Syrian Rue, Harmel
Zygophyllaceae278 (Caltrop Family)
Forms and Subspecies
Aspand (Kurdish), besasa (Egypt, “plant of Bes”), churma, epnubu (Egypt), gandaku, haoma (Persian), harmal, harmale, harmalkraut, harmal rutbah (Arabic/Iraq), harmel, harmelkraut, harmelraute, hermel, hermelkraut, hermelraute, hom (Persian), kisankur, moly, mountain rue, pegano, pégano, peganon, sipand (Persian), steppenraute, Syrian rue, syrische raute, techepak (Ladakhi), tukhm-i-isfand, uzarih (Turkish), wilde raute
Syrian rue is likely an ancient ritual plant that was used for psychoactive purposes from an early date. It may have been the haoma of ancient Persia and was in any case later used as a substitute for it. The plant appears in the ancient literature (Dioscorides) under the name peganon. The name peganon (also peganum) may have been derived from that of Pegasus, the winged horse of ancient mythology that was begotten by Poseidon, the god of the sea, and the dying Medusa. The plant has also been interpreted as the legendary magical plant known as moly.
The seeds, which are used both medicinally and ritually, were imported from Persia to India by the Muslims at an early date (Hooper 1937, 148*). The plant was present in central Europe by the fifteenth century at the latest and was portrayed by the “fathers of botany.” In the Near East and North Africa, Syrian rue has retained its great significance as a ritual incense into the present day. In North America and central Europe, it is increasingly being used to produce ayahuasca analogs.
Syrian rue is distributed from the eastern Mediterranean region over northern India (Rajasthan) and into Mongolia and Manchuria (Schultes 1970, 25*). It is common in Yemen and the Negev Desert. In southern Europe, the plant can occasionally be found on Cyprus and less frequently in Greece (Sfikas 1990, 140*).
Although Syrian rue thrives without problem in extreme desert climates, cultivation of the plant is often difficult. The plant almost never grows in central Europe. It is more likely that suitable soils and climates are found in southern Europe. In California, cultivation is relatively simple. There, the seeds are simply broadcast onto normal, moistened potting soil and gently pressed in. When there is sufficient—but not too much—sunlight and the air is warm, some of the seeds will germinate. Each can be repotted as a seedling as soon as its root has become strong enough.
Growing larger quantities of Syrian rue requires considerable experience in and knowledge of gardening.
This herbaceous perennial, which can grow as tall as 50 to 100 cm, has ramified roots and many thin stalks. The multifid leaves are opposite and have a fragile appearance. The white flowers have five petals and ten yellow pistils. The delicate, solitary flowers are at the ends of long stalks attached to the leaf axils. The trilocular fruit is round and acquires a reddish color as it matures. It contains numerous gray or almost black triangular seeds (up to 3 mm long).
The herbage begins to develop new shoots in February, and flowers appear in April. The plant is green in early summer and develops fruits in July. The herbage has a characteristic scent that some people find unpleasantly obtrusive.
An old illustration of Syrian rue. (Woodcut from the herbal of Matthiolus, 1627)
Syrian rue (Peganum harmala), displaying a mature fruit.
The seeds of Peganum harmala, known as harmel or hermel, contain large amounts of harmaline and harmine and are thus very well suited for making ayahuasca analogs. (Photograph: Karl-Christian Lyncker)
“Wild rue. Some also say that the wild peganon is the plant that is known in Cappadocia and Asian Galatia as moly. It is a bush that develops several branches from one root, it has leaves much larger and more tender than the other peganon [= rue], and with a penetrating scent, a white flower, with little heads at the tip, larger than with cultivated peganon [= rue], usually consisting of three parts, in which is found a three-sided light yellow seed that is also used. The seed ripens in late autumn, and when finely ground with honey, wine, chicken bile, saffron, and fennel juice, it can be used to treat dull vision. Some also call the same harmala, the Syrians besasa, the Egyptians epnubu, the Africans churma, and the Cappadocians moly, because it has a great similarity to moly, as it has a black root and white flowers. It grows in hilly and fertile soil.”
—Seeds (semen harmalae, semen rutae silvestris, harmalae semen, harmalasamen, harmala seeds, harmel seeds)
Preparation and Dosage
Burning the dried seeds as a fumigant is by far the most common use of Peganum harmala. The seeds are simply thrown onto glowing wood or charcoals, sometimes in combination with other substances (cf. incense). The seeds also are used as an ingredient in smoking blends, e.g., with hashish (cf. Cannabis indica). In Ladakh, the seeds are toasted on a red-hot iron plate, very finely ground, and then smoked, either alone or mixed with tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) (Navchoo and Buth 1990, 320*). An especially effective smoking mixture can be obtained from 15 g of seeds and the juice of a lemon. The ground seeds are boiled carefully in some water and the lemon juice until a paste results. Mixed with tobacco and smoked, this is said to produce inebriating and aphrodisiac effects.
