Sunday, December 18, 2011

Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen

Book Review: Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen by David L. Spess
(Park Street Press 2000)

This is a fascinating mind-blowing account of the ancient Vedic Soma Tradition (and Avestan Haoma tradition) and its undoubted and very precise influence on all alchemical traditions, early magic, and the spiritual tradition of the East, Near East, and the West.

The Vedic Soma plant was called the ‘elixir of immortality’. According to Spess the plant’s identity was veiled in secrecy. He says that this original ‘elixir of immortality’ spawned all the subsequent legendary elixirs – those of Chinese Taoism, and those of Greco-Egyptian, Islamic, and European alchemy.

The described affects of the specially prepared Soma include ‘luminous ecstatic states’, increased longevity, and enhanced paranormal abilities. Spess equates the regular practice of the Soma rite to developing the ‘body of light’ – or astral/energy body – which is a major goal of magical traditions. He also postulates that similar hallucinogenic drinks were central features of the Mystery Religions. He wonders if therapeutic drugs could be made from the soma plant(s).

The Rig Veda has many sections with hymns devoted to Soma, as deity and as sacred plant/plant formulation. The author also mentions a lost text known as the Madhu Brahmana where the soma recipe and formulation was said to be written down but it was also surely passed down in an oral tradition. The secret of soma and its preparation is known as the madhu-vidya, or “honey doctrine.” The references to soma in the Rg Veda are poetic and cryptic with allusions somewhat akin to ‘kennings.’  

Shamanistic entheogenic rites likely evolved as people became more settled. The Vedic hymns are thought to have been written down between 1800 and 900 BC but the rites and myths referred to may be much older, perhaps even stretching back to Indo-Iranian peoples of central Asia circa 4000-3500 BC.

The author suggests that ancient herbalists found combinations of psychoactive substances. He thinks soma was such a combination and that it had multiple effects: sedative, stimulant, hallucinogen, and enhancer of psychic abilities. He suggests that different preparations and combinations at different dosages produced different effects and that the literature suggests that daily use among both priests and common people occurred. Soma sages were said to have abilities to walk on water and to enter into rays of light or transform into bodies of light. He suggests doctrines that certain plants can store light and under proper preparation techniques that light can be unleashed and form a medium for the human body-mind. This is similar to doctrines among Gnostic Manicheans and alchemists. He suggests that the ‘entheogenic light’ of these plants could awaken the inner light of humans. So here he is postulating a definite connection of Vedic doctrine with much later Manichean Gnostic doctrine from 200’s AD. Soma is strongly associated with luminous phenomena in the Vedic hymns. It is associated with internal luminosity and the ‘cosmic pillar of light.’ This pillar is also mentioned in the Eleusinian Mysteries which were also thought to employ entheogens and according to the author are, through the structure and ritual use of the entheogen, a later form of the same basic rite. Indra and the wild deities called the Maruts that help him are all said to partake of the soma and its ecstasy. Indra is said in some hymns to have created the entire cosmos while in soma ecstasy. The soma drinking priest identifies with Indra. The Vedic gods are said to maintain their immortality by drinking soma. The sages become immortal by drinking soma. Soma was also considered a great medicine. It was reputed to heal eye diseases, joints, limbs, vital energy imbalances, and lack of virility. Vedic hymns suggest that soma lifts one out of the body like gusts of wind into the Anthropos of light at the cosmic center of the universe. It is unknown whether soma was a hallucinogen in our current common usage of the term – but the author thinks that the rite lasted three days or longer and that the ecstatic states described suggest intense experiences.

Spess seems to think that the Avestan haoma was prior to the Vedic soma and was a different plant. He suggests that since Indus Valley times the Aryan people traded and overlapped cultures with the IV peoples. The IV peoples were thought to have a vast trading network with outposts on the Arabian coast to trade with Sumerians. He thinks that plant knowledge from India combined with Indo-Iranian entheogen rite to make up the Vedic soma rite.

