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

Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden

I’ve long been fascinated by this picture, statue, or representation of “Death and the Maiden” as it relates to Freemasonry. I first saw the picture when I became a Freemason, in one of the many books that I was able to pour through. Masonic art in general has fascinated me because it is, generally, not only beautiful but also weird; it was weird in a way that made you ask “why does that bird sit on the oddly-shaped stone” or “why is that man holding the woman’s hair while carrying a scythe?” It spoke to me, begging me to figure out what it was trying to tell me. Still, today, I can sit for hours and look at paintings, engravings, and statues and wonder what their creators meant to impart.

Death and the Maiden isn’t a new concept. Artists as far back as Duerer, Baldung, and Beham in the Middle Ages were showing that “all human beauty is ended in death (Beham.)” Shubert and Dorothea Tanning created at least two pieces of their art around the concept of Death and The Maiden. Yet, the pictures attributed to the Freemason’s ideas of Death and the Maiden seem to be very specific and rich in symbolism.

The Freemason’s “Death and the Maiden” seems to be attributed to a 19th Century Freemason named Jeremy Cross. A student of Webb and follower of Preston, he taught and lectured on Freemasonry extensively at the beginning of the 19th Century. General knowledge about him seems to be all we can find, according to Phoenix Masonry scholars and articles, but it seems the idea of the entire composition is attributed to his genius.

The composition has been recreated by others, but the basic design is as you see it above. Some have the maiden holding specific tools with an evergreen and others have her holding a piece of Acacia and an urn. The latter is a modern invention as cremation is a relatively modern invention. However, for my purposes for this post, we will still talk about it. It’s important to reflect on how symbols may change but meaning remains the same – and in this case, the emphasis is to see death on one hand, and everlasting life on the other.

Ostensibly, the winged figure behind the Maiden is Death. Shown as an old man, long-bearded, with wings and a scythe, he seems to be, as one author put it, removing the tangles from her hair. When one looks at this picture, it appears that he is about to cut her hair; taking a purely Judaeo-Christian point of view, from the inventor, the inference is that this is about the moment before death, before life is cut short. Tearing of hair and cutting hair were signs of grief and distress to the Israelites, and even implied the whole destruction of a people. Women’s hair was grown long to distinguish them from men but hair overall was a sign of health, virility, and life. That Death’s scythe is not raised implies that death of the physical world is not imminent but it is on the horizon. Death prepares the youth for what may come at any time, as implied by the hourglass sitting beside the figures. As one is born and grows, Death is always behind them, preparing.

The broken column seems to be the main figure of the composition, and implies that it is a symbol of the Freemason who is viewing the piece. Why not “every man?” Because columns are, symbolically, the individual Freemason. Freemasons are columns to uphold that “temple not made with hands.” Freemasons are there to hold up the ideals for others to emulate and must be strong and sturdy enough to do so. As we age, we start to crumble, become weak, and eventually our “bent backs” signify the end of our contributions to Humanity. Again, the broken column sitting beside its foundation shows that while Death is not ready to strike, we must prepare for it by the time our moment draws near. Hence, what appears to be a book of sacred knowledge, of whatever kind speaks to us, sits beneath the Maiden’s hands. She is studying intently, in quiet contemplation and thoughtfulness. She is not distraught or upset. Both figures are somber and still and accepting.

Then what is the Maiden? The Maiden seems to represent the essence of Life, the Will, Wisdom, and Beauty that we all can tap into to do whatever work calls us. This work is not fixing plumbing or diagnosing code or mopping floors; this work is the Work that is remembered when our time is done, in the Service of Humanity. Someone may remember that we always cleaned up the dishes or swept floors, and in that memory they see the love and dedication we had to a principle. That principle might be as material as “cleanliness” or it might be more virtuous, such as loyalty or dedication, sacrifice and service. The floor will get dirty again but the memory of the work we put into keeping it clean is what we bring to the world. The memory of Service to Humanity. The Maiden represents the potential we all bring with us at birth.

The most interesting of the symbols is the acacia plant. There are many, many theories regarding the use of Acacia as regards Freemasonry. I choose to take a more practical approach, beyond the poor or convoluted translations of the word and speculation as to Acaciaits use as a sacred symbol to the mystery school of Freemasonry. It is, generally, a low shrub or tree that grows in all parts of the world but appears to have originated in Africa and the Middle East. It is evergreen with watering, and is still cultivated mainly in the Middle East, Africa, and Australia for its gum. Besides being an evergreen plant and symbolizing ever lasting life, its qualities as a gum make it far more interesting in relation to Freemasonry.

Since ancient times, the gum or sap of the tree has been used as a fixative. Powdered, the sap is a powerful glue that can be ingested by humans. It is used to combine, fix together, and generally adhere human consumables; this includes things like beverages, soaps, and icings and sweets. It is also used to combine and emulsify paints, slips for ceramics, printing inks, and photography. Thus, it is used to bring together individual components into a sooth solution, able to create works of art as well as feed the human body. Weird as that may be, these attributes show it is directly related to our Work as Freemasons – to bring together, to combine into a well-oiled “machine” to nourish the body, mind, and emotions of the Human Being.

Lastly, there is the myth of Osiris’ death at the hands of his brother, Typhon, and his body being placed into a coffin, and the coffin being thrown into a river. Presumably, Osiris dies and the coffin is captured by low hanging Acacia plants by the river. Over time, the Acacia tree is cut down to create a column for a new temple, and in the cutting of the column, the body of Osiris is found by Isis and she uses her wings to breathe new life into her fallen husband. Many myths of Osiris’ death and resurrection are found, in parts or in whole, throughout literature and this is only one of those (Plutarch). What I find this particular myth explaining to me is that the physical form can be had once again, if the aspirant is understanding the nature of everlasting life and perhaps of the lessons that nature and Freemasonry have to teach us. In this, the column and the acacia seem to go hand in hand.

