William Emboden on Soma’s Identity

William Emboden on Soma’s Identity


Soma is known to most readers as the stimulant, euphoriant and hallucinogen in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. Few people know that the plant soma actually exists and has been used as a narcotic since the time of India’s earliest civilizations. In Ancient Indian mythology Soma, the brother of Indra, was the giver of health, courage, long life, a sense of immortality, and almost every other virtue known. As a narcotic, soma is thought to have originated in the Hindu Kush mountain range of northeast Afghanistan. There is evidence that Aryan invaders carried the plant to India and Persia, where it was readily adopted because of its psychoactive properties. Many of the hymns of the Rig-Veda, which were sung earlier than 800 B.C, refer to soma as a liquor and as a god. Recent accounts of the history of Cannabis have attempted to equate hashish with soma or homa. Homa is a plant derivative celebrated by Zarathustra, prophet to the ancient Iranians. There is every reason to believe that these are the same plants, but it is unlikely that either is Cannabis or a preparation of hashish. In Rig-Veda IX 113, soma is spoken of as a fragrant liquor, and in Rig-Veda X 85:3 there is a description of soma drinkers who “crush the juice from the plant.” Neither of these suggests hashish or its mode of preparation. Phillipe de Felice, who wrote extensively on the uses of drugs in religion, adduced evidence that soma was a creeper or a vine, and Cannabis is bushy or upright.

Attempting to establish the identity of soma in over 144 hymns of the Rig-Veda has occupied ethnobotanists for some considerable time. These writings of the earliest settlers in the Indus basin are deliberately elusive on the point of the identity of soma. In this area and Iran there are several plants that are used under the name soma or homa, and yet these may not represent the soma of antiquity. The sporadic references to the plant in the Rig-Veda are elliptical and even contradictory. This plant that makes the gods dance and rejoice, produces mental exhilaration, increases the greatness of the priest in his sanctuary and of men, is strong drink for the omnipotent, is expressed by pounding it from the plant with stones, is mixed with milk, it speaks from the wooden bowl, it has swollen stalks which are milked like udders. These are a few of the most direct allusions to soma; others are far more oblique. We are also faced with the dilemma of distinguishing between references to Soma, the god, and soma as a plant or plant product. Although most of these are concentrated in Mandala IX of the Rig-Veda, they may be found throughout the work. One major obstacle to uncovering the plant soma is the disagreement between Vedic scholars as to the precise interpretation of these texts. Max Muller, one of the greatest of Vedic scholars, stated in the preface to his 1891 translation of this work that translators of Vedic mandalas “ought to be decipherers, and that they are bound to justify every word of their translation in exactly the same manner in which the decipherers of hieroglyphic or cuneiform inscriptions justify every step they take.” In the continuing Vedic scholarship this dictum has not always been followed, and literal interpretation has too often given way to poetic license and interpretation over translation. This is true of the translations of Wilson and Cowell, Griffith and Langlois.

The most recent assay to identify soma has been attempted by R. Gordon Wasson. Wasson relied on the translation of Geldner and that of Renou. It is the most thorough attempt yet to answer the age-old question of the botanical identity of soma, and it was done with the authoritative aid of W. D. O’Flaherty, an expert on Vedic culture and linguistics. Wasson perceived in these texts the absence of any mention of roots, leaves, branches, seeds, or fruits, and since the authors of the Rig-Veda do not mention these components, Wasson believes that they did not exist. Therefore, he asserts, the plant must have been a mushroom. Since the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, is a montane plant and has a history of serving as an intoxicant among Siberians, it is put forth as the soma of the Hindu Kush or Himalaya foothills (Pi. 22). Wasson is aware of the limitations imposed by the infrequent presence of substantial numbers of these plants in the areas identified. This he believes may be answered by the assertion that Vedic priests had porters traveling to the forest belts of Eurasia to supply “the Divine Plant.”-This journey of thousands of miles to procure a plant considered divine hardly seems likely. It is difficult to find a single instance of an ancient culture that culled its sacred narcotic plants from a distant source. Some contenders for soma from previous investigators have been Peiiploca aphylla, Ephedra spp., Rheum sp., and Sarcostemma brevi-stigma (Pis. 23 & 24). Before dismissing these plants from the list of possibilities, we must investigate some of the assertions in light of their probability. As D. H. Ingalls, a Vedic scholar and supporter of Wasson’s thesis, states, “Not all the epithets remarked on by Wasson need to be taken just as he takes them.” Ingalls further notes, “I think Wasson’s basic identification is a valuable discovery. But when a new tool is given to scholars, it is as important to prevent its misapplication as it is to recognize its value.” He goes on to discount the Wasson thesis of “the third sieve,” which states that the worshippers drank soma pissed out of the bodies of the priests. The interpretation is limited to a single verse in ten thousand verses of the Rig-Veda and is an extension of a practice among Siberians unknown to ancient Vedic people.

