Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Soma was a ritual drink of importance among the early Indo-Iranians, and the later Vedic and greater Persian cultures. It is frequently mentioned in the Rigveda, whose Soma Mandala contains many hymns praising its energizing qualities.

It is described as prepared by extracting juice from the stalks of a certain plant. In both Vedic and Zoroastrian tradition, the drink is identified with the plant, and also personified as a divinity, the three forming a religious or mythological unity.

There has been much speculation concerning what is most likely to have been the identity of the original plant. There is no solid consensus on the question, although most experts now seem to favour a species of Ephedra, perhaps Ephedra sinica.

In the Vedas, Soma is portrayed as sacred and as a god (deva). The god, the drink and the plant probably referred to the same entity, or at least the differentiation was ambiguous. Two holy drinks exist: Soma for the immortal soul and Amrita for the immortal body. In this aspect, Amrita is similar to the Greek ambrosia; both is what the gods drink, and what made them deities. Indra and Agni are portrayed as consuming Soma in copious quantities. The consumption of Soma by human beings is probably under the belief that it bestows divine qualities on them.

The Ninth Mandala of the Rigveda is known as the Soma Mandala. It consists entirely of hymns addressed to Soma Pavamana ("purified Soma"). The drink Soma was kept and distributed by the Gandharvas. The Rigveda associates the Sushoma, Arjikiya and other regions with Soma. Sharyanavat was possibly the name of a pond or lake on the banks of which Soma could be found. It is described as "green-tinted" and "bright-shining" in the RigVeda.

The plant is sometimes described as growing in the mountains (giristha, cf. Orestes), with long stalks, and of yellow or tawny (hari) colour. The drink is prepared by priests pounding the plants with stones, an occupation that creates tapas (literally "heat"). The juice so gathered is heated, filtered through lamb's wool, and mixed with other ingredients (including milk, represented by cows) before it is drunk. It is said to "roar" and unify or tame the senses, represented by horses. It is said to be the place or bringer of the gods.

There has been much speculation as to the original Proto-Indo-Iranian Sauma plant. It was generally assumed to be hallucinogenic, based on RV 8.48 cited above. But typical description of Soma is associated with excitation and tapas, not hallucination. Soma is associated with the warrior-god Indra, and appears to have been drunk before battle.

Candidates that have been suggested include honey, and fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), which was widely used as a brew of sorts among Siberian shamans for its hallucinogenic and entheogenic properties. Several texts like the Atharvaveda extol the medicinal properties of Soma and he is regarded as the king of medicinal herbs (and also of the Brahmana class).

From the late 1960s onwards, several studies attempted to establish soma as a psychoactive substance. A number of proposals were made, including an important one in 1968 by the American banker R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur ethnomycologist, who asserted that soma was an inebriant, and suggested fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, as the likely candidate. Since its introduction in 1968, this theory has gained both detractors and followers in the anthropological literature.

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