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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Ploughing the Clouds: The Search for Irish Soma

Wilson, Peter Lamborn. (1999)
San Francisco: City Lights.

ISBN: 0-87286-326-3

Description: Paperback, viii + 150 pages.

Contents: List of plates, acknowledgements, preface, 2 parts: 1. Celtic Soma, 2. Vedic and Irish Sources: A Literary Comparison, bibliography, credits and permissions, index.


Whether or not we accept the identification of a specific plant as Soma, the concept of the Soma-function helps to clarify certain "shamanic" aspects of the Indian, Iranian, and Greek religions. And if we are justified in seeing parallels here among three Indo-European peoples, might we be able to predict that the parallels will hold good for other Indo-European peoples as well? This book focuses on the Celts of Ireland, whose traditional literature utilizes themes and motifs that are remarkably parallel to those found in the Rg Veda. ...

The purpose of this book is to run a net through the sea of Irish folklore, mythology, and archaeology, looking for evidence of the Soma- function, and indeed of the Soma Sacrifice itself, in Celtic tradition. I trust Wasson would have been pleased at the result.

Part I of this book traces the course of Indo-European migration and indicates how the ceremonial and sacramental use of Soma might have spread between India and Ireland. It examines a number of key Irish texts of myth and folklore to discover the pattern of narrative appearances made by "suspect" transformative substances. The Voyage of Maelduin, The Boyhood Deeds of Finn McCumhal, The Geste of Froech, the legend of the poet Carroll O'Daly, and many other ancient sources depict the acquisition of poetic inspiration through the ingestion of some Soma-like substance. From various clues in these texts it can be shown that the Soma cult centered on the Boyne Valley at the source of the river, and also near the great Megalithic sites of the Brugh na Boinne, at a pool in the river near the present village of Slane. Important days in the rite were Beltane or May Day, and the Summer Solstice (which could be calculated exactly by the Megalithic observatories at Knowth, Dowth, and Newgrange); one remnant of this practice is found in the old belief that poetic inspiration can be acquired by drinking Boyne water in June. Part II compares these motifs with material from the Rg Veda and Brahmanas in an attempt to reveal parallels in ritual between India and Ireland. Throughout the book there is a subtheme: I am suggesting the possible revival of ceremonial entheogenism in the modern world-in brief, a "rescue" on the level of praxis as well as theory.

This engaged level of the book necessitates a methodology that is not limited by any one system or philosophy or discipline. Using secondary as well as primary material allows for a multiplicity of theories to emerge from history, anthropology, comparative religion and mythology, entheogenic studies, archetypal analysis (in a general sense, not as psychology), comparative literature, linguistic speculation, and poetic reverie. If this non-system seems more than a little reminiscent of nineteenth-century generalism, I make no apologies; but I have tried to utilize the latest material in all these areas, and to add modern ideas to the palimpsest of theories. (pages 3-4)

The Use and Elusiveness of Psychotropic Plants. The Migrating Indo-Europeans.
The Irish Soma Hypothesis

... The first cultigens (tobacco in the New World, opium, grapes for wine, or barley in the Old World) were psychotropics. (Grain may have been grown for beer, not bread, and perhaps also for ergot or other psychotropic grain parasites.)

The ceremonial emergence of the entheogens can be explained (or at least described) as a dialectical response to an economic change from hunting/gathering to early agriculture, perhaps the greatest single change in the entire story of humankind. Especially on the cognitive level, this shift in life's deepest structures brought about vast psychic upheaval and tension. Agriculture, whatever its miseries or merits, was experienced as an abandonment of "Nature," and of that ecstatic "original intimacy" of human, animal, plant, world, and spirit, known by the ancestors for millions of years. Hunter-gatherers commonly describe agriculture as "raping the body of our Mother Earth." This new practice, with its clear-cut line between wild and cultivated space, also cut a line in human consciousness between wildness and culture, the hunters now seen as wild, as agents of Chaos. But this projection failed to ease the farmers' feeling of loss, however much they may have congratulated themselves on their superior humanity. They needed some compensation for the cruelty of agriculture, which had already begun to manifest itself in rituals of human sacrifice and cannibalism. They needed some way to recapture the positive quality of ecstatic original intimacy. Because agriculture has to do with plants, the way had to be sought in the world of plants.