A few years ago a German pharmacologist, Hummel, wrote a treatise on soma in which he identified the plant as Rheum palmatum, or one of several other Asiatic species of rhubarb. The inherent problem is that Rheum species are non-narcotic. He suggested that any of four species of rhubarb were crushed and fermented with sugar or honey to give an intoxicating beverage. Max Muller instigated the idea of soma being a fermented beverage based upon the two kinds of intoxication mentioned in the Rig-Veda: that of soma was without “evil effect” and that of beer was said to produce anger and folly. Each type of intoxication is based upon a different word. This has led to the supposition that soma could not be an alcoholic beverage. We need only look into the Christian tradition to find wine as a sacrament representing the blood of Christ, and wine as a mocker. Such a duality should not so easily disconcert translators. One of the attributes in these Sanskrit texts is that of intoxication and another is sweetness. Rhubarb leaves are emetic, and we might suggest that ritual emesis has been almost universally known as an act of cleansing and purification.

About the time of Hummel’s thesis, a theory was advanced by the pharmacologist Quazilbash that soma was either Ephedra pachyclada or E. intermedia. Both are natives to the mountains of northwest India and have the advantage of being leafless, thus more in accord with the Vedic descriptions than Rheum, which has a very large leaf. Quazilbash maintains that in order to fit these Vedic hymns the plant had to be soaked in milk, crushed, filtered, mixed with honey, and the brew allowed to ferment. Such a mixture would then contain alcohol as well as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine and would serve as a psychoactive plant that would produce not only the stupor of alcohol, but the “exhilaration” that the Rig-Veda speaks of repeatedly. It seems clear that alcohol alone could serve only as a neural depressant and could not account for the states of ecstasy that soma provides. Even today these leafless, sun-loving plants are prepared in Khyber and parts of Afghanistan by boiling them in milk. The brew is thought to be an aphrodisiac and is most certainly a stimulant. Could this be a vestigial practice relating to an earlier soma ceremony? It is not an untenable hypothesis.

Those who have proposed Sarcostemma viminale (Asclepias viminale) as the holy herb fail to take into account that it is African and not Asian, and the juice is quite toxic, finding use as a fish poison. If we consider which plants found in Pakistan and the Hindu Kush and Pamir mountains of northwest India might be likely candidates, two come to mind: Periploca aphylla, a leafless decumbent herb or liana with milky latex, or the related Periploca hydaspidis. It was in 1885 that Julius Eggeling, noted for his Sanskrit translations, proposed Sarcostemma acidum as soma. Eggeling expressed doubts over his assertion, but indicated that every possibility seemed to favor Sarcostemma brevistigma (S. acidum). This leafless sprawling plant has many of the attributes found in the Rig-Veda. It is a series of branching stems that are quite leafless, and it grows in full sun (IX:86). When the seeds are released from the capsule, they emerge through a single suture that is like the opening of an eye (IX: 10 and 97). These seeds, typical of the family, are released in a cloud of silvery comose down after leaving the leathery fruit coat, “he abandons his envelope . . . with what floats he makes continually his vesture of grand-occasion” (IX: 71), and soma “shines together with the sun” (IX:2); “he has taken the back of heaven to clothe himself in a spread-cloth like to a cloud” (IX:69). We could give further examples in which the comose down is a cloud or silver or like sheep. The copious milky juice of Sarcostemma is reflected in these verses of the Rig-Veda: “When the swollen stalks were milked like cows with udders” (VIII:9), “Milking the dear sweetness from the divine udder …” (IX: 107), “The udder of the cow is swollen; the wise juice is imbued with its streams” (IX:93). These allusions are extremely frequent. As to the “navel of the earth” (IX: 72), we have the perfect figuring of a navel in the round involuted center of the flower of Sarcostemma. It is this that gives way to the leathery fruit—”The hide is of bull, the dress is of sheep” (IX: 70)—that conceals the seed with attached comose down. The form of this fruit is not unlike the horns of steers or bulls, “This bull, heaven’s head . . .” (IX:27). Thus, we present but a few of the many verses in the Rig-Veda that could be applied to Sarcostemma acidum. Wasson has found them equally applicable to Amanita muscaiia, the mushroom.

