The Secret of the Kykeon, Peter Webster

The Secret of the Kykeon

Peter Webster

The Psychedelic Library


The original hypothesis of The Road to Eleusis suggests that the ergot species Claviceps purpurea, collected by the hierophantic priests from its natural and common parasitisation on barley growing in the Rarian plain adjacent to Eleusis, was the probable active ingredient of the kykeon, the psychoactive potion used in the yearly Rite at Eleusis. It was further suggested that the hierophants would have processed the C. purpurea ergot by dissolving off the water-soluble alkaloids since this fraction contained ergonovine, the principal hypothesised psychoactive compound, a lysergic acid amide very similar in structure to, but far less psychoactive than LSD. This process would also supposedly have prevented the toxic peptide alkaloids of lysergic acid, abortifacient and vasoconstrictive but not at all psychedelic, from entering the potion.
Albert Hofmann, writing in The Road to Eleusis, notes however that another species of ergot presumably also common at the time (Claviceps paspali), but growing not on barley (or only very rarely) but on the wild grasses of the region, notably the common Paspalum distichum, contained a much more psychedelic blend of alkaloids, similar to those contained in the Western hemisphere psychedelic plant, ololiuhqui. Thus The Road to Eleusis suggests two possibilities for an ergot being the source of the active components of the kykeon, and due to the nature of ergot, its recognised variability of alkaloid content according to local conditions and the host parasitised, the several varieties and species of ergot known (ca. 50) and the large number of known possible host grasses (ca. 600), the hypothesis of an ergot being the source for psychoactive compounds of the kykeon has even further possible (but increasingly unlikely) variations than the two principal ones suggested by Hofmann. Nevertheless, the fact that the Rite was practised like clockwork for large numbers of communicants for nearly two millennia must require that the ergot used was of constant characteristics and dependability, and the method of preparation also little subject to the vagaries of error or changing conditions.
Other facts relevant to the kykeon and the Rite, and the two hierophant families which controlled and kept secret the recipe for the brew for nearly two millennia, are several. Of special importance is the fact that the recipe was successfully kept secret for this very long period, when documentation shows that many would probably have desired to discover its particulars. The kykeon was stolen on at least one occasion for use at Athens “cocktail parties”, profaning the sacred Rite and its potion. If the kykeon could have been simply duplicated, if it were obvious which ingredients were used and how they were prepared, it would presumably have not been necessary to steal it, and its profane use might well have become common. We must assume not only that the recipe was effectively kept secret, but more importantly that some critical feature of the recipe was easy to keep secret. Some characteristic of the active ingredient, perhaps the way in which it was collected and/or prepared, must have been at once simple, in line with technical abilities of the time, yet not easily observed by spies nor intuited by outsiders. Some simple chemical or agricultural trick must have been involved, and it must have been a trick that was difficult to observe by outsiders, something done in the privacy of the priests’ temple, or if done in public view, something which, to an outsider, seemed to be a normal activity of the priests and one concerned not with the ingredients of the kykeon but with other routine activities, perhaps a “blessing of the grain” or some such ritual. I shall return to this hypothesis below.
Recently, objections have been raised concerning the ergot hypothesis, most notably in an article by Ivan Valencic in Jahrbuch fur Ethomedizin und Bewusstseinsforschung (“Has the Mystery of the Eleusinian Mysteries Been Solved?”). The main complaints of the author are as follows, with my own comments following each item:
Objection 1. The proposed psychoactive ingredients of C. purpurea, ergonovine and methylergonovine, are not exceptionally psychedelic when taken as synthesised compounds, nor have preparations of C. purpurea been made and pharmacologically tested which demonstrate it might have been of a psychoactivity presumed sufficient to have provided the undoubted powerful psychedelic reaction to the kykeon.
