Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who was first to synthesise LSD and the first to taste its awesome power, died in April last year at the grand age of 102. Twelve years earlier, I was fortunate enough to have dinner with the grand old man; we talked about many things, but his vision of the need for a new Eleusis for the 21st century shone out the most brightly. But what was Eleusis?
The site of the Eleusian temple is located 12 miles (19km) west of Athens, Greece, and was the focus of a Greek Mystery cult that lasted for nearly 2,000 years. It was situated around a cave, said to be the entrance of the underworld, where Persephone was taken after she was abducted. In myth, her mother, Demeter, wandered and grieved in the area now occupied by the temple and eventually persuaded Hermes to rescue her daughter. The first building of the temple proper was built at the site c.1500 B.C., and other buildings were added to the complex over the centuries.
The mysteries themselves were a 10-day event, held every September and were open to almost anyone, except murderers. The climax was a procession from Athens to the temple for the Mystery Night, where the revelation of the mystery, the epopteia, was to take place. As the candidates for initiation made their way to the temple they imbibed a sacramental drink, the kykeon. They then went through various procedures until a final, and secret, revelatory event took place in a strange building known as the Telesterion. This was unlike any other structure found in ancient Greece in that it had a plain exterior. There has been much debate about the nature of the sacred drink, but by far the best theory states that it was a beer containing ergot, a parasite of rye that contains alkaloids from which LSD can be synthesised. The evidence for this is overwhelming, and is detailed in the new, revised edition of my book, The Long Trip – A Prehistory of Psychedelia (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK).
Many of the notable philosophers and intellectuals of ancient Greece, such as Plato, Aristotle and Sophocles, were initiated at Eleusis. A visionary, mind-altering initiation was therefore at the very roots of Western civilisation – an initiatory experience it has long-since abandoned. Hofmann felt that something like it needs to be re-established if Western culture is to save itself. Aldous Huxley envisaged such a renewed institution in his last novel, Island, but in reality we are still a long way from such a thing coming to pass. We are still arguing about cannabis, for goodness’ sake.
In 2008, British politicians re-categorised cannabis as a dangerous drug after a period of having it in a lower category. They ignored the advice of their own panel of experts and police chiefs who have been arguing for the legalisation of the drug. When pressed about this retrograde step, government spokesmen made the tired old demand that cannabis needs further testing to see if it is safe, along with promoting scare stories about it causing schizophrenia. Yet not only has the drug been tested for decades and found to be safer than many prescription drugs, tobacco or alcohol, the testimony of our forefathers confirms its spiritual and physical benefits. This latter fact was brought sharply into focus in November 2008, when it was announced that archaeologists had found a cache of cannabis in a Yanghai tomb in the Gobi Desert near Turpan in northwestern China. The cache consisted of 789 grams of dried cannabis contained in a leather basket and in a wooden bowl. It was c.2700 years old but had been preserved due to extremely dry conditions. While remnants of cannabis have been found elsewhere in the ancient world the helpful conditions in which this cache was found has allowed it to be the oldest so far that could be thoroughly tested for its properties. The research team found it to have a relatively high content of THC, the main active ingredient in cannabis. In the past, those sceptical of the mind-altering use of cannabis in prehistory have claimed (somewhat disingenuously) that it was only used for making ropes, fabric and so forth, but they can’t get away with that this time. This Chinese sample was clearly “cultivated for psychoactive purposes”, a paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Experimental Botany states. “To our knowledge, these investigations provide the oldest documentation of cannabis as a pharmacologically active agent,” wrote the paper’s lead author, American neurologist Dr. Ethan B. Russo.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of this find is that the cannabis was uncovered in the tomb of a light-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian man, not an Asiatic person. He would have been a member of the somewhat curious Cheshi clan, a group of nomadic people of Indo-European origins who inhabited the region. The tomb also contained bridles, archery equipment and a harp, confirming the 45-year-old man’s high status. The researchers assume he had been a shaman.
Another intriguing side issue regarding this case is that a British laboratory that monitors crop quality for producing Sativex (a cannabis-based medicine approved in Canada for relieving pain in conditions such as multiple sclerosis, certain cancers, and so forth) was used to conduct the tests on the cannabis find, but it took months to cut through the red tape hindering the entry of the sample into Britain from China – a perfect cameo of how eccentric our modern Western attitudes to mind-altering drugs are compared with our ancestors.
As long as decisions about visionary substances are made on the basis of ignorance or political expediency, the creation of a new Eleusis remains merely a dream. Bernd Debusman, a Reuters columnist, underlined such stupidity in a December 2008 column. He points out that the failed “war on drugs” has helped to turn the United States “into the country with the world’s largest prison population” (it has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners). This failed war “has helped spawn global criminal enterprises that use extreme violence”. Among other things, Debusman points out that it has been estimated that legalising and regulating drugs would inject a total of over 76 billion dollars into the U.S. economy alone. Perhaps with the global financial collapse governments would be wise to consider this…
Ignorance needs to be banished – “know drugs” rather than “no drugs”. Decision-makers ought to be able to differentiate between dangerous, addictive drugs and those visionary substances that are mind-enhancing. On the other hand, altering consciousness is no light matter, and shouldn’t be simply another form of careless, hedonistic consumption that predominates in the popular counter-culture – it needs the framework, discipline and knowledgeable guidance that an Eleusian-like system would bring to bear.
Another ignorant view held by our politicians and shared by the mainstream culture as a whole is that the altered mind states caused by visionary substances are somehow hallucinatory, sham experiences. It is hard to counter such a false perception by pointing out that enhanced consciousness cannot by definition be illusory when the collective mindset promulgating such a misperception is itself not sufficiently enhanced to know that it is mistaken.
A new Eleusis would let badly needed light reach into the gloom of our modern civilisation’s general state of consciousness. The fruits of this would be for us to know collectively, as a culture, that the nature of reality is much greater than we currently think we know. It would humble us; make us aware that we have read but the first few pages of the great book of nature. It would link us to vast realms of knowledge, and pull us back from our isolation outside the gates of Eden into the folds of a consciousness that communes with the biosphere as a whole, and perhaps even greater consciousnesses beyond. It would make our political decisions, whether regarding the environment, foreign relations, the economy, scientific endeavour or social structures more informed, more humane, more sustainable. Anthropologists have noted that in antiquity, the use of visionary plants has seemingly triggered the flowering of some civilisations – our own modern culture is in desperate need of such a new flowering, otherwise it will leave the stage. As I remark in The Long Trip, if this proves to be the case, then the Earth, in the ages that belong to it alone, will surely birth a new species more capable of continuing the great adventure of consciousness.