We know that Sarcostemma brevistigma is used in India today under the name soma, as are several other plants including Ephedra species. It may be that all of these are surrogates, or it is quite possible that Sarcostemma bievistigma is the plant soma of antiquity. A thorough chemical analysis of the latter to establish the presence of an intoxicating narcotic is in order. It is known that the dried stem is an emetic in Indian medicine, but what of the fresh milky latex? Certainly the herb is worthy of more investigation than has been conducted to date. In a volume entitled Medicinal, Economic, and Useful Plants of India by Sudhir Kumar Das, the foreword notes that the “therapeutic uses of plant materials have been quoted from records of the findings made through the ages by Hindoo Ayurvedic Pharmacists.” In this compendium of ancient sources, Sarcostemma brevistigma is listed with the following note: “Herb. Plant juice is intoxicating and blood purifying.” Such evidence is only circumstantial, but most intriguing. We must keep in mind that soma was a dangerous drug, that on occasion made Indra, brother of Soma, quite sick.

The contention by Wasson that soma is irrefutably and without a doubt the basidiomycete Amanita muscaria is disconcerting. No one has done a more thorough study than Wasson in an attempt to identify the plant soma, and his assertions must carry the weight that is commensurate with the scholarship that is to be found in Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality. The reader must bear in mind that interpretation is a thing apart from translation, and the ideal interpretation would come from a Vedic scholar who is also a botanist. Wasson’s scholarship has opened new doors for us and is not to be taken lightly. It is a model for ethnobotanical research. Whether this resolves the age-old question of soma must be left to the reader.

What is the history behind the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, that might engender a thesis such as that advanced by Wasson? We know that this mushroom contains the toxin muscarine in varying amounts, depending upon the area in which the fungus grows. It also contains the hallucinogens ibotenic acid and muscimole. This mushroom may be found in the temperate areas of the world following the belts of birches, beeches, alders, and pines. In its more southerly distribution it may be found about groves of eucalyptus and oaks. In the histories of the north European countries it appears as the mushroom in children’s books having a red cap flecked with white. It is almost always portrayed in stories involving elves and dwarfs, the mystical little people of the forest found in the legends of most north temporate cultures. It was Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson) who popularized the idea that a mushroom could make a person very large or very small in the eyes of those who partake of it. He had read a review of Cooke’s manual on British fungi that contained an account of the properties of Amanita muscaria; these were translated into the experiences of Alice when she encountered a prophetic caterpillar in Wonderland.

We know of the antiquity of Amanita muscaria intoxication among the tribes of northeastern Asia, the Tungus, Yakuts, Chukches (Chukchees), Koryaks, and Kamchadales. It has also been used extensively among the Finno-Ugrian peoples, the Ostyak and Vogul. The earliest account of these practices was narrated to Europeans when in 1730 a Swedish army officer published his account of imprisonment in Siberia. In 1762 Oliver Goldsmith described his experiences of the use and ritual surrounding this colorful fungus. Since the mushroom is not abundant in northeast Asia, a curious practice has developed. Women of a tribe chew the dried fungus into a pulp, which is rolled into sausage-shaped pieces of a few inches in length. These are eaten by the men of the tribe. Two fungi are usually enough to produce a state of gaiety and exuberance. After passing through the kidneys, the mushroom is detoxified of muscarine and yet the potent muscimole, produced by the decomposition of ibotenic acid, is still abundant in the urine. As testimony to this, we have the words of Goldsmith:

The poorer [Tartars) post themselves around the huts of the rich and watch [for] the opportunity of the ladies and gentlemen as they come down to pass their liquor, and holding a wooden bowl catch the delicious fluid. Of this they drink with the utmost satisfaction and thus they get as drunk and as jovial as their betters.