This is an important reservation. Although it is possible that C. purpurea naturally parasitising barley in ancient Greece contained a more psychoactive blend of alkaloids than has been found in C. purpurea grown and tested in recent times, the fact that the psychedelic kykeon was so reliable for so long would indicate a corresponding long term reliability of content of the fungus which should thus have continued into the present, i.e., today’s C. purpurea is very probably quite similar in its alkaloidal spectrum to that of the same fungus parasitising barley in ancient Greece. Thus considerable doubt is cast on the hypothesis that the fungus we know today as C. purpurea was the active ingredient of the kykeon.
Objection 2. These same proposed active ingredients, at the doses necessary to produce the very moderate psychoactive effects they are capable of producing, also produce significant discomfort, cramping, and lassitude. Presumably the effect of the kykeon was a quite enjoyable experience or it wouldn’t have been sought after by rich Athenians to entertain guests, nor would the experience of the sacrament at Eleusis have been written about so glowingly by everyone who partook of the Rite and its potion. In addition, ergonovine at these dose levels is capable of producing spontaneous abortion, and since women were often initiates in the Rite and no such problems were ever described, we must doubt that the full story has been discovered in the C. purpurea hypothesis.
These are quite important counter-arguments, but again, due to positive aspects of the evidence for ergot, we must further explore the ergot hypothesis rather than abandon it. There is perhaps an important undiscovered aspect of the ergot hypothesis that will resolve the objections.
Objection 3. Concerning the C. Paspali variant of the hypothesis, it is objected that this fungus is known to produce tremors in cattle grazing on infected grass, and, similarly to C. purpurea, that no one has processed the fungus into a preparation shown to be psychedelic to a degree in agreement with the properties of the kykeon.
Although true, this objection is not as serious, for C. paspali does indeed exhibit an alkaloidal spectrum similar to that of ololiuhqui and we may intuit that it could well have had potent enough properties for the kykeon on the basis of its close similarity to a known psychedelic preparation. And perhaps we may find that different strains of C. paspali, grown perhaps on different hosts, have an even more psychoactive capability than the naturally-occurring wild variety that must have grown in ancient Greece. Indeed, C. paspali has been well researched in the quest to produce lysergic acid alkaloids in saprophytic culture, and is known to exhibit strains producing high yields of ololiuhqui-type alkaloids. Perhaps the secret of the kykeon can be elucidated further without the immediate necessity to conduct the human pharmacological trials required by the objectors.
Objection 4. The reference to the composition of the kykeon in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is obviously incomplete, or even false, the recipe given there containing only water, barley, and a type of mint known to be non-psychoactive. It is thus proposed that this formula was merely a red herring, a way to deceive and disguise the true recipe. Barley may have nothing to do with the true ingredients. Thus other psychedelic entities such as Psilocybe mushrooms must be considered as possibilities.
The fact that the recipe was kept secret for nearly two thousand years might well indicate that a very effective deception had been used to protect it. But there is deception, and there is deception, outright lies often being more easily exposed than more calculated and subtle deceptions. Thus we must delve much deeper into possibilities concerning ergot rather than posit, on the basis that the published recipe was at least partly a deception, that the kykeon might have instead been a preparation made from Psilocybe mushrooms, as has been suggested by some. If the Hymn to Demeter specifies barley, it is very likely that the kykeon has something to do with barley. Psilocybe mushrooms have no relationship with barley whatsoever. And the mint specified in the recipe also would support the ergot hypothesis, since mint is a known remedy for the slight nausea often encountered with lysergic acid psychedelics. The preponderance of evidence indicates we must further explore the ergot hypothesis, rather than abandon it for other possible psychedelic plants.
Following are some further observations which should guide our hypothesis formation, facts and probabilities drawn from what we know about Greece, the Rite, ergot biology and chemistry, and other sources:
Large amounts of the ingredient were needed, at a certain time of year, on demand. This fact argues against wild mushrooms or ergots, and in favour of the hypothesis that the priests grew the necessary supplies by reliable methods, and that the methods were easily concealed as to true purpose. At first, these might sound insurmountable requirements, but bear with me for a moment.
