Sisters Around the Cauldron – Mary Barnard and Her Sappho

The Exaltation of the Flower, Unknown Greek artist


Located just outside Port Townsend, on the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Point Wilson Lighthouse overlooks the Straits of Juan de Fuca where it meets the Admiralty Inlet. Built in 1896 for the protection of Puget Sound, today it is a part of the Fort Worden State Park which also includes a collection of white washed barracks that once housed soldiers. In the 1950s Fort Worden was purchased by the State of Washington as a treatment center for troubled youth, a program which lasted until 1971 when the military buildings were refurbished to include restaurants and meeting facilities, while the lighthouse is now a vacation rental.

In October of 1977 Fort Worden served as the site for the 2nd International Conference on Hallucinogenic Mushrooms. That four-day event was attended by 250 people and included 60 physicians, a few chemists from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, some members of the Royal Mounted Police, as well as university professors, and an assortment of hippies. Conference organizer Jonathan Ott reported in Head Magazine: “The featured speaker was R. Gordon Wasson, retired banker and modern discoverer of hallucinogenic mushrooms. It was with great excitement that I approached the microphone to open Friday morning’s session, for Wasson, Carl Ruck and Albert Hoffman were to reveal a bold new theory, which would for the first time ever place the sacred mushrooms among our venerated cultural ancestors – the ancient Greeks of the classical period. This was new to everyone.”1 Everyone but a tall white-haired woman in the back of the room named Mary Barnard, best known for her groundbreaking translation of Sappho. Years later Mary remembered that weekend at Fort Worden: “Gordon didn’t really know what he had started. And so when he got to the conference site he was a little surprised to see all the long haired types. It had been a good season for mushrooms and all sorts of people were walking around the grounds, looking at their feet and occasionally picking something up and eating it.”2

During the 1970s I took a college class that focused on Sappho, the lyric poet who lived on the island of Lesbos over 2500 years ago. I viewed Sappho as a proto-feminist, as well as a poet of love and peace. The Vietnam War had just ended and I was looking to ancient sources of pacifism and saw Sappho as an inspiring contrast to Homer, the chronicler of war. Like the following, many of Sappho’s poems are addressed to her female students and lovers; Anactoria, Atthis, Gongyla, Hero, and Timas.

#41 (Barnard)
To an army wife, in Sardis:

Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some again,
will maintain that the swift oars

of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is.

This is easily proved: did
not Helen – she who had scanned
the flower of the world’s manhood –

choose as first among men one
who laid Troy’s honor in ruin?
warped to his will, forgetting

love due her own blood, her own
child, she wandered far with him.
So Anactoria, although you

being far away forget us,
the dear sound of your footstep
and light glancing in your eyes

would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry

In that class we compared Barnard’s Sappho (University of California Press, 1958) to a more recent translation by Guy Davenport (University of Michigan Press, 1965). Barnard considered herself as an outsider and never taught college while Davenport was an academic and a professor at the University of Kentucky. Davenport treated the poetry of Sappho as though he was dusting off artifacts at an archaeological site, each line a piece to a puzzle, leaving brackets where words, phrases and perhaps entire stanzas were missing. Barnard took a decidedly non-academic approach and gave a beautiful and full voice to Sappho as she must have appeared to her contemporaries. Davenport is more cautious, as though he is worried about disturbing a grave site. The numbering of Sappho’s poems, or fragments of poems, has never been standardized.

#40 (Barnard)
Yes, Atthis, you may be sure  
                                    Even in Sardis
Anactortia will think often of us

of the life we shared here, when you seemed
the Goddess incarnate                              
to her and your singing pleased her best 

comes out
Now among the Lydian women she in her
turn stands first as the red-
fingered moon rising at sunset takes 

precedence over stars around her;
#43 (Davenport)

[           ] Sard [is         ]
How many times she must remember us

Where once [              ]  we  [             ]
She had her divinity in her.

Her dancing, of all, was your

And now she moves among the Lydian 

As when the sun has set and the stars

And the rose red moon

It was the year after the conference at Fort Worden that Portland based Breitenbush Books published Mary Barnard’s Collected Poems.3 I was amazed to discover that the translator of Sappho was not only from the Portland area but still active. In 1984 the University of California published Barnard’s literary memoir Assault on Mt. Helicon. Like Mt. Olympus, Mt. Helicon plays a role in Greek mythology as it is the home to the nine muses who serve as the source of artistic inspiration. Plato famously pronounced that Sappho was the 10th Muse. The title of Mary Barnard’s memoir is based on a taunting note she received from Ezra Pound in 1934: “You hate translation? What of it? Expect to be carried up Mt. Helicon in an easy chair?”4

Mary’s memoir tells the story of a young woman from the Pacific Northwest following her own literary skills to the heights of world literature. Only in the last chapter does she provide details of her struggles with the translation of Sappho. Then, just twenty pages before the end of the book, there is a single sentence about R. Gordon Wasson “…the Wall Street banker whose publications on the hallucinogenic mushrooms of Mexico supported some of my hypotheses.”5 At the time I was uncertain what hypotheses she was referring to. I was familiar with Wasson’s writing about the ritualistic use of magic mushrooms but couldn’t imagine how that related to Sappho. My interest in Barnard was further aroused in 1986 when Breitenbush published Time and the White Tigress,6 her book length essay-in-verse that explores how mystery, wisdom and knowledge are preserved in stories about the moon, the sun and the stars.

CODA: Song for the New Year

The Pleiades slide into place
at midnight over the smoke-hole…

A star that was lost in daylight
reappears at dawn (heliacal
rising) glittering in pale sky…

The moon, too, dies in light
and returns at dusk, a crescent
signalling with sun and star
time at its turning-point.

Sea-kingdoms trumpet the news
through their winding shells,
but shepherds through ram’s horns;
bells clang in the steeples.

Time now to empty our houses
of ghosts and the year’s rubbish;
chain dancers prance through the streets
and turn into dragons; firecrackers
pop; steam-whistles shriek.

The event is both social and astral,
an end, but not final
a beginning that will end;
a serpent with its tail tucked into his mouth.

My contemplation of the Uroboros did not last long as I then came into contact with one of the editors from Breitenbush who provided contact information and I made a cold call. To my surprise I was invited to visit the 80-year-old poet in her Vancouver, Washington apartment. There I was greeted by an erudite and elegant woman who was both modest and confident, who spoke with authority but was also a good listener. I approached my subject with preconceived notions which I had to overcome as Mary Barnard did not seem particularly interested in Sappho’s sexuality nor did she know the difference between a morel and a chanterelle without a menu.

Like mushrooms, poets are a product of their environment. What we think of as mushrooms are actually just the fruiting body, usually shaped like an umbrella, that holds spores, a structure as fine as dust which can later reproduce the species. Beneath the ground there is a far larger structure called the mycelium, a network of threads transferring nutrients and water from the soil to plants through their roots. Individual mushroom species often grow in direct association with certain plants. The mycelium are also involved in the decomposition of living matter and that’s why mushrooms are often seen growing in a line next to rotting windfall, or around the base of a stump. Even when the original living form of the plant is not apparent, fungus may mark the grave as when you come upon a circle of mushrooms called fairy rings. Elf circles and pixie rings are mentioned in folk tales and myths worldwide and are often linked with witches and the devil but also can be a portent of good fortune. It was no accident that the poster celebrating the 22nd Annual Portland Poetry Festival, which was dedicated to Mary Barnard, featured a photograph of the poet standing next to a tree with a fairy ring in the background.


It was a typical fall day at Fort Worden with strong winds and intermittent showers. Because of its prevailing temperate oceanic climate, the Pacific Northwest is home to 2500 species of mushrooms, more than a dozen of which contain psilocybin. For the fledgling mycologist it is important to learn the toadstools first, before seeking out the gourmet varieties. I first went mushroom picking with the supervision of my father and Lithuanian grandfather. In the forest I was unsupervised but back at the house grandfather would inspect my bushel basket and throw out those specimens that were either rotten, poisonous, or unknown. My family’s knowledge of edible fungus was handed down through generations of fungus loving Liths, while most of our neighbors avoided picking mushrooms due to fear of their potential deadly effects.

