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The Mushroom Soma Theory: A Critical Analysis

CANNABIS CULTURE – Undoubtedly, currently the most popular candidate for Soma has been the Amanita muscaria mushroom, which, with its bright red speckled cap, and this association, has become something of a generic symbol for psychedelics, and psychedelic mushrooms particularly, despite the fact that the psilocybin varieties are immensely more popular with modern enthusiasts.

This is part 3 in a series on The Soma-Haoma Questions, which seeks to identify the origins of the ancient sacramental entheogenic beverages, soma and haoma, of the Indian Rig Veda and the Persian Avesta. In this article we will take a critical look at the various claims made that Soma was a mushroom. Other articles in this series include:

Part 1 – The Soma-Haoma Question (an overview of the topic and series)

Part 2 – The Cannabis Soma Theory

The Mushroom Soma Theory

The Fly-agaric mushroom soma theory has largely been credited as originally proposed by the banker and mycologist R. Gordon Wasson, in his book Soma: divine mushroom of immortality (1968) and has been widely accepted by a number of scholars and authors, like Huston Smith, anthropologist Weston La Barre, Prof. Carl Ruck, Michael James Winkelman PhD., poet-philosopher Robert Graves, Mycophiles Terrence Mckenna, Clark Heinrich, Mike Crowley, James Arthur and many others. Although many of these sources seem to switch between Fly-agaric Mushrooms and Psilocybin varieties in their various identifications. I will do what i can to address some of these other various suggestions and interpretations as well. As La Barre wrote of Wasson:

The careful scholarship of the dedicated amatuer mycophile R. Gordon Wasson reads like an exciting scientific, detective story. Moreover, his willingness to pursue the quest through the wide range of linguistics, archaeology, folklore, philology, ethnobotany, plant ecology, human physiology, and prehistory constitutes a object lesson to all holistic professional students of man. (La Barre, 1970)

R. Gordon Wasson

Indeed, even one of the most in-depth anthropological studies of hemp, Cannabis and Culture, included an essay on the role of cannabis in India, where the author concluded;

Some scholars believe that soma, the mysterious plant, is cannabis… however, the idea has been strongly opposed by Wasson… Wasson’s scholarly analysis of numerous verses from the Rg Veda and ethnohistorical and entheobotanical data advance very convincing arguments for identifying soma as the mushroom, fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria). (Hasan, 1975)

Before beginning this pointed dismissal of R. Gordon Wasson’s theory of Amanita muscaria as the original Soma it should be noted that Wasson’s overall contributions to the study of the role of psychoactives in the birth of religion are more than remarkable. However, other researchers have been less kind in their assessment of Wasson’s role in the study of entheogens. Author Jan Irvin, who i am no fan of, but who has written on The Soma Mushroom Theory, suggests Wasson may have been influenced by the works of a much earlier writer, and failed to give him his due credit:

Wasson’s book features the Amanita muscaria on the cover

A comparison of the effects of Soma with those of the Amanita muscaria and cannabis was first proposed in the book Scatalogic [sic] Rites of All Nations by John G. Bourke, 1891. The author dedicated more than 30 pages (pgs. 65-99) to the study of the ritualistic use of mushrooms, including the Siberian Amanita muscaria urine drinking custom, and Mexican mushroom practices. This is probably where Wasson first learned of the ritualistic use of mushrooms, urine consumption, and Soma. On page 98 is a letter to Bourke by a Dr. J. W. Kingsley:

“I remember being shown this fungus by an Englishman who was returning […] from Siberia. He fully confirmed all that I had heard on the subject, having seen the orgy [mushroom rituals]himself. … Nothing religious in this, you may say; but look at the question a little closer and you will see that these ‘intoxicants,’ […] were at first looked upon as media able to raise the mere man up to a level with his gods, and enable him to communicate with them, as was certainly the case with the ‘soma’ of the Hindu ecstatics and the hashich [sic]I have seen used by some tribes of Arabs.”

