This week, Graham Hancock appeared alongside his self-described protege, author Brian Muraresku, on The Joe Rogan Experience to discuss spirituality, archaeology, and psychedelic topics. Truthfully, I don’t really have a lot to complain about in the general thesis that ancient people were aware of and used mind-altering substances, or that such substances may have impacted their experiences of the divine. However, I feel like Muraresku overstates the case, particularly when he argues that scholarship has forbidden any discussion of the subject since a damnatio memoriae pronounced on the 1978 book The Road to Eleusis and its argument about psychedelics in Greece. For decades, dozens of books have covered the subject, so it is not a forbidden topic, or at least hasn’t been in thirty years.
Muraresku, a lawyer (his resume is included in the John Podesta Wikileaks email dump) and author of The Immortality Key (St. Martin’s Press, 2020), argues that early Christians used psychedelic substances which influenced their experiences of the divine. He ties this to other ancient mystery rites, including the Eleusinian Mysteries. He laments that “we are not taught” about the Eleusinian Mysteries in high school mythology classes before claiming that the mystery of Eleusis involved imbibing psychedelic potions. The latter point is not all that controversial; the use of substances in ancient Greek religion has been studied for decades, but the former point is strange. First, I was taught about Eleusis in my high school Classics courses, but second, what schools still teach Classics? A declining number. Classics have been in decline in American schools for half a century—more, if you count the decline of Greek from the middle nineteenth century—and the decentralized nature of American schooling means that it’s impossible to generalize from one’s personal experience without actual data.
He argues that the Greeks lacked a vision of the afterlife—“You just disappear into Hades to do God knows what”—and therefore needed the Mysteries to imagine a better afterlife. That’s not true. Homer records an elaborate vision of the afterlife and its unsatisfying milieu in the Odyssey, at the dawn of Greek culture. What the Greeks hoped to avoid was standing-room-only general admission to the moaning holding pen of Hades, for Eleusis promised a path to a better quality of afterlife. But he overstates the importance of imbibing the mixed drink kykeon to the Mysteries, since kykeon wasn’t limited to them. It’s mentioned in Homer, discussed in the Homeric hymns, and was a common drink of peasants. The Mysteries were a collective experience, not an individual one. However, Muraresku and Hancock believe kykeon was a psychedelic drink on the strength an argument in The Road to Eleusis that its barley contained ergot, a claim with only some ambiguous evidence to support it.
I’ll stop here and say that Muraresku and Hancock openly lie about a Classical text to try to make their point. They argue that the kykeon was a closely guarded secret (remember: it was a standard peasant drink) and that the Athenian aristocrat Alcibiades was condemned for drinking it recreationally, outside the sacred space. That is false. In his Life of Alcibiades 19, Plutarch makes very clear that Alcibiades was sentenced to death for blasphemy for a parody performance, not drinking a very common, low-status peasant drink:
During this time Androcles, the popular leader, produced sundry aliens and slaves who accused Alcibiades and his friends of mutilating other sacred images, and of making a parody of the mysteries of Eleusis in a drunken revel. They said that one Theodorus played the part of the Herald, Pulytion that of the Torch-bearer, and Alcibiades that of the High Priest, and that the rest of his companions were there in the rôle of initiates, and were dubbed Mystae. Such indeed was the purport of the impeachment which Thessalus, the son of Cimon, brought in to the assembly, impeaching Alcibiades for impiety towards the Eleusinian goddesses. (Loeb translation)
Plutarch goes on for pages about how Alcibiades’ enemies whipped up enmity against him and got him brought to trial, but the gist of it is that his trial was for blaspheming the gods with his parody of the Mysteries. Drinking peasant drinks wasn’t the issue.
Hancock argues that psychedelics provide a direct experience of immortality and the foundation of religion, arguing that only psychedelics give access to that realm. He blasts his “critics” for failing to accept the moral teachings of the entities one meets while on psychedelics. I don’t want to press the issue too much, but the altered states of consciousness unlocked that way are not exclusive to psychedelics. Altered states of consciousness can occur in many different ways, and there is no need to specifically argue that magic mushrooms and the like are the only way reach that state. That might have been Hancock’s path, but it is not the only one. Hancock even cites David Lewis-Williams’s work on the subject of prehistoric altered states of consciousness but ignores Lewis-Williams’s argument that any path to altering consciousness can reach the same end.
Anyway, much of the discussion repeats Hancock’s usual thoughts about liberalizing drug laws, disapproval of politicians, and other social issues. Muraresku tries to make a case that early Christians spiked their wine with psychedelics, and some of his evidence is suggestive, though not conclusive. He make other claims that are less secure. He argues that a terra cotta bas relief of Triptolemus from a fourth-century BCE temple at Mas Castellar in Girona, Spain is evidence of clandestine psychedelic Eleusinian Mysteries blasphemously performed outside of Greece. As should be evident from his appearance in dozens of pieces of Greek literature, such as Apollodorus (1.5.2) and a whole (lost) play Sophocles once wrote about him, his life was no secret. He is frequently depicted in Greek vase art all over the Mediterranean, so an image of him is no evidence of Mysteries, only myth. The Triptolemus fragment was found alongside ritual cups and a bust of Demeter. A vase contained evidence of beer, yeast, and ergot.
As should be obvious, not all worship of Demeter is an Eleusinian Mystery, and kykeon isn’t the mystery itself. The mystery itself involved a myth of death and rebirth involving a sheaf of wheat. It’s also not entirely pleasant to find that in his book, Muraresku claims that the Mysteries—and the Spanish chapel—are survivals of the “skull cult” of Göbekli Tepe, a 10,000-year survival for which no evidence exists but which is popular among fringe types.
Hancock and Rogan have a long rant about academics being engaged in a “propaganda war” against drugs, and they’re not wrong that social pressure and government policies had restricted exploration of ancient use of substances.
In the last 40 minutes or so, Hancock gets to his more familiar complaints about ancient history and his argument for a lost, Atlantis-like Ice Age civilization. This involves him and Rogan complaining about oppressive academics and repeating all his usual claims, no matter how many times they’ve been debunked. It’s worth noting that Hancock claims that one time while on drugs he saw flying saucers and Grey space aliens and worried that he would be abducted by the aliens. Rogan claims to have similarly met jesters who flipped him off, a gesture he considered a profound message. Hancock argues that such beings are not imaginary but rather are interdimensional beings that we can contact through our consciousness. Against that view, I will ask this: Why do these beings sit around waiting for us to show up so they can deliver bizarre monologues and obscene gestures? Is that what you would do if some weirdo popped into your house? Do they just stop work, or drop their knitting, whenever a human pops by? One might argue that if the other realm were truly real, the beings ought to be indifferent or frightened or even confused as often as they are pompous pontificators.
Muraresku ends the interview by announcing he is looking to launch a reality TV series searching for ancient psychedelic drugs and will begin pitching it soon. Hancock ends by praising Michael Shermer for announcing he would reassess his views of Hancock in light of evidence for a Younger Dryas comet impact. Shermer referred to evidence that a comet hit the Earth in 10,500 BCE, a subject on which I remain agnostic if skeptical, but Hancock and Rogan imply that Shermer meant that he would now accept the existence of Atlantis. This isn’t the case, and the existence of a comet impact has no direct relevance to the question of whether Atlantis existed.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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