The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Kykeon

 

Other Names

 

Ciceone, cyceon, einweihungstrank, initiation drink, kekyon, mischtrank, mixed drink

 

The word kykeon refers to a “mixed drink,” in particular the one that was used as the initiatory drink in the Eleusinian mysteries. According to the myth of Eleusis, the grieving Demeter, the Great Goddess and mother of grain, was wandering in search of her daughter Persephone (Kore, Prosperina), whom Hades had abducted and taken to the underworld. Because of her sorrow, the earth’s fertility had disappeared and its grain had withered. It was only when she encountered Metaneira that Demeter became happy once more:

 

Metaneira offered her a cup filled with wine, as sweet as honey, but she refused it, telling her the red wine would be a sacrilege.[446] She asked instead for barley and water to drink mixed with tender leaves of glechon. Metaneira made the potion and gave it to the goddess as she had asked; and great Deo received the potion as the precedent for the Mystery. (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, line 207 ff.; in Wasson et al. 1998, 74)447

 

This drink, known as kykeon, the production of which was the well-guarded secret of two Eleusinian families, became the sacrament of initiation in the Telesterion.448 All of the mystics who wished to participate in the initiatory ceremonies had to drink it:

 

I fasted; I drank the mixed drink [kykeon]; I took it from the chest; after I had fulfilled my task, I placed it into the basket and from the basket into the chest. (Clemens of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen 2.21, 2)

 

We can no longer reconstruct what really occurred inside the Telesterion.449 Yet the extremely sparse details that are known to us—for as in all mystery cults, there was an absolute rule of silence—indicate that initiates experienced collective psychedelic visions (Eyer 1993). One of the last lines in the Hymn to Demeter is “whoever among men who walk the earth has seen these Mysteries is blessed.” (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, line 479 ff.; in Wasson et al. 1998, 83)

Eleusis was founded around 2000 B.C.E., and the Telesterion was built around 600 B.C.E. In the beginning, the Eleusinian mysteries were probably more of a private cult, but they soon took on a local character and ultimately captivated the entire ancient world. The Lesser Mysteries took place during the month of Anthesterión (March), while the Greater Mysteries occurred in the month of Boëdromión (September). Because initiates were forbidden to speak about the secrets of the mysteries under penalty of death, scarcely anything about them is known (Travlos 1989).

But what was the kykeon made from? The Homeric hymns name the most important ingredients: water, barley (presumably malted), and a type of mint, probably water mint (Mentha aquatica L.) or polei mint (= pennyroyal; Mentha pulegium L.).450

The essential oil in water mint consists primarily of limonene, caryophyllene, and menthol, as well as some psychoactive α-thujone (Malingré and Maarse 1974). High dosages of limonene may produce psychoactive effects. But a drink that consisted solely of these ingredients would never have been capable of inducing profound entheogenic experiences, even if it was a kind of beer. It can be assumed that the barley drink fermented during the time between its preparation and its use and, thus, had a low alcohol content. Karl Kerényi (1961) and Robert Graves (1957) appear to have been the first to speculate that the drink also contained an additional secret ingredient, namely a substance with visionary effects.

Robert de Ropp, in his classic book Drugs and the Mind (de Ropp 1961*), suggested that the mystery ingredient was opium, obtained from the poppy (Papaver somniferum), one of the plants sacred to Demeter. Could the many ancient depictions of Demeter holding barley and poppy capsules in her hands have been iconographic recipes for kykeon?

Robert Graves was the first to suggest that psychoactive mushrooms were the secret ingredient (Graves 1957). He subsequently provided a more precise formulation:

 

The water mint (Mentha aquatica), a shallow-water plant, may have been an ingredient in the initiatory drink used in the Eleusinian mysteries.

 

“It must have been very difficult for the initiated priests of Eleusis to procure the required doses for the approximately two thousand mystics with the necessary regularity.”

 

WOLFGANG SCHMIDBAUER

 

“HALLUZINOGENE IN ELEUSIS?” [“HALLUCINOGENS IN ELEUSIS?”]

 

(1969, 34)

 

Tantalus’s crime, the mythographers explain, was that, having been privileged to eat ambrosia, the food of the gods, with the Olympians, he later invited commoners to try it. Ambrosia was the name of Dionysus’s autumnal feast in which, I suggest, the intoxicant toadstool once inspired his votaries to a divine frenzy; and in my What Food the Centaurs Ate, I show that the ingredients given by Classical grammarians for ambrosia, nectar, and kekyon(Demeter’s drink at Eleusis) represent a food-oghan—their initial letters all spell out forms of a Greek word for “mushroom.” The story of Tantalus’s crime may have been told when wine displaced toadstools at the Maenad revels, and a toadstool—perhaps not Amanita muscaria, but the milder, more entrancing Panaeolus papilionaceus [cf. Panaeolus spp.]—was eaten by adepts at the Eleusinian, Samothracian, and Cretan Mysteries, who became as gods by virtue of the transcendental visions it supplied. (Graves 1966, 333 f.*)

 

The hypothesis advanced by Wasson et al. (1984), namely that the kykeon was mixed with ergot (Claviceps paspaliClaviceps purpurea), has found support among some authors (Illmaier 1995; Ott 1978), while others have rejected the idea (McKenna 1996*; cf. the discussion in Valeňcič 1995).

The following psychoactive plants have been considered as possible additives to kykeon (McKenna 1996*; Ruck 1995, 142*; Schmidbauer 1969; Wohlberg 1990):

 

Amanita muscaria

Claviceps paspali

Claviceps purpurea

Convolvulus tricolor

Lolium temulentum

Panaeolus papilionaceus (cf. Panaeolus spp.)

