The Great Soma Mystery
Soma was a drink once made by an Indo-Iranian peoples that date back to at least 4,000 years. Certain Zoroastrian and Hindu branches were known to have used the drink in their religious practices to gain divine insight. The drink was said to have been made from the juices of a vine grown around faraway mountains. The descriptions of its effects have made scholars believe it had certain psychoactive properties. The most interesting aspect of Soma however is the fact that no one really knows what it was made of. It has sparked a lively debate amongst Western researchers going back two hundred years. Although some isolated religious groups still make and worship Soma we can conclude today this substance is different from the drink of yesteryear. For some mysterious reason the ingredients have been switched out and the drink no longer has any entheogenic effect. This adds to the mystery. Below I have listed some proposals that have come down through the years of what this intoxicant may have been and perhaps add a little extra history and theories on the side.
Cannabis has been suspected for a long time since it's a common plant and is known to have been used in numerous ancient cultures for medicinal and spiritual reasons. It does have mild hallucinogenic effects and being a weed it does grow well around mountains. Unfortunately being a weed it also grows well just about everywhere else, making a well-established foreign trade (which was documented in the religious texts) improbable. It's also not a vine. Although a feeble guess on it's own there are a few theories that state cannabis may have been one of several ingredients that made up Soma. This theory has gaining popularity.
Ephedra has long been a favorite theory as it fits many of the characteristics of Soma. It's a low growing shrub with small indistinct leaves that has been used medicinally in China for 5,000 years or better. In today's world purified supplemental forms of Ephedra are considered a stimulant and a performance enhancing drug. This is in alignment with ancient descriptions which claim Soma was fed to soldiers before battle to invigorate them. This has another starling parallel as Ephedra is a precursor to methamphetamine, a drug used in World War II also to enliven soldiers. The drug is still used today to treat low blood pressure and asthma. Although this is a tantalizing theory it's one that still has a few holes in it. Ephedra also is not a vine, though it does look more vine-like then do some of the other hypotheses. Ephedra recently garnered much attention when Russian archeologists unearthed clay bowls in an ancient Turkmenistan temple containing a mixture of Cannabis and Ephedra. Professor Mayef Melikyon concluded that these bowls were used to dispense a drink to worshippers that could have been Soma. Two other sites were excavated, one with no Ephedra found, and a third with bowls containing Ephedra and poppies. The third site seemed to only have enough bowls for religious leaders. Ephedra still ranks as one of the most likely candidates.
Ergot is a parasitic fungus that grows on rye and various forms of wheat. Ingestion of it historically have been mostly accidental. It has a tendency to create temporary or permanent madness in those who ingest it. Perhaps it's because of this bog mummies have been found to have it in their stomachs. It's also been blamed for the Salem Witch Trials. In the modern day it's used to create lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD.) It has potent hallucinogenic effects, can induce religious experiences, and can have stimulant effect probably due to mental over stimulation. This theory is interesting but falls short. There's no historic evidence that any ancient culture purposely ingested ergot for any reason or grew it willfully. The idea that it was fed to soldiers before battle seems far fetched as it's such a potent hallucinogen it would have been at the very least highly distracting to a warrior. It's also a fungus not a plant.
Fennel is another low-growing flowering plant that has been used medicinally by ancient peoples and modern alike. Its uses include everything from stimulating breast milk production to calming stomach upset after radiation treatment. It is seen as a bit of an herbal cure-all and has been respected thusly for that status among plants. Its pollen and seeds are often used in traditional Indian and Mediterranean dishes and it was one of the ingredients used in the creation of French Absinthe that was so common with the artists and writers of yesteryear. I haven't stumbled upon any evidence that it may have any sort of mystical effect on people.
Fly-Agaric Mushroom (Amanita muscaria)
In 1968 amateur ethnomycologist (that's someone who studies the effects mushrooms have on a human population/culture) R Gordon Wasson wrote a book titled Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality which speculated that Soma wasn't a plant at all but an inconspicuous looking little toadstool mushroom. He came to this conclusion from studying the ancient Indian texts and relating the ethneogenic effects with the effects of this mushroom. Fly-Agaric mushrooms are the weeds of the fungus world. They grow everywhere and there are many ancient mushroom cults and tribes which consider them sacred. They still have a favored position in Northern European folklore. Ever notice that little red and yellow toadstools are almost always seen on the pages of fairy tales next to gnomes, fairies, and woodland creatures? That's not a coincidence. The mushroom is said to cause euphoria, diverse internal dialogue, relaxation, pain relief, and a sense of mystical peace. Unfortunately for Wasson the mushroom also causes a lack of focus on external tasks, a marked focus on internal thought, sedation, dizziness, blurred vision, loss of fine motor control (akin to drunkenness) and loss of balance. This wouldn't be good for soldiers ready for battle.
