The ancient world seems to have been a place full of the supernatural: miraculous healings, demonic activity, prophets delivering oracles, flying wizards, men walking on water, and so on. Even if you put aside exceptional heroic figures likes Jesus, a high proportion of people seem to have been having religious or spiritual experiences. It’s easy to be dismissive of these stories as folklore or the product of some very overactive imaginations, but a new investigation into the spiritual life of the ancient world argues something different. Ancient people weren’t crazy or making things up: they were high. More specifically, claims author Brian Muraresku, many ancient religions, including the earliest Christians, used psychedelics as a way of transcending everyday life and communing with the divine.
In the just-released Immortality Key (St. Martin’s Press, 2020) Muraresku, a former classics major turned lawyer, travels the world talking to archaeologists, academics, priests and farmers about ancient ecstatic experiences. His goal is to test a theory, one he has held for decades and spent 12 years researching, that some ancient religious experience was nurtured by mind-altering substances. The book—which is like nothing I had read before, it puts other ‘popular scholarship’ to shame—is part popularized classical scholarship and part Da Vinci Code-influenced investigative journalism. We follow Muraresku on his journey to the offices of prominent scholars, through the dusty halls of libraries, into the Vatican library’s ‘Secret Archives,’ take a detour to the Lizard Lounge, and descend into the catacombs under Rome.
The essential argument of the book is that many ancient Greek and Roman religious practices involved the ritual ingestion and use of psychedelic substances. These substances contributed to the life-altering religious experiences that ancient people report having at, for example, Eleusis in ancient Greece. The Eleusian Mysteries, based on myths about Demeter and Persephone, were the most famous secret religious rites in the ancient world. Initiates would drink kukeon, a beverage that had mind-altering capabilities that far outstripped those of alcohol. We know that some of antiquity’s most prominent thinkers—like Plato and Marcus Aurelius—visited Eleusis and were permanently transformed by what happened there. An inscription at the site states that “death is for mortals no longer an evil but a blessing” and the famous fifth century B.C. poet Pindar says that those who go there “understand the end of mortal life.” The mysteries were wildly popular and only ended when the Christian emperor Theodosius outlawed them in 392 A.D.
Just because Christianity eventually turned on and sought to eliminate rival religious practices does not mean that Christians themselves weren’t deeply influenced by the use of psychotropic substances, argues Muraresku. Today, most Christians practice communion using wine (which, we should note, is an alcoholic beverage), but it’s possible that they were originally using psychotropics as well. In general, Christianity was deeply affected by broader Greco-Roman religion and culture; its founding texts are written in Greek, after all. Many scholars have argued for the pagan roots of Christian religious practices and so Muraresku is on safe ground when he raises the question.
When I asked him if he thinks that psychedelics were used in communion, he sagely responded that “we can't say dispositively from the archaeobotanical / archaeochemical vantage… [but] the data on the ergotized beer from Mas Castellar de Pontós in Spain, as well as (and perhaps especially) the Villa Vesuvio in Spain, raise well-founded questions about the Eucharist that was consumed by the earliest Christian communities.” The third century Christian writer and heresy-hunter Hippolytus, he added, condemns some Christians for mixing the Eucharistic wine with drugs. So, we have some good reason to think that at least some Christians were drugging communion wine, though we do not know with what.
Christian opposition to this kind of thing happened early as well. The condemnation of “love potions” and other such substances started early in the second century and has continued throughout its history. One especially interesting aspect of his book is the way that he traces Christian-based opposition to peyote in the United States. One letter from the commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs complained that the ritual use of peyote by indigenous people was “interfering quite seriously with the work of the missionaries.”
Muraresku’s evidence, however, isn’t just ancient anecdotes. The scientific gains of the past 10-20 years mean that archaeochemistry can put some of these theories to the test. Muraresku presents botanical and chemical analysis from Spain and Pompeii that has been overlooked by previous generations of scholarship. And he talks to those who use modern farming techniques to remove mind-altering mushrooms from their harvests. The most minimalist reading of the scientific data is that at least some people were using psychedelics. We can and should debate how widespread this practice was, but perhaps the real question is why are we so resistant to this hypothesis?