Papaver somniferum

Peganum harmala

Psilocybe cubensis

Psilocybe semilanceata

Psilocybe spp.

 

One central problem in attempting to find a solution to this riddle has to do with the questions concerning the availability and reliable entheogenic activity of the psychoactive substance, for every year thousands of initiates would have drunk kykeon and had wonderful experiences because of it. Of all the possible ingredients, only the easy-to-grow mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe withstand such scrutiny. First, they are native to Greece and were known at the time (in contrast to ergot). Second, they can easily be grown, harvested, and dried throughout the year. Third, of all the candidates, they are the only substances that are free of side effects. Finally, there is no plant that is as dependable in its use as these mushrooms. Toxic reactions are unknown. In addition, none of the other candidates even comes close to inducing such magnificent visions. Because their effects very quickly manifest (in contrast to the fly agaric), especially when they are dissolved, the mystics could have entered those worlds that would make them “blissful” only a short time after having entered the Telesterion. It is also worth noting that Gordon Wasson (Wasson et al. 1998) became convinced that it was psychoactive mushrooms that had been used in Eleusis while he was having his own experiences with the Mexican magic mushrooms (Psilocybe mexicana).

Most Greek scholars, by the way, have called into question, ignored, or even dismissed this “mystery ingredient” hypothesis as a pipe dream (Burkert 1990; Foley 1994; Giebel 1990; Lauenstein 1987). Others have suggested that the kykeon of Eleusis was identical to the Persian haoma and the Indian soma (Wohlberg 1990).

 

 

In the early modern era, the plant known in the ancient world as glechon was interpreted as pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), and a Cretan variety was distinguished from a German variety. Whether or not these two varieties are in fact the same species is difficult to determine. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)

 

Literature

 

See also the entries for Claviceps paspaliClaviceps purpurea, and ergot alkaloids.

 

Burkert, Walter. 1990. Antike Mysterien. Munich: Beck.

 

Eyer, Shawn. 1993. Psychedelic effects and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Alexandria: The Journal for the Western Cosmological Traditions 2:63–95.

 

Foley, Helene P., ed. 1994. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, commentary, and interpretive essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

 

Giani, Leo Maria. 1994. In heiliger Leidenschaft: Mythen, Kulte und Mysterien. Munich: Kösel.

 

Giebel, Marion. 1990. Das Geheimnis der Mysterien: Antike Kulte in Griechenland, Rom und Ägypten. Zurich and Munich: Artemis.

 

Graves, Robert. 1957. Mushrooms, food of the gods. Atlantic Monthly 200 (2): 73–77.

 

———. 1960. Food for centaurs. New York: Doubleday.

 

———. 1992. The Greek myths. London: Penguin Books.

 

Hofmann, Albert. 1993. Die Botschaft der Mysterien von Eleusis an die heutige Welt. In Welten des Bewußtseins, ed. Adolf Dittrich, Albert Hofmann, and Hanscarl Leuner, 1:9–19. Berlin: VWB.

 

Illmaier, Thomas. 1995. Die Mysterien von Eleusis. Esoterik und Wissenschaft 1/95:36–38.

 

Jensen, Ad. E. 1944. Das Weltbild einer frühen Kultur. Paideuma 3 (1/2): 1–83.

 

Kerényi, Carl [= Karl]. 1962. Die Mysterien von Eleusis. Zurich.

 

———. 1991. Eleusis. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

 

Lauenstein, Diether. 1987. Die Mysterien von Eleusis. Stuttgart: Urachhaus.

 

Malingré, Theo M., and Henk Maarse. 1974. Composition of the essential oil of Mentha aquaticaPhytochemistry 13:1531–35.

 

Meyer, Marvin W., ed. 1987. The ancient mysteries. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

 

Ott, Jonathan. 1978. Review: The road to Eleusis. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 10 (2): 163–64.

 

Reitzenstein, Richard. 1956. Die hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen. Darmstadt: WBG.

 

Riedweg, Christoph. 1987. Mysterienterminologie bei Platon, Philo und Klemens von Alexandrien. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

 

Ripinsky-Naxon, Michael. 1988. Systematic knowledge of herbal use in ancient Egypt and Greece: From the divine origins to De Materia Medica. Paper delivered at the 11th Annual Conference of the Society of Ethnobiology, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico City, March 9–13, 1988.

 

Scheffer, Thassilo von. 1940. Hellenische Mysterien und Orakel. Stuttgart: Spemann.

 

Schmidbauer, Wolfgang. 1996. Halluzinogene in Eleusis? Antaios 10:18–37.

 

Travlos, J. 1989. Die Anfänge des Heiligtums von Eleusis. In Tempel und Stätten der Götter Griechenlands, ed. Evi Melas, 55–70. Cologne: DuMont.

 

Valenčič, Ivan. 1993. Misterij elevzinskih misterijev. Razgledi 18 (1001): 30–31.

 

———. 1995. Has the mystery of the Eleusinian Mysteries been solved? Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 1994 (3): 325–36. Berlin: VWB.

 

Wasson, R. Gordon, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Ruck. 1998. The road to Eleusis: Unveiling the secret of the mysteries. 20th anniversary ed. Los Angeles: William Dailey Rare Books Ltd.

 

Wohlberg, Joseph. 1990. Haoma-soma in the world of ancient Greece. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 22 (3): 333–42.