Wasson and the Psychedelic Revolution

Altered States — POSTED BY Prof. Carl Ruck on January 18, 2010 at 9:34 am

Brainwaving is delighted to introduce the first in a series of essays by Prof. Carl Ruck, best known for his work in mythology and religion on the sacred role of entheogens, or psychoactive plants that induce an altered state of consciousness, as used in religious or shamanistic rituals. His focus has been on the use of entheogens in classical western culture, as well as their historical influence on modern western religions. The book The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries explains that the psycho-active ingredient in the secret kykeion potion used in the Eleusinian mysteries was most likely the ergotism causing fungus Claviceps purpurea, while The Apples of Apollo: Pagan and Christian Mysteries of the Eucharist explores the role that entheogens in general, and Amanita muscaria in particular, played in Greek and biblical mythology and later on in Renaissance painting, most notably in the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald.

lifecoverR. Gordon Wasson launched the “psychedelic revolution” with his Life magazine article of 13 May 1957, in which he publicized his experience on the nights of 29-30 June, 1955, in the remote Oaxacan village of Huautla de Jiménez with the Mazatec curandera or shaman María Sabina, whose identity he tried to protect under the pseudonym of Eva Mendez, even being the first to use the embarrassing term of “magic mushroom,” which was probably invented by the magazine’s editor. As a professional international banker, he was a most unlikely candidate for this role. He and his wife Valentina Pavlovna were about to publish in that same year their Mushrooms, Russia, and History, which they had started writing in the mid 1940s as a cookbook, with merely a footnote on “the gentle art of mushroom-knowing as practiced by the northern Slavs.” The Life article effectively was publicity for the book, which was lavishly published at Wasson’s expense in a limited edition of only 512 copies, which would have placed it beyond the notice of the general public: the original price of $175 has now escalated to several thousand, something that Wasson was proud of as an investment.

The footnote had grown until it replaced the original book as planned. It was here that they had indulged their fascination in an event that dated back to their marriage in 1928, when the Russian-born Valentina on their honeymoon had insisted upon gathering mushrooms, a plant that the Anglo-Saxon Gordon termed toadstools, and all of them without exception loathsome and poisonous. In the ensuing years of investigation, as they each pursued their separate careers, hers as a pediatrician, they found that their dichotomous attitude toward the plant was well documented in the folkloric traditions and art of Europe, leading them to suspect some deep-seated and ancient taboo against the profane use of a religious sacrament, still practiced, as they discovered, by the shamans of certain peoples of Siberia, which, of course, in view of the politics of the time, was inaccessible to them.

However, in 1952, Robert Graves had sent them a clipping from a pharmaceutical company’s newspaper mentioning an article that Richard Evans Schultes, soon to become Director of the Harvard Botanical Museum, had published in a journal of extremely limited circulation over ten years earlier, in which he reported on the use of psychoactive mushrooms by native peoples in the mountains of southern Mexico. Wasson had known Graves ever since the poet and novelist had first contacted him about ways of poisoning someone with mushrooms, while writing his I Claudius, which was published in 1934. Graves was the first to correctly identify the Mesoamerican mushroom-stones. It was this information that brought the Wassons together with Schultes, and eventually the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann. It seemed to answer the questions that Wasson and his wife had posed and it sent them in search of their Mazatec shamans. They were joined by the French mycologist Roger Hiem of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, whom Wasson had met in Paris in 1949, while seeking permission to reproduce some drawings for Russia, Mushrooms, and History.

The Life magazine article triggered a wave of experimentation with these mushrooms; Timothy Leary, for example, ate magic mushrooms in Mexico before trying LSD or any other psychoactive substance; and it wasn’t until 25 March 1966 that Life magazine reported on LSD as a drug for psychiatric therapy that had gotten out of control. The popularizing of the mushrooms resulted in their eventual classification as a controlled or prohibited substance in the United States and elsewhere around the globe, something Wasson never intended. In fact, his opinion was that psychoactive drugs (except alcohol) should be as cheap as possible, and available in every drug store without prescription to anyone. Wasson also ended up making María Sabina and her village a destination for troupes of what are now called narco-tourists, and debased the mushrooms, that once, as the Mazatecs said “took you where God is,” so that María Sabina eventually lamented that “from the moment the foreigner arrived, the ‘holy children’ lost their purity, they lost their force, they ruined them; henceforth, they will no longer work; there is no remedy for it.”

