The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Soma

 

“Then the gods commanded us to gather all of the plants that could be dipped in the ocean and were suitable for obtaining the nectar of immortality; and in those days we were very strong.”

 

VALMIKI RAMAYANA (1983, 165)

 

“These are the plants, these highly gifted ones, that shall free the sick from their suffering! Truly, I confirm, you herbs, that your lord is Soma and that you were created by none other than [the seven-faced] Brishaspati [planetary god Jupiter]! The shadow that lies over us, that threatens us, shall be overcome.”

 

MAGICAL SAYING FROM THE ATHARVA VEDA

 

IN MAGIE DES OSTENS [MAGIC OF THE EAST]

 

(I. SHAH 1994, 159*)

 

 

 

Some authors believe that the original soma drink was pressed from rhubarb stems (Rheum palmatum) and fermented into a winelike drink.

 

Other Names

 

Ambrosia, amrita, bolud rtzi (Tibetan), haoma, homa, nectar, nektar, sauma, saumya, som

 

Soma is the earthly counterpart of amrita, the drink of immortality that is reserved for the gods in the heavens. The name soma was given to a deity, to a plant, and to the sacrificial drink prepared from the plant. The Aryans of the Indus Valley venerated and drank soma as part of a cult that existed some three thousand years ago (Aguilar I Matas 1991). Soma is the Indian counterpart of the Persian haoma. Today, the definitive botanical identity of soma is unknown.

In the Hindu tradition, the moon (originally called soma) is the ambrosia-filled drinking vessel of the gods. When the moon is full, the vessel is full; by the time the new moon appears, it has been emptied. It fills up again as the moon waxes. The moon is divided into sixteen sections. Every day, the gods drink up one of these sections. The moon is the lord of the plants, the deity who protects all plant life. For this reason, the soma plant must be gathered by moonlight and brought to the place of offering on a platform pulled by two goats. The sacrificial altar itself was made solely of kusa grass (Gupta 1991, 85*).

There were three soma preparations, called asir: the one made with milk was called go, the one with sour milk dadhi, and the one with barley yava (Gupta 1991, 85*). To prepare the drink, the stems of the soma plant were pressed between two stones. The “soma juice, which dissolves all sins” (Valmiki 1983, 21), was then mixed with water, milk, and other ingredients. It has sometimes been assumed that the soma prepared with barley was a kind of beer(surâ).

The priest at the fire altar offered soma (as a libation) to and consumed the drink in honor of Indra, the god of thunder, who is believed to be eternally inebriated on soma. The drink was also consumed by singers and poets because it inspired them to their art (Gonda 1978; Hauschild 1954).

The Vedas state that the urine of people inebriated on soma could be drunk, producing the same effects. Because the urine of people inebriated on fly agaric mushrooms is drunk in Siberia to induce further inebriation (Bourke 1996, 54 ff.**), Gordon Wasson put forth the hypothesis that the original soma plant must have been Amanita muscaria.470 However, Wasson’s hypothesis has been strongly contested (McKenna 1996, 135 ff.*). The fact that there are no fly agaric mushrooms in the Himalayas is especially problematic. How were the Vedic religious communities supplied with the inebriant?

According to the Rig Veda, the soma plant grows only in the mountains; for this reason, all lowland plants, such as Peganum harmala, can be eliminated as potential soma candidates (cf. Ott n.d.). It is also known that the Aryans acquired the plant by trading with the indigenous mountain tribes (Gupta 1991, 84*).

Some authors have speculated that soma was a mead made from honey (Hermanns 1954, 75), a kind of wine (rhubarb wine; Hummel 1959), or even a hopped beer. Others believe that soma was a fermented drink made from honey and the pressed juice of ephedra (Ephedra spp.) soaked in milk (Tyler 1966, 285*). However, the Rig Veda makes a clear distinction between soma and alcoholic drinks (surā) (Stutley 1980, 74).

 

 

Soma Plants

 

The original soma plant—hypothetical candidates

 

Amanita muscaria (L. ex Fr.) Pers. ex Hooker

Argyreia nervosa (Burm. f.) Boj.