Thus, in one hand we have the energy of our lives holding onto the evergreen which brings us all together, and the ultimate symbol of our physical passing – the urn. In ancient cultures where the belief in the physical body’s transference to the Underworld was prevalent burning of bodies was not performed, namely China and Egypt. In general, however, bodies were burned using many methods, and the remains were sometimes kept in a funerary urn. Additionally, the remains of skeletons and internal body organs were also kept in urns as a sign of respect and reverence. The practice of cremation became even more prevalent in Western cultures after the creation of the first cremation chamber in 1873. For some, the urn is one of those symbols that is still a little vague as regards a deeper meaning. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe it is simply the reminder of our physical passing, and the fact that we keep the ash-filled urns of our loved ones near us is a constant reminder of the transient nature of this mortal life.

Death and the Maiden is better for its whole than its individual parts. It is a story of humans who strive for better, only to be still chained and linked to the eventual death we all face. That the Maiden is not facing her Death but still working to better the world is hope to me. It is the hope we all bear that in our work as Builders and Creators, we have left Humanity a little better for our having been part of it. We leave behind our passions, our principles, and our virtues to be passed on to further generations of humans. Our ripples effect the ocean of Mankind. While I live, I can carry on the Work of those who have passed before me, and I hope I leave a good enough legacy that others may find their burdens lighter.


For Joy Cornell, who will always remind me to be Authentic, Passionate, Joyous, Lively, and Loyal to home and hearth. Thank you for your Light. And May Light Perpetual shine upon you, my dearest brother and friend.

A Little Light Reading: The Arts and Freemasonry

A Little Light Reading: The Arts and Freemasonry

I have been asked often: “what are good books for people who are interested in Freemasonry?” Personally, I feel that any reading is good reading: it strengthens the mind, opens you up to diverse ideas, enhances your vocabulary, and makes you a far more interesting person for conversation. Regardless, there are a myriad of paths the aspirant’s reading may take, and still find they add substance and interest to the philosophies that make up your life. Nearly every genre has something to add, and I’ve personally found Masonic meaning in many non-“serious” readings. Masonry is everywhere, and for the ardent Freemason, it can be found in movies, science fiction writings, and even children’s books.

For those interested in Freemasonry, titles at The Masonic Publishing Company are robust places to start the journey. I’d highly recommend The Brother of the Third image-masonic-publishing-companyDegree, the Kybalion, and The Law. For those interested in Co-Masonry in general, On Holy Ground is a particularly engaging book on one organization’s foundation and history within the United States. There are really two aspects of reading in Freemasonry – about Freemasonry and about symbolismIf you’re interested in the symbolic nature of Freemasonry, The Secret Teaching of All Ages, by Manly P. Hall, is a fascinating romp through all kinds of studies and is a good foundation into alternative ways of looking at life, the universe, and everything.

Most late 19th century and early 20th century Masonic authors, like Leadbeater, J.F. Newton, Powell, and Wilmshurst, are also very good authors to explore some of the specifics of Freemasonry, without giving anything away. That is my caveat with anyone interested in becoming a Freemason: don’t read ahead. In fact, don’t read any ritual or about any degree you don’t have. Sure, you can find anything on the Internet; Freemasonry, however, is an experiential process and to truly find it work in yourself, it’s really a good idea to go in without expectations or knowledge. You might find you get in your own way. Books like The Science of the Sacraments, by Leadbeater, give one an idea of ritual work without speaking strictly to Freemasonic ritual.  The Golden Bough and The Magic of Freemasonry provide deeper insight into ritual and its importance in human life. Georges_de_La_Tour_-_Magdalen_of_Night_Light_-_WGA12337

As a Freemason, I see Freemasonry everywhere and find the concepts housed within almost every genre – fine arts (drama, oil paintings, etc.), science fiction, philosophy, fantasy writings, and many movies. Walking through an art museum, one may find the aspect of a ritual here, or a teaching there. Many Renaissance and Baroque painters styled their subjects in familiar Masonic situations. In writing, I find Freemasonry in Asimov, Le Guin,  Pullman, L’Engle, and Zelazny, as well as in various philosophies like Pythagoras, Plutarch, and Seneca. Reading autobiographies of people like the Founding Fathers (United States), provides some clarity in the type of “enlightened mind” that feeds a Freemasonic soul.

Movies are always fascinating to watch through a Masonic lens. Movies such as “The Adjustment Bureau,” “Inception,” The-Matrix“The Matrix,” and “I, Robot” capture the challenging questions of reality and what is the perfection of humanity.  In music, one can explore Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Holst’s “The Planets” to find how music can be influenced by a Masonic mind. Any artistic medium that addresses the larger questions of life, why are we here, and how can we find meaning, speak to the Freemason who is seeking to add more to their Masonic work.

Beware of those authors who sensationalize Freemasonry. If it sounds too good to be true, it generally is. That is equally true of Freemasonry writings founded in speculation and falsehoods. There is much speculation without much fact, and while Freemasons are speculative, they are also rooted in truth, nature, and science.

That said, the arts are wonderful places to explore the concepts contained within Freemasonry and help broaden the minds of those seeking more of life. The secrets of Freemasonry are all around us and we have only to open our senses to find the way.