Drugs - Capture of the Erymanthian Boar
Myth and Introduction
Hercules was ordered by Eurystheus to capture a fierce, wild boar that had been terrorizing the people who lived around Erymanthus, a cypress-covered mountain dedicated to Artemis, the Amazonian moon goddess. On the way to Erymanthus, Hercules had to pass by the region where the Centaurs lived. Hercules had a soft spot for these half-horse and half-human creatures, because in his youth the famous and immortal centaur, Chiron, had been his schoolmaster. The centaurs were known for being rowdy and rather Dionysian. One of them offered Hercules their best wine but others became jealous and a fight ensued. Hercules was forced to defend himself with his club and his arrows, tipped with the poisonous blood of the Hydra. Several centaurs died and others fled to Chiron’s cave. In the heat of the battle Hercules inadvertently hit Chiron in the knee with one of the deadly arrows, which caused such pain that Chiron cried out to Zeus to release him from immortality. Zeus granted his wish and the grief-stricken Hercules watched his old teacher die in front his eyes. Chiron was assigned a place in the zodiac as The Centaur, also known as Sagittarius.
Hercules was saddened and angered by his role in such a pointless death. He mourned Chiron, and then proceeded on towards Erymanthus in no mood to take any gruff from a boar, even a large, particularly savage one. Hercules relentlessly pursued the boar to a high mountain pass where it became mired in the snow. He jumped on the back of he boar and wrestled it into submission. The hero tied the weary boar’s legs together, hoisted the huge body over his back carried it all the way back to Mycenae. King Eurystheus was so terrified at the sight of the boar with its piercing eyes and huge tusks that he dove into his large bronze jar and hid there for two days.
Both the mountain and the boar with its symbolic half-moon-shaped tusks were sacred to the moon goddess Artemis. Artemis is an earlier form of the Virgin Mary. A 1,600-year-old legend that has Mary living and dying in Ephesus reinforces this connection. The boar was worshiped as sacrificial god surrogate, and earlier versions of the Christian Savior God, including Attis, Tammuz, and Adonis, were sacrificed as boars or slain by priests wearing boarskins. Boars are also closely related to pigs, and the taboo against eating pork can be traced to the fact that they were considered holy before they were considered unclean. As Soloman Reinach puts it, “The pious Jew abstains from pork because his remote ancestors, five or six thousand years before our era, had the wild boar as their totem.”
So, ironically, what was once holy has become unclean. This shift in symbolism does not only apply to boars and pigs. For thousands of years, it seems that Nature was embodied in a Great Mother Goddess who had as her companion a horned god. Various animals, including the wild boar, stood in for this horned companion. After the rise of the patriarchal Abrahamaic religions, rites, practices, and figures associated with the old pagan religions were demonized, subsumed or forgotten. Old gods and goddesses were retired or transformed into saints or demons. Moses, who was pictured with horns in the famous sculpture by Michelangelo, became God’s liaison. The number 13, associated with the lunar calendar became unlucky. Crazy people are still called “lunatics” or “loonies.” Women were burned at the stake as witches if they practiced the old nature religions.
This holy/unclean dichotomy also applies to the history of psychoactive substances. Drugs—especially psychedelic drugs—were historically used as sacramental substances in rituals designed to connect to nature and transcend everyday life. Today the out-of-control boar with the piercing eyes and the huge tusks in the Hercules story can be seen as the scary, nasty side of addiction and substance abuse. The brutish and dangerous boar, charging about and leaving chaos in its wake, also represents the command-and-compliance approach to drug control that now characterizes international drug policy. To control the extroverted, destructive side of the beast means going inward and becoming “transparent to the transcendental,” as mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say. Restoring the connection to nature, which is within us as well as without, will help bring about both mental and physical health.
The boar can be seen as our dispirited collective self that has been disconnected from its mystical roots. The boar can also symbolize the effects of misused psychoactive substances as well as the reactionary War on Drugs, both of which are out of control and dangerous. This disconnection is causing society to become weary as it slugs through the deep drifts of drug and alcohol related issues. Because the boar wears the crescent-shaped horns of the moon, it is also representative of all aspects of the Moon-goddess, birth, life and death. In the Hercules myth, the boar is focused on the negative side of death and has become a killing machine—the destroyer aspect. This is what has happened to our modern culture. The sacramental notion of drugs has retreated to the fringes, while the destructive aspect rages unabated.
