"Nothing is higher than these mysteries...they have not only shown us how to live joyfully but they have taught us how to die with a better hope" Cerico
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I have been disturbed lately by stories of the journeyers who have used plant medicines disrespectfully and suffered harmful effects of entheogens, plant medicines, holotropic breath and other therapeutic altered states. These are powerful therapies which when used with discernment, reverence and care can provide incredibly transformative and healing experiences. But these therapies come with risks and serious dangers. The tragedies of those who have been harmed by mis use of therapeutic altered states can teach us how to proceed more safely and effectively in the future.
To help us understand these new (to us), largely uncharted waters of plant medicines and therapeutic altered states, let’s begin by studying the history of these practices. Perhaps we need to look to how previous cultures used plant medicines. Go back as far as possible to the first report of how these substances were first used.
Thomas Hatsis (2011, 2018) has written two very well researched books about Western traditions of using plant medicines. These traditions were employed for thousands of years, not only in South America and Africa, but also in northern Europe. Christianity by the thirteenth century determined that entheogens were a threat to their male dominated hierarchy of power and control. Almost every vestige of these plant medicine traditions was destroyed. The wise men and women who were earth honouring and had knowledge of how to use plant medicines were tortured and executed by burning, hanging and drowning. However, some fragments survive that tell us about their practices and so their wisdom can inform our future.
The Elysian mysteries are one of the oldest and longest lasting entheogenic traditions of the Western world. We have much evidence that entheogen pharmakon were used in the ceremonies. The Elysian mysteries were a series of ceremonies that took place in the autumn of each year, and ran consecutively for over three thousand years. All participants were sworn under pain of death to keep secret what transpired in the ‘greater mysteries’ which were the ceremonies that followed ‘the lesser mysteries”. Almost unbelievably, what truly took place in those ceremonies is still secret today. However, from fragments which indirectly refer to the mysteries, we can gather some ideas of how the entheogen, most probably psilocybin mushroom or ergot extracts were used with incredible personal, social and global transformative power for good.
We have lots of material about the Elysian mysteries, if not the content nor ingredients of the pharmakon. But we do know peripherally, that there were two stages to the ceremonies. The first stage required the initiate to study the ‘lesser mysteries’ in Athens.
The Lesser Mysteries were held at Agrai in the month of Anthesterion, our February... The initiates were not even admitted to the epopteia [Greater Mysteries] in the same year, but only in September of the following year."[ Kerenyi, Carl. Eleusis – Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter. Bollingen Foundation 1967, p. 48.]
The only pre-requisites for attending the lesser mysteries were to be ‘free from blood guilt”, and speaking and understanding Greek. The initiates had a vigorous regimen of healthy life style, they wore white clothes to distinguish them, had limited diet with no meat or fish, no intoxicants, and obeyed commandants for living which were the prototype for the Christian Ten commandants. They performed rituals and mediations every day and were supervised by a priestess. I wonder if there were some who were unable to stand the vigors of the lesser ceremonies and so were eliminated from participating in the Greater Mysteries.
The Greater Mysteries started with a long procession from Athens to Eleusis, a walk of about 19 km. This was followed by ten days of ceremonies, only after which, on the last night the entheogen Kykeon (drink) was given for the final revelations. Most probably, the theme of the ceremonies was death and rebirth, told in metaphor by the story of Persephone and her Mother, Demeter. This was a drama about the first Mother, the earth and all her beings and life systems. I believe that much wisdom was given to the initiates through plant medicines about how to be earth honouring and life loving.
Numerous scholars have proposed that the power of the Eleusinian mysteries came from the kykeon's functioning as an entheogen, or psychedelic agent. The use of potions or philtres for magical or religious purposes was relatively common in Greece and the ancient world. The initiates, sensitized by their fast and prepared by preceding ceremonies (see set and setting), may have been propelled by the effects of a powerful psychoactive potion into revelatory mind states with profound spiritual and intellectual ramifications. In opposition to this idea, other pointedly skeptical scholars note the lack of any solid evidence and stress the collective rather than individual character of initiation into the Mysteries. Indirect evidence in support of the entheogen theory is that in 415 BC Athenian aristocrat Alcibiades was condemned partly because he took part in an "Eleusinian mystery" in a private house.(Downloaded from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleusinian_Mysteries, Aug 7, 2019)
The rituals were based on a symbolic reading of the story of Demeter and Persephone and provided initiates with a vision of the afterlife so powerful that it changed the way they saw the world and their place in it. Participants were freed from a fear of death through the recognition that they were immortal souls temporarily in mortal bodies. In the same way that Persephone went down to the land of the dead and returned to that of the living each year, so would every human being die only to live again on another plane of existence or in another body.(downloaded from https://www.ancient.eu/article/32/the-eleusinian-mysteries-the-rites-of-demeter/)
Strong memories have re surfaced for me during holotropic breath work of being a priestess at an oracle site where psilocybin was ingested by priestess and at special events, by initiates. Once during holotropic breath work, a vision was given to me of a huge dark cave or temple. People were sitting in a forum style, in the dark, each person held a torch. I was above the seats on a platform, looking down on a sea of lights, a very stirring image. As I was having this vision, one of the breath work helpers walked by and gasped. Later, without my telling about my experience, she related a vision she had seen when she walked by me. It was exactly the same on I had. Ego dissolution!