Most scholars claim that Wasson was the progenitor of these ideas, but this is not wholly accurate. It appears that Wasson may have ‘borrowed’ several key ideas from Bourke’s research and expanded upon them throughout his career, subsequently creating the field of ethnomycology. Thereafter it appears that Bourke was relegated mostly to rare catalogue and bibliographical entries published by Wasson and a few other scholars of his ilk. However, Bourke is not to be found, as one should expect for the extent of his studies on the subject, in the main body of text in most of the books published on the subject for the last half century. (Irvin, 2009)

Bourke, in fact, put forth one of the better pieces of evidence for the potential ancient Vedic use of the psychedelic mushroom, in his Scatalogic Rites of All Nations  noting this ironically through accounts of strong prohibitions of mushrooms in the early Indian period, something Wasson surprisingly failed to adequately address, but will be discussed here later. Bourke was referring to references in The Sacred Laws of the Âryas (450 BC) and The Laws of Manu (a.k.a. The Book of Manu) thought to have been composed sometime around 200 B.C., although both texts likely contained much older material and influences.

So, to be clear, the first claims of Vedic use of psychoactive mushrooms, occurred in a book about shit, which is interesting, as mushrooms grow in shit, and The Vedic Soma Mushroom Theory itself is shit.

Another thing that I would like to note, is that The Soma Mushroom Theory, is purely the work of Western writers. No reputable Indian scholars of the Rig Veda or Persian of the Avesta, accept these identifications, as they go directly against the descriptions of the plant described in both the Vedas and Avesta.

Wasson’s Mushroom Mania

An overview by Wasson of The Soma Mushroom Theory can be read here.

My greatest criticism of Wasson’s book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality is that for the most part it only deals with about half the evidence; the Avestan material is only dealt with in a few passages; and a large part of the Vedas are purposely left out of the discussion!

I exclude from consideration the latest hymns to have been written, the last to be included in the canon before it was closed. These hymns differ from the others considerably in tone and language, and there is reason to believe there are substitutes, which I think had always been occasionally used, and now almost completely replaced the Soma sacrifice. These hymns are mostly in Mandala X from 85 through 191. (Wasson, 1970)

Wasson favours the Rig Veda (or rather parts of it) over the Avesta with the acknowledgment and explanation that “Religiously and linguistically the Avesta and RgVeda are siblings. The text of the Rgveda is, however, much purer owing to its marvellous preservation through the ages by the disciplined human memory” (Wasson, 1970). One is left wondering who Wasson felt had preserved the tradition of the Avesta! Having read translations of both texts, what I could see was a profound similarity in both content and style. The view of scholars is that both texts derived from an earlier common source. Moreover, as we shall see, both texts agree on various identifying points of both soma and haoma. This is the reason of the exclusions of these texts by Wasson and others, it is required to be able to maintain The Soma Mushroom Theory, as we shall see.

Indeed, throughout his book, it is almost as if Wasson purposely, or unconsciously, excluded all potential textual references that conflicted with his own view. Moreover, he even acknowledges that soma “substitutes, had always been occasionally used,” as he clearly recognized that the passages in the remaining texts from the Vedas which he allowed for his study (when it fit his view) indicated a variety of the other candidates for the Soma, more so than did his own champion, or rather champignon! As well, Wasson only excludes the remaining texts when they don’t support his opinion, but when he’s able to find the rare passage that he can manipulate an interpretation from in favour of his hypothesis, he quotes quite freely from it, and he does this numbers of times in Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, sometimes jumping more than a millennia forward in time to cite much later texts that help his case, all while denying Vedic texts, with the claim they were composed after the Soma was lost.