In the ensuing drug culture, Wasson, whose wife died in 1958, managed to remain above the fray, deploring the use of drugs for what he saw as recreational purposes, rather than spiritual enlightenment. Andrew Weil, in an article published shortly after Wasson’s death in 1986, reproached him for being a snob and elitist, “relegating most of those who have experimented with sacred substances to the category of ‘the Tim Learys and the ilk.’

Wasson was fearful of contamination by association with some of the more notorious advocates of the very same aspects of the drug experience that fascinated him. This was all played out, moreover, against the backdrop of the Cold War and the interest in the United States government in competing with the Soviet Union for chemical agents for espionage and mind control. Albert Hofmann had discovered the hallucinogenic effects of LSD on his famous bicycle ride of April 1943 and reported on it in a Swiss pharmacological journal in 1947. The US government had already been in competition with the Nazis in the search for a truth serum or drug, but the agency involved was disbanded upon the completion of the war, whereupon, however, the Nazi experiments with mescaline in the Dachau concentration camp were uncovered, causing the US to begin mescaline studies of its own. By the time that news of LSD finally appeared in the American Psychiatric Journal in 1950, the US was already engaged in covert experiments. And by 1951, the quixotic charismatic super-spy and entrepreneur Captain Al Hubbard, the so-called ‘Johnny Appleseed of LSD,’ was turning on thousands of people, including scientists, and some of the most well placed politicians, intelligence officials, diplomats, and church figures.

During their Mazatec séances the Wassons had experienced the divinatory potential of the Mexican mushrooms. The account of their first velada with Aurelio Carreras, María Sabina’s son-in-law, on 15 August 1953, two years before they ate the mushrooms themselves, was intentionally buried in the bulk of Russia, Mushrooms, and History. Wasson described the event more fully in his last book, Persephone’s Quest. “I had always had a horror,” he wrote, “of those who preached a kind of pseudo-religion of telepathy, who for me were unreliable people; if our discoveries were to be drawn to their attention, we were in danger of being adopted by such undesirables.”  Carreras, without prompting or questions, was able to tell the Wassons correctly that their son Peter was not in Boston, as they thought, but in New York, that he was about to enlist in the army, and that a close member of the family would die within the year.

In February of 1955, Wasson mentioned this occurrence to Andrija Puharich, when they met for cocktails in the apartment of the New York socialite Alice Bouverie, who had learned of the Wassons’ ongoing research from a reference librarian at the Public Library, while investigating psychoactive mushrooms. Puharich, an American-born medical doctor and parapsychologist of Croatian descent, at the time was a captain with the United States Army, stationed at the Fort Detrick Chemical and Biological Warfare Center in Edgewood Maryland, working for the CIA on chemical and other means of mind control; and with Wasson’s permission, he dutifully passed on the information about Carreras to his military associates, which may have been why Wasson’s 1956 expedition to Mexico was infiltrated by a CIA mole, James Moore, with a generous financial grant, clearly indicating that the intelligence community regarded a divinatory mushroom as a valuable tool in their arsenal. Moore found the journey extremely unpleasant, and although he witnessed the séance, he was extremely ill, and eight kilos thinner, he fled with a packet of the mushrooms, intending to isolate and synthesize the chemical, which, in fact, Albert Hofmann succeeded in doing before him. Hiem identified them as Psilocybe caerulescens and the psychoactive agent was named psilocybin.

When Wasson met Puharich again in June, he invited him to join that summer’s expedition to Oaxaca, but he declined since he had been just discharged from the army and was engaged in reorganizing his laboratory in Maine.  But they agreed to set up a test. Wasson was to attempt to divine what Puharich was doing at the time of Wasson’s séance. As it turned out, the dates were mistaken, and this was the occasion on which Wasson first ate the mushrooms. But Wasson, who knew nothing about the arrangements of the Maine laboratory, experienced a soul journey in which he apparently visited the laboratory, providing an accurate, although implausible, description of the building as a barn of some sort. Puharich later described a similar experience of his own, of traveling a great distance and acquiring accurate information, more accurate than if he had visited in person, since he described the design of the former wallpaper in a room that was now painted.