That broad cultural chasm between mushroom lovers and those who disdained fungus was the impetus for Wasson’s first book which he wrote with his wife Valentina. He began his talk at Fort Worden by recounting the story of their honeymoon to the Catskill Mountains in 1927 where his wife foraged for wild mushrooms that Gordon refused to eat. “She was a Great Russian and, like all of her fellow-countrymen, learned at her mother’s knee a solid body of empirical knowledge about the common species and love of them that are astonishing to Americans. Like us, the Russians are fond of nature – the forest, and birds, and wild flowers. But their love of mushrooms is of a different order, a visceral urge, a passion that passeth understanding.”7

They soon realized that their attitudes towards mushrooms were related to their cultural backgrounds, as she was a mycophilic Slav, while he was a mycrophobic Anglo-Saxon. That led them to investigate the deep seated and ancient taboos against consuming mushrooms. Over several decades, as Gordon learned to enjoy eating mushrooms, the couple began to correspond with missionaries, linguists, and anthropologists around the world trying to identify areas where mushrooms possessed religious and medical uses. The two shared their passion for that subject and wrote two books with a unique cultural hypothesis that is no better illustrated than in the etymological origin of the word toadstool: “There was an Anglo-Saxon word for toad, yce, which survives to this day through collateral descent in the Low German utze and the High German Unke. These words appear to be related to the Latin uvidus, moist, and thus semantically parallel to the Welsh term. In the vast reaches of uncharted cultural history – who knows; – the mucus-exuding toad and the glob of Hellenic mucus that the English call a toadstool may have mingled in the thoughts of men.”8 The first volume of Russia, Mushrooms and History was originally meant to include cooking recipes but all that changed in 1952 when the Wassons received a letter from the poet Robert Graves that was accompanied by an article written in 1939 by Richard Evans Schultes.9

Son of a Boston plumber, Schultes had been inspired by 19th Century Englishman Richard Spruce’s book Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and the Andes that recounts his 17 years in the South American rainforest. Schultes wrote his undergraduate senior thesis on the ritual use of peyote among the Kiowa of Oklahoma. He received a fellowship from the National Research Council to study the plants that are used to make the dart poison curare. Schultes was the first non-native academic to examine a tea made from a vine first identified by Spruce who named it ayahuasca. After reading Schultes, William S. Burroughs famously sought it out hoping that it could help him cure his opiate addiction.10 When the beat writer described his experience as earth-shaking and metaphysical, Schultes reportedly replied: “That’s funny, Bill, all I saw was colors.”11 Schultes also spoke at Fort Worden and told how through his reading of early accounts by the Spanish, he came to suspect that the Aztec had ritually consumed a “divine mushroom”.12 In an attempt to confirm Schultes’ earlier findings, in 1953 Gordon and Valentina began a series of expeditions to central Mexico in search of “God’s Flesh”.

Those who have sought out fungus for their nutritional value differ greatly from those who are interested in their mind-altering properties. Ott’s introduction to the morning session included a quote from R. Gordon Wasson:

As man emerged from his brutish past, thousands of years ago, there was a stage in the evolution of his awareness when the discovery of a mushroom with miraculous properties was a revelation to him, a veritable detonator to his soul, arousing in him sentiments of awe and reverence, and gentleness and love… It made him see what this perishing mortal eye cannot see. What today is resolved into a mere drug, a tryptamine or lysergic acid derivative, was for him a prodigious miracle, inspiring in him poetry and philosophy and religion. Perhaps with all our modern knowledge we do not need the divine mushrooms any more. Or do we need them more than ever?13

In 1980 at the Oregon Mycological Association’s annual show, I met Paul Stamets who had a booth where he sold his magic mushroom field guide and displayed a dozen different local psilocybin species. Stamets’ book credits his interest in magic mushrooms to Wasson and his colleagues: “They were first to discover and document the utilization of psychotropic mushrooms in shamanic ceremonies of certain Indians of Mexico, particularly in the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca… [where they] revered the mushrooms as a holy sacrament called teonanacatl, or ‘God’s Flesh’ in the Aztec language Nahuatl.”14 Inspired by Stamets, a friend and I took the city bus to the edge of town to a former cow pasture that on some fall mornings looked like a U-Pick-em berry patch. The mushroom hunter must first find a single liberty cap peeking out from between the blades and then kneel down and pull the sedge apart in a motion that reminded me of paging through a large book. We often sampled our harvest on the bus ride home. Magic mushrooms are most powerful freshly picked in the fall, but they can be dried and maintain their potency through the winter months and into the spring.

From the start I told Mary Barnard that I was interested in her correspondence with Wasson. She, in turn, made it clear that her interest in magic mushrooms was in the role of the shaman, not the tools of the trade. Contrary to the academic experts of her time, Barnard viewed Sappho as a priestess of the Moon goddess. Central to the spiritual initiation of the young in ancient Greece was participation in the Greek Mystery cult. Those ceremonies involved singing, dancing, and consumption of an intoxicating beverage. The most famous of such rites were held at Eleusis where myths say that Demeter went in search of her daughter Persephone who had been abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. After spending the winter in hell, Persephone returned to Earth as the goddess of spring growth, worshiped along with her mother Demeter in the Eleusinian Mysteries, the agricultural cult that promised its initiates passage to a blessed afterlife. The spring Mystery festival was smaller than the one held in the fall but the elements of song, dance, and intoxication were the same.

Mary noted that Sappho, in writing about such a ceremony, used the word koma, or “deep sleep”, when describing the strong effect of the beverage rather than the word hypnos, which would indicate a far more natural slumber. Sappho’s poem is addressed to Aphrodite, referred to as Cyprian, after the island of her birth.

Fragment #37 (Barnard)
You know the place; then

Leave Crete and come to us
waiting where the grove is
pleasantest, by precinct

sacred to you; incense
smokes on the altar, cold
streams murmur through the

apple branches, a young
rose thicket shades the ground
and quivering leaves pour

down deep sleep; in meadows
where horses have grown sleek
among spring flowers, dill

scents the air. Queen! Cyprian!
Fill our gold cups with love
stirred into clear nectar.

Mary then directed me to her book of essays The Mythmakers (Ohio University Press, 1966). There, in the introductory chapter Barnard writes “Perhaps there are others who are as confused as I am; for their benefit and my own I have attempted to isolate just one aspect of one problem bearing on the nature of the origin of myths; that is, the origin of a few mythical personae – deities and others – related to a single familiar theme: intoxication.”15 The second chapter gets right down to business and is titled “The God in the Flowerpot”. This was what she was writing when she first came upon Wasson’s article, which appeared on May 13th, 1957, in Life, the popular weekly magazine documenting the American experience of the 20th Century.

As Vice-President of Public Relations for JP Morgan, Wasson was a good friend of Life’s publisher Henry Luce, and was able to sneak into that issue an unedited account of his recent trip to Mexico as part of the Great Adventures series. That article was titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” with a lead in that read: “A New York Banker goes to Mexico’s mountains to participate in the age-old ritual of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions”.16 Wasson recounted in that article:

We were never more wide awake, and the visions came whether our eyes were opened or closed… They were vivid in color, always harmonious. They began with art motifs, angular such as might decorate carpets or textiles or wallpaper or the drawing board of an architect. They evolved into palaces with courts, arcades, gardens – resplendent palaces all laid over with semiprecious stones. Then I saw a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot. Later it was though the walls of our house had dissolved and my spirit had flown forth, and I was suspended in mid-air viewing landscapes with mountains, with camel caravans advancing slowly across the slopes, the mountains rising tier above tier to the very heavens…It seemed as though I was viewing a world of which I was not a part and with which I could not hope to establish contact. There I was, poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen…The thought crossed my mind: could the divine mushroom be the secret that lay behind the ancient Mysteries? Could the miraculous mobility that I was now enjoying be the explanation for the flying witches that played so important a part in the folklore and fairy tales of northern Europe?

