clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The psychedelic roots of Christianity

New evidence suggests a connection that can help us understand the emergence of Western religion.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Gothic stained glass altarpiece by Veit Stoss at St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, Poland.
The Altarpiece by Veit Stoss in St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, Poland, is one of the largest and most beautiful Gothic altarpieces in Europe.
Vito Corleone/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

We’re in the middle of a psychedelic renaissance.

Mainstream books like Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind (2018) and a wave of promising research on the therapeutic potential of psychedelics have produced a ton of interest in a class of drugs once considered taboo.

But a new book, The Immortality Key, has opened up a fascinating discussion about the historical role of psychedelics in the Western world, going all the way back to ancient Greece. The best way I can describe it is to say it’s an old-fashioned detective story, like The Da Vinci Code, only it doesn’t suck and it’s about the little-known history of psychedelics and Christianity’s rise in the Greek world 2,000 years ago.

The author is Brian Muraresku, a lawyer and classicist, who spent about 12 years exploring how the ritualized use of psychedelics in Greece spilled into early Christianity. While Muraresku doesn’t argue that Christianity was founded on psychedelics, he does suggest that they played a role — one largely unknown up to this point. The nature of that role is hard to pin down because the evidence is so scant and we’re just beginning to piece it all together, but there are good reasons to think that psychedelics were a central feature of early Christian sacraments.

I wanted to talk to Muraresku, not just about the influence of psychedelics on Christianity but also about how different the religion might look today if some of the mystical sects that used psychedelics had become the defining voices in the church. It’s a question worth asking, Muraresku says, because if psychedelics played such an important role in the religious lives of early Christians and Greeks, it’s possible they could be part of something like a religious revival today.

You can hear our entire conversation in the week’s episode of Vox Conversations. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

Was Christianity founded on a psychedelic sacrament?

Brian Muraresku

That’s the million-dollar question I spent 12 years of my life trying to find out. There’s some very compelling evidence for the use of ritual psychedelics in antiquity. I mean, I spent all these years trying to tease out the hard scientific data for the use of that sacrament. And what I think that we have at the moment are some very compelling clues.

Sean Illing

Okay, let’s step back and work our way to early Christianity. Tell me about the Temple of Eleusis and the use of psychedelics in ancient Greece, which is the culture in which Christianity emerged.

Brian Muraresku

I refer to the Temple of Eleusis as the spiritual capital of the ancient world. It exists from about 1500 BC to the fourth century AD. It calls to the best and brightest of both Athens and Rome for close to 2,000 years. And I sometimes say it’s like the real religion of the ancient Greeks.

They had this temple dedicated to a goddess and her daughter, Demeter and Persephone. And they would make this long pilgrimage from Athens, 13 miles northwest, up to Eleusis, and they would drink this magic potion called the Kykeon. And what little testimony survived, because this was all secret, speaks about this epiphanic, beatific vision that these initiates witnessed in this altered state, that somehow turned them into immortals. So you went there as a human being, and you walked away convinced of your immortality.

The testimony that did survive universally speaks of a vision. And so it raises the question, what kind of vision was this? Was this some spectacle, some theatrical performance? Or was there something in that magic potion the Kykeon that produced this vision or some combination of all of the above?

And so in 1978, this relatively controversial theory claimed that this magic potion was some primitive beer that was spiked with ergot. Ergot is the natural fungus from which Albert Hoffman himself was able to synthesize LSD all the way back in the 1930s.

Ergot grows on grains, and if our relationship with grains and barley and wheat and rye goes back at least 12,000 or 13,000 years, it stands to reason that some of that naturally infected grain could have made its way into a very intentional potion, to create these visions. But there was no hard scientific data to really prove that one way or the other for decades and decades.

Sean Illing

How significant was Eleusis to Greek culture?

Brian Muraresku

There was the sensibility that whatever was found in Eleusis was the key, was the glue, that held ancient Greece together. And not just Greek civilization, but human civilization more broadly.

So there was a belief that whatever was encountered there was a kind of salve for humanity, something that kept the species in check, kept us in balance with nature. And I know that all sounds crazy, and I don’t think we can say that democracy or the arts and science were birthed at Eleusis, but it was clearly a cipher for the irrational and the Greeks held it in great esteem. Whether it was through these visionary cults, or through these contemplative meditative exercises, there was the sensibility that life was far more mysterious than it seems at first blush.

Sean Illing

How all this bleeds into the origins of Christianity is fascinating. What was the most compelling evidence you found of the use of psychedelics in these early Christian sacraments?

Brian Muraresku

The first half of my book really hangs on what I consider a pretty spectacular find, and it just largely went ignored for 20 years. I was looking for evidence to support that controversial theory from 1978 that the Greeks were drinking some LSD-like beer, for lack of a better phrase. And so I went digging into these archaeo-botanical journals looking for any scrap of evidence for exactly that, and wound up finding it.

It turns out there was this Greek colony in what today we call Spain, and it was a sanctuary in the middle of nowhere where these mystery rites were taking place. In the sanctuary they found lots of remnants of the mysteries, like terracotta heads that seemed to have belonged to Demeter or Persephone, and a very Greek altar that came from mainland Greece. But they also found these little ceremonial vessels, these tiny chalices that look like a Holy Grail.

