Soma and the Holy Grail: What Role Have Psychedelics Played in the Mysteries?

Soma and the Holy Grail: What Role Have Psychedelics Played in the Mysteries?

In the past two decades, the world has seen a renaissance in research on psychedelics, after being completely banned for the previous twenty-five years. Continuing the research that was done in the 1950s and 60s, scientists are further validating that the use of psychedelics in a therapeutic context has a high success rate for treatment of various mental disorders, ranging from addiction to depression and social anxiety. The research seems to indicate that it’s possible to treat, or in some cases perhaps cure, long-term mental disorders with only a short series of psychedelic-assisted therapeutic sessions. 

Psychedelics are arguably much more fascinating than any other class of psychopharmacologicals, in that the action which produces the healing effects is not simply an alteration of mood, but rather the creation of a radically altered, non-ordinary state of consciousness, leading to an acceleration and exacerbation of dormant or subconscious mental processes, which the patient can then face and deal with, to ultimately resolve the underlying psychological issue. It also includes, in some cases, the manifestation of the classical mystical experience, which has a healing power all it’s own. This last case is perhaps the most interesting as it relates to freemasonry, hermeticism, alchemy, and gnosticism, and the ancient mysteries to which we trace our origins.

Among the stories and legends of the esoteric mystery traditions are various clues and indications that psychedelics have played a role. So, how great a role have these magical substances played in the origins of Freemasonry and related occult sciences? 

Ancient Psychedelic Use: Shamans to Kykeon

stoned ape theory psychedelicsIf current indigenous peoples are any indication, we can be fairly certain that humans have been utilizing psychedelics perhaps since we became human. The Stoned Ape Theory, though considered radical by many evolutionary theorists, posits that psychedelic consumption may even have been a primary contributing factor to our development of language, culture, abstract thought, and everything that we typically regard as uniquely human.

Regardless of whether psychedelics were critical for our evolution to homo sapiens, there is no question that psychedelics have played a critical role in human life, particularly as it relates to the religious, or sublime. Shamans have been using these compounds for various purposes ranging from healing to divination, initiation, and ritual communion with spirits presumably from the time humans first gathered in tribes. This pattern extends even to this day, including the Ayahuasceros of the Amazon rainforest, the far Northern Sami using amanita muscaria mushrooms, the indigenous people of Central America’s consumption of psilocybin mushrooms, and in the depths of Africa where Iboga and other plant medicines are still used for healing and initiation rites. These are simply some of those ancient traditions which have survived to modern times, but we can reasonably infer that untold numbers of other cultures, now wiped out by colonialism and religious persecution, have utilized psychedelics for spiritual and other purposes from time immemorial. 

psychedelic somaAmong the history of what we refer to as civilization, we have evidence that the shamanic thread continued and evolved as a component of some earlier human societies. Perhaps the oldest example is that of Soma, a mysterious drink consumed by the Brahmins of India, who are the highest priestly caste in traditional Indian culture. Soma was also used by Zoroastrians of ancient Mesopotamia, meaning it extended beyond the boundaries of modern India. Some of the most ancient texts of the Vedic religions speak at length about Soma and its effects, which included mystical experiences, feelings of bliss, lightness of being, inspiration, and visionary states. Although there is no consensus or absolute proof of exactly what the ingredients for Soma were, the descriptions of its effects certainly fit the bill of a psychedelic. This doubtlessly influenced the philosophies and traditions of India, which ultimately have impacted the Western mystery traditions to some extent.

eleusinian mysteries kykeon
Another famous ancient psychedelic brew a bit closer to home for the Western mysteries is
Kykeon. Kykeon was a visionary drink which was imbibed at the ancient rites of Eleusis, commonly known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. The most popular theory on its ingredients is that it was made from barley infested with the fungus ergot, which contained alkaloids similar to LSD. No one knows with absolute certainty what happened in these rites, but they involved the participant going into an underground cavern or structure to drink the Kykeon and undergo a death and rebirth, an experience which was said to free the participant from fear of mortality. These psychedelic rites were undergone by great philosophers and influential figures including but not limited to Plato, Plutarch, Cicero, Aristotle, many playwrights, and the highest hierophants and priests of the day. Plutarch wrote:

“Because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries…we hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal…when a man dies he is like those who are initiated into the mysteries. Our whole life is a journey by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of quitting it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances and holy apparitions.”