…the 20th century historian Will Durant states of the mysteries, "In this ecstasy of revelation...they felt the unity of God, and the oneness of God and the soul; they were lifted up out of the delusion of individuality and knew the peace of absorption into deity". Historian Waverly Fitzgerald sums the experience up clearly writing, "It was said of those who were initiated at Eleusis that they no longer feared death and it seems that this myth confirms the cyclical view of life central to pagan spirituality: that death is part of the cycle of life and is always followed by rebirth" . Every ancient testimonial reflects this same understanding and each has the same tone of enlightened liberation from the fear of death. (Downloaded from https://www.ancient.eu/article/32/the-eleusinian-mysteries-the-rites-of-demeter/)
I had more visions of this past live memory as the journey continued and with other plant medicines. I was a dancer at these ceremonies; archetypal myths were danced, sang and drummed in this temple. I was also an oracle at this place, I would ingest the substances, and then journey into the time/space net and ask questions to gods and guardians. I also helped with giving out the sacred drink that each participant was given. I think the ingestion of the ‘Kykeon’ was timed perfectly with mythological dramas that were danced and enacted on a stage below the forum seats. I have seen such forums at Ephesus and Rome; they are all similar in construction, designed to given maximum viewing for everyone.
I was a priestess who carried a heavy stone amphora
I was also aware of the competitiveness among the priestess. How accurate the predictions, how elegantly they were delivered, the beauty and sweetness of the personality-these were factors jealously strived for. This competiveness created strife among the clergy of this temple, but it was a good competition, in the end, everyone had to accept the limits of their gifts and abilities. In this life, I met one of the main priestess at a conference. As destiny would have it, she came and stood in front of me, much as she had done three thousand years ago in the dark temple. An intense hatred, jealously and outrage rose up in me. I had to move away from her, the intensity of my emotions almost overwhelmed me. So perhaps the competitiveness of this ancient temple wasn’t so healthy after all.
Certainly we can look for guidance to the ancient past as well as contemporary cultures which escaped the destruction of plant medicine cultures, mostly by the colonization of Christianity and the forerunner of The Dark Machine. The difference between the ancients and indigenous cultures and the Western use of plant medicines, is that in the past, only highly trained, prepared, and chosen individuals take the entheogens. Lay people in the community could ask the priest or shaman for advice, healing and prognostications.
Going into this very deep and sacred work demands respect, faith and a well-grounded ego which will come back together after the journey and keep you safe in this world which we are embodied. My tenant is “We want to renovate the ego, not demolish it”
I am disturbed with accounts of high doses of plant medicines, the so called ‘hero’s dose” which could be misconstrued as a courageous and beneficial practice, and perhaps in the case of young men and women who see themselves as warriors of spirits, to be a good way to use these substances. I believe that if your journey brings you to places that you can’t remember, at all, or to places where your fear is overwhelming and traumatizing, then you are simply taking too much. Everything in life is dose dependent-water, food, exercise, meditation…so are plant medicines and psyche changing practices such as pranayama. There is no ‘hero’s work ‘here, just be cautious and sensible.
Advice from a three thousand year old priestess:
· We, humanity, need to go back to where we got lost, about 3-5,000 years ago, back to a time when our understanding of the world was magical, shamanic, earth honouring, interconnected and sacred. We need to let go of the highly rational mind to understand where we are at this point of time, and return to a time of transpersonal understanding of life, the first mother, earth, and the eternity of Soul.
· Don’t concern yourself with fears of aliens, non-earth beings or space travel. We will not be able to leave the playground until we learn to play well with Others, in all their expressions.
· Take time and care to prepare for any therapeutic altered state. This preparation must be holistic-body, mind and environment.
· Enter into the halls of entheogens with well-educated guides, counsellors and sitters.
· Prepare a solid foundation of wellbeing before venturing into entheogens. Be familiar and establish a daily sacred practice: breathing, mindfulness, conscious movement, self-reflection, rituals of integration, good life style choices
· Take recommended doses, go slow. Better to be underwhelmed than overwhelmed.
· Set and setting-scared interconnectiveness and unfailing respect for the life systems of earth, without these foundations you are a tourist, not an initiate
· Develop your own rituals and expressions of sacred interconnections. Metaphor is one of the greatest creative inventions of humanity-use it by creating rituals and ceremonies that are significant for you.
· Therapeutic altered states should be spaced, no closer than one month apart. If you want to do these substances more than once a month, I suggest that other issues within your psyche should be examined and resolved before going further
· Take time to integrate after the session, make commitments that arise from your insights. Without actions following insights, you are betraying yourself and all your teachers.
· Fear not! The soul is eternal.
Image of amphora By Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) - taken by Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2276568
R. Gordon Wasson (Author), Albert Hofmann (Author), Carl A. P. Ruck (Author), Peter Webster (Afterword), Huston Smith (Preface) (2008) The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley CA.
Hatsis, T. (2018) Psychedelic mystery traditions-Spirit plants, magical practices and ecstatic states. Inner Traditions International. Rochester,Vermont.
Wasson, R, Kramrisch,S. Ott,J, and Ruck,C. (1986) Persephone’s quest-entheogens and the origins of religion. Yale University Press, London, UK.