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The Identification of the Botanical Source of Soma/Hoama,
the Sacred Hallucigen of Ancient Iran and India

This material summarizes the argument put forth by David Flattery in 1989 that soma/haoma was extracted from the plant known as harmel or wild rue (Botanical name: Perganum harmala). This plant is also called Syrian rue. It grows as a weed in the Iranian Plateau and the steppes of Central Asia.

The feat of identification involves some very carefully reasoned analysis of the references to soma/haoma in the Avesta, the religious tome of Zoroastrianism, and the Rig Veda, the epic of the Aryans of ancient India. There are precious few references to haoma in the surviving portions of the Avesta, four to be exact. These references, as translated by Martin Smith, give almost no details concerning the drug and its effects. They are religious paeans giving thanks for the virtues of haoma. Flattery derives some insights by observing the way these relevant passages were translated from the ancient Persian origin into the middle Persian (Pahlavi) of the Sassanian era (230-630 A.D.). By that time clearly substitute substances were used in the ceremonies and the character of original haoma had been largely forgotten.

Flattery makes the cogent observation that the object of the religious rituals could not have been just the drug experience because the rituals continued even after the original soma/haoma was no longer available and non-intoxicating substitutes were used.

In order to gain some insights into the role of the active alkaloid constituent of harmel Flattery sought and found another society which used this agent. It was the use of yagé among the tribes of the upper reaches of the Amazon River in northwestern South America. Yagé is prepared from the vine Banisteropsis caapi. About fifty different tribes use yagé and the nature of its ceremonial use has been described by European and American scholars. These descriptions are compatible with the references to soma/haoma in the Avesta and Rig Veda.

The plant Perganum harmala was well known to the inhabitants of the Iranian Plateau a millennium or two ago and was most likely familiar to them a millennium or two before that. A red dye was extracted from the plant material and, with chemical treatment, a yellow dye could also be obtained. The plant was used for medicinal purposes and its psycho-active characteristics were known.

One woman reported that as a child in Iran she had been given an extract of the plant as a painkiller for a toothache. She was admonished not to swallow the liquid because it would make her crazy. She inadvertently did swallow some and she did experience hallucinations.

(To be continued.)

Source: David Stophlet Flattery and Martin Schwartz, Haoma and Harmaline: The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallicigen "Soma" and Its Legacy in Religion, Language and Middle Eastern Folklore, University of California Press (Near Eastern Studies, vol. 21), 1989.

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