Could the communion wine of history’s earliest Christians have been a hallucinogen? This is the question that The Immortality Key, a new book by religious scholar, archaeology sleuth and classicist Brian Muraresku, aims to answer.
Drawing on more than ten years of research across six countries, Muraresku links the drug-fuelled rituals of Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean to the simultaneous outgrowth of Christianity in first-century Israel.
The bottom-line is that it’s far from absurd – and perhaps entirely reasonable – to think that some early Greek-speaking Christians had hallucinogens in their ritual wines.
Armed with Vatican archives, Greco-Roman texts, and the innovations of archaeochemistry – a new discipline that can isolate the exact chemical makeup of ancestral food and drink – Muraresku traces the rich and vined history of “spiked” wine through the ages. He suggests that the wild parties of Greek Mystery sects – which occurred thousands of years before, and at the time of Jesus – were powered by wines likely imbued with drugs, later making their way into Christianity’s early sacred cups.
It’s a controversial claim to make. The communion wine has been a fixture of Christian worship since the Last Supper, and stands as a core ritual for its 2.5 billion adherents around the world every week of the year. Called to sip the wine and invite the presence of Jesus, Christians believe that the wine becomes the blood of Christ (metaphorically or literally, depending on the sect) during the Eucharist phase of a church service, when special Biblical blessings are cast on the drink by the vicar, priest or pastor.
Of course, the vast majority – if not all – of Christianity’s predominant sects would place strong injunctions against hallucinogenic drugs altogether. But as researchers continue digging up the boozy remnants of our ancient past, it may well be that the Church is in for a big and truly shattering surprise.
VICE spoke with Muraresku about The Immortality Key, the LSD rituals of Ancient Greece, and trippy wine.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: The Immortality Key makes a complex case. Could you outline your basic thesis?
Muraresku: The Ancient Greek world was full of secret rituals called Mysteries, where a sacrament of one kind or another was consumed. I question whether some version of the pagan wine sacrament of Dionysus (the Greek god of ecstasy and mystical rapture) was passed along to the earliest, Greek-speaking Christians.
The wine of the ancient Greeks wasn’t really ‘wine’, was it?
Ancient Greek wine was nothing like the wine of today. For a period of well over a thousand years from Homer to the fall of the Roman Empire, wine is consistently referred to as a pharmakon (drug). It was routinely spiked with plants, herbs and toxins, making it unusually intoxicating, seriously mind-altering, occasionally hallucinogenic and potentially lethal. No less than 56 detailed recipes for spiked wine can be found in Book V of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica, an ancient pharmacopoeia, whose author lived at the exact same time that the Gospels themselves were being written in the first century AD.
So the Greeks may have been sampling something far stronger than wine. But why would Christians have wanted to follow a Greek or Greek-tinged lineage? What’s the connection?
The world into which Jesus and the earliest Christians were born was swimming with Greek influence. Especially around Dionysus: the quintessential Greek god of wine and ecstasy. John's Gospel goes to great lengths, as a matter of fact, to portray Jesus as a kind of second coming of Dionysus. The well-known water-to-wine miracle, for example, has been described by biblical scholars as the "signature miracle" of Dionysus. I dedicate a chapter to comparing the wine of Dionysus – which was described as "blood" by several ancient authors, including Timotheus of Miletus 400 years before Jesus – with the wine of Jesus, which becomes the literal "blood" of Jesus during the Mass. Some Greek Christian would have interpreted the Last Supper – which occurred indoors – as an invitation to bring Dionysus’ [spiked wine] sacrament into their own homes.
The book discusses an unusual finding in Pompeii, dated to around the time of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD. Why is it so important?
In 1996, a farmhouse named the Villa Vesuvio was excavated in Scafati, on the outskirts of Pompeii. Seven large vessels were unearthed, with a “thick organic deposit” at the bottom of each. The “yellow, foamy matrix” from one vessel in particular contained something fascinating.