As Wasson conveniently states: “In the Rg Veda (excluding the latter half of the Mandala X, last to be admitted to the canon) there is no reference to the root of the Soma plant, nor its leaves, nor its blossoms, nor its seed” (Wasson, 1970). Wasson’s often repeated mistake here is based solely on omission. This reasoning for the omission of the 10th mandala of the Rig Veda and related Avestan material is certainly not the view of other Indologists and Vedic scholars that have explored the soma question, and it started with Wasson. With the 10th Mandala‘s references to Soma as a “green” and “purple tree”, and the stones used for pressing it being tuned green, we can understand why it would have been a challenge to address in relation to a mushroom.

Rig Veda 10.94 – (Wilson’s 1928 translation)

Let these (stones) speak…. Ye solid, quick moving stones, you utter the noise of praise… full of the Soma juice.

They roar like a hundred, like a thousand men; they cry aloud with green-tinted faces; obtaining the sacrifice, the pious stones… partake of the sacrificial food…

They speak, they received into their mouth the sweet (Soma juice)…chewing the branch of the purple tree, the voracious bulls have bellowed.

Splitting, but unsplit, you, O stones… enjoying the Soma, flowing green (with Soma), they made heaven and earth resound with their clamour.

The stones proclaim it with their clamour at the issue of the Soma-juice,… like cultivators sowing the seed, they devouring the Soma, mix it, and do not hurt it.

….Proclaim the praise of (the stone), which has effused (the Soma-juice); let the honoured stones revolve. [Emphasis added]

Passages from the 10th Mandala of the Rig Veda are an exclusion that is needed to maintain The Soma Mushroom Theory. The reality is, Vedic scholars do not see these descriptions as evidence of a substitute, as the disappearance and substitutes of Soma are clearly described as they take place in a number of  ancient sanskrit texts, such as Satapatha Brahmana, The Book of Manu (aka, The Laws of Manu; The Code of Manu) and the Aitareya Brahmanam, a situation outlined thoroughly in The Cannabis Soma Theory.

It should be noted that only a few of the passages that are left in Wasson’s exclusive study deal with the plant soma, many deal with the beverage soma, the God Soma, and the Moon (which was viewed as the celestial goblet of Soma from which the God’s drank, and which was continually replenished by the Sun). By the exclusion of the Rig Veda’s Tenth Mandala, which holds the most descriptive account of the plant soma in the Rig Veda, Wasson purposely limited the passages discussed to those which fit his view.

Even in the 9th Mandala of the Rig Veda, which Wasson allows, and deals with the drink, the descriptions discount Fly Agaric, and agree with that given in more detail in the 10th Mandala:

9.1.10 – The ever-green. the golden-hued, refulgent, with a thousand boughs.

9.25.1 –  GREEN-HUED! as one who giveth strength flow on for Gods to drink, a draught

9.26.5 – Him, green, beloved, many eyed, the Sisters with prosing stones
Send down to ridges of the sieve.

9.42.1 – ENGENDERING the Sun in floods, engendering heaven’s lights, green-hued,
Robed in the waters and the milk,

9.57.2 – He flows beholding on his way all wellbeloved sacred lore,
Green-tinted, brandishing his, arms.

In this regard, besides the colour reference, 9.1.10 refers to many branches; 9.25.1 the colour of the drink; 9.26.5, makes reference to the stones used to crush Soma, and the sieve used to strain it, a process many have compared to the modern preparation of bhang; 9.42.1 its preparation with milk; 9.57.2, again arms, branches…. The best short description of the plant in Rig Veda is the verse, 9.5.10 “O self-purifying one, with your honeyed stream anoint the Lord of the Forest, the tawny one with a thousand branches, blazing, golden.”

Yellow as well is referred to, but a green plant mixed with milk and pressed can take on a yellow hue, as we can see with bhang preparations. Season may effect this as well:

9.65.8 -Whose coloured sap they drive with stones, the yellow meath-distilling juice,
Indu for Indra, for his drink.

9.97.52 -Pour forth this wealth with this purification: flow onward to the yellow lake, O Indu.

Descriptions of preparation of soma, in both the 9th Mandala, and the 10th which Wasson excluded from his study, agree. Plant green branches were pounded with rocks, the pulp and juice expressed, mixed with milk, the preparation was filtered through wool, expressing a green or yellow liquid.