That unique experience was made possible by Maria Sabina, a curandera, a healer who used shamanistic or spiritual remedies for mental, emotional, and physical illnesses. In a half dozen large photos Maria is portrayed overseeing Wasson’s “trip”. Beneath a portrait of Maria holding her hands in prayer she lists her qualifications: “I am a creator woman, a star woman, a moon woman, a cross woman, a woman of heaven. I am a cloud woman, a dew-on-the-grass woman.”17

Today it seems strangely romantic that in the era of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”, that naive editors of Life could have inaugurated the psychedelic age. Wasson’s article came to the attention of a wide public including Mary Barnard who wrote to him “out of the blue”:

I have been doing some work on “sacred foods” of one sort or another, and found your work on the mushrooms fascinating and helpful. I wonder whether you have seen the relief from Pharsalus (now in the Louvre) called “Exaltation of the Flower”? This thing, which is dated to the early fifth century B.C., has been haunting me for four years. The mysterious look the ladies are giving each other, the peculiar shape of the “flower” and the apparent meaningfulness of the gesture have not been explained satisfactorily by anyone so far as I know. Somewhere I received the impression that the women are supposed to be Demeter and Persephone, but I am not sure why. If the “flowers” are actually mushrooms which is what they look like to me, both the gesture and the look are explained. I had foolishly been trying to make them into poppies, when they are obviously not poppies.18

Wasson wrote back: “If they are mushrooms in the Greek relief, they are certainly Amanita…this is the species worshiped to this day by the primitive tribesmen of Siberia for its hallucinogenic properties.”19 Despite his knowledge of psilocybin mushrooms Wasson had an obsession with Amanita which led eventually to the publication of Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972). He was certain that Amanita, which does not contain psilocybin, was the sacred drug described in the Hindu Rig Veda. In English, the Amanita is known as the “fly agaric” for its power to attract and kill house flies. It does not contain psilocybin and is closely related to a species known as the Angel of Death (amanita ocreata). His letter continues with more questions than answers: “If the Amanita was consumed in ancient Greece, we must suppose that the mountains, covered with trees at the time, were of an elevation sufficient to grow birches, spruce and fir. We must find out whether this was so. Otherwise we must suppose that the mushrooms in the dried condition were imported from the north. But the ones in the relief look fresh.”20



I wanted to hear
Sappho’s laughter
and the speech of
her stringed shell.

What I heard was
whiskered mumble –
ment of grammarians

Greek pterodactyls
and Victorian dodos.21

Both Barnard and Davenport were drawn to Sappho’s poetic voice. Davenport wrote: “Her words are simple and piercing in their sincerity, lines melodically clean, a music for girls’ voices and dancing. Never has poetry been this clear and bright.”22 Barnard states in her “Footnote to These Translations”: “Of all her virtues, however, the one most stressed by her modern critics and least taken account of by her translators is that of fresh colloquial directness of speech.”23 That voice however was muffled by centuries of neglect. To hear it clearly requires a leap of faith. Most of Sappho’s poetry was lost by the Medieval period, perhaps from Christian censorship or perhaps from neglect. It is believed she wrote nine books that contained over 10,000 lines. Today only 700 lines remain, mostly preserved by scholars illustrating the fine points of grammar as well as stanzas used as decoration on shards of pottery. Both translators had to deal with the fundamental problem of bringing to life a body of work which only remains in frustratingly small pieces that can only hint at the glorious original.

Guy Davenport was optimistic that more of Sappho will eventually surface: “Somewhere, in the white ruins of Sardis or in a jar still intact in a midden or even on an unexamined shelf, there is perhaps a copy of Sappho’s poems complete. Around the mummy of an Alexandrian landlord or Antinoopolitan pastry cook there are, we can guess, for we have found them there before, shrouds of papyrus which were once pages of books on which are written Sappho’s smiling conversations with Aphrodite…”.24

Mary Barnard more directly addressed the difficulty of the task: “Sappho may or may not have written her poems down. She sang or recited them with lyre accompaniment; they were passed on to professional singers who sang them wherever Greek was spoken. Copies were made and these copies were copied. The earliest papyrus text we possess dates from the third century B.C., about three hundred years after her death. Copyists were not always reliable…The papyrus scrolls were eventually torn into strips, crosswise of the roll, lengthwise of the poem, and pasted together to form cartonnage coffins. Other papyri have been found, torn into strips, on rubbish heaps, and other strips were wadded and stuffed into the mouths of mummified crocodiles.”25

Medieval scholars began to collect what fragments survived and in 1566 an edition of Greek lyric poets was produced by French printer Robert Estienne that included 40 fragments of Sappho. The first English translation of a single poem by Sappho was published by John Hall in 1652. The first edition devoted solely to Sappho was in 1733 by Johann Christain Wolf and in 1843 Theodor Bergk’s collection of Greek lyric poets included 120 fragments of Sappho’s poetry. But the most ambitious attempt to translate Sappho was by Englishman Henry T. Wharton whose 1885 edition included a “biography”, Greek text, along with selected renderings, literal translations and references. That collection was popular but not highly regarded by scholars as it was constructed with the same Victorian care as Wharton had composed his guidebook List of British Birds: The genera arranged according to Suddevall’s method. In the 20th Century Ezra Pound was responsible for invigorating an interest in Sappho, creating his own “translations” and directing his former lover H.D. to try her hand at Sapphics. While many other poets found Sappho interesting and inspiring it was Pound’s young apprentices Mary Barnard and Guy Davenport who finally put their shoulders to the wheel.

Mary Barnard’s path to translating Sappho led her into other unusual and obscure fields of knowledge, but her true pole star in that journey began and remained guided by Ezra Pound:

When I wrote [“out of the blue”] to Ezra Pound in the fall of 1933, and asked for advice or assistance, he took me on as an apprentice poet, God knows why, but possibly the fact that I had been studying Greek had something to do with it. At any rate, he exhorted me to work with Greek metric…Pound wrote me in one letter: “I still think the best mechanism for breaking up the stiffness and literary idiom is a different metre, the god damn iambic magnetizes certain verbal sequences…It was held then, and still is held, I believe, that iambic pentameter comes closer than any other meter to approximating English speech rhythms. That may have been true at one time, but I do not think it is true today, or at least, it is not true of American speech rhythms. I wanted to find the sound of the speaking voice that was native to me. I admired the poetry of William Carlos Williams, and approved of his endeavor to find an American metric, but I did not feel that he had found the solution, or at any rate, not the solution that would work for me.26

In addition to searching for the American metric Mary Barnard also tried to understand the world view of a woman living during the height of Greek civilization. In 1957 she wrote to Wasson:

I stumbled into this archaeological trap by way of a translation of Sappho to be published by the University of California this coming spring. She set me to wondering about this and that, and I went to work to find out what I could about religion in that part of the world in the 6th century B.C. and before. I worked from three points brought out clearly in the poems: first Sappho’s Aphrodite was a moon-goddess, not an importation from Asia Minor, but a survival from Crete and Mycenae; second her rites included an agape in which the celebrants partook of some beverage containing a drug or a narcotic; third, Sappho was no “primitive” –she was a highly civilized, sophisticated, and intelligent woman.27

That letter continued by providing a link between Wasson’s interest in ethnomycology and Barnard’s parallel explorations in archeoastronomy:

The first point led me into the study of calendars, festivals, and moon-mythology. The moon-mythology led me straight to the second point, the mythology of elixirs and the food of immortality, the soma, the moon-rabbits, the moon-toads, the peaches and peach-pits, laurel trees and the rest of it. The third point led me to look critically at airy explanations based on the supposed workings of the “primitive mind”. The mythology of the elixirs is clearly based on the experience with drugs; I still don’t understand just why it should be most often (almost always) associated with the moon. Which reminds me that you mention a mushroom named hongo used by the Yenisei-Ostjaks; has anyone pointed out to you the resemblance of that word to the name the Chinese moon-deity Hang-O, who stole the elixir of life, floated up to the moon and turned into a toad? Presumably she turned into the kind of toad Dr. Faing writes of, whose salivary glands secrete bufotenine.

