The Pharsalus Bas-Relief and the Eleusinian Mysteries
The Entheogen Review, vol. 7/2, pp. 60-63, 1998
In the present article I discusses the 5th century BC bas-relief from
Pharsalus (Thessaly, Greece), now in the Louvre Museum
in Paris (no. 701, appearing in the catalogue under the
name "The Exaltation of the Flower"). The two
goddesses of the Eleusinian Mysteries are represented,
Demeter and Persephone, showing each other various
objects (usually interpreted as being flowers) and
exchanging them (Bauman 1993). Actually, the object that
the figure on the right (Persephone) is holding in her
hand is more mushroom-like and the shape suggests this,
rather than a flower.
Even the manner in which she holds it, with the lower part of
the ‘stem’ or ‘stalk’ between her two fingers, is suggestive of the way one
normally holds up a mushroom to show it to others. In 1957 Robert Graves first
proposed a mycological interpretation for this work of art in his book Food
for Centaurs; however, he did not include an illustration (at least there
isn’t one in the 1994 Spanish edition). On considering this basrelief, Graves
concluded that the prophetic inspiration of the Mysteries of Eleusis originates
in Amanita muscaria (Graves 1994: 92). Strangely, he presented this idea
to R. Gordon Wasson in 1957, which means that Wasson was actually aware of this
bas-relief more-or-less twenty years before he and his collaborators proposed
ergot as the Eleusinian entheogen. But Wasson included no discussion
of this in his publications. Graves reports that Wasson also tended toward a
mycological interpretation of the Pharsalus bas-relief, but: "since he
was more cautious than me, he had doubts about stating his opinion on such an
important matter as this until he had received expert advice" (ibid.
1994: 92; translated from the Spanish version).
I presented this bas-relief and discussed the basic idea in an
article published in Italy (Samorini et al. 1995). With this current
article, I intend to provide further information and a few more thoughts on
the matter. This bas-relief takes us to the very heart of the "Eleusinian
question," its mysteries, and the controversial issue of the Eleusinian
entheogen’s psychopharmacology. Researchers have recently cast doubts on and
rejected the hypothesis put forward by Wasson, Hofmann & Ruck in 1978 that
presents ergot and its visionary alkaloids as the psycho-pharmacological key
to the Eleusinian Mysteries (McKenna 1993; Valencic 1994). Furthermore, even
though they were apparently not familiar with the Pharsalus bas-relief, the
agent that they considered the most likely Eleusinian entheogen is a species
of psilocybian mushroom. The bas-relief would seem to confirm this hypothesis,
but we must be careful not to rush to conclusions.
My own opinion is that in-depth analysis of this work leads to
the conclusion that the original psychopharmacological key to the Mysteries
is not a psilocybian mushroom. The bas-relief features three hands holding
objects. The first object, the highest up in the bas-relief, is held by Persephone.
It is shaped like a mushroom of the Psilocybe species or, as is
more likely, a Panaeolus. Demeter holds the second object. It is the
same as the first – the same mushroom – but it is tilted and the hood would
appear to be chipped. Alternatively, as Graves (1994: 92) suggests, it isn’t
chipped at all. His interpretation is that the fragment is intentionally missing
because Demeter is meant to have eaten it; this detail stresses the importance
of eating taking place during the rite. Only careful examination of this
bas-relief will help us establish if the mushroom hood was accidentally chipped
or was instead meant to be incomplete. In any case, we can hypothesise that
Demeter and Persephone are holding mushrooms in their hands and that during
this period and in this region – i.e. for this kind of
Eleusinian Mystery – a psilocybian key may be perceived. In this context, we
should not forget the important, albeit isolated, piece of ethnomycological
information provided by Carl Ruck that, today, in some regions of Greece, the
inhabitants are aware of a number of species of visionary mushrooms that are
not Amanita muscaria and which go by the name of "crazy mushrooms."
The mushrooms are not considered toxic but rather "inebriating like wine,
although in an entirely different way" (in Wasson et al. 1978: 122).
It is therefore surprising to learn that Ruck should continue to identify the
mushroom-like objects in the Pharsalus bas-relief as flowers, specifically roses
(Ruck 1998) when there are no rose varieties or even parts of roses that are
similar in any way to the mushroom shape seen in the bas-relief. This is an
extremely realistic scene. However, the real enigma here is the third object
Demeter has in her left hand.
If the first two objects represent visionary mushrooms – that
is, if they represent a psychopharmacological key – we might suppose that the
third object is also of similar psychopharmacological significance, and that
it would be as immediately identifiable (to initiates) as are the first two
objects. We therefore have two psychopharmacological keys. This emerges
clearly from the history of the Eleusinian Mysteries. When we consider these
Mysteries, we must bear it in mind that we are dealing with an entheogenic cult
that lasted 2.000 years in all and was present throughout the Mediterranean
basin, not just at Eleusis (an example is the cult of the two Eleusinian goddesses
in Sicily, with its specific regional connotations). This cult became increasingly
complex from the psychopharmacological angle as well. First, we have Demeter,
the Mother Goddess of the Neolithic period. Then Persephone, who is followed
by other divinities, including Dionysus. The author of The Homeric Hymn to
Demeter (one of the oldest mythical renderings of the foundation of the
Eleusinian cult) was unaware of the existence of Dionysus. This lack of awareness
is also reflected in the 5th century BC epigraphic collections. Only during
the second half of the 5th century BC does Dionysus enter into the scene in
relation to Eleusis in Attic literary and artistic works (Sfameni 1986). This
is also the period of the Pharsalus bas-relief. If we consider the fact that
visionary mushrooms being more to the Dionysian sphere (Samorini et al. 1995)
and that what we see in this bas-relief relates to the final phase of the Eleusinian
cult and its psychopharmacology, it is possible to ascribe the presence of mushrooms
to a Dionysian influence.