Alternatively, in the Vedic Index, MacDonell and Kieth (1958) associated the Vedic term naicasakha with Soma, and this indicates branches (or twigs and leaves) hanging down, which would again give indications of cannabis. Vedic scholar, Dr. N. Waradpande also felt Vedic descriptions indicated branches and leaves (Waradpande, 1995).

Mike Crowley

More recently, Mike Crowley, who refers to Wasson’s “monumental work” in regards to Soma, has carried on with Wasson’s trope, and refers to the “fact the Vedas have no mention of soma’s, leaves, roots or branches” in his recently released Secret Drugs of Buddhism (Crowley, 2019). Thus we can see this ‘theory’ is alive and well, and this sort of misinformation goes mostly unquestioned and unchallenged.

Flattery and Schwartz rightly noted that Wasson’s view that the Soma was a mushroom and had no leaves, branches or roots, was due to the fact that “the soma referred to in the RgVeda and adduced by Wasson as pertaining to the mushroom is the liquid extract (soma pavamana) or the deity Soma, and hence not the soma plant at all” (Flattery & Schwartz, 1989). Indeed this is a key point, Soma was a God, a Plant, the Moon and a Drink. Context makes these references easy to place as to which is identified, and Wasson ignores these various designations to make his case, as do those who have followed in his path of The Mushroom Soma Theory.

In regards to this green and yellow drink described in the 9th Mandala, we also have the epithet bhang, for soma as recorded in (Rigveda IX.61.13). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary records  “Bhanga… an epithet of Soma…, f. hemp (Cannabis Saliva)… an intoxicating beverage prepared from the hemp plant“, likewise in  Indian Antiquary, Volume 2 (1874) we find:

The use of hemp in the preparation of intoxicating liquors… ascends probably to the Aryan period, partly because bhanga is used in the Rik. [Rigveda] IX. 61, 13 as an epithet of the intoxicating soma, and partly because lexicographers use bhanga to denote hemp and beverages… prepared from it. Comp. also Vend. IX 138, Yesht XXIV. 26. (Indian Antiquary, 1874).

On one of the few occasions when Wasson deals with the Avestan literature, his textual interpretation of the passage (which he interprets as identifying the growth of a mushroom, with no stems, roots or branches) is, in the very least, original, as can be seen from a comparison with translations from a translation on the Harvard University website.

Y.10.5

Increase by my word in all (your) roots

in all (your) buds, and in all (your) protuberances [i.e. branches]!

A translation from The Zend Avesta, Part III (SBE31), L.H. Mills, tr. [1886], reads

Y.10.5

Grow (then) because I pray to thee on all thy stems and branches, in all thy shoots (and tendrils) increase thou through my word!

But Wasson Y.10.5 manipulates this unsupported translation out of the verse.

Swell, (then,) by my word!

In all thy stalks, and all thy shoots, and in all thy sprouts.

Dieter Taillieu, an expert on Vedic and Indo-European studies states that there “seems no doubt that the haoma depicted in the Hôm Yašt is a normal, chlorophyll-bearing plant: apart from its stock color epithet ‘yellow, golden, green’ (Av. zairi- and zairi.gaona-, cf. Skt. hari-) this is suggested most strongly by the mention of “stems, shoots and branches” (Av… Y. 10.5).”