Spess gives the main soma plant as the lotus plant – Nelumbo species. But he also notes that there were many formulations called soma and these often included the related Nymphaea – or water lily plant. Apparently there were many varieties of these plants, Northern India being the most rich in them. The Egyptian water lily was found to be exactly the same species as in India and is thought to have been brought to Egypt at an early – pre-dynastic date – when Spess says tribes migrated from Iran to Northern Egypt. The trade of the lotus plants may have come through the Indus Valley trade networks. Both of these plants are psychoactive and medicinal with Nelumbo having a long reputation as a longevity herb – being as well anti-bacterial, anti-tumoral, and rejuvinative. Recent medical tests confirm some of these properties.

The author roughly describes several different lotus drinks, both unfermented and fermented. He notes that Nelumbo contains alkaloids that supress the effects of alcohol so that the alcohol in the body can further extract the entheogenic compounds and increase their effects.

He describes Buddha’s disciples being able to prepare lotus drinks – but only in times of food shortages. He suggests that they were aware that it could aid meditation but the danger of overindulgence compelled Buddha to restrict its consumption. He also suggests that by the time of Buddha (~500 BC) the plants were scarce from over-harvesting on the Indian plains and that the main source was the mountainous regions of Kashmir.

He notes that important compounds of these plants would oxidize readily after picking and so lose their potency. That is why he thinks that soma rites often occurred along the Indus or Saravati Rivers (in the Vedas) or other lakes and rivers. Brahmins cultivated them in temple pools.

Spess suggests that the lotus plants (Nelumbo and Nymphaea) had unusual ways of growing and were thought to be particularly connected to the sun and moon – absorbing and transmitting their energies in a special way. The mythological youthful horse twins – the Asvins – are associated with the preparation of soma at the three times of dawn, midday, and dusk. Spess thinks that freshly pressed soma juice, or sap, was mixed with a mead-like fermented soma beverage. The Asvins were the physicians of the gods and their medicine was soma. The soma allowed one to glow like the moon god, Soma. Symbolically the Asvins are associated with the flowers themselves, but possibly also the buds (which resemble horseheads in profile) and the leaves (which resemble horses’ hooves). It may be interesting to note that the parts of lotus plants also appear metaphorically in the esoteric lore of Buddhism and Hinduism. The Asvins are also associated with bee culture and honey, they being the flowers that give the nectar but also the bees themselves. Spess goes through quite a bit of symbolism that he derives from cryptic descriptions from the Rig Veda, Atharva Veda, and several other texts. He sees the horse and soma as representing a water god. He notes the churning of the milk ocean myth as a metaphor for making soma – indeed it is the elixir of immortality and the lotus goddess Laksmi as well as poison that comes from the churning. The Asvins are quite directly associated with the Greek youth twins, the Dioscuri, who are in a similar way associated to the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Throughout the ancient world India was legendary for people of long life and for the elixir of immortality. The “munis” or long-haired sages of India had sought out immortality though breath control, fasting, entheogens, and other ascetic practices. These “matty-haired” ascetics first taught the Buddha. “In both the Rg Veda and the Atharva Veda, the elixir was associated with gold, the imperishable solar metal.” The author thinks that the association of gold with the elixir of life transferred from the Vedics to the Chinese where it became a central principle to Taoist Alchemy. He says that it was only much later that gold was linked with the elixir in European and Islamic Alchemy. Interestingly, he notes the chanting meters of the Rg Veda (there were a few different ones).  He says that special breathing techniques were used with each type of meter rhythm. As someone who has done a fair share of chanting of sadhanas and mantras in liturgical languages (mostly Sanskrit and Tibetan) I can also say that long chanting itself in a ritualistic format can put one in a mild altered or enhanced consciousness state. The monotony of chanting can also spur a mild dissociative trance. In comparing the Indian and Chinese breathing techniques – some very detailed similarities have been noted and most scholars seem to agree that they came from a similar source which was likely India or the Vedic-Aryan areas.

The soma ceremonies seem to involve the drinking of the plant juices in conjunction with a yoga of the subtle body where a golden glow was developed in the womb of the heart. This inner womb of the heart is identified with activating the subtle body of light.

“This continuum-womb is identical to the Islamic philosopher’s egg, the internal elixir embryo of Taoist alchemy, and the Hermetic vessel of European alchemy.”