During the final phase, two rites made up the structure of The
Eleusinian Mysteries – the Lesser and Greater Mysteries. We may therefore suggest
that there were two entheogens and that these are represented by the two types
of objects featured in the Pharsalus bas-relief.
We should remember that the researchers who sustain the ergot
hypothesis also postulated two Eleusinian entheogens. Carl Ruck suggests that
the entheogens used in the Lesser Mysteries of Agrai (reflecting the Dionysian
influence) and the Greater Mysteries of Eleusis (the kykeon brew) were
a species of mushroom and ergot, respectively (Wasson et al. 1978: 114-123).
Ruck believes the mushroom was Amanita muscaria. However, psilocybian
mushrooms are also likely candidates – as the Pharsalus bas-relief might suggest.
We must not forget that the complete hypothesis put forward by Wasson
and colleagues was that of the use, as part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, of
psychoactive mushrooms and ergot. This complete hypothesis has been ignored
by those critics of the ergot hypothesis who instead favour the mushroom hypothesis.
As to the enigmatic third object held by Demeter in the Pharsalus
bas-relief, there ere still no definite answers. Apart from the rose or some
other generic ‘flower,’ a number of researchers have advanced the theory that
it is a phallus or a fish. The phallus is not very likely as Greek artists have
never represented a phallus in this manner (and they were masters of this art).
What about the fish? But where are its fins? Robert Graves interpreted this
object as a leather bag such as those used for prophetic dice" (Graves
1994: 92; translated from the Spanish version). The problem here is that there
is no known reference to the use of dice or other divinatory practices in the
Eleusinian Mysteries. Carl Ruck sees this object as a symbol of the ‘old religion’
existing before the reform which, at a certain stage, the Eleusinian cult underwent
(Ruck 1998). I personally think that this third object is an important due to
the identity of the original Eleusinian entheogen and, at the 1996 San Francisco
Entheobotany conference, I advanced the hypothesis that it represented a piece
of bread formed in a specific manner (Samorini 1996).
For a more comprehensive criticism of McKenna’s and Valencic’s
objections to the ergot hypothesis, mentioned earlier, I would point out that
they rest their case on the fact that no non-toxic entheogenic ergot-based brew
has yet been produced. Be this is as it may, what little has been carried out
in the way of self-experimentation with ergot or ergot alkaloids (ergonovine,
methyl-ergonovine; cf. Bigwood et al. 1979; Ott & Neeley 1980)
has not been as unfruitful as Valencic (1994) imagined. Moreover, the fact that
a few number of experiments involving self-administration have failed means
very little if we consider the great variety – in quantitative and qualitative
terms – not only of the species that produce ergot alkaloids, but also of the
possible manners of extraction and types of potion.
It is sufficient for us to note that in all there are at least
30 recognised species of Claviceps (ergot) and that C. purpurea alone
infects at least 450 plant species (nearly all of which are grasses), C.
paspali infects 36 plant species, C. pusilla 35, C. nigricans
12, and so forth. Alkaloid content varies greatly. Some strains do not produce
alkaloids; others produce mostly toxic alkaloids and others produce mainly –
perhaps, in some instances, only – psychoactive alkaloids, as is the case with
the ergot strain (no. 178) isolated in the Mississippi region from Cynodon
dactylon (L.) Pers. (Bermuda grass), a grass that is also frequently found
in Europe. This strain produces significant quantities of alkaloids (of which
30% is ergonovine and 22% is ergonovinine) (Porter et al. 1974). A famous
C. paspali strain isolated from Paspalum distichum L. in the Rome
area of Italy was found to produce mainly ergine and iso-ergine (Arcamone et
al. 1960). Biotypes of C. purpurea bave been divided into physiological,
phenological and geographical kinds, and climatic types have been identified
– such differentiation also affecting the typology of alkaloids produced. At
least five chemical combinations have been identified in C. purpurea, and
three in C. paspali. Furthermore, at least 16 kinds of C. purpurea
have been identified on the basis of the specificity of the host plant (Gröger
1972). Perhaps the Hierophants of Eleusis had discovered an ergot strain endowed
with naturally occurring psychoactive properties or a strain that was easy to
prepare in a non toxic manner, cultivated in the Rarian plain neighbouring Eleusis.
The priests of the Eleusinian temple had the right to farm cereals (not the
psilocybian mushroom or Amanita muscaria) on this plain. Furthermore,
new ethnobotanic data has come to light over the last few years in Peru, Africa
and China which confirms that it is possible to obtain psychoactive brews from
grasses and lower mushrooms of the Clavicipitaceae family. This data
will be reviewed in G. Samorini, "A contribution to the discussion of the
ethnobotany of the Eleusinian Mysteries" (forthcoming).
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