Bacopa monnieri (L.) Pennell [syn. Bacopa monniera Wettst., Monniera cuneifolia Michx., Herpestris monniera (L.) H.B.K.]—sarasvati (Sanskrit)471

Calonyction muricatum (L.) Don [syn. Ipomoea turbinata Lag., Ipomoea muricata] (cf. Ipomoea spp.)

Claviceps paspali Stevens et Hall (parasitic on the koda grass Paspalum scrobiculatum L.)

Claviceps purpurea

Ephedra spp.:

Ephedra ciliata F. et M. [syn. Ephedra foliata Boiss. ex C.A. Mey.]

Ephedra distachya L.

Ephedra intermedia Schrenk et C.A. Mey.

Ephedra pachyclada Boiss.—hum (Hindi), huma (Hindi) (Gupta 1991, 84*)

Ephedra vulgaris Rich. (= Ephedra gerardiana)

Equisetum sp. (cf. Equisetum arvense)

Humulus lupulus L.

Mandragora turcomanica Mizgireva (cf. Mandragora spp.)

Peganum harmala L.

Peganum harmala in combination with Psilocybe sp. (“somahuasca”; cf. ayahuasca analogs)

Polyporus sp. (see Polyporus mysticus)

Psilocybe (Strophariacubensis (Earle) Singer

Psilocybe semilanceata (Fr.) Kummer

Psilocybe (Strophariasubcubensis Guzmán

Rheum spp.472—wild rhubarb:

Rheum emodi Wall.

Rheum officinale Baill.

Rheum palmatum L.

Rheum rhaponticum L.

Succulent(s) (cf. Ajaya 1980, 273 ff.)

Vitis sp., Vitis vinifera ssp. sylvestris—wild Afghani wine

 

Post-Vedic soma substitutes (O’Flaherty 1968)

 

adara (not identified; cf. Gupta 1991, 84*)

Andropogon sp. (arjunnâni) [syn. Cymbopogon sp.] (cf. Cymbopogon densiflorus)

Basella cordifolia Lam.—pûtîkâ

Cannabis indica Lam.

Ceropegia decaisneana

Ceropegia elegans

Ephedra gerardiana Wall. ex Stapf

Ficus religiosa L.

Periploca aphylla Dene.

putika (not identified with certainty, but perhaps Basella cordifolia or a fungus; cf. Kramrisch 1986 and Heim and Wasson 1970)

Sarcostemma brevistigma W. et A. [syn. Asclepias acidaCynanchium viminaleSarcostemma acidum Voigt, Sarcostemma viminale R. Br.473]

Setaria italica (L.) Beauv. (according to the Satapatha Brahmana)

Vitex negundo L.—indrasura (“Indra’s inebriating drink”)474

 

Plants that are referred to as soma in Sanskrit or another language

 

soma (Sanskrit):

Eleusine coracana (L.) Gärtn. [syn. Cynosurus coracanus L.]—African millet, finger millet

Setaria glauca (L.) Beauv.

somlata (Nepali, “soma plant/moon plant”):

Ephedra gerardiana

somalata (Sanskrit):

Caesalpinia bonduc (L.) Roxb.475

Calotropis gigantea (L.) Dryander476

Periploca aphylla Dene.

Sarcostemma brevistigma W. et Arn. (also called soma)

somalutâ (Sanskrit):

Ruta graveolens L.

somaraj (Hindi):

Paederia scandens (Lour.) Merr. [syn. Paederia foetida L.] somarâjî:

Vernonia anthelmintica (L.) Willd. [syn. Serratula anthelminticaConyza anthelminticaCentrathera anthelmintica]

somatvak (Sanskrit):

Acacia catechu (cf. Acacia spp.)

somavalka (Sanskrit):

Acacia polyantha (cf. Acacia spp.)

somavalli (Sanskrit; Bengali: amrtavallî):

Tinospora cordifolia (L.) Merr.477 [syn. Menispermum glabrum]—guduchi

Cocculus cordifolius DC.

saumya/amsúmat (“rich in soma juice”):

Desmodium gangeticum DC.478

Plants that are cultically or mythologically associated with soma

 

“brother of the great soma” (Shah 1994, 198*):

Mucuna pruriens

Limonia acidissima L. [syn. Feronia limonia (L.) Swingle, Feronia elephantum Corrêa]—elephant apple

palasha (flame of the forest, parrot tree):

Butea monosperma (Lam.) Kuntze (Leguminosae) [syn. Butea frondosa Koen. ex Roxb.]

