Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
What does LSD have to do with the ancient Greeks? Although they may seem worlds apart, the drug may have played a key role in one of the ancient Greek’s most mysterious religious rituals. But first, a little background…
In 1938 Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann successfully synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide from a naturally occurring fungus known as Ergot.
Ergot is a fungus that grows on barley, rye, and similar crops. It produces alkaloids, a compound responsible for the condition known as ergotism, that causes convulsions, spasms, vomiting, mania, and psychosis if the Ergot is consumed in its raw form.
When Hofmann was experimenting with this dangerous parasitic fungus, he was looking to isolate an effective chemical compound that would stimulate circulatory and respiratory systems, but what he found instead was a highly effective psychedelic drug, known today as LSD. So, what does LSD and Hofmann’s lab have to do with the ancient Greeks?
Recent archaeological evidence has unearthed fragments of Ergot in an ancient Greek ceremonial cup, found at a Mas Castellar des Pontos, in Girona Spain dating back to 300 BC. Remnants of Ergot were also found in the dental calculus of a 25-year-old male, providing evidence that an Ergot-infused drink was consumed at the site at that time.
Mas Castellar is a significant ancient temple. It was dedicated to the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, the chief goddesses associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries, well as Kykeon, the mysterious potion consumed at the famous ritual at Eleusis.
The Kykeon and Eleusis
The Eleusinian Mysteries have puzzled scholars for nearly two millennia. The mysteries of Demeter and her daughter Persephone were an ancient ritual that was observed yearly between 1600 BCE and 392 CE. It was a festival of magnitude that required over a year’s worth of preparation.
The festival attracted millions around the Greek and Roman empire, with the promise of unveiling the secrets of the afterlife for the initiated. Those who were initiated into the inner sanctum to witness the Greater Mysteries were forbidden to discuss what happened there under pain of death – a harsh penalty that is not precedented in any other Greek festival.
More so, the ingredients of the mysterious Kykeon were shrouded in such secrecy that despite thousands of initiates having experienced the concoction, we are left only with scattered and vague references to what the potion contained.
Besides the mysteries themselves, the Kykeon is perhaps Eleusis’ best-kept secret. The ancient potion is said to be the source of the mysteries and is referenced in literature across the ancient Greek-speaking world.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe mixes the Kykeon with honey and uses it to turn Odysseus’ men into swine, and in the Iliad it is said to be a mixture made from goats’ cheese, water, and barley.
No one really knows what the Kykeon was and how it was made. The initiates of the inner mysteries were forbidden to share its secrets outside of Eleusis. Plato, Socrates, Sophocles, Cicero, Plutarch, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius were all initiates of the Greater Mysteries.
But did the greatest men in western history, the men behind reason, logic, democracy, and science really travel all the way to Eleusis to find themselves mesmerized by a simple honey drink and a good play?
The Psychedelic Enlightenment Hypothesis
Even before the unearthing of the Ergot tainted cup at Mas Castellar, some modern scholars had suspected that the drink contained a psychoactive element due to the detailed accounts from eye-witnesses that had attended the ceremony.
Barley is considered the chief ingredient of the Kykeon, along with other non-psychoactive ingredients. Ergot is a parasitic fungus that thrives on barley, and it was the scourge of the ancient and medieval worlds.
Barley was a highly precious commodity, and to have the harvest infected with Ergot could be society’s ruin. However, had the ancients found a way to use unwanted Ergot growing on their barley corn? Could they have found a method of isolating the psychoactive element of the fungus, just as Dr Hofmann did in 1938?
Comparative Accounts: Ancient Eleusis and Contemporary Psychedelic Studies
To avoid the death penalty, Plato described his experience at Eleusis in cryptic terms. He spoke of Eleusis as ‘the holiest of Mysteries’ where he experienced ‘a state of perfection’ and ‘blessed sight and vision’.
During the climax of the evening, upon the completion of the initiation ceremony, attendees were given the title epoptes which roughly translates as ‘The one who has seen it all’. Initiates claimed that life continued after death, and there was a light waiting for us at the end of the tunnel.
