Bacchus is not merely a god associated with intoxication; rather, he represents the embodiment of the psychoactive potential found in medicinal plants, which were used both recreationally and religiously by the ancient Greeks. This thought-provoking thesis has been championed by American researcher Carl A.P. Ruck, a renowned specialist in Dionysian studies whose unconventional views clashed with the established norms of his time during the 1970s.
In 2021, Brian Muraresky’s groundbreaking book reignited interest in Ruck’s ideas, offering compelling evidence that supported the researcher’s thesis and filled in the gaps that were previously lacking. Recent archaeological findings in Ukraine and advancements in the chemical analysis of biological compounds have further bolstered the credibility of this argument, warranting a fresh defense of Ruck’s work.
The utilization of psychotropic substances in Greek religious ceremonies is well-documented in ancient texts and archaeological discoveries. Esteemed researchers such as mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson and Carl A. P. Ruck have extensively delved into the botanical origins of these substances. Their investigations have pointed to the possibility that certain plants, like ergot and psilocybe mushrooms, may have been employed in rituals within the cult of Dionysus.
When Ruck initially presented his thesis in the 1970s, the novelty of his proposition faced significant opposition, nearly jeopardizing his career. The notion that classical authors could have been influenced by mind-altering substances was swiftly dismissed by some as sensationalism or even deemed a mere “myth.” The idea of Plato, one of the great philosophers, being under the influence of a “little green fairy” was met with incredulity and rejection.
Nonetheless, with the accumulation of compelling evidence over the years, it is evident that revisiting and defending Ruck’s thesis is not only worthwhile but necessary to better understand the cultural and spiritual practices of ancient Greece. It reminds us that seeking knowledge with an open mind and embracing new perspectives can lead to profound insights into our shared human history.
The Mysteries of Eleusis
In his captivating book “The Immortality Key,” Brian Muraresku delves into the ancient Eleusis Mysteries held in the Greek city of Eleusis. Muraresku puts forth a compelling hypothesis that these enigmatic rituals involved the consumption of a mysterious psychedelic concoction called “kykeon,” which played a pivotal role in guiding participants through profound spiritual experiences.
This theory suggests that the psychoactive properties of the potion were instrumental in inducing altered states of consciousness and mystical visions during the ceremonies. Interestingly, historical accounts attribute the senator and philosopher Cicero with describing the Eleusinian Mysteries as the greatest achievement of mankind, even surpassing the renowned Athenian Democracy.
Archaeological findings have lent support to the idea of a connection between Bacchus, the god associated with revelry, and psychedelic substances. Ancient Greek pottery and artwork frequently depict scenes of joyous festivities, wherein individuals are shown partaking in various plants or potions. These visual representations imply that psychedelic substances played a significant role in Dionysian celebrations and rituals.
Muraresku’s groundbreaking contribution was to directly link traces of ergot to rituals centered around the Eleusinian mysteries. Ergot, known as Claviceps purpurea, served as the precursor substance from which LSD was later synthesized in 1938. This remarkable discovery ignited widespread interest among researchers in hallucinogenic practices across the Amazon, Mexico, and Russia, eventually paving the way for psychedelic experimentation in the 1960s.
The mysteries of Eleusis unfolded under the protection of the goddess Demeter, and her descent into the underworld symbolized an initiatory journey. According to Ruck, this symbolic “journey to the underworld” was likely induced by the consumption of ergot-contaminated barley found in the plain of Eleusis.
However, the American researcher’s theories go beyond this singular context; he suggests that the mysteries of Eleusis might have been just one among many unnamed cults. Bacchus could have played a crucial role in connecting various cultures that utilized psychedelic substances, and he might have preserved their usage through cultural memory and practices. Such revelations challenge our understanding of ancient rituals and underscore the significant impact of psychoactive substances on religious experiences throughout history.
Bacchus as a symbol of ancient medecine?
Bacchus, known as a deeply sensuous god, is often linked to the intoxicating effects of wine produced from his fertile grapes, which serves as an inspiration for music and poetry. A myriad of words characterizes Bacchus, including dance, contradiction (representing both life and death), intoxication, fire, frenzy, madness, and ecstasy.
This enigmatic cult is said to have preceded the establishment of the Dionysian theatrical festival in Athens. The followers of this mystical cult engaged in ritual displays of mourning during the god’s winter disappearance and exuberant celebrations to welcome his return in spring. These devotees of Bacchus, both men and women, were often depicted as being in a state of madness or intoxication.
Female followers, known as maenads, were particularly notable for their wild and untamed behavior as they ran, howled, and danced frenetically through the forests, consuming live animals, and adorning themselves with vines and grapes. The ingestion of live animals was believed to facilitate a union with their god, Bacchus, allowing them to “incorporate” him into their very being.
In recent times, there has been a renewed focus on these themes, fueled by advancements in archaeological chemistry and a departure from rigid adherence to Greek rationalism. Frenzy, madness, and ecstasy, recognized traits of entheogens—substances capable of profoundly altering one’s mental state—have garnered increased attention. Carl A. P. Ruck coined the term “entheogens” to dissociate hallucinogens from criminal implications and facilitate scientific exploration.