A chapter from The Mytbmakers entitled “Who was Hathor?” attempts to link the association between the moon and the goddess to whom Sappho addressed her poetry:

With nearly three thousand years of continuous worship under the same name in the same parts of the world, Hathor may be described as one of the longest-lived deities on record, and perhaps on that account one of the most confusing. She is at once Hathor of Dendera, Hathor of the Sinai Peninsula, the Lady of Byblos, the “goddess of all foreigners”. On the east coast of Africa she was the Mistress of the Land of Punt. She is wife to Horus here, wife to Ptah there, and again the daughter of Horus or daughter of Re. She is a woman, a tree, a cow, a sistrum, a raging lioness, and the Egyptian equivalent of Aphrodite. She is goddess of the western hills. She is one, or seven. She has been described by modern writers as a Celestial Goddess, a Moon Goddess and an Earth Mother. She is also a goddess of the dead.28

After a number of visits to Mary’s apartment I composed an article titled “Food of the Gods” that was published in Rain City Review. That next year the Portland Poetry Festival was dedicated to Mary Barnard. Renewed interest in Barnard was not just a local phenomenon as that spring, Paideuma, the official journal of the Ezra Pound Society, had an entire issue devoted to Barnard, as her career was so intimately entwined with Pound.

Born in 1909, in Vancouver, Mary Barnard wrote poetry as a child and in middle school discovered J. Berg Esenwein’s The Art of Versification. There she “found the lovely words ‘iamb’, ‘trochee’, ‘dactyl’ for the first time… I carried the book home in a state of high excitement and showed it to my mother.” Her parents sent their precocious child to Portland’s notorious Reed College where she studied literature and creative writing. To staid Oregonians the college was considered a dangerous and ungodly institution. Barnard recalled: “Rumor persisted that the principal subjects taught at Reed were ‘atheism, communism and free love’”.29 Barnard thrived in that unique environment. “Perhaps I should explain that Reed did not have English courses or English majors. In Modern Lit. we read Proust as well as Joyce. In Renaissance Lit. we read Montaigne as well as Marlowe. We were encouraged to read in the original language when it was the one we were studying…I had no idea of taking Greek until I heard the sound of it…in a freshman lit. lecture. It was a tiny seed that took root.”30

As Mary reflected upon her time at Reed College, she also realized that her interest in Greek metric had been there early on but was not properly nurtured:

One day during that last year my Greek instructor had said, “We really ought to be saying something about metric, but to tell the truth, I don’t understand it myself.” …Having learned about dactyls and spondees, I had supposed that was all. Now I discovered that there glyconics, epitrites, Aeolian tripodes, in short, that the whole matter was much more exciting and complicated than I ever imagined. At the same time, it occurred to me that the free verse poets whose rhythms I admired were people who knew Greek: Pound, Eliot, H.D. Could there be a connection? My excitement zoomed and then collapsed because I did not know how to go on from there.31

At that time another seed was planted, her interest in the work of the Imagists, that school of American poetry which emphasized precise and colloquial language. Mary recounts being drawn to the work of Ezra Pound after reading “Homage to Sextus Propertius” in a class at Reed: “I returned to Gill’s bookstore the copy of the Harriet Monroe anthology that my mother gave me for my birthday, and brought home Personae instead. I was beginning to know at last the country I wanted to explore.”32

But before she could boldly step into that country, two factors almost prevented Mary from graduating. One was the Great Depression which put a crimp on her father’s lumber business, so she started to work in the dorm cafeteria to make ends meet. The other was her approach to the senior thesis. Reed professors expected a critical paper exploring some scholarly aspect of literature. Unable or unwilling to judge or compare the works of the masters, Mary instead chose her own route. At first she decided to write a play rather than a thesis but then changed her mind and composed a long poem entitled “Confessional” which was prefaced with a confident declaration of independence beginning “I BELIEVE in simplicity and sincerity of word and movement and idea.” That was followed by seven additional attestations and ended with an idiosyncratic specific declaration:

I BELIEVE in Shakespeare and Shelley and Keats and Ezra Pound and Elinor Wylie and Edith Sitwell (though I often have my doubts there) and I should probably mention Homer. I had a passion for Alfred Noyes when I was in eighth grade and may have one for Hart Crane by next year. One never can be sure about things like that.33

Certainly, the young Mary Barnard quested after high standards, a quality that did not go unnoticed as one of her professors complimented the “senior thesis” with the observation: “A most beautiful example of the pedagogic juggernaut being overturned by a butterfly.”34 Faced with the uncertainties of the Great Depression that butterfly boldly decided to try out her wings and sent six poems to Ezra Pound in Rapallo, Italy with a note asking for advice and assistance. Pound recognized her talent and soon provided Barnard with an introduction to his contemporaries including Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, both of whom became her close friends and mentors. They, in turn, provided literary introductions as her poetry began to appear in small magazines such as Poetry and The New English Weekly, as well as James Laughlin’s newly established New Directions.

In 1936 and again in 1938 Mary was invited to spend the summer at Yaddo, an artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York where she met the poets, writers, and artists of her generation, including Muriel Rukeyser, Delmore Schwartz, and Kenneth Fearing. After the second residency she decided to stay on the East Coast and briefly worked for Laughlin addressing catalogs, typing and other odd jobs out of his office/barn in Norfolk, Connecticut. She didn’t enjoy the isolation and so soon moved back to the City and took any work available, including babysitting while trying to market her poetry and short stories.

In the spring of 1939, she first met Pound in person as he was briefly visiting his friend, Ford Maddox Ford, who was in ill health and would soon die. By that time Pound was already a pariah as he had betrayed the value of his literary genius with an unbridled hatred of Jews and his enthusiastic support for both Mussolini and Hitler. Despite those tragic and monstrous faults, he was still very generous with his range of association and arranged for Mary to become the first curator of the Poetry Collection at the University of Buffalo’s Lockwood Memorial Library, a position she held for four years. During that time her range of literary association expanded as she hosted visiting writers Wyndham Lewis, Kenneth Patchen, Alfred Noyes, and May Sarton.35

In 1945 she returned to NYC and found employment with critic and biographer Carl Van Doren. That job, which was largely focused on the writing and correspondence of Benjamin Franklin, required that she go to Washington DC. On those business trips to the nation’s capital, she was able to regularly visit Pound who was notoriously committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital officially as a mental patient, a ploy which allowed him to avoid being put on trial for treason. Pound turned his time in that facility into a long running literary soiree hosting old friends like T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, as well as the new generation of poets including Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Olsen, Allen Ginsberg, and Guy Davenport.

In 1949 Mary made her first trip to Europe that followed suggestions dictated by Pound from the hospital. “The itinerary was too attractive to ignore, and because Pound had drawn it up, of course I touched on a number of cities that were off the beaten track in those days, but figure largely in the Cantos.”36 Upon returning to the United States Mary learned that Van Doren had suddenly died, leaving her unemployed. It was then that her attempt to scale Mt. Helicon suffered a major setback. Worn down from travel and faced with the difficulty of finding new employment, Mary’s health deteriorated and she had to return to live with her parents in Vancouver. She was exhausted, suffering from hepatitis B, which led to months of bedrest.

Not one to tolerate down time, Mary dusted off her Greek and decided to read the Iliad and Odyssey in the original. “If you have to be in bed for weeks at a time, there is nobody better to be in bed with than Homer…”37 Hearing how she was spending her convalescence, friends sent her a copy of Salvitore Quasimodo’s Lirici Greci, which contained poems by Sappho in the original along with his Italian translations. “I had tried to read Sappho…but I needed a crib, or notes, or a lexicon, and my efforts only left me wondering what all the fuss was about. The first thing Quasimodo’s translations did for me was show me the text through the medium of a language that was not English, living or dead, leaving my mind free to balance between the Greek phrase and the Italian phrase while I searched for the truly equivalent phrase in living, not lexicon English. This little book removed one of the chief obstacles to translation, so far as I was concerned, by showing me how to use a third language as a bridge.”38

Homer was quickly replaced by the 10th Muse. “In addition, I found the Italian translations very beautiful and wanted to match them, if I could, in my own language. Most important of all, however, I found here in Sappho’s Greek, as revealed to me now through the medium of Italian, the style I had been groping toward, or perhaps merely hungering for…It was spare but musical, and had besides, the sound of the speaking voice making a simple but emotionally loaded statement…It is resonant but unmistakably in the female register.”39 But Mary was looking for more than a female voice. Her interest in translating Sappho, in part, was to search for rhythm, a cadence, that could better describe the American voice, and she was certain that it lay in the broken foot poetry of Sappho.

