Mixing the kykeon*

One of the intriguing mysteries of ancient Greece is what is the nature of the nourishing, medicinal, magical and potentially dangerous drink that is known as kykeon.

Kykeon made for “A gastronomic journey back in time” 
(On Saturday, 6th of October I created a dinner for the Friends of Museum and Archaeological site of Delphi. The menu was inspired by tastes from homeric to modern times)
photo by Stella Drimiskianaki

In the eleventh rhapsody of Iliad the “fair-curled Hecamede prepared a mixture, she whom the old man had brought from Tenedos, when Achilles laid it waste, the daughter of magnanimous Arsinoüs, whom the Greeks selected for him, because he surpassed all in counsel. First she set forward for them a handsome, cyanus-footed, well-polished table; then upon it a brazen tray, and on it an onion, a relish  for the draught, as well as new honey, and beside it the fruit of sacred corn. Likewise a splendid cup near them, which the old man had brought from home, studded with golden nails. Its handles were four, and around each were two golden pigeons feeding, and under it were two bottoms. Another indeed would have removed it with difficulty from the table, being full; but aged Nestor raised it without difficulty. In it the woman, like unto the goddesses, had mixed for them Pramnian wine, and grated over it a goat’s-milk cheese with a brazen rasp, and sprinkled white flour upon it: then bade them drink, as soon as she had prepared the potion.”
Kykeon in this case was used to nourish Nestor’s tired friends  and the wounded Machaon, the son of Asclepius~ the god of healing.  (Iliad 11 ver. 635 – 641).
However, in the tenth book of the Odyssey, Circe the witch makes a kykeon spiced up with dangerous herbs and honey for Odysseus’ companions. The influence of the drink transformed them into swines (Odyssey, 10 ver. 230-240).

At the end of the 7th century a recipe for kykeon without wine  appeared in the Homeric hymn to Demeter, where it provides the myth for the consumption of kykeon at the Eleusinian mysteries.
“She (Demeter) asked instead for barley and water to drink mixed with tender leaves of glechon. Metaneira made the potion and gave it to the goddess as she had asked; and great Deo received the potion as the precedent for the Mystery. (Homeric Hymn to Demeter, line 207 ff; in Wasson et al. 1998, 74) Glechon or blechon is the ancient Greek name for the pennyroyal (Mentha palegium).

A recipe for glechon kykeon is also found in the Diseases of Women II, in the chapter on the red flux:

“If (the flux) is pungent, give a kykeon: let there be a portion of the previous remedy, one of cheese, one of barley meal. Towards the evening, add some honey and give to drink.” The previous remedy was made with moss from the olive tree, oak gall, rue, oregano, glechon, barley meal, ground mixture of pulses and goat’s cheese.
Both recipes includ barley meal and glechon and both have to be taken while fasting
Barley groats (alfita), water and glechon were also the elements for the Eleusinian kykeon:
“On the fifth day of the festival (19 Boedromion) the celebrants would proceed in formal procession from Athens back to Eleusis, bearing the sacred hiera as well as a statue of the boy-god Iacchos. The latter deity, who personified the shouts of exultation that the participants would periodically emit, was identified at least as far back as the days of Sophokles with Dionysos (cf. Antigone, vv. 1115 ff.). This identificiation constitutes prima facie evidence of a very significant connection between the Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries…..
The initiates would then rest, purify themselves, and maintain either a partial or complete fast. It is believed that they would break their fast as evening approached by drinking a special beverage known as the “kykeon,” consisting of meal and water mixed with fresh pennyroyal mint leaves (the same brew that Demeter drank, as recounted in the Hymn, lines 210-11). Obviously, the grain in the drink was a symbol of Persephone, the eternal goddess who dies, goes under the ground, and then comes back to life again.

Scholars disagree widely over the significance of the kykeon. Some have maintained that it must have had a sacramental character involving a communion with, or assimilation of, the spirit of the deity (Loisy 69; Jevons 365ff.). On the other hand, Mylonas doubts that it had any such “mystic” significance, although he acknowledges that the drinking of the kykeon was an “act of religious remembrance” involving “an observance of an act of the Goddess” (259f.). Even on this muted interpretation, the similarity to the Christian Eucharist is striking.” The Eleusinian Mysteries

Some scholars have proposed that the power of the Eleusinian Mysteries came from the use of a psychoactive drug in kykeon; because alfita, water and glechon were the elements publicly announced and not part of the secret. In the Road to Eleusis, R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hoffman, and Carl A. P. Ruck suggested that the ergot species Claviceps purpurea- which contains LSA, a precursor to LSD-  was the probable psychoactive ingredient of the kykeon. Their theory remains controversial although the Mixing the Kykeon, from the pages of ELEUSIS: Journal of Psychoactive Plants and Compounds, New Series 4, 2000, describes in much detail the chemical process of mixing an alkali with ergot alkaloids to produce a much less toxic product: “Hypotheses advanced in The Road to Eleusis  concerning the possible composition and method of preparation of the kykeon are evaluated in light of published criticism. Objections to the Eleusis theory are countered, and based on a largely overlooked aspect of the chemical hydrolysis of ergot alkaloids, a new hypothesis is suggested that reinvigorates the  Eleusis debate. In part 2 of this essay, organic chemist Daniel M. Perrine provides further considerations that build upon the new idea, and a technical discussion of the practicality and realisability of the “Ergine Hypothesis” paves the way for new chemical and psychopharmacological research. In part 3, co-author of The Road to Eleusis Carl A. P. Ruck re-examines the Eleusis mythologies and ritual practises from which appear a much expanded understanding of the entheo-pharmacology of the ancient world”.