Haoma is further called ‘having tender/pliant’ [stem]… (Av… Y. 9.16) or ‘having tasty…’ [flavour]pure soma, however, is not; ‘sweet,’ Skt. mádhu-, but ‘sharp, astringent,’…  In favor of the fly-agaric theory “stalk” (Wasson, 1968) and “fibre”/“flesh”…were proposed, but this ignores the expressed necessity of pounding the [stalk]…  which seems relevant only in the case of fibrous or hard plant material (twigs, roots, seed)…. Reality has been sought in haoma’s epithet “tall” (Av. bə rə zant-, Y. 10.21, Vd. 19.19;…). (Taillieu, 2002)

As Weston La Barre (who accepted Wasson’s theory hook, line and sinker) attempted to explain of the differences between Soma and Haoma; “the plant that some students identify as haoma is apparently an herbaceous plant” (La Barre, 1980). Indeed, unable to find compatibility between haoma and soma, La Barre went on to suggest that the Haoma of the Avesta was a replacement for Wasson’s Vedic Soma-mushroom, which he believed was used by the ancestors of both cults.

Wasson states Soma is unique amongst the Gods of the Vedas, “Soma was at the same time a god, a plant, and the juice of the plant. So far as we know, Soma is the only plant ever deified” (Wasson, 1970). I concur with this statement, but then it is in fact evidence in favour of cannabis as being the original plant identified as Soma, and indication of this comes from India itself as a reading of the historical record shows in the following passage from The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report (1894) on ‘The Worship of the Hemp Plant’:

The custom of worshipping the hemp plant, although not so prevalent as that of offering hemp to Shiva and other deities of the Hindus, would nevertheless appear from the statements of the witnesses to exist to some extent in some provinces of India. The reason why this fact is not generally known may perhaps be gathered from such statements as that of Pandit Dharma Nand Joshi, who says that such worship is performed in secret. There may be another cause of the denial on the part of the large majority of Hindu witnesses of any knowledge of the existence of a custom of worshipping the hemp plant in that the educated Hindu will not admit that he worships the material object of his adoration, but the deity as represented by it. The custom of worshipping the hemp plant, though not confined to the Himalayan districts or the northern portions of India alone, where the use of the products of the hemp plant is more general among the people, is less known as we go south. Still even far south, in some of the hilly districts of the Madras Presidency and among the rural population, the hemp plant is looked upon with some sort of veneration….  There is a passage quoted from Rudrayanmal Danakand and Karmakaud in the report on the use of hemp drugs in the Baroda State, which also shows that the worship of the bhang plant is enjoined in the Shastras. It is thus stated: “The god Shiva says to Parvati—‘Oh, goddess Parvati, hear the benefits derived from bhang. The worship of bhang raises one to my position.’” In Bhabishya Puran it is stated that “on the 13th moon of Chaitra (March and April) one who wishes to see the number of his sons and grandsons increased must worship Kama (Cupid) in the hemp plant, etc.”

Conceivably, the elements of plant deification in these independent small districts could be indications of a more ancient surviving tradition. Anthropologists often look to the folklore and customs of the common folk for evidence of the survival of more ancient traditions. Thus, in regard to soma being the only plant ever deified in the Old World, either Wasson is wrong in his statement: for if cannabis is not the soma, then in the area he is writing about we have evidence of another plant being worshipped; or he is wrong about the identification of the Fly agaric, and we have more evidence in favour of cannabis being the soma through its continued deification in the surviving traditions of the common folk who would have been less influenced by the eventual Vedic reforms which led to the plant’s disappearance than their more cosmopolitan counterparts.

Possibly aware of some of these connections, Wasson himself discounted The Cannabis Soma Theory with an arrogant sounding comment that comes off as something written during the British Raj!

In 1921 an Indian advanced the notion that Soma, after all, was nothing but bhang, the Indian name for marijuana, Cannabis sativa, hemp, hashish. He conveniently ignored the fact that the Rg Veda placed Soma only on the high mountains, where hemp grows everywhere; and that the virtue of Soma lay in the stalks, whereas it is the resin of the unripened pistillate buds of hashish that transport one into the beyond; or, much weaker, the leaves, which are never mentioned in the Rg Veda. (Wasson, 1970)

Without digressing too far, as we will be returning to the subject in detail later, it should be noted that Wasson goes to great lengths to properly reference other authors and researchers, but when he comes to this topic, he disrespectfully drops all sense of propriety and refers to an indigenous researcher on the subject, as simply “an Indian” disregarding his learned input! Little wonder that Wasson’s theory has accumulated no visible support amongst Vedists in India.