The palasa tree appears to have been a sacred tree even in the Vedic period. It is consecrated to the moon. Today, the tree is still associated in folklore with the divine soma drink (Gandhi and Singh 1991, 41*).

 

 

It has been suggested that an Asian species of horsetail (Equisetum sp.) may have been the soma plant. Horsetail, generally called mu-ts’ê, “wood thief,” was used in ancient China for polishing wood, rhinoceros horn, and ivory. (Illustration from Chi Han, Nan-fang-ts’ao-mu chuang, A.D. 304)

 

“One day Indra, the chief of the gods, felt a great thirst. The gods of his court asked the goddess Gayatri to go to the celestial mountain Mujavana where the Soma creeper grew and bring it back so that Indra would then have an uninterrupted supply of Soma forever after.

 

“Gayatri disguised herself as an eagle. She flew to the mountain and found it guarded by the sentries of the Moon. She swooped down and, in a trice, seized the creeper in her beak. Before the startled sentries could do anything she flew away, screeching triumphantly.

“One of the sentries, Krishanu, let fly an arrow at the bird. The arrow missed Gayatri but struck the vine. One of the leaves fell off and it fell to Earth and grew into the Palasa tree.”

AN EARLY INDO-ARYAN TALE

 

IN BRAHMAS HAIR

 

(GANDHI AND SINGH 1989, 42*)

 

 

In post-Vedic times, the sacred peepal, or bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), was used as a soma substitute.

 

 

Finger millet (Eleusine coracana) is still known by the name soma today; in Nepal, it is used to make beer and schnapps. (Millet field on the edge of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal)

 

 

The shrub Calotropis gigantea is called somalata, “soma plant,” in Sanskrit; whether it has psychoactive effects is unknown.

 

 

Rue (Ruta graveolens) is called somalutâ in Sanskrit (and in several other languages) and is regarded as a possible ingredient in soma and perhaps haoma. Although the herb contains harmala alkaloids, no clear evidence of a psychoactive effect has been found.

 

“Inebriation is one of the inevitable effects of mythos. Cultures that no longer possess this are sober and burned out. The longing for a mythology is the drive for an inebriating drink, which excites the imbiber like soma, the divine inebriating drink of the Indian war and thunder god, who ingests it three times a day at the Brahmans’ sacrifices, and is consequently able to do his world-conquering deeds and is capable of presiding over the lightning bolt of the ancient god of heaven to open the path of victory for the campaigns of conquest of his chosen people, the Vedic Aryans.”

 

HEINRICH ZIMMER

 

ABENTEUER UND FAHRTEN DER SEELE [ADVENTURES AND TRAVELS OF THE SOUL]

 

(1987, 310)

 

Other authors, such as Terence McKenna (1996*), have speculated that the original soma plant was the magic mushroom Psilocybe cubensis (or another Psilocybe species), which grows abundantly on cow dung—and that this may be why cows are sacred in India. It has also been suggested that soma was made from a combination of Peganum harmala and Amanita muscaria or Psilocybe cubensis (cf. ayahuasca analogs). Of all of the candidates for soma that have been proposed, psilocybin mushrooms are the only psychoactive plants that produce effects like those in the fantastic descriptions of the Rig Veda:

 

Your juices, o purified Soma, all penetrating, as quick as thought, move of themselves like the descendents of quickly hurrying steeds; the heavenly, winged sweet-tasting juices, inciter of great cheer, radiant in the vessel. (Rig Veda 9)

 

Jonathan Ott has speculated that an Indian pharmacratic inquisition may have taken place during the post-Vedic period, with the result that the original visionary soma plant was replaced with a substitute that had only mildly stimulating or even placebo-like properties. We do know that in the post-Vedic period, the soma ritual was carried out with Cannabis indica and Ephedra gerardiana (O’Flaherty 1968). Other, nonactive plants were also used as substitutes (see table, page 793).

