're still taboo. And I would say the majority of Americans, Canadians, Europeans, still have not experimented with these compounds. And so, I mean, as-

- And it's worth pointing out, they're still illegal, of course, as well.

- [Brian] And that was my next point. They're still illegal, which is why they're being studied at the clinical level. They're being studied for their safety and their efficacy on the path toward, you know, FDA approval in the coming years. But we're not there yet. And, you know, rather than a series of trip reports, and there's lots of great books out there that you can read about people who've experimented with these compounds over the decades. I was just interested in the science, I was interested in the language and the archeology and kind of putting these pieces together on my Indiana Jones hunt for the truth.

- [Steve] Now, there's one other piece of your personal history, and that's that you are a long time Catholic, right?

- [Brian] That's right, 13 years of Catholic school.

- [Steve] And does that have anything to do with your reluctance to take psychedelics?

- [Brian] Well, you raise an interesting question. So not only are they illegal at the US federal level, but not particularly smiled upon by Pope Francis or any preceding popes, the best I can tell. I mean, drugs have an equal taboo, I would say, within the church. You know, but so my own interesting personality crisis is that, you know, after those 13 years of Catholic school and learning under the Jesuits, by the way, four years of Latin and Greek, I mean, that, that was the whole reason I went down this historical rabbit hole. It was the ancient languages, it was the Jesuits, it was the Catholics who were teaching me some of these old clues. And I don't think this is where they expected the adventure to lead, but I still consider myself a good Catholic boy.

- [Steve] I mean, it's worth raising this point about sort of the hostility of the church to psychedelics, because this goes way back. There's a long history of religious authorities suppressing psychoactive substances, right?

- [Brian] Yeah, and I write about that in the book. There's always been tension between the mainline church and its Eucharist versus the, you could say, traditional medicine of people around the world. I think in the very last chapter of my book, I talk about the confrontation of these Catholic missionaries in Central America, and coming across some of these heathen practices as they refer to them, which would include the consumption of psychedelic, psychotropic substances, the kinds of things that are reported to put you into direct experience, direct relationship with God. And if you can achieve that, you know, the obvious question is, what good is the infrastructure of the church? What good is the bureaucracy, if there's this direct pipeline to God? But you know, I think it's a false choice in many ways. I do think that psychedelics and traditional religion can live side by side. There are many Christian denominations that already use psychedelics in their churches, like the Native American church, for example, which is parts Christian, parts indigenous uses peyote, for example, in a legal way in the United States, by the way. So there is some precedent for this.

- [Steve] Well, and you quote the Zen writer, Alan Watts, who said, "Nothing could be more alarming to the ecclesiastical hierarchy than a popular outbreak of mysticism for this might well amount to a setting up of democracy in the kingdom of heaven."

- [Brian] Yeah, you gotta throw some Alan Watson there. that is the essential, that's the rub. And I quote Brother David Steindl-Rast a Benedictine monk in the introduction to my book, "there's always been this tension between the mystics and the bureaucrats." It's that age old battle between the folks who are just trying to keep the religion alive, which includes things like doctrine and dogma, and making sure you can put people in the pews every Sunday. And then there's the mystics and there's the religious orders, by the way. There's the Jesuits and the Dominicans and the Franciscans and the Carthusians who kind of exist on the periphery of the faith and have always had, you know, a colorful relationship with Rome. But I think both of these sides of the faith work together to form this beautiful composite.

- [Steve] So a lot of this history goes back thousands of years to ancient Greece and specifically, to the Temple of Eleusis. Do we know what happened there?

- [Brian] So we have an idea, but we're always scrambling for purchase because everything that took place there was secret. It was an oral tradition, you know, I was just talking about doctrine and dogma, when it comes to the mysteries of Eleusis. There is none. There's no written records. This was high secrecy. And to reveal what you witnessed in that temple, in Demeter Sanctuary at Eleusis was to, in a very real sense, expose yourself to the penalty of death. This was kept secret and enforced by the Greek state at some point, and it survives for 2,000 years in that way, from about 1500 BC to the 4th century AD. So a very long time to keep a secret, but initiates as high as Plato, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, as far as we can tell, they all kept the secret. And they left us little clues about what happened there. So we're often left just kind of piecing together these ancient shreds of evidence.

- [Steve] And this was something that people did or they went to just once in their lives, right?

