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Soma among the Armenians

Soma among the Armenians

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Published by Robert G. Bedrosian
This study examines the thesis of R. Gordon Wasson and his colleagues about the Amanita Muscaria mushroom, and then examines several ancient Armenian legends and customs in the light of those findings. A first look at the ethnobotany of the Armenian Highlands.
This study examines the thesis of R. Gordon Wasson and his colleagues about the Amanita Muscaria mushroom, and then examines several ancient Armenian legends and customs in the light of those findings. A first look at the ethnobotany of the Armenian Highlands.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Robert G. Bedrosian on Jul 05, 2012
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Soma among the Armenians
by Robert Bedrosian
[1] Soma was a god, a plant, and an intoxicating beverage. It is referenced in some 120 of 1028 verses of theIndian Rig Veda (mid second millenium B.C.). Haoma was its Iranian counterpart. Although the IranianAvesta mentions haoma less frequently, there is little doubt that the substances were similar or identical. In both India and Iran, at some point the true identity of soma/haoma was forgotten, and substitutes for it wereadopted. It has been suggested that abandonment of the divine entheogen and its replacement by surrogatesoccurred because the original substance was no longer available or was difficult to obtain once the protoIndo-Iranians left their "original homeland" and emigrated (1).During the past two hundred years, scholars have tried with varying degrees of success to identify thismysterious plant which was at the base of early Indo-Iranian worship. As early as 1794, Sir William Jonessuggested that haoma was "a species of mountain rue", or Peganum harmala L. (Arm. spand) (2). Other somacandidates in the 19th and early 20th centuries have included cannabis (Arm. kanep') and henbane (Arm.aghueshbank). All of these plants are native to the Armenian highlands, and all of them were used by theArmenians and their predecessors for medicinal and magico-religious purposes (3). If the divine elixir reallywas a single substance rather than a mixture, then, in our view, none of the above-mentioned nominees alonequalifies. The pharmacological effects of Peganum harmala, cannabis, or henbane, taken alone, simply do notmatch the Vedic and Iranian descriptions of the effects of soma/haoma (4). In the 1960s, R. Gordon Wasson proposed a new candidate, whose effects are more consistent with those mentioned in the Vedas. The presentstudy will examine Wasson's thesis and look for supporting evidence in ancient Armenian legends andcustoms.In Soma Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1968), Wasson argued that the intoxicating plant called soma inthe Rig Veda should be identified with the red-capped psychoactive mushroom, Amanita muscaria. Thismushroom, which contains the powerful hallucinogen muscimol, can cause elevated mood, euphoria, auditoryand visual hallucinations, as well as feelings of increased strength and stamina. Amanita muscaria (calledfly-agaric in English) is perhaps the most widely depicted mushroom in children's books, often stylized as ared-capped mushroom with white polka dots[Images of the Amanita Muscaria Mushroom
].Wasson'sarguments revolved around certain poetic and elliptical statements in the Rig Veda which seem to indicatethat this magical plant lacked roots, branches, flowers, seeds, or leaves, a fitting description of a mushroom(5). The
Soma was associated with the color red, the god of fire (Agni), and the bellowing bull (6). The
soma is like a "red bull" (RV IX.97.13), but with a "dress of sheep" (RV IX. 70.7). It "creeps like aserpent out of its old skin" (RV IX.86.44).In nature, this mushroom begins fruiting as a white "egg" enclosed in the membranous material of theuniversal veil; the stalk pushes up as it grows, and the distinctive orange-to-red cap appears from behind theveil. White flecks of the veil remain on the cap in patches like the "hide of a bull" in a "dress of sheep", or like a "serpent creeping out of its old skin". Soma is the bolt (vajra) of Indra (RV III.43.7;IV.18.13; IX. 77.1)and the mainstay or pillar of the sky (RV IX.2.5;IX.72.7).[2] In the Vedas, soma was also an intoxicating liquid, pounded or pressed out of the plant using special pressing stones (RV IX.11.5-6;IX.109.17-18), filtered through wool, and presumably mixed with other ingredients. In folklore thoughout Eurasia, it was found high in the mountains and was associated with amagical bird, serpents and eggs; its sudden appearance after a storm, led to an association with thunder and
