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Etymologasms: 'Nectar' and the Journey Through Death

Today’s etymologasm (an etymological [study of word origin] hypothesis which tickles my fancy) is the origin of the word ‘nectar.’ The literal contemporary meaning of the word refers to the sweet juice that flowers produce which attracts different animal species. Animals can help with pollination (like bees) or protection (like ants), and they get the sugar- and nutrient-rich liquid in return. Metaphorical meanings have to do with liquids we love and enjoy: honey, bourbon, kombucha, each to their own.


However, the original nectar was the drink of the Greek gods. It is closely related - if not identical - to the ancient ‘ambrosia,’ with an occasional distinction appearing as nectar being a drink and ambrosia being food. Nevertheless, the idea was that consuming this heavenly edible (or rubbing it on, like Thetis did to her son Achilles) would grant any mortal eternal life.


Even the etymology of the two concepts relate closely to one another. Ambrosia is a combination of the negative prefix ‘a-’ meaning “not” or “without,” and some version of ‘mbro’ which is related to the root word of more contemporary terms like ‘mortal,’ amounting to something like “no-death.” I find ‘nectar’ more interesting. The first half of the word is ‘nec’ which is related to the word ‘necro,’ again having to do with death. However the second half, ‘tar’ is associated with the ancient root word ‘tere-’ from which we derive words like “through,” “trans-,” and “transient.” This suggests not a simple negation of death (given that there’s anything simple about it), but rather a journey through death, with immortality as the final destination.


The Food of the Gods on Olympus (1530), majolica dish attributed to Nicola da Urbino


One reason why this fascinates me has to do with my appreciation for the mysteries of Eleusis. Gordon Wasson, in his book with Albert Hoffmann and Carl A. P. Ruck (referenced in the hyperlink) has an appealing theory. He points out that the yearly Eleusian ceremony held in ancient Greece represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone, and her descent to and return from the underworld. She was daughter of Demeter goddess of harvest and fertility, and was taken by Hades lord of the underworld to be his wife. Wasson argues that the event was in fact a massive organized psychedelic ceremony.


He describes the ritual involving a substance which the participants had to consume, and which seems to include as its active ingredient ergot, a fungal growth that appears on the rye growing amply in the surrounding fields at the time. Ergot, fruit of the harvest goddess Demeter, was what Albert Hoffmann was studying when he stumbled upon LSD in 1938, and recurs throughout history as a potent psychoactive substance.


Triptolemus receiving wheat sheaves from Demeter and blessings from Persephone, 5th-century BC relief, National Archaeological Museum of Athens


Wasson argues that the same way in which vegetation grows in the spring and summer then withdraws in the fall and winter, Persephone was permitted to be above ground half the time, and kept as queen of the underworld the other half, giving the myth a tangible metaphor. He believes that the Eleusian mystery was in fact a journey through the underworld with the help of a major psychedelic trip, overlaid on the theme of the cycle of birth and death as seen in nature.


What does ingesting a psychoactive parasitic fungus have to do with overcoming death, becoming immortal? And if the ancient Greeks did transcend death, where are they now? In my opinion, the interpretation is subtle and cannot be reduced to psychedelics.

Underworld can mean many things, much like death can refer to the cessation of life as well as the cessation of activity. In the underworld, what we used to have we have no more, what we were we are not anymore, and what we used to know ceases to have meaning. Fundamental entropy, radical dissolution and disintegration, the cessation of concepts, attachments, and meanings. Nothing to cling to and nobody to cling to it. In Buddhadharma, impermanence and the absence of a separate self is seen as the ground of all being; the real underworld.


Trungpa Rinpoche once said: The bad news is, we are falling without a parachute; the good news is, there is no ground. When we glance at what’s really going on, when the bottom falls out and there is nothing underneath, we lose something that gave our anxieties coherence. I can’t say they disappear all at once, but we get a hint as to what they’re really made of, and once we see, we can’t unsee. This may happen through meditation, through trauma, extreme experiences and ecstasy, and historically through consuming mind-altering substances in conducive and safe settings and company. When the Greeks ingest the nectar of the gods, they see through life, and see through death. By recognizing the cycle of growth and decay, the ever-growing and ever-decompensating body of the universe, the wheel of Samsara, they realize something. And whatever that was, was worth thousands of Greeks visiting the halls of Eleusis for many generations.

"[Those who take part in the Mysteries] possess better hopes in regard to the end of life and in regard to the whole of eternity." - Isocrates
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