He who white-washes his house, betrays to me a white-washed soul”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

There was a road in ancient Athens that led towards the nearby city of Eleusis, the site where the most sacred mysteries in the Greek world took place. It was called “Iera Odos” – the Sacred Way – and parts of it, half-devoured by moss, are still visible around Athens today. A year ago, two Greeks decided to embark on a journey along this very road in their quest to find a new access to their culture of birth, a journey they tracked in a new series: Ancient Greece Revisited. Growing up in 20th century Athens, a modernist city, built around an ancient ruin of immense value, the Parthenon, reminders of the great contrast between ancient glories and modern decadence were everywhere apparent. Learning about these glories in greater detail during their school years, the “clinical” nature of the official curriculum felt somewhat foreign. And as they would later learn… it was! Because after Europe rose to claim the “Promethean” torch of Progress out of the hands that first gave it birth, its scholars rushed to paint an image of Greece that would fit their narrative. And so the image of “white Greece” was born: a culture of hard logic and quiet contemplation, where Socrates teaches peacefully among white marble columns, a culture where “moderation in everything” was the guiding principle, and Love was only for eternal things.

And it was exactly in this “Enlightenment” spirit that Ernest Renan wrote his “Ode to the Acropolis” [1], praising, among other things, the whiteness of its marble, “so spotless” he says… so pure. But two and a half thousand years before him, another poet, Euripedes, one the three masters of ancient tragedy, wrote “Helen,” a play about the return of Helen of Troy back to Greece, and after her beauty had caused the Great War that would be retold by Homer, a war that had cost so many lives to both Trojans and Greeks. In her despair, she laments her fate, and the poet makes her cry “If only I could shed my beauty, the way you would wipe colour off a statue.” And there, in a single line by Euripides, we have it: the ancient view, where the epitome of ugliness is in fact a white statue! Greek and French, ancient and modern, how different were their outlooks? And why do we seem to have inherited one that stands in antithesis to the historical culture that Europe claims to love so much? Now, this historical fact about the alleged “whiteness” of Greek statues has since been corrected, and many attempts at restoring the, often shockingly vibrant colours of Greek statues have been made [2]. But that is of little consequence, because like Nietzsche said, “He who white-washes his house, betrays to me a white-washed soul.” So, if the white statues praised by Europeans for centuries correspond to the peaceful soul of an almost “zen-like” Socrates, once we stand corrected on the subject of colours on Greek statues, what have we changed in our image of this man’s soul? The quick answer, of course, is nothing! As we still hold to the idea of an ancient Greece that is white as much as it is sterile.

Back on the Sacred Way, and nearing Eleusis, the outward signs of decadence become even more pronounced, as the most “sacred of sacred” sites in the ancient world has been drowned in concrete, iron, and gas, as Greece’s oil refineries were built there. The decimated ruins in the small archaeological site that was salvaged from the onslaught of industry stare back at the visitor dum, unwilling to betray what they had witnessed: the Great Mysteries of Eleusis. Because despite being open to everyone, that included women and slaves with a surprising lack of discrimination, these sacred mysteries of the goddess Demetra have since remained what they always were… a mystery! We know that central to the ritual process was the drinking of a potion: Kykeon, which in Greek means “mix” or even “cocktail,” but its recipe has been forgotten. Until that is, a Swiss chemist experimenting with the medicinal properties of Ergot, a fungus that infects wheat-crops, stumbled upon a compound that would change the course of history, bringing a new understanding of colours back to a war-ridden Europe. His name was Albert Hoffman, and he named his discovery Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, or LSD for short. After accidentally absorbing a minuscule amount of his new substance, Hoffman undertook the first recorded “acid-trip,” an experience that would affect him tremendously, turning him into a passionate student of altered states. On the other side of the Atlantic, a very different character, a banker for J.P. Morgan, would undergo a similar experience only a few years later: the shamanic powers of a Mexican traditional healer, Maria Sabina, who just so happened to be an expert in the use of psilocybin mushrooms. The name of this “banker-turned-psychonaut” was Gordon Wasson, who would later describe this first magical trip as living “an eternity in a night, seeing infinity in a grain of sand.” And destiny would have these two pioneers: Hoffman, inventor of LSD, and Wasson, discoverer of the now called “magic” mushrooms, combine forces to solve the ancient riddle of the Mysteries Eleusis, starting of course from its sacred potion, Kykeon.