After his initiation, Sophocles claimed that ‘’trice blessed are those among men who, after beholding these rites, go down to Hades. Only for them is their life [after death]; all the rest will suffer an evil lot’’
To put this into context, the ancient Greeks usually approached death with reluctance and gloom. It was generally believed that when one dies, his or her spirit is damned to roam the underworld (Hades) for all eternity. It appears that those who emerged from the ritual at Eleusis left with an alternative attitude towards death and dying. These accounts suggest that what was happening at Eleusis was different from the other religious ceremonies in ancient Greece.
In The Road to Eleusis published in 1978, Albert Hofmann, along with the Classicist Carl Ruck and Mycologist Gordon Wassan, first put forth the hypothesis that the Kykeon contained a psychoactive entheogen by comparing accounts of Eleusis with spiritual ceremonies found in other cultures that used natural psychedelic compounds.
The book received much criticism upon its publication, however, in recent years their work has become more accepted, especially in light of archaeological evidence, like that at Mas Castellar.
The amount of evidence that is slowly emerging has opened doors for further research into the therapeutic uses of psychedelics. The mental health industry is particularly interested in psychedelics as a treatment for depression, anxiety, addiction, and is proving to be especially effective for end-of-life therapy for patients with terminal illnesses.
Dr. Roland R Griffiths of John Hopkins University has conducted several psychedelic studies and surveys on the effect of mind-altering drugs and their relationship with consciousness and perceived reality.
In a 2019 study, Griffiths and his team recorded and compared the experience of psilocybin, LSD, DMT, and ayahuasca users who described their experience as an ‘ultimate reality’.
Griffiths reports that the participants could recall vivid memories that frequently involved direct communication with conscious entities that were “benevolent, intelligent, sacred, eternal and all-knowing” and that approximately half of the participants described their experience as ‘mystical’.
It has not gone unnoticed that these accounts are not dissimilar from those who participated in the ancient Mysteries at Eleusis.
In The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Cult with No Name (pub. 2020) linguist Brian C. Muraresku details his 20-year deep dive into ancient psychedelic research and the role of Ergot and other possible psychedelic substances in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The linguist who has never taken a psychedelic drug in his life, argues the possibility that humans have used psychedelic drugs as far back and the stone age, and the Kykeon is a possible precursor for the Christian Eucharist.
However, despite emerging evidence, the jury is still out on whether or not psychedelics played a role in ancient Greek enlightenment.
There is evidence that other cultures, like the Egyptians, grew psychedelics plants but evidence on how they used the plants is still up for debate.
Traditional scholars agree that the states of euphoria felt at Eleusis was more likely caused by the participants arriving in a famished state after a 3-day fast and dancing for several hours – a combination that can stimulate the nervous system and result in self-induced visions and hypnotic trances.
While the traditional explanation of the euphoric effect of The Mysteries is certainly possible and generally accepted, psychedelic researchers and classical linguists cannot ignore the comparative similarity of the accounts given by modern-day psychedelic drug users and initiates of the ancient temples.
Whether or not the ancient Greeks used psychedelics for spiritual purposes, and if they happened upon them on purpose, by accident, or at all, is still unknown. Further research is required, and new technology is helping researchers gain more insight into how ancient societies used medicinal plants and the relationship between consciousness, reality, and nature.
Griffiths RR, Hurwitz ES, Davis AK, Johnson MW, Jesse R (2019) Survey of subjective “God encounter experiences”: Comparisons among naturally occurring experiences and those occasioned by the classic psychedelics psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT. PLoS ONE 14(4): e0214377. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214377
Brian C. Muraresku (2020) The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name
Georgio Samorini, The Oldest Archaeological Data Evidencing the Relationship of Homo Sapiens with Psychoactive Plants: A Worldwide Overview, Journal of Psychedelic Studies, volume 3, issue 2
R.Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck (1978) The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California
You probably know that quote, don’t you? Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias featured prominently in both promotion for the ultra-popular TV show Breaking Bad, and also in the acclaimed comic series Watchmen. Did you know it was written in response to the Ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus? His account of an inscription he read beneath a colossal statue group in an Egyptian temple directly inspired Shelley, who in turn has inspired countless others, leading to his poem popping up in all sorts of unexpected places.
It is a great contemporary example of how the Classical world comes down to us today. The perception can be that the Classics are sequestered away at elite universities, inaccessible to the world at large. Yet that’s not the truth; the Classics surround us, all the time, often in ways we don’t even realise.