The Immortality Key is not the first to claim the psychedelics formed a part of the Eleusian mysteries or early Christian practices. In 1978 academics Wasson, Hofman, and Ruck published The Road to Eleusis, a discussion of the ritual use of psychedelics among Ancient Greeks and what the use of these kinds of substances might mean for the emergence of Christianity. In the early 2000s the theory was further explored in Carl Ruck’s Apples of Apollo, an exploration of the psychedelic roots of ancient mystery religions. The reason these opinions didn’t gain support, Muraresku argues, is that they were published in the 1970s and beyond as the war on drugs was heating up and psychedelics were being demonized. Ruck’s career, Muraresku told me, “took a nosedive” after his theories were published.
Muraresku’s work, on the other hand is much better timed. Recent scientific studies have shown that in low doses psychotropic drugs may be helpful in the treatment of PTSD, depression and other mental-health issues. Micro-dosing, as it is known, may well help with creativity and studies into the psychoactive properties of ibogaine (derived from the iboga plant) suggest that it can help cure alcoholism and drug addictions.
That said there are lots of people, academics and Christians in particular, who will want to dismiss this book out of hand as some kind of crypto-evangelical attempt to promote drug use or undermine Christianity. Others will just say, as scholars do, that we don’t have the evidence. Personally, I wasn’t especially disposed to like the Immortality Key. Like Muraresku (who is an attorney and father of two), I’ve never tried psychedelics but I also just wasn’t that interested in the question. There are elements of the book’s argument I would disagree with (as there are with every ancient history book I read), but following Muraresku on his journey and reading this captivatingly written book completely changed my view of this question and why it is that people have had such strong reactions to it.
Moreover, even though I don’t agree with the conclusions of every scholar he cites, it’s worth noting just how much serious support he has from scholars at Harvard and MIT. He wisely steers clear of the less rigorous scholarship of Bible scholar John Allegro, and instead cites clinical trials from Hopkins and NYU. Staff at the Vatican, he told The Daily Beast, “always encouraged [him] to ask questions” and many of the starker statements about Christians stamping out this “secret religion” and destroying classical literature come from the lips of Dr. Polyxeni Veleni, the Greek minister of antiquities.
Much of the controversy that is likely to surround this book is about the biases inherent to categorization. We label psychotropic substances not just “drugs” or “illegal substances” but as “Schedule 1 drugs.” Schedule 1 drugs are the most highly restricted substances in the DEA’s scheme. Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin and (bafflingly) marijuana, while Schedule 5 drugs include Robitussin AC. Ancient Greeks, as Muraresku notes, would also classify certain psychotropics as drugs (pharmakon) but they had a broader understanding of how substances function. As most ancient ‘drugs’ were also food, the same substance fell into both categories. Radishes, said the ancient doctor Galen, were both: depending upon how you used them they could be a medication or part of a salad. There was no socially divisive ancient scheme that stigmatized those using psychotropics, just as American housewives used to be able to consume small amounts of cocaine without causing concern. Even today, while we acknowledge that certain foods—nutmeg, chocolate, and caffeine, for example—might affect your emotional and physical state it doesn’t worry us at all. Used in certain ways, alcohol is socially permissible, and controlled substances are just fine so long so your doctor prescribes them.
There’s a similar categorization difference when it comes to the way that we see religious experiences and drug use as mutually exclusive. A religious experience, in modern terms, is the product of a divine revelation brought about by a supernatural being, furtive prayer, or a combination of both. While most know that people in Central and South America use psychotropics in their religious rituals (there’s a whole tourist industry based around this), the use of psychotropics is seen by some as lacking a certain authenticity. It’s not an encounter with the divine, the argument goes, it’s a chemical reaction. But, even for Christians, is such a dichotomy necessary? Christianity, as Notre Dame historian Brad Gregory has argued in an article on miracles, allows for the miraculous and supernatural to work through nature. If this is the case, could nature not also provide other forms of access to the divine? Do psychotropics and religious ecstasy have to be incompatible?
This is not to say, of course, that all religious experiences are about psychedelics. Muraresku notes that dream incubation (spending the night in temples devoted to certain deities in the hopes of receiving a visionary encounter with the god) was widely practiced around the ancient Mediterranean. Likewise, fasting and hunger can trigger certain kinds of out of body or visionary experiences. Not everyone has the disposition or time for that, though, and this is where psychedelic rituals come in.