These are some of the most famous examples of psychedelic use in ancient civilizations, and it seems to me that there are clearly symbolic correlations to the Eleusinian Mysteries in modern masonic ritual, at least in general theme of death and rebirth. 

Psychedelic Traces Left by Egyptians and Hebrews?

Perhaps most significant to freemasonry, alchemy, and hermeticism are the clues of possible ritual psychedelic use in ancient Egyptian, and even Hebrew cultures. However, these cultures’ psychedelic traditions are also the least popularly explored, or supported by evidence. While there is some speculation about the Egyptians’ use of blue lotus, which does have psychoactive properties, this particular plant is not known to be psychedelic at any dosage. Rather, it has a more mild, sedative effect. What is far more interesting is the possibility, though only supported by scant clues, of the Egyptian and perhaps Hebrew ritual use of acacia.

Egyptian acaciaAcacia’s significance is attested to throughout ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writings, where some even believe that it is equivalent to the Ished Tree, or the Tree of Life. Historians believe that Egyptians used acacia for a wide variety of medicinal applications, including the treatment of wounds, eye problems, and skin disease. Mythologically, the first Gods of Egypt were born beneath, or emerged from the acacia. In one version of the death of the God Osiris, he was buried in a coffin of acacia, out of which a new acacia tree sprouted, and Horus emerged. This is commonly regarded as one of the possible origins of the story of Hiram Abiff.

It just so happens that this plant so revered both medicinally and mythologically by the Egyptians also contains large quantities of the single most potent psychedelic known to man, n, n-dimethyltryptamine, more commonly known as DMT. This has been referred to by some as The Spirit Molecule, and is also thought to possibly be produced naturally in the pineal gland of the brain, which was also theorized by Descartes to be the “Seat of the Soul.” 

moses burning bush acaciaIn the Hebrew tradition, acacia is likewise regarded as sacred, and one controversial Israeli scholar even thinks that Moses may have had a psychedelic experience, possibly arrived at through the use of acacia, when he saw the burning bush on Mount Horeb. The acacia would likely have been combined with other plants which are also native to the region, which would add MAOIs to render the DMT orally active. If true, this would be a middle-Eastern analog to the ayahuasca of the Amazonian rainforest shamans, using different plants which are native to the Middle East, but with the same active components. 

There also seems to be some evidence that the use of psychoactive ritual incense of various sorts was a very common method of communing with God or various supernatural beings, which the Hebrews (among other ancient peoples) brought with them from Egypt as they wandered the desert. This tradition was possibly even revived temporarily by King Solomon, according to a speculative interpretation of certain biblical passages about the dedication of Solomon’s temple. If true, presumably the sacred acacia might be among the plants used as this sacred incense for divine communion, given it’s highly psychedelic contents. 

While the theory of Egyptian and Hebrew use of acacia for its psychedelic properties is not heavily supported by concrete evidence, the more well-established fact that both cultures regarded the plant as extremely sacred and medicinally useful should lead us to at least ask the question: Was their reverence for the sacred acacia purely because of its medicinal and perhaps symbolic significance? Or did it also represent for them a gateway to other realms, in which they could die and be reborn, or connect with supernatural intelligences?

A Psychedelic Thread Through History

Because of the prevalence of the use of psychedelics in rites and rituals in various civilizations throughout ancient history, we must ask ourselves: Did they simply stop, and their use in civilization die out until their rediscovery by Albert Hoffman, Gordon Wasson, and others in the mid-20th century? This seems like a strange idea, and if true, requires some explanation. Certainly, from a historical perspective, the spread of the Abrahamic faiths correlated to a decline, or more accurately, a persecution and religious cleansing of all psychedelic rites and rituals, particularly in Europe. This was certainly the reason for the fall of The Eleusinian Mysteries, and all similar “pagan” rites in general, whether involving psychedelics or not.

phoenix of the mysteriesAt least by outward appearances, the ancient mystery traditions seem to have been crushed beneath the heel of dogmatic empires, and to have disappeared from mainstream knowledge. Yet, you and I both know that they did not disappear, they merely went into hiding during the millennia of Abrahamic regimes. 