In fact, as Masha Britten, Wasson’s daughter, recorded after Gordon’s death, she, too, on one occasion seemed able in her visions to hop all over the world and come down, alighting to visit friends far away. Her mother also had a clear view of a city, and later as they approached Mexico City from a different route, looking down on it from a mountain, she realized that this was the city of her vision. In 1960, Puharich himself in imitation of Wasson’s ethnographic expeditions headed a research trip to the Mexican highlands, where a brujo Blas García showed him a mushroom called Sacred Rabbit; with it, he said, one could fly over the Pacific and see far-off places. Puharich’s own experience was that he was projected into “the interior of one monumental building after another.”

All these paranormal experiences were induced by the Mexican mushrooms, which were Psilocybes, whose psychoactive effect had previously been unknown to outsiders. But the reason that Bouverie, who was a psychic or ‘channeler,’ had brought Wasson and Puharich together involved a strange event with the Amanita muscaria. She had unwittingly precipitated a bizarre psychic seizure in June of 1954 when she handed an ancient Egyptian cartouche to Harry Stone, a visiting Dutch sculptor; although he knew neither Egyptian nor its art, he became possessed by a persona that they later identified as Rahótep, a man who had lived 4600 years ago, and in the course of similar occurrences over the next three years, Harry spoke Egyptian, wrote hieroglyphics, and disclosed the role of Amanita in Egyptian cult and divination. Puharich offered an account of the whole affair in his The Sacred Mushroom: Key to the Door of Eternity, published in 1959. Although Wasson maintained cordial relations with Puharich, and Puharich in 1961 gave him a copy of his laboratory experiment showing significant improvement in telepathy with subjects who had ingested Amantita muscaria. Wasson cautioned him about adverse notoriety that might result from the Associated Press release about his ESP experiments, although it was just such notoriety that the Life magazine article had secured for himself.

It seems implausible that Puharich could have made up the whole Harry Stone affair, especially since it involved the formidable task of his learning Egyptian; but mycology lay outside the interests of Egyptologists, although Egypt was renowned in antiquity for its drugs and mushrooms do occur in Egyptian contexts that would suggest their involvement in cults. In fact, Kahlil Gibran, the son of the Lebanese poet, offered in 1960 to sell Wasson a bronze figurine of an Egyptian god, probably Seth, with mushrooms growing from his head; Gibran, a mushroom enthusiast, had read Puharich’s book and had also just a few months earlier sold Wasson a pre-Columbian mushroom figurine. Nevertheless, Puharich is generally accused of capitalizing on Wasson’s work, and like many of the people involved in the psychedelic revolution, aspects of his other activities tend to discredit him, despite his support by high government agencies. Thus he espoused the career of the Israel psychic Uri Geller, who could bend spoons psychokinetically; he also documented the Brazilian psychic healer Arigo, who diagnosed and removed a pancreatic cancer in just two minutes with a rusty knife, and without anesthesia or antisepsis; and he trained a troupe of children at a farm in New York state in the techniques of astral projection with the object of dropping in on the Kremlin. He also believed in UFOs and extraterrestrials, and headed the Round Table Foundation, whose members were reincarnations of the Egyptian ennead of deities, and whose members, at various times, included Aldous Huxley, Gene Roddenbury, the creator of Star Trek, and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the quasi-religion called Scientology.

Wasson knew Huxley and thought him gullible, but his Doors of Perception, published in 1954, is the classic description of a visionary experience induced by peyote / mescaline. He introduced the word ‘psychoactive’ in the epilogue to his Devils of Loudon, published in 1952; and although his interest in such drugs went back to the soma-tranquillizer of his 1931 Brave New World, he had no personal experience until the late 1940s, and became an eloquent and influential proponent of drugs for transcendent mystical experience until his death in 1963, by which time his visions were experienced by a man nearly blind. His transition to death was eased by a dosage of LSD, a use that Valentina had proposed for such drugs in 1957.