The author cites the ideas of Joseph Needham and H.H. Dubs regarding the transfer of alchemical ceremony and knowledge from India and perhaps Indo-Iranian tribes in greater-Persia to China likely through the Yueh-Chih people before 300 BCE. Some have claimed that alchemy was formulated in Egypt and the author does cede that alchemy as a syncretic philosophical system resulting in the Greco-Egyptian alchemical tradition. The author notes Demokritos (460-370 BCE) as an important early figure in this tradition. He was reported to have traveled widely – possibly to India. His theory of atoms is similar to that of the Ajivikas of India who were around during the time of Buddha. Pliny linked Demokritos to the Magi of Persia.

“The main ideas that were transmitted through Greece and Egypt concern the Indo-Iranian sacrificial rituals of haoma/soma. These rituals involve an up and down motion and circulation process, both within the human body and the greater universe. The notion of up and down movement is important in Greek alchemy. It has a direct relationship to uniting the aspects of microcosm and macrocosm. Another important aspect of the sacrificial rituals is the concept of the spiritual water. The subtle water is the luminous soma energy or the fiery water. This water is both the source of the unification of opposites and the ultimate goal of the alchemical quest. The sacrificial ritual unites the above and the below and opens up the source of the light of lights. All of the Greco-Egyptian alchemical operations take place within the bowl-shaped altar as the alembic-womb of transformation. This universal matrix is located at the cosmic center within the heart of being...... During the soma ceremony a dismemberment and then a rememberment occur within the solar heart, the Hermetic vessel. Within the heart as the alembic womb, luminous rays of being are gathered together through the sensory channels and alchemical creations and transmutations are formed within the oceanic-pneumatic matrix and projected from the heart outward into manifestation.”

The Asvins were said to produce a golden elixir by combining the sun and moon lotuses (day-blooming and night-blooming?) which is also the union of Agni (fire) and Soma (water) and so too the union of the sun and the moon. The union of opposite natures later became the sulphur-mercury theory of the medieval alchemists. The Barmakis of post-Buddhist Afghanistan and the Sabians of Harran may have been purveyors of Vedic/Persian of alchemical knowledge to the early Sufis – as well as the Greeks, Egyptians, and Indians themselves. In any case the author thinks that the Agni-Soma duality is the ultimate origin of the sulphur-mercury union of opposites.

The author examines the connection between the Indo-Iranian soma ceremony and the earliest known forms of Ancient Greek herbal magic. He mentions a fragment of a poem by Alcman from 650 BCE Sparta which describes a plant ceremony very similar to those described in the Rg Veda and shows many striking direct parallels. There is good evidence that the whole Greek conception of ambrosia derives from soma. The Greek plant is called “serpent-slayer” as is soma when it is stated that it was soma that gave Indra the strength to slay the serpent-dragon Vrtra. The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles is also thought have formulated the Pythagorean Greek magical thought from the Indo-Iranian magical traditions. Empedocles is also thought to have been influenced by Indian Buddhism and yoga – with yogic breath control practices attributed to him. Apollonius of Tyana also sings the praises of the Indian Brahmins. Possible connections between Indo-Aryans and Egypt include the possibility of the Hyksos Dynasty being Indo-Aryans, the Indo-Aryan Mitanni marriage contracts, and an Indian colony in the Egyptian city of Memphis around 500 BCE. Indian figurines from this period have been found in the temple of Ptah in Memphis. So this colony could be another possible avenue of Indian influence on early Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, Theurgy, and Greco-Egyptian Alchemy. Rg Vedic, Kabbalistic, and Neoplatonic cosmologies share similarities, particularly the notion of the unmanifest and manifest worlds of matter. The descent into matter and the return to spirit and oneness is a similar theme. The author thinks that the origin of Neoplatonic theurgy is the Indian Vedas and Upanishads possibly through the influence of the so-called Chaldean Oracles (of Zoroaster) which may not be Chaldean and may not as well be derived from Zoroaster, or only partially. Many similarities occur between the Vedas/Upanishads and early Gnosticism and Hermeticism. These include the logos doctrine and the Anthropos-Adamas-Christ of light. The Purusa Sukta hymn of the Vedas refers to the Cosmic Being (sometimes as Vishnu, sometimes as Indra) that has direct parallels to the Anthropos, or primal man. Spess notes a relationship between the primal man and the cosmic tree/pillar as both pole star and midday sun – both being the zenith of the center of the sky.

