…the drunken god Dionysus, the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanor, and the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshipped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called ‘the Ambrosia’. I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of traveling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy ale. The evidence, summarized in my What Food the Centaurs Ate (1958), suggests that Satyrs (goat-totem tribesmen), Centaurs (horse-totem tribesmen), and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom, amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength. Some hours of this ecstasy are followed by complete inertia; a phenomenon that would account for the story of how Lycurgus, armed only with an ox-goad, routed Dionysus’s drunken army of Maenads and Satyrs after its victorious return from India.

On an Etruscan mirror the amanita muscaria is engraved at Ixion’s feet; he was a Thessalian hero who feasted on ambrosia among the gods. Several myths are consistent with my theory that his descendants, the Centaurs, ate this mushroom; and, according to some historians, it was later employed by the Norse berserks to give them reckless power in battle. I now believe that ‘ambrosia’ and ‘nectar’ were intoxicant mushrooms: certainly the amanita muscaria; but perhaps others, too, especially a small, slender dung-mushroom named panaeolus papilionaceus, which induces harmless and most enjoyable hallucinations. A mushroom not unlike it appears on an Attic vase between the hooves of Nessus the Centaur. The ‘gods’ for whom, in the myths, ambrosia and nectar were reserved, will have been sacred queens and kings of the pre-Classical era. King Tantalus’s crime was that he broke the taboo by inviting commoners to share his ambrosia.

Sacred queenships and kingships lapsed in Greece; ambrosia then became, it seems, the secret element of the Eleusinian, Orphic and other Mysteries associated with Dionysus. At all events, the participants swore to keep silence about what they ate or drank, saw unforgettable visions, and were promised immortality. The ‘ambrosia’ awarded to winners of the Olympic footrace when victory no longer conferred the sacred kingship on them was clearly a substitute: a mixture of foods the initial letters of which, as I show in What Food the Centaurs Ate, spelled out the Greek word ‘mushroom’. Recipes quoted by Classical authors for nectar, and for cecyon, the mint-flavoured drink taken by Demeter at Eleusis, likewise spell out ‘mushroom’.

I have myself eaten the hallucinogenic mushroom, psilocybe, a divine ambrosia in immemorial use among the Masatec Indians of Oaxaca Province, Mexico; heard the priestess invoke Tlaloc, the Mushroom-god, and seen transcendental visions. Thus I wholeheartedly agree with R. Gordon Wasson, the American discoverer of this ancient rite, that European ideas of heaven and hell may well have derived from similar mysteries. Tlaloc was engendered by lightning; so was Dionysus; and in Greek folklore, as in Masatec, so are all mushrooms—proverbially called ‘food of the gods’ in both languages. Tlaloc wore a serpent crown; so did Dionysus. Tlaloc had an underwater retreat; so had Dionysus. The Maenads’ savage custom of tearing off their victims’ heads may refer allegorically to tearing off the sacred mushroom’s head—since in Mexico its stalk is never eaten. We read that Perseus, a sacred King of Argos, converted to Dionysus worship, named Mycenae after a toadstool which he found growing on the site, and which gave forth a stream of water. Tlaloc’s emblem was a toad; so was that of Argos; and from the mouth of Tlaloc’s toad in the Tepentitla fresco issues a stream of water. Yet at what epoch were the European and Central American cultures in contact?

(Robert Graves, Introduction to The Greek Myths)

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