The identity of the ancient plant known as Soma is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the field of religious history.
Common in the religious lore of both ancient India and Persia, the sacred Soma plant was considered a God.
When Soma was pressed and made into a drink, the ancient worshipper who imbibed it gained the powerful attributes of this God.
The origins of Soma go back into the shadowy time of prehistory? back to the common Aryan ancestors of both the Vedic Hindu religion of India and the Persian religion of Mazdaism.
This common ancestry accounts for the many similarities in the Hindu and Mazdean religions and language, as can be seen in surviving religious texts such as the Hindu Rig Veda and the Persian Avesta. A major connection is their use of a sacred plant, known in India as Soma, and in Persia as Haoma.
From ancient descriptions, the original Soma/Haoma must have been a very special plant. The qualities of this sacred herb are given in poetic detail, and the love and admiration these ancient authors had for the plant can still be felt thousands of years after the texts were composed.
In a spirit similar to that of the Catholic Eucharists, Soma was prepared in a sacred ritual and then bestowed upon the pious to give them spiritual inspiration, wisdom, courage, health, and other benefits.
In the 1921 Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, the effects of consuming Soma are described as follows:
“In such a state, the devotee becomes as powerful as an independent monarch, and is able to withstand many dangers coming from ill-disposed persons. Heaven, health, long life, power to contend against evils, victory against enemies, and fore-warnings against coming dangers from thieves, murderers, and plunderers are the six gifts bestowed by Haoma when adequately praised and prepared. Haoma is specially sought for by young maidens in search of good husbands, by married women desirous of being mothers, and by students striving after knowledge.”
Over the millennia, the original identity of Soma/Haoma has been lost. Although modern descendants of these ancient cults still perform the rituals of their ancestors, placebo sacraments are now used in place of the long lost Soma.
The plant which was the original source of Soma is a mystery that has been debated by scholars and theologians for centuries.
The descriptions and praises of the plant left to us by antiquity have led numerous scholars to speculate on the botanical identity of the original plant.
The late psychedelic guru Terrence McKenna put forth the Stropharia cubensis mushroom as a likely candidate for the mysterious entheogen.
Other suggestions have included Syrian Rue, milkweed, Sarcostemma acidum, Ephedra distachya, Mandrake, rhubarb, ginseng, opium and even the old standby of an alcoholic beverage. The Amanita muscaria mushroom and cannabis have also been suggested.
As the editors of the authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica have recorded on the subject:
“One of the pharmacological mysteries is the nature of Zoroastrian Haoma and the early Hindu Soma, both sacred drinks made from plants. Their source may have been the amanita muscaria mushroom, the mind-affecting chemicals of which pass into the urine with their properties very little diminished; there are scriptural references to sacred urine drunk as the source of divine insights. Allusions to twigs and branches of Haoma, however, suggest other plants, perhaps hemp. The mushroom, which does not grow in hot countries, may have been introduced to India, by Aryan invaders from the north; subsequently, other plants may have been substituted until their identity was confused and lost.”
Undoubtedly, the most popular candidate for this long lost entheogen has been the Amanita muscaria mushroom, also known as “fly-agaric.”
The Amanita theory was first proposed by banker and mycologist Gordon Wasson, and his theory has been widely accepted by a number of other prominent scholars.
Wasson based some of his theory upon a reference in the Hindu text of the Mahabharata, when the god Indra gives the hero Uttanka ambrosia to drink, in the form of urine. Wasson believed that this was actually a reference to the practice of drinking a priest’s urine after he had consumed Amanita muscaria mushrooms, for the mushroom’s hallucinogenic effects would remain in the urine of the consumer.
In his colorful and nicely-bound edition Strange Fruit, Clark Heinrich notes:
“Soma was always described as growing in the mountains, which in India is the only place fly agaric is found, growing in pine and birch forests.”
Heinrich also suggested that sun-dried mushrooms were left to soak in water, and then “milked” of their psychoactive juices in a preparation sounding very similar to that described in the ancient texts.
Sanctify Soma our mind, our heart, our intellect; and may thy worshippers delight in thy friendship, like cattle in fresh pasture, in thine exhilaration (produced) by the sacrificial food; for thou art mighty.
Like the winds violently shaking the trees, the draughts of Soma have lifted me up, for I have often drunk of the Soma.
The praise of the pious has come to me like a lowing cow to her beloved calf, for I have often drunk of the Soma.
Both heaven and earth are not equal to one half of me, for I have often drunk of the Soma.
I am the sun, the greatest of the great, raised to the firmament; for I have often drunk of the Soma.
