This post presents my summary review of The Immortality Key and collects in one place my writings on the book from October 2020 to May 2021.

Table of Contents

Summary Review – read this for the basics

Elaborations – further reading that expands on points in the Summary Review

Links to Posts – detailed critique

Summary Review

The Immortality Key (TIK) by Brian Muraresku proposes to introduce the general American public to the topic of psychedelics in Greco-Roman and Christian religion and culture.

What should a book with the above goal accomplish? Such a book should review the scholarship published so far on the topic, evaluate the methods, conclusions, and evidence of that scholarship, and point out questions still to be answered and gaps in the research. In short, the book should be a history and evaluation of the field, summarizing what has been achieved and what needs to be done. Such a book would need to present enough Greco-Roman and Christian history and culture to contextualize the scholarship and discuss the implications of the scholarship for our understanding of Greco-Roman and Christian history and culture. Ultimately such a book should contribute to the transformation of modernity’s understanding of religion, from ordinary-state based to altered-state based.

Despite presenting itself initially as an introduction to the field, TIK soon gives way to a more limited scope: to prove Carl Ruck’s ‘secret tradition’ approach to psychedelics in religion with bio-chemical archaeological scholarship. Curiously, the book undermines both parts of this argument. Only a limited selection of Ruck’s scholarship is discussed, and the scholarship of Ruck’s that is discussed is treated as if not convincing on its own terms, needing additional evidence from the hard sciences to persuade. Conversely, the hard science that we are promised will provide a ‘smoking gun’ is singularly underwhelming. As the book admits again and again, the right sort of tests either have not been done, are impossible now to do for some sites and finds, or when they have been done are simply inadequate to prove the ‘secret tradition.’ The structure of the book creates a frustrating tension: always holding out the promise of finding proof to keep the reader turning the page, never delivering on that promise.

What, we may ask, does the book accomplish? There is another narrative running through the book, a narrative that constitutes the true goal of the book. This narrative has two interwoven aspects. Chapter by chapter the book constructs an image of its author, Brian Muraresku, as a scholar and researcher who travels the world to museums, archaeological sites, libraries, and meetings with scholars. Likewise, by following Muraresku’s travels, thoughts, and conversations, chapter by chapter the book constructs Muraresku’s own version of the ‘secret tradition’ of psychedelic religion. Muraresku has taken the ‘secret tradition’ idea over from Ruck and developed it in his own direction.

Muraresku’s version of the ‘secret tradition’ is a tradition, continuous over the centuries, and handed down by tenuous connections, of psychedelic techniques for communing with the dead in ceremonies lead by women. This tradition was oppressed by male politicians and priests who wanted to prevent people from having direct, mystical experiences. Instead, they replaced those experiences with mere words and doctrine. The constant mention of the author’s travels, research, and conversations are meant to give him an air of authority and lend credence to his version of the ‘secret tradition.’ Reading closely, however, the book’s argumentation, evidence, and endnotes, shows this version of the ‘secret tradition’ to be little more than flimsy conjecture. If we were to cut the author’s tales of travel and conversations, this weakness would be even more apparent.

If the book were merely an attempt to publicize its author and his implausible conjecture, we could put the book into the stack of ‘entheogen scholarship’ books that make some contribution to the progress of the field, sharpen our critical tools by evaluating the book’s strengths and flaws, and move on to the next book while continuing our own research. However, there is another aspect of the book that deserves special attention, an aspect that amounts to a hidden intention. The book’s conjectural ‘secret tradition’ is intended to prop up contemporary psychedelic therapy and its political and social goals.

The book presents psychedelic therapy as providing direct experience, in contrast to contemporary religion’s mere words. Furthermore, the book associates experience with women and associates words and doctrine with men. The book projects this reductive contrast on to the past, leading to a picture of a ‘secret tradition’ of psychedelic experiences oppressed by organized religion’s words, of ‘witches’ oppressed by priests.

Shockingly, in the book’s Afterword, psychedelic therapy is praised as a superior version of the ‘secret tradition’ conjectured by the book, and the book gives space for a contemporary therapist to advocate for therapists to have control of administering psychedelics to people. These will be the new ‘mystery religions,’ providing direct experience. The book’s hidden intention is to subordinate the history of psychedelics in Western religion to psychedelic therapy and its social and legal goals.

The book is ultimately a regressive work, despite posing as culturally progressive. The book advocates for a special class of administrators to have the legal power to administer psychedelics in tightly controlled settings. A far cry from the book’s apparent sympathy with the groups the book depicts as oppressed by a hierarchy seeking to control access to the psychedelic eucharist. The book has a predatory approach to the topic of Western religion: pick out the parts useful for its social agenda, demonize and discard the rest. In doing so, the book shuts itself off from understanding Western religion and undermines progress in the field.

