The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name by Brian C. Muraresku. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press; 2020. Hardcover, 480 pages. ISBN: 9781250207142. $29.99.
Reading Brian Muraresku’s wonderful new book, The Immortality Key, I was reminded, oddly enough, of the “Back to the Future” movie trilogy of the 1980s and early ’90s, and I mean that in the most positive sense.
The “Back to the Future” films are genre-benders: a coming-of-age comedy morphs into science fiction, action-adventure, and Western rom-com, with a nod to high school musicals. In The Immortality Key, what appears to be a straightforward investigation of the origins of Christianity becomes a detective story searching for an explanation for the famed Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece, an account of the righting of an academic wrong, a coming-of-age narrative, and a Roots-like search for the author’s cultural origins, all told within the framework of a personal Odyssey — and I capitalize the “O” intentionally.
The book is told in first person, and the author, an American lawyer who has never sampled entheogenic plants or fungi (i.e., those that produce an unordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes), is an unlikely protagonist. However, he is a Greek American who is fluent in ancient Greek and Latin and has an incisive and inquisitive mind and a gift for quickly earning people’s trust, which gained him access to archives and catacombs that are off limits to the public.
In the 20th-century section of The Immortality Key, the story begins in 1937 when, for his undergraduate thesis, a Harvard student named Richard Evans Schultes was researching early accounts of plant use by indigenous peoples of Mexico, as recorded by the Spanish. Though Schultes’ focus was peyote (Lophophora williamsii, Cactaceae), he stumbled across numerous references to the consumption of intoxicating mushrooms known in Nahuatl as teonanacatl, or the “flesh of the gods,” which can include species in the Psilocybe genus (Hymenogastraceae) and related genera in the Agaricaceae family. While examining peyote collections in the Smithsonian Institution, Schultes encountered a letter from an Austrian physician residing in Mexico. The letter, which was dated July 18, 1923, and addressed to the head of the herbarium, stated:
I see in your description of [peyote], that Dr. [William] Safford [PhD, an expert on New World pre-Columbian hallucinogens] believes this plant to be the “teo-nanacatl” of [Bernardino de] Sahagún, which is surely wrong. It is, actually, as Sahagún states a fungus, which grows on dung-heaps, and which is still used under the same name by the Indians of the Sierra Juarez in Oaxaca in their religious feasts.
In other words, Schultes hypothesized, the report by Sahagún, a Spanish Franciscan friar who conducted ethnographic research in Mexico in the 1500s, was correct: indigenous peoples were using hallucinogenic mushrooms for healing and divinatory purposes. Schultes’ following work was important because it proved that Sahagún was correct about the existence of “magic mushrooms” on the American continents, despite the scientific community’s belief otherwise. This research set the stage for the advent of ethnomycology (the study of the historical uses and sociological impact of fungi), which underpins Muraresku’s book.
Upon finishing his college degree, Schultes enrolled in a graduate program at Harvard and then, in 1938, headed to Oaxaca, Mexico, to investigate teonanacatl as one of the topics of his PhD dissertation research. Schultes found that the mushrooms were indeed being used for divinatory and healing purposes by the Chinantec, Mazatec, and Zapotec peoples of Oaxaca, and published the results in 1941 in the Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, which was, in Schultes’ own words, “a journal of extremely limited circulation.” The article was read by few and had little impact until it helped launch the beginning of what is now termed “The Psychedelic Renaissance” nine years later.
An overlooked figure in the story is Valentina Wasson, a physician and the wife of wealthy American banker Robert Gordon Wasson. She knew and loved edible mushrooms based on childhood experiences in Russia and was directly responsible for interesting her previously mycophobic husband in fungi. Together, the two began studying history to determine what role fungi may have played.
One topic that intrigued them, perhaps representing history’s ultimate cold case, was the murder of the Roman Emperor Claudius in 54 CE, supposedly at the hands of his wife Agrippina who fed him poisonous mushrooms. At the time, the Wassons decided to seek an answer to this mystery of whether mushrooms were the weapon of choice and what species might have been used. The reigning expert on this Roman emperor was the poet and classicist Robert Graves, who, based on a deep reading of the ancient historians Dio Cassius, Suetonius, and Tacitus, wrote I, Claudius (1934), a brilliant fictional autobiography of the ancient Roman ruler. Valentina wrote Graves in January 1949 and asked if he might help them solve this case.
The Wassons and Graves struck up a lively correspondence, and, in September 1952, the poet mailed the couple an article by the archaeologist Robert Heizer, which was published in an obscure pharmaceutical bulletin. The article mentioned that Schultes had found indigenous peoples of southern Mexico were still using entheogenic fungi for healing purposes. The Wassons headed to Oaxaca the next year.*
Before receiving the article from Graves, Wasson worked for J.P. Morgan and had no formal scientific training. After reading Heizer’s paper and then Schultes’ scientific accounts of his field research, Wasson wanted to learn more and then experience these mushrooms firsthand. Like wealthy Renaissance patron Lorenzo de’ Medici, Wasson was able to engage extraordinary talents for his efforts. Whereas Lorenzo hired Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Wasson, with ample resources and an inquiring mind, brought on board several leading lights in related fields. These included Schultes, who by then had a tenured post at the Botanical Museum at Harvard; Albert Hofmann, PhD, the Swiss chemist who synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD); classical scholars, particularly Carl Ruck, PhD, of Boston University; as well as linguists and mycologists (fungi experts).
