Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index
Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen
Spess, David L. (2000)
Rochester, VT: Park Street Press
Description: hardcover, viii + 198 pages
Contents: Acknowledgments, introduction, 7 chapters, notes, bibliography, index.
Throughout history there have been legends of a certain plant, known as the "plant of immortality," that contained the "elixir of life." ... To the best of my knowledge, no one has rediscovered the secret of the ancient elixir of immortality until now. This book describes for the first time the plant of immortality, the preparation procedures for making the elixir of immortality, and the benefits one can attain through its use. (page 1)
Ethnobotanically, the implications of the discovery of the elixir of immortality for the development of new herbal drugs, as well as new therapies and methods of spiritual advancement, are enormous. Every indication points to the fact that the elixir of immortality contains compounds that work directly upon consciousness, rapidly eliciting profound experiences of insight and understanding that could otherwise be achieved only through years of meditation. The implicit fact that paranormal abilities are discussed in the ancient texts, in association with the explicit use of the elixir of immortality, must also be considered in a broader understanding of human consciousness and spiritual development. (page 2)
Chapter 1. Soma and Sacred Herbalism in the Ancient World
Whether or not soma induces visionary experiences must depend on how it is prepared in the ceremony. As a drink, it could not always have induced visionary experiences with strong hallucinations because the Rg Veda indicates that others in addition to the priests took soma on a daily basis for long periods of time. It would have been not only impractical, but probably impossible, for soma to have been prepared as a hallucinogenic in these cases. If soma were always hallucinogenic, it would have interfered with the completion of the soma ceremony itself, which was of paramount importance for maintaining the stability of the cosmos, order, fertility, and life on earth. The soma drink prepared in the ritual must have varied according to the different parts of the ceremony that were being conducted. This leads to the conclusion that the soma drink probably induced states of ecstasy and well-being at certain dosages and that it could also induce visionary states or hallucinations at other dosages or when other plants or plant parts were added to the preparation. (page 8)
Chapter 2. Light, Ecstatic States, and Other Effects of Soma
Soma and Luminous Phenomena
Entheogenic plants are often said to induce light phenomena in association with divine inner experiences. In the Rg Veda, soma is described as giving light to all luminous bodies, and the creation of radiant light phenomena plays and important part in the soma ceremony. The hymns associate soma with all light phenomena, whether in the physical universe as starlight, sunlight, moonlight, lightning, fire, and all glowing energies or within human beings as internal, luminous mystical experience. Indeed, soma is said to be the origin of all light phenomena in both the macrocosm and microcosm. It both creates glowing radiance and gives one the experience of light. (page 13)
Ecstatic Effects of Soma
In the Rg Veda the soma drink induces effects that are called madana, madyati, mada, or mada in Vedic Sanskrit, which can be translated in English as "ecstasy" or "rapturous joy," "inspiration," "heightened awareness," and "exhilaration," respectively. These ecstatic effects were known to bestow holiness and the experience of immortality, moving consciousness into direct contact with the luminous nature of being. This ecstatic effect of soma inebriation appears to have been the mechanism that mediated all other experiences and effects known to have been obtained from the consumption of soma.
Ecstatic experience also gives one the special knowledge and powers of the healer, prophet, poet, and wonderworker. The Rg Veda says that soma, when united with the heart, produces the ecstatic vision, an ecstasy that brings expansion beyond this world, a perception of vastness surpassing both heaven and earth. (page 17)
Soma and Paranormal Abilities
Entheogenic substances are known to increase certain types of psychic experiences and this is certainly true for the soma drink. The Rg Veda indicates that the structure of the soma ceremony was purposely designed for enhancing psychic abilities, which are mediated by special states of ecstasy. A large number of paranormal feats are described in association with soma in the hymns. Examples of these are the ability to create consciousness-born or psychogeneic creations of any object or type; the ability to levitate and walk on water; the ability to leave the physical body and return to it; the power of expansion of the subtle body or consciousness to include the entire universe; and the ability to exist consciously beyond a physical body. Soma is also credited with powers of rejuvenation and life extension as well as the regeneration of various parts of the physical body. Along with its power to renew and even create life, soma is said to be able to sustain that life perpetually as long as one continues to drink it. Thus the Vedic gods maintain their immortality by consuming soma. (pages 18-19)
Medicinal Effects of the Soma Drink
The Vedic plant world was seen as a sacred and mystical domain within which the soma plant was the king of all plants and the source from which all other plants were derived. This view is based upon the cosmology that is directly connected to the cosmic tree or pillar of light, through which access is gained to the inner workings of nature. The soma plant itself is the cosmic tree and pillar, providing the access by virtue of its psychoactive nature and through its mythologized cosmic characteristics.
