As we reported last month, on May 8th the McKenna Academy of Natural Philosophy broadcast a very thought-provoking online seminar about the Eleusinian Mystery schools, their links to psychedelic use in ancient Greece –something that remains still very controversial in academic classic studies– and their influence during the early years of Christianity; the topics of Brian Muraresku’s book The Immortality Key, who was the main guest of the event.
This is the second of these events sponsored by ethnobotanist Dennis McKenna’s non-profit organization (the first one was the 50th year commemoration of the famous experiment at La Chorrera, which we also reviewed) and personally I found it to be far more engaging and dynamic than the last one –despite the fact that due to the nature of the discussion, this was not exactly Psychedelics 101, and if you didn’t have a basic knowledge of history and ethnobotany you would have had a hard time keeping up.
The crowdcast was divided into three parts, all moderated by Akojaiye Ausar, founder of the Illuminating Color retreats in Peru. The first part was a pre-recorded ‘fireside chat’ where Dennis asked his guest about how he first got interested in pursuing this unusual career path –Muraresku not only studied classical languages, but he’s also a practicing lawyer– and Brian seized the opportunity to express the gratitude he has to the work of Dennis and his brother, the late Terence McKenna; of whom he’d never heard of until he read Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head when he was 28. From there he read Terence’s Food of the Gods and also tapped into the treasure trove of recordings and videos featuring The Bard that are currently floating around Cyberspace.
It was amusing to see how much in common Dennis had with Brian, who can be rightfully considered part of the next generation of intellectuals receiving the torch of serious psychedelic studies from ‘the old guard’, represented by Dennis himself: They both grew up Catholic (Brian confessed to still be practicing ‘his own version’ of Catholicism, whereas Dennis and his brother renounced to their faith at a young age) and Dennis mentioned how at one point he dreamed about pursuing a career in classical studies and moving to Trinity College in Ireland; but that dreamed quickly evaporated after Dennis took one course of Greek in Berkeley –“it was like trying to learn an alien language!” he joked. Brian kept up with the good humor by admitting he was never able to get up early enough in the morning to be an altar boy, like Dennis was, but at least he did manage to pass his Greek tests.
Dennis also asked Brian about his brother’s Stoned Ape Theory–which should be rebranded as the ‘Pharmaphilic Hominid Theory’ according to Muraresku– and they both agreed that the concept had enough scientific merit it was ‘prime for testing’ (although I don’t know how PETA would take having a bunch of chimps tripping balls at the hands of labcoat eggheads).
Then the discussion focused once again on Brian’s book, and Dennis expressed his surprise that the text didn’t center too much in what possible role psilocybin mushrooms may have had in Western entheogenic rituals in the ancient past –Muraresku’s thesis follows on the steps of previous academicians (more on that later) who suggested that ergot was one of the main components in the kykeon recipe which was consumed during the Eleusinian celebrations. Brian defended himself by saying the current state of the archeobotanical data doesn’t point to mushrooms or DMT being the secret ingredients of these psychedelic concoctions. One archeological evidence he did find, though, was this tiny ceramic chalice from Spain dating to the 2nd century BC which showed traces of ergot.
Of course, the problem here is that –like all organic matter– psilocybin alkaloids are not stable enough to last long periods of time for archeologists to easily find traces of them in the archeological record. And we also have the problem of analyzing ancient artworks according to our modern (and biased) interpretations: Dennis and Brian did a little exercise of ‘can you spot the mushroom?’ with some old paintings and sculptures, but it soon turns into a Rorschach test (Fungaldolia?) that would be awfully familiar to any regular watcher of Ancient Aliens…
But what is indisputable is that people in antiquity had very sophisticated pharmacological knowledge, which eventually disappeared almost completely because it was suppressed by the Church once they gained enough political influence. It is also not surprising that the common repositories of these knowledge –women– were the ones that ended up being persecuted and accused of witchcraft by the Inquisition, centuries after the Mystery schools were prohibited.
Was the suppression of women by the early Church deliberate? Murarescu does not know. For him it might have been just the continuation of the misogyny reigning over the majority of the ancient world in the centuries before and after the irruption of Christianity; “being a woman in 4th century BC wasn’t fun,” he said. We also have to remember Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, and Rome never had a female emperor.
But now that we’re starting to move away from the rule of men, the Church itself seems to be opening itself to things that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago –like psychedelics. Muraresku claims he’s had very meaningful conversations about his book with Jesuits and other religious people. Now that psychedelics are beginning to be recognized for their potential in the treatment of severe depression and anxiety in terminal patients, the door is beginning to open for ‘healthy normals’ to use these medicines for a search of something more transcendent: meaning. Clinics are now the only available option for people seeking treatment with the few psychedelics that are becoming legal, but they are hardly ideal ‘sets’ for such experiences.
So why not a more spiritual set instead, like a monastery? Muraresku seemed to show a lot of excitement toward the possibility of psychedelics finding their way back to religious practices, administered by conscientious ministers during the last rites given to dying patients, as an immediate example –which actually caused a few angry comments in the chatroom from participants who showed a negative attitude against anything relating to organized religions. An understandable sentiment for this recovering Catholic (who for at time thought of becoming a priest. No, really!), and yet at the same time people in alternative communities need to accept the fact that not everybody is willing or able to ‘forge their own path’ all by themselves, and many get a benefit from the social structure provided by religious institutions.