lightning, since many early peoples believed that mushrooms appeared where lightning hit the ground (7).Curiously, the presence of urine in the myths Wasson examined was taken as one of the "markers" of theAmanita cult. Unlike many other hallucinogens, the active ingredients in Amanita muscaria passunmetabolized through the kidneys of the ingester. As a result, that person's urine is as potent as themushroom itself, a circumstance which led to the recyling of urine in those cultures which used Amanita for magico-religious purposes, and perhaps to the sanctity of urine in Indo-Iranian tradition (8).In nature, this mushroom grows only in a mychorrizal relationship with certain trees: aspen, beech, birch, fir,larch, oak, pine and several others. It has thus far resisted attempts to grow it in a laboratory. Besides humans,two other animals, the deer and the raven, are known to relish this mushroom. The raven's love of Amanitamuscaria was noted in antiquity: in ancient Egypt the Amanita muscaria mushroom was called "Raven's bread" (9).Wasson's identification of soma with the Amanita muscaria mushroom has not won universal acceptance. Itwas embraced by some, including the orientalist Harold Bailey, the linguist Roman Jakobson, and themycologist Roger Heim, but others (including Wasson's co-author, the Sanskritist Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty)were not convinced. The latter remarked years later:My own work, however, was leading me toward another sort of hypothesis entirely: it did notreally matter what Soma was, since it was lost so early in history; what actually played soimportant a part in Vedic civilization was the
of Soma. Indeed, my more recentcollaborations with Brian K. Smith on the subject of substitutions in the Vedic sacrifice haveinclined me in the direction of Smith's hypothesis that there may never have been an originalSoma plant at all, and that
of Soma's "substitutes" (including, perhaps, the fly-agaricmushroom) were surrogates for a mythical plant that never existed save in the minds of the priests. (10)Wasson was challenged most recently by another collaborative work, Haoma and Harmaline, The BotanicalIdentity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallucinogen "Soma" and its Legacy in Religion, Language, and MiddleEastern Folklore, by David S. Flattery and Martin Schwartz, Near Eastern Studies (volume 21) (Los Angeles,1989). The authors described their study as a "vindication of Jones's original proposition" (of 1794) (11) andargued that it was not a mushroom which was the Indian soma and the Iranian haoma but the plant Peganumharmala, especially the seeds, containing the hallucinogen harmaline. The work of Flattery and Schwartz is afascinating, scholarly study which, without a doubt, has raised the level of ethnobotanical research. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that either author actually experimented with Peganum harmala. Had they done so,they would have concluded that by itself Peganum harmala could not have merited the encomiums lavishedon soma/haoma in the Vedas (12). It is, however, noteworthy that to this day, Peganum harmala is used as a"potentiator" for psychoactive mushrooms. It is quite likely that ancient Iranians had also discovered thisquality of Peganum harmala, and that their haoma preparations exploited it.[3] Wasson's greatest contribution, in our view, was not his identification of soma with the Amanita muscariamushroom. Rather, it was the attention he drew to the role of fungi in humankind's earliest history. InWasson's view, religion had its birth in the awe-inspiring effects of first accidental then deliberate ingestion of these hallucinogens. Why was it that certain trees were revered by our early ancestors? Wasson suggestedthat in many cases the trees were sacred because of the hallucinogenic mushrooms that grew at their bases, or the fungi which grew on their trunks (13). Such trunk fungi, known as polyphores, were used since remoteantiquity for their medicinal qualities and as tinder ("spunk", "punk", Arm. abet') (14).Wasson is considered the father of a new discipline, ethnomycology, the study of humankind and mushrooms,in particular psychoactive mushrooms. A number of scholars, including the botanists William Emboden andRichard Schultes and the classicist Carl Ruck, independently and at Wasson's urging, began looking for mushroom lore in Greek and Eastern mythology. The chemist Albert Hoffman (who synthesized LSD from
