The Psychedelic Sacrament: A Conversation with Brian C. Muraresku

September 4, 2021   •   By Ayize Jama-Everett

BRIAN C. MURARESKU applied his early Jesuit training in the parochial schools of Philadelphia to the study of both law and the Classics. The first pursuit gave him his career as a lawyer; the second put him on the road to discover the connection between the ancient mystery rites of Eleusis, the cults of Demeter and Dionysus, and the secrets of the early Christian Eucharist. Along the way, he illuminated the importance of women in all three communities, as well as their possible psychedelic roots. Muraresku’s book The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name chronicles his international search, academic research, and spiritual quest as he attempts to reconnect with his faith in a world leaning more and more toward a new type of spirituality focused on the pharmacology of hallucinogens. Far from eschewing today’s psychedelic revolution, The Immortality Key gives the movement a much-needed historical grounding and a potential pathway to the future.

We spoke over Zoom. 

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AYIZE JAMA-EVERETT: Toward the beginning of the book, you make a big deal of declaring that you hadn’t tried any psychedelics. Since its completion, have you been tempted?

BRIAN C. MURARESKU: You’d be surprised how often people try to get me to do psychedelics. I was talking to Jordan Peterson last week, and he said, “You must be dying of curiosity.” Part of me is. I think there’s a way to do them that both taps into the Greek mystical tradition and the paleo-Christian mystical tradition. If I were to do psychedelics, I’d do it in a historically authentic and sacred ceremony that takes the best of the mysteries and pays homage to the ancestors. I study Classics and comparative mythology, which would help integrate whatever crazy shit I’m about to experience if I ever take psychedelics. They can function as a cipher in terms of healing the divide between science and mysticism.

So, you want to go to the source for the good stuff?

Ad Fontes [Latin for “back to the source”]! This is what the humanists have been trying to do for centuries.

How confident are you in Albert Hofmann’s letter stating that he could recreate the psychedelic brew of old the Eleusinian mysteries?

This is the type of thing that’s ripe for study. This always fascinated Hofmann. We haven’t begun to unlock the potential of something like ergot, the psychoactive fungus of which LSD is a synthesized derivative. This is research 2.0.

I spent years trying to find any scintilla of evidence that there was anything to this. You know about the discovery of Mas Castellar de Pontós, the site in Spain where traces of ergot were found in ancient chalices, so we can now say we have some archeobotanical data that says they had some ergotized beer potion. We can argue about what it means, of course. But this is precisely as Hofmann predicted back in 1978. Now that we have that data in a Hellenic ritual context, contemporaneous with the celebration of the Classical mysteries, I think research 2.0 is trying to recreate that alkaloid.

You’re a lawyer and a Classics scholar. You’re not a physicist or an archeochemist. How does a Classicist with no previously published books spend a decade committed to this project, confident that he could get it published?

I never intended to publish this. I didn’t think I was writing a book. I did it because I loved it. And I still love it. It started with psychopharmacology. I’m not a scientist. But when I saw the hard sciences, the neuroscientists and the psychologists studying assisted mystical states, and the archeochemists studying early beer and wine, that’s when I began to see the possibilities. But it wasn’t until 2017 or 2018. I thought there was potentially a book there. I was trying to convince myself. And I’m still trying to convince myself that this isn’t a complete waste of time. That there’s some merit to this whole Pagan Continuity with a psychedelic twist. And that it matters. That anyone cares. It kept me sane. 

Can you describe the gap that exists in the US between biblical scholars and Classics scholars? 

I can’t claim it’s the experience of all Classicists, but the Classics department is usually separate from the theology department of the divinity school or the department of religious studies. I took many classes in the Classics, and then I’d walk across campus at Brown for my religious studies courses. The one common denominator in a lot of what I was studying was ancient Greek. So why wouldn’t a Classicist study the New Testament? And why wouldn’t a theologian study Homer, Euripides, or Plato? There’s always been this strange divide — not in every case, but they’re typically seen as separate disciplines. For Christians, it was never a condition precedent to salvation to be familiar with the sacred language of the liturgy, which is Greek. I became better versed in Greek through secular Classicists, ironically. It was these scholars who got me to ask more profound questions about my faith.

In the book, you talk about the suppression of the oral tradition. Are there any lessons we can take from that, given that it seems like we’re losing a sacred language on the planet every day?

It’s a problem. It makes me think of the death of oral tradition and the importance of manuscripts. I read an article about Father Stewart, who travels the world preserving all different types of manuscripts. Not just those in the Christian tradition. We could be living through another rebirth. People are calling it the psychedelic renaissance. That might be the rebirth of Classical wisdom. It could be the rebirth of the Pharmakeia [ancient Greek for wine adulterated with various medicinal plants], which went underground and maybe is pushing its way back into mainstream culture. And indigenous knowledge outside of Europe is, of course, a considerable part of this puzzle. The terrors of colonization have me weeping at all the knowledge that’s been lost. What happened in Europe is not a unique example. This happened across the world. Across the Americas, across Africa, across Asia.

What surprised you most in terms of your research?

The hard data. I spent years following the early literature on archeobotany, archeochemistry to find organic evidence of a spiked wine in the right place and the right time, outside of Pompeii in the first century AD. Where not just followers of the Greek mysteries but potentially — and it’s a big if — some of the earliest Christians would have gotten their hands on some wine that’s very different from the wine we have today. That was a WTF moment for me — that there’s actual evidence out there. But we’ve only scratched the surface. There aren’t a lot of archeochemists walking around. But imagine the thousands and thousands of chalices, containers, and vessels that are waiting to be tested. This discipline is in its infancy. Imagine all the data out there we’re not testing.