Technically the Sapphic meter consists of a four lined stanza, three of eleven syllables and the last of five, chiefly composed of trochaic and dactylic feet. A trochee is a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. A dactyl consists of a long syllable followed by two short syllables and is best known for its use by Homer. Mary made a point of explaining that she preferred her last name to be pronounced as a trochee: BARnard.

In addition to the fine points of meter and rhythm, I also learned about the Greek use of similes and metaphors. Over tea and scones Mary patiently explained:

Perhaps Homer’s Iliad seems at first glance to have little in common with Sappho’s lyrics; but one thing is bound to strike the reader of both poets, and that is the way the poems move…In both poets there is visual movement and there is auditory movement…Take metaphor: Neither poet compares one thing to another. Their metaphors are more like equations, in which a acts on x as b acts on y, and the likeness is in the verb. “As the whirlwind swoops on an oak / love shakes my heart.”40

With Pound’s encouragement she pursued her translation of Sappho, choosing only those fragments which could be rendered into proper snippets of verse. Pound did not even congratulate her on that accomplishment but instead dictated her next assignment insisting she use her Greek skills to take another step up the slopes of Mt. Helicon with a translation of Callimachus’ “Delos” and Bion of Smyrna’s “Adonis”. She recalled that response as “…no pat on the back, certainly no raptures, just a crack of the whip!”41 Six weeks later Ezra was released from St. Elizabeth’s and returned to Italy to live with his Mary de Rachewiltz, the illegitimate daughter of American born concert violinist Olga Rudge.

Shortly after WWII, Mary de Rachewiltz had moved into a castle in South Tyrol and it was there that she first met Mary Barnard who was there on her Cantos tour of Italy. At that time Barnard established a familial bond with Pound through his daughter. Over the next three decades Barnard returned to the idyllic de Rachewiltz castle eight times. It was there in Brunnenburg that Pound finally met his grandchildren and wrote the last six of his Cantos before slipping off into his silent period. In the 1980s Mary also used the castle’s seclusion in order to write her memoir which she hoped might be “…useful to young writers who read literary biography or autobiography much as a young explorer whose goal was the South Pole might read journals of Scott’s or Shackleton’s expeditions.”42

In 1988 Breitenbush published Barnard’s final book of poetry Nantucket Genesis: The Tale of my Tribe. On first glance that book appears to simply be an exotic exercise in genealogy. It is composed of an artistic mix of prose, poetry, letters, several lists of descendants in the style of Begats, as well as inventories that she found in the records of probate courts. After I mentioned that her family history seemed to be a modest version of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems she briefly let down her modesty and wrote me about her true intent: “And then I must confess that I thought not of Maximus but of The Cantos and Paterson, and thought, Why not?” She added: “P.S. I don’t think I mentioned before that Ezra Pound, through his great-grand-mother Judith Coleman, is descended from the Nantucket Colemans whose property was adjacent to the Barnard property in the original settlement…That should take your suspension of disbelief to a further limit. So far as I can make out, we are related in 18 different ways. Mary (de R) and I now address each other as ‘cousin’, …If I can ever get over to Portland to the Forum (Genealogical) to collect a little missing data, I’m going to write it up.”43

Around that same time Mary Barnard’s literary artifacts were donated to Yale’s Beinecke Library. That collection consists largely of her correspondence with famous writers and letters home to her parents documenting her adventures. When it came to my attention that she had failed to include her correspondence with Wasson, we arranged to have those letters and postcards donated to the Harvard Botanical Library. Like Pound, Mary’s relationship with Wasson was mostly through the mail. She dedicated The Mythmakers to Wasson as she valued his trailblazing discoveries, but did not share his enthusiasm for magic mushrooms as she wrote to me:

It is probably self-evident that our paths came together and then tended to diverge because, although he did work on the ergot book, his major interest was almost exclusively in the mushroom, but the mushroom was one clue to help me in solving of my problems concerning the origin of myths in experience, and especially but not exclusively in experience of drug-plants and intoxicants…44

Motivated by the belief that I was in possession of very interesting material, I wrote to Clayton Eshleman, editor of Sulfur magazine, hoping that he would reprint my Rain City Review article. He replied with encouragement but also with a challenge:

If you can do a serious piece that would be of use to people interested in following up on the current state of knowledge based on the research and thinking of Wasson and Barnard…Do you have any contact with people who are experimenting with the toad serum that comes from Arizona? Supposedly the most potent hallucinogen known. The toad is bufo alvarius, and I was sent an article on it from Ancient Mesoamerica 3, 1992, by Wade Davis and Andrew T. Weil. One person who took this drug reported that “it completely dissolved reality as we know it, leaving neither hallucinations nor anyone to watch them.”45

That Friday at Fort Worden Albert Hoffman addressed the audience, telling the familiar story of how he discovered LSD while investigating the medicinal qualities of ergot, a fungus that infects various grains. He also reviewed his work with Wasson including their 1962 expedition to Mexico on muleback to visit Maria Sabina when they presented her with the synthesized drug in pill form and asked to compare it to the sacred mushrooms. She judged them to be equivalent. But, over the course of several decades Wasson and Hofmann came to believe that perhaps the ancient Mysteries did not utilize the magic mushrooms and that in fact the Greeks had discovered how to synthesize a compound not unlike LSD and consumed it in the form of an ergotized beer. The third member of the panel, Carl Ruck of Boston University provided the scholarly basis for their new theory.46

Mary Barnard found the panel’s supposition interesting but was not invested as to whether the ancient Greeks were consuming mushrooms or an ergot beer. Those on the podium that day looked into the audience and saw a mixed response. The academics knew the evidence was slim. The law enforcement officials had no background in the field. The hippies were polite but more interested in the agenda for Saturday when Jeremy Bigwood and Jonathan Ott presented a lecture on the identification and cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms. The enthusiasm of that portion of the audience particularly annoyed Wasson who was not enamored with the 60s drug culture and had become bitter and defensive:

I have often taken the sacred mushrooms, but never for a “kick” or for “recreation”. Knowing as I did from the outset the lofty regard in which they are held from those who believe in them, I would not, could not, so profane them. Following my article in Life a mob of thrill-mongers seeking the “magic mushroom” descended on Huautla de Jimenez – hippies, self-styled psychiatrists. Oddballs, even tour leaders with their docile flocks…I deplore this activity of the riffraff of our population but what else could we have done?47

Albert Hofmann was also troubled by the recreational use of his creation and had just finished writing his autobiographical LSD My Problem Child. The complexity of that book was explained in the introduction by Jonathan Ott:

In a real sense, this book is the inside story of the birth of the Psychedelic Age…Never before has a chemist, an expert in the most materialist of the sciences, advanced a Weltanschauung of such mystical and transcendental nature. LSD, psilocybin, and the other hallucinogens do indeed, as Albert Hofmann asserts, constitute “cracks” in the edifice of materialistic rationality, cracks we would do well to explore and perhaps widen.48


Wasson did open the door for quite a few inquiring minds including Terrence McKenna who journeyed to Amazon in the early 1970s seeking mind-altering natural substances, including magic mushrooms and yage. A few years later he and his brother published a comprehensive guide for the cultivation of cubensis which became an underground best seller. He not only championed hallucinogens but became an expert in the cultures where they were used by shamans. In the 1980s he and his wife founded a botanical preserve on the big island of Hawaii dedicated to the cultivation and study of plants felt to have significant importance to cultural integrity and spiritual well-being. In 1994 I attended a lecture by McKenna on a book tour for his Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge – A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution.