The entheogenic experience would be regularized by ritual to accommodate agriculture's demands for order and to overcome cultural anxiety by opening a safe channel to the power of wild(er)ness, in order to propitiate and appropriate it. The first great period of ritual entheogens is thus the Neolithic. ...

The accepted view of Indo-European history is that perhaps 10,000 years ago the Indo-Europeans were more or less one people that inhabited a single region of the globe. In a series of migrations they moved away from this homeland and eventually ended up in India, Iran, Western Asia, and Western Europe, where they settled from Russia to Ireland. By this time each group spoke different but still related languages. Their laws, customs, religious behavior, and social organization also diverged and yet retained similarities. Now we have good reason to believe that three groups-the Indians, the Iranians, and the Greeks-possessed a body of lore relating to entheogenic spirituality; and because this lore parallels the kinds of relations that exist among their languages and customs it would appear that the original Indo-Europeans already possessed the Soma-function. The three regional versions of it are like dialects of the original complex. If this is true, then it should be possible to predict that other Indo-European peoples will also preserve some version of the Soma-function, however distorted or "lost" it may have become. (pages 10-11)

What about the Celts? I must reject the currently fashionable theory of an early arrival of the proto-Celts in the West, and especially in the Atlantic Littoral. For Ireland, I am prepared to push the arrival back into the Late Bronze Age, but not much more. This would posit a native Irish population descended directly from the great stone-builders of the Megalithic-Neolithic period, related perhaps by language to other peoples of Old Europe as depicted by Marija Gimbutas. Some authentic knowledge of these people survived in later Celtic lore, where they appear notably as the Fomorians. As settled and highly cultured agriculturalists they experienced the full impact of nomadic incursions by the pastoralist Celts. Politically they were reduced to the "third function" and became peasants, especially the unfree client tribes, but culturally a great deal survived. For one, the magic of a conquered people often appears in a certain powerful light to their conquerors. The "natives" always have superior knowledge of the land and its secrets, of its magical plants for instance. This magic is a measure of their resistance, and of their paradoxical power, subversive but attractive.

Thus, for example, the colonialist Spaniards eventually went to the Indios (both primitive agriculturalists, and remnants of the High Mesoamerican civilizations) for healing ceremonies with ayahuasca and other psychotropics. Tobacco and chocolate were adopted into conquistador culture, although tamed and de-psychedelicized, so to speak. I suggest-admittedly on the slender basis of a few ambiguous petroglyphs and folk sources-that the Irish Fomorians used entheogenic plants in their own rituals. ...

But just as the Indo-European Celtic language absorbed and virtually erased the language of the Fomorians, so too the native elements in Irish were replaced-on the surface-by Indo-European Soma lore very similar to that of the Indo--Iranian branches. The Rg Veda can throw light on the Soma-function in Irish folklore, not because "the Celts came from India" (as scholars once surmised) but because a great deal of Irish and Indian culture derives from an early common source-in a homeland where Soma was known and worshipped. The difference between Ireland and India-what makes the Celtic lore so distinctly Irish-can be attributed in large part to the Fomorians-Ireland's hidden "African soul." (pages 12-14)

Irish Soma: The Evidence

But, the reader may object, if the Fomorians are somehow to be considered "pre-Celtic" or non-Celtic, why would we take the presence of Fomorians in a story as evidence for Indo-European traits and motifs? The answer to this objection is found in an important structural element in the Soma complex. In the story of the offerings at Delos, the Soma was not grown and harvested by the Greeks, but by "wild" tribes far away, who then transported it and gave it to the Greeks. In India, the Aryan Brahmins do not grow and harvest Soma either. They must buy or steal it from the "wild" autochthonous hill tribes. Even in modern times the Indo-Europeans have acquired most of their intoxicants from "conquered" or subaltern peoples-chocolate, coffee, tea, tobacco, cannabis, opium, magic mushrooms, cocaine, ayahuasca, and so on. Perhaps it might be said that the search for Soma has been a factor in the amazing migrations and depredations of the Indo-Europeans-as if the need for drugs (the need to "rescue Soma") determined a course toward empire.