You do a great job extending the drug war in the US back to the 1600s, with the declaration of war on the Native American use of the mescal bean. Did you feel pressure to make a modern connection given everything that’s going on?

You and I were born into a unique time in the history of Western civilization, where substances like psychedelics have been demonized and wholly prohibited. This was not necessarily the case a couple of generations ago. In antiquity, these drugs were not banned or made illegal in and of themselves. It was how they were used — it was whether or not they were used in witchcraft. From a neutral perspective, these things were neither good nor bad, or prohibited just by virtue of existing.

But at a certain point in Christian Europe, the use of these substances, even ecstatic states in general, were seen as threatening to social order, right? 

We know this pharmacopeia largely disappeared from Europe during the Inquisition. When you look at the history of the interaction of the missionaries with some of these substances as early as the 17th century, you see them attacking things like ololiuqui, tobacco, and peyote in Mexico. Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón’s 1629 Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions writes about burning their stash, essentially. This culminates in not just the Catholic missionaries but also the US federal government taking a page from Ruiz de Alarcón and banning peyote on the reservations, particularly among the Kiowa and the Comanche. I pulled a letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1890 saying that the use of peyote on the reservations, a religious ritual that had survived for centuries, was interfering quite seriously with the work of the missionaries. When you look at the history of drug prohibition in America, it begins as an attack on Native American ceremonies.

I had thought that the first US drug law was promulgated in San Francisco in the late 19th century, explicitly banning white women from entering Chinese opium dens. 

It was all around the same time, and I mean not too far behind was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 outlawing opium, then cocaine, then marijuana a couple of decades after that.

There has always been a strong connection between drug laws and people of color. The issue is never drug use by white straight men but by every other type of American.

It was never the substance. It was who was using the substance. 

Are you an advocate of legalization or decriminalization?

I did some advocacy work with a national group of medical professionals called Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, arguing for full legalization and regulation of cannabis. The War on Drugs is an abject failure. So, these medical professionals came out saying that, if the goal is to protect people and keep cannabis away from vulnerable populations, then prohibition, in general, is not a very smart policy. Legalization and regulation can take a million different forms, and I think they’re generally the best path forward, not just for cannabis but for psychedelics.

How would you balance the corporate interest that is bound to come with legalization with the underground spiritual-religious movement you diagrammed in your book?

The next 10 years will be the proving ground for this. Concerning psychedelics, you have everything from an FDA-approved therapeutic medicine to a microdosing substance that’s available for recreational use. Some folks are interested in wellness. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, I think you have a First Amendment–protected sacrament, assuming that it is consumed under the auspices of sincere religious exercise.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act!

Yes, RFRA! Right now, the Native American church can legally use peyote because of RFRA. You have a Supreme Court precedent protecting Ayahuasca in these Brazilian-derived churches. We don’t have any Supreme Court precedent adjudicating the use of something like psilocybin in a Judeo-Christian context. 

When the DEA comes knocking on a Christian group’s door because of their use of psychedelics, those people will pull out your book in defense. What would you say to that?

[Laughs.] The test that we have in today’s jurisprudence is sincere religious exercise connected to some kind of tradition. But you have to think about religious freedom in America. In the First Amendment, religious freedom precedes freedom of speech. It precedes freedom of assembly. If America has been known for anything, it was as a safe haven for people of faith looking for a place to worship on their own terms. As long as whatever is happening is truly sincere, if it’s safe, if it is grounded in tradition, I think there are compelling arguments for using something like psilocybin in a Jewish temple or connected to a Jewish temple. Or within the Christian church or maybe even in a monastic community attached to a Christian church of any denomination.

So, if a church came to you with a sincere religious psychedelic practice, would you represent them utilizing RFRA?

I’d certainly take the meeting. [Laughs.] I’d consider representing them. Safety is a component. If you incorporate a church overnight and then immediately start doing psychedelics with folks who haven’t been prepared for this work, if there are people at risk who wouldn’t have been at risk if not for your intervention (like young children), then I think the government has a compelling interest to shut you down. So, safety and security are essential. The DEA officials are not theologians, but they are interested in health and safety.

It would be fascinating to see the court take up a case on a non-Christian religion, like African traditional religions. That might be something I would take on. [Laughs.]

How has the book and the press it’s received impacted your faith?

I rediscovered Christianity. I still consider myself a Christian. But this is a living, breathing tradition. The way I read the church’s history, this Christianity is the bumping up of Judaism and Hellenized mystery cults. It’s interesting to see how these pagan practices and rituals encountered Jesus, because early Christianity was unique in its call to charity and love of neighbor. The early sources do talk about that. This division distinguishes Christianity from the pagan cults. Rodney Stark talks about the radical call for love and forgiveness among the early Christians, which was remarkable, even at the time.

Would you still call yourself Catholic?

The one holy and apostolic Church? [Laughs.] Because of what it means in Greek, yes. Because of how Richard Rohr would define Catholic. The concept of the Christos, the anointed one, is so big, so universal, that no one religion could contain it; not one ethnicity, sex, or creed can contain it. The concept of a Universal Christ comes from a Franciscan Friar; this is something I’ve been exposed to since I was a teen. In that sense, a universal idea of discovering God in all things is the type of Catholicism that calls to me.

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Ayize Jama-Everett is an author and educator who has taught at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.