The book is not a well-intentioned scholarly work, dedicated to making a contribution to the field and moving the field forward. The book is instead a P.R. campaign for its author and contemporary psychedelic therapy. Whether knowingly or not, the author and his book have become a tool of contemporary psychedelic therapy.


Regarding TIK‘s relationship to Carl Ruck and to chemical analysis

TIK discusses only two of Ruck’s books, The Road to Eleusis (for Greek topics) and The Apples of Apollo (for Greek and Christian topics). Where are his many other books and articles? The rest of Ruck’s output is ignored in favor of the book’s own version of a ‘secret tradition’ of psychedelic use in Western religion. In fact, most scholarship in the field is studiously ignored in the book.

The initial premise of the book is curiously dismissive of Ruck’s scholarship, the very scholarship the book hopes to redeem. Ruck’s scholarship is treated as fundamentally unconvincing in its own right. Instead, the book claims, chemical analysis of archaeological finds is needed to really, truly prove that psychedelics were used in Western religion. This focus on chemical analysis as the guarantor of plausibility implies not only that Ruck’s scholarship is not particularly convincing, but that textual, artistic, and theoretical approaches in general are unconvincing. This self-defeating stance is all the more ironic when we consider that the book does not turn up much particularly compelling evidence (by the book’s own admission, mind you!) derived from chemical analysis and pivots to the very textual, artistic, and theoretical approaches that its obsession with chemical analysis has undermined.

The laboratory tests have either not been done or are not possible for some sites or are inconclusive. This happens again and again in the book, despite the great fanfare that a mind-blowing piece of evidence is just about to be revealed in each new chapter. Here, too, we find a curious weakness. Although the book triumphs chemical analysis of archaeological finds, the book does not provide the ultra-compelling evidence that it says it wants to find. What then is the point of this book?

TIK‘s ‘secret tradition’ and conjectural relationship to historical scholarship

To construct its own version of the ‘secret tradition,’ TIK relies on poorly substantiated ‘links’ between groups to create an elaborate chain of transmission of psychedelic use and knowledge. This chain of transmission is not so much argued for and proven as suggested. The arguing style relies on series of conditional statements: “if A is possible, then perhaps B is possible” ; “if A and B are possible, then perhaps C is possible” ; “if A and B and C are possible, then perhaps D is possible” ; and so on. The book leaves us with a series of possibilities, building up an ever more wobbly stack of cards. The book uses some scholarly sources to substantiate those possibilities, but typically draws upon a single source per topic. When the scholarly book or article is solid, TIK shines, but when the source is tendentious or overly biased and incomplete, the book falters.

Furthermore, TIK frequently goes beyond what the scholarly source supports, but rarely indicates when doing so. TIK frequently mixes solid scholarship with groundless fantasy, but obscures what precisely derives from another’s scholarship and what derives from the author’s conjecture. The book gives the impression of being rooted in scholarship. Nonetheless, a close reading of the book and endnotes show that the majority of the book is the author’s conjecture and fantasy, albeit passed off as reasonable and well-supported by scholarship.

Correcting TIK‘s ‘secret tradition’

I do not think that TIK is wrong to identify psychedelic usage in the groups the book does, but I do not think those were the only groups. Nor do I think that the groups were persecuted because of their use of psychedelics. There is no need to posit an elaborate and brittle chain of transmission of secret, oppressed knowledge and use. TIK has a scatter-shot approach to evidence for psychedelics. On the one hand, the book continually praises chemical analysis as the only way to ‘prove’ psychedelics. On the other hand, the book draws on an odd melange of techniques to construct the brittle secret tradition that it does. Methodology is not discussed, but techniques and types of evidence are thrown together opportunistically as the author needs to construct his fantasy secret tradition. Much evidence is ignored, one imagines because such evidence would interfere with the author’s fantasy. Perceiving evidence for psychedelics requires discussion of what counts as evidence and why.

The groups that TIK describes, rightly or wrongly, as oppressed were not oppressed because of psychedelic usage, which was common and widespread throughout Greco-Roman and premodern Christian culture. TIK automatically assumes that the Roman Senate and later the early Church bishops and later Catholic priests were opposed to psychedelics, and in the Christian case, provided a placebo eucharist, instead of the psychedelic eucharist. These competing groups should instead be understood as competing brands of psychedelic salvation, and we should understand that the competition between them is a matter of rhetoric, resources, power, etc. not psychedelic vs. placebo.

TIK‘s narrative of research

The majority of the book is given over not to a discussion of scholarship and to history, but to the author’s detective-like narrative. The real subject of TIK is the author, Brian Muraresku. Page after page narrate his discussions and meetings with scholars, his travels around Europe, his visits to sites and libraries. TIK portrays the normal work of scholarship as an unusual and rare process of fascinating interest for the general reader. This narrative obscures that Muraresku has not turned up anything particularly new or convincing. Researchers, take note! When you don’t find anything in your research, simply write about the process of your research in excruciating detail! With the right publisher’s backing, you too can have a best-seller!