The wine-drinking Centaurs are fun loving and Dionysian. A certain amount of this is endearing and shows a zest for life, and there is nothing wrong with having a little fun now and then. When it goes too far, things fall out of balance and bad things can happen, like when Hercules accidentally shoots Chiron, his beloved teacher and friend.
The Greek Artemis, who was known to the Romans as Diana, is a moon-goddess. Like the moon itself, and all Moon-goddesses, she is sometimes said to have three aspects—virgin, mother, and crone—which represent birth, life and death. Artemis was known as “Mother of the Gods,” signifying the mother aspect. In the story of Actaeon, both her virgin and destroyer aspects are illustrated. Actaeon, who was a form of the dying and revivifying vegetation god, once spied on the virginal Artemis while she was bathing. For this transgression, Artemis turned him into a stag. Here is the horned god companion again. Then, as the huntress or death crone, she sent hounds to tear him to pieces. The meaning of this is derived from the natural world. Artemis, as Mother Nature, is capable of hunting and killing the very creatures she nurtures and inspires.
The name Artemis means “she-bear,” and she was identified with Ursa Major, the Great Bear constellation that was said to protect the Earth’s pole. This connects the Bear Goddess to the tree in the center of the Garden of the Hesperides, since that tree is also symbolic of the Earth’s pole. From the northern hemisphere, Ursa Major appears to revolve around the pole star, which was perceived to be the center of the heavens. Ursa Minor was seen as Artemis’ bear cub son or escort. As the Great-She-Bear-in-the-Sky, she shares with Draco (the snake or dragon) the duty of guarding the imaginary pole, which appears to hold up the slowly spinning, upside-down bowl of the sky. In Greek mythology, Atlas also performs this same function, as does Hercules for a short while—as we shall see in Labor X and Labor XI when we explore the symbolism of the celestial axis.
In prehistoric times, as well as in antiquity, psychoactive substances were considered the food of the gods to be used on special occasions in a ritualized setting. This practice still continues in small pockets of the world or on the fringes of “civilized” society. More commonly today we may observe in certain Christian churches the ritualized use of bread and wine that signifies the eating of the body and the drinking of the blood of Christ. Non-psychoactive food and an addictive, mind-numbing intoxicant have replaced the sacramental role of mind-expanding psychedelic plants.
When I was a young Catholic boy, receiving the Eucharist in the sacrament of Holy Communion, a nun told me that through the miracle of transubstantiation I was eating the actual body of Christ. I was also told that to intentionally touch the host with my lips, hands or teeth would constitute a mortal sin. The substance or essence of the wafer was the actual body of Christ, while the continued illusion created by my lying eyes was referred to as the accident. For almost a thousand years the Catholic Church has traditionally been so insistent on this hocus-pocus that in the earlier years a priest could lose his life if he happened to state the obvious.
The concretization of symbolic, naturalistic rituals occurred as authoritarian, monotheistic religions and traditions drove humans away from the direct worship of nature. It appears that some of the hysteria related to psychedelic drugs we see in modern times might be grounded in the fear of re-establishing this connection. People heavily under the influence of the Islamic or Judeo-Christian religions are highly suspicious of psychoactive plants that show them anything that might separate them from their beliefs. As a result, the use of drugs has also become disconnected from its traditional purpose, and dogma has almost completely replaced direct experience in most religious ceremonies. There is now overwhelming evidence the origins of virtually all religions are intertwined with the use of hallucinogens or with the alteration of consciousness through drumming, dancing, chanting, sexual ecstasy, fasting, praying, hyperventilation, or meditating.
On the fringes of the Abrahamic religions you still find consciousness altering practices today. Examples include the ego transcending Sufi spinning dance of the Whirling Dervishes that mimics other spinning bodies in nature, the ecstatic dancing and music in African Christian Churches, the snake handling and strychnine consumption of certain Pentacostal sects, and the shouting and singing of the pantheistic Hasidic Jews. It was recently discovered that the smoke from burning frankincense that is wafted down the aisles during a Catholic High Mass is a psychoactive drug that may reduce anxiety and depression. When I was a kid I was told that it was to keep away the evil spirits, an idea that probably came from belief that it drove away snakes, like the one that offered Adam and Eve knowledge. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh was one of the gifts made to the baby Jesus by the three Magi.
To read more about the mesmerizing subject of drugs, the author’s remarkable adventure after experimenting with a certain jungle beverage in the Amazon, and how we can end the drug war for the mutual benefit of all, click here. To read about Labor V: Environment, click here.