The Indo-Iranians were an ancient people who had their homeland somewhere in Central Asia. About 4,000 years ago they split into two distinct groups. One group, the Indo-Aryans, moved south to the Indus Valley; the other became the ancient Iranian peoples. Both preserved a vast body of religious oral literature which was only later written down. These scriptures are the Rig Veda and the Avesta, of the Indians and Iranians respectively. Both works describe rituals in which a plant with hallucinogenic properties was consumed. The plant was called soma by the Indians and haoma by the Iranians. Although some of the descendants of these peoples still perform their rituals, the identity of the sacred entheogenic plant has been lost and non-psychoactive substitutes are now used in place of the mysterious soma/haoma. In addition to the various non-psychoactive plants that have been used as soma substituted in both the Zoroastrian and Hindu traditions, a great number of candidates for soma have been put forward by Western investigators over the last two hundred years. Among the suggestions of more or less convincing candidates have been cannabis, Ephedra, a fermented alcoholic drink, Syrian rue, rhubarb, ginseng, opium and wild chicory.
The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances
by Richard Rudgley
Little, Brown and Company (1998)
Most of these suggestions have been summarily rejected for reasons I will not go into here. Scholars had become rather bored with the whole question as it seemed to many of them an unanswerable one. However, the whole debate was rekindled by R. Gordon Wasson during the late 1960s when he proposed a new candidate for soma - the fly-agaric mushroom. The arguments he put forward are complex; suffice it to say that many distinguished orientalists and other scholars accepted his thesis. In the late 1980s another highly plausible candidate was proposed by David Flattery and Martin Schwartz. Unlike Wasson, who had largely concerned himself with the Indian sources, they concentrated on the Iranian evidence. They suggest that Syrian rue (Peganum harmala) was far more likely a candidate since its hallucinogenic effects are well-known in the Indo-Iranian homeland even today. Their arguments are highly persuasive and convincing.
However, just as Syrian rue seemed to be taking the place of the fly-agaric mushroom as the most likely candidate for soma, archaeological evidence emerged from Russian excavations in the Kara Kum desert of Turkmenistan that set the cat once more among the pigeons. In this area, known to the ancients as Margiana, the Russians uncovered a number of sites of monumental architecture dating from the second millennium BC. One of these sites, Gonur South, consists of a fortified complex of buildings, a number of private dwellings and a fort. Within this complex there is also a large shrine (known to have been used as a sacred fire temple) consisting of two parts: one clearly used for public worship and the other, hidden from the gaze of the multitude, an inner sanctum of the priesthood. In one of these private rooms were found three ceramic bowls. Analysis of samples found in these vessels by Professor Mayer-Melikyan revealed the traces of both cannabis and Ephedra. Clearly both these psychoactive substances had been used in conjunction in the making of hallucinogenic drinks. In the adjoining room of the same inner sanctum were found ten ceramic pot-stands which appear to have been used in conjunction with strainers designed to separate the juices from the twigs, stems and leaves of the plants. In another room at the other end of the shrine a basin containing remains of a considerable quantity of cannabis was discovered, as well as a number of pottery stands and strainers that have also been associated with making psychoactive beverages.
The excavators believe that, given the considerable size of the fortress, the shrine may well have been dispensing the entheogenic drink to worshippers from all over Margiana in the first half of the second millennium BC. The shrine at the later site of Togoluk 1 (probably dating from the mid-second millennium) seems also to have been used to make hallucinogenic drinks as a similar pottery strainer has been found there, although traces of psychoactive plants have not been detected. The shrine at a third settlement, Togoluk 21, dated to the late second millennium, contained vessels which revealed remains of Ephedra again, but this time in conjunction with the pollen of poppies. An engraved bone tube from the same shrine was also found to contain poppy pollen.
These sites also yielded up other artefacts that gave tantalising clues as to what sort of rituals took place in these Bronze Age shrines. Designs on a cylinder seal depict a drummer, an acrobat and two men with the heads of monkeys. The rituals that took place under the influence of the psychoactive drinks seem to have involved the participants wearing animal masks. The discovery of these sites in the eastern Iranian cultural region allows archaeologists to reach certain conclusions. First these temples, which were on the scale of contemporary Mesopotamian ones, shown that the eastern Iranian region had its own architectural traditions on a grand scale and that it was not merely a 'cultural backwater'. Second, that the sites in Margiana precede the previously discovered fire temples of later Iranian tradition (in some cases by a whole millennium) and should be seen as their prototypes. Third, that the discovery in the shrines of the remains of opium, cannabis and Ephedra in ritual vessels that are dated between 2000-1000 BC show that soma in its Iranian form haoma may be considered as a composite psychoactive substance comprising of cannabis and Ephedra in one instance and opium and Ephedra in another. This identification of haoma has an archaeological background which neither the fly-agaric nor Syrian rue can match, unless such evidence comes to light. Despite the considerable efforts made to discover the botanical identity of soma, it may be that this is one mystery that will never be satisfactorily solved.
The Meaning of Soma
Drink, drugs and asceticism
Aldous Huxley Photogallery
Soma: alternative candidates
Who's Who in Brave New World
High Times at the Delphic Oracle?
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
ChatGPT on soma and Brave New World
"Soma" in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
Brave New World (movie; 1980 BBC TV adaptation)
The Plains of Heaven
The Good Drug Guide
The Hedonistic Imperative