The C. purpurea naturally parasitising the barley crop was unlikely to have been the active ingredient as discussed above, even though it surely must have been common. Its alkaloidal content is, and presumably was, only moderately psychoactive, and with unfavourable side-effects. C. paspali is a far more likely candidate on the basis of its alkaloid content. In addition, if C. purpurea were the active ingredient, and easy to process with a simple water extraction, could the secret so easily have been kept for so long?
Naturally-occurring C. paspali could not have been the ingredient by itself. Growing wild, it probably wouldn’t have been reliable enough to produce the quantities necessary, and collecting large amounts would have easily been observed by spies, and the recipe become easily known.
Psilocybe mushrooms are ruled out. Several aspects of the Rite and what we know about the mushrooms make the Psilocybe hypothesis far fetched. The rite was held every year and at a precisely defined time in the month of September. Many thousands of specimens of even the strongest Psilocybe mushrooms would have been needed, at a time of year when the climate of Greece was just barely subsiding from the summer heat and dryness. Although mountainous areas of 1000 meters in altitude are within ten or twenty kilometres of Eleusis, it is very unlikely that such vast quantities of a wild mushroom could have been located so early in the year, like clockwork and in advance of the autumn rains, or that the hierophants could have collected such quantities every year and transported them back to Eleusis without the secret of their activity escaping. And as anyone who has collected wild mushrooms knows, they seldom appear on-schedule, in such dependable quantities, even when an area known to produce a certain variety has been identified.
If it is proposed that a Psilocybe species growing on the dung of herbivores might have been the kykeon’s secret, again we run into trouble. In the typical summer climate of Greece, cowpats and other herbivores’ excretions would have dried so fast in the heat that the hierophants would have had to irrigate them to even hope that mushrooms would appear, and they would have been lucky to produce even a handful under those conditions. And once again, it would have been a difficult operation to keep secret. After autumn rains, in November and December, animal dungs might well have produced their fungal consequences, too late for the rite unless we hypothesise that December’s Psilocybe was stored for the following year. Again, a highly unlikely hypothesis for reasons too obvious to mention. But this observation does indicate another argument for ergot: the sclerotia of ergot are quite hard and dry, and certainly could have been stored for a year or more without preservatives, in containers of minimal size easily secreted in the confines of the temple.
And of course the idea that the hierophants had perfected the cultivation of Psilocybe mushrooms is even more fantastic. I doubt that such a hypothesis even needs to be shot down. The kykeon’s connection with barley, clearly indicated in many sources, also would be meaningless were the active ingredient a Psilocybe mushroom. But one final argument might indicate that there weren’t even any Psilocybe of note growing in Greece at the time. As noted in The Road to Eleusis, (p42) the Greeks were well acquainted with a wide range of inebriants and herbs, and how to prepare “wines” suitable for many purposes. If Psilocybe mushrooms had been common enough to use for the kykeon, they would no doubt have been known and used and their secret impossible to keep. No, the secret of the kykeon is a secret because it was an easy secret to keep. Neither the Psilocybe hypothesis, nor the naturally-occurring Claviceps purpurea hypothesis, nor the naturally-occurring Claviceps paspali hypothesis, nor of course any of the other hypotheses that the kykeon was some kind of alcoholic beer made from barley, or that it was merely symbolic, etc. etc., will suffice.
The requirement for large amounts of the active ingredient, available on demand, indicates that the priests must have grown the supply. Although artificial cultivation of ergot using contemporary methods is tricky and requires considerable skill and equipment, the secondary infection of grasses by using a solution of the honeydew produced by already growing ergot is straightforward. What makes this hypothesis interesting is that, using honeydew from C. paspali growing on the wild grasses surrounding the barley fields, the priests could have infected significant quantities of the young barley with C. paspali, thus producing from the barley a variety of ergot containing the ololiuhqui-type alkaloids. Although C. paspali only rarely infests barley on its own account, perhaps because its ascospores find it difficult to penetrate the growing grain, the secondary infection of barley by honeydew solution of C. paspali should be far more successful. The resulting ergot might even exhibit an alkaloidal spectrum superior to that of wild C. paspali.
