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On Cult and Culture

cult and cultureCult is sacred, secret and always the same. Culture is public, irreverent, and strives for originality and innovation. Yet the two are intimately connected. Culture feeds on cult, and cult feeds off culture. Our society today lacks a cult, and as a result our culture wearies itself in empty innovation. 

In ancient Athens, in the fifth century BC, you had two main festivals. In March-April, you had the Dionysia, where playwrights like Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes competed for the prize of best tragedy and best comedy. For about 30 years, Athenians were treated to new performances of some of the greatest plays that would ever be written. In 431 BC, for example, Euripides’ Medea only came third, behind tragedies by Sophocles and Euphorion. The plays were mirrors held up to Athenian society, reflecting and exploring its deepest fears, desires and foibles.

Then, in September-October, people from all over Greece made a pilgrimage to Eleusis, outside Athens, to take part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient fertility rite in which participants apparently took some kind of hallucinogenic, and felt they journeyed to the underworld and were reborn as immortal children of Demeter. Cicero considerd the Mysteries the greatest of all the gifts bestowed by Greek culture. They were practiced for over 2000 years, until they were banned by the Christian emperor Theodosius in 392 AD, who thereby banished psychedelics from western culture for the next 1500 years, the spoil-sport.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were the central cult of Greek society. And the Dionysia was the central cultural or artistic event. Cult and culture were intimately connected. Both the Mysteries and the Dionysiac festival of theatre performed an important therapeutic role for Athenian culture. According to Aristotle, both were cathartic – they helped to ‘cure’ Athenians of emotional problems and make them whole. Both cult and culture helped people to remove their social masks, forget external reality and enter trance states, and there explore and heal the emotions, tensions and conflicts within their psyches, ultimately connecting them with the deepest part of their nature – the divine. At their best, both cult and culture cultivate the god within us.

So both cult and culture performed a similar therapeutic role. And culture also fed off cult for ideas, symbols and characters. The great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides often ‘riffed’ on the sacred (and secret) rites of the Mysteries. The final scene of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, for example, is soaked in the symbolism and ritual of the Eleusinian Mysteries. So is the final scene of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Euripides’ Bacchae, meanwhile, explores and reflects on the rites of the maenads, the female worshippers of Dionysus.

But culture, while it draws on the ideas, characters and symbols of cult, is very different to it. The nature of cult is that it is secret, sacred, and ritualized – the ritual must stay the same for centuries and millennia. Any sudden innovation is fervently resisted. Culture, by contrast, is a public performance. It strives for originality and innovation. It mixes the grand and solemn with the humorous and irreverent. It is created by an artist, who seeks fame and success and is not bound by the same moral taboos as a priest. Culture draws from cult, but in a way that is somewhat risky and transgressive – Aeschylus supposedly died in a freak accident as a punishment from the gods for revealing the secrets of the Mysteries in his Eumenides.

Cult, then, is sacred, secret and always the same. Culture is public, irreverent, and strives for originality and innovation. Yet the two are intimately connected. Culture feeds off cult.

Consider how much rock & roll feeds off religion, from band names (The Cult, Jesus And Mary Chain, Nirvana, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Reverend Black Grape, Young Disciples, Judas Priest) to song names (I am the Resurrection, The Cross, Jesus Walks, Take Me To The River, Great Balls of Fire, Hallelujah, Congregation, Take Me To Church etc etc). Rock tunes also rip off church tunes – the first great R&B song, Ray Charles’ ‘I gotta woman’ was a riff on the church anthem ‘It must be Jesus’ , starting a trend for secular gospel that continued through Elvis, U2 and Pharrell Williams. Think how often house music has sampled revivalist preachers, ever since Brian Eno and David Byrne started the craze in 1981 with their pioneering sampler album, My Time In the Bush of Ghosts (have a listen).

But cult also feeds off culture – it slowly incorporates some of the cultural innovations introduced by culture. Look, for example, at how western churches in the 1950s and 1960s began by condemning rock & roll as the Devil’s music, and then began to incorporate it, until now many of the biggest churches have in-house rock bands.