- [Brian] As best we can tell, I like how you say something they did, because it was an experience, it was a pilgrimage from Athens 13 miles northwest to what today is a relatively small town, 30,000 people in Eleusis, modern day, Elefsina. And by a great irony, Elefsina has just been named one of the European capitals of culture, by the way. So it's back on the European stage in a very mystical way. But Eleusis was kind of this great pilgrimage site. It was a center that you would approach once as a low-level initiate and come back the next fall at the Equinox to become a full witness to this mystery. And we do know that something was witnessed, it was some kind of visionary encounter. The big question is, what was that vision? How was it produced? Why did it change people? Because everybody who went to that temple and saw that vision walked away claiming they'd become immortal, that only they had been guaranteed the afterlife.

- [Steve] Do we know how long they were there?

- [Brian] So the whole series of events takes place over about nine days and nights. They're at the actual sanctuary itself for a couple nights, and then in the culminating experience of their lives, that's what Professor Ruck refers to it as, this overnight, all-night feast, the Pannychis, they have this vision. At some point, a magic potion, a beverage called the Kykeon is consumed, whether or not that was in fact the ergotized potion that Wasson, Hofmann and Ruck hypothesized as the magic ingredient of this vision was what propelled them into this celestial encounter, we don't know. But there was something that happened that night in Demeter Sanctuary that convinced them beyond any doubt that they would survive the grave.

- [Steve] Do we know what kinds of, I don't know, rituals they were celebrating this, I mean, you've mentioned Demeter, the Greek goddess of the earth. How does she figure into this story?

- [Brian] Right, so I mean, at its most superficial and basic level, the mysteries were reenacting the seasonal cycles and tapping into this sense of death and rebirth. And so the two goddesses to whom the mysteries of Eleusis were dedicated were Demeter and Persephone. Demeter, I call her the lady of the grain, the grain goddess, and her daughter Persephone, who's abducted by the king of the dead, Hades into the underworld. And she thereby, becomes the queen of the dead. But she magically resurrects and comes back to the earth after a long, barren winter. And it's she who propels the flowers back into bloom. And she is kind of this metaphor in a way for the cycle of death and rebirth that all mortals encounter. But it seems to me that to the Greeks, she wasn't a metaphor. They went there to actually experience something. In fact, Aristotle says this. He says that the initiates went to Eleusis not to learn something, and he uses the Greek word máthēma where we get mathematics. But they went there to experience, to suffer something pathane/pathos. So clearly, Demeter and Persephone were not metaphors to the initiates, it was something real, something lived, something that got inside their bones and convinced them that they too would resurrect from the dead.

- [Steve] I mean, it sounds like you're saying that they somehow, they, reenact is not even the right word, somehow re-experienced this process of dying and then being reborn.

- [Brian] Well, that's the big question. I mean, it could have been just a theatrical performance. And there's been lots of scholars going back to the 19th century who write about that, maybe this was just a theatrical performance. I mean, we're talking about the Greeks after all, the folks who invented the theater as we know it. But we've never found, you know, props and stagecraft on site there at Eleusis, which it's part of the reason that Wasson, Hofmann and Ruck started speculating about, well, maybe this vision, maybe what people were witnessing was in the mind's eye, maybe this was an internally generated psychedelic vision, which at least in the abstract, is not a terrible hypothesis because if you look at the modern literature in the study of psychedelics, people do often report death and rebirth experiences. In fact, my colleague Tony Bossis at NYU talks about, you know, many of his volunteers reporting the fact that their one and only experience with psilocybin is something like a foreshadowing of their own death, almost as if it's preparing them for their physical death. And it's this experience, which actually seems to have an effect on the anxiety and depression that some people are experiencing at the end of life.

- [Steve] So there are so many kind of fascinating pieces to this story. One is that the Temple of Eleusis was run by women.

- [Brian] Yeah, as far as we can tell, they were priestesses, and it was the priestesses who were mixing that Kykeon potion. It was the priestesses who were helping to guide these initiates into the underworld, you know? And maybe today, we would say the subconscious, or maybe today, we would say, you know, some kind of psychologically introspective state of mind or an altered state of awareness. But it was the priestesses like Demeter and Persephone that themselves who were thought to help guide these initiates into the underworld.

- [Steve] So it's pretty striking that in this very patriarchal culture of ancient Greece, the most sacred ritual of all was run by women.

- [Brian] Yeah, and it wasn't unique to Eleusis either. So the other mystery rights that I talk about, I mean, I think Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries are probably the longest lasting and best well-known, they do survive for about 2,000 years, as I mentioned. But there's also the mysteries of Dionysus, that Greek god of wine and ecstasy and theater and mystical rapture, you know, his devotees were largely women. Again, it's female initiates. They were the ones who led the Bacchanals, right? And were famously persecuted by the Roman Senate in 186 BC, we think that 6,000 of them may have been terminated at any given time.