The archaeologist Marina Ciaraldi found over 50 species of plants, herbs and trees in the sample. Alongside remnants of willow, beech, peach and walnut, she found a distinctive medley of opium, cannabis, and two members of the nightshade family: white henbane and black nightshade. The nightshade plants contain many tropane alkaloids known for their hallucinogenic effects, including scopolamine, which is known rather ominously as ‘The Devil’s Breath”. Ciaraldi also found lizard bones. The presence of grape remains suggests the whole witchy mixture was steeped in wine.
There isn't enough context to prove why this wine would have been consumed, but it does demonstrate the existence, I believe, of the kind of potentially hallucinogenic potion that texts like Dioscorides' Materia Medica have only ever hinted at.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first hard scientific evidence of “psychedelic” wine in classical antiquity. And, for some reason, it has gone unreported. The spiked wine is dated to a time when the earliest Christians were just beginning to fill the house churches and catacombs of Rome and southern Italy, a region known as Magna Graecia or “Great Greece”. Perhaps this was the kind of Eucharist that would have suited some early, Greek-speaking followers of Jesus. A congregation that wanted the wine of Christianity to resemble the wine of their Greek ancestors.
How far back could this tradition of spiking drinks go?
Perhaps all the way back to the Stone Age. We just don’t know. But it raises the prospect of what I call the "religion with no name": a prehistoric tradition of ritual plants, herbs and fungi that seems to have survived from our cave-dwelling ancestors to the civilisations of Ancient Greece and Rome. There’s some evidence for a kind of infused beer being consumed 13,000 years ago in Israel. This could have morphed over time into the hallucinogenic kukeon of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and by inheritance to the first, Greek-speaking Christians.
How did the “spiked” wine tradition – and “the religion with no name” – evolve with the growth of the Church? And why isn’t wine spiked anymore?
From the very beginning of Christianity, there was always a "right" Eucharist, and a "wrong" Eucharist. St. Paul, for example, chastised the Corinthians for drinking from a "cup of demons" – a glass of wine that was apparently lethal. And later Church fathers like Irenaeus and Hippolytus would rail against the "love charms" and "love potions" used by heretics and splinter Christian groups like the followers of Simon, Valentinus and Marcus. The "right" Eucharist was dispensed by men for formal congregations. The "wrong" Eucharist, one that may have been spiked, was unacceptable to a Church in the midst of finding its feet.
With communion wines so powerful in the past, could we call the wine of the church a mere “placebo” today?
I would be careful about calling the Eucharist a "placebo". In its present form, the Eucharist works for many people. But it doesn't seem to be working for 69 percent of American Catholics, who say they don't believe in the Catholic Church's central doctrine of transubstantiation – that the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Jesus.
For many, the power of the Eucharist has lost its meaning. How could that kind of Eucharist have converted half the Roman Empire, some 30 million people, to the new Christian faith in only 350 years? How did early Christianity compete in a world filled with magical wine?
What’s the next step in uncovering psychedelic wine and its connection to early religion? How can scholarship proceed from The Immortality Key?
The aim of the book was to amass the hard evidence – mainly from archaeobotany and archaeochemistry – that provides proof of concept for much further study and analysis. It doesn’t claim anything definitive about the earliest days of Christianity. Science will have to lead the way.
But we should all be paying attention to Andrew Koh, the MIT scientist who’s researching “spiked” wine and other pharmacology and medicine across the ancient world and beyond. Part of his work is tracking down fresh, uncontaminated vessels in Galilee, and elsewhere across the Mediterranean where the first Christian communities took root.
To me, the ergotized beer at Mas Castellar de Pontós and the psychedelic wine at the Villa Vesuvio are some of the most compelling finds that have ever emerged in the hunt for the original sacraments of Western civilization. I think they are game changers. Not because of their intrinsic value, or our ability to speculate on the wider use of psychedelic potions among the Ancient Greeks and early Christians. But because they should excite the academic community, our religious institutions and the public at large to find out more. Over the next ten years, this new science may actually find the Holy Grail, so to speak. And Andrew Koh is the guy who’s going to do it.