? Excerpts from the Rig Veda
Mushroom or Marijuana?
All this, when seen by itself, certainly makes it appear as though the Soma was indeed the Amanita muscaria. However, the picture is not so clear when other sources and references are taken into consideration.
Wasson and others have noted that descriptions of Soma list no leaves, branches, or roots, and then reason that this lack identifies a mushroom. But this reasoning is based solely on omission. Detailed descriptions of the plant are not made anywhere in the ancient texts and was likely a form of sacred religious knowledge not shared with the masses.
Similar problems occur in the scriptural translations interpreted as indicating the ingestion of Soma-active urine, translated in some cases as “stream,” and may more likely have indicated connections between the Soma plant with the rains and waters which helped it to grow and which were believed to have been divinely sent.
In the case of the story of Indra and the hero Uttanka, it may simply indicate that Indra was so holy, even his piss was sacred. Urine-drinking also has a number of applications in Eastern medicine and is thought to be beneficial.
The mountain top location for the ancient Soma has been identified as the Hindu-Kush Mountains, an area also renowned for the quality ganja it has produced for millennia.
Also, the beautiful fragrance of Soma is referred to a number of times, hardly something that would be applicable to a mushroom.
References to the blissful state Soma produced and the quantity and extent of which it was used also limits the number of potential candidates. Some botanical suggestions produce effects which could be considered far from blissful. In many cases, if ingested in the quantities in which Soma was consumed, suggested candidates would be toxic. Safety at high dosages and blissful states are both attributes of cannabis.
Taking all this into account, it is not surprising to find that many researchers have disputed the theory that Amanita muscaria is Soma, and instead suggest cannabis as the prime candidate.
Soma and Bhang
Cannabis was originally rejected outright by western historians researching the identity of Soma. It was not until 1921 and the publication of Braja Lal Mukherjee’s article “The Soma Plant” in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society that “bhang” was put forth as a serious candidate.
Mukherjee based his assertion on references in the Satapatha Brahmana that mention a plant, “Usana,” from which Soma is made. The “u” in “usana” was a prefix carry over from the Kiratas, with whom Soma originated. When the “u” is dropped you return to one of the original Sanskrit names for cannabis: “Sana.”
As well, Mukherjee notes the use of terms similar to Soma in cannabis names in the languages of the Tibetans (somarasta) and the Tanguts (dschoma). Mukherjee also noted the long Hindu history regarding the sanctity of bhang, and its use in the worship of Shiva and his counterpart, Durga.
Finally, like other researchers, Mukherjee noted the obvious parallels between ancient descriptions of the preparation of the Soma and the traditional preparation of bhang.
Also in favor of the theory that Soma was originally cannabis are ancient writings which indicate that the stalks of the Soma were woven together and worn around the neck as an amulet for protection. This is similar to the modern wearing of hempen jewelry amongst the counter-culture. But this act of weaving would be hard to accomplish with a mushroom.
Soma is also described as having the multi-faceted fibrous and healing properties we now recognize in cannabis. “The restless Soma? you try to grab him but he breaks away and overpowers everything,” reads one Vedic passage. “He is a sage and seer inspired by poetry. He covers the naked and heals all who are sick. The blind man sees; the lame man steps forth.”
Reconstruction of the tools used in the preparation of the Soma drink offer some insights into the ingenuity of these ancient stoners.
The cannabis plant was soaked in water in large tubs, then beaten and pressed into milk. This process was directed at releasing the cannabinoid-rich trichomes from the plant matter.
This preparation was then placed into large pots which had a hole in the bottom, covered with a wool filter. The final preparation was recovered in a vessel placed below. This technique is similar to the modern method of making water hash, and the filter bags used in that process.
A little research into the Iranian counterpart of the Soma, the Haoma, also offers us some interesting insights.
Haoma consumption originated in Persia with the Mazdean priests who brought it with them in their ancient exodus from the Hindu-Kush Mountains. The Mazdean priests became popularly known as Magi, and around 500 BC their religious relationship with Haoma went under some renovations under the prophet Zoroaster.
Zoroastrian mythology has it that their prophet was conceived after his body came down to earth through heavenly rain, which brought forth plants which were consumed by cows belonging to the people selected to become his parents. The cows gave milk which was pressed with Haoma and drunk by the prophet’s parents, who later conceived him while making love for the first time.
After the time of Zoroaster, the main holy plant became known as “bhanga,” a term usually associated with cannabis. Whether this represented a change in substances or just in name alone is unknown.