The soma drink was considered the most effective of all medicinal preparations. The soma drink was an elixir that worked both psychoactively upon the brain and nervous system to induce an altered state of consciousness as well as medicinally upon the human body to cure it of various diseases. (page 21)
Chapter 3. The Identity of Plants Used As Soma
Although Western interest in soma began more than two hundred years ago, no detailed study of the facts has ever been presented. Even R. Gordon Wasson's research on soma, though very useful, is considered incomplete today. We are in a better position to solve the riddle of the soma plant and soma drinks now than ever before. Both Avestan and Rg Veda studies have progressed since Wasson's landmark book Soma was published in 1968. In addition, the study of psychoactive and medicinal plants has advanced significantly. Major botanical breakthroughs on both the Avestan haoma plant and the Rg Veda soma now make it possible to draw some conclusions about the identity of the soma plant. (page 25)
The Psychoactivity of Indian Nymphaea and Nelumbo Plants
Although a number of plants were used in the Rg Vedic soma ceremonies, there are two genera of indigenous Indian plants, the Nymphaea and Nelumbo, that stand out among the rest as being used to prepare soma drinks in the Rg Vedic soma ceremony. Nymphaea plants are known as water lilies, while Nelumbo plants are the true lotus plants. When the genera are used together in my discussions I sometimes refer to them as lotus plants.
... Some of these plants were certainly known as soma and are actually called soma in Sanskrit texts. Despite what has been stated in various articles and books about the nonentheogenic effects of Nelumbo and Nymphaea plants, some Indian varieties of lotus and many water lilies do contain a variety of alkaloids and other compounds that are entheogenic.
Here we can mention only a few studies of the psychoactive aspects of these plants as they pertain to our current subject of soma as a divine hallucinogen. Certain indigenous varieties of Indian Nymphaea plants, as well as Nelumbo plants are psychoactive and can be visionary and auditory entheogens when the sap or juice of the plant, and certain other parts, are prepared properly. These two genera can also be shown to have psychoactive properties that match those of soma on the Rg Veda.
The compounds found in certain Nymphaea species are known to cause excitation, ecstatic states, luminous visionary and auditory hallucinations, narcotic sedation, and other psychoactive effects. The experiences are dependent upon the dosage, preparation, and parts of the plant used. The compounds responsible are found in the flowers, sap, nectar, stems, rhizomes, and possibly the leaves. The flowers of certain Nymphaea species have been shown to induce ecstasy states similar to those of the drug, 3, 4-methylene-dioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), popularly known as "ecstasy." (pages 27-28)
Chapter 6. Soma and the Origins of Western Magic
Although magical incantations are known from primitive, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Greek religions, it seems that the Indo-Iranian religions are the source of many ritualized and systematic magical practices in antiquity. It can be documented through textual evidence and artifacts such as seal impressions that Indo-Europeans, and specifically Indo-Iranian, sacrificial rituals are the antecedents of many Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Greek forms of magic.
The origins of systematized magic and magical techniques can be traced back to the Indo-Iranian haoma/soma ceremonies. The words magic, magician, magus, and magi are all related terms that refer directly to the priests and magical performances of the Indo-Iranian haoma/soma sacrificial rituals. ... A Babylonian synonym for Medes is Umman Manda. One leader of the Umman Manda mentioned in Hittite texts is Za-a-lu-ti, which is an Aryan name. William Albright has suggested that Za-a-lu-ti was the same man as "Salitis" who founded the Hykos Fifteenth Dynasty in Egypt (1800 B.C.E.). This would imply that it was the Indo-Aryans who influenced the Greeks rather than the Iranians. This influence would have been over a long period of time beginning at a very early date. ... (pages 86-87)
Franz Graf states that the connection between magical practices and the use of herbal plants, including entheogens, appears in Greek literature in the form of Greek terminologies such as pharmakon (herbal drugs) during the spread of Indo-Iranian beliefs within the Greek world. This indicates that the use of the soma drink in conjunction with the soma ritual was the probable origin of ancient Greek herbal ceremonies used to conduct specific entheogenically induced magical rites. The influence upon Greece was to have important later influences upon magical practices found in Greco-Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and European magic. (page 88)
Chapter 7. Soma and European Alchemy
There are many correspondences found between the Rg Veda cosmological rituals of the soma ceremony and Chinese, Greco-Egyptian, Islamic, and European alchemy. Not only is soma the probable origin of the elixir ideas in Chinese, Greco-Egyptian, Islamic, and European alchemy, but the cosmological framework of the Rg Veda, to which the soma sacrifice is integral, is full of references to what we might call alchemical ideas. The soma ceremony has a basic magical and alchemical cosmology running through it. This is the reason why both Greco-Egyptian and European Hermeticists trace the traditions of magic and alchemy directly back to Indo-European haoma/soma sacrificial rituals, which they associated with Zoroaster. Thus in Marsilio Ficino's Theologia Platonica, he gives the genealogy of wisdom starting first with Zoroaster, then Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Appollonius, Pythagoras, and finally Plato. As far as the Renaissance Hermetic tradition was concerned, the creation of the "wisdom tradition" and the origins of the "ancient theology" originated in the Indo-Iranians and their haoma/soma sacrifices. It was from this tradition that the entheogenic elixir vitae was originally conceived. (pages 161-162)
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This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP