Soma is a substance written about in the Vedas, an ancient sacred religious text which was used in the area known today as Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India around 2000 BCE.
A collection of hymns - the Rigveda - is the earliest of the Vedic texts. Among the thousand hymns in the Rigveda, many portray soma variously as a god, a sacred plant and a celestial drink, transporting those who drink it into ecstatic, transcendental realms. The Vedic texts are obscure on the identity of this plant drug and give no explicit descriptions, but the methods of preparation of soma, and some of its uses, can be inferred. It is clear that it was a plant found near mountains, which was gathered by moonlight, then crushed to produce a golden liquid. Soma was used in a fire ritual in which three gods are celebrated: Agni (fire), Indra (god of the sky) and Soma (a god considered to be the divine personification of the soma liquid, and also the moon). Although the fire ritual continued to be observed after the Vedic period, the use of soma waned, perhaps due to supply difficulties, and soma instead became a philosophical concept, coming to mean any offering burnt on the ritual fire, the contents of the material world, or the 'life-force'.
While Sanskrit scholars have shown little interest in the identity of the soma plant, the subject has been much debated among entheogenic explorers in the west. In 1971 Gordon Wasson published 'Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality' (1), setting out his theory that soma is the Amanita Muscaria mushroom. (What is Amanita Muscaria?)
Wasson suggests that soma is a mushroom because in the Rigveda no mention is made of leaves, roots nor branches in relation to the plant, and it is referred to as 'the Not-Born Single Foot' which fits with the way mushrooms spring up suddenly and without seed, while 'single-foot' and -one-legged' are widespread euphemisms for mushrooms. To support his argument that soma is the species of mushroom Amanita Muscaria, he points to passages in the Rigveda which allude to urination, given the practice of recycling the urine of one who has consumed Amanita Muscaria amongst Siberian tribes. He points to one in particular:
"Those charged with office, richly gifted, do full homage to Soma. The swollen men piss the flowing [soma]".
This, however, does not actually link soma and urine drinking. Other criticisms of Wasson's theory relate to the geographical availability of soma.
The true identity of soma continues to be debated but it is clear that it was a psychoactive substance and that it was used as part of a religious rite.
What is Amanita Muscaria?
Amanita Muscaria is a bright red mushroom, speckled with white, known also as the 'Fly Agaric' (said to derive from the belief that flies can be killed by it). Many people will recognise it as the 'fairy toadstool' often seen in fairy tale illustrations, suggesting ancient magical use of the mushroom.
The best-known ritual use of this plant is by shamanic tribes to induce religious trance. In some tribes only the shaman would eat the mushrooms, while in others all the men of the tribe would partake, but in all tribes where it was used it was central to their religious practices.
The mushrooms were usually dried, increasing their psychoactivity five-fold, and then chewed. The principal psychoactive ingredients in Amanita Muscaria are ibotenic acid and muscimole, an alkaloid which remains active even when passed through kidneys. The psychoactive constituents remain present in the urine of person who has eaten the mushroom, leading to the practice of 'recycling' the effects of the mushroom through urine-drinking.
(1) Wasson, R.G (1971) Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
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