The yogic idea of the gathering of prana in the heart also has some Gnostic corollaries. Jewish Merkabah mysticism, the Gnostic Pleroma, the glorified ‘body of Christ’, the Islamic ‘throne of god’ and the Imam as ‘man of light’ also likely relate directly to the Indo-Aryan Purusa-Sukta idea. The Greco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimos (~300 CE) mentions this subtle body alchemy as a central mystery of Mithraism as well. The logos doctrine, or the word as god, likely as well goes back to the Vedas. There is a similar creation myth form Memphis Egypt from about 500 BCE but this is thought to have come about later, perhaps being influenced by the earlier Vedic version. The inverted tree symbolism in alchemy has clear parallels in the Rg Veda and suggestions as well in Indus Valley art. The notion (as a few authors have noted) is that the polar (pole star) cosmologies of older shamanic peoples was unified with the solar cosmologies of the Indo-Aryans and made the basic cosmology myth model of many ancient peoples. The author thinks that the Indo-Aryan Mitanni passed on the cosmic tree symbolism to the Assyrians. He suggests that recent archeological digs in Hierakonpolis in southern Egypt indicate that the early founders of Egyptian civilization came from the vicinity of Iran. The author also ties in many ideas and symbolisms to later medieval alchemy. The union of heaven and earth, sun and moon, fire and water, Agni and Soma, and mercury and sulphur all indicate the Union of Opposites symbolism inherent in the soma ceremony and all known alchemical traditions.

Other later influences include the Ayurvedic rasayana alchemical rejuvination and healing techniques and the alchemical traditions of Buddhism and Tantra. The notion of the body as microcosm with the subtle yoga body of chakras, winds, channels, and drops is a probable derivative as well. The yogic central channel (Shushumna) as a pillar of light and as the most important channel to be developed is a rather direct corollary as well. Interestingly the famed Buddhist Tantric guru Padmanambhava (the lotus-born) and the whole early Tantric tradition may well have been influenced by the Indo-Iranian magi. Greater India at the time included areas adjacent to the Persian empire and these are the areas where Tantra was likely formulated.

“The origin of the Tibetan practices of uniting the red and white bindus within the heart to form the “ground of being luminosity” comes from the Rg Vedic soma ceremony in its uniting of the white celestial soma with the red Agni fire. This practice is basic to most Tibetan Buddhist schools, two of which are the Dzogchen and the Kalacakra.”

Subtle body yogas of the Tamil and Nath Siddhas, the Buddhist Siddhacarya (Mahasiddha tradition), and Kalachakra Tantra all have an element of alchemical transformation.

He compares the myth of the Golden Fleece to the golden egg/golden embryo alchemical symbolism to descriptions of the soma brew being formulated by the Asvins – the equivalent Dioscuri twins are involved with Golden Fleece.

Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras notes that supernatural powers similar to yogic powers can be derived from certain herbs. The early Indian Buddhist alchemist Nagarjuna says more or less the same. One of the yogic powers is the transmutation of substances into gold. Tantra can also be referred to Tantric Alchemy:

“The Hindu Tantra Kamakalavilasa states that the bindu, or essence of the universe, consists of two parts: one white, the other red, which represents Siva as soma and Sakti as fire in the tantric systems..........Uniting the opposites is considered the method of producing the philosophers’ stone. It is also the method of achieving enlightenment in tantric philosophy and the soma ceremony.”

In some genealogies of alchemy Zoroaster (an Indo-Iranian) is given as the first in the lineages further suggesting an Indo-Iranian, or Indo-Aryan (as the Vedas probably contain ceremonial and herbal data before the Aryan-Iranian split) origin of alchemy.

This was a great and exciting read – though not all of it entirely convincing. The author does make a great and undeniable case for the signifiacnt Vedic influence on all of these ancient spiritual ideas.

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