- Wow!

- So it was, again, women who enjoyed a very special relationship with the god. And I do think some of that carried over into early Christianity.

- [Steve] One of the other things that I find so astonishing about this story is that some of the biggest names in history of Greek philosophy, of Greek art went to the ceremony at the Temple of Eleusis. You've mentioned Plato, the founding father of Western philosophy, and a who's who of Greek playwrights, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, they all went there.

- [Brian] Yeah, and whatever they witnessed there, again, despite everything that they did, despite the genius of ancient Greece and the people who created democracy as we know it, and the arts and sciences and philosophy, the concept of university, despite all that, Eleusis is kind of seen as the hub of the wheel that was ancient existence. This is why Ruck refers to it as the culminating experience of a lifetime, as the mysteries were about to be extinguished in the 4th century AD under the newly Christianized Roman Empire, there's this famous passage that's recorded by a Greek historian. And essentially, an initiate is telling the Roman emperor at the time, Valentinian, that to kill these mysteries to do away with the thing that has sustained Greek life for a couple thousand years is to kill us, is to put the human species at risk. So whatever Eleusis was, we know for a pretty decent fact that it was somehow integral, not just to Greek life, but to human life, that whatever was witnessed there was fundamental to the species.

- [Steve] So did any of these famous writers, I mean, from Plato on down, did they write about their experience at all?

- [Brian] Again, so all they left was clues, because you don't wanna say too much, right? To reveal what you saw there would put you on the wrong side of the penal code. So when Plato writes about witnessing a blessed sight and vision in a state of perfection, he's not saying that all that happened within the sanctuary dedicated to Demeter. And he's not giving us a sequence by sequence, rundown of events, but he is dropping a few clues that there was something very special about Eleusis. When Cicero in the 1st century BC, when he says that Eleusis is the most exceptional and divine thing Athens ever produced, again, he's dropping a big clue for people. And I'm not sure why this isn't more spoken about in our western civ classes or when we're learning about Greek mythology, but Eleusis was the thing that seemed to bound Greek civilization together.

- [Steve] So we're kind of entering the realm of speculation here, but why do you think this experience was so powerful for so many people for centuries?

- [Brian] Well, I think like any classic mystery, you know, psychedelics or otherwise, I think what's at the basis of a mystery tradition is the concept of death and rebirth. You see something like that, obviously, playing out in the performance or the experience that was Eleusis. You see something similar in the Dionysian Mysteries. The whole point of worshiping Dionysus is not to look to Dionysus as this external figure, but, you know, some of the great classical scholars of the 20th century will write about, the whole point was to become one with Dionysus. This is where we get the whole word enthusiasm, by the way, which doesn't mean to get excited. It means to be filled with the spirit of the God. It means to bind your soul to the master of life, to your fellow worshipers and to the life of the planet itself. There was something very ego dissolving, very boundary dissolving about these ancient mysteries. And you could argue the same about early Christianity. So, I mean, whatever was happening in these ancient rights, these ceremonies, that could have descended from prehistory, deep prehistory, whatever it was, was some kind of extraordinary encounter with our mortality. And I think the lived experience of dying and being reborn into a new identity.

- [Steve] Are there any modern day analogies to what might have happened at Eleusis?

- [Brian] Well, some people point to the Grateful Dead and/or Burning Man. I've heard comparisons to Burning Man and the Dead quite a bit. Listen, it could be, but you have to remember that Eleusis was administered by the Greek state at some point. So imagine many thousands of people descending on Washington DC in a parade to spend a night at a temple on the National Mall to drink a magic beverage together with 3,000 of their colleagues, and then walk away completely transformed. We don't have anything like that today. Maybe Burning Man comes close, but I think, you know, Eleusis stood the test of time, you know, unlike the other mysteries of Dionysus and the mysteries of Isis and Osiris and all these other near Eastern cults. Remember, that Eleusis, it survived into the Roman world, right? The emperors didn't get rid of this. We talked about Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, so, you know, they preserved Eleusis, I think because it was so stately, almost august, whatever happened there, was very well maintained and ordered.

- [Steve] So there are really two big questions here. What happened at Eleusis? And were psychedelics actually part of this experience? Because there's a huge controversy that's gone on for decades about the psychedelic piece of this story. I mean, there are a lot of scholars who thinks something very powerful happened, but psychedelics had nothing to do with it.