The Zoroastrian holy book the Vendidad (The Law Against Demons), calls bhanga “Zoroaster’s good narcotic.”
Later Zoroastrian writings refer to Zoroaster’s use of bhanga for shamanistic ecstasy and initiation. Zoroaster’s wife Hvovi preys that the Supreme Being will:
“give her his good narcotic, bangha… that she might think according to the law, speak according to the law and do according to the law.”
The Iranian faith of Zoroastrianism influenced the writers of the Bible in many important ways. Ideas such as Heaven and Hell, an afterlife, a coming Saviour, and even a final apocalypse, were all developed by Zoroastrian initiates, whose power of revelation came through consuming powerful drinks of bhang.
Ali Jafarey, who has been writing on the Zoroastrian religion for over 40 years, has written that “the mushroom seems to be far-fetched” as the original Soma. In an essay called Haoma: It’s Original and Later Identity, he wrote that the commonly used modern ingredient for the Haoma ceremony, ephedra, is “void of all the qualities described in the Avesta and the Vedas.”
“The description of the plant is that it was greenish in color,” writes Jafarey, “grew on mountains well north of the Indus Valley, was traded by outsiders, had a special ritual to prepare, was an instant intoxicant prepared from pounding and extracting its juice, and that the Saka tribes of eastern Central Asia are called “haumavarka” (Haoma-gatherers) by Achaemenians; all point, in my opinion, to what is now known as Indian hemp.”
The “Saka tribes” to which Jafarey refers are more popularly known as the Scythians. There are many ancient references to their use of cannabis for religious and social purposes, and numerous cannabis-related artifacts and even cannabis seeds have been discovered by modern archeologists at numerous Scythian burial sites.
Jafarey also wrote that the ancient Soma ceremony:
“resembles the present practice of solemnly pounding… extracting and straining [cannabis]juice, and mixing it with water, milk, poppy seeds, and almonds by Sufis, Faqirs, Pirs, Sadhus, and other Muslim and Hindu mystics of certain orders and circles in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, particularly those connected with shrines and holy places.
The drink is called “d?gh-e vahdat” (unity milk) by Iranian mystics and “th?dal” (cooling, refreshing) by Sindhi Sufis.”
Making Soma with crushing stones
Parts of the Vedas seem to describe the pressing of cannabis flowers in the preparation of Soma.
The stones used for crushing the Soma were invoked as a deity, the clacking of their work likened to speaking. Note the following references to the rocks pressing the Soma as being turned green in the process. Also, note that Soma is called “the purple tree” in what seems to be a clear description of the color of ripened cannabis.
- Let these (stones) speak… Ye solid, quick moving stones, you utter the noise of praise, full of the Soma juice.
- They roar like a hundred, like a thousand men; they cry aloud with green-tinted faces; obtaining the sacrifice, the pious stones partake of the sacrificial food?
- They speak, they received into their mouth the sweet [Soma-juice]. Chewing the branch of the purple tree, the voracious bulls have bellowed.
- Splitting, but unsplit, you, O stones… enjoying the Soma, flowing green [with Soma], they made heaven and earth resound with their clamor.
- The stones proclaim it with their clamor at the issue of the Soma-juice… like cultivators sowing the seed, they devour the Soma, mix it, and do not hurt it.
- Proclaim the praise of the stone, which has effused [the Soma-juice]; let the honored stones revolve.
Recent archeological evidence has emerged from Russian excavations in the Kara Kum desert of Turkmenistan that gives further confirmation to the claim that Soma was originally cannabis, bringing it out of the realm of theory and into accepted historical fact.
According to Russian archeologist Victor Sariandidi:
“for the first time in the world archeological practice, monumental temples were found in which intoxicating beverages of the Soma-Haoma type were prepared for cult ceremonies? The excavations proved that poppy, cannabis and ephedra were used for making the Soma-Haoma drinks, and thickets of these plants were found in excess in the vicinity of the excavated temples of Margiana.”
Soviet archaeologists uncovered a massive shrine, about the size of a football field, dating from 2000 BC. The shrine consisted of two parts, one of which was obviously for the public, but the other, as researcher Richard Rudgley describes, was “hidden from the gaze of the multitude, an inner sanctum of the priesthood.”
“In one of these private rooms were found three ceramic bowls,” continues Rudgley. “Analysis of samples found in these vessels by Professor Mayer-Melikyan revealed the traces of both cannabis and ephedra. Clearly both these psychoactive substances had been used in conjunction in the making of hallucinogenic drinks.”
