Lost Intoxicant: Soma

In both Hindu and Zoroastrian texts, reference is made to a blessed and enchanting elixir that endows one with god-like sight, the strength and energy of a panther, and the gift of everlasting life. According to the Sushruta school of Indian medicine its rejuvenating properties work by causing ones hair teeth and nails to fall off and the rest of the physical self to whither; following this, it compels the body to regenerate into an adamantine form that could last for ten thousand years. The substance to which I refer is called soma in Hindi, and haoma in the vedic languages. It was believed to have been gathered and brewed by the Indo-Iranian people of present-day Afghanistan, probably starting a little before the tenth century BC. The plant from which it is derived grew at high elevations in the Hindu Kush. It was used in religious ritual by Hindu and Zoroastrian priests who believed it was the only means available to mortal beings to commune with the divine.

We do not know what soma actually was. Priests of the Hindu and Avestan traditions still perform the rites related to the taking of soma, and they consume a drink which they call soma but is more likely a surrogate for the seemingly more potent soma known to the ancients. Present-day soma is extracted from the ephedra plant. It is a mild stimulant and has an effect on the body similar to caffeine. Many believe ephedra is the very same plant referred to in the Rigveda and the Avestan Yasna. If this is true, then reports of soma’s extraordinary effects and its scarcity would have been majorly exaggerated. R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur scholar with a great interest in soma, puts forth a very convincing argument that soma was more likely a psychoactive intoxicant that caused reverie and hallucination. He identifies the fly-agaric mushroom to be the most likely candidate. This would have provided a very potent psychotropic experience, but description does not seem to match that given by ancient texts as to soma’s color and shape. Fly-agaric is a mushroom with a bright red cap; soma was supposed to be a branching stalk that was greenish yellow in color. Wasson points out that the greenish yellow color might have described only the drink itself and speculates that fly-agaric might have been consumed by a head priest who would then offer his urine, replete with all of the fungus’s psychoactive agents, to the ritual’s other participants to drink.

Frits Staal notes that ritualistic activity surrounding soma began to increase a great deal as the Proto Indo-European Aryan peoples migrated from the Oxus River into the Indus River Valley, further away from the source of the Soma plant. New rites emerged relating to the importation of soma, like, for example, the priest’s greeting to the soma merchant and the dismissal of the soma merchant from the temple. Staal speculates that the build up of ritual around soma intensified as the soma itself grew increasingly unavailable. Eventually, the spiritual energy once associated with the soma intoxication might have been transferred to its accompanying rituals, and that the actual consumption of soma became simply a component of the rite and was easily supplanted by a more readily available surrogate like ephedra. To date no conclusive evidence has been submitted that supports ephedra as the original soma or any other substance. Whatever spiritual qualities the soma elixir might have possessed, they are now lost to human experience and forgotten.

The Destruction of Sacred Trees

Many older religions practiced by forest dwelling peoples assigned divine qualities to trees. The druidic priests of early European Celtic civilization honored trees and organized their entire system or worship around sacred groves and certain arboreal species. As the old, earth-bound religions receded and new, patriarchal religions arose to take their place, tree worship was largely abandoned. However, the veneration of particular trees continued to survive as vestiges of the old way. Christian and Islamic law forbade these rites as pagan and idolatrous. There are numerous stories from the middle ages of brave saints felling trees that were sacred to a local, unconverted populace, thus provoking dangerous hostilities for doing so. In the image above, Stefan of Perm is about to cut down a birch which was sacred to the Komi people of Uralic Russia. What better expression of dominance and humiliation could there be than splitting the trunk of a divine tree—once thought invincible—and then leaving behind its stump as a reminder to the people of their subordination?

Donar’s Oak

Donar's oak

The story comes to us from Willibald’s 8th century work Life of Boniface of how Saint Boniface went to Hesse, Germany to convert the inhabitants there and, as a gesture of defiance against the local pagan priests, felled an oak of magnificent size, which the Hessians called the Oak of Jupiter. According to Willibald, Boniface had only to notch the trunk before a force seemed to take hold of the tree and tear it to the ground. Seeing this, the Germans who were gathered around trembled at the might of God and abandoned their attachment to the tree and the holy men who revered it. Boniface had a shrine to Saint Peter made from the tree’s wood.

Glastonbury Thorn

According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea, a contemporary of Christ, came to Roman Britannia with the Holy Grail. On Wearyall Hill outside of Glastonbury, Joseph thrust his staff into the ground and left it there. Roots extended out from its base and the staff’s beam widened into a trunk. This became the Glastonbury Thorn, which grew for many, many centuries and was propagated to other holy sites by means of grafting. Its progeny still grow in churchyards around England, but the original thorn was felled by Puritans during the English Civil War as an idol and relic of Catholic superstition.

Cypress of Kashmar

The Cypress of Kashmar was sacred to followers of Zoroastrianism. According to the Iranian epic Shahnameh, the tree had grown from a branch Zoroaster had carried away from Paradise and which he planted in honor of King Vishtaspa’s conversion to Zoroastrianism. In 861 AD, the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil ordered the tree be felled and transported to his capital in Samarra where its wood would be used as beams for his new palace. The palace and its spiral minaret still stand today.

Prometheus

The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine in Nevada is the oldest living organisms on earth. The oldest of these trees was one scientists called Prometheus. It was estimated to be approximately 5000 years old when it was cut down in 1964 by a graduate student who was trying to study it. Just like the other sacred trees mentioned which were cut down by those pursuing new religions and systems of belief, Prometheus was felled in the name of science.

L’Arbre du Ténéré

This acacia which once stood in the desert regions of northern Niger was believed to be the most isolated tree on earth. Its nearest neighbor was at least 250 miles away. Long thought to be the product of magic, the tree was probably once part of a larger grove that grew in the area when the Sahara was less arid than it is today. The rest of the stand died off centuries ago, but L’Arbre du Ténéré survived by growing its roots more than 110 feet below the surface of the earth to reach the desert’s water table. Since it was one of the only distinctive features in the flat, sandy Niger desert, travelers would use it as a landmark. When Libyans and Tuaregs began running off-road freight through the Sahara in the thirties and forties, the tree became a waypoint of sorts on the cross-desert passage. In 1973, L’Arbre du Ténéré was struck by a trucker who was reportedly drunk, driving the route by night.

Bodhi Tree

Best know of all the sacred trees, the Bodhi tree was the fig under which the Buddha was said to achieve enlightenment. After enlightenment the Buddha stood for a week gazing at the tree in gratitude for remaining with him on the journey and sheltering him. A shrine was erected around the Bodhgaya by King Asoka, emperor of nearly all the Indian subcontinent. Asoka was so diligent in his veneration of the tree that his wife Tissarakkha became jealous and planted mandu thorns at its base which choked the tree and caused it to die. Another tree grew up in the same spot and stood for four centuries before King Pusyamitra had it felled as part of his persecution of the Buddhists. The tree was replanted and was again cut down in 600 AD by King Shashanka.

In the twelfth year of King Asoka’s reign, a branch was cut from the Bodhi tree and taken to Sri Lanka where the Buddha, on his deathbed, asked that it be planted to inspire his followers in Ceylon. The the Sri Lankan Bodhgaya has survived since 288 BC, making it the oldest descendant of the original Bodhi tree and the oldest angiosperm on earth.