Could the same be true of the ritual and sacramental use of psychedelics? Have traditions such as alchemy and hermeticism kept the use of some types of psychedelic compounds alive secretly, or are their practices the symbolic echoes of ancient psychedelic rites? Certainly, figures such as the controversial hermeticist Aleister Crowley employed drugs of various kinds in ritual and magical use, but there is no known use of substances like this, or even much discussion of it, in organizations like Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, or Freemasonry. 

In lieu of any direct evidence of the ritual use of psychedelics in the more widespread modern mystery traditions, I present to you an alternative hypothesis: Could it be that these traditions hand down to us ritual structures which were originally based on psychedelic use, and that these ritual structures so painstakingly preserved through the millennia are like a holy grail, a container into which the sacred waters of psychedelic experience are waiting to be poured?

Certainly, based on what we know about psychedelics through both modern science, ancient shamanism, and the explorations of modern psychonauts, the ritual experiences of death and rebirth so emphasized in these traditions would almost certainly be given an exponential increase in potency, if undergone in a psychedelic state. On the other hand, the legal and ethical ramifications of doing so right now would be extremely prohibitive; however, perhaps someday in the future, when the therapeutic and religious ritual consumption of psychedelics is more widely accepted, as it is no doubt destined to be by the march of progress, this could be a possibility. 

 I’ll leave you with this passage from P. D. Newman, a Brother of the Scottish Rite:

The principle goal of Alchemy was (and is) the production of the lapis philosophorum. The Alchemical axiom states that the coveted stone is made “not of stone, not of bone, not of metal.” That is to say, it comes not from the mineral kingdom and not from the animal kingdom. It must, therefore, be deduced that the true stone of the philosophers is to be found only within the vegetable kingdom… the production… [was said to be derived] from the mysterious prima materia, or first matter… Truly, acacia is referred to precisely as the prima materia by both Cagliostro and Melissino in the respective Alchemico-Masonic rites authored by them. The same is true of the Fratres Lucis

“The search for physical immortality proceeds from a misunderstanding of the traditional teaching. On the contrary, the basic problem is: to enlarge the pupil of the eye, so that the body with its attendant personality will no longer obstruct the view. Immortality is then experienced as a present fact.” …The Alchemists purport that the stone of the wise has the power to give its possessor the knowledge of his very immortal soul. Hence, it’s also being called the stone of projection. For, the soul of its possessor is the very thing that appears to be projected upon the stone’s proper application.

acacia freemasonry

The Virtue of Industry

The Virtue of Industry

In the modern era, we hear the word “industry” and tend to think of large brick buildings, chimneys billowing smoke, workers trudging in through large iron gates to manipulate gears and cogs to produce… something. We might think more progressively of large steel buildings of assembly lines of safety-goggle-bedecked workers, busily whirring a drill gun or acetylene torch as some piece of car-part moves slowly towards its birth. We have to thank the industrial revolution for the transformation of industry from something denoted a type of work to something that denoted a much larger vision of work itself. 

The term “industry” was first noted in the Middle Ages in France, coming from the Latin industria, which means “diligence, purpose.”  Mackey noted in his Masonic Dictionary, that the “Medieval Freemasons thought much about and had a wide knowledge of the forms of work. There are some fifty-two of these.” Mackey goes on to reflect that Industry is different from industry, in that industry is just one of the forms of work, “it being the most dramatic, but not the most important.” He provides examples of other forms of work, such as the worker who collects all the important bits and puts them together to produce a “thing,” or the assembly line type of producing goods. Industry, with the lowercase “i” is, to quote Mackey again, “industry was the employment of a very large number of men, tens of thousands in many20-Aerial-view-of-Industrial-Roubaix-ca-1900-650x551 instances, on one undertaking at one place and at the same time, and they might or might not use machinery.” In other words, a factory is industry but building a skyscraper is also “industry.”