Edith Hall, one of the UK’s foremost Classicists, details this in her new book with Henry Stead, A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689 to 1939. Her book focuses on the ways that the Classics have intersected with the daily lives of ordinary, working class people through the centuries. Although the title indicates a focus on Britain and Ireland, Hall’s real subject is Class, and how average, working class life has always been bound up with the Classics.
If that piques your interest, Edith Hall will also be speaking live at our online Symposium this August. A major voice for the importance and relevance of the Classics, Edith will be giving her lecture ‘Ozymandias Since the Cold War’, as part of our theme, End of Empires and Fall of Nations. Edith is joined by a legitimate all-star line up of some of the world’s most celebrated Classicists. In keeping with the theme of Edith’s book, this talk is accessible to EVERYONE. The ticket price is entirely your choice! Find out more below…
When you think of Sparta, what’s the first thing that jumps to mind? I’m willing to wager that you’re picturing immoveable, impenetrable warriors, the infamous black broth, or perhaps the often-brutal agoge. These things are certainly what first come to mind for me. After all, modern day depictions of Spartan culture portray a hard people who pride martial prowess above all else. Just look to the impossibly chiselled abs in the heavily stylised cinematic retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, ‘300’.
This isn’t just a modern view either. Even at the height of their power the Spartans were seen more as miserable brutes than philosophical thinkers. However, while this reputation isn’t totally unearned, I’m not so sure it’s perfectly accurate. I think the Spartans were less grim realists, and more sarcastic humourists. I should know, I’m Scottish. Let me explain.
We in Scotland have for a long time suffered under a similar reputation of being grumpy, miserable, hard-heads, much like the Spartans. I think this is, in part, due to each nation sharing a neighbour typified by a more refined and well-to-do reputation. Scotland has England, Sparta had Athens. The contrast, and the cultural exports of our neighbours, has painted both Scotland and Sparta with a mischaracterisation that doesn’t necessarily represent our true nature.
If you’ll indulge me, I will recount two quotes on the Spartans and the Scots that demonstrate this similarity even further. Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, describes the hidden cunning of the Spartans: “…they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle…This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child.”
Now consider this extract from Chapter One of André Mourois’ biography; The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming: Discoverer of Penicillin. “The English laughed, too, at the absence of humour with which (so they said) these northern immigrants were afflicted. It took hours of hard work, they maintained, to drive a joke into a Scotsman’s head…This picture was very inaccurate. The Scots have their own sense of humour, which is utterly unlike that of the English, who love long stories full of mockery and sentiment. The Scots, on the other hand, delight in a humour which is laconic, dry, vigorous and expressed with a perfectly straight face.”
These two extracts, from two authors over two thousand years distant, perfectly encapsulate the hidden wit of these two cultures which were (and are) so often painted as boorish and ignorant. I consider the Spartans great humourists because I recognise in Spartan discourse this same sense of humour that pervades Scottish culture.
You see, the Spartans were known for what we now call ‘Laconic wit’, a manner of conveying ideas characterised by short, sharp, pithy aphorisms that deliver truth in a satisfyingly minimalistic way. Those of you familiar with the regions of ancient Greece will be one step ahead of me. Laconic wit is named for Laconia, the home of the Spartans. They didn’t just adopt the idea, they pioneered it.
However, where most consider the terseness of the Spartans an extension of their hard, hand-to-mouth style existence, I believe it displays a silly, care free sense of humour. After all, Shakespeare teaches us that ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’.
One of the most famous examples of this Laconic wit is found in the Spartan response to Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great). Philip, after invading Southern Greece and forcing the submission of some of the other prominent City States, wrote to the Spartans asking whether he should come to them as friend or foe. The Spartans reply? “Neither”. This incensed Philip who then wrote, “If I invade Laconia, I shall turn you out.”. Again, the Spartans reply with one word. “If”. In the end, Philip never did conquer the Spartans.
Spartan history is dotted with examples of this sort of sharp, direct, retort but I feel these come across more as ironic, self-aware jibes than true, grim, arrogance. When I think of the Spartan exchange with Philip the first thing that comes to mind is the Scots phrase “Did ye, aye?” an extremely sarcastic way of saying you don’t believe someone, but easy for non-Scots to miss. In the same way, I think the humour of the Spartans has been missed here.
