Literary Reviews, Literary Reviews: 1971-2000

Literary Review: ‘The Road to Eleusis’ by Wasson, Hofmann & Ruck

Road to Eleusis – 30th Anniversary Edition

Originally published in 1978 ‘The Road to Eleusis – Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries,’ by R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck, was only reprinted as a paperback in English for the first time in 2008, for its thirtieth anniversary edition. The work of an amateur mycologist, a chemist and a classicist, the text attempts to solve the mystery of the Eleusinian rites of ancient Greece by hypothesizing the use of an ergot-derived hallucinogen.The first three chapters were initially read as papers, by the three respective authors, before the Second International Conference on Hallucinogenic Mushrooms, in Washington, on Friday, 28th October 1977. Essentially, there are two important objectives that are running in tandem with one another in this text. Firstly the hypothesis itself that draws on the relevant expertise of its authors; the multidisciplinary approach is highly effective. Secondly, it is a treatise on the entheogenic discourse; indeed, the term was originally coined/announced by the authors at the conference.

Wasson writes the first chapter, which acts as the hypothesis to which the following chapters of the book are put to the test. Having already uncovered the ancient, and modern, ritualistic use of psilocybe mushrooms among Mesoamerican Indians, Wasson turns his enthnomycological mind toward one of the Western world’s oldest secrets; the Eleusinian rites. Roughly held between 1600 B.C. and 400 A.D. in Eleusis in Greece, the rites, at their height, attracted thousands of individuals to participate in the ceremony.

Many of the greats of the ancient world attended – Plato, Cicero and Aristotle for example – and attendees were allowed to go through the ceremony only once in their lifetime and were also sworn to absolute secrecy about what went on. In Athens the secret was kept  under pain of death; but regardless, elsewhere in the ancient world the secret was held well enough for us to know extremely little about what occurred in the ceremony.

The Mystery of Eleusis is what was given to attendees; the thing that could, firstly, make the secret so successful in its privacy and secondly produce such descriptions as Pindar’s: “Blessed is he who, having seen the rites, undertakes the way beneath the earth. He knows the end of life, as well as its divinely granted beginning.” Or perhaps Aelius Aristides who said of Eleusis: “Both the most awesome and the most luminous of all the divine things that exist among men.” Wasson’s hypothesis is that an hallucinogenic, or in this case to be inkeeping with the text, an entheogenic substance was used in the Eleusinian rites.

Albert Hofmann picks up the mantle in the second chapter: “In July 1975 I was visiting my friend Gordon Wasson in his home in Danbury when he suddenly asked me this question: whether Early Man in ancient Greece could have hit on a method to isolate an hallucinogen from ergot that would have given him an experience comparable to LSD or psilocybin.” He then goes into the scientific and botanical history of ergot and his own methodology at coming to the answer “yes, Early Man in ancient Greece could have arrived at an hallucinogen from ergot.

Using etymology, the extant literary evidence and evidence pertaining to sculpture and pottery of the time (which is far more comprehensive than the literature, for reasons of secrecy no doubt,) classicist Carl Ruck creates a picture of how an hallucinogen could have played the part of ‘Mystery’ in the Eleusinian rites. He includes observations about Dionysus (God of intoxication and theatre among others) and the lesser Mystery; which specifcally pertains to him. All of which give a very compelling narrative that certainly appears to give great credence to Wasson’s hypothesis.

The main literary evidence we have is the ‘Homeric Hymn to Demeter,’ which is translated by Danny Staples and included in the book. The writer ‘Homer’ as author and individual is certainly up for debate, however, along with ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad’ the thirty-three Homeric Hymns also use the dactylic hexameter as their rhyming scheme. The ‘Hymn to Demeter’ is a beautiful tale and it sets the dramatic scene for the beginning of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Chapter seven of the book explores all the documentation, very carefully and mindfully and certainly gravitates around the possibility of the hypothesis. Chapter eight, titled ‘Entheogens’ sets the model for a modern interpretation of the psychedelic experience, which the authors hope to promote through their examination.

By first arguing (quite convincingly it has to be said) against ‘hallucinogen’ and ‘psychedelic’ as terms; they then go on to espouse ‘entheogen.’ Taken from three ancient Greek root words, the combination essentially translates to ‘generating God within’. In the light of Wasson’s Mesoamerican discovery and the Eleusinian Mystery hypothesis, it certainly seems to be an historically consistent word. Whether it is appropriate for current understandings is, of course, an area of debate.

Since its first release there have been few arguments with the hypothesis, the few there have been are dealt with in the appendix to the thirtieth anniversary edition. It is, however, remarkable that more serious scholarship hasn’t been undertaken from it. One could speculate many reasons for this but – whatever your view might be – it seems incredulous to me that it hasn’t been tackled more thoroughly; for better or for worse it is worthy of serious academic attention as a hypothesis. A fascinating read and highly recommended. The older version can be read and downloaded for free on the MAPS website here.

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About Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a writer, author, and editor director of the Psychedelic Press UK

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