Based on Schultes’ advice, Wasson was able to organize and fund numerous expeditions to Oaxaca and participate in a series of veladas (sacred mushroom ceremonies among the Mazatecs). An account of one such experience, titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” was published in Life magazine on May 13, 1957.1 This soon made Wasson the world’s most famous ethnomycologist.†
Wasson then turned his attention to ancient Greece. He believed ethnomycological analysis could help solve another ancient conundrum: the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which Muraresku labels “the oldest unsolved riddle in the history of Western civilization.” The search for an explanation of this mystery represents the first half of The Immortality Key.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were secret religious rites that commemorated the abduction of Persephone by Hades, the King of the Underworld, and her ultimate rebirth, which symbolized eternal life. These rites persisted for about 2,000 years and reportedly were experienced by some of the leading luminaries of the ancient classical Greek and Roman world: Alcibiades, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Pindar, Plato, Plutarch, and Sophocles were all initiates who experienced life-changing visions. Unfortunately, the details about precisely how the Eleusinian ritual made such a deep and lasting imprint on the participants are lost to history. The Christians forbade the practice as their religion ascended in the Roman Empire.
One of the liveliest sections of Muraresku’s book recounts how 20th-century classical scholars tried to reconstruct the ceremony. A prestigious German researcher claimed it was merely elaborate theater. A leading archaeologist at Cambridge insisted it was all done with giant puppets, “some of considerable size and fitted to impress the awakened nerves of the auditors.” Muraresku wryly comments: “That sublime vision reported by Plato, Pindar and Sophocles? Nothing but smoke and mirrors. And Muppets.”
To anyone who has had the honor and privilege of taking psychedelics and has read the surviving accounts of the ancients who participated in the Mysteries, the explanation is clear: the participants were likely consuming psychedelic substances. Muraresku details how the researcher Wasson, classicist Ruck, and chemist Hofmann joined forces to solve the mystery of the Mysteries. Their conclusion was that the active ingredient was the psychoactive ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea, Clavicipitaceae), which is known to infect barley (Hordeum vulgare, Poaceae). Barley, according to the incomplete historical record, was an ingredient of the sacred drink (kukeon) that was an essential component of the ceremony. The ergot fungus contains ergotamine, a precursor of LSD.
Muraresku also recounts how this research and the book that resulted, The Road to Eleusis (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), had a devastating effect on Ruck’s academic career, since it was published during the drug war hysteria of the late 1970s. Ruck’s assertion that the intellectual founding fathers of Western civilization were tripping out was unacceptable for the notoriously rigid and conservative president of Boston University, where Ruck was a tenured professor. Other academicians also dismissed the hypotheses of Ruck and his two other colleagues as wild posturing.
If Wasson is the Lorenzo de’ Medici of the story, Ruck can be considered Galileo in that his once heretical theory is now widely accepted. What seemed to be an unprovable hypothesis four decades ago can now be put to the test, at least to some degree. Patrick McGovern, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and colleagues have developed the means to test the remains of ancient beverages and determine their ingredients with precision. Unfortunately, many museums clean their finds, removing potentially useful data. However, while conducting research for the book, Muraresku was adroit enough to seek other manifestations of Greek culture and religion in Europe, and in so doing hit the jackpot. In the remains of a sixth-century Greek colony in what is now Catalonia, Spain, researchers found an Eleusinian shrine with both a chalice and a jawbone that contained residues of ergot. While not ironclad proof that ergot was the “secret sauce” of the Eleusinian Mysteries, it makes a compelling case for Ruck’s vindication.
While the scholarship, history, travels, and characters encountered would surely be sufficient for a book in and of itself, Muraresku offers another hypothesis that builds on the first and forms the latter half of the book. He posits that Christianity sprung in large degree from this aspect of ancient Greek religion: the consumption of psychedelic substances to induce mystical and spiritual experiences. In fact, he suggests that the original Eucharist may have involved the consumption of hallucinogenic wine, a known practice in the ancient world.
I do have some minor quibbles. On page 40, the author claims that Hofmann “extracted LSD from special cultures of ergot,” which is incorrect, but then correctly states that “he had accidentally synthesized LSD while trying to create new relief for circulation and respiratory disorders” just four pages later. On page 370, Muraresku states “Albert Hofmann identified the [ololiuqui] plant as a species of morning glory.” However, Hofmann was a chemist, not a taxonomist. The plant (Rivea corymbosa syn. Turbina corymbosa, Convolvulaceae) was collected, identified, and scientifically described by Schultes.
In addition, I am puzzled by the book’s subtitle, The Secret History of the Religion with No Name. The use of hallucinogenic plants and fungi to enhance spiritual experiences does have a name: shamanism.
Nonetheless, these are small concerns compared to the scale and scope of Muraresku’s work. I highly recommend The Immortality Key, as it is a wide-ranging and challenging book that must be considered one of the most important ethnobotanical works of the 21st century.
Mark Plotkin, PhD, is an ethnobotanist, president of the Amazon Conservation Team (www.amazonteam.org), and host of the podcast “Plants of the Gods.” He wrote a cover article in HerbalGram issue 129 on the medicinal uses of wine in the ancient Mediterranean.
* The ultimate results of the Wassons’ studies of the demise of the Roman emperor Claudius were published in the Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University as “The Death of Claudius or Mushrooms for Murderers” in 1972 (Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 101-128).
† In a foreshadowing of Muraresku’s book, Wasson’s bemushroomed visions in Oaxaca hearkened back to ancient Greece: “Whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view, I was now seeing the archetypes, the Platonic ideals,” he wrote in Life magazine.1
- Wasson RG. Seeking the Magic Mushroom. May 13, 1957. Life. Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=Jj8EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA100&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed August 17, 2021.