Chaoma, hauma, hom, homa, sauma
The ancient Parsis had a sacred drink known by the name haoma (also hauma, corresponding to the Indian soma419), which is reputed to have had inebriating effects and to have been a source of divine inspiration. This inebriating drink was consumed during the communal bull sacrifice. It was venerated as a god but was condemned by Zarathustra (= Zoroaster), the founder of the religion that bears his name. According to Pliny, Zarathustra was “the creator of magic” who rejected420 both haoma and the ancient (Indo-Iranian) gods, who were the personifications of the stars, waters, and natural occurrences (fire) (Gaube 1992, 108, 114).421 These daiwas (“demons, idols”) were primordially related to the devas, the plant spirits of the Indians (cf. Storl 1997*). The god of the inebriating drink was also known as Hauma or Haoma. Today, Iranians still refer to Syrian rue (Peganum harmala) as hom or homa.
In order to extract the sacred juice from the plant, Haoma as a god must in a certain sense be killed, and this happens during the pressing of the juice. During the main ceremony of the Parsis—the sacrifice—not only is haoma drunk, that is, one god is offered to another dying god, but sacred bread is also consumed. By doing this, the priests and the faithful desired to partake in the immortality of the gods and therewith the resurrection of eternal life. (von Prónay 1989, 27)
Not only did the Parsis regard haoma as the primordial plant out of which all other medicinal plants came, but they also viewed it as a powerful medicine in itself:
The haoma inebriation is invigorating. Any mortal that praises haoma like a young son: to him will haoma make itself available and heal his body. Since that time have you been growing on these mountains, the multifarious, milky, gold-colored haoma; your medicines are tied to the blisses of Vohu Manah. (Avesta, Yasna 10)
The Persians considered the haoma plant to be a “miracle tree” or an “all-seed tree” from which the seeds of all trees descended. During the Hellenic period, the ancient Iranian god Mithra became the god Mithras, who was cultically worshipped in a secret male organization. The veneration of the Parsi haoma lived on in the Mithraic mysteries (Cumont 1981; Ulansey 1991). Some cult images depict Mithras as a young god who is grabbing a bull by its nostrils with one hand and stabbing him with the other:422
It is then that the miracle takes place, that blessings flow from the body of the bull as it is collapsing in death. All of the nourishing and healing plants issue forth from it. This is suggested by the ears of grain that grow out of the end of his tail; the most important is the generative seed that gushes from the bull, and from which comes future life. Diabolic animals, snake, scorpion, crab, attempt to steal this source of life, but the seed is caught in a vessel and brought to the moon. Purified in the light of the moon, from there this seed produces a pair of cattle, and with this pair, from which the entire earthly race of cattle are descended, arise all the useful animals. As so it is that all plant and animal life on earth is created from the death of the bull. This bull was the first living being to be created, and the brutal and gruesome deed that Mithras was prepared to do against his will upon the command of the highest god, to kill the primordial life, brought forth all that is good in the world, increased life in infinite fashion, the multifaceted all-life of nature comes from a mythical, unified living being that had to be killed for this very purpose . . . this bull is haoma. (Lommel 1949, 212)423
Haoma was stirred together with the fat of a bull to make the “drink of immortality” (cf. “Polyporus mysticus”); the psychoactive plant “wards off death” and symbolizes the energy of life:
This sacred plant is the embodiment or paragon of the plant world or the primordial plant; it encompasses the entire plant world within itself, and its juice represents all of the nutritional and medicinal powers contained in the plant world. It is the symbol of nourishment and healing. . . . Soma-haoma is thus the all-life, which comes from heaven and pulses through all of nature and is given form in all living beings. . . . During the full moon, when the vessel is full with the bright life potion, the gods drink from it. It is from this that they derive their immortality, for the contents of the moon is the drink of immortality, amrta, a word related to ambrosia. (Lommel 1949, 213)
Carl Ruck believes that the Parsis remembered the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) (which has often been construed as ambrosia) as haoma (Ruck 1995, 132*). Unfortunately, the identity of the true haoma plant remains undetermined. The limited sources also make it difficult to reconstruct the method or methods used to prepare the drink. However, it is very likely that haoma, like soma, was a plant or preparation that produced potent psychoactive effects. It may have been a kind of ayahuasca analog, such as a preparation made from Peganum harmala and Phragmites australis or Phalaris arundinacea. Archaeological finds suggest that Ephedra species (Ephedra spp.) were consumed ritually in the haoma cult as part of a beerlike preparation.
“A great god is Ahura Mazda, who created this world, who created the high heavens, who created humans, who created happiness for humans, who made Darius king.”
GRAVE INSCRIPTION AT PERSEPOLIS IN ZOROASTRISMUS (DIE RELIGION DES ZARATHUSTRA) [ZOROASTRIANISM (THE RELIGION OF ZARATHUSTRA)]
(GAUBE 1992, 109)
The psychedelic or visionary effects of hamoa were described in the Persian text called the Book of Arda Viraf (fourth century C.E.).A holy man named Viraz was inebriated on haoma—his haoma being a drink called mang made from “wine and henbane” (cf. Hyoscyamus niger, Vitis vinifera)—and fell asleep. His soul was led across the bridge that spans the world mountain and binds this world with the one beyond and into heaven. The holy man passed beyond the sphere of the stars and into the realm of the wise lord of the heavens, Ahura Mazda or Ohrmuzd, where he was initiated into the secrets of life after death. After seven days, he descended back to the earth with instructions to tell the people what he had seen (Couliano 1995, 140 f.*):
In Persia, vision into the spirit world was not thought to come about simply by divine grace nor as a reward for saintliness. From the apparent role of sauma [= haoma] in initiation rites, experience of the effects of sauma, which is to say of menog existence, must have at one time been required of all priests (or the shamans antecedent to them). (Flattery and Schwartz 1989, 31)
Some rudiments of the ancient haoma cult have been preserved in modern Iran. Today, the ritual drink is brewed either from pomegranate juice (Punica granatum L.) and ephedra (Ephedra spp.) or from rue (Ruta graveolens L.) and milk (Flattery and Schwartz 1989, 80). The fire ritual of the haoma cult has been integrated into the rites of tantric Buddhism and has survived into the present day; it is still practiced in Japan (Saso 1991).
(from Couliano 1995*; Flattery and Schwartz 1989; Lindner 1933; Ruck 1995*; supplemented)
Mithras slaying the bull—a symbol of the pressing of haoma juice? (bronze medallion of Emperor Gordian III, 238–244)
See also the entries for Ephedra gerardiana, Mandragora spp., Peganum harmala, and soma.
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Gaube, Heinz. 1992. Zoroastrismus (Die Religion des Zarathustra). In Die großen Religionen des Alten Orients und der Antike, ed. Emma Brunner-Traut, 95–121. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.
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