Keenan, who was among the Chukches in 1870, reported that a single mushroom was sufficient to keep a band intoxicated for a week, and a single mushroom would fetch three or four reindeer. This is interesting in light of experiments with Amanita muscaria in Cambria Pines, California. My informant relayed to me an experience in which he consumed eight of these fungi. Only after such a large dose did he feel any effects, and these were loss of motor coordination, paranoia, and uncontrolled speech. Obviously this fungus shows great variability throughout its range. The other possibility is that an in vivo processing of ibotenic acid to muscimole may be more efficient in bodies of differing physiology. If ibotenic acid decarboxylates and loses water, it becomes five times as potent, for it is then changed to muscimole. Muscazone is found in lesser amount and is pharmacologically less active.

Could this Siberian tradition be allied to the cult of soma? Could this area have been one of the sources for Amanita muscaria via an incredibly long trade route? Is this the source for the practice of the priest pissing soma as indicated in the Rig-Veda interpreted by Wasson? We know that the Siberian uses involved eating the mushroom after it had been dried in the sun or over a fire, extracting the juices in water and sometimes drinking them with an admixture of reindeer milk. These practices do correspond to many of those indicated in verses of the Rig-Veda. The practice of mixing the mushroom with the juice of Vaccinium uliginosum or Epilobium angustifolium is most interesting (Figs. 31 & 32). In Millspaugh’s American Medicinal Plants, he mentions several species of Epilobium as being used for cramps, diarrhoea, and dysentery. The preparation involves chopping and pounding the entire plant. In addition to the expected effects, he noted that the tincture “caused some symptoms that must have been due to so large a drink . . . symptoms that we are prone to lay to the alcohol.” Citing the works of Dr. Wright, who took one-half ounce of the tincture and became intoxicated, we have reason to believe that perhaps there is an intoxicating principle in Epilobium, for one-half ounce of a tincture of the plant plus alcohol is a small amount of alcohol in terms of giddiness or intoxication. This same author says of Vaccinium uliginosum that it is intoxicating and narcotic. Could it be that some of the effects ascribed to the berserker of Scandinavia, who went into impassioned frenetic states of orgies and murder, used not only Amanita muscaria, but also these narcotic admixtures? Vaccinium vitis was used by the Shakers as a substitute for the related Arctostaph-ylos uva-ursi, whose leaves were smoked as sagack-homi in Canada and as kinikinik among western hunters. These admixtures to the mushroom are much ignored.

John Allegro, who has distinguished himself as a translator of ancient languages, extended the Amanita argument in a book entitled The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. Using linguistic arguments that begin with Sumerian tablets from Arcad and Erech, he traces the mushroom through several cultures and finds it to be a focal point in the Christian tradition. The strong sexual interpretations of these practices all but occlude the argument. One strong point in favor of Allegro’s argument is a fresco dating from 1291 on a wall of a deserted church in Plaincourault (Indre, France) which shows Adam and Eve posed on either side of the “Tree of Life” depicted as a large branched Amanita muscaria with a serpent wrapped about it. The forbidden fruit in the mouth of the serpent, Satan, is either an apple or a piece of the red Amanita cap (Pi. 25). Did the celebration of Amanita as a sacred plant exceed that of all psychotropics from many different cultures? Did this tradition originate in the cult of soma among the Vedic peoples? Was soma really Amanita, or Ephedra, or Sarcostemmai One thing remains a certainty: the story of soma has not yet reached its terminus, and the ancient scribe who once penned the following characters in Sanskrit had a yet unraveled secret:

Heaven above does not equal one half of me.
Have I been drinking soma?
In my glory I have passed beyond earth and sky.
Have I been drinking soma?
I will pick up the earth and place it here or there.
Have I been drinking soma?

Rig-Veda X:U9, 7-9

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