In Book 3 of his Histories, Herodotus recounts another quintessential example of Laconic wit at play. Herodotus describes how a group of Samians, unseated from their homes, petitioned the Spartans for their aid. The Samians, in audience of the Spartans, spoke at length of their troubles to ensure that the greatness of their need was well understood. To this the Spartans replied that the speech had been so long that they had forgotten the beginning and thus could make no sense of the end! The next day the Samians returned to the audience of the Spartans once more with nothing but an empty sack. Holding it out before them the Samians said simply; “The sack wants flour.”. The Spartan response? “You didn’t have to say ‘the sack’”. I find it impossible to picture that final line without imagining its speaker with a well-deserved smirk. This isn’t hard headedness, it’s tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s almost silly.
Let’s compare with a Scottish example. Robert Burns, the most famous of all Scottish poets, and figure of the ‘Scottish enlightenment’ of the 18th century, was once at the Greenock quay when a wealthy merchant fell into the harbour. The merchant couldn’t swim and floundered in the water as a crowd gathered. Before long, a sailor dove in, risking his own life, to pull the merchant out and save him from drowning. By way of thanks, the merchant reached into his pocket and produced a single shilling (a meagre sum) much to the dismay of the crowd who found such a small reward to be contemptible. Burns stepped forward to calm the tensions and with a broad smile shouted over the clamour “Please, the gentleman is of course the best judge of the value of his own life!”.
This is what I mean when I say I recognise this same humour in these Spartan stories. Burns’ response couches truth in humour in a way that cuts to the core of the issue. The sarcastic humour of the Scots might be a little more direct, a little more obvious, but to an accustomed ear, one can find the same elements with the Spartans.
So far, history has been kinder to the wit and humour of the Scots than of the Spartans, but in our modern age, full of resurgence of interest in the ancient world, now is the perfect time to deepen our appreciation of Spartan culture for more than just their warrior mentality and stoic resolve. When an Argonian visitor remarked to the Spartan King Eudamidas I that foreign travel risked corrupting Spartan citizens, Eudamidas replied simply; But you, when you come to Sparta, do not become worse, but better.
Perhaps we all can become better if we were to open our mind to new perspectives a little more often.
By Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, Co-Authors of ‘Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in‘
Professor Nancy Sherman recently stated that contemporary forms of Stoicism have become an industry. And a mega-industry at that. While many of these forms have little to do with Stoic philosophy, she is right. It is also clear that most modern-day popularizers and academics linked to Stoicism happen to be men (in fact, we are two men). In extreme cases, fans of popularized Stoicism even champion the misogynist idea that only men can be virtuous (within the Stoic community we call this group the “Broics”). Yet the ancient Stoic philosophers themselves, such as Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Seneca the Younger make it clear that the ability to act virtuously is not contingent on one’s sex or gender identity.
Musonius, in particular, advocated for women to be taught philosophy so that, like men, they too could progress towards a life well-lived. He did so because he believed that women had received the same cognitive abilities and natural inclinations towards virtue as their male counterparts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Musonius’ views, the feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft was influenced by Stoicism. She likewise emphasized the overarching goal of, and human capacity for, a flourishing life. Like Musonius, she believed that all humans could learn to act rationally and morally.
The Roman historian Plutarch and the biographer Diogenes Laërtius also highlight that the quest for virtue doesn’t only concern men. Plutarch documents the stories of the powerful Spartan queens Agiatis, Archidamia, and Agesistrata[i]. His point was to illustrate the fact that these women led by example when attempting to bring about much needed socioeconomic and land reforms in Hellenistic Sparta.
Similarly, Diogenes Laërtius dedicated time and effort to recording the story of the Stoic founder Zeno of Citium’s philosophical foster-mother and Cynic philosopher, Hipparchia[ii]. Diogenes also highlights the fact that Stoic philosophy owes its very existence to the wisdom of the Oracle, one of the most powerful of women’s voices in all of history[iii]. Zeno spoke with the Oracle, and her words inspired him to read the wise texts of the ancients, which then led him to teach what became Stoicism, on the Painted Porch (Stoa Poikile).
The fact that there is so little ink dedicated to any of these women in contemporary Stoic books, blogs, and social media posts suggests, to us at least, a lack of knowledge, not a lack of interest. So, let’s play our part in changing that.
What did the Ancient Stoics say about women?
In his Discourses 3.1, Musonius Rufus very explicitly states that there is no difference between men and women in terms of their ability to act rationally and virtuously:
Women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men—the power which we employ with each other and according to which we consider whether each action is good or bad, and honorable or shameful… In addition, a desire for virtue and an affinity for it belong by nature not only to men but also to women[iv].