Wasson emerged as the authority whose validation was sought by others in the field, and he found himself embarrassingly linked in a triumvirate with Timothy Leary, whose proselytizing he considered naïve and reckless, leading to a life as an outlaw, and Carlos Castaneda, whose Teachings of Don Juan, published in 1966, was even more influential in popularizing the paranormal aspects of the psychedelic experience. Castaneda claimed that his shaman Don Juan Matus was an intimate of María Sabina. Wasson met and corresponded a couple of times with Castaneda and initially accepted him as genuine, “an obviously honest and serious young man,” but as the first book developed into a series, each more flamboyant than the previous, he began to suspect a hoax, which was apparently Leary’s opinion as well. There were colloquial expressions that seemed devoid of Spanish equivalents, and Wasson requested a sample of Castaneda’s field notes, which he was unable to supply. Wasson’s final judgment, however, was that Castaneda was “a poor pilgrim lost on his way to his own Ixtlán,” although the books were authentic as ethnopoetry, in the style, as he said, of H. Rider Haggard’s She, a novel about the archetypal feminine, a white African queen, serialized beginning in 1886.

In 1963, Wasson retired from banking, and on the afternoon of the very day, he boarded a merchant ship for the Orient to gather material that he would publish in 1968, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, with the collaboration of a young Indologist, Wendy Doniger O’Flattery, where he sought the origin of the European mycophobia in the importation of an Indo-European mushroom cult, documented among the ancient Aryans, identifying the Vedic plant-god Soma as Amanita muscaria. From 1965, when he returned from the Far East, until his death, he lived comfortably in Connecticut at his Danbury estate, presiding over the controversy caused by his Soma identification and seeking still further confirmation of its validity.

When it came in the form of John Allegro’s Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, published in 1970, he didn’t recognize it, much to Allegro’s disappointment. As an amateur scholar, Wasson deferred to the opinion of professionals. He and Valentina had always suspected that there might have been a mushroom cult in Christianity, which would have been the closer and more obvious reason for the European mycophobia. With that in mind they had visited the little 12th century chapel of Saint-Éligie de Plaincourault as early as 1952, the year before they re-directed their attention to Mesoamerica. The fresco in the apse depicts the Tree of Genesis as a decidedly fungal design, unmistakable even as to species, the red capped Amanita with its distinctive white scabby remnants of the universal veil shattered as the mushroom quickly expands with growth. The fresco supposedly dates from 1291, although there is evidence that it was already there as early as 1184 and was built by returning Crusaders of the Order of Malta. They also suspected that the Manichaean fondness for red mushrooms and the Cathar heresy, which flourished in that region, involved a fungal Eucharist. But the Wassons quickly dropped their inquiry when the eminent art historian Erwin Panofsky told them that the mushroom-tree was simply the common depiction in medieval art of the stylized Italian Umbrella pine. Actually, the art historians were wrong: they are all mushrooms and in entheogenic contexts, as is the Plaincourault Tree, since a fresco opposite depicts the chapel’s namesake, the blacksmith Eligius presiding over an initiation for the Elect, thus identifying the building with a Cathar ritual of psychoactive Communion. Although Wasson dismissed the fresco, he did so reluctantly, and included it as a plate for his readers’ consideration in the Soma book. Wasson’s father, an Episcopal priest, in fact had written a book on Religion and Drink, published in 1914, and he made illegal beer and wine during Prohibition. He never tired of telling his son that Christ’s first miracle was the marriage feast at Cana and the last was the Eucharist; and Wasson described his mushroom velada as a Holy Communion. And it was his father who had first told him about the Soma sacrament. He also delighted in pointing out the most embarrassing narratives in the Bible.

Allegro, the linguist and scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls, an academic with impeccable credentials in ancient Classical and Near and Middle Eastern languages, had already published several books; he had read Wasson’s writings and appropriately acknowledged them, knew of his Mexican discoveries, accepted his identification of Soma as the fly-agaric, and obviously had drawn the conclusion that Wasson was still reluctant to make.

