In my article Masonry and the Mysteries of Eleusis , I explained that Freemasonry has been described as a continuation of the various Mystery cults which flourished in ancient Rome, Egypt, Persia, and especially Greece before they were indiscriminately suppressed in favor of the new, growing, Christian religion. Illustrious Brother Albert Pike even went so far as to declare that Masonry is identical with the ancient Mysteries, though he later added that this is true only to a limited extent. For in Pikes estimation, Masonry is
but an imperfect image of [the Mysteries] brilliancy, the ruins only of their grandeur, and a system that has experienced progressive alterations, the fruits of social events, political circumstances, and the ambitious imbecility of its improvers.
Central to these Mysteries, whether they were solar or agrarian in nature, was the indoctrination of their participants regarding the reality of deity and the immortality of the soul. As Illustrious Brother Albert Mackey explained,
the object of instruction in all [the] Mysteries was the unity of God, and the intention of the ceremonies of initiation into them was, by a scenic representation of death, and subsequent restoration to life, to impress the great truths of the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul.
In most cases, these doctrines appear to have been imparted via a complex ritualized dramatization of the traditional myths and legends surrounding the central deity of the cult, wherein the candidate himself was oftentimes made consubstantial with the deity, suffering his trials, death, and resurrection and in some instances, even acting out the deitys undertakings while sojourning through the Land of the Dead. It was precisely these ritualized reenactments that more often than not constituted the various ceremonies of Initiation into the ancient Mysteries, the completion of which veritably made one a bona fide member of the Mystery cult.
The most popular of the ancient Mystery cults was indisputably that of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Kore or Persephone which were celebrated at Eleusis, Greece from around 1450 BCE to 392 CE. The primary celebrations observed at Eleusis are known to have consisted of a Lesser and a Greater Mystery.
The Lesser Mystery appears to have entailed the preliminary indoctrination of the candidates regarding the central mythos of the cult. Participation therein constituted one a Mystis or Initiate, and was the mandatory prerequisite which prepared him for admittance into the Greater Mystery. Unlike the Lesser, it is believed that the Greater Mystery did not involve a lengthy recapitulation of the cults sacred mythos, but rather consisted of something which was seen directly hence the title of Epopt or Seer applied to Initiates of this level. Therefore, we can be confident that what the Mystis heard only at second-hand in the Lesser Mystery, the Epopt witnessed or experienced at first-hand in the Greater.
In his book The Symbolism of Freemasonry, Mackey compared the two initiatory stages of the Eleusinian Mysteries with Freemasonry directly, saying that the Mystis and Epopt stages were analogous to the Masonic degrees of Fellowcraft and Master Mason, respectively. The degree of Entered Apprentice, on the other hand, he compared to the extraction of the oaths of secrecy and the ceremonies of purification which preceded the Mysteries proper. In the present study, I would like to make a slightly different comparison.
As stated above, what the Mystis learned via an allegorical representation and that only at second hand, the Epopt saw and experienced directly. Where the Mystis once had faith, the Epopt now has gnosis. Since we can safely assume that the reality of deity and the immortality of the soul were the central lessons allegorically imparted to the initiates of the Lesser Mystery, the question naturally begs to be answered: short of physical death, how does one provide firsthand experience of God and of the afterlife? How does one induce in another the experience of the latters soul being veritably freed from the bonds of the material plane and allowed to wander in the Underworld or in the Heavens where the Glory of God may be beheld directly? For, this is the type of experience that was reportedly induced in participants of the Greater Mystery. According to Sophocles,
[t]hrice happy are those of mortals, who having seen those rites depart for Hades; for to them alone is it granted to have true life there; to the rest all there is evil.
Similarly, Pindar exclaimed:
Happy is he who, having seen the rites, goes below the hollow earth; for he knows the end of life and he knows its god-sent beginning.
Plutarch went into considerably more detail.
[Upon dying] the soul suffers an experience similar to those who celebrate the great initiations… Wanderings astray in the beginning, tiresome walking in circles, some frightening paths in darkness that lead nowhere; then immediately before the end all the terrible things, panic and shivering and sweat, and amazement. And then some wonderful light comes to meet you, pure regions and meadows are there to greet you, with sounds and dances and solemn, sacred words and holy views; and there the initiate, perfect by now, set free and loose from all bondage, walks about, crowned with a wreath, celebrating the festival together with the other sacred and pure people, and he looks down on the uninitiated, unpurified crowd in this world in mud and fog beneath his feet.