Whatever the Indo-Europeans brought with them to Ireland-either a Soma ritual or else the memory of a "lost" entheogen-they found there an indigenous people with magical plant knowledge. The two bodies of knowledge met, mingled, mixed-and produced a new hybrid. This Irish Soma-function cult will not be a carbon copy of the Indian, Iranian, or Greek version. It will not even be Indo-European. It will be Irish. Nevertheless, as we shall see, the parallels between the Vedic Soma Sacrifice and the Irish material are too numerous and striking to ignore. The Irish version is different from the Indian, Greek, or Iranian-but it is still a version of the same thing are not looking here at an interesting coincidence or two. We are looking at Soma. ... (pages 28-29)

I once had occasion to ask a highly respected Irish shanachie or lore-master whether, in his opinion, the ancient Druids possessed "magic mushrooms" -that is, pookies or psilocybin mushrooms. He said that they did, and if he is correct (along with scholars who have come to suspect the ancient presence of Psilocybe in the Old World) then Wasson's Amanita can no longer be considered the only fungal candidate for Irish Soma. In any case, what it is seems ultimately less interesting than what it does. In terms of this structural investigation, a study of ritual offers more potential profit than a study of botanical classification. (page 33)

Vedic and Irish Sources: A Literary Comparison

A MAJOR HYPOTHESIS of this study is that at some time when the Indo-Europeans still inhabited their homeland, they acquired not only Soma but a Soma ritual. It may be speculated that the Indo-Europeans "stole" Soma from some other people, and that therefore it may not have been part of their very earliest existence. In fact, several branches of the Indo-European rootstock may have left the homeland before the "theft" of Soma (perhaps from an Altaic or an even more northerly people) and thus never had a Soma ritual. The Indo-Aryans, the Iranians, the Greeks, the Norse, and the Celts, however, all show signs of possessing a Soma--ritual at some early stage of their emergence as separate and distinct "nations." If we think of "Soma" not as a specific drug or plant, but as a function, then we need not concern ourselves overmuch with any specific psychotropic substance. Moreover, we might argue that this function includes more than the category "entheogenic plants"; it must also embrace the category of "substitutes," plants that symbolize the entheogenic experience, or the social implications of that experience. At some point in their history, each of these Indo-European peoples appears to have "lost" Soma, or the secret of its identity, preparation, and use. The Greeks held on longest, judging by the apparent effectiveness of the Eleusinian Mysteries even into the Christian Era.

As ritual and pharmacological knowledge evaporate, their place is gradually taken by myth and folklore. Each Indo-European group has thus followed a similar trajectory. First, in common possession of a primordial Soma cult, they leave the homeland. After migrating, according to myth, they come upon and "conquer" another population. Each Indo-European group succeeds in establishing itself as an "aristocracy" in relation to the autochthones but at the same time an intermingling of genes and memes takes place between Indo-Europeans and the "subjected" peoples. In each case, the "conquered" populations appear to have been hunters or Neolithic agriculturalists, who are remembered in myth and lore as gigantic or dwarfish, dark, magical, chthonic, perhaps deformed (one leg, one eye, zoomorphic, and so on), and somehow associated with snakes. ...

... A few words cannot hope to convey the aura of dawntime luster or the archaic brilliance of the Rg Veda, nor do 1 intend to try. I want simply to scan the text for Irish parallels and not to attempt an interpretation of Vedic spirituality or even of Soma itself. Nevertheless I can't resist remarking that the Rg Veda strikes me as the most profound work ever written on the psychedelic experience. In the 1960s, Timothy Leary et al. based their user's guide to LSD on The Tibetan Book of the Dead - for all its merits, a late, death-obsessed work. The Rg Veda, by contrast, is early, overwhelmingly powerful, and life-affirming. Moreover, it is about the actual psychedelic experience, not about eschatology. How different the sixties might have been if Leary had based his work on the Rg Veda. (pages 37-38)


