For over 3,500 years, followers of the cult of the goddess Demeter have participated in a secretive and profound religious ceremony known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. The ritual was meant to reenact the story of the goddess’ loss of her daughter to the god of the underworld, and their subsequent reunion. Symbolizing death and rebirth, the ceremony was meant to elicit feelings of awe, joy, and spiritual enlightenment, and to give followers a deeper understanding of life and death. It is believed that the participants consumed a hallucinogenic drink, known as the kykeon, which is thought to have contained an ergot fungus similar in structure to today’s LSD. These ancient perceptions of psychedelics and the Mysteries can help us understand the power of these substances and the benefits they offer today.
The Eleusinian Mysteries originated in the town of Eleusis, a rural agricultural society located northwest of Athens, Greece. People from all walks of life took part in the ceremony, including rich, poor, men, women, slaves, and foreigners, as long as they could speak Greek. For six months before the ceremony, participants learned rites and rituals for the ceremony—called the “lesser Mysteries”—and then in the fall, it began: Participants walked in a procession from Athens to the temple of Demeter at Eleusis, spent nine days there, and then walked in a procession back to Athens, renewed by the experience.
The ritual was meant to reenact the myth of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, who was abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. When Persephone came back to the land of the living, Demeter was overjoyed and the crops flourished; but six months later, Persephone had to return to the underworld, Demeter became sad, and the crops began to wither and die again. This cycle repeated year after year, and it is thought to explain the changing of the seasons in ancient Greece.
The Mysteries served as a rite of passage to many in ancient Greece, and their importance is hard to overstate. The intense, six-month preparation for the ceremony and the diversity of people who participated in them point to the importance of the experience across ancient Greek culture. The ceremonies also existed for more than 2,000 years, and it took the spread of Christianity to wipe out the practice.
The way that ancient Greeks described these ritualistic experiences are similar to modern descriptions of tripping on psychedelics. Disassociation, hallucinations, fear, joy, a mix of other emotions, and a deeper understanding of the world are all experiences described during both the Mysteries and a psychedelic trip. The dissolution of the ego can lead to the feeling of oneness with the world, helping to break unhealthy thoughts and behavior patterns.
Psychedelics are having a resurgence today, and research shows the many benefits of the substances, including, simply, leading a fuller life and feeling more connected to the world. The ancient Greeks knew the power of the Mysteries and the kykeon, and closely guarded their secrets. Psychedelics, and the story of Persephone’s continual death and rebirth, can help us all come to terms with death and appreciate life for what it is.