Of course
you can always attempt to make a glass of homeric kykeon.  

The name itself is a clue; kykeon comes from the verb kykao, which means “stirring”, “churning”.
Another clue comes from Homer, who characterised the mixture as sitos, ‘cereal food’, always it is drunk though. The twelfth century archbishop of ThessalonikiEustathius  says that kykeon was something between food and drink; “perhaps, it was a sort of soup that you could sup”  (Eusth. 870. 65 ει και μεταξύ βρωτού και ποτού ο κυκεών είναι δοκεί, αλλά μάλλον οία ζωμός τις ροφητός ην”)
These suggest that the resulting mixture was something  like a thick soup. 
Besides, the  late fourth or early fifth century grammarian and lexicographer Hesychius of Alexandria equates ptisane with kykeon. (Hesychius, Lexicon. Kykeon) This is not a surprise since  ptisane was made from hulled and roasted barley groats and kykeon was made from roasted and ground barley.
However, in spite of the fact that Homer suggests that the consistency of kykeon depends upon the continuation of stirring, if you’ll add some roasted and ground barley meal to wine, grate goat’s milk cheese over it and stir constantly you will definitely not have a thick drink.  Moreover, the resulting mixture is not very pleasant to modern palate.

Everytime I make kykeon for a historical dinner I mix a portion of wine with roasted barley meal, grated firm goat cheese and honey and simmer for a few minutes stirring constantly. Then I remove from heat, let cool, add some more wine to thin and stir again. The taste is pleasant and here is a third clue; Homer said that Hecamede used Pramnian wine.  Eparchides (3rd century b.C. apud Athenaios Deipnosophists, 1.30 b-e) says that Pramnian wine was produced in the island of Icaria, on the mount Pramnos. This wine was so dry and of such exceeding strenght that, according to Aristophanes,  Athenians didn’t enjoy it.   Galen describes it as “black and austere wine” (οἶνός τις οὕτως ὀνομαζόμενος μέλας καὶ αὐστηρός) and this quality may have suggested the etymology proposed by  Eustathius and others, from παραμένειν, because of its ability to mature.
Therefore, choose  a dry, austere and crisp red wine. Barley meal,  goat cheese and thyme honey not only act as a stimulant to drinking but also sweeten and balance the taste of wine. 

*The title is borrowed from “Mixing the Kykeon“,  ELEUSIS: Journal of Psychoactive Plants and Compounds, New Series 4, 2000.


Surprise spice wine and period dishes

The recreation of period dishes is a love story with history, adventure, test cooking and playfulness. 
And every time I cook, I always seem to find myself asking the same question: “How did it taste? Can we ever know what an ancient dish tasted like?”
Some of the difficulties  are obvious; there are no precise measurements and times. Moreover, if a recipe calls for 4 eggs you will probably use 3 thanks to modern chickens that lay big eggs. The modern milk is homogenized, pasteurized, and has less fat than ancient milk, so you may need to use a mixture of milk and cream.
The truth is that while forming the recipes, I experiment with all the possibilities.
The following section presents a dinner based on recipes that appeared during Rome’s Imperial period.

The table of the ancient Roman aristocracy allowed to express one’s wildest imagination. That’s not a big surprise since the Empire, at its zenith, stretched from Western Europe to the Near East and from Northen Europe to Northen Africa (famed for its agriculture).  Moreover Romans adopted Greek fashions, spending lavishly on imported foods and wines.
Of course, not all inhabitants of Rome ate stuffed dormice and peacocks’ tongues.  The common people lived in crowded conditions and had to sustain on grains, vegetables and fruits. The state provided them bread and free entertainment; panem et circensus~ bread and circuses.  So, they didn’t revolt.


The cooking of Imperial Rome can be defined as the art of perfecting a dish by adjusting bitter, sweet, sour and salty tastes.

Cucumbers and watermelon, sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper, pennyroyal powder, liquamen, wine vinegar and passum.*

Zucchini seasoned with pepper, cumin, a pinch of asafoetida,** rue (Ruta graveolens), liquamen,wine vinegar and a little defritum (for color).*



Always in use in the Roman kitchen were olive oil, garum or liquamen and wine. Salt was used mainly in preserving. Since sugar was unknown, honey and a concentrate of grape must were commonly used as sweetener, as were dates produced by Syria and Egypt.
In the Apicius cookbook, the flavor of dishes is often enhanced with 5-15 spices and herbs.