- [Brian] Right, and, you know, I talked with lots of scholars about this, and I talked with the excavator, the Greek excavator who's in charge of the site at Eleusis. And you know, I heard lots of different opinions. I think where everybody tends to agree is what you just said, that something profoundly transformative happened there. And even when you look to, you know, a gold standard classicist, like the great Walter Burkert, a year before Wasson, Hofmann and Ruck's inflammatory hypothesis about drugs. You know, even Burkert himself was writing about these prehistoric drug rituals. And in fact, he calls them a "Festival of Immortality." And he even speculates that, that maybe it was the expansion of consciousness that seemed to guarantee some psychedelic beyond. And he even uses that phrase, he says, "psychedelic beyond." And I don't think good Walter was any fan of psychedelics, but even he at some point was speculating about this, because it's very difficult to account for that vision, and whatever was witnessed at Eleusis as some kind of theatrical performance, it was something that totally transformed the human mind, body, and soul.

- [Steve] So you've mentioned Kykeon, some kind of drink that people presumably took there, but do we know what was in it?

- [Brian] Well, if you look to the ancient sources, we have an idea of the ingredients. So the Hymn to Demeter is one of these clues that survives across the ages and what it records centuries, even before the classical period, so a few centuries before Plato, we have the ingredients there, and it talks about the Kykeon as some kind of mixed beverage, which is what Kykeon means in Greek, a mixed beverage of barley, water and mint. So you don't see lots of psychedelics there. And even even Albert Hofmann himself was curious about the mint. And, you know, he was working with Karl Kerenyi and others trying to figure this out in the 1960s, but they eventually landed on ergot. And so when the sources talk about barley, water and mint, you know, according to Albert Hofmann, it was the barley that was kind of a code word. And so it wasn't barley itself, but it's what grows on the barley and ergot is this naturally occurring fungus, which is probably more common on rye, but does occur on barley and wheat. And so just maybe the priestesses or the families that ran Eleusis had figured out some kind of protochemical way to isolate the magic alkaloids to deliver this vision to people.

- [Steve] And ergot is the substance that's in LSD, right?

- [Brian] So yeah, ergot, it's the natural fungus from which you can extract LSD, which Albert, you know, he labeled LSD 25 because there were other alkaloids. I think by the late 1970s, they'd managed to isolate over 30 alkaloids from ergot. So LSD isn't the only one. There's LSA and LSH and all of the kinds of funky chemistry that are just swimming in what's an otherwise, very ordinary, very common fungus that as far as we can tell, has been with us as long as the domesticated grain has been with us at least 12,000 years.

- [Steve] So you said that a lot of recent research has been done in some of these historical sites. I mean, sort of, you know, trying to trace the chemical or the biomolecular footprint of these substances, including Kykeon, have any definitive results come from that?

- [Brian] Yeah, so I mean, I started this journey many years ago just trying to figure out what the botany and the chemistry was saying. And for the longest time, instead of trying to, you know, find data for psychedelically spiked beer, it was more just about trying to find beer. I mean, just trying to prove the biomarkers for that, is hard enough as it is. We think it could go back 12,000 years to a place like Gobekli Tepe, which is in what today is Southern Turkey. There's some initial evidence for calcium oxalate that were discovered at Gobekli Tepe.

- [Steve] And Gobekli Tepe is considered maybe the oldest city in the world, right? I mean, going back, what, 12,000 years? I mean, basically sort of the transition point from hunter gatherers to a sedentary, more agricultural life.

- [Brian] That's right. It's the earliest megalithic architecture that we know of. And I mean, to put it in context, this is like 6,000 years before Egypt or Sumer, or the high civilizations of India or Crete. This is quite a long time ago. It's like finding out that the ancients had the internet centuries before it was available. It's an incredible site, 22 acres there, and it's been called the World's First Temple. And, you know, it just might be that the world's first temple was also the world's first bar. So it seems there was something being brewed there, psychedelics, we don't know, we're just trying to prove beer at the moment. But then, you know, for many thousands of years thereafter, I tried my best to kind of fill in the gaps from one of these ancient, you know, prehistoric sites all the way to ancient Greece. I mean, that's a, that's a good 10,000 years of a lacuna. And along the way you'll see things like beer, wine, and mead being brewed up together at Mycenae in the 16th century BC. But you don't see many other hits for beer or psychedelic beer until it gets a little closer to the classical period. And that's when things got exciting for me.