Looking Glass was an independent bookstore that hosted featured readings by authors. The standing room only audience was composed of that riffraff which Wasson abhorred. McKenna had the aura of a guru and was welcomed like a rock star. “People need to be informed of their birthright. I get antsy thinking that someone might go through life and never have an ecstatic psychedelic experience. It would be like having never had sex… [it’s] part of what it means to be human.” McKenna explained that psychedelic mushrooms were intimately involved in human evolution. In small doses the mushrooms improved eyesight, providing hunters with biological binoculars. At larger doses they served as a jolt to the central nervous system, making humans restless, more easily stimulated, especially sexually, causing a population boom. In the largest doses the mushrooms led to a rupture of the psychic plane, dissolving boundaries between individuals, causing a kind of telepathic group coherence, and allowing for the emergence of language, culture, and consciousness.

Although my modest article about Mary Barnard had the same title as his book, I was not prepared for the breadth of McKenna’s suppositions and theories. Amongst them the statement that the increasing scarcity and knowledge of psychedelic mushrooms resulted in the transfer from a shaman-based worship of nature led us away from a divine feminine force bonding us to the living plant, one contrasting the monotheistic male ego driven domination and destruction of the natural world:

As the mushrooms were more difficult to obtain shamans were replaced by priests shifting from the language that is heard to the language that is seen, replacing the shaman’s song with the written text of the Bible and the Koran, substituting the vision inducing mushrooms with lesser and more destructive forms of intoxication, alcohol and opium. One of the last hold outs were in Minoan Crete and still later at Eleusis on the Greek mainland, but even there eventually hallucinogenic indoles of other types were admitted as techniques of ecstasy. Cultural and climatic conditions made the original source of the boundary-dissolving psilocybin ecstasy no more than a memory and its image no more than a symbol. Our estrangement from nature and the unconscious became entrenched two thousand years ago during the shift from the Age of the Great God Pan to that of Pisces that occurred with suppression of the Archaic way of vision plants and the Goddess, to the cult of domination by the unconstrained male ego. Mainstream Western thought ceased to be refreshed by the gnosis of boundary-dissolving plant hallucinogens in Crete and nearby Greece as the awareness of the vegetable Logos continued as an esoteric and diminished presence until the Mysteries were finally suppressed by the Christian barbarians who continued with their suppression of the goddess as the medieval Church conducted its great witch burnings.

Despite his doomsaying McKenna ultimately revealed himself to be an optimist as he assured the audience, “Fortunately we have been left with this precious time capsule that is contained in the shamanistic cults of the Amazon which can lead us to the sustained mysteries of the organic life realized through the use of hallucinogenic plants.” In the course of an hour Terence McKenna provided me with the direct link between Wasson’s mushrooms and Barnard’s beloved Sappho. At the same time it became apparent that I would never be able to accept Eshleman’s challenge to swallow the toad.

When Mary Barnard died in 2001 the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission organized a celebration of her life. I spoke at that event and expressed my fear that Barnard’s writings will eventually be forgotten or neglected like Sappho. Ms. Barnard spoke to me about that in regards to the communication of culture and knowledge from one generation to another. She believed that poetry is more durable than prose. Mary felt that Time and the White Tigress will have a longer literary life than The Mythmakers while containing much of the same material.

In 2013 interest in Mary Barnard received a tremendous boost with the publication of Mary Barnard: American Imagist, by University of London Senior Lecturer Sarah Barnsley. That scholarly book rightly places Barnard in the midst of the Imagist pantheon to which she aspired. It also credits Mary’s contribution to the evolution of American poetry.49 In the process Barnsley discovered that Mary’s Collected Poems is, in fact, actually a “selected” collection of poems, selected by the poet herself and represents only half of the poems Barnard published.50

Call it progress or call it simply grains of sand passing through the hourglass, but even the archaeological record can be updated and this is also the case with Sappho. When poet and classics scholar Anne Carson published her translation of Sappho, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (Vintage, 2002) she included 192 fragments, but since then two “complete” poems have been unearthed. In 2005 the University of Cologne recovered a text from the “Cartonnage” of an Egyptian mummy that tells the story of Tithonus, a mythological character who requested that the gods grant him eternal life but forgot to ask for eternal youth. Carson’s translation of that poem appeared in the New York Review of Books in an article titled “The Beat Goes On”. She wrote “I confess I used to like fragment 58 in its incorrect form. It had fawns wandering through the middle and an uncontainable ending so packed with abstract words that it read like Wittgenstein on one of his hooligan days.”51 Like Davenport, Carson approached Sappho as an academic. In the following fragment Mary Barnard hears the surf breaking over dead and rotting life that collects in the strand while Carson only sees a few rocks on the shoreline.

#84 (Barnard)
if you are squeamish

don't prod the
beach rubble
#145 (Carson)
do not move the stones

An additional Sappho discovery was revealed in 2014 and called “The Brothers Poem” because of its reference to Sappho’s siblings, Charaxos, and Larichos. The twists and turns of skullduggery link an Oxford scholar to the multi-billion-dollar company of craft stores Hobby Lobby.52 The owners of Hobby Lobby, the Green family of Oklahoma City, are responsible for the creation of the Museum of the Bible, located two blocks from the National Mall in Washington DC. In an attempt to fill their museum with artifacts from the Holy Land, and hoping to discover something as valuable as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hobby Lobby became the focus of a federal investigation in 2017 that resulted in a three million dollar fine for possessing items looted from sources in the Middle East including a papyrus that contained the Brothers Poem. In their zeal to build that monument to their deity, the born again Christians had recovered verse from the most famous Lesbian of all time.

Now the “complete” Brothers Poem is 20 lines long but it is believed that there are perhaps one to three stanzas yet to be discovered. It is about Charaxos who Sappho hopes will return from a trading voyage and about the younger Larichos who she hopes will grow into manhood. Charaxos specialized in selling wine from Lesbos and while in Egypt he fell in love with a prostitute named Rhodopsis, also referred to as Doricha. Without the longer text neither Barnard nor Carson could make much of this fragment but certainly they were aware of the filial relations.

#80  (Barnard)
As you love me 

Cypris, make her
find even you too
bitter! Make her 

stop her loud-mouthed
bragging: “See, twice
now, Doricha
“has arrived at
just such love
as she wanted!”
#7 (Carson)
] Doricha's
] gives orders, for not
] top pride
] like young men
] beloved

The beat does indeed go on and in 2020 Oregon voters approved Measure 109 that legalizes the use of psilocybin mushrooms for medicinal use for the treatment of depression, addiction, anxiety, and PTSD. Due to fears of contamination by cow dung and a rare condition called “wood lover’s paralysis”, it has been decided to use cubensis cultivated using the methods outlined by the McKenna brothers, rather than home grown liberty caps.53

Paul Stamets has also moved on with a successful career selling and popularizing the nutritional and medicinal uses of mushrooms through his company Fungi Perfecti. He has also become immortalized in popular culture through the television series Star Trek: Discovery in which a character named Paul Stamets, an “astromycologist”, is responsible for the space ship’s spore drive, an organic propulsion system that uses the mycelium, allowing the vessel to jump instantaneously to any place in the universe.

Interstellar fungus is nothing new but is more often proposed the other way around, as the fungus itself exploring the universe. That concept, called panspermia, originated with the ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, a contemporary of Sappho, who thought that life was floating around as cosmic dust. Most recently “directed panspermia” was proposed by the likes of Carl Sagan and Francis Crick who felt that life was willfully introduced on Earth seeded from other planets deliberately by distant aliens. McKenna took a step further out on the limb as he proposed that rather than simply spreading DNA around the cosmos, those faraway intelligences might have also intended to distribute consciousness itself. 

