Soma: The Ancient Entheogen

One of the great mysteries that has perplexed scientists for centuries is the identity of a substance called Soma. It was offered to the gods and consumed by Vedic priests in religious ceremonies of the early Indo-Aryans. The only records of it, which are more than three thousand years old, call it the juice of a plant that is highly intoxicating and produces divine states of mind. So what is Soma? While many are still pondering it, we thought we’d take an in-depth look ourselves!


Soma was brought to India during migrations between 2000 and 1500 BC, along with a branch of the Indo-European system of languages known as Sanskrit. According to their own records, they were drinking, fighting, carnivorous, cattle-owning, horse-breeding people who plundered everything in their path. And according to recent guesses based on carbon dating by archaeologists, around 1500 BC they probably destroyed Mohenjo-Daro, the great city of the Indus River. Like most conquerors, they were eventually absorbed by the conquered, who were more civilized than they. However, their language remained dominant and eventually spread, as did their religion, to which they were extremely devoted. This religion involved a number of nature gods: Indra, supreme god and lightning-thrower; Agni, the god of fire; Varuna, keeper of universal order; the Sun god; and many lesser gods-a pantheon, like the ancient Greeks. The hymns to these gods became an important part of the ancient literature known as the Vedas, and in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, there were many hymns dedicated to Soma, who had apparently acquired the status of a god. In fact, there is an entire book of the Rig Veda – with one hundred and fourteen hymns – devoted entirely to the god Soma. According to these Vedic sources, the Soma was a plant that had a stem, but there were no leaves. The plant grew only in the mountains, had a reddish color and was associated with the sun and the moon. For Vedic sacrifices, the stems were pounded with stones to obtain the juice, which was then strained through filters and mixed with cottage cheese, milk and barley water or honey. Some of this was poured on the sacrificial fire, and the priests drank from it. Under the influence of the drink, Vedic poets spoke out with elaborate terms, and it was mentioned throughout the Rig Veda, sometimes with a zeal that could be considered hallucinatory. Witness Hymn 48, from Book VIII of the Rig Veda: We have drunk the Soma, we have become immortal, we have arrived at the light, we have found the gods. What can the enemy do now to harm us, and what wickedness can entertain mortals, O Soma Enter into our hearts. While we are drunk, O like a father, O Soma, to a son. Like a wise friend to a friend, O Vast. O Soma, enlarge our lives with the purpose of life. With the enlivened spirit of your sap, we can, as it were, share the ancestral wealth. O Soma, lengthen our lives, as the sun lengthens the days in spring.


And when the last volume of the Rig Veda was composed, the Soma plant disappeared from the literature, and it did not appear again during the entire period of the Vedic commentaries known as the Brahmins (around 800 BCE). It was still revered, but people began to use substitutes for it, and there are records of these substitutes. Apparently the most common were the plants: Periploca, Ephedra, and Sarcostemma (with the latter related to crownwort) – plants that correspond in a vague way to the description of the Soma in that they have virtually no leaves and possess sap and “nodules.” (The Soma plant was often described in post-Vedic writings as a vallÄ« or climbing plant). Other substitutes included grasses, flowers, the sap of trees, the fruit of the sacred Banyan, and cultivated millet. None of these were enchanting, and their use was probably purely ceremonial. Shortly after 1000 BC, the Soma was no longer used in ceremonies, but it had not been forgotten. In contemporary India, the most common substitutes are the crownwort-like plants and a fragrant grass no doubt familiar to our readers, named after the Hindu Kush.


When the Vedas were discovered by European scholars in the nineteenth century, there was much confusion about the Soma plant. By some, it was seen purely as a flavoring, like hops, that was added to a fermented beverage, such as beer. Others thought it might be Mede – fermented honey. The wild Afghan grape and Ruit were also suggested. The noted British archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein advanced the theory that the Soma plant might have been wild rhubarb, a plant that fit the descriptions because it had fleshy stems, was reddish and grew only in the mountains. But rhubarb juice was not enchanting, and its properties were not such that with the Vedic poets their elated praise and ecstasy would have aroused. Yet another hypothesis was also favored, that it was a drink like the current Indian bhang, a concoction of marijuana, still used in offerings to the goddess Durga.


The mystery remained unsolved. But in the mid-1950s, it came to the attention of R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur mycologist, and a go-getter, who had long been interested in hallucinogenic mushrooms. Wasson was a journalist and then a vice president of J.P. Morgan. Already during his career in banking, he had studied mushrooms, and was introduced to them by his Russian wife, Valentina, who was familiar with and enthusiastic about the edible varieties. Wasson eagerly pursued his hobby, or his second career. He went to Mexico for ten years in a row, during the rainy season, to study mushroom use in the remote mountains. He found, and tried, the sacred mushroom of that region. It was definitely hallucinogenic. It produced a state of waking calm in which visions appeared, and then a deep sleep. He had read anthropological accounts of northern Siberia, where native shamans almost universally drank the juice of the Amanita muscaria to induce trances. But the Mexican mushrooms were not part of the Amanita muscaria, or the fly agaric family. Wasson met Aldous Huxley, who had experimented with the Mexican mushrooms, and they had many conversations about them. Huxley apparently thought the Soma would have been a hallucinogenic mushroom. In “The Island,” a novel he wrote just before his death, he described an earthly paradise, rather like India, where everyone was happy, and everyone drank the juice of a yellow mushroom. But the idea that the Soma might have been a mushroom had not yet occurred to Wasson. When that happened a few years later, much of what he had learned fell into place. Through friends who knew Sanskrit, some of them Vedic specialists, he undertook an extensive study of the Vedas, especially the Rig Veda, with its many references to the Soma. He hired Dr. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, of the University of London, to prepare a summary of the Vedic references, and he consulted Louis Renou, the great French Vedic expert. When Wasson had completed his research, he had a mass of information suggesting that the Soma was not just a mushroom, but the Amanita muscaria, still used by humans today, in northern Siberia.