 

The roots of the shrub Desmodium gangeticum, known in India by the name salparni, contain the psychoactive substances DMT and bufotenine. In Sanskrit, the plant is called saumya, “rich in soma juice.”

 

 

The sacred palasa tree, also known as “flame of the forest” (Butea monosperma), is closely connected to soma in mythology. (Wild plant, photographed in the Terai, Nepal)

 

A relatively recent theory suggests that ergot (Claviceps spp.) from an Eleusine species of grass was used as a substitute for soma (Greene 1993). Indeed, in western Bengal (India), a psychoactive use of Paspalum ergot (see Claviceps paspali) has continued into the present day.

In western India, the soma ritual in honor of Indra has been preserved in certain tribal rites (such as the babo ritual) into the present day (Jain n.d.). The Vedic fire ritual that was connected with the soma sacrifice has survived in India, eastern Asia, and even Japan (Staal 1983). The soma ritual is also thought to have served as the prototype for the kava ceremony of the South Pacific (see Piper methysticum).

Soma was likely nothing more than a catchall word, similar to the current words drugentheogenpsychedelic, et cetera. Soma has become a symbol for the “perfect drug” (Huxley 1958).

The aura-soma therapy popular in esoteric circles has nothing to do with the Aryan soma but is a modern invention in which no psychoactive substances are used (Dalichow and Booth 1994).

Literature

 

See also the entries for Ephedra gerardianaAmanita muscariaTerminalia bellirica, and haoma.

 

Aguilar I Matas, Enric. 1991. Rgvedic society. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

 

Ayaya, Swami. 1980. Living with the Himalayan masters: Spiritual experiences of Swami Rama. Honesdale, Penn.: Himalayan International Institute. (Pages 273–77 are on soma.)

 

Bhargava, S. K. 1989. Antiandrogenic effects of a flavonoid-rich fraction of Vitex negundo seeds: A histological and biochemical study in dogs. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 27:327–39.

 

Dalichow, Irena, and Mike Booth. 1994. Aura-Soma: Heilung durch Farbe, Pflanzen und Edelsteinenergie. Munich: Knaur.

 

Daniélou, Alain. 1964. Hindu polytheism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (See pp. 98 ff.)

 

Domínguez, Xorge A., Jorge Marroquín, Luz Ma. Olguín, Francisco Morales, and Victoria Valdez. 1974. β-amyrin juarezate, a novel ester from Marsdenia pringlei and triterpenes from Asclepias linariaPhytochemistry 13:2617–18.

 

Gershevitch, Ilya. 1974. An Iranianist’s view of the soma controversy. Mémorial: Jean de Menasce 1985:45–75.

 

Ghosal, S., and S. K. Bhattacharya. 1972. Desmodium alkaloids II: Chemical and pharmacological evaluation of Desmodium gangeticum. Planta Medica 22:434.

 

Gonda, Jan. 1978. Die Religionen Indiens I: Veda und älterer Hinduismus. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

 

Greene, Mott. 1993. Natural knowledge in preclassical antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

 

Hauschild, Richard. 1954. Das Selbstlob (Âtmastuti) des somaberauschten Gottes Agni. In Asiatica—Festschrift Friedrich Weller, 247–88. Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz.

 

Heim, Roger, and R. Gordon Wasson. 1970. Les Putka des Santals: Champignons doués d’une âme. Cahiers du Pacific 14:59–85.

 

Hermanns, Matthias. 1954. Mythen und Mysterien der Tibeter. Stuttgart: Magnus.

 

Hummel, K. 1959. Aus welcher Pflanze stellten die arischen Inder den Somatrank her? Mitteilungen der Deutschen Pharmazeutischen Gesellschaft 29:57–61.

 

Huxley, Aldous. 1958. Brave new world revisited. New York: Harper & Row.

 

Jain, Jyotindra. n.d. Painted myths of creation: Art and ritual of an Indian tribe. New Delhi: Lalit Kata Akademi.

 

Kashikar, C. G. 1990. Identification of soma. Research Series, no. 7. Pune, India: Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth.

 

Kramrisch, Stella. 1986. The mahâvîra vessel and the plant pûtika. In Persephone’s quest, ed. R. G.Wasson et al., 95–116. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press.