Two aspects of Bacchus indicate that ecstasy may have played a more significant role than mere intoxication, possibly even excluding alcohol altogether. One of these attributes is the thyrsos, a staff or rod, often made from pine and adorned with vine vines, leaves, and occasionally pine cones. The thyrsos is intimately linked to rituals and celebrations in honor of Bacchus, the god associated with wine, fertility, ecstasy, and festivities. Additionally, the thyrsos is closely associated with the gathering of medicinal plants, as multiple sources recount women using the thyrsos during foraging activities.
This evolving perspective on Bacchusand his cult underscores the potential influence of psychoactive substances and altered states of consciousness in ancient religious practices, opening new avenues of exploration and understanding of ancient cultures and their spiritual beliefs.
Bacchus’ second attribute, the maenads (or bachantes), hardly refers to inebriation. Insanity, depravity, extreme aggression: the symptoms indicated by the maenads are far too radical to signal the consumption of wine, which was far less potent in alcohol than today, and was moreover forbidden to women. Another problem arises when we note that the maenads went into the forest, far from wine and vines, and armed only with their thyrsos.
The true origines of Bacchus
Although he lives on Mount Olympus, he’s not really an Olympian (he’s the only god whose mother is mortal). Researchers often trace his origins to Thrace, based on descriptions by Greek poets. On the other hand, other researchers trace a direct link between Bacchus and ancient archetypes from the Eurasian steppe or even India. Greek mythology has him appearing as a child on the mythical Mount Nysa, where he is under the protection of Seilenos and the nymphs. However, it’s not clear exactly where Nysa is located: sometimes in Libya, sometimes in Thrace, sometimes in Ethiopia.
Ancient and modern evidence suggests that the origins of the cult of Bacchus can be traced to the Lower Dniester region. In 1980, a Russian archaeologist named Evgenii Yarovoi discovered the possible burial site of an ancient priest-king, Thyrsus, depicted as a bull-horned god. Herodotus identified him as Agathyrsus, the ancestor of the legendary Agathyrsi. The archaeological remains of Usatovo indicate a pastoral population with abundant wild grapevines. Animal skins were so abundant, thanks to hunting as the main activity, that they were exported, including as containers for wine.
Russian researcher Vadim Tsymbursky calls him “the God between heaven and earth”, based on the interpretation of Old Greek proper names. Relying largely on semantics, Tsymbursky finds Bacchus in the Lower Dniester, in western Ukraine. In particular, he relies on the phonetic proximity of the Thyrsus, a large gathering stick attributed to the adpetes of Bacchus, and the river in question (the Tyras/ ό Τύρας). During the Neolithic period, the mouth of the Dniestre was the site of one of the world’s most advanced civilizations and part of the Thracian world, from which Bacchus traditionally originated.
Researcher John M. Allegro proposes an even more mind-boggling theory. A specialist in the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient languages, Allegro conducted a comparative study of Middle Eastern languages and New Testament vocabulary. He concluded that several passages in the Bible may have been hidden formulas to preserve an ancient legacy of consumption of Amanita muscaria, perhaps the most emblematic of entheogenic mushrooms. His book, “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross”, ruined his career, banished from classical circles on the charge of vastly exaggerating the causal links between linguistic borrowings and transfers of meaning. Nevertheless, his reading of Bacchus is worth remembering.
According to Allegro, the name Bacchus (the original name of Bacchus), or Bak-khos, is an abbreviation of the Sumerian Balag-Ush, meaning “erect penis”. This terminology would have been frequently used among Semitic peoples to secretly refer to hallucinogenic mushrooms believed to have been sown by the gods.
If the idea that Christianity is founded on the protection of a hallucinogenic cult seems completely preposterous, even offensive, it’s worth recalling the more than anecdotal similarities between the resurrected Bacchus and the figure of Christ. Bacchus is also the God of fertility, represented by the vine that dies and is reborn each year, thus accomplishing the “miracle” of regeneration. Whoever drinks the wine of Bacchus becomes the eponymous god, similar to wine as a symbol of the blood of Christ. However, the transcendence associated with a divine beverage was also a defining feature of early civilizations. In Vedic India, the Rig Veda sings the praises of “soma”, which gives access to divinity.
A mythological episode presents the perfect analogy of a hallucination. As Bacchus travels through the islands of the Aegean Sea, he is captured by a band of Tyrrhenian pirates who wish to sell him into slavery. He then infests their ship with ghosts of creeping vines and wild beasts, and in terror, the men jump overboard and are transformed into dolphins. Animal metamorphosis has been closely associated in recent decades by anthropologists and ethnobotanists. One of the most striking examples is the testimony, in the Middle Ages, of men who felt they had become werewolves after consuming henbane, a poisonous and hallucinogenic plant.
The Greeks were familiar with many plants capable of inducing such terrors, notably belladonna. In the Odyssey, when Ulysses wants to free himself from the witch Circe, Apollo gives him a drink that will protect him from his own wine, suspected of being bewitched. The same hero will give undiluted wine to a Cyclops to put him to sleep and escape from his cave. The list of possessions or alterations during mythological events is strangely long.
Why was Bacchus above all a symbol of ecstasy? Because wine, described as a medicine, was almost never just an intoxicant. Carl Ruck offers the following explanation:
“the virulence of the drink far exceeded its alcohol content, but derived from the various fortifying toxins added to it.” “hemlock, jimsonweed, aconite, cannabis, wormwood, ergot, and probably, imethyltryptamine (DMT) from acacia and similar plants, as well as psychoactive resins and incense.”
Carl A.P. Ruck