The evidence for the hypothesis was complex, and it drew Wasson into many fields, including linguistics. The evidence was compiled from the following facts: In the Vedic descriptions of the Soma – which were sparse, although the poetic thoughts about it were strikingly large – there was no mention of the leaves, seeds, fruits, flowers and roots belonging to a chlorophyll-bearing plant. There is also no mention of it being green, black, gray, dark, or blue – the colors of vegetation. The most common Vedic color designation for the Soma is hari. Hari is related to hiranya (gold) or red, including German “gelb” and English “gall” and “yellow.” Hari was used in Sanskrit literature to describe the color red or pale yellow, always accentuating its brilliant and lustrous nature. When the Vedas referred to the Soma as a bull, it is sometimes a red bull. (“Bull” in Sanskrit is the equivalent of anything noble and anything that has a position of leadership). Other passages describe the Soma as aruna (something from light brown to the red of dawn), arusa (color of the sun), and babhru (reddish-brown or brownish-red). The sap of the Amanita muscaria is reddish brown, and the mushroom itself is bright red after it has shed its embryonic cover. A passage in the Vedas (Rig Veda IX, 71) seems to describe some of the life history of the Amanita muscaria: “Aggressive as an assassin of peoples, roaring with power. He sheds the color that he is. He leaves his cover, goes to rendezvous with the father. With what comes to the surface, that makes his garment of the grand event.” The reference, according to Wasson, is to the extraordinary power with which the mushroom forces its way to the surface of the ground and then sheds the whitish cover peculiar to the immature Amanita muscaria. He thinks the “garment of the great event,” refers to the white scales that remain with the mature plant. There are other references to the shedding process: “Like a snake, it crawls out of its old skin.” The Soma plant is occasionally referred to as having an eye: “The sun [Soma] looks with its eye toward the dear places and the highest place of Heaven,” “The Soma, which has as its eye the sun … has spilled again … it flows all over the world.” Wasson points out that it is unlikely, that a climbing plant, vine, or plant of the crowned herb variation would be described in this way. But the Amanita muscaria has a fleshy pillar stem and, as I said, is bright red. A young Amanita muscaria looks like an eye, especially at night, when it glows due to a strange radiation. The fleshiness of the stem of the Soma is constantly mentioned in the Rig Veda. Most replacements of Amanita muscaria do not have such a stem; the stems of climbing plants are generally woody, like the stems of marijuana. For Wasson, the Amanita muscaria theory looked pretty good.


The Amanita muscaria was never successfully cultivated, even in the laboratory. It grows only at the base of pines, firs, and special birch trees. Most authorities agree that the Aryans came from northeastern Europe. They settled for a considerable period on a plateau near the Caspian Sea, and then invaded the Indus Valley and India. There is linguistic evidence that for a time they lived near Finno-Ugric-speaking people, who borrowed certain words from them. The homeland of the Finno-Ugric languages is northern Siberia, but there is historical evidence that speakers of Finno-Ugric came into contact with Indo-European-speaking people near the Caspian Sea around 2500 B.C. The Amanita muscaria grows at sea level, all the way from Kamchatka to Norway. But in India, it grows only in the highest mountains, at altitudes of more than two thousand meters. It can still be found on the mountain tops in the Hindu Kush, and it grows in the Himalayas. In all these places, birch, pine and spruce trees abound. But these are not found in the valleys south of the Oxus or in the Ganges plain, nor is the Amanita muscaria. Wasson’s theory is that for Aryans, the supply of the Amanita muscaria ran out when they invaded northwest India; this would explain the absence of the Soma and the reported use of substitutes in the late Vedic hymns and the Brahmans. However, the mysticism surrounding the Soma persisted for quite some time. There is no mention of a valli or climbing plant in the Vedas; that term appears only in later literature – Wasson thinks, well after the Amanita muscaria was no longer used.


If the Soma was used for rituals, it had to be stored for some time. It was dried after it was harvested; later, the dried stems were soaked in water and then pressed between stones, or between a stone and a board. The Vedas mention three filters through which the juice passed before it was drunk. One of them was sheep’s wool. The first filter was the sun itself, and Wasson quotes passages from the Rig Vega, including this one: “The bright rays of the sun spread over the back of Heaven, the filter, O Soma … Monarch of all that sees the sunlight, Soma cleanses himself. Triumphing over the prophets, he made the word of the road resound, he who is cleansed by the rays of the sun, he the father of poetry, Master Poet unequaled.” The third filter was the priest. And yes, digesting this mushroom, and then consuming the resulting urine was an immediate and less nauseating experience of psychedelia. Repulsive? Perhaps. Yes actually. But for the Aryans, it was the most potent and quickest route of administration, as the acid transformation during digestion made more active compounds for further consumption.


Mythology also has something to say about the Amanita muscaria. Wasson has a reproduction of a fresco, dating from 1291, in a chapel of the Abbaye de Plaincourault, in France, that shows an Amanita muscaria as a tree whose fruit the serpent gave to Eve. In 1924, the Russians discovered an ancient Mongolian carpet (a picture of which Wasson reproduces) in which birds admire mushrooms from high cliffs. And a fresco in the Ajanta Caves, in India, shows what looks like an Amanita muscaria. Beelzebub was described as God of Flies, and it is a fact that the Amanita muscaria attracts flies and was once thought to kill them, but it temporarily stuns them, however. It was used as a fly killer in European households until recently. There is room for much more research and speculation. Still, this remains the only convincing hypothesis about the mysterious Soma.