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Amanita Muscaria as the Plant/God Soma of the Rigveda By Michael S. Smith Revised, August, 1997 For nearly 150 years Vedic Scholars have been in search of the mysterious plant of the 4000 B.C.E. Rigveda known as Soma. Soma was the plant around which the Vedic sacrifices took place and that was said to cause an ecstatic altered state of consciousness. But Soma was more than a plant, it and its expressed juice were also considered a god which was commonly used interchangeably with the god Agni, the god of fire. I hope to be able to show that Soma is in fact not a common plant, but a fungus with inebriating and potentially hallucinatory effect. I plan to first present textual evidence from the Rigveda itself and then secondly to point out the use of this specific fungus by other cultures, thereby supporting this general thesis. The idea that Soma was a fungus, specifically the red capped Amanita muscaria mushroom, was first presented by the ethno-mycologists R. Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina Wasson in the 1960’s and published in their 1968 volume Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality. A number of theories as to the identification of Soma had been circulating for years, but all were found to lack similarities to the poetic descriptions of the plant described in the Rigveda. Some plants offered up as being Soma were Bhang (Cannabis), Rhubarb, Periploca aphylla, Sarcostemma brevistigma, and Ephedra vulgaris, to mention just a few, with Peganum harmala being the most recent suspect. Some of the strongest evidence suggesting these could not be Soma is that the Rigveda makes no mention of the divine plant having any roots, leaves, blossoms, or seeds. What we do find in the Rigveda though is poetic references to attributes that could be applied to a mushroom. To see these attributes we must first have an understanding of where the Amanita muscaria mushroom grows and what it looks like. The Amanita grows in a mycorrhizal relationship with a number of different trees, specifically the pines, firs, and above all, the birches, from which the mushroom must feed from. Being temperate climate trees that grow in cooler climates we can assume that the Amanita grows in higher elevations surrounding the northern portions of the Indian peninsula, specifically the Hindu Kush range and the Himalayan mountains. The Rigveda repeatedly states that Soma grows high in the mountains and nowhere else. For example, Mandala V 43 states that Soma is a “plant from the mountain...,” and Mandala IX 46 says that Soma is “seated on the mountain top...” With the placement of Soma in the high mountains it would be naive to assume that Soma could be the previously mentioned plants that all grow in the lush valleys or the arid flatlands. Understanding the great importance of Soma in Vedic culture why is it that in modern India there is agreement that what are being used in the sacrifices are Soma substitutes? Could it be that the Ar-yan, in their migration from the northern highlands into the low lying valleys and flatlands, had no way of bringing the plant with them because of its inability to be cultivated due to its need for a mycorrhizal relationship with trees that only grow in the highland? The Amanita muscaria itself is a bright red mushroom that has woolly white spots on its top that are fragments of the veil from which the mushroom emerges as it explodes out of the ground. These wool like spots, which resemble warts, lent to this mushrooms designation as a “toadstool.” The Amanita can grow up to 8 inches tall and nearly 10 inches in diameter once it has fully opened its parasol.
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An indication that Soma might be the red Amanita is that Soma is described as being like the sun. “He (Soma) has clothed himself with the fire-bursts of the sun...” (Mandala IX 17). Even before it has fully opened the Amanita can remind one easily of the sun, its white spots seen as the orbs rays. Mandala IX 86 states that “Soma envelopes himself all around with the rays of the sun...” Soma has even been compared to the brilliance of lightning (Mandala IX 22), causing the poet to declare, “make me burn like fire started by friction” (Mandala VIII 48). W.L. Reese, in his Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, states that “Agni (Soma) represents the trinity of earthly fire, lightning, and sun. In this extended sense he was the mediator between the gods and man.” As in many other cultures it seems possible that a hallucinogen, in this case Amanita muscaria, was the doorway to entering the realm of the gods. A common metaphor for Soma is the bull, the Rigveda’s symbol of strength. “He (Soma) bellows, terrifying bull... the hide is of bull, the dress of sheep” (Mandala IX 70). In Mandala IX 97 we find a reference to the “red bull.” Might we assume that the skin of the mushroom represents the red hide of the bull, while the woolly spots represent the “dress of sheep”? Many references to a cows udder can also be found in the Rigveda. Since Soma was “milked” of its juice it seems possible that the Amanita itself could be this udder. This becomes all the more plausible if one has seen an immature Amanita. No doubt to a poetically