Finally, Proclus described his experience in the Greater Mystery as follows:
They cause the sympathy of the souls with the ritual in a way that is incomprehensible to us, and divine, so that some of the initiands are stricken with panic, being filled with divine awe; others assimilate themselves to the holy symbols, leave their own identity, become at home with the gods, and experience divine possession.
The problem of what could have so consistently induced an experience that convinced thousands upon thousands of participants, including even the most intelligent of philosophers, of the reality of the vision shared by all Epopts of the Greater Mystery at Eleusis has plagued scholars and scientists for centuries. It was not until the publication of Wasson, Hofmann, and Rucks remarkable book The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries in 1978 that a feasible explanation was finally set forth. In said work, the authors offered the proposal that such an experience could only be induced so consistently and reliably with the use of an entheogenic compound; that is, with a psychedelic drug.
This is actually not that surprising. The use of entheogenic compounds in ritualistic settings is perhaps the most commonly employed initiatory motif in indigenous and semi-civilized societies. In the Amazon Basin it is ayahuasca, among the Mazatecs, teonanacatl, with the ancient Vedantists, it was soma, and with the Parsis, it was haoma which accomplishes (or accomplished) this experience. But, in all of these cases and more it was or is an entheogenic compound which facilitates (or facilitated) the experience.
An important distinction needs to be made here. In the science and art of initiation there are actually two different types of initiation: formal and actual. Formal initiation plants the seeds and provides the means by which, through time and application of the lessons inculcated, those seeds might blossom into actual initiation or illumination. However, not all formal initiates attain actual initiation, nor have all actual initiates been formally initiated. The only way therefore to ensure that both formal initiation and actual initiation coincide in the same moment is to have a failsafe means by which actual initiation may be induced upon being formally initiated. It is this function which psychedelic drugs served in the ancient Mysteries and still serve to this day in certain indigenous and semi-civilized societies.
Select entheogenic compounds have the effect of expanding ones consciousness in such a way that previously abstract and ineffable notions of deity and spirit become at once tangible and concrete to the extent that there can be no question of the reality of the spiritual plane or planes. The experiences reported by those who have experimented with such compounds consistently involve motifs of astral travel, near death experiences, perception of the unity of all creation and the immanence of God, contact with angelic or divine beings, etc. In the Eastern-tinged words of our esteemed Brother Swami Vivekananda,
[m]atter is represented by the ether; when the action of Prana is most suble, this very ether, in the finer state of vibration, will represent the mind, and there it will be still one unbroken mass. If you can simply get into that subtle vibration, you will see and feel that the whole universe is composed of subtle vibrations. Sometimes certain drugs have the power to take us, while as yet in the senses, to that condition. [emphasis added]
Just as at Eleusis, what one was once required to accept on faith, he has now been given direct knowledge of the reality or unreality of those same particulars.
In the Mysteries celebrated at Eleusis, the compound which accomplished this actual initiation in its participants was called kykeon and, according to Wasson et al., was prepared from barley which had been infested with Claviceps purpurea or ergot. Ergot, a term which stems from the French word argot meaning cocks spur, is a fungus which infects cereal grasses and grains including but not limited to barley, wheat, and corn.
In the Middle Ages it was responsible for the death of countless individuals who had eaten bread or other foods which had been prepared from ergot infested grains. Symptoms of ergot poisoning, otherwise known as St. Anthonys Fire, are gruesome in the extreme and include intense and alternating feelings of heat and cold, the development of gangrene resulting in loss of limb, delirious hallucinations, and severe gastric disturbances usually ending in death. However, also present within the ergot kernel are certain other alkaloids which have been known to induce ecstatic euphoria in numberless users. For, it was in an attempt to discover a cure for this dreaded ergot poisoning that led Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann to the discovery of LSD-25 in the 1930s.