TIK‘s hype and fame, scholarly reviews

Since the book’s publication, Muraresku has gone on a major media campaign, celebrated as a scholar. In reality, he has pulled one over on us, disguising his under-argued, under-supported fantasy of a secret tradition of oppressed, women-led psychedelic initiations as solid scholarship.

Scholars in a variety of fields should call Muraresku out for passing himself off as a scholar and profiting from media hype. Jerry Brown‘s and Chris Bennett‘s reviews provide much needed correction of Muraresku’s claims. I would go further, however, and reject the book’s value in raising awareness and popularizing the topic. The book has received enough praise from its press kit. Brown’s review is admirably impartial, as befits a scholarly journal. Although I disagree to some extent with the initial framing of the book as “fascinating, audacious, and important,” Brown is rightfully critical of the book’s claims to newness, omission of scholarship, and historical over-reach. Bennett focuses on TIK‘s omission of research on cannabis, including his own, and especially archaeological evidence for cannabis, the very evidence TIK champions. Even more fascinating is Bennett’s account of his correspondence with Muraresku: glowing praise of Bennett’s research, then omission of that research in his book; appearing on Bennett’s podcast to discuss the book, then ignoring any subsequent communication. These are not the actions of a scholar.

Brown and Bennett both treat TIK as if the problems with the book are oversights on the author’s part that can be corrected by more knowledgeable and experienced scholars. In light of the intense media hype surrounding the book, I think they and other scholars should be suspicious and keep the book and its author at arm’s length. The problem extends beyond the author to the media apparatus surrounding him and to the contemporary media culture. Whatever scholarly intentions the author may have had, they have been distorted by the larger media apparatus. Such an apparatus transforms the author from a scholar into a media profiteer and participant in media culture.

The book is largely a product of the so-called “Psychedelic Renaissance” and its university, NGO, and media machine, advocating for psychedelic therapy and controlled distribution by therapists. To me the question is less “how could this particular book be better?” and more “how and why did this particular book arise at this particular time?”

Regressive character of TIK, intellectual and cultural

The greatest tragedy of TIK is the effect it will have on the general reader’s understanding of who used psychedelics in Western religions for what purposes. The author’s anti-Roman, anti-Church stance prevents the book from addressing the topic of psychedelics wedded to social, political, and economic authority. The book perseveres in the illusion that psychedelic users inherently are an underclass, subversive to power and order. The persistence of such an illusion prevents us from seeing the full role of psychedelics in history.

Lastly, the cultural politics of TIK is solidly on the side of contemporary groups that want to limit access to psychedelics and create a controlled hierarchy. For all its opposition to the Roman Senate and Catholic Church hierarchy as oppressors of ‘folk’ use of psychedelics, TIK firmly supports the efforts of university and therapist-led psychedelic administration centers, to the exclusion of the free use by a variety of people. Hubristically, TIK claims that modern psychedelic therapy has surpassed pre-modern religions and gives prominent space in the Afterword to one of the head university therapists who advocates for tight control of substances by therapists. This praise sits uneasily with Muraresku’s history of oppressed psychedelics users in pre-modernity. Another incoherence of the book: a book whose historical narrative seeks to champion the oppressed psychedelics users in history against the hierarchy that would control access, ends with praise of a program that would put power in just such a hierarchy of controlled access.

Authoritarianism and hierarchy disguised as revolution and emancipation.

I immediately noticed the strange media hype surrounding the book:

11 Oct 20: Media Hype about Muraresku, The Immortality Key

Then I wrote about Graham Hancock’s forward and the book’s allegiance to modern therapy

12 Oct 20: Graham Hancock foreward to Muraresku, The Immortality Key

16 Oct 20: Muraresku, The Immortality Key, subordinates psychedelics in religious history to modern therapy/science/medical paradigm

19 Oct 20: Hopkins/NYU therapy model of psychedelics guides Muraresku, The Immortality Key

21 Oct 20: Therapists/Muraresku/Hancock overconfident in controlling psychedelic-induced loose cognition (The Immortality Key)

23 Oct 20: Proponents of psychedelic therapy typically occlude realities of economics and access

Then I critiqued the book’s method and historical content

8 Nov 20: Strict evidence and loose history: methodology problems in Muraresku ‘The Immortality Key’

17 Nov 20: Moving on from Muraresku, The Immortality Key [I was frustrated when I named this post; an incomplete set of rants about the poor quality of the book and its pretensions to scholarship]

24 Nov 20: Correcting Key Points in Muraresku, The Immortality Key [Summary descriptions of most chapters and discussion of key claims and flaws]

27 Nov 20: Advice to readers of The Immortality Key (Muraresku); Selective history; altered state not rare or deviant in ancient Mediterranean

2 Feb 21: The Eleusis Meme: Over-focus on ergot at Eleusis limits discussion of psychedelics in Western premodernity