The proposed method requires no special equipment or technique, only the knowledge that it works. It could have been discovered by accident, and a knowledge of exactly what was happening also unnecessary; only a knowledge of trial-and-error methods and results was required. Such a procedure could have easily been accomplished by the priests, and in addition, the procedure and the true reasons for it could have easily been concealed by pretending that it was a rite or ceremony having entirely other reasons for its performance. A blessing of the young barley, in which the priests roamed the fields whilst shaking “sacred water” on the young grain (to “promote its growth,” perhaps) from a receptacle not unlike those used to disperse “holy water” by Catholic priests, would have been a ceremony well separated in time from the Eleusis ceremony, and its purpose easily disguised as something else entirely. For a certain portion of the barley crop, on certain fields, the “holy water” would have been a solution of C. paspali honeydew, and for the rest, plain water. Thus only the priests would have known where the active ergot was growing. The parasitised barley would have been harvested normally, the priests selecting a quantity for the kykeon which to all outsiders seemed the exact equivalent of the entire crop, yet this portion would have the psychedelic ergot growing on it, while the rest of the crop would have the normal infestation of C. purpurea. Neither would spies suspect ergot of being the ingredient, as it was common in the form of the dark spikes of C. purpurea, and probably very well known as something toxic to be separated from the grain as much as possible.
C. paspali, growing in the wild grasses around the barley fields, also has a very different appearance than C. purpurea, and the grasses on which it grows mature earlier than the barley. Thus its honeydew stage would correspond well to the stage of the growth of barley most suitable for secondary infection. And to the uninitiated, C. paspali would probably have passed unnoticed, and not be suspected as an ergot. Even the priests might have been unaware that the honeydew on the weed grasses surrounding the fields resulted from an ergot. C. paspali is small, round and mostly light in colour compared to the dark purple and larger, elongated spikes of C. purpurea. Thus the priests could have collected some at the time when it was producing honeydew, perhaps in the process of “weeding” the fields, taken it to the temple and prepared a water solution for use in the infection of the barley. A modest amount of honeydew containing the C. paspali infestation would have been sufficient to infect a much larger amount of barley, thus satisfying the requirement that significant quantities of the active ingredient be available.
Rather than a blessing of the grain using honeydew-infected water, an alternative might have been that the hierophants simply cut some weeds at the edge of the field and used them to brush the young barley. Perhaps this might have been done as a ceremony indicating the belief that wild grasses, and ergot itself, were a primitive and debased form of the edible grains, and the intention of the ceremony to produce barley “primitivised” for use in the kykeon. Perhaps the secret of raising C. paspali on barley was originally discovered in such a fashion, and later a more complex procedure and rite evolved, such as the “holy water scenario” I have hypothesised. There seem a number of possible hypotheses that could be explored concerning the particulars of the “Paspali-on-Barley Hypothesis.”
It remains now to try to repeat the proposed method, and if indeed C. paspali can be grown on barley by producing a secondary infection using the honeydew from a natural C. paspali infestation on Paspalum distichum, for example, the resulting ergots must then be analysed and their alkaloid spectrum identified. In The Story of Ergot by F.J. Bové, we read that “Dr. Robert Stäger of Bern, Switzerland, devoted his whole life to the discovery of hosts and parasites… In 1898 he began to systematically cultivate grasses and infested them with ergot – and then used the honeydew produced to infest and cross-infest other plants.” From this research it would seem that the infestation of barley with the honeydew of adjacent-growing C. paspali is a distinct possibility worth researching.