Just as in the Greater Mystery at Eleusis, those under the influence of LSD experience alternating panic, shivering, sweat, amazement, visions of light, awe, ego death, boundary dissolution, heavenly ascent, chthonic descent, contact with angels and divine beings, etc. Remarkably, unlike the toxic compounds which are responsible for the severe and detrimental symptoms associated with ergot poisoning, the psychoactive alkaloids which would later be known as LSD are water soluble, and could be removed from the poisonous alkaloids present in ergot by using a simple and primitive water extraction.
As Worshipful Brother Shawn Eyer of Academia Lodge No. 847 in Oakland, CA explained in his paper Psychedelic Effects and the Eleusinian Mysteries,
the secret of what really happened at Eleusis remains one of the premier problems for historians of religion. That a trance state played an important role in the initiation is being suggested by more and more scholars. While there are various possible means of entering a mind-altering state of consciousness resembling that described in ancient sources, the use of a botanical stimulus is by far the most reliable. The model expressed by R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl Ruck must therefore be taken seriously. Their theory is the first truly realistic explanation for the most-documented aspect of the sacred mysteries; their profound, beneficial, and lasting effects upon the millions of initiates who, at one time or another, stood enraptured on the steps of the torch-lit Telesterion [at Eleusis].
In The Hymn to Demeter the constituents of kykeon are given specifically as barley groats, pennyroyal mint leaves, and water, none of which, besides the negligible thujone count present in the pennyroyal, are known to be notably psychoactive. However, supposing the barley had been infested with Claviceps purpurea, a tea made from the same would produce an entheogenic beverage that would have induced heavenly visions in even the most obstinate of participants. It is this same possibility that in this study I intend to explore within the context of Freemasonry.
In his book Secrets of Eleusis, Carl A.P. Ruck, the professor of Classics at Boston University, argued that the ergot used to prepare the sacred kykeon potion was harvested from the Rarian plain which grew adjacent to Eleusis and was then ceremonially separated from the barley shafts upon what was known as Triptolemos Threshing Floor. A threshing floor is a circular space out in the open where grains, after being harvested and dried, are smashed with mallets and thrown into the open wind (a process known as winnowing). The grains of wheat, being heavier, fall to the threshing floor to be collected, while the less weighty chaff is blown away by the ensuing wind. On Triptolemos Threshing Floor, however, it was the kernels of ergot which were collected, and not necessarily the wheat. Significantly, the threshing floor also happens to be an important symbol within Freemasonry.
In the lectures of the so-called American Ritual, which Mackey lamented as being lost or becoming obsolete even in his day, the candidate for Masonic Initiation is described as one who is travelling to the threshing-floor of Ornan the Jebusite, where language was restored and Masonry found. The association of Ornans threshing floor with Freemasonry stems from the fact that King Solomons Temple was said to have been erected on that very same site. The land had earlier been purchased from Ornan by King David, Solomons father, for the purpose of erecting there an altar, whereon David was to make sacrificial offerings after witnessing a vision of the angel of the Lord whom was seen standing within the vicinity of the threshing floor. Before that time, all sacrifices would have generally been made on the altar of the burnt offering which was housed in the tabernacle. However, following Davids sacrifice, it was decreed that a permanent temple should be erected atop Ornans threshing floor a temple which would eventually come to replace the tabernacle in the wilderness as the domicile of the Jewish deity. It is this permanent temple wherein the various Degrees of Ancient Craft Masonry symbolically take place. Therefore, it was said of the candidate for Masonic Initiation that he is allegorically travelling to the threshing-floor of Ornan, i.e., the Temple of Solomon the King. The threshing floor is thus implicative of Initiation in a Masonic Lodge and the ground floor of King Solomons Temple.
It may be surprising to some to learn that King Solomons Temple can be directly associated with ergot and thus with kykeon. In Dan Merkurs daring book The Mystery of Manna he outlines what he calls the draught ordeal from the Old Testament book of Numbers.