The smartest of those institutions will be the ones more able to adapt to the fast changes ahead –just look at this future conference on non-human intelligence organized by the Society of Catholic Scientists– so embracing the use of psychedelic substances to re-invigorate their rituals and appeal to a younger audiences makes a lot of sense; if you are still skeptical about this, just take a look at this article I wrote in 2014, in which I describe how members of a seminar school participated in a psychedelic study in 1962 (in my article I showed doubt that the Church would show any change towards their negative position of psychedelics, but if there’s anything 2020 taught us is that we are living in interesting AND unpredictable times).
“Admit it, you just wanna take psilocybin with the Pope!” joked Dennis to Brian. “Who wouldn’t, Dennis?!” replied Brian in laughter. Indeed, who wouldn’t.
After the pre-recorded Zoom chat between Dennis and Brian ended, I was delighted to see Brian remained present in the next part of the live streaming, which also added three more special guests: Carl Ruck, Professor in the Classical Studies department at Boston University; Masha Wasson Britten, Professor of Nursing at the Decker School of Nursing, Binghamton University; and Mark Hoffman, independent researcher and editor of entheomedia.net. The reason why this reunion was particularly momentous in the annals of psychedelic studies, is because in 1978 Carl Ruck wrote the seminal book The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries in collaboration with Robert Gordon Wasson –Masha’s illustrious father, who traveled to Mexico with his wife Valentina in the 1950s to learn the ancient secrets of the magic mushrooms from Maria Sabina– and Albert Hofmann, the famous Swiss chemist and father of LSD (Mark Hoffman’s name is spelled differently, but that didn’t stop Muraresku for pointing out the auspicious symbolism).
The Road to Eleusis, as it had been mentioned in the previous segment of the conference, was one of the biggest influences in Muraresku’s ideas with regards to the Eleusinian mysteries and the hypothesis of ergot as the psychoactive component of kykeon; and it was one of the biggest reasons why he decided to continue where their authors left off with his own book, The Immortality Key.
“People accuse me of importing drugs to classical studies,” Ruck dryly joked while wearing a colorful t-shirt resembling an ancient vase, “but it was the Greeks who did that.” He also reminded the online audience that fermentation, which was so vital in the daily lives of ancient cultures from Mesopotamia to Greece, is a ‘fungal process’, so to think beer and wine were the only psychoactive substances that shaped Western culture is just short-sighted. Masha Wasson, on the other hand –and after dealing with some minor technical difficulties– plainly admitted that she was not an expert in psychedelics, but that didn’t stop her from regaling the panelists and the online audience with the many adventures she had with her parents during their travels to Oaxaca, Mexico, when they would partake of the sacred mushrooms with Sabina and Don Aurelio, another Mazatec ‘curandero’. “My mother was a pediatrician, so it is via osmosis that I learned about mushrooms from her.” Valentina also spoke 5 different languages, and in her daughter’s opinion, she and her father would be thrilled by the way psilocybin is becoming accepted by mainstream culture.
Aside from reminiscences of the past and anecdotes of how Ruck and Wasson once tried a sample of ‘Eleusinian potion’ Hofmann tried to create in his laboratory –it didn’t have the desired effect, reported Ruck– one notable thing that was mentioned before the panel moved to the Q&A session of the event, was that Dennis acknowledged there had actually been some ‘pushback’ against the McKenna Academy with their plans of producing this crowdcast, for failing to make it more inclusive by inviting women of Greek extraction to talk about their cultural tradition. Since Dennis didn’t want his organization as being perceived as just another group of male ethnobotanists co-opting yet another foreign tradition, the fact that he admitted this criticism as valid in public is to be commended, and even though he said he tried to invite Zoe Helene to participate, he promised that in the future they would try to be more diverse and inclusive.
The final segment of the crowdcast (the Q&A) was moderated by Ausar and (once again) too short for my taste –understandable, since this ended up being a 3-hour streaming, but maybe in the future the McKenna Academy could have pure AMA events with Dennis and a couple more guests. Also, they should show the text of the questions on the screen instead of just letting the moderators read them out loud. Aside from speculating whether the Biblical manna was a fungus of some kind or not, and whether synthetic versions of psilocybin are as potent as the natural compound (not according to Masha), all the members of the panel showed a common preoccupation with the current modern trend to ‘gentrify’ psychedelics –the same way it has happened with Yoga and meditation– and how re-introducing these substances into our society as just “buy a bottle of God from the pharmacy” would be must unfortunate. “These medicines are considered teachers and we have a lot to learn from them,” concluded Dennis McKenna.
And maybe one of the biggest lessons to learn is that we need to ‘re-mystify’ our world, or suffer the consequences. In one of his recent podcasts at Tangentially Speaking, Dr. Christopher Ryan was discussing how our civilization has been so thorough at “sucking the soul” out of the things around us (the sky, the earth, the living beings around us) and make us think of Nature as set of inanimate processes, that now our technology is trying to fill in this void by making our appliances talk to us (!). But this fake re-animation would perhaps be totally unnecessary if we managed to reintroduce the secrets of the Mystery schools in our modern society; that way we would not only be able to have a more productive symbiotic relationship with Nature, as Dennis McKenna hopes, but also disenfranchised young people from the Western world might not need to travel all the way to India or South America in search of that which Plato wrote about 2400 years ago, when he said that through the mysteries one could “see Deity face to face,” until you would begin to forget who is watching who.