Allegro, the only atheist among the team of scholars working on the Scrolls, presented his investigation of the mushroom in the Holy Land with the express purpose of debunking the validity of the Judeo-Christian tradition. He made the error of arguing that such a visionary Eucharist rendered Christianity a sham, although he was well aware that Wasson and others were documenting the valid and still thriving vitality of such sacraments in other religions. The outraged unconsidered rejection was immediate and vituperative. Two full-length books were rushed into print within a half-year.  He was essentially stripped of his academic credentials: there was no proof of any of this, and as far as his critics were concerned, the mushroom didn’t even grow in the Near East. Allegro was personally devastated by the scornful rejection of his scholarship. Allegro, who at that time had never experienced a psychoactive substance, was responding with distaste to the temper of the times with its widespread random and irresponsible abuse of psychedelic substances, amidst the turmoil of generational and political transition, which led even Mircea Eliade, the renowned authority on religion, mysticism, and shamanism, to disavow his own considerable evidence about shamanism in Siberia and elsewhere and declare that drugs were characteristic only of the decadent last stages of a cult, affording only inauthentic hallucinatory communion with the divine. Inevitably, anyone who thought differently was assumed to have ruined his mind on drugs.

Wasson wrote to Allegro, but never received a reply, presumably because he felt unfairly rejected. Wasson had just published a letter attacking the book in The Times Literary Supplement, evidently without reading it, like all its critics finding the linguistic documentation beyond his expertise. He also felt rejected by Robert Graves, who had used the famous bas-relief from Pharsalos as the cover for his 1960 revised edition of his Greek Myths, which depicts the goddesses Persephone and Demeter each holding a mushroom, probably Amanitas; and Graves should have been willing to validate Allegro’s descriptions of the orgiastic worship of Dionysus. In his Food for Centaurs, published in the same year, he proposed what the bas-relief implies, that the mixed potion of the Eleusinian Mystery contained a psychoactive mushroom. It was an idea first proposed by Wasson in a lecture in 1956, although he himself shied away from using the Pharsalos relief as evidence until, as Graves reported, he had received expert advice, apparently having profited from the Plaincourault debacle. Despite the fact that they were all on the same track, Graves wrote Wasson in 1972 that Allegro, who had driven home his iconoclastic death of religion argument in The End of the Road, was a fraud.

My own introduction to the whole affair was first with a copy of The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, which I noticed in a bookseller’s window in London, as Blaise Staples and I were about to buy a car to drive to Greece for a sabbatical year. The little Volkswagen was stuffed with things to read, the longest English novels, since they gave you the most for your money, our traveling library, including a copy of Graves’ standard and intriguing Greek Myths for reference. It is incomprehensible that Graves, who wrote 140 books, was so ignored by his fellow Classical scholars, and that his Pharsalos relief was left without comment. Allegro was my introduction, especially his work on Dionysus, since it dealt with material I was familiar with; his footnotes to Wasson led me to Soma and the rest, which I might have avoided since at the time we knew nothing about the Vedic and Mesoamerican traditions or about shamanism in general.

My work on the material yielded two papers in which I examined what eventually I could more easily describe as entheogenic consubstantiality, “Botanical Referents in the Hero’s Parentage,” the fact that deities and heroes share attributes with a sacred plant, a psychoactive Eucharist; and a paper on the “Madness of Herakles,” which was caused, as I demonstrated, by botanic agents. Blaise suggested that I send copies to Wasson. The year was 1976. Almost immediately, I received a phone call from Gordon; he was coming to Boston and could we meet. We had dinner together, and as we parted, he proposed lunch the following day at the Harvard Club. And thus began a decade of friendship, with us visiting him in Danbury, and him us in Boston and later in the seaside village where we went to live. He had a secretary who typed up his manuscripts and correspondence professionally, but for his personal letters he used an old manual typewriter, that produced characters out of line and partially blocked in.

I think it was for our first visit to Danbury that Gordon proposed that we solve the Eleusinian Mystery. We met in Schultes’ office, and Gordon introduced us, saying we were in Greek. Schultes’ hearing was not perfect. “Wheat,” he repeated. “Very interesting subject.” As it turned out, wheat was what it was going to be. I was unaware that Graves had slipped into the senile deterioration that would end his life in 1985 and that Gordon had chosen me as his replacement in Classics. Apparently he had previously sought out E.R. Dodds, who wrote The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), but Dodds had maintained a polite distance. The validation of Wasson’s Soma identification depended his finding mushrooms involved in another ancient religion in another place where the Indo-Europeans had migrated, parallel to their moving down into the valley of the Indus River. And Eleusis was the most likely candidate, since something was eaten and then something was seen. Ideally, it couldn’t be just a drug, but it should be a mushroom. This was all very abrupt, since I had written about Dionysus and knew little about Eleusis, since it was a Mystery, and hence, as Mylonas, the excavator of the sanctuary, declared in 1960, unsolvable.