 

Kulshreshtha, D. K., and R. P. Rastogi. 1973. Bacogenin-al: A novel dammarane triterpene sapogenin from Bacopa monnieraPhytochemistry 12:887–92.

 

La Barre, Weston. 1970. Soma: The three-and-one-half millennia mystery. American Anthropologist 72:368–73.

 

Mallavarapu, Gopal R., Srinivasaiyer Ramesh, Pran

 

N. Kaul, Arun K. Bhattacharya, and Bhaskaruni Rajeswara Rao. 1994. Composition of the essential oil of the leaves of Vitex negundoPlanta Medica 60:583–84.

 

Müller, Reinhold F. G. 1954. Soma in der altindischen Heilkunde. In Asiatica—Festschrift Friedrich Weller, 428–41. Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz.

 

Napier, A. David 1986. Masks, transformation, and paradox. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. 1968. The post-Vedic history of the soma plant. In Soma—divine mushroom of immortality, ed. R. G. Wasson, 95–147. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

 

Ott, Jonathan. 1994. La historia de la planta ‘soma’ después de R. Gordon Wasson. In Plantas, chamanismo y estados de consciencia, ed. Josep Maria Fericgla, 117–50. Barcelona: Los Libros de la Liebre de Marzo.

 

———. n.d. The post-Wasson history of the soma plant. Unpublished manuscript, Jalapa, Mexico.

 

Riedlinger, Thomas J. 1993. Wasson’s alternate candidates for soma. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 25 (2): 149–56.

 

Schneider, Ulrich. 1971. Der Somaraub des Manu: Mythus und Ritual. Freiburger Beiträge zur Indologie, vol. 4. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.

 

Schroeder, R. F., and Gastón Guzmán. 1981. A new psychotropic fungus in Nepal. Mycotaxon 13 (2): 346–48. (On Psilocybe [StrophariacubensisPsilocybe subcubensis.)

 

Shakya, Min Bahadur. 1994. The iconography of Nepalese Buddhism. Kathmandu: Handicraft Association of Nepal (HAN).

 

Shukia, Bina, N. K. Khanna, and J. L. Godhwani. 1987. Effect of brahmi rasayan on the central nervous system. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 21:65–74.

 

Staal, Frits, ed. 1983. Agni: The Vedic ritual of the fire altar. Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Humanities Press.

 

Stutley, Margaret. 1980. Ancient Indian magic and folklore. Boulder, Colo.: Great Eastern.

 

Thomas, P. 1983. Secrets of sorcery spells and pleasure cults of India. Bombay: D. B. Taraporevala Sons.

 

Valmiki. 1983. Ramayana. Cologne: Diederichs. Wasson, Gordon. See entries for Amanita muscaria

 

Wilson, Peter Lamborn. 1995. Irish soma. Psychedelic Illuminations 8:42–48.

 

Zimmer, Heinrich. 1984. Indische Mythen und Symbole. Cologne: Diederichs.

 

———. 1987. Abenteuer und Fahrten der Seele: Ein Schlüssel zu indogermanischen Mythen. Cologne: Diederichs.

 

 

The Asian medicinal plant Bacopa monnieri has been interpreted as soma. In Sanskrit, the plant is known as sarasvati (“that which flows”) and is named after the goddess of writers, artists, and poets. (Chinese illustration from the Pen-t’sao-kang-Mu, sixteenth century)

 

 

This Nepalese depiction of the somainebriated Indra, the god of thunder and of the heavens, shows him holding his thunderbolt (vajra/dorje) in his right hand. (Woodcut print from Shakya, The Iconography of Nepalese Buddhism, 1994, 63)

 

“Various drinks with somniferous and anodyne effects are mentioned in legends and reports from the past as well as from antiquity, and when one takes into account the ingredients used—in addition to mandrake, also opium, hemlock, Indian hemp, gall-nuts, as well as wine and other substances—one can believe that effects were indeed occasionally achieved with these. Indeed, we find confirmation for this assumption, for we hear of fatal incidents resulting from overdose when physicians used such mixtures.”

 

DETLEF RÜSTLER

 

ALTE CHIRUGIE [ANCIENT SURGERY] (1991, 77)