On March 8th 2021, the Oregonian published an article titled: “Mary Barnard brought Sappho into the 20th century”. The cub reporter got most of it right and even elicited quotes from Dr. Barnsley. The article contained a number of photos of Mary, at Reed College, as a young poet in New York and in her later days as the white-haired tigress as I knew her. Unfortunately, the largest photo was from a 1960s Italian Peplum era movie “Warrior Empress” starring twenty-five-year-old Tina Louise. The photo portrayed Louise as Sappho strumming a gigantic harp but could have easily used other stills from that movie where Tina applies a whip to the horses while driving a chariot like a female Ben Hur. Sarah was astounded when I sent it to her and drew a blank when I made reference to Gilligan’s Island, a US television show to which she had never been exposed.

After the Friday session at Fort Worden ended the participants gathered for dinner which Mary attended. She was introduced by Wasson and then sought a place in the corner to observe the largely male congregation of experts. Wasson continued to express his abhorrence of the drug-crazed younger generation who preferred seeking a “kick” rather than contemplating the cosmos. Carl Ruck argued that the word “hallucinogen” was inappropriate owing to its etymological relationship to words like “delirium” and “insanity”. The term “psychedelic” was also rejected owing to its similarity to the word “psychosis”.

Mary Barnard smiled as she watched the children play in their sandbox. Ott, who stood in the middle of the group, hoped to create some common ground which might lead to a consensus as he proposed a new password: Entheogen. That word was formally introduced into the lexicon in an article by Carl Ruck and coauthored by Wasson, Ott and two others. Derived from the Greek word “entheos” which means “god within”. “In a strict sense, only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens, but in a looser sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial, that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for the ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.”54 It should be noted that the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs did change its name in 1980 to the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, but continues to focus on medical uses of such substances and has no interest to include articles about the use of drugs to discover “the god within”.

Not burdened by such linguistic posturing, Mary Barnard had already explored this debate in The Mythmakers. There she explained her personal link to Sappho the poet and Sappho the priestess of Aphrodite as well as Sappho the shamaness. Her writing gives us hope that someday the dominance of warrior patriarchy may be replaced by a peace loving, earth friendly and nurturing matriarchy:

The shaman or seer, it is to be understood, serves not only individuals with personal problems, but like the Delphic oracle has an influence on public events. He (or she) is a member of the Establishment. In our society the gypsy fortune teller who reads the future in a pack of Tarot cards is virtually an outlaw. Under the circumstances, she could hardly become a goddess of destiny. But if instead of being barely tolerated by society she should become a support to it, then the face of Fate personified might well be a gypsy face between hoop earrings. This is more plausible since gypsies, like the wise women of the past, are often believed to have the power of influencing through charms and spells the future that they foresee…I would agree that women have practiced shamanism as much as men, and perhaps even earlier. If it is true, as we are often told, that they were the gatherers of fruit and herbs when men turned to hunting, perhaps their acquaintance with narcotic plants led them directly into the professions of healing and soothsaying. The Norns, the Fates and possibly even the Sibyls are older and more powerful than the gods themselves. The sisters around their cauldron raise more questions about the past than they ever answered about the future.55

In Greek myth the Seven Sisters are daughters of Titan, who holds up the sky, and the sea nymph Pleione. They are the nurse maids and teachers of Dionysus and are associated with rain. Their name is derived from their mother, daughters of Pleione but the name of cluster likely came first, and Pleione was invented to explain it. In Latin it is suggested that the name of the sisters was derived from the verb “plein” meaning “to sail”, as the cluster was used to determine when it was safe to sail in the Mediterranean. In the essay entitled “The Dancing Stars” Barnard explains how she became interested in astronomy and its relationship to mythology:

A few years ago I used to drop in occasionally on the afternoon lecture at a famous planetarium. As part of the program the lecturer pointed out to us… “And here are the Pleiades, usually called the seven Pleiades; nobody knows why, unless because there are only six.” The joke always raised a laugh…He did not tell his audience that the “missing” seventh Pleiad is visible today through a telescope and may once have been as bright as the others. In my experience his attitude is typical of most contemporary astronomers, to whom a star myth is a capricious invention of no possible interest unless it can be made to emphasize the long way we have come since the days when stars were believed to be people, or gods, or ghosts of the dead…The first question that star myths raise in my mind is this: by what process does a faraway twinkling point of light become a mythical personality?56

It was not just the Greeks but many cultures which could see the constellation Taurus, in the night sky, that have had to account for the disappearance of one of the seven sisters of the Pleiades. The myths of prehistoric humans were placed in the sky so that certain knowledge could be retained. Our Earth is intimately related to the distant lights of the heavens. Similarly other self-taught scholars, like Wasson and McKenna, have contemplated the relationship of humans to the ecstatic visions produced by consuming the fungus that grows beneath our feet creating yet another layer of reality which can be seen best through the power of the imagination. The wonder of creation will always be followed by dissolution and decay and ultimately death. As Sappho’s poetry makes clear what seems whole today will eventually become fragmented, split in two and then three and then seven. Mary Barnard was a modest poet but was also a grandiose mythmaker herself and was not shy when she added her perspective to that wondrous celestial transformation.

The Pleiades

They are heard as a choir of seven
shining voices; they descend
like a flock of wild swans to the water.

The white wing plumage folds;
they float on the lake – seven
stars reflected among the reeds.

Tonight the Seven Little Sisters,
daughters of the Moon, will come down
to bathe or wash their summer dresses.

They wear costumes of the seven
rainbow colors, they wear feather
mantles they can lift in sea winds

raised by singing, and so rise
flying, soaring, until they fade
as the moon dawns; their voices dwindle.

And die out in the North Woods, over
Australian bush, from Spartan
dancing grounds and African beaches.

They have returned to the sky
for the last time, and even
Electra’s weeping over Troy is stilled.

What girl or star sings now
like a swan on the Yellow River?57

While translating Sappho’s poems Mary Barnard became convinced that Sappho identified Aphrodite with the waxing and waning Moon and not with the glaring Sun. She too preferred the polytheistic matriarchal night sky rather than the monotheistic patriarchal daytime. The light of day easily hypnotizes the masses. You cannot stare at the sun, as Newton did to view the sunspots, without destroying retinal cells. He was blinded for three days and saw afterimages for months. The night sky, with its twinkling stars, and waxing and waning moon, is actually the superior source of illumination because it doesn’t destroy vision and provides more space for the roaming imagination, allowing poets to follow their inspiration while pondering the unknowable. In our lifetime the man-in-the-moon has been trampled by human footprints but even that fact does not diminish the transcendent wonders of the universes but instead only alters the frame within which we see it. Barnard viewed Sappho, and perhaps herself, as one of those sisters around the cauldron, stirring the pot, mixing the medicine, telling stories, and gazing into the night sky with or without the use of entheogenic substances.

A Picture of the Moon

Photography has laid a waste
of sand over the last outpost.
Mythology has been displaced.

No longer will Chinese magicians
swinging in space on silken belts
alight upon the lunar coast

and toast Heng O in elixir.
Her dancers in their rainbow silks
are, with the peach trees, lost.

The snowy Tiger of the West –
oh, where is he? And where
the Cassia Tree? The Toad of time?
All now are lunar dust.58