Later we would drive often to Danbury, but this time we were in Gordon’s car. A few years later, he gave up driving, although he kept the car, when he was clocked for speeding and had to engage a lawyer to avoid a citation on his record. He had told us nothing more about the proposed project, but posed the question, as he drove, “I suppose you young men have taken all the known hallucinogens!” Not quite, we demurred.

At dinner we met his housekeeper Ivonne, who would become our frequent hostess, always talking too much, as Gordon thought, to his guests, and for this first evening, his children’s old nanny, who was visiting, and Masha, his daughter, a nurse, who was going to be our monitor. He had barely described what we were going to do, except that we were going to try the Eleusinian potion. This sounded as though it might be illegal, and probably was. To prepare ourselves, we should not eat. We didn’t know who at the table knew what was going on, but sat through dinner without eating, except for a little curry soup, which Gordon thought wouldn’t hurt us. When dinner was over, Ivonne said, “Well have fun!” And we left the main house with Masha and went down to the barn, which had been the previous owner’s art studio and now was Gordon’s private quarters and library.

In July of the previous year, when Albert Hofmann was visiting, Gordon had asked, “Whether Early Man in ancient Greece could have hit on a method to isolate a hallucinogen from ergot that would give him an experience comparable to LSD or psilocybin.” Albert had supplied the answer and the samples; and we were going to try it. There were only two dosages, however. Masha would take care of us if anything went wrong, but there was nothing for Blaise to do. So Gordon proposed that he take psilocybin.

We ingested our potions, wrapped ourselves in blankets against the cold, and sat by the fire in the hearth, while María Sabina chanted from the phonograph. Masha sat in the corner reading the New York Times. The last thing that Gordon said was that it was the custom for such ceremonies to observe silence; which was obviously an admonition not to chat. So Gordon and I waited to be visited by the Goddesses. But nothing happened, as I finally announced about midnight. “Yes,” Gordon agreed, “most disappointing.” Meanwhile, Blaise, who had ingested a known psychoactive substance, had hilarious visions of sailing the seas with Odysseus, but dared say nothing, for fear of intruding on what was obviously our more profound experience. Masha had retired to bed when it was clear that we were in no danger and we were alone in the studio—and hungry, as Gordon proclaimed, from our fast. So we returned to the main house, like thieves, and raided Ivonne’s pantry, feasting on warm ale and crackers, which was all that we could find.

The next morning when we met in the studio after breakfast, Gordon showed us Albert’s account of his bioassay; and we decided to proceed with the project, assuming that our dosage had been insufficient. So we had a drug that didn’t quite work, and it was up to me to show how it fit the Mystery. Not really an easy task.

But it was accomplished. I learned a lot about ethno-pharmacology and ethno-botany. And in the years since the first publication of The Road to Eleusis in 1978, much more has been uncovered and a new version of the argument presents a clearer scenario for the ceremony and a refinement of the drug involved: not ergonovine separated from the variable complex of ergot toxins, but ergine and is isomer isoergine produced by hydrolysis of the toxic ergotamine, commonly prescribed in sub-toxic dosages as a vasoconstrictor for the treatment of migraines. Hofmann had experimented with synthesized pure ergot toxins, which differ from the natural products. The Eleusinian potion was essentially the same as the Ololuihqui or morning glory extract of the Maya.