In this Biblical episode two women are brought into the tabernacle, one of whom is known to be an adulteress, while the other is only suspected of adultery. As her trial, the former woman is given a beverage to drink which, since she is guilty, she is told, will cause her thigh to drop off and her stomach to swell. If the reader will recall, gangrenous loss of limb and severe gastric disturbances were among the symptoms listed which characterize ergot poisoning. Notably, the drink given to the unfortunate woman was prepared in no other way than to collect up dust from the floor which was then added to water, the very dust which in the same episode is then offered by the priests as a cereal offering before Yahweh, thereby identifying the floor of the tabernacle as a threshing floor, just like the ground floor of King Solomons Temple. This should come as no surprise. For, in the Entered Apprentice degree we are informed unequivocally that the tabernacle was an exact model of Solomons temple. If the model was truly exact, then naturally it would have been established, just like Solomons Temple, upon a threshing floor. In the words of Dr. Merkur,
On the conventional assumption that the floor of the tabernacle was a projection into the era of Moses of the floor of the Jerusalem temple, the concern with a cereal offering suggests the sort of dust that would have been found on the threshing floor of [Ornan], which the Jerusalem sanctuary had once been. Implicitly, dust such as would have been left on a floor where grain was threshed was added to holy water. The toxic dust that was taken from the threshing floors and mixed with water for the cereal offering of the draught ordeal may be identified with confidence as ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus that infests the grains of barley, wheat, rye, and other cereal grasses.
The woman was poisoned by the draught because she was made to drink the dust, toxic alkaloids and all, along with the water. Had a simple water extraction been performed, sifting out the superfluous and poisonous materials and thereby leaving behind the psychoactive components of the fungus, then the adulterous woman would not have suffered such an ill fate. She would instead have been caught up in an intense and rapturous ecstasy, the same of which was characteristic also of the ingestion of kykeon at the Greater Mystery celebrated at Eleusis.
Significantly, in the degree of Fellowcraft, the Candidate for Passing is shown a most peculiar image with little to no meaningful explanation of its presence: a sheaf of wheat (or ear of corn) suspended near a waterfall. This depiction is usually found displayed on the south wall of the Lodge, located just behind the Junior Warden. The word associated with it, which can be translated variously as an ear of corn or a stream of water, is equally curious. As Pike pointed out,
We do not know when this word was adopted, and no one has ever been able to find any especial significance in it as a Masonic word. But I am entirely satisfied that there was originally a concealed significance in every word used in a Masonic degree. Some secret meaning and application was covered and concealed by each of them.
Brother Robert Hewitt Brown was likewise suspicious of the traditional explanation provided for the word in question, and in Stellar Theology and Masonic Astrology he offered an alternative interpretation, saying that
[a] reference to the Eleusinian Mysteries will go far to clear up [the probable true meaning of ears of corn hanging by a water-ford, or a sheaf of wheat suspended near the bank of a river,] and give us the true import of this symbol.
And, right he was. The composite meaning of a shaft of wheat or corn, both known hosts of the ergot fungus, suspended next to or perhaps beneath a waterfall might be explained by what in modern coffee house parlance has come to be known as a pour over, a technique which is used to brew a strong cup of coffee or tea by pouring hot water over the grounds and through a filtration device. If the reader will recall, it is the psychoactive alkaloids of Claviceps purpurea which are water soluble, while the poisonous alkaloids are not. Provided that the wheat or corn in question was infested with the ergot fungus, the act of pouring water over said shafts of wheat or ears of corn would produce a beverage of comparable composition, potency, and effect as the kykeon of Eleusis.
Does this mean that the Greater Mystery of Eleusis has been preserved in the ritual work of Freemasonry? Perhaps that is what Fulcanelli was alluding to when he cryptically suggested in The Mystery of the Cathedrals that the Freemasons expressed themselves in argot. However, to even attempt to answer such a question would be purely speculative. But, then again, so is non-operative Freemasonry.
I would like to close this study with a poem from the unparalleled Sufi poet Rumi, whose words provide a magnificent summation of the ecstatic and illuminating potential of cereal grains.
Alas! The forbidden fruits were eaten.?
And thereby the warm life of reason congealed.
?A grain of wheat eclipsed the sun of Adam,?
Like as the Dragons tail dulls the brightness of the moon.
1. Living Stones Masonic Magazine, vol. 3 no. 6
2. Morals and Dogma, p. 96
3. Symbolism of Freemasonry, p. 38
4. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, p. 284
5. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, p. 285
6. Progress in Virtue
7. Frag. CLXXXVI
8. Raja Yoga, p. 31
9. Alexandria: The Journal for the Western Cosmological Traditions, vol. 2 pp. 63-95
10. pp. 10-11
11. Book of Words, pp. 47-8
12. p. 155
13. p. 42
14. Masnavi I Manav
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