Aliter Isicia omentata: I mixed ground meat with bread soaked in wine. The mixture was flavored with pepper and liquamen and  after I had added pine nuts and pepper, I shaped it into something like keftes or small kebabs. Then, I wraped them in caul (omentum — caul) and boiled them in caroenum.*



 A poem attributed to Virgil describes the simple lunch of a farmer.
“First, lightly digging into the ground with his fingers, he pulls up four heads of garlic with their thick leaves; then he picks slim celery-tops and sturdy rue and the thin stems of trembling coriander. With these collected he sits before the fire and sends the slave-girl for a mortar. He splashes a grass-grown bulb with water, and puts it to the hollow mortar. He seasons with grains of salt, and, after the salt, hard cheese is added; then he mixes in the herbs. With the pestle, his right hand works at the fiery garlic, then he crushes all alike in a mixture. His hand circles. Gradually the ingredients lose their individuality; out of the many colors emerges one (color est e pluribus unus) – neither wholly green (for the white tempers it), nor shining white (since tinged by so many herbs). The work goes on: not jerkily, as before, but more heavily the pestle makes its slow circuits. So he sprinkles in some drops of Athena’s olive oil, adds a little sharp vinegar, and again works his mixture together. Then at length he runs two fingers round the mortar, gathering the whole mixture into a ball, so as to produce the form and name of a finished moretum. Meanwhile busy Scybale has baked a loaf. This he takes, after wiping his hands…” (Moretum 88-120, translation by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, The Classical Cookbook).

Follow Virgil’s method for this salad using the ingredients listed.
2 medium heads of fresh garlic
2 tb celery tops
1/2 small bunch of coriander leaves, finely minced
2-3 dried rue leaves
400 gr feta cheese or romano cheese, hand grated (the poem calls for a hard cheese but moretum is also tasty when made using feta cheese)
2 tb virgin olive oil
3 tb wine vinegar

CONDITUM PARADOXUM (Surprise spice wine)

Honey infused wines generally were served as aperitifs. The recipe is one of the very few in Apicius that include precise quantities.

“The composition of this extraordinary spiced wine is as follows: Place 5.4l of honey in a bronze vessel, having previously added 1.8l of wine. In this way, the wine shall be boiled off in the melting honey. The mixture is heated by a slow fire of dry wood and stirred, to boiling, with a wooden rod (if it begins to boil over add more cold wine to it). Take off the heat and allow to cool and settle. When it is cold, light another fire underneath. This second fire is followed by a third and only then can the mixture be moved away from the hearth. On the following day, skim the surface. Then add 120g of crushed pepper, 4g of mastic, a handful each of saffron leaves and spikenard and five  roasted date stones: these previously having been crushed and soaked in wine to soften them. When all this has been done, add 16l of  light wine into the vessel. Hot coals are added [to the finished product].”(http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/roman/fetch-recipe.php?rid=roman-conditum-paradoxum)

I used
3/4 bottle of red wine
3/4 cup of honey
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1 small bay leaf
1/4 tsp mastic powder
1 pinch saffron
(I didn’t use dates)
1/4 bottle Vinsanto wine (Domain Sigalas)

*Passum, defritum, caroenum
**Asafoetida was imported from central Asia as a substitute for Libyan silphium, which had been harvested to extinction.



Meal inspired by ancient Greek recipes at Thetis Authentics. It was perfectly matched the specific technologically authentic reproductions of ancient ceramic artefacts made by Thetis.

Black glazed ceramic pyxis (=box) with lid. Leaves and a sprig of myrtle decorate the lid. (Attic Workshop, 4th c.BC.) Ancient Greek pyxis may have served as a container for small objects, such as jewelry and toiletrie.

Black glazed plates, red glazed plate and a black glazed skyphos (drinking cup). 

It was not proper serving etiquette at an ancient lunch to serve food in drinking cups and jewelry boxes but  is permissible at a modern one. Besides, the foods looked so pretty in them.


On the 15th of December, I explored at Avocado Vegan Restaurant some appetizing vegetarian dishes relying primarily on the writings of Athenaeus. Though established centuries before the introduction of the tomato, pepper, potato and eggplant, ancient Greek everyday food depended on some elements familiar to modern Greek cuisine: cereals, legumes, wild greens, vegetables, herbs, olives, cheese, nuts, seeds, olive oil and honey.
The recipes I made were adapted for use in today’s kitchen environment.

Peas cooked with leeks and dill. Celery leaves in boiling water. Both, water and leaves, were poured over bulgur.

Many thanks to Avocado’s chef. His help was invaluable.

Serving myttotos, the ancient Greek sauce, made from leeks, garlic (of course), cheese and olive oil. On the left side you see sowthistles and beetroot leaves sprinkled with olive oil and verjuice. In the white bowl: pickled radishes and bulbs sprinkled with honey, vinegar, sesame, cheese and asafoetida.

Starting clockwise from the top center. Fava (Lathyrus clymenum) with pomegranate seeds, onion and olive oil. Peas with leeks. Mushrooms in honey and vinegar. Chickpeas with fresh coriander and cumin. In the center, bulgur.

Gastris, made from sesame seeds, toasted ground almonds and hazelnuts, poppy seeds, honey and black pepper.

The Avocado’s lovely helpers