- [Steve] Yeah. Now, you traveled all over the place to many of these historical sites, you know, looking for evidence, including to the Temple of Eleusis, I mean, or the remains of it, and you talked with the chief excavator there. What did you find out?

- [Brian] Well, I went to Eleusis to ask one question, and it took me an an hour to muster up the courage to ask Popi Papangeli that one question. And the one question is, if this hypothesis from 1978 has any merit, there's one very easy way to test that. All you have to do is subject one of these ancient chalices, one of these ancient vessels that we think may have contained the infamous Kykeon, and just see what's in there. You know, we have these wonderful new techniques like gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, that can dig into these ancient containers and tell us some of the biomarkers that were in there. And some interesting hits have really popped up from that long ago, including much, much longer ago in other archeological contexts. So when I asked her the question, the unfortunate answer was, these vessels, all the vessels that have been excavated from this ritual sanctuary, they'd all been cleaned, they'd all been cleansed for conservation purposes. So there was no active data on site, and I was forced to look elsewhere.

- [Steve] And what did she think of your theory that Kykeon was a psychedelic substance?

- [Brian] She's not a fan, she's not a fan of the idea, but very open to the conversation. I mean, as a matter of fact, ironically, she translated the Road to Eleusis, that controversial 1978 book. She's responsible for translating it to modern Greek. So she knows all about the theory, she knows Ruck, and she knows the kind of the cult history behind this idea. And she's a lot of fun to talk with. But she's no fan of the psychedelic hypothesis.

- [Steve] My guest is Brian Muraresku, the author of "The Immortality Key, The Secret History Of The Religion With No Name." You're listening to Luminous, our podcast about the science philosophy of psychedelics. So the other big piece of your theory is that the mysteries of Eleusis led directly to the founding of Christianity, which I have to say, is a very radical idea. Why do you think that?

- [Brian] Right, so again, this is not my idea, this is following up on scholarship from Ruck and others. But I mean, if you take a big step back, the general idea is sometimes referred to as the pagan continuity hypothesis. And even folks like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we're writing about this in the mid-20th century. Dr. King writes a great paper, which you can Google, called "The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity." And so the idea has always been there and been debated that just maybe some of these pagan archaic cults, some of them even drug-fueled, made their way from the Greeks and Romans into the earliest Christians. And again, if you just think about it, the one thing that unites both of these worlds is the ancient Greek, right? The New Testament is written in ancient Greek. Paul is writing, you know, most of the New Testament to Greek-speaking communities all over the Mediterranean, not the Holy Land. I mean, Christianity is born and the initial gospel is spread by Jesus, obviously, in Galilee. But the faith really takes root in the Greek-speaking parts of the Mediterranean, Paul's writing letters to the Corinthians in Greece, or to the Ephesians, right? On the coast of what today is Turkey, or even to Rome, Rome itself, which was, you know, suffused in these ancient Greek mystery cults. And as you begin to tease out some of the language, and look at some of the early frescoes that were left from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, you begin to construct a picture of a very Greek world and Greek-inspired Christians who just may have carried over some of these pagan practices into the new religion.

- [Steve] So it's one thing to say that Christianity grew out of many traditions and stories, you know, passed down from the pagan world, and maybe the Greek mysteries were part of this. It's a very different thing to say that this sacred ritual at Eleusis involving Kykeon was central to the founding of Christianity. Are you making that argument?

- [Brian] So I wouldn't say that Eleusis per se, was central, but you know, the mystery is themselves, and I focus more on the mysteries of Dionysus because when we're talking about the mysteries of Eleusis, we're talking about an agrarian cult, a prehistoric agrarian cult, that because of that connection to the cereal crops, seem to have used some kind of beer-based potion in its mysteries. With Christianity and with the mysteries of Dionysus, you're talking about wine, you're talking about a different sacrament, a new sacrament for a new millennium. And as you begin to tease out the parallels between Dionysus and Jesus, you begin to see that it's not just the ancient Greek or the Hellenic world, but it's the wine itself, which could have been the thing that, again, to early Greek-speaking Christians would've been somewhat interchangeable. In other words, the pagan wine of Dionysus may have become the pagan wine or the Christian wine of Jesus. And so the big question is, what kind of wine was that? And I sometimes refer to that as the most overlooked question of the past 2,000 years. You know, when you think of the last Supper, you think of Da Vinci's painting, you see Jesus there with his mates and all the cups, the goblets of wine on the table. I mean, what kind of wine was that? Why do we assume that the wine of the 1st century was the same wine that's being pumped out of Napa and Sonoma today? As you look at the archeology or the text from the time, it becomes very apparent, very quickly that ancient wine was a very mysterious beverage. I mean, so at the same time that the gospels themselves are being written in the 1st century. You have a Greek writer like Dioscorides, and he records dozens and dozens of formula for spiking wine with different ingredients, including, you know, Solanaceaes plants like black nightshade, which he specifically says in Greek produce, not unpleasant visions. So the idea that there was this rich, you know, pharmacopeia and this botanical knowledge in the 1st century is it's already there in the written sources. And so, you know, I go through the details to try and figure out whether or not that kind of wine would've made its way into the early Eucharistic celebrations.