The “Indian” was Braja Lal Mukherjee M.A., M.R.A.S., and as an indigenous researcher he could read the actual Vedas in the language they were written; Mukherjee was the first amongst a number of Vedic researchers who suggested bhang (hemp) as a candidate for Soma. In 1921  Mukherjee sent a letter regarding his booklet by the same name The Soma Plant which was published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland. It should also be noted that, as discussed in The Cannabis Soma Theory, as well as my book, this interpretation has been suggested by more than one “Indian”: Joges Candra Ray (1939), Chandra Chakraberty, (1944), (Vikramasiṃha, (1967)., Indian botanist B. G. L. Swamy (1976), (Ramachandran and Mativāṇan̲, (1991), Dr. N.R. Waradpande (1995), Indra Deva & Shrirama, (1999) have all identified the Vedic Soma with bhang (Hemp). (See The Cannabis Soma Theory for more on these researchers).

I would recommend both Dr. N.R. Waradpande’s booklet The RgVedic Somaand the Indian botanist Professor B. G. L. Swamy’s article The Rg Vedic Soma Plant, for their critique of Wasson’s work and translations. I know of no indigenous Vedic scholars who have agreed with Wasson’s hypothesis. (Wasson later revealed his own long held prejudices against cannabis, through his requests that it not be considered an ‘entheogen’ when the term was being coined.) Moreover, this theory seems to be only something floated by Western writers, and no actual Indologists I am aware of.

In 1971, Vedic scholar John Brough from Cambridge University critical of Wasson’s theory in his article ‘Soma and Amanita muscaria‘, noting things like the “numerous botanical names and ‘synonyms’ given… may sometimes require further taxonomic research before they may be safely quoted.”  I would say the same with the numerous Vedic and Avestan translations which were done specifically to make a case for Wsson’s book, and these are still used verbatim by many proponents of The Mushroom Soma Theory, who are unable to find anything suitable in the various published translations available.

American Indologist Wendy Doniger

Curiously, Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (whose contribution to Wasson’s Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, was the best part of that book), felt that Mukherjee’s theory on cannabis and Soma was a “strange argument, combining linguistic reasoning with the purest twaddle” (Doniger-O’Flaherty, 1968). One is left wondering what exactly Doniger O’Flaherty thought Wasson based his theory on? (Out of respect for Wasson’s contributions to the study of psychoactive substances and religion, this author will refrain from the obvious retorts, and instead, with clearer scholarship, put Wasson’s Soma-Amanita theory to rest once and for all). It should be noted that O’Flaherty, never fully endorsed Wasson’s soma theory, the best she could muster was that it was a“novel solution” which “revivifies a body of speculation” (Doniger O’Flaherty, 1968).

Professor B. G. L. Swamy

In reference to Wasson’s comment that it is only the buds of cannabis which contain the resin, and the power lay in the stalks, Indian botanist B. G. L. Swamy, a proponent of The Soma Cannabis Theory, noted:

It is true that the maximum quantity of the narcotic is collected from the resinous secretions on the female inflorescence. The leaves, however, rarely exude the resin but yet do contain narcotic substances. As attested by Watt [(1889)], in plants inhabiting the montane habitat the bark spontaneously ruptures and the narcotic resin exudes…. it is not correct to say that it [the narcotic principle]is endemic only in the pistillate buds. The Vedic texts refer to this part as amsu. Certainly it does not mean specifically a leaf. The word merely imports the meaning of ‘a part’ (cf amsa). Contextually it may refer to a part of the stem, leaf, stalk and leaves. In other words any part of a body, shoot in this case, is an amsu. Certainly it does not mean specifically a leaf. The word merely imparts the meaning of ‘a part’ (cf. amsu). Contextually, it may refer to a part of the stem, leaf stalk, and leaves. In other words any part of a body, shoot in this case, is an amsu. Because the amsu from the stem part contains the hard core of xylem (which becomes harder when dry) it was essential not only to soak them in water but also to pound the pieces with stones in order to express the juice.