I have found it fruitful to "believe" in any origin (or complex of contradictory origins) precisely in the manner of the ancient mythographists-as meaning. To "believe" (to participate existentially) in this way is a non-exclusionary process-each origin is to be taken both literally and as a code that can be (partially) cracked, but also as a drifting point, an area of divine ambiguity. The palimpsest of all origins defines the structure of my explorations. Even science is welcome at this feast, so long as it can renounce its monopoly of interpretation (or refusal to interpret), its flaccid totalitarianism, its absurd paradigmatic hierarchies, its pathetic triumphalism, and its lack of playfulness. "Who really knows?" says the Rg Veda The origin is a subject (or object) not for false reverence but for true reverie. (pages 41-42)

Gandharvas and Maruts

Personally, however, I am driven by the very multiplicity of identities of Soma to speculate that the original Indo-European root word (from which the variants "Soma" and "Haoma" were derived) must have meant any plant capable of effective transformation of the user; any power-plant. In effect, then, the word Soma would really signify what M. T. Greene called "the Soma function" rather than any one specific plant-but the word would also be applied in a secondary sense to A. muscaria in India, hemp in Margiana, "Syrian rue" in Iran, and even to Ephedra (which was probably used in all three cases to intensify the effects of the psychotropics)-and so on and so forth, in the various Indo-European cultures.

In any case, thanks to the Margiana temples we can be certain that some sort of entheogenic religion was being practiced in Asia in the mid-Second Millennium. (Archaeological evidence is missing in India and Iran, no doubt because in both cases the cult was practiced outdoors.) Moreover, the existence of Haoma temples in 1500 BC implies an even earlier ritual use of entheogens, perhaps dating to the earliest Neolithic. Might we then be permitted to interpret mythic groups like the Maruts and gandharvas as euhemerized memories of the archaic practitioners of entheogenic shamanism? This would help to account for the ambiguous relation of these groups with Soma: both thieves and protectors. (page 78)

The Jealousy of the Gods and the Origin of Poetry

The modern rediscovery of Soma by literate civilization begins not with Wasson or the lab work of A. Hofmann, but with experiments in opium and hashish carried out by such writers as DeQuincy, Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Mikhail Bakhtin, Ernst Junger, and Mircea Eliade. Artaud's peyote journey to Mexico should also be considered in this light. In Ireland, I believe, knowledge of the Soma-plant (probably Amanita) may have survived as late as the eighteenth century, and vanished only with the dissolution of the College of Bards (see Daniel Corkery, Hidden Ireland). Even today, the visitor to Ireland must admit that porter and whiskey (fuisce) unleash torrents of spontaneous poetry, or at least witty banter, in those insular Celts who have stubbornly preserved so much archaic lore. If television threatens to erode the viable cultural traditions of Ireland, as it has done elsewhere, nevertheless the Soma-function will not vanish. Soma was broadcast wholesale to the world in the 1950s and 1960s in a dozen new forms, and some very ancient ones as well. Soma has been rescued again and everyone knows it. The forces of hierarchic order may engage in violent and expensive attempts to rebottle the genie, but short of universal brainwashing (which would itself require some negative form of Soma such as Huxley envisioned in Brave New World, and for which the CIA once searched so diligently)-such attempts will all prove quite futile. As I write, "United Europe" seems in the process of decriminalizing hemp-and no doubt a rational policy on other psychotropics will follow, unless, of course, the War on Drugs proves simply too profitable to abandon to the forces of legalization. A discussion of the psychedelic revolution lies beyond the scope of this essay; I would simply like to underline three of the motifs in the Soma-complex-that of spiritual egalitarianism, entheogenesis, and poetic inspiration. No one who lived through the 1960s would still dare dream that psychedelics make everyone and anyone into Balkan bards; nevertheless, no one would dare claim that nothing has changed. On some psycho-seismic level, in some deep tectonic stratum of the Imaginable and the Social, the psychedelic revolution has already occurred. (pages 134-135)

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