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Road to Eleusis

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Some extracts from the book The Road To Eleusis
by R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Ruck
in which the TELESTERION is mentioned.

I scanned and OCR'ed this copy from the Rare Books Room at Penn State Universities Pattee Library. The graphics in the illustrations pages are from the book, and may be unique to the net.

Illustrations 1 ] Illustrations 2 ] Illustrations 3 ]

I take full responsibility for any intellectual property issues arising from publishing this material.

phallos240.gif (13936 bytes)

A woman herbalist cares for a bed of Phalloi, an image related to the Eleusinian Mysteries.




Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries

R. Gordon Wasson

Albert Hofmann

Carl A. P. Ruck





So much has been written about the Eleusinian Mysteries and for so long a time that a word is needed to justify this presentation of three papers dealing with them. For close to 2,000 years the Mystery was performed every year (except one) for carefully screened initiates in our month of September. Everyone speaking the Creek language was free to present himself, except only those who had the unexpiated blood of a murdered man on their hands. The initiates lived through the night in the telesterion of Eleusis, under the leadership of the two hierophantic families, the Eumolpids and the Kerykes, and they would come away all wonderstruck by what they had lived through: according to some, they were never the same as before. The testimony about that night of awe-inspiring experience is unanimous and Sophocles speaks for the initiates when he says:

Thrice happy are those of mortals, who having seen those rites depart for Hades; for to them alone is granted to have a true life there. For the rest, all there is evil.

Yet up to now no one has known what justifies utterances such as this, and there are many like it. Here lies for us the mystery of the Eleusinian Mysteries. To this mystery we three have applied ourselves and believe we have found the solution, close to 2,000 years after the last performance of the rite and some 4,000 years since the first.

The first three chapters of this book were read by the respective authors as papers before the Second International Conference on Hallucinogenic Mushrooms held on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, on Friday, 28 October 1977.

R. G. W.





Each year new candidates for initiation would walk that Sacred Road, people of all classes, emperors and prostitutes, slaves and freemen, an annual celebration that was to last for upwards of a millennium and a half until the pagan religion finally succumbed to the intense hatred and rivalry of a newer sect, the recently legitimized Christians in the fourth century of our era. The only requirement, beyond a knowledge of the Greek language, was the price of the sacrificial pig and the fees of the various priests and guides, a little more than a month's wages, plus the expense of the stay in Athens.

Every step of the way recalled some aspect of an ancient myth that told how the Earth Mother, the goddess Demeter, had lost her only daughter, the maiden Persephone, abducted as she gathered flowers by her bridegroom, who was Hades or the lord of death. The pilgrims called upon Iakchos as they walked. It was he who was thought to lead them on their way: through him, they would summon back the queen Persephone into the realm of the living. When at last they arrived at Eleusis, they danced far into the night beside the well where originally the mother had mourned for her lost Persephone. As they danced in honor of those sacred two goddesses and of their mysterious consort Dionysus, the god of inebriants, the stars and the moon and the daughters of Ocean would seem to join in their exultation. Then they passed through the gates of the fortress walls, beyond which, shielded from profane view, was enacted the great Mystery of Eleusis.

It was called a mystery because no one, under pain of death, could reveal what happened within the sanctuary. My colleagues and I, working from hints in numerous sources, have ventured to go beyond that forbidden gate.

Ancient writers unanimously indicate that something was seen in the great telesterion or initiation hall within the sanctuary. To say SO much was not prohibited. The experience was a vision whereby the pilgrim became someone who saw, an epoptes. The hall, however, as can now be reconstructed from archaeological remains, was totally unsuited for theatrical performances; nor do the epigraphically extant account books for the sanctuary record any expenditures for actors or stage apparatus. What was witnessed there was no play by actors, but phasmata, ghostly apparitions, in particular, the spirit of Persephone herself, returned from the dead with her new-born son, conceived in the land of death. The Greeks were sophisticated about drama and it is highly unlikely that they could have been duped by some kind of theatrical trick, especially since it is people as intelligent as the poet Pindar and the tragedian Sophocles who have testified to the overwhelming value of what was seen at Eleusis.

There were physical symptoms, moreover, that accompanied the vision: fear and a trembling in the limbs, vertigo, nausea, and a cold sweat. Then there came the vision, a sight amidst an aura of brilliant light that suddenly flickered through the darkened chamber. Eyes had never before seen the like, and apart from the formal prohibition against telling of what had happened, the experience itself was incommunicable, for there are no words adequate to the task. Even a poet could only say that he had seen the beginning and the end of life and known that they were one, something given by god. The division between earth and sky melted into a pillar of light.

These are the symptomatic reactions not to a drama or ceremony, but to a mystical vision; and since the sight could be offered to thousands of initiates each year dependably upon schedule, it seems obvious that an hallucinogen must have induced it. We are confirmed in this conclusion by two further observations: a special potion, as we know, was drunk prior to the visual experience; and secondly, a notorious scandal was uncovered in the classical age, when it was discovered that numerous aristocratic Athenians had begun celebrating the Mystery at home with groups of drunken guests at dinner parties.