The mushrooms so blatantly displayed on the Pharsalos relief are probably not the Mystery as practiced at Eleusis, hence its provenance from Thessaly in northeastern Greece. There were Eleusinian sanctuaries elsewhere in Greece. There were, moreover, two levels to the initiation, and the mushrooms were apparently involved in the Lesser Mystery, at which the sacrament was reserved probably for a single person, the woman who went by the title of sacred Queen of Athens, the Basilinna, who slept, as they said, with the god Dionysus on that date in a bull stall, a metaphor for shamanic rapture induced by the Eucharist of the “bull” sacrament. That was in February on the banks of the Ilissos at Agrai, in Attica southeast of the city of Athens; and a year and a half later, the Greater Mystery was celebrated around the last week of September. For this, several thousands of initiates each year gathered in the initiation hall at Eleusis and drank the potion, which allowed them to journey to the otherworld and resurface in the hall with Persephone at the moment that she gave birth to the magical son conceived in the realm of the dead. It was here that the ergot functioned as the psychoactive agent. Ergot, too, is a mushroom, although it is only the sclerotia or hardened mass of the dried mycelium that is seen in the infested kernels of grain. Such kernels, however, are like the missing seed of the wild mushroom; and when it falls to the ground, it sprouts into the characteristic mushroom-shaped fruiting bodies, recognizable to the naked eye. I remember Gordon’s enthusiasm when we received Albert’s photograph of the fruiting ergot. We had a mushroom. And it fit the whole mythopoeia of Persephone’s abduction and resurrection and the invention of the arts of cultivation. The wheat and barley and edible grasses.

This should have caused a commotion: a psychoactive sacrament at the center of the Classical Greco-Roman world: as Cicero claimed, “Among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions that Athens has brought forth, none, in my opinion is better than those mysteries.” The greatest minds of antiquity had experienced the same sort of ecstasy that Gordon had discovered in Mesoamerica: Plato, Socrates, the dramatists, the leading politicians – for two thousand years. The psychedelic experience had formed Western consciousness and culture.

For this announcement, Wasson broke his custom and decided there would be no expensive deluxe edition, but just a trade publication. This should have been more iconoclastic than all the Tim Learys. There was, however, no Press release, no public outcry, no rebuttal, no interest; a single tepid review, that, in fact, did not reject the theory. And when Burkert mentioned us a decade later in his 1987 Harvard lectures, he accepted Wasson’s Soma identification and actually called the Eleusis argument a “sophisticated guess,” but misunderstood it, confusing ergotism with LSD, which he considers an “unpleasant and not at all euphoric state.” And that definitively closed the subject as far as Classicists were concerned. As Terence McKenna wrote: “The ideas which the authors brought forth have been largely unchallenged and ignored by specialists in the culture of ancient and classical Greece. The situation seems to fulfill the rule of thumb that when ideas are controversial they are discussed, when they are revolutionary, they are ignored.”

The general public had become frightened by the psychedelic revolution. The same people who had participated in it were now parents worried about their children. When Persephone’s Quest was presented for publication in 1986, no press was willing to take it up, even with the strong endorsement of Schultes, and despite the fact that all the essays except the first had already appeared in peer-reviewed journals, until we chanced upon Yale University, where one of the editors had been an enthusiast since the 1960s; and Wasson did not live to see the final book, which has remained in print ever since.

The first chapter was Wasson’s final summation. “As I am nearing the end of my days,” he began, “I will draw up an account of our mushroom quest.” Here he came back to the question of a mushroom cult in Christianity. “I once said that there was no mushroom in the Bible,” he wrote. “I was wrong…. I hold that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was Soma, was the kakuljá, was Amanita muscaria, was the Nameless Mushroom of the English-speaking people.”

The original idea that the mushroom cult came into Europe with the northern migration of the Indo-Europeans must be modified. There was also an obvious southern transfer along the trade routes from Persia. And the immigrants found the cult already established among the indigenous cultures, apparently originating from Africa, where prehistoric petroglyphs from Tassili n’Ajjer depict shamans and hunters consubstantial with their mushroom sacrament. The same thing happened with the Conquistadores who found the same heretical sacraments of the European elite in the New World, but scandalously revealing pagan deities.

Somehow, too, Puharich’s Harry Stone was right. The Egyptians had a mushroom cult. The mushroom didn’t have to be found growing indigenously; there was a healthy trade in antiquity, as today, in easily and profitably shipped drugs of all sorts.