….As Soma has been designated as an osadhi, it is anormal green plant, with root, stem and leaves. There is no evidence whatsoever in the Rig-veda to point out that it was… a mushroom.

The colour of the expressed juice is described as hari, babhru, aruna; How the same liquid appears in three different hues needs an explanation. Wsson argues that hari also means ‘red’ more or less the same shade as commonly applied to babhru and aruna. He feels that hari came to mean ‘green’ in later times. While it should be admitted that the Rig-vedic hymns were written over a course of centuries, it is difficult to convincingly distinguish the earlier and later compositions. However, their are numerous non-Soma hymns in the text where hari means only one shade, that is greenish, or green yellowish…

When the green plant is pressed, the colour of the fresh juice is greenish yellow (hari). The juice crushed from dry twigs cannot be expected to retain this shade. The tannins and other phenolic compounds stored in the plant tissue along with the brownish coloured resin impart a tawny (babhru) shade to the juice. It must be remembered the juice was stored in wooden containers and exposed to the air. It is likely the stored liquid in part became oxidized due to exposure, as a result of which the colour of the liquid became intensified into babhru and aruna shades (Swamy, 1976)

A recent High Times Magazine article discussed ” how to extract THC from stems“. However, references to stalks of the plant being crushed for the Soma, from the vague description give in the Vedas, could just as easily refer to the long stalk like bud covered branches of cannabis as any other plant. A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases refers to “bhang, the dried leaves and small stalks of hemp” (Crooke, 1903). It should be noted, that a lot of wild cannabis was sparse, with spread out buds and leaves, the fat kolas of today’s high grade marijuana look little like the plants hashish was collected off of in the Himalayas in the 70s.

 

Moreover a mushroom stalk makes up little of the mushroom, probably just a few inches at most when dried. As well, a mushroom only has one small stalk per plant, and as Mahdihassan notes “Wasson… has not correctly worded the problem. What calls for question is not only stalks but a thousand boughs per plant. Abiding by what the Rgveda actually states soma would be an assembly of a ‘thousand boughs’…” (Mahdihassan, 1986).

…soma/haoma is prepared from stems or stalks, which most probably should be regarded as fibrous… while the fleshy stems of A. muscaria contain only very small amounts of the pharmacologically active compounds, which are concentrated in the mushroom cap (these are the only parts of the mushroom used in northern Siberia. (Nyberg, 1995)

The lack of active compounds in the stalk of the Fly agaric is interesting when compared to Wasson’s earlier comments which discounted cannabis as a candidate, reasoning that its active ingredients were in the leaves and flowers, not the stalks (Wasson, 1970). In the case of the proposed Fly agaric, most of the mushroom is made up by the cap and Wasson is able to offer little in the way of indication of the caps of the Amanita muscaria when trying to milk the Vedas for evidence.

The Amanita muscaria or Fly-agaric, mushroom

One would think the phenomenal looking Cap of the Fly agaric, which takes up most of the mushroom itself, would be a subject that would receive at least as much reverence as the stalk, if not more, if the Amanita muscaria were indeed the Soma. But in this respect, Wasson was only able to find a few Vedic references (RV.9.27.3; 9.68.4; 9.69.8; 9.71.4; 9.93.3) and devoted less than a page to the subject. Many of the passages cited by Wasson in this regard are made in reference to the God Soma as the “Head and Chief” being infused into the Soma, and have nothing to do with the physical preparation of the ancient sacrament. Soma is the King of Plants in the Vedas.  Clearly in Sanskrit, as in English, “Head” has a variety of applications, and when the Vedic passages that make reference to “Head” are looked at in the context of the verses in which they appear, it is an obvious stretch to interpret any as making reference to a bright red spotted mushroom cap.  Notably, none of the references to “Head” cited by Wasson appear alongside the many references to the preparation of the stalks of Soma in the Vedas, which is where someone would expect them to appear if they were in fact part of the Soma beverage.