  1. Jonathan Ott, “The 1978 World Conference on Hallucinogenic Mushrooms”, Head Magazine, February, 1978, Vol.2, No. 7 (
  2. Casey Bush, “Mary Barnard and the Food of the Gods”, Rain City Review, Spring 1993, Vol. 1 Number II, pp. 19-26.
  3. Mary Barnard, Collected Poems, Breitenbush Publications, 1979.
  4. Mary Barnard, Assault on Mt. Helicon, University of California, 1984, p. 56, that letter went on to say: “Try writing Sapphics, and NOT persistently using a spondee like that blighter Horace, for the second foot. If you really learn to write proper quantitative sapphics in the amurikun langwidge I shall love and adore you all of the days of my life…eh…provided you don’t fill ’em with trype.”
  5. Ibid. p. 296.
  6. Mary Barnard, Time and the White Tigress, Breitennbush Books, 1986. Westerm States Book Award for Poetry.
  7. Jonathan Ott and Jeremy Bigwood (Ed.), Teonanacatl: Hallucinogenic Mushrooms of North America, Madrona Publishers, 1978, Based on the proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Hallucinogenic Mushrooms. Ibid. pp. 65-66.
  8. Valentina & Gordon Wasson, Mushrooms, Russia and History, Volume 1, Pantheon Books 1957; Volume 2, released the same year contained chapters titled “The Divine Mushroom: Archaeological Clues in the Valley of Mexico”, Volume 1, p. 153.
  9. Richard Evans Schultes, The Identification of Teonannacatl, A Narcotic Basidiomycete of the Aztecs, Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, February 21, 1939.
  10. William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, The Yage Letters, City Lights Books, 1963.
  11. Tedd Mann, “Magnificent Visions”, Vanity Fair, December 2011.
  12. Jonathan Ott and Jeremy Bigwood (Ed.), Teonanacatl: Hallucinogenic Mushrooms of North America, Madrona Publishers, 1978, pp. 27-28. “We must credit the earliest Spanish intruders into Mexico for our first knowledge of the mushrooms used by Mexican natives as sacramental agents…nonetheless can we forget that, insofar as hallucinogens are concerns, the wealth of knowledge that has come down to us owes its origin almost wholly to the ferocity of governmental and ecclesiastical hatred and opposition on the part of the Spaniards to the use of inebriants as sacraments in pagan religion. For the Spaniards were most certainly less than tolerant of any religious cult but their own.”
  13. Jonathan Ott and Jeremy Bigwood (Ed.), Teonanacatl: Hallucinogenic Mushrooms of North America, Madrona Publishers, p.15, 1978.
  14. Paul Stamets, Psilocybe Mushrooms and Their Allies, Homestead Book Company, 1978, p. 17.
  15. Mary Barnard, The Mythmakers, Ohio University Press, 1966. pp. 3-4.
  16. Life, 5/13/1957, Vol. 42, No. 19, p. 100-120.
  17. Ibid. p. 105. Maria is referred to by the pseudonym Eva Mendez in the article.
  18. Letter to Wasson, 10/1957 Wasson wrote back with enthusiasm: “Of all the hundreds of letters that our book and article have yielded us, yours is certainly the outstanding one. It is clear that the possibilities we discern are shared with you, independently of us. Robert Graves is working on them too.”
  19. Letter from Wasson, 12/23/57.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Mary Barnard, Collected Poems, Breitenbush Publications, 1979.
  22. Guy Davenport, Sappho, Poems and Fragments, pp. vi-vii.
  23. Mary Barnard, Sappho, A New Translation, p. 102.
  24. Guy Davenport, Sappho, Poems and Fragments, p. viii.
  25. Mary Barnard, Sappho, A New Translation, pp. 104-105.
  26. Paideuma, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 147-148.
  27. Letter to Wasson, 12/15/57.
  28. Mary Barnard, The Mythmakers, p. 74.
  29. Mary Barnard, Assault on Mt. Helicon. p. 25 & 31.
  30. Ibid. p. 34-35.
  31. Mary Barnard, Assault on Mt. Helicon, p 54.
  32. Ibid. p. 39.
  33. Mary Barnard, Erato Agonistes: Writing a Creative Thesis at Reed College in “The Golden Age”, White Tigress Press, 1999, p. 31-32. Mary wrote to her mother: “My idea is to write poetry good enough that they won’t dare to refuse me the degree for fear of what posterity will say about them. Excelsior!”
  34. Mary Barnard, Assault on Mt. Helicon, p. 42.
  35. Ibid. p. 180-188.
  36. Ibid, p. 251.
  37. Ibid. p. 281.
  38. Ibid. p. 281.
  39. Ibid. 281-282.
  40. Paideuma, Vol. 23, No. 1, p. 153.
  41. Mary Barnard, Assault on Mt. Helicon, p. 293.
  42. Ibid. p. xviii.
  43. Letter of 8/10/93.
  44. Letter from Barnard 10/16/93. That letter also included an interesting photo of a well-known Golden ring from the acropolis of Mycenae from 1450 BCE, long before Sappho, demonstrating the rich antiquity of Lesbos. Barnard wrote in that letter: “I’ve often said that the interpretation of symbols is like the interpretation of ink-blots – You may learn quite a bit about the person who does the interpreting but very little about the person who made them. But I find this scene irresistible. First we have the sun and the moon – they’re indisputable. Under them I take it, is the Milky Way. A goddess (?) sits beneath a tree holding in her hand “flowers” according to the author of the book from which I took the illustration. He thinks they have just been offered to her by a worshiper. I think she is offering them to the worshiper, and at the same time seems to be offering her breast. The tree bears some sort of fruit – impossible to say what. On the opposite side are indicated seven dancers with shields, which I, of course, identify with the seven Pleiades. Then there is the double axe, and I have ideas about that too, but they are too far-fetched to talk about. Of, I forgot that the “flowers” are quite definitely poppy heads. The scholars say that Aphrodite had to be an import from Asia Minor because her name is not Greek, but nobody has yet deciphered Linear A, so who knows?  She may have been a survival from a deeper layer of Minoan culture. And the excavations on the Island of Lebos, as I mentioned, have demonstrated that the Mycenean culture underlay Sappho’s Mitylene.”
  45. Letter from Eshleman 9/18/93.
  46. Wasson, Hofman, Ruck, Webster, Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secrets of the Mysteries, Harvest Books, 1978. p. 115-116. “Cultivated grain, the symbol of the Eleusinian compact with the forces of the chthonic world, was thought to be unlike other plants in that it easily reverted to a more primitive form if it was improperly grown in the wrong conditions. This primitive form was aria, “darnel” or Lolium temulentum…The ancient Greeks were quite aware of the psychotropic properties of aria. Since Dr. Hofmannn has shown us that Lolium itself has no pharmacological activity, these ancient traditions about aria or thyaros, the “plant of frenzy”, as it was also called, must be understood as indicating an awareness of the psychotropic properties of ergot itself… …Greek farmers customarily removed the aria from the cultivated grain by using a sieve-like instrument called the ariapinon or “aria-drinker”, a word that was apparently a folk metaphor for the blear-eyed drunkard intoxicated on aria. In Roman times in Asia and Greece, bath attendants would drive loitering clients home by drugging them with the steaming fumes of aria. …We  may surmise that at Eleusis the initiates partook of this drug that so obviously threatened to spread its corruption of primitivism and chthonic possession among the worthless wild weed aria onto the cultivated harvest of barley, upon which mankind depended for life, in this communion, they would have shared in the earth-mother’s ancient passion, her loss of the maiden and the burial of seed…We should not forget, moreover, that ergot’s obstetric properties were recognized in antiquity and would have lent further appropriateness to the drug’s usage in such a pageant of deliverance”
  47. Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge – A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution. New York: Bantam, p. 112, 1992; as quoted from Wasson’s book The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica, McGraw-Hill, 1980.
  48. Albert Hofmann, LSD — My Problem Child, McGraw-Hill, p.vii.
  49. Sarah Barnsley, Mary Barnard: American Imagist, State University of New York Press, 2013, blurb by Peter Nicholls.
  50. It is Dr. Barnsley’s intention to edit a true collected edition in the near future.
  51. Anne Carson, “The Beat Goes On”, New York Review of Books, 10/20/05, p. 47. Carson also writes: “Sappho’s is a naked dress. She simply inserts us into a problem of life and then opens it, on a single mythic turn, to time. Time, as a metrical pattern, holds the poem perfectly and eternally in place.”
  52. Ellen Greene and Marilyn B. Skinner, eds. 2009. The New Sappho on Old Age: Textual and Philosophical Issues. Hellenic Studies Series 38. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies (
  53. Kristian Foden-Vencil, “Oregon proposes only using one type of mushroom for new psilocybin system, and no pills”, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Feb. 8, 2022 (
  54. Ruck Wasson, Hofmann, Ott, et al., Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, 1979, 11, 1-2, p. 145-6.
  55. Ibid. p. 83-89.
  56. Mary Barnard, The Mythmakers, 119-120.
  57. Mary Barnard, Collected Poems, Breitenbush Publications, 1979.
  58. Mary Barnard, Collected Poems, Breitenbush Publications, 1979.