- [Steve] Yeah, I mean, 'cause the obvious parallel here is Kykeon and the Eucharist today, I'm not Catholic, but you know, my impression is that most Catholics today who go to mass don't take the Eucharist, literally. I mean, you know, just 'cause you eat bread and drink wine, they don't actually think you are becoming the body and blood of Jesus.

- [Brian] Yeah, and I actually quote a poll to that extent. So 69% of American Catholics, according to Pew, 69% do not believe in transubstantiation, which is a shocking number because when I was growing up, I was taught transubstantiation, the literal transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus as kind of the, you know, defining feature of the faith. If you don't believe you're consuming Jesus and that real presence, you know, what good is the Eucharist? Is it just a metaphor? Is it just a symbol? I mean, clearly, to the earliest Christians, it meant something different. Now that doesn't mean it was psychedelic, but whatever was being consumed and how it was being consumed, moreover, by these earliest Christians in their homes, in these catacombs, in the places where Christianity was taking root, to them, it meant something. And to them, you know, Jesus was alive in their sacraments. And I think that's part of the reason that this otherwise neglected cult wound up becoming the official religion of Rome in only a few centuries. And today's the biggest religion in the world. It all hangs on what was happening in those couple centuries after Jesus. So, you know, we need to take an honest look at what kind of sacraments were there.

- [Steve] So where does Jesus fit into this history?

- [Brian] Well, Jesus was a Jewish carpenter, at least that's what I was taught in Catholic school. But you know, as you zoom out, he does fit into this lineage of dying and rising gods. And there's a lot of controversial literature that's written about this and the pagan continuity hypothesis. And, you know, maybe Jesus never existed. Maybe he's just an amalgam of all these near Eastern fertility gods who, you know, use these sacraments to initiate, otherwise, unsuspecting followers into the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. You know, I'm not sure where I land on all that. What I do in the book is try to make very specific comparisons between Jesus and Dionysus, and try to place Jesus in the Greek world in which he would've been confronted or encountered by the earliest Christians. So I spend a lot of time looking at John's gospel, for example, and in John's gospel, Jesus is presented as kind of a Dionysian figure. I mean, the famous water to wine miracle at Cana that we all know, that's described by scholars as not just a miracle of Dionysus, but the signature miracle of Dionysus, you know, to a Greek ear, the concept of water becoming wine. I mean, that was a story, you know, splashing around the forest and mountains of the Mediterranean for centuries before Cana. And so they would've read that as John's attempt, you know, to speak to these earliest Christians on their own terms, which is to say these Greek terms. And as you extrapolate these parallels further and further, you begin to see lots of curious parallels.

- [Steve] What's interesting is, I mean, I have one image of Dionysus, this kind of drunken somewhat out of control godly figure, which is not at all, you know, my image of Jesus, of the historical Jesus, or maybe I'm missing something here.

- [Brian] Well, Jesus was a fun guy. He was the life of the party. I mean, it's funny that you call Dionysus like a drunkard. I mean, that's the exact word that's used in Greek to describe Jesus. He's described as an "Oinopotes" in the New Testament in a couple instances, which is a drunkard. And when you think about that water to wine thing, also keep in mind what Cana is about. It's a really funny story, actually. I mean, you know, it's Jesus creating a bunch of wine for a bunch of people who are already drunk. The miracles at the end of the party, and there's even a funny line in Greek about, you know, most people don't uncork this kind of wine when everybody's already drunk. Like, why would you make such great wine when they're not gonna taste it and appreciate it? So it's 180 gallons of wine for people who are already drunk. That's a party Jesus, that's a fun Jesus.

- [Steve] Okay, you've just totally changed my image of Jesus here. Now, you went to the Vatican. I mean, you talked to people at the Vatican, you know, laid out your hypothesis there. What kind of response did you get?