And not only did Christianity and the Eleusinian Mystery have a similar fungal Eucharist, but Classical Greece was in constant contact with the Achaemenid Persians, and philosophers like Democritus conversed with their shamans or Magi, whose version of the Soma Eucharist was called haoma. Significantly, the myth of Christ’s Nativity has three of them arrive on Epiphany to acknowledge their replacement. If not earlier, haoma was introduced into the West as Mithraism in the first-century BCE, and became the official cult of the warrior brotherhoods, male bureaucrats, and emperors, the elite who administered the Roman Empire. Nero was the first to be inducted with a Eucharist, as Suetonius recorded, of “magical food.” A seven-stage drug initiation, a version of the Soma/haoma cult, was the foundation of the Roman Empire, the political structure that created what would become Europe. With the conversion of the warrior Emperor Constantine to Christianity, Mithras and the Eleusinian Mystery were replaced by the new religion, which vigorously destroyed the pagan sanctuaries, often building their churches with the stones of the former sacred places upon the same sites, merely giving their own interpretation to the same sacrament. The Basilica of San Vicente in Ávila replaced a nearby Mithraeum. It blatantly displays the mushroom as the food of the celestial banquet on the tympanum of its portal, with the portal itself, as always, indicating a distinctly fungal design, with the opening, either with or without a dividing mullein, suggesting the stipe supporting the hemisphere of the tympanum as its cap. The tympanum itself is half of the almond-shape or mandorla that traditionally represents the vulva of the Goddess, assimilated into Christianity as the gateway to Paradise. Only the elite, who reserved for themselves the direct contact with deity, would recognize this fungal design as they passed through the portal to sacred space, but it surely was intentional, an indication of a heretical version of the Eucharist that perpetuated a sacred plant involved in the pagan cults that the Church Dominant had suppressed and in the earliest versions of the Christian rite itself, as preserved in the mosaic floor of the early fourth-century agape hall at Aquileia, with its depictions of baskets of the mushroom Eucharist. Well into the Renaissance, the highest echelons of the Church were still experiencing these visionary sacraments prohibited for the laity.

There were two sides to the psychedelic revolution: the liberals seeking entheogens to free the psyche and the conservatives seeking to control the mind through the same substances as drugs. The abuses and excesses of both led to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. As indignant parents continue to agitate to place yet another substance on the prohibited list, the revolution also fueled intense interest in mythology and comparative religion, as those same people who now are parents sought guidance for understanding their experiences, propelling books like Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces into best sellers. The liberal movement succeeded with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act 1993, which legalized the peyote Eucharist of the Christian Native American Church. And just recently, the Supreme Court of the United States applied the Act to the case brought before the Justices by the New Mexico branch of the Brazilian Uniao do Vegetal, legalizing their Christian Eucharist of ayahuasca tea. The Eleusinian Mystery was cited in the brief as a precedent for an orderly and beneficial religious experience induced by a psychoactive sacrament. Although this important decision received scant notice in the Press, it vindicates Wasson’s role as the patrician presiding over the Psychedelic Revolution.

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  • alchemistoxford says:

    Carl Ruck has provided an excellent introduction to R. Gordon Wasson’s massive contribution to the scientific understanding of the origins of religion. As a student of Wasson and Schultes, I appreciate this essay immensely, and I hope to see more of his work on Brainwaving, the go-to site for intelligent psychedelia.

  • psypressuk says:

    Really interesting essay – I had no idea the degree to which some of these theories had been left unchallenged by the establishment. Though I’ve seen a couple of rebuffs to Allegro – not altogether water-tight arguments on both sides – the work of Wasson (and yourself Carl) seem so filled with potentiality that it’s a complete dis-service, and a failure, by those in the know-how to challenge them and help synthesize new understandings.

    Really looking forward to reading more of the essays as they come out.. x

  • MetaBaron says:

    Hi, nice website.

    Just a couple of comments…

    -It is interesting to look at what happened to Maria Sabina and the mushroom cult at the peaceful remote community of Juautla after Wasson’s publication. It is probably a case of “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

    -Alegro hadn’t even TRIED fly agaric? Typical of the situation in entheogenic intelligentsia, where academics are held by many as authorities on things they have little to no personal experience of.

    oh, and
    -Mircea Eliade apparently recanted his regressive view of entheogenic shamanism later in his life. Maybe it matters to some!

  • ToNYC says:

    If you have not yet savored the LIFE magazine article mentioned here that Gordon Wasson prevailed on fellow travelers Henry Luce, LIFE Magazine publisher and his powerful partner, Claire (“No good deed goes unpunished.”) to get into print, wait no more.

    Home of the LIFE article:

  • ToNYC says:

    There is no one who puts it all together like Professor Carl Ruck.

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