Their correspondence has since been made public [3], and while no definite conclusion was ever reached about Kykeon, Hoffman observed how Ergot, the fungus he used back during the late ’30s as a starting point in his long chain of chemical derivations that would eventually lead to LSD, was surrounded in legends throughout history, while infected crops were often called “mad” or “drunken,” hinting to potential psychoactive properties. In Greece, and while no direct connection of this substance was discovered by the authors, both noticed how Wheat, where the fungus is still found, was the sacred plant associated with the Mysteries, as well as the symbol of the Goddess Demetra. The story that told of the mysteries’ founding was saved in one of the earliest examples of Greek poetry: the Homeric Hymns. There, we learn how Hades, God of the Underworld, abducted Demetra’s daughter Persephone, to hold her captive in his kingdom of shadows, making her his wife and Queen of the Underworld. Hearing the cries of her daughter, Demetra rushed to the place where the earth had split and the immortal god Hades had appeared on his golden chariot, but she arrived too late, as no one seemed to know were Persephone was, no one that is apart from Helios, the Sun-God, who told Demetra what had happened. Filled with rage against the gods who permitted her daughter to be dragged into this darkness, Demetra left her palace on Mount Olympus and withdrew her powers of fertility, leaving the vast earth dry-up before her steps, along with the race of Man.. starving. Alone, she walked the mortal plains, assuming the form of an old, mortal woman. Alone, she roamed, struck with grief, until she reached… Eleusis.

In the small archaeological site, there is a place called “Mournful Rock,” where Demetra rested, and where she was found by the good king of Eleusis, whose kindness warmed Demetra’s heart to such an extent that she gave Mankind two ultimate gifts: The Grain, through which our race passed from animal to man, and the Great Mysteries of Eleusis, that took away our fear of dying. But if Hoffman and Wasson were in fact correct, and Ergot was used to create an “LDS-analogue,” and if a significant portion of all who ever lived in Greece during an entire millennium actually took part in the mysteries, then we have to imagine the world of these Greeks to have been very different from the other-worldly, almost Christian world of classical paintings. The journey of the two, modern, Greeks along the Sacred Way was not about reinventing the formula of Kykeon, or proving that Hoffman was correct or mistaken in his hypothesis. No, their journey extended far beyond that, and into the very mind that produced this culture. The Socrates who is heard teaching about the Immortality of the Soul was not a Christian saint for whom humility was a virtue towards salvation, but a wild, pagan Socrates, initiated in the ancient Mysteries of the Goddess.

We hear that when prince Gautama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha, “the world sprung open like a flower.” But this might be exactly how the world appeared to these “dry” and “white-robed” Greek philosophers that made so many of us fall asleep during school. In that respect, this “white-washed” version, so beloved by British Classicists, might betray more about Victorian England than ancient Athens. The tragic outlook that Nietzche praised as a combination of Dionysian and Apollonian, could refer exactly to those mental functions that are so often revealed during psychedelic trips, where the “all is one,” Dionysian aspect, competes with the direct knowledge of finitude and death, the Apollonian. Secrets that were to be found throughout the mystery cults of the ancient world, and as far as Spain, where they survive in the tragic poetry of Lorca, and from which Eleusis herself was born. The “love” taught by Plato could have had nothing to do with the “cult of Amor” we seem to have inherited from the French Troubadours but was in fact a pagan love, one that Terrance McKenna encountered through “heroic doses” of psilocybin, one he had to call with a new name: “LUV” [4].

We live in strange times, and it’s perhaps a reinterpretation of what we think we already know that might hold the key to a door that has remained open for centuries. And it’s the task of Ancient Greece Revisited to – at least – attempt to peek through this ancient veil, while its two creators dare to claim that something of a “native memory” has survived in modern Greeks, enough to guide them towards rediscovering a life-world their ancient counterparts could recognise as their own.

Citations

[1] Ernest Renan, Prière sur l’Acropole, La Revue des Deux Mondes. 1876 (pp. 486).

[2] Forbes. Bond, Sarah (Contributor). “Whitewashing Ancient Statues: Whiteness, Racism And Color In The Ancient World.” Published: Apr 27, 2017, 08:54 am. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/drsarahbond/2017/04/27/whitewashing-ancient-statues-whiteness-racism-and-color-in-the-ancient-world/#13e881ad75ad

[3] R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Carl A. P. Ruck. “The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries.” North Atlantic Books, 2008.

[4] “To distinguish it from ordinary love I always think of it as LUV. It’s the kind of love that you get with the alien.” [Terence McKenna. “Alien Love” (1983) Shared Visions Bookstore, Berkeley, CA. Available from: https://transcendentalobject.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/luv.pdf]

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