inspired mind the Amanita could suggest a cows udder. Even the stalk, or amsu, is likened to a teat. “When the swollen amsu were milked like cows with full udders...” (Mandala VIII 9). What is also interesting is that the “milk” of Soma is described as a tawny yellow color, a color much closer to cows milk, and to the expressed juice of an Amanita, than would be the green juice of a chlorophyll producing plant. Another interesting reference is to Soma’s being a single eye. “Quickened by the seven minds, he (Soma) has encouraged the rivers free of grief, which have strengthened his single eye” (Mandala IX 9). And in Mandala IX 97, “Soma who has for eye the sun.” Though further evidence suggesting that the Amanita is the single eye is lacking Wasson simply asks us to examine an Amanita and inquire if a creeping vine or Rhubarb could fulfill the concept of the single eye so fittingly as the red capped Amanita. Another Mandala about the eye helps bring together the many metaphors descriptive of Soma. “I have drunk the navel (Soma) into the navel (stomach) for our sake. Indeed, the eye is altogether with the sun. I have milked the child of the wise” (Mandala IX 10). In this quote we can see the many metaphors at play, the navel, a word with an archaic history in many cultures and which often has the dual meaning of a mushroom, the eye, which can signify both its shape and its power to open up ones sight, the sun, of which the red cap could represent, and the milking, which is what was done with Soma and which fits into the udder concept of Soma. The most interesting, and probably the strongest supporting evidence that Amanita muscaria is the divine Soma is the mentioning in the Rigveda of there being two forms of Soma. “With those two forms which stand facing us, O Soma, thou reignest over all things” (Mandala IX 66). Wasson in his studies of Amanita use in other cultures also came across two forms of Amanita. The first being the expressed juice of a fresh or re-hydrated mushroom, and the second being the urine of those who have drunk the juice. The best example of urine drinking after the ingestion of Amanita mushrooms comes from Filip Johann von Strahlenberg’s studies of the Siberian Koryak tribe in the early 1700’s. Strahlenberg states that when the Koryak, make a feast, they pour water upon some of these mushrooms, and boil them. They then drink the liquor, which intoxicates them; the poorer sort, who cannot afford to lay in a store of these mushrooms, post
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themselves, on these occasions, round the huts of the rich, and watch for the opportunity of the guest coming down to make water; and then hold a wooden bowl to receive the urine, which they drink off greedily, as having still some virtue of the mushroom in it, and by this way they also get drunk. Since the Amanita’s psychoactive principle are altered very little by passing through the human body the possibility of interpreting the Rigveda’s references to a second form of Soma being urine is simplified. I hope this one quote will allow a deeper understanding of Wasson’s thesis. “Soma, storm cloud imbued with life, is milked of ghee (milk). Navel of the Way, Immortal Principle, he sprang into life in the far distance. Acting in concert, those charged with the office, richly gifted, do full honor to Soma. The swollen men piss the flowing Soma” (Mandala IX 74). Though many more Mandala’s in the Rigveda itself can be better interpreted in the light of Amanita muscaria, and more information about its use in other cultures could be examined, it goes beyond the scope of this essay. I simply believe that this beautiful mushroom is the best explanation of Soma to date and should be taken serious by all scholars interested in the divine Soma of the Rigveda. The Fly-Agaric (Amanita muscaria) produces intoxication, hallucination, and delirium. Light forms of intoxication are accompanied by a certain degree of animation and some spontaneity of movements. Many Shamans, previous to their seances, eat the Fly-Agaric to get into ecstatic states... Under strong intoxication the senses become deranged; surrounding objects appear either very large or very small, hallucinations set in, spontaneous movements and convulsions. So far as I could observe, attacks of great animation alternate with moments of deep depression. The person intoxicated by the Fly-Agaric sits quietly rocking from side to side, even taking part in conversations with his family. Suddenly his eyes dilate, he begins to gesticulate convulsively, converses with persons whom he imagines he sees, sing, and dances. Then an interval of rest sets in again. However, to keep up the intoxication additional doses of the fungus are necessary... There is reason to think that the effects of the Fly-Agaric would be stronger were not its alkaloids quickly taken out of the organism with the urine. The Koryak knows this by experience, and the urine of the persons intoxicated with the Fly-Agaric is not wasted. The drunkard himself drinks it to prolong his hallucinations, or he offers it to others as a treat. Waldemar Jochelson Early 1900’ Wasson, R. Gordon. Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Harcourt Brace Jovanovick, Inc., 1968.
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