- [Brian] I had a great time at the Vatican, to be totally honest. I spent a lot of time going through the catacombs with a Vatican-appointed chaperone, archeologist who had a fun time showing me some of the frescoes. I was in the Vatican Secret Archives, literally, I was in the archives of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, looking at some of the inquisition records from the 16th century. I was in the necropolis of the City of the Dead that's literally underneath St. Peter's Basilica, where again, some of these early Christian ceremonies were being celebrated underground in ceremonies that the great Yale Scholar, Ramsey McMullen will talk about interactions between the living and the dead. This is what the early mass was, this is what proto-Christianity, paleo-Christianity was. It was people communing with their ancestors in a very Roman ritual that was Christianized largely through, again, the use of this wine. Now again, it doesn't mean the wine was psychedelic, but it does mean that wine was a central feature for whatever was happening literally, underneath St. Peter's, what would become St. Peter's. And so I think we just have to ask more questions about what the faith looked like, how that would've been understood by people before there were basilicas, before there was a Bible, right? Before the books had been chosen for the New Testament, which didn't happen until centuries later. In the 1st century, 2nd century, this is still an illegal cult where, you know, I don't see any good reason for somebody to abandon the faith of their ancestors for this new untested and somewhat dangerous religion.

- [Steve] What did the people at the Vatican you talked to when you spelled out your theory, the psychedelic element of it? Did anyone bite?

- [Brian] They kinda laughed at me, but there weren't many doors that were slammed in my face. I got to befriend one of the archivists at the Vatican Secret Archives, and I told 'em that this whole theory about drugs and Eleusis and the mysteries of Dionysus, and the potential influence on Christianity, and he kinda laughed over a nice espresso. But what he mentioned was that I record this in the book, he said, you know, any scholarship if done properly is worth a look. And you know, I try and be very honest with the reader about the data that's there, what we can prove, what we can't. I wrote a whole afterward trying to be very skeptical about what's there, what's not, and what lies ahead.

- [Steve] So what happened then to Christianity? I mean, this history that you're describing is not remotely the Christianity that we've had for centuries if psychedelic hypothesis is right, why did it get rooted outta the Christian Church?

- [Brian] We don't really know, but we know when it happens. And you know, this mystical heretical side of Christianity, which is sometimes referred to as gnosticism, this kind of direct experiential version of the faith, it is largely wiped off the map in the same way that the pagan mysteries themselves like Eleusis. Eleusis is destroyed in the late 4th century. And along with Eleusis, along with the mysteries of Dionysus goes gnosticism and these alternative churches. And we know that they were talked about by the church fathers like Hippolytus, the church father does mention an alternative wine being spiked with drugs. He uses the word pharmakon in Greek seven times to describe these alternative Eucharists that were being mixed up by the heretics. But they all disappear largely in the 4th century. And from there, they go underground and they largely disappear. And I think, you know, if there is a pharmacopeia, it's probably kept alive by the traditional herbalist in Italy, Greece, and elsewhere. And they would be known later as the witches. And it was the witches who very well may have kept alive some of this botanical knowledge through the dark ages.

- [Steve] You call this the religion with no name. What do you mean by that?

- [Brian] You know, I don't think that this had a name. Whatever this tradition is, you can refer to it as shamanism, you can refer to it as plant technology. I don't think it exists as a standalone religion. I think if this hypothesis is correct, if there was this ritual use of psychedelics, if it did make its way into Christianity from the pagan, Greeks and the Greeks themselves had picked it up from deep prehistory, maybe going back to Gobekli Tepe, maybe going back tens of thousands of years. If it's not a standalone religion, it's a ceremony, it's technology that could have survived and made its way into lots of different traditions, different high civilizations and different faiths, including Christianity. And it's the kind of thing that, again, has always kind of existed in this nebulous fear, sometimes appropriated by the state, like at Eleusis, if the hypothesis is correct, sometimes dangerous, like in the mysteries of Dionysus, which are not appreciated by the Roman government. And when you look at Christianity, an interesting read of it might be a sort of compromise, you know? It's the invitation of this secret ceremony into people's homes. So not just democratizing this religion, but domesticating it. In some ways, some of these early Greek-speaking Christians may have looked to Jesus as a preserver of these mysteries, and that the best way to preserve them might just be to bring them into the dining room.

- [Steve] Does any of this history matter? I mean, today? Obviously, it's fascinating for the curious, but does it have relevance to our world now?

