We live in strange times. The use of naturally occurring psychoactive substances seems ubiquitous in human cultures throughout space and time. Yet, our contemporary culture appears to be suffering from amnesia when it comes to such substances. After hundreds of years of suppression and propaganda, the western world had forgotten the powerful possibility of religious experiences with naturally occurring substances.
The Road to Eleusis
This all began to change in 1938 when Albert Hoffman discovered LSD. In 1956, enthomycologist and vice president of JP Morgan, R. Gordon Wasson, tried psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico. Wasson sent a sample to Hoffman for him to identify and synthesize psilocybin. Two decades later, in 1978, this duo of psychedelic giants teamed up with a young classicist, Carl Ruck. Together, they explored whether the religious rituals of the ancient Greeks had involved a sacrament that contained LSD-like chemicals. They published their ideas in The Road to Eleusis. This book would have a devastating effect on Ruck’s academic career. Claiming that the founders of Western civilization were into psychedelics did not fit well with prevailing cultural attitudes at the time. This was especially true since the US was in the midst of the war on drugs.
In this hostile climate, academics have tended to steer clear of the subject. In such circumstances, it takes an outsider to take on the challenge. The author of the wonderful new book, The Immortality Key, is the perfect candidate. Brian Muraresku initially trained as a classicist, gaining a degree in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit from Brown University, but went on to practice law. Muraresku is a modern incarnation of R. Gordon Wasson, the high flying professional with a passion for the idea that psychedelic sacraments were a crucial part of ancient religions. For over a decade, Muraresku tracked down every lead available and has now gifted his findings to the world in the form of an entertaining new book.
Pagan Continuity Hypothesis – With a Psychedelic Twist
In The Immortality Key, the reader is led on an incredible journey from prehistory to the present day. It explores the evidence of a through-line from neolithic psychoactive beers to ancient greek potions, through spiked wines in the first centuries AD right up to contemporary psychedelic research. Muraresku argues in favor of the “Pagan Continuity Hypothesis – with a psychedelic twist”. The idea is that, in prehistory, psychedelic sacraments inspired religious rituals. These drugs were preserved in the mystery traditions of ancient Greece. Finally, via the cult of Dionysus, they found their way into the sacrament of the early Christians.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and Muraresku does not disappoint. He supports his arguments with hard scientific data in the form of archeo-chemical analysis of ancient drinking vessels, as well as with linguistic analysis of ancient texts and depictions of religious rites in the art of these long-gone cultures. We find a vessel in Catalonia containing traces of the LSD-containing ergot. We are told of a cup, discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, that once contained a witchy potion of cannabis, opium, and lizard bones. We even read of the possibility of psychoactive goat flesh. The evidence is woven together into a compelling perspective on the human species’ history and religious life, one with the power to change one’s worldview.
A Great Read
The story flows from the hard evidence to the historical context, to Muraresku’s globe-trotting adventure to track down the evidence and experts. The Immortality Key is as entertaining as any thriller and educates the reader in a vast range of areas. In communicating his findings, Muraresku displays a real knack for pithy ideas. The text is laced with evocative phrases like “holy spiked wine”, “eucharistic homebrew”, “placebo sacrament”, and “graveyard beers”. The fascinating material combined with the masterful writing makes for a captivating read.
A Great Listen
At the time of writing, paper copies appear to be sold out at all major retailers. In choosing the audiobook option, you’ll be met with an additional treat. Many people prefer audiobooks to be read by the author, and Muraresku reads better than most professional voice artists. The challenge of finding another person who could read the passages in ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Catalan, German, and French amongst others presumably made this decision a no-brainer. Finally, there’s yet another treat in hearing the multilingual author switch between these languages.
A Psychedelic Religious Revival
The Immortality Key is a must-read for any psychedelic enthusiast. You will learn fascinating facts about not only the ancient Greeks and early Christians. Additionally, you’ll explore the depths of human prehistory to the middle ages. While educational, the book is also entertaining. Muraresku doesn’t confine himself to ancient history, however. He was very much inspired by the contemporary scientific work into psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences and argues for a psychedelic religious reformation, where religious institutions might be reinvigorated with an injection of direct religious experience in the form of a psychedelic sacrament. The Immortality Key will no doubt be seen as a key text of this crucial generation, where the place of psychedelics in the future of our species hangs in the balance. I’ll toast some spiked wine to that.