He explained, in the very same lesson, the value of being a philosophically educated woman. Specifically, he stated that a woman who has studied philosophy is a better manager of the estate and is more likely to be happy and self-reliant. He also labeled women who truly understand philosophy as “philosophers,” not simply as “educated.” Clearly, Discourses 3 lies in direct contrast to any contemporary claims which hold that Stoicism is only for men, or that it is only of value if you happen to be a man! In Discourses 4.3, Musonius justifies his claim for equal education:
Someone might say that courage is an appropriate characteristic for men only, but this is not so. It is also necessary for a woman—at least for a most noble one—to be courageous and free from cowardice so that she is overcome neither by pain nor by fear.
It isn’t just Musonius who expects women to receive a philosophical education. Epictetus too, albeit in a much more matter-of-fact tone, also makes it clear that women (and men) should be taught philosophical principles[v], if they are to understand what constitutes an “appropriate act” (kathekonta). He evidently sees no reason why women cannot be philosophers. Seneca also shares similar sentiments when it comes to the education of his mother. Far from wishing to deny her a good education, or thinking that it was inappropriate for her to have obtained one, he writes in a public letter to her (Consolation to Helvia 17):
“If only my father, who really was the best of men, had resisted the tradition of his ancestors and let you make a thorough study of philosophy, rather than just a smattering!Thanks to your keen intellectual appetite, you learned more than one could have expected in the time[vi].
Of course, we should highlight that these examples of discussions about women are being held entirely by men. It is important that we acknowledge this if we are to be intellectually honest about Stoicism’s past and work towards equality in the future. We aren’t raising these examples to suggest women in philosophy need the validation or approval of ancient philosophers, but rather to dismiss those who would invoke these same philosophers for sexist and exclusionary reasons[vii].
Queen Agiatis’ Story
Agiatis, the 3rd century BCE Spartan Queen, plays a significant role in Stoicism’s history. Yet, while the Sparta of Hollywood holds center stage amongst contemporary Stoic groups, she is barely mentioned. This is despite her role in standing up against a murderous oligarchic regime, and passing socioeconomic and land reforms in the name of justice. We highlight this irony in our book Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In, for what could be more Stoic or Spartan than having the courage to take the fight to the powerful, even at great personal cost?
Agiatis accomplished all this when her world was turned upside down following the murder of her husband, King Agis IV, and her in-laws by Leonidas II. This left Agiatis with little option but to marry the son of Leonidas II, the future king Kleomenes III. As we explain in our book:
Even though Agiatis, out of love and devotion to the memory of her dead husband, Agis, grieved deeply over his demise, she agreed to marry Kleomenes and become his wife. She did her royal duties well and showed genuine affection to Leonidas’ son, who equally doted on her. However, Leonidas didn’t count on Agiatis’ loyalty to Sparta and her commitment to bring Agis’ social, political, and educational reforms into fruition. He also severely underestimated her ability to keep the ball firmly in her court and beat him at his own game. Agiatis countered Leonidas’ power moves by encouraging Kleomenes to become the hero who would restore Sparta to its former glory. Kleomenes eagerly listened to her, and he often asked her about Agis’ character strengths and flaws and his notions for reform. Before long, Agis’ plans became Kleomenes’ vision.
We told Agiatis’ story precisely because it is such a strong example of Stoicism. It also proves the ancient Stoics claims that an educated woman who courageously stands up for justice is an asset to her community, her family, and herself.
New Female Stoic Stories
We feel that it is particularly appropriate to briefly mention how women are contributing to Stoicism and moving the philosophy forward today. Firstly, it is not coincidental that we used Cynthia King’s or Emily Wilson’s translations of the classic Stoic texts. Equally, we could have chosen a passage from Sharon Lebell’s extremely accessible re-interpretation of Epictetus’ words in her book Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness. We might have also chosen to highlight Liz Gloyn’s work on The Ethics of the Family in Seneca or Julia Annas’ excellent book Intelligent Virtue.