The problem with western society since around 1900, I would suggest, is we have lost our central cult – Christianity – and it hasn’t been replaced by any new cult which grips our emotions and imagination. All we have is a culture that has, particularly since Modernism, been gripped by restless innovation and transgression. But, in the absence of cult, this innovation and transgression feels increasingly empty and meaningless.

For culture to regain its vitality, we need to re-establish cult. I don’t know how to do this, but until that happens our culture will be trivial and diminished, distracting itself from its own exhaustion with cars and explosions.

Psychedelia and the future of religion

David E. Nichols presenting his work on new psychedelic compounds

I spent the last few days at a weird and wonderful conference. It was called Breaking Convention 2015, the third conference on ‘psychedelic consciousness, culture and clinical research’ at the University of Greenwich. There, in the regal litoral digs of the university, facing the steel snarl of Canary Wharf, 800 ‘breakeroos’ gathered, dreadlocked witches, underground psychedelic therapists, mainstream scientists, Peruvian shamans and long-haired barefoot beatniks, to attend lectures, open their minds, explore light shows and virtual reality spaces, sign up to workshops on shamanic drumming or psychedelic orgasms, and dance away at the ‘Nite of Eleusis’ after-parties.

The conference was a unique marriage of science and spirituality. You could see chemist David E.Nichols presenting on the molecular structure of LSD-type compounds (while DIY chemists scribbled notes in the audience), then go to see shamans talking about ayahuasca ceremonies or classicists talking about the rites of Eleusis and Dionysus. How many conferences go from the cellular to the celestial in one session?

These are exciting times for psychedelic research. Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), said to the youngish audience: ‘This is the first generation where you can say ‘I want a career in psychedelics’, and that’s a reasonable thing to say’. After a 50-year hiatus, scientific research into psychedelics has re-started, and is finding remarkable results.

For example, researchers at John Hopkins Medical Hospital found that, after three doses of magic-mushroom drug psilocybin, 80% of smokers in a trial gave up smoking and had still given up six months later. The most successful anti-smoking therapy programmes at the moment have success rates of 30-35%. Several other recent studies have found psychedelics to be successful in treating addiction to alcohol, cocaine and heroin.

LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA has also been found to be effective in the treatment of depression, anxiety and PTSD. An ongoing study at Imperial College has given psilocybin to seven volunteers with chronic depression – four are currently in remission. Several trials have also found psychedelics reduce depression and anxiety in people with terminal illnesses. Roland Griffiths, lead researcher at the Johns Hopkins psychedelic research project, says: ‘A single moderate-high dose of psilocybin can produce substantial and enduring decreases in anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer diagnosis. There’s nothing else like that in psychopharmacology.’

Rick Doblin of MAPS imagines a future of psychedelic therapy clinics
Rick Doblin of MAPS imagines a future of psychedelic therapy clinics

The conference’s optimism and energy arose from the sense that the more proof there is of the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, the more likely they will be legalized for therapeutic use in clinical settings. Attendees spoke of the ‘post-prohibition era’ as if it was just over the next hill. But David Nutt, former chief drugs advisor to the UK government, warned the conference not to be too complacent, particularly when our government is poised to pass the Psychoactive Substances Bill, banning people’s ability to make and sell ‘legal highs’.

When psychonauts go psychonuts

The main barrier to decriminalization is the sense – which I happen to share – that psychedelics are risky, that when you open the door to the unconscious you are dicing with your health and sanity. Ernst Junger wrote to the discoverer of LSD, Albert Hoffman, in 1948: ‘These are experiments in which one sooner or later embarks on truly dangerous paths, and may be considered lucky to escape with only a black eye.’

Personally, I had a bad trip on LSD when I was 18 which left me with post-traumatic stress symptoms for five years. Looking back, I was too young, and had no sense of the proper ‘set and setting’ for a trip. I took it at a techno warehouse party and then went to an after-party where I didn’t really know anyone, and intense paranoia ensued. I then didn’t speak to anyone about my traumatic experience for several years. Not very smart. The symptoms did eventually pass, but I’m not the same person I was before the experience – I’m more introverted, probably more neurotic, though also perhaps more compassionate and able to help others.

