For most of Modern History, nobody knew the contents of the likely hallucinogenic beverage consumed at Eleusis, the home of the mysterious religious rites of Ancient Greece. Then in 1978, a man named Carl Ruck, along with Albert Hofmann (the chemist who first synthesized LSD) and Gordon Wasson (the businessman who popularized Mesoamerican psychedelic mushroom culture), proposed that maybe the beverage was beer made from grains infected with ergot.1
Ergot is what Hofmannn synthesized LSD from, back in 1938. It’s a fungus that grows on grains. As a survival mechanism, ergot produces around eighty “secondary” metabolites called alkaloids. They’re secondary because they’re not meant for the ergot organism’s own metabolism. They’re meant for the metabolism of whatever other organism is trying to eat the ergot, and thus prevent it from spreading its genes.
Ergot is inevitable when dealing with large quantities of grain. Modern farmers actually have ergot maximums to meet purity standards.2 Brewers (or at least maltsters) are constantly on the lookout for the dark purple grains that can kill us, too, or at least make us hallucinate. They call it “LSD beer.”
After a twelve-year quest, Brian Muraresku may have found the first evidence that supports the hypothesis that the Eleusian Mysteries were basically acid trips. In his recently published book, The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name, Muraresku details his own fascinating journey unpacking this tale.3 It involves the Ancient Greeks, early Christians, and likely the very first humans to figure out agriculture. It also details the first potential confirmation of LSD beer, discovered at an outpost of Greek culture in Spain.
When humans began the transition to agriculture around 12,000 years ago, they did so by cultivating large quantities of grains. Just like farmers today, and farmers throughout history (before anybody knew what ergot was), these hunter-gatherers would have dealt with the inevitable threat of ergot poisoning. Perhaps in the course of figuring out how to eat lots of grains while not dying, these proto-farmers also figured out how to make LSD beer.
The oldest known man-made structures were built around this time, too, in modern-day Turkey at a place called Göbekli Tepe. As researchers discovered in 2012, there was probably beer at Göbekli Tepe.4 Considering the activity at Göbekli Tepe appeared to be that of a skull-worshipping death cult, at least some of that beer was probably, inevitably, LSD beer. It’s possible the hunter-gatherers who built Göbekli Tepe may have figured out a way to commune with what they thought were their dead relatives. Only, what was really happening is they were having an LSD-like acid trip from beer made with the same stuff that makes LSD.
As Muraresku argues, this recipe then passed, along with the instructions how to farm, up through Anatolia and into Ancient Greece, where Eleusis was founded. There the Greeks participated in activities so secretive that sharing them was punishable by death. Part of those activities involved consuming a beverage called kykeon, whose effects were described (by those risking death) as unmistakably psychedelic. Considering the beverage of choice back then was beer, this drink was probably LSD beer. At least that’s what Muraresku argues, after Ruck, Hofmann, and Wasson first speculated it forty years earlier. Only now Muraresku has unearthed some proof, in the form of ergotized beer from an archaeological site in Hellenized Spain. That proof was first discovered in 1997. It’s just the scientist who found it wrote about it in Catalan, a language not many people read. But Muraresku, who majored in obscure languages in college, finally did read it twenty years later.
Back to around two thousand years ago:
Eventually wine became more popular than beer, and the possibly psychedelic beer cult of Eleusis was replaced with the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine (the Roman equivalent is Bacchus). But just like with ancient beer, ancient wine wasn’t anything like the wine we get at the supermarket today. It was more like what we get at the pharmacy. Considering ergot infects grains, not fruit, ancient winemakers had to spike their wine with secondary metabolites from other plants if they wanted to trip.
It just so happens that the Napa Valley of the ancient world was Galilee, where Jesus came from. Muraresku points out, briefly, that (according to another author) Jesus may have been a “drug man.” The bigger story is not with Jesus, though, but with Saul of Tarsus. After Jesus died, Saul, who never met Jesus but claimed to be visited by him in hallucinatory fashion, spread his version of the Jesus movement to a largely Greek-influenced, non-Jewish culture who called him by his Greek name, Paul. These newly converted Jews would eventually become the first paleo-Christians. According to Muraresku, though, the earliest Christian converts needed a reason to convert. Apparently the promise of eternal life, and a guarantee the adult males wouldn’t have to cut the tips off their penises (Paul didn’t require circumcision), wasn’t enough. According to Muraresku, the key to the hearts of the first Christians was a democratization of the mysterious secrets of Eleusis, Dionysus, and Bacchus—psychedelic alcoholic beverages.
So, how do witches fit into all this?
After around three hundred years, the Roman Empire stopped persecuting Christians and adopted Christianity as the official religion instead. Bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and various other exclusively male positions of power developed soon after. As Muraresku argues, the men in these positions pretty quickly became threatened by the original leaders of the more ancient and likely psychedelic religious rites—women.
From the beginning at Eleusis, and probably even before that at Göbekli Tepe (and maybe even before that in a cave in Israel where 13,000-year-old beer was a part of another death cult),5 all the way through the winemaking cults of Dionysus and Bacchus, and then to the paleo-Christian preparation of a possibly psychedelic original version of the Eucharist, women were the ones doing the brewing and leading the ceremonies. In order to silence this female-led method of communing with God, which may have started when our hunter-gatherer ancestors first started cultivating lots of grains and communing with their dead relatives, the males in the Christian church began to force us to drink regular wine with our stale crackers at communion, instead of psychedelic wine.
In an effort to further discredit the competition, the males in power carried out a smear campaign that turned those females with the world’s most protected and possibly psychedelic secret recipes into witches.
By David Carn
- R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Ruck, The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries, 8th edition (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2008; Originally Published 1978).
- Stephen C. Alderman et al., “Occurrence and Distribution of Ergot and Estimates of Seed Loss in Kentucky Bluegrass Grown for Seed in Central Oregon,” Plant Disease 82, no. 1 (January 1998): 89–93, https://doi.org/10.1094/PDIS.19184.108.40.206.
- Brian Muraresku, The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020).
- Olivier Dietrich et al., “The Role of Cult and Feasting in the Emergence of Neolithic Communities. New Evidence from Göbekli Tepe, South-Eastern Turkey,” Antiquity 86 (2012): 674–95, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00047840.
- Li Liu et al., “Fermented Beverage and Food Storage in 13,000 y-old Stone Mortars at Raqefet Cave, Israel: Investigating Natufian Ritual Feasting,” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 21 (October 2018): 783–93, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2018.08.008.