The secrecy in the ancient Greek world about the Eleusinian Mysteries was somewhat different. The laws of Athens made it a crime to speak about what went on at Eleusis in the telesterion. Toward the end of the Homeric hymn to Demeter, this silence is expressly enjoined on all initiates. In B. C. 415 there was a spate of deliberate profanations of the Mysteries by the jet set in Athens and a crackdown followed, harsh penalties being inflicted. But the secrecy ran far beyond the reach of the laws of Athens. That secrecy ruled everywhere in the Greek world and was never seriously violated. It too was self-enforcing. Those who knew the Superior hallucinogens through personal experience were not inclined to discuss with outsiders what was revealed to them: words could not convey to strangers the wonders of that night and there would always be the danger that the effort to explain would be met with incredulity, with the scoffing and mockery that would seem to the initiate sacrilegious, would wound him in the very core of his being. One who has known the ineffable is loath to embark on explanations: words are useless.



Yet archaeologists have not found the holy, ta hiera, at Eleusis, although they did actually expect that they would; and in the absence of any excavated object, scholars have been free to fantasize whatever they wanted these mysterious hiera to be: relics, according to some, from the Mycenaean past or phallic symbols or perhaps the kteis, the so-called pudenda muliebria. These holy things were supposedly stored in a small building or free-standing chamber within the initiation hall; at the moment of the revelation, the hierophant opened a door on it and in the midst of a great light showed ta hiera.1

This indeed he must have done, but few initiates could have seen him, for the telesterion or initiation hall, as it now appears from archaeological excavation, was not a theater and was in other ways completely unsuitable for displaying the liierophant's activity. The building was rebuilt and enlarged at various times to accommodate the increasing numbers of initiates, but in all the modifications, an essential design was maintained: the telesteriosi was a rectilinear building built around a much smaller rectangular chamber, the anaktoron or 'lord's dwelling.' In the later telesterion, at least, the roof above this anaktoron was constructed as a 'lantern,' admitting the only light from outside and affording ventilation for torches and fires. The topographical position of the rntaktoron was kept virtually constant throughout the reconstructions, built always on the site of the most ancient Mycenaean original. Its relative placement within the telesterion, however, varied from period to period. On one of its sides, the anaktoron had a door, beside which was the high-backed and roofed throne of the hierophant, affording him protection from the great fire within the anaktoron. The interior perimeter of the telesterion consisted of several steps leading up to the wall. Here the initiates presumably would sit or stand, with others perhaps also on the main floor of the hall. The line of view obviously was obstructed from many angles. With the forest of columns that supported the roof, and the high back on the hierophant's throne, and the sacred chamber itself all blocking the view, many candidates within the hall would have found it impossible to see what the hierophant did at the moment of the 'vision.'

The hiera, moreover, seem to have been remarkably transportable, for although they ordinarily resided within the chamber and were let out of the sanctuary for processions only hidden in closed hampers, Alcibiades was able to show them profanely to a group of friends at his house in Athens.1 Although the profanation was a great scandal, no one ever thought of accusing the priesthood of complicity in allowing the Itiera out of the sanctuary. Actually, were it not that all our sources insist upon a vision at Eleusis, Greek scholars would have had no difficulty in recognizing that the hiera need not have referred to specific objects, but to the whole realm of the holy, the experience and the ceremony of religion.






Thus the hierophant began the drinking; the initiates then followed his example, waiting, as they listened to his chanting in the darkened telesterion, for the moment of revelation - a vision unmistakably induced by what had been drunk, for it was accompanied by such symptoms of the drug experience as a cold sweating and a sense of vertigo.2 The meaning of that experience had been rehearsed by months of rituals. At Eleusis the final indoctrination had involved the manipulation of the sacred objects enclosed in the kistai, the sealed hampers of the Mystery that had come with them along the Sacred Way to Eleusis. Here too we glimpse a symbolism like that of the array of objects in the cups of the kernos, testifying to a complex structuring of the botanic and animate realms that would result from the performance of the Mystery: for these kistai, we are told, contained sacred cakes of different shapes and meanings, balls of salt, pomegranates poppies, fig branches, a serpent, the thyrsos, characteristic objects from the differing lives of the male and the female, and the mystic emblems of the maenadic Dionysus and of Themis, the goddess who ratified her divine approval of the world that would come into being.3 These ritual actions, the so-called drornena of the initiation, had been accompanied by recited words, the legomena. All these things were secret, and what we learn of them from late sources comes from people who did not understand, or did not care to bother with, their meaning.



Illustrations 1 ] Illustrations 2 ] Illustrations 3 ]


lekythos1.gif (13953 bytes)

If all you want is to study the text, I reccomend following this link instead...


Other net copies of R. Gordon Wasson's "The Road to Eleusis"

A page of Eleusis links.

More Eleusinian links.

Entheogen Links.





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and I am always happy to discuss enlightenment,
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Bill Eichman  - 2004

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