Researchers took these little chalices and tested them under optical microscopy and turned up the evidence for an ancient beer that was spiked with ergot. I mean, it fits precisely this crazy theory from 1978. And the only reason no one’s really heard of it is because this find was published in Catalan, the language of the archeologist, who has been on-site there since 1990, and she’s still there today.

I went out of my way to find something similar that could fit within Christianity, and lo and behold, also from 20 years ago, outside Pompeii, there was this ancient pharmacy that was unearthed. Inside the wine jars that were found there was a really unique witchy wine that was mixed with what seems to be opium, cannabis, and henbane, which is one of these very hallucinogenic Solanaceous plants. And in there also were the bones of lizards.

So there’s a potion straight out of Macbeth just sitting there in Pompeii, dated to 79 AD, exactly when the first generations of Christians would have been showing up south of Rome, to celebrate the earliest versions of the mass. It doesn’t tie this psychedelic tradition to Christianity specifically, but I think it’s proof of concept that the more testing we do, and the more excavations we do, we’re likely to find more organic evidence tying these traditions to the earlier Christians.

Sean Illing

There is evidence that the Church was aware of these mystical sects and actively suppressed them. What were they afraid of?

Brian Muraresku

I think it’s the same reason why Gnosticism itself disappeared. Gnosticism was a heretical version of Christianity that also disappears at around the same time in the fourth century AD when the Temple of Eleusis was destroyed. There are basically two ways to look at that.

One is that the Church was frightened of the idea of people being able to mediate or curate their experience with the divine in a way that obviated the structure of the Church. If you can go and find God in a glass of wine, what do you need the priest and the bishop for?

The other thing is that none of this stuff was really written down. We’re talking about consciously curated oral traditions and they’re bound to disappear unless there’s a strong structure or bureaucracy supporting them.

Sean Illing

If the mystics became the defining voices of the faith, how different might Christianity look today?

Brian Muraresku

It would look different and I’m not sure it would have survived the way it did. I’m not sure a female-led, mystical Christianity would have inflamed the imagination of the planet and would have come to colonize so much of the world the way the patriarchal church did — which fought so hard to spread the gospel to the Americas and to Africa and Asia, often at the expense of Indigenous people who were caught in the crossfire.

And if you think about it, a mystical Christianity is just going to be very different. If you’re the person who’s attracted to psychedelics, to this esoteric lore and literature, you may not find yourself participating in the Sunday Eucharist every week. You’re the person who might be attracted to a different contemplative version of the faith, a version of the faith that I learned from the Jesuits. But I still do think there’s value in reanalyzing the history of this faith because there’s a place for this contemplative mysticism, even today.

Sean Illing

I was raised Catholic, but it never stuck, and one of the reasons was that the Church seemed so obviously about power. It’s a human institution, and like all human institutions, it’s largely about its own preservation. So I couldn’t see God there, I could only see humans using God. But the Christianity I read about in your book is very different, and I wonder if you think God, in some sense, needs to be saved from the Church and if psychedelics might be a tool in that project?

Brian Muraresku

Oh! That’s a big question. There are lots of people who find God in the Church. And I want to be clear, I think there are lots of people who find comfort in the mass just the way it is. Whether it’s in Catholicism, or Orthodoxy, or Protestantism, or evangelical Christianity, Mormonism, I mean, there are so many different threads to unwind here. And for many people it works just fine. There’s a great sense of community and comfort.

But it’s also true that whatever is happening at that climactic moment of the mass just isn’t resonating the way it used to. Like you, there are many people who are interested in a more direct experience, and that could’ve been a very big part of the success of the early Church. We don’t have 100 percent certainty over what was happening in those dining rooms and those catacombs of early mystical Christianity, but it was something very intense and meaningful to the point that people were willing to die for it — were willing to risk being thrown to a lion for professing faith in Jesus.

I do think that psychedelics in a responsible setting under the right conditions do seem to evoke mystical experiences in people, experiences that are authentically sacred. Are psychedelics an end in themselves? I don’t think so. But as the beginning of a life of dedicated introspection, a path to love of self and others, yeah, I see a lot of evidence for that.

Sean Illing

How did this book change your view of psychedelics? Do you see them as more than a drug, as some kind of spiritual technology?

Brian Muraresku

I’m still a psychedelic virgin, and part of the reason for that is a lot of this stuff is still illegal. Oregon is the first jurisdiction in the country to decriminalize all drugs, and they’re beginning to regulate psilocybin for therapeutic purposes. I don’t think it’ll be the last state. So it’s very weird that some of these historical clues are coming to light at a time when we’re rethinking our relationship with these drugs. Where I land after all this research is basically back to the way we used to talk about psychedelics before the war on drugs.

When I read Aldous Huxley writing in the 1950s, I’m blown away. When I read other early scholars like Huston Smith, perhaps one of the most influential religious scholars of the 20th century, who was actually one of the participants in the Harvard psilocybin project in the 1960s, I’m blown away. Smith described his psychedelic experience as a powerful cosmic homecoming, and later described his experience with mescaline as like plugging a toaster into a power line. So before the war on drugs, these scholars were writing openly about this stuff and trying to figure out how it fit into society. And in a really weird way, I think that we’re back in those waters.

We’re trying to figure out what this means for the future of medicine, what it means for the future of religion, philosophy, society at large. I think the next 10 years are going to prove to be really transformational, not just for the United States, but for the rest of the world.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.