Apparently, I’m one of the unlucky ones: a survey by Johanson and Krebs of 130,000 people found that the 15% of the US population which has used psychedelics have better mental health than the rest of the population, and there was little or no evidence of any long-term psychological problems among them. Roland Griffiths of John Hopkins did his own survey, where 1993 respondents reported distressing psychedelic experiences, and some were hospitalised – though most saw them as good in the long-term. Only 10% of respondents said the negative experiences had long-term consequences. He thinks the experience can be made almost completely safe in a clinical setting.

I would suggest that the reason psychedelics can be so therapeutic is also the reason they can potentially be harmful: they lead to what Imperial College’s Robin Carhart-Harris calls ‘ego dissolution’.

An illustration from Jung's Red Book
An illustration from Jung’s Red Book.

As we become adults, our construction of self and of reality is rendered into a stable configuration, an automatic programme that starts running the moment we wake up. Our construction can be bad for us. We may have integrated very negative beliefs or traumatic memories, which have become habituated into unconscious, physical, autonomic and even molecular patterns. Psychedelics dissolve this rigid construction, or bring the automatic to consciousness. They ‘lower the threshold of consciousness’ as Carl Jung put it, enabling us to re-encounter traumatic or repressed memories, to re-consider habitual or archetypal patterns and choose new patterns, to alter autonomic processes like auto-immune illnesses, perhaps even to intervene in our bodies at the cellular level. We can see the stitching in our reality-construction and we can unstitch and restich.

That can be liberating. We can have a sense of ego-dissolution into the blissful ocean of our creative unconscious. The unconscious that we meet on psychedelics is more the benign archetypal fairy-land of Jungian therapy than the nihilistic jungle of sexual violence that Freud suggested. We descend into that underworld, and can emerge with a sense of rebirth. In Griffiths’ studies at Johns Hopkins, 60% of participants said their psilocybin trip was one of the most meaningful experiences of their life.

But, as Jungian psychologist Scott J. Hill noted, ego-dissolution can also be terrifying – our ego resists dissolution. We are confronted with trauma or darkness, and we can’t handle it. We run and hide, and we can keep running for a long time. 62% of Griffiths’ participants also said their trip was one of the most difficult or challenging experiences of their life.

A Kosmicare ‘psychedelic harm reduction’ tent at a festival

That’s why it’s important to have guides – friends, doctors, nurses, care-givers – to help you through any dark patches. I was impressed with the wok of ‘psychedelic harm reduction’ organizations like Kosmicare, who provide support to trippers at festivals and help them to accept that ‘difficult trips are not necessarily bad trips’ as Rick Doblin put it. Too often, if someone is having a ‘transient psychotic episode’ on psychedelics, the reaction of health professionals is to tranquilize and hospitalize them – denying their experience any kind of spiritual meaning or worth, and perhaps even slamming a psychotic or schizophrenic label on them for life. That’s a curse. Trying to talk people through difficult phases of trips so they find a therapeutic or transcendent interpretation seems a much, much better approach.

Revealing spiritual reality?

Psychedelics, then, reveal very interesting things to us about the mind, consciousness, unconsciousness, the ego, and how we can change the ego’s beliefs and behaviour. Do they also tell us interesting things about the nature of reality?

Participants at the ancient Greek rites of Eleusis came away thinking they would ‘die with a better hope’. Is that, I wondered, why psychedelics decrease anxiety and depression in the terminally ill? Do they come away from the experience with a new belief in the afterlife? I asked Thorsten Passie from Harvard, who has studied how LSD reduces anxiety in those with life-threatening illness. He replied: ‘We didn’t ask them, but I think so.’ I also asked Roland Griffiths, who has undertaken a similar study. He replied: ‘Not everyone necessarily becomes convinced there’s an afterlife, but quite often they become open to that possibility for the first time. That’s a big change to the total certainty they are facing annihilation.’

Of course, a new experience-based belief in the afterlife is not scientific proof. But it’s interesting. And it’s also interesting that decreased anxiety and and an increased belief in the afterlife is a reliable consequence of near-death experiences.

