Book Review: The Immortality Key
I love a good radical history book, one that turn a concept on its ear. From Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, the types of investigation that give a new perspective on the past.
In The Immortality Key: Uncovering the Secret History of the Religion with No Name, Brian C. Muraresku delves into religious rituals from prehistoric times up through the modern Catholic church, not simply the belief systems but rather the use of drugs to bring about religious ecstasy.
The book is divided into two sections. The first investigates the earliest known religious rituals, long before Christianity or even Greek mythology. Muraresku tracks down sites containing hints of ancient practices: caves with murals, shards of pottery. He follows up on early scholarship that addresses alcoholic beverages that may have been tainted (deliberately or not) with hallucinogenic drugs. These drugged beverages appeared to be used to bring about visions to their imbibers.
At first, it sounds a bit peculiar, the notion that drugs may have played a key role in religious practices. But Muraresku begins his trail at the site of Eleusis, known for its ancient cult of Demeter and Persephone. He links the festival to the notion that Demeter, as goddess of the harvest, taught the priestesses to infuse their ritual drink with ergot and other drugs. Later, the author explores the history of Dionysus, the god of wine-making and fertility.
In Part Two, the investigation truly takes off. Now the author begins making connections between Dionysus and Jesus, and how early Christians in the Mediterranean region adapted their proselytizing to include Greek imagery. In other words, to get their foot in the door, these missionaries may have conflated images of Jesus with Dionysus in order to convert people to Christianity. Or it could have been the other way around: the drug cults may have infiltrated early Christianity by incorporating their own form of the drugged Eucharist into religious practices.
At its heart, The Immortality Key poses the idea that the Christian Eucharist is a tamed version of earlier religious brews. If drugs were crucial to early religious practices, why would the Christian church want to suppress their usage? Muraresku posits that the male-dominated church has done so in order to maintain power in its own hands. If the early women priestesses were brewing concoctions that brought about religious revelations and were making them readily available to any willing initiate, then the Catholic church did everything it could to wrest the power from these women and to modify the drugged wines into the solely symbolic Eucharist. In the end, it’s all about who has the power.
Were aspects of history purposively suppressed in order to protect the Catholic church? It certainly sounds like there has been deliberate oppression of women and drugs over the generations. The further along I got in the book, the more I accepted the author’s views. He cites reputable scholars, and the bibliography is intriguing enough to send the more curious-minded on new trails of investigation.
Muraresku does an excellent job building his argument, even at the risk of some conspiracy-minded language along the lines of “could this be the clue I’ve been looking for?” My sole complaint with The Immortality Key is that Muraresku tends to hammer certain ideas over and over to prove his point, so the redundancy can cause the research to drag a bit. Overall, I found it an intriguing read and plan to dig into some of the books listed in the bibliography for another good radical history.