Ginseng has long been used in China as a medicinal herbal supplement. It's a mild stimulant with mild psychoactive properties, none of which include hallucinations or religious experiences. It would make sense to feed to soldiers as it's long been considered a good preventative to disease, treatment for depression, and stimulant. It does grow in mountainous regions but it's not a vine. In fact the part of the plant that is used is the root.
Hellebore is a small flowering plant that has found itself in many ancient folk remedies as a purgative. It's far more effective as a poison then a stimulant or entheogen as it can cause everything from uncontrollable vomiting and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) to swelling of the tongue and cardiac arrest. Death follows only after many unpleasant symptoms. This plant is better for feeding to someone you want to sadistically kill rather then someone you're trying to induce a spiritual awareness in.
Intoxicating Mint - (Lagochilus inebrians)
Lagochilus inebrians is a mint whose stems, flowers, and leaves are traditionally made into tea in Uzbekistan and Turkistan. This theory comes from the fact that it seems to always be used in a tea and the region is roughly where some branches of Soma worshippers may have lived. It causes intoxication, euphoria, relaxation, and sedation. It is not a stimulant but is said to cause mild perceptual changes.
Jimson weed is a plant with a past. Scholars have a hard time speculating on where it originates but it is seen with some commonality in North America and Europe. No ancient Asian records exist to tell if it was ever grown there in the past. This plant is not one to mess with. It can cause hallucinations so powerful that one is completely disconnected with reality and their environment. This can last for days and the plant is known to turn on a dime. The amount needed to have hallucinations is only a bit less then the amount needed to kill someone. It has an impressive list of toxicity symptoms including, but not limited to, dilated pupils, hallucinations, urinary retention, paralysis of the intestines, rapid heart beat, anomalous blood pressure, uncontrollable jerky movements, complete breaking from reality, hypothermia, seizures, coma, respiratory failure and death. Because of the nature of the hallucinations and the fact this plant can easily turn deadly it doesn't seem likely as a Soma candidate.
Mandrakes have long been the center of much mystical attention. Its roots are sometimes said to look like a human form and it has been used in mystical Pagan practices for centuries, even finding its way into many magical rituals. It's generally not eaten though as it has an unpleasant side effect consisting of death by respiratory failure. This is a poison, not a drug, and as such is a very unlikely candidate.
Morning Glory seeds have been used in Mexico by indigenous peoples for entheogenic purposes for centuries, possibly millennia. They do have a hallucinogenic effect that can be spiritual in nature and they do grow on a vine. However there's no evidence morning glories existed outside of South America at the time and it's not usually the vine that's used but the seeds.
Black Nightshade is a plant with a shady past. It is known to be used in folk remedies starting before the written word. Its juices can be rubbed onto the skin to ease pain and inflammation, treat burns and bruises, and kill ringworm (a type of fungal rash.) Bohemian tradition states that placing its leaves in a cradle will help the child within to sleep. However there are scant few remedies that call for this plant to be ingested. The reason for that is simple. It is at its mildest a purgative (something that causes vomiting) and at its most lethal it can kill an adult. The berries kill small children. It can cause hallucinations and delirium but these are usually accompanied by other poisoning symptoms including sweating, fever, fierce abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, loss of sensation, paralysis, and slowing of the heart beat. Death usually soon follows if an antidote isn't given. This plant is too sketchy to use safely for sacred purposes. It is too good at killing to be seen as anything less then poison.
Opium is one of the ancient world's most widely used drugs. It's made from the sap of poppy flowers and has been used as a relaxant and painkiller. Roman foot soldiers and gladiators were fed opium to numb their pain so much that they could continue to march or fight far past the normal human limits. Opium has a euphoric and entheogenic effect. However it's been known for its addictive qualities for just as long. It's never been described as invigorating anyone as anyone who ingests it tends to relax and trance out into their own world. The idea that opium could have been the main ingredient of Soma probably dates back to a piece of fiction entitled Junky by William S. Burroughs. The book is an exploration of what would happen if a high quality non-addictive opiate were to exist in today's world. This all of course is just a flight of fancy. Opium was likely not the main ingredient of Soma.