In Pakistan, 5 to 10 g of unground seeds are ingested with water after a meal for internal purposes (Goodman and Ghafoor 1992, 25*). In Morocco, the seeds are added to wine (Vitis vinifera) to make harmel wine. The powdered seeds are taken as a snuff to produce a “clear mind” (Vries 1984*).
Up to 20 g of powdered seeds have been ingested for psychoactive purposes, but such a dosage can have severe toxic effects. “Over 4mg/kg (oral) of the two substances [harmine and harma-line] have hallucinogenic effects on humans” (Roth et al. 1994, 548*). Some 3 to 4 g of crushed seeds (approximately one teaspoonful) is effective as an MAO inhibitor for activating the DMT in ayahuasca analogs. (By the way, it is not necessary to swallow the seeds or, in gelatin capsules, the powder. This amount can be extracted in cold water, and the solution can be used.)
In recent years, many psychonauts have experimented with adventurous combinations of harmel seeds and other psychoactive substances (Lophophora williamsii, Phalaris arundinacea, Psilocybe spp., Trichocereus pachanoi, mescaline, LSD, et cetera) (DeKorne 1995*; Turner 1994*). Great care should be exercised when conducting such self-experiments. It is better to use too little than too much!
If Syrian rue was in fact the original haoma plant, then its greatest ritual significance would have been in pre-Zoroastrian Persia. It is possible that the plant may also have been the secret inebriant used in the ancient mystery cult of Mithra.
Dioscorides noted that the late ancient Syrians knew the plant as besasa, a name that is usually interpreted to mean “plant of Bes.” Bes was a misshapen god of dwarf form and with the face of an old man who was especially beloved among the simple Egyptian people, for he was a protector spirit who turned away all evil. His image, in the form of small amulets, was affixed to head rests, beds, mirrors, and cosmetic jars. The small figures of Bes were fumigated with Syrian rue seeds to promote their apotropaic powers.
Syrian rue was a sacred plant in the ancient Orient. The Koran states, “Every root, every leaf of harmel, is watched over by an angel who waits for a person to come in search of healing.” For this reason, it is said that dervishes in Buchara also esteem and ritually utilize harmel seeds for their inebriating effects.
Syrian rue seeds, in the form of small incense balls (sepetan), are still offered by burning great quantities during Nouruz (New Day), the ancient Iranian and now Islamisized spring and new year’s festival (on March 21, the vernal equinox). The ascending smoke is distributed throughout the entire house to keep away all misfortune (Schlegel 1987). In Persia (Iran, Iraq), the seeds are scattered over glowing coals at weddings to ward off evil spirits and the evil eye. It is said that the smoke is also capable of dispelling epidemic diseases (Hooper 1937, 148*).
In Baluchistan (Pakistan), the seeds are used to neutralize the enchantments of a jin (jinn) and to banish all evil spirits in general. A person who has fallen under the spell of or has been possessed by a jin is urged to inhale as much as possible of the smoke rising from the crackling seeds on the charcoals. It is said that such a treatment usually results in a rapid improvement (Goodman and Ghafoor 1992, 25*). Harmel is also used as a fumigant in Turkey to counteract the effects of the evil eye.
In North Africa, Syrian rue has been regarded as a magical and medicinal panacea since ancient times. The seeds are used as incense, both alone and in combination with other substances. The seeds are scattered over charcoal to dispel evil spirits. The smoke is inhaled to treat headaches, the consequences of the evil eye, and venereal diseases. In Morocco, an incense of Syrian rue seeds, alum, and olibanum (Boswellia sacra) is burned during the wedding night to fan the flames of desire (vries 1985). Fumigations of harmel seeds and alum, performed to defend against demons, are said to produce inebriating effects.
In the Himalayas and neighboring regions, shamans use the seeds as a magical incense. The shamans of the Hunza, who live in what is now Pakistan, inhale the smoke to enter a clairvoyant trance. The shamans (bitaiyo) then enter into a close, lusty sexual contact with the divining fairies, who give them important information and the ability to heal (cf. Juniperus recurva).
It is possible that Syrian rue may have played a role in the development of the floral patterns and elements of Islamic art. If the plant was indeed used in the haoma cult or the Mithraic mysteries, it likely would have inspired numerous cult images.
In modern Iran, fruit capsules of Peganum harmala are strung together and attached to articles of clothing as protective amulets (panja).