 psychoactive mushrooms found in Mexico), was another member of this group. During the 1970s and 1980s,several fascinating studies emerged as a result of their collaboration, including The Road to Eleusis (1978)and Persephone's Quest (1986) (15). Emboden's Narcotic Plants (1980) and Schultes' and Hoffman's Plants of the Gods (Rochester,Vermont, 1992) are other important works on this subject.*While thus far there have been no studies of the ethnobotany of the Armenian highlands, there are,nonetheless, some rich secondary materials for such a study. Among them are Ghevond Alishan's Haybusak [Armenian Botany
] (1895), the same author's Hin hawatk' kam het'anosakan kronk' Hayots' [The AncientFaith or Pagan Religion of the Armenians] (1910), Joseph Karst's Mythologie armeno-caucasienne et hetito-asianique (1948), Karapet Gabikian's Hay Busashxar (1912) and T. Awdalbegyan's Avandapatum (1969).Mardiros Ananikian's treatiseArmenian Mythology in vol 7 Mythology of All Races (1964; repr. of 1925 ed.), and James Russell's Zoroastrianism in Armenia (1987) also contain important material on sacred plants. Whileall these works list the sacred plants revered among the Armenians, and provide valuable legends about them,none of them examines the possible reasons for these plants' original appeal (16). Similarly, recent works onearly Armenian medicine do not focus on entheogens as such, but rather on the medicinal value of the plants(17). In any case, mushrooms and/or tree fungi do not appear in any of these lists.Armenian primary sources also say little about mushrooms (Armenian sunk) (18). The 5th century Eznik, whomentions cannabis, mandrake, hemlock, and spurge and was well aware of their effects (19) uses the wordmushroom only once, without commentary (20). The 13th century Kirk' Vastakats' [Book of Labors
] has ashort chapter (#272) on growing mushrooms, which indicates that the Armenians were familiar withmushroom cultivation. Alishan's entries in Haybusak for agaric are T'npi (#796, p. 191) , K'ujulay/K'uch'ula(#3216, p. 648) and Gharicon (#1813, p. 392). T'npi and K'ujulay he regards as Amanita. Gharicon was perhaps
 Fomitopsis officinalis
, the agaric tree fungus mentioned by Pliny and used in numerous medicinal preparations (21). Agaric and Amanita were familiar to the Armenian physicians Mxit'ar Herats'i (12thcentury) and Amirdovlet (15th century) who mentioned them in remedies for a variety of ailments(22).Agaric is also mentioned as a valuable commodity of trade in the 13th century Law Code of Mxit'ar Gosh(23).[4] Though the Armenian literary histories say little about mushrooms, there is, nonetheless, evidence aboutthe importance of certain trees that are known hosts to Amanita muscaria, and other medicinal fungi. For example, the Urartian king Rusa (8th cent. B.C.) planted a grove of white poplars, and divination by therustling of the poplars' leaves was a feature of later pre-Christian Armenia. The cypress, juniper, oak, pine,and fir were other venerated trees. The Orontid king Eruand in the fourth century B.C. planted a forest of firsnear the city of Bagaran. The Arsacid king Xosrov II Kotak (A.D. 330-38) planted a grove of oaks called the"Palace Grove (Tachar mayri) and a grove of firs called Xosrovakert. A fourth century Syrian monk, Mar Aha, commented on tree-worship among the Armenians (24). The 12th century Catholicos, Nerses Shnorhali,railed against reverence paid to the aspen, poplar, and willow by the Arewordik' ("Children of the Sun"), anancient group which also worshipped certain heliotropic plants. Indeed, as late as 1915 in central and easternAsia Minor, the Armenian population held certain trees in great esteem, especially those near a spring, andthey decorated their branches with written prayers (25).But what of much earlier times, the mid-second millenium before our era, when the Vedas were beingcomposed? Archaeology, a major potential source, must await more propitious times (26). Currently, our onlysources are fragments of early myths incorporated into much later Armenian writings. We shall now examineseveral such myths in the light of the ethnobotanical studies of Wasson and his colleagues.

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