Psilocybin (Stropharia cubensis)
Psilocybin is a chemical found in several species of mushroom, in this case Stropharia cubensis. It's an entheogenic compound long favored by ancient mushroom cults. The mushrooms grew on cow dung without help, were easily cultivated, and could be ingested in teas. The theory goes that cows were sacred animals at least partially due to the mushrooms they helped to produce. The mushrooms are well known for the spiritual effect they have on people, regularly delivering both visual and auditory visions. However these mushrooms grow in Europe, not in India or other parts of Asia. Although perfectly suited for religious experience they don't fit the bill for a military stimulant. The hallucinations they induce were probably too strong to keep focused on any real task.
Albert Regel proposed in 1884 that a fermented wine made of rhubarb stalks may have been the elusive Soma. His theory was based on the fact current Soma is made with rhubarb, a replacement ingrediant. Rhubarb has no known psychoactive effects on humans. It is merely something that tastes good. This theory never could hold water.
Sacred Lily of the Nile
Lotuses and water lilies have been used in religious motifs predating the Vedic texts. It was because of this some speculated the plant might have psychoactive properties. However in my search of the net I've yet to find any evidence of this. There doesn't seem to be any sources, ancient or modern, describing it's supposed effects. If someone out there knows a resource for this do let me know.
David Flattery and Martin Schwartz decided to spend more time looking at Iranian texts then the Indian ones most other scholars used to hypothesize. In the 1980s they came to the conclusion that Syrian Rue must have been the mysterious ingredient they sought. Syrian Rue is a flowering plant with thin leaves. It has been used in Persian folk practices since before the advent of Zoroastrianism to protect households from the evil eye, but this practice entails hanging the dried plant or burning it as incense, not eating it. The plant's seeds have been known to cause psychoactive effects but it wouldn't be wise to feed this to any soldiers as dizziness and lack of coordination (as seen in alcohol intoxication) tend to occur.
Valerian root is best known as an herb which aids in curing insomnia. Some people also use it to ease irritable bowel syndrome and bait rats into traps (as it appears to have a catnip-like effect on cats and rats.) This seems an unlikely candidate as it's a sedative, not a stimulant.
Wild Chicory has been used in herbal teas for thousands of years and still enjoys a mild popularity. It's a flowering plant that has been traditionally used to treat a wide variety of common ailments from stimulating faster healing times for bruises and cuts to treating gall stones. It is the topic of much European folklore but it seems unlikely it was ever used for Soma. It just doesn't have the desired spiritual effect on people drinking it and any stimulant effect it may have is likely due to the small amount of caffeine found in most teas.
Wormwood, or Mugwort, has long been known as the main ingredient in Absinthe. It contains many chemicals in it that are said to have caused the hallucinatory effect the Absinthe of the past have caused. However it's very bitter and in large quantities or chronic quantities can cause liver and kidney damage and eat away the lining of the intestines. Absinthe is being made again today but not in the same way as Absinthe was made in the past. Today it's concentration of wormwood is much lower and it does not have other unseemly things added that were legal in the past (such as adding copper to make it green when the distillation process went wrong.) There's much speculation over whether or not wormwood was even the culprit in giving visions to people. There's a good possibility this was due to a combination of the other herbs used in this fiercely bitter drink. Wormwood gets its name from the fact it's an old folk remedy for riding people of worms. Though it does work for this job somewhat it doesn't kill tape worms and would be needed to be eaten on a fairly constant basis to be effective, which as I stated before is very bad for the liver and kidneys in particular.
Though the debate still rages on and new theories are presented on a fairly frequent basis we may never know what Soma was really made of. None of the candidates thus far have been able to match all the criteria. Some argue that some of the criteria may not have been written down correctly as the references to Soma were passed down through oral tradition for hundreds of years before it was actually written down.
This all brings us to yet another great mystery. Why do current Soma worshippers use substitute ingredients? Did their ancestors fear Soma would be misused for nonreligious practices? Did they fear other cultures might take an unsavory interest in their drink? Was the Soma plant metaphorical? Did it exist at all? Or perhaps the plant described went extinct. If that's the case the likelihood of us ever solving the mystery is slim to nil. We don't have a good record of identifying extinct plants.
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