Traditionally, Syrian rue seeds have been used primarily for gynecological purposes. In India, the seeds (hurmur, lahouri, marmara) are burned as an incense to ease the birthing process. In Indian folk medicine, the seeds (harmal, is-band) are regarded as an aphrodisiac, an asthma remedy, and an agent for treating menstrual difficulties. In Pakistan, infertile women and women with severe labor or uterine pains are fumigated with the seeds; in addition, special pipes are used to blow the smoke directly into the vagina (Goodman and Ghafoor 1992, 24f.*; Hassan 1967). Ill people generally inhale the smoke for all manner of afflictions. A tea made with 5 to 10 g of seeds is drunk after a meal to control flatulence (Goodman and Ghafoor 1992, 54*). In Rajasthan, the smoke of glowing seeds is used as an antiseptic agent to fumigate wounds (Shah 1982, 301*).
In the folk medicine of Asia Minor and central Asia, preparations of Syrian rue are used as aphrodisiacs. In Persia, the seeds were regarded as a purifying medicine and an aphrodisiac (Hooper 1937, 148*), and are used in Iran today. The Bedouins of the Negev Desert use the plant to promote menstruation and to induce abortions (Bailey and Danin 1981; Shapira et al. 1989). The herbage is traditionally used to treat unusual skin disorders (El-Rifaie 1980). A decoction of the seeds is drunk for stomach ailments, heart problems, and sciatica. A strong decoction can act as a tranquilizer.
The herbage and seeds contain the β-carbolines harmine, harmaline, and related bases, e.g., harmalol and harmidine (Al-Shamma et al. 1981; Degtyarev et al. 1984). Also present are quinazo-line alkaloids with a similar structure: (–)-vasicine, (±)-vasicine, vasicinone, pegaline, tetrahydroharman, and desoxyvasicinon. The alkaloid content of the seeds can vary between 2 and 6% (Roth et al. 1994, 548*). In addition to the βcarbolines, Syrian rue herbage contains a pleasantly scented essential oil that, when used in massage oils, has a relaxing effect upon the musculature. Vitamin C and fatty acids are also present.
The seeds have antidepressive effects and stimulate the imagination. There are reports of dreamlike states following the ingestion of larger quantities. The alkaloids as well as the total extract of the seeds act as MAO inhibitors, i.e., they suppress the excretion of the endogenous enzyme monoamine oxydase (= MAO), which metabolizes certain endogenous neurotransmitters (serotonin) as well as foreign toxins. This makes it possible for certain substances (N,N-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, β-phenethylamines) to be orally efficacious (cf. Banisteriopsis caapi, ayahuasca, ayahuasca analogs).
Studies conducted at the University of Kansas (Lawrence) have shown that the harmine present in Syrian rue seeds has antibiotic effects on microorganisms (microbes) (Al-Shamma et al. 1981; cf. also Harsh and Nag 1984). In animal studies, an extract of the stems and leaves has been demonstrated to have abortifacient and anti-fertility properties (Shapira et al. 1989).
It is possible that the β-carbolines may pass into the smoke and can thus potentiate the effects of other smoked substances (e.g., THC).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
The seeds are sold freely and can be obtained from nurseries and sources specializing in ethno-botanical supplies. In California, Syrian rue is considered a noxious weed and may not be imported or sold. Apart from this, the plant is not subject to any restrictions.
“Harmel rue, Syrian rue, Peganum harmala. A plant of southern Europe and the Orient. All parts of it have a strong and unpleasant scent. The seed is three-sided and tastes very bitter. . . . According to Pseudo-Aristotle, this rue species was eaten in ancient times as a remedy against fascination. In modern Greece, women hang Peganum on their little ones’ heads as an amulet. On Cephalonia, little pieces of it are placed in children’s swaddling clothes.—In Morocco, the seeds are carried in amulet bags to protect against the evil eye and the djnûn. It is also used as a fumigant.—In Punjab, the seeds are mixed with bran and salt and burned to ward off the evil eye, the djnûn, and such things.”
DIE MAGISCHEN HEIL- UND SCHUTZMITTEL AUS DER BELEBTEN NATUR [THE MAGICAL HEALING AND PROTECTIVE AGENTS FROM THE ANIMATED NATURE]
“The alkaloid-rich seeds (harmine and harmaline) [of Syrian rue] are used because of their sudoriferous effect to heal febrile diseases of a general nature. The seeds are roasted and the fumes are inhaled. They also serve as an anthelmintic. In addition, they are used to spicen foods. It is said that they are esteemed among the dervishes in Buchara for their inebriating effect.”
K. O. MÜLLER (1932)
See also the entries for ayahuasca analogs and harmine and harmaline.
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Degtyarev, V. A., Y. D. Sadykov, and V. S. Aksenov. 1984. Alkaloids of Peganum harmala. Chemistry of Natural Compounds 20 (2): 240–41.
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Rifaie, M. el-. 1980. Peganum harmala: Its use in certain dermatoses. International Journal of Dermatology 19 (4): 221–22.
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