Industry with the capital “I” is more in keeping with the idea of “diligence” and “purpose.” Much as there is a difference between a virtue and Virtue, there appears to be a difference between industry and Industry. It’s funny that sociologically, we classify societies as either “pre-industrial” or post-industrial. Whenever a place has an “industrial revolution,” which usually indicates the influx of machinery to replace human work of hands, we call that an “industrial society.” This may not be incorrect; yet, it smacks of some kind of idyllic life, lazily milking cows, getting up with the sun and sleeping at sunset. It seems to reflect a more pastoral, almost aristocratic sort of life prior to the onslaught of manufacturing as a way of life. A pre-industrial life was generally agrarian and had limited production, with artisans crafting limited items over longer periods of time. In general, communications took place within smaller communities, and villages were far more common than today’s large city and urban living. One might automatically assume a feudal society, with a Lord providing shelter and protection to his subjects, and his subjects providing him the substance to live. While this is true for a good deal of the European Middle Ages, that is only a small part of human history. Even after the advent of the creation of “cities” 10,000 years ago, humans have, for the most part centered around their small community, generally never being bothered by outside events.

To think that this way of life did not have industry is backward; however, it appears that they had was far more Industry than post-Industrial Revolution humankind. There is a certain value in working hard and achieving success into which we put physical labor. Horace said “life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.”  We often speak that platitude to our children or co-workers without really understanding that hard work is more than just “working a lot.” Thoreau “wished to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well.” While Thoreau might have been hinting at more of the “purpose” side of Industry, Horace is leaning more toward diligence. They both have one thing in common: the influence of Industry on the human psyche and perhaps, soul. [As a weird aside: an interesting definition of courage is “learned industriousness.”]

One of the most interesting, and perhaps hard to grasp, ideas that we should understand is that the concept of “work” is a fairly modern Western invention. Most cultural and social anthropologists today note that modern people tend to see work as something that obtains value, or has a “yardstick” attached to it, as Erik Schwimmer notes. However, ancient Greek and Roman authors, such as Cicero (Officiis), Xenophon (Cyropaedia), and Horace (Odes),  looked at work in more moral and political terms; anyone who would be part of an “industry” for a salary or specie was little more than a slave and not ever worthy of  citizenship status. However, if you worked on your own farm or in your own workshop, and brought those goods to the benefit of the community, were seen as an industrious person, a hard worker, and one whose work should be praised. Traders who brought far off goods to the community, and traded them for the communities goods were praised as industrious and good. While the origin of wealth via industriousness was important, it was where that wealth was applied that made all the difference. Community was everything, as was the freedom of depending on others to provide for family. From the time of Ancient Greece to Medieval Europe, very little had changed, save for the advent of larger cities. Still, the agrarian “industriousness” held true.

While working for the wealth of the community and not having to depend on others for your livelihood might seem at odds, they are not. Interestingly, the Freemasons utilized the symbol of the beehive for just such a concept, and Lodges work mainly in the same format. An interesting article on the Beehive in Freemasonry, reprinted from a Masonic research society (AQC, 1923) is located here, on the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon’s website.  While the concept industry and the beehive (and their associated bees) may seem to some a Christian or Mormon symbol, its use denoting “Industry” appears to date back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Like a beehive, a Freemasonic Lodge is a community of people who have gathered and work for common purpose: to continue to provide an opportunity for others to enjoy Freemasonic teachings. Through diligence, purpose, and Industry, the group prospers. The wealth of the Lodge, the knowledge and learning of working together – is the honey of the beehive. This honey is shared in the community; thus, by diligence and purpose is individual, and his connections, nourished. Another aspect of this beehive concept is that while the individual may gain “wealth” from his Freemasonic work, it is not the reason that the group works together. In other words, the question is not what the Lodge and Freemasonry will do for you – it is what do you, the diligent and purposeful worker, bring to Freemasonry? The bees do their work, reflective of their offices and attention to the quality of the work, and the whole is rewarded. This is not an easy concept for our modern minds, which have been trained to that work is “trading time for money” or “talent for money.” Work is drudgery and work is mundane. Perhaps what we modern humans should focus on is the idea of Industry, not of industry. Perhaps our ancestors were not so off base when it came to the virtue of Industry.


For the reference on Erik Schwimmer, please go to this link: http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu/ehrafe/citation.do?method=citation&forward=browseAuthorsFullContext&id=oj23-027 . Referenced 4/2/2017 

Further interesting information about workers in the ancient world can be found in the article, “Workers of the Ancient World: Analysing Labor in Classical Antiquity,” by Arjan Zuiderhoek, found in Volume 1 Number 3 2013 of the WorkersOfTheWorld international journal. This can be referenced on Academia.edu.