- [Brian] Well, I think it does. I think it raises, well-founded questions about the origins of Western civilization. On the one hand, I mean, if the Greeks were using drugs to find God, and that was at least part of the inspiration behind the way we organize our government or our economy, or the way we relate to one another, I think it's something worth investigating. I mean, if this hypothesis is correct and Eleusis is kind of the hub of Greek existence, what would that mean for us today? I mean, are we missing something in the way that we've organized our society? When the initiates talk about not just overcoming their fear of death and becoming immortal, but coming back from that experience as a fully fledged member of the human race, you know, it offers a tantalizing clue as to what may have fueled the success of democracy. And interestingly, in the clinical trials today, again, from one and only dose of psilocybin, you see people walking away transformed, but not in any kind of, you know, self-obsessed or narcissistic way. You know, I interviewed a couple of volunteers who talk about coming back to this world as better family members, you know? As better members of society. And the clinicians have tracked this, and they talk about these qualities being reborn in people like kindness and self-sacrifice, cooperation, resource-sharing. If psychedelics can do that, it it's something we ought to take a look at.

- [Steve] Well, there is a contingent of contemporary, what I would call psychedelic proselytizers who believe that if our contemporary culture truly embrace psychedelics, you know, in a safe way, in a kind of ritualistic practice, not as recreational drugs, it would open up our minds and bring us closer to the natural world. It would change politics, it would change the world. It sounds crazy and farfetched, but what do you think?

- [Brian] Well, Albert Hoffman certainly thought so, the father of LSD, you know, he looked to psychedelics as catalyzers of consciousness change. Again, when done responsibly in a way that's safe and efficacious. And I don't know what that means is that once in a lifetime? Is that once every so often? It's unclear to me. But if you look at the clinical trials, again, it's one and only experience of psilocybin and the results of which seem to last for years, sometimes decades. If you go back to some of the studies in the '80s. So it's hard to say where we're gonna land with psychedelics. Is it a recreational drug? Is it a medicine? Is it something that you microdose for general wellness? Is it a sacrament the way it's used in the Native American church, for example. Whatever it is, I think psychedelics are gonna transform the American landscape over the next 5, 10 years.

- [Brian] What has all this meant for you? I mean, you spent 12 years researching this book. You've already talked about, you know, you were raised Catholic. Has any of this changed your thinking about religion or just sort of the way you see the world?

- [Brian] Yeah, in a weird way, it brought me closer to Christianity, and that's how I started this journey when I was a teenager, you know, learning the Latin and Greek and kind of going back to the original language, the humanists would talk about this as the ad fontes, getting back to the source. And the more and more you go back to the original language of the Greek, the more and more, you know, you're traipsing through these archeological sites, the more you're in the catacombs, the more you're walking under the Vatican, the more you begin to appreciate what it must have been like for somebody in the 1st and 2nd century AD. And it was a very mysterious faith. It was nothing like the Christianity that I was introduced to as a child. I mean, I keep walking away from this just really awestruck by the promise of these mystical, visionary experiences and what they could do for the faithful, the unfaithful, everybody in between. I mean, the version of Christianity that I walk with today, thanks to the Jesuits is very mystical, contemplative and very much dedicated to service. You know, I was never force fed lots of doctrine and dogma, and I was always invited into the history. And so, I mean, the history of Paleo-Christianity, to me, it holds some real clues to where we came from. You know, Bart Ehrman will talk about it as one of the most transformative moments in Western civilization, but what fueled this religion? What fueled the rise of the world's biggest religion? These are great questions and I feel like I've just scratched the surface.

- [Steve] This is an incredible story. Thank you, this has been fun.

- [Brian] Thanks, Steve.

- [Steve] That's Brian Muraresku, the Author of "The Immortality Key, The Secret History Of The Religion With No Name." You're listening to Luminous our series about psychedelics from, To The Best Of Our Knowledge. You'll find more interviews on the science and philosophy of psychedelics on our website at ttbook.org/luminous. And I hope you're subscribing to the podcast feed where you will meet a lot of fascinating people, including a neuroscientist who's given MDMA to octopuses. Or a religion professor who had 73 high-dose LSD journeys and Melissa Etheridge talking about how she was really committed to using psychedelic therapy for treating opioid addiction. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced in Madison, Wisconsin. Joe Hardtke is our Technical Director, Sarah Hopefl to the sound design for this episode. And Mark Riechers is our Digital Producer. I'm Steve Paulson, thanks for listening.

- [Voiceover] PRX.

Last modified: 
May 22, 2024