The preparation room was right next door. “In the adjoining room of the same inner sanctum were found 10 ceramic pot-stands which appear to have been used in conjunction with strainers designed to separate the juices from the twigs, stems and leaves of the plants. In another room at the other end of the shrine a basin containing remains of a considerable quantity of cannabis was discovered, as well as a number of pottery stands and strainers that have also been associated with making psychoactive beverages.”
Remnants from vessels recovered at the site and involved in the preparation of the sacred drink have impressions from cannabis seeds left in the gypsum that settled over the millennia. Remnants of ephedra, poppy and mostly cannabis was also found in the white sediment stuck to the sides of ancient pots and pitchers. Russian archeologist Victor Sariandidi says this proves these plants “were used for making the Soma/Haoma drinks.”
Based on the size of the archeological site, the Russian team believes that the temple served as a major depot for the entheogenic drink and that devotees traveled from a wide area to imbibe of it there.
A slightly later but related site “revealed remains of ephedra again, but this time in conjunction with the pollen of poppies.” As Rudgley explains:
“the discovery in the shrines of the remains of opium, cannabis, and ephedra in ritual vessels that are dated between 2000-1000 BC show that Soma? may be considered as a composite psychoactive substance comprising of cannabis and ephedra in one instance and opium and ephedra in another.”
The addition of the mildly stimulating plant ephedra in this preparation likely accounts for the reputation of Soma to keep one awake. This was probably done in the same spirit as medieval Sufis, who would eat hashish and drink lots of strong coffee, then stay up all night playing religious music.
This archeological evidence goes a long way to answering the riddle of the ancient Soma. The later use of opium poppies indicates that other plants may have later been used as a substitute for cannabis, and this may be the source of much of the confusion on this issue.
Possibly, when the Aryans left the Hindu-Kush Mountains, access to cannabis became more difficult. When the original plant was not available, other herbs were used as a substitute. Eventually, these continuing substitutions could have caused so much confusion among the ancient worshippers that over a few generations, the original identity of the plant were forgotten.
The name Soma became one that referred to a variety of plant drugs, each becoming Soma through ritual consecrations.
Indications of this later development may be found in the Atharvaveda, written centuries after the original Vedas, in reference to a variety of plants, including cannabis, being governed by the god Soma:
“We tell of the five kingdoms of herbs headed by Soma: may it and the Kusha grass, and bhanga and barley, and the herb Saha release us from anxiety.”
In the Persian mythology, the Haoma is said to be a foretaste of the “White Hom.”
The institution of the White Hom takes place at a cosmological time identical in many respects with the Christian apocalypse, when the final Saviour named Sasoyshant sacrifices the last sacred ox. From the ox’s body are “born all herbs and health-giving plants… from his blood the vine, which produces the sacred drink of the mysteries.”
Interestingly, the Persian creation mythology has it that Ahura-Mazda (God) eased the pain of the ox with cannabis after it had been poisoned by Angru Mainyu (Devil), who cursed it with death and disease and other maladies.
In later times, the figure of Sasoyshant merged with the older Persian god Mithra. A depiction from the Roman period, in which the cult’s popularity became widespread, clearly shows a cannabis leaf pouring forth from the bull’s wound, perhaps indicating that the bull heals the earth and inhabitants with the same plant that eased its own pain.
When this symbolic scenario is looked at in comparison with our modern plight, some interesting analogies can be drawn. In the magical tradition, the sword represents the power of the intellect. In modern terms, the “sacred cow” has come to represent our society’s religious and philosophical beliefs.
Perhaps by taking the intellectual study of the entheogens into the realm of the world’s religions, we are in a sense plunging the sword of Mithra into the sacred cow.
As we do so, the sacred plants of our ancestors pour forth once again: the Soma of the Rig Veda, the Haoma of the Gathas, the kaneh-bosm of the Torah and the “plant of kindness” of the early Christians.
In our modern age, we find ourselves having to fight for the right to partake of a plant that can offer us many of the qualities of the ancient and mysterious Soma, and which may be that very same sacred plant.
Just as both the industrial and medicinal establishments have been forced to acknowledge the miraculous qualities of cannabis, so too, through studying ancient religious texts concerning the herb, and the righteous acts of her many adherents, the religious establishment shall someday come to recognize cannabis as the great gift and sacrament that it truly is.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed. 1979
- “Margiana and Soma-Haoma,” Victor Sarianidi, Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, Vol 9, Issue 1 (May 2003)
- The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances, by Richard Rudgley, Little, Brown and Company (1998)
*This article was originally published at www.cannabisculture.com by Chris Bennett