A DMT creature depicted by psychedelic artist Luke Brown
A DMT creature depicted by psychedelic artist Luke Brown

Another common phenomenon in psychedelic experiences is a sense of encounter with spirits, deities, or creatures from another universe or dimension. A survey of 800 psychonauts by Fountonglou and Freimoser found that 46% of ayahuasca-takers reported ‘encounters with suprahuman or spiritual entities’, as well as 36% of DMT-takers, 17% of LSD takers, and 12% of psilocybin-takers. Similar percentages reported ‘experiences of other universes and encounters with their inhabitants.’

This raises an interesting question for psychedelic academia – how to make sense of these spirits? There was a whole afternoon session devoted to the question of the ‘elves’ or ‘little people’ which takers of DMT regularly report encountering. Interpretations ranged from the purely materialist (it’s a brain-trick), to the Jungian (they’re archetypes from the collective unconscious) to the literal (they’re really real). As the anthropologist Jack Hunter noted, that last assertion is somewhat taboo in academia, which tends to be committed to naturalist materialist explanations. You can be anything in academia, from transgender to post-Lacanian, as long as it’s materialist.

The academics at this conference (David Luke, Dave King, Jack Hunter and others) showed a brave willingness to go over that naturalist barrier and open themselves to the possibility that the discarnate entities they encounter are ‘really real’. Hunter called this ‘ontological flooding’.

But I think we need to go further than that. We need to recognize not just that there may be discarnate entities out there, but also that not all of them are benevolent. That means opening the door to the spirit-world, but not leaving it wide open to be ‘flooded’ by any and every spirit. Indeed, several of the speakers and participants, including Hunter and the author Daniel Pinchbeck, reported having felt possessed during or after a psychedelic experience – they felt they had been invaded by a spirit which was not entirely friendly (Albert Hoffman had a similar experience on the first ever LSD trip in 1943). We need to know not just how to open the doors of our mind, but also how to close them.

This is the conclusion psychedelic researcher Rick Strassman arrived at, following his landmark study in 1990, in which 60 participants took DMT, and many reported encountering alien or insectoid beings, who were not all benevolent. He said at the conference: ‘How can we tell if these beings are for us or against us? Will we try to weaponize them, or will they try and weaponize us?’ This reminded me of the film Prometheus, in which humans search for contact with higher beings, only to discover the higher beings are utterly contemptuous of us.

Psychedelic Christianity?

Strassman concluded: ‘When opening yourself to spiritual worlds, it’s not all love and light. It’s important to know how to protect yourself, how to pray.’ He has ended up going back to his Hebrew upbringing, and to the Bible, for guidance. Certainly, both Hellenic and Judeao-Christian culture developed advanced techniques and practices for the ‘discernment of spirits’, to protect practitioners against both bad spirits and their own hyperactive imagination.

But Strassman’s return to our Judaeo-Christian heritage went down like a shit balloon with the New Agers of the conference, who tended to embrace an ABC mentality: Anything But Christianity. You were much more likely to hear enthusiastic discussions of the Maenads, or wicca, or Peruvian shamanism, or sex magick, or Aleister Crowley. The dominant tone was anarchic, liberationist, transgressive, trickster, marginal, counter-cultural.

I think this snobbery towards Christianity is a mistake – you ignore 2000 years of ecstatic culture and philosophy, and end up in the intellectual and artistic shallows with mediocre ego-maniacs like Crowley or William Burroughs. Psychedelic culture can end up all about transgression, and not about trying to create integrated, wise, safe, moral, prosocial, mainstream cults which last for thousands of years, as Eleusis and Christianity did. You need not just just cultural transgression at the margin of society, but wise cults at the centre. At the moment, we have counter-cultures but no central cult.

I wonder if, in a hundred years, some form of psychedelic Christianity will have emerged, like the Santo Daime church in Brazil, which combines ayahuasca ceremony with Christianity’s rituals and emphasis on virtue, love, beauty, forgiveness, humility and rebirth. Is that possible or conceivable?

In any case, the sense I got from BreakingCon was that psychedelic culture hopes to spread beyond the counter-culture and ‘go mainstream’. Imperial’s Robin Carhart-Harris said: ‘I like the vision of controlled places where people can have controlled psychedelic experiences.’ Controlled places to lose control – this is what the best rites are.