Outside of academic endeavors, women are increasingly contributing to the conversation about, and application of, Stoic principles in everyday life. Kathryn Koromillas and Brittany Polat just organized the first all-women Stoic conference, which had a peak attendance of 220 people. Eve Riches and Brittany Polat run Stoic Car, an initiative that gives caregivers Stoic-based tools to better handle the pressures that teaching, volunteering and formal/informal forms of personal care typically involve. Meredith Kuntz provides help and support to parents who want to practice Stoicism in the family home. Kellys Rodriguez is the leader of the Madrid Stoic group and has begun to work with us to develop contemporary Stoic material that is written in the Spanish language and built upon Hispanic culture. All these initiatives highlight the fact that women are increasingly at the forefront of developing practical tools that are rooted in Stoic philosophy. In short, Stoic women are finding their voices and it’s about time they were heard.
Kai Whiting is a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at StoicKai.com
Leonidas Konstantakosis a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living in. He teaches in the international relations department at Florida International University.
[i] See Plutarch’s Life of Agis and Life of Kleomenes.
[ii] See Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 6.96-98
Written by Stefan Sencerz, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Part 1 and part 2 of this series focus on angels in the Western tradition. Part 3 focuses on the Eastern tradition as does the following article, the final installment in the series.
There are, of course, some dissimilarities between devas and angels. For one thing, angels are not born and seem to be everlasting. Devas are born (or reborn) (Rg Veda i.143.2 and x.129.6) and do not remain in their heavens eternally. Although their life-spans are very long, eventually they exhaust their karma and are reborn in a different realm.
There are, however, some interesting similarities between them. Both devas and angels are purely spiritual (i.e., immaterial) beings. Devas seem to lack perfect knowledge or wisdom and generally do not interact with devas occupying plans of existence higher than their own.
They can also lack spiritual wisdom. For example, according to Kaushitaki Upanishad (Book 4), Indra was weaker than his adversaries, Asuras, before he come to know his own Atman (soul), suggesting a kind of spiritual awakening.
Indra and Sachi Riding the Divine Elephant Airavata, from a Panchakalyanaka (Five Auspicious Events in the Life of Jina Rishabhanatha ([Adinatha]), India
Perhaps most interestingly, both angels and devas display moral flaws. Some angels are excessively proud or jealous of humans. This leads to their rebellion against God and eventual fall. Similarly, many devas are too preoccupied with pleasures, failing to give proper respect to Buddha and his fully awakened disciples, who represent the perfect wisdom. Thus, they show a similar lack of humility.
Do angels and humans have more in common than we know? Could we, in fact, have been angels or devas in another life? The fact is, most of us do not remember our previous lives—should these exist. I surely do not. Maybe there is nothing to remember.
Maybe I have never been an angel and I have never fallen. Maybe I have always been just a bear, or a wolf, or a ghost, or a hungry spirit, or a human, or something. Maybe I am all of these at each and every moment. Maybe this is my one and only life. I don’t know. This is perhaps why I myself lean towards a metaphorical interpretation of the Six Realms.
Seeing With Many Eyes by Greg Calise
When my mother took me on a tour of Auschwitz, where she had been imprisoned, it was obvious to me that she had endured and survived hell. What we do to animals, especially on factory farms, looks to me like condemning them to hell, too. When I observe politicians clinging to power, they apparently act like asuras. When I do something on the first instinct and only later think about it, I seem to be acting like an animal. And when I give in to my insatiate appetites, it seems like I am a hungry ghost (preta).
Thus, perhaps, I do simultaneously occupy all planes of existence implied by the Wheel of Life and Death. I am both a human and an animal, both a hungry ghost and a heavenly dweller, both a deva preoccupied by pleasure and an asura driven by anger and hate. The ultimate meaning of the myth may be that various dispositions and aspirations coexist in each and every one of us.
A great haiku master Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), a devout Buddhist in Jōdo Shinshū or Amidist tradition, offers a poetic rendition of the myth of the Wheel of Life and Death.
Traditional bhavachakra wall mural of Yama holding the wheel of life, Buddha pointing the way out, photo by Ms Sarah Welch, Seattle, Washington
His six-part poem (translated here by Robert Haas) is entitled “The Six Ways”:
bright autumn moon –
pond snails crying
in the saucepan
The Hungry Ghosts
flowers scattering –
the water we thirst for
far off, in the mist
in the falling of petals–
they see no Buddha
*“Law” is the translation of the Buddhist term “Dharma” which could be also translated as the “Truth”
Malignant Spirits (asuras)
in the shadow of blossoms,
voice against voice,
we humans —
among the blossoming flowers