A Head = A Mushroom Cap? 

Wasson’s translations in comparison with (Griffith, 1896) shows there is little in way of evidence indicating the Bright red white spotted cap of the Amanita muscaria in the few scant passages he could muster up to make his case.

Wasson RV.9.27.3

This Bull, heavens head, Soma, when pressed, is escorted by masterly men into the vessels, he the all-knowing

RV.9.27.03 (Griffith, 1896)

The men conduct him, Soma, Steer, Omniscient, and the Head of Heaven,
Effused into the vats of wood.

This passage uses ‘head’ in the context of ‘chief’.

Wasson RV.9.68.4

While Soma enters the contact with fingers of the officiants, he protects his head.

RV.9.68.4 (Griffith, 1896)

The stalk is mixed with grain: he comes led by the men together with the sisters, and preserves the Head.

If this were a reference to a mushroom head as Soma, it would be in regards to being pulverized with the stalks, not preserved; this is likely a reference to preparing the soma in the proper way to make sure it was active and not inert. The complete verse indicates an analogy of the mixing and preparation as a birth process, as discussed later in Chapter 6.

Wasson RV.9.69.8

For you are, O Soma juices,… the heads of heaven, carried erect, creators of vital force.

RV. 9.69.8 (Griffith, 1896)

Ye, Soma, are my Fathers, lifted up on high as heads of heaven and makers of the strength of life

The height factor rules a mushroom out in this reference, thus Wasson didn’t include it in his citing.

Wasson 9.71.4

On Soma’s head the cows with full udder mix the best milk in streams.

RV.9.71.4 (Griffith, 1896)

They pour out meath around the Master of the house, Celestial Strengthener of the mountain that gives might;

In whom, through his great powers, oblation-eating cows in their uplifted udder mix their choicest milk.

Here Griffith translates the same phrase as meaning ‘Master of the House’, as in ‘Head’ of the House.

Wasson 9.93.3

The Udder of the cow is swollen; the wise juice is imbued with its streams. In the vessels the cows mix with their milk the murdhan [head]

RV9.93.3 (Griffith, 1896)

Yea, swollen is the udder of the milch-cow: thither in streams goes very sapient Indu.
The kine make ready, as with new-washed treasures, the Head and Chief with milk within the vessels.

To stretch a reference to ‘head’ into a mushroom cap and use that for the basis of your theory of identification seems extreme. As well, Wasson offers no comparable method of mushroom preparation to those described in the Rig Veda (and Avesta). As noted earlier, the Rig Veda describes a process, where plant branches are smashed with rocks – making them green, mixed with milk, honey and barley, poured through strainers – making the stainers green, and producing a green and yellow drink, that stains the drinkers beards green!

As the Vedic scholar John Brough explained of Wasson’s interpretation here in his article ‘Soma and Amanita muscaria‘:

In the RV, references to the amsu- of Soma are frequent, the word being traditionally rendered as ‘stalk’ or ‘stem’… Indeed if Wasson were right, it would be all the more extraordinary that the cap of his mushroom, the cap which provides so many details of his argument, should be thus discarded when the plant comes to be pressed for the ritual… in the numerous Siberian examples… [of mushroom use cited by Wasson]the mushroom is apparently always consumed whole…(Bough, 1971).

Mountain Grown

In reference to cannabis, Wasson noted the “fact that the Rg Veda placed Soma only on the high mountains, where hemp grows everywhere” (Wasson, 1970). This is not the case, what is identified in the Rig Veda  and Avesta references is the best soma comes from the mountains. But, regardless, for this same reason Wasson discounted a variety of Soma candidates. “What a useless business it is for us to go chasing in the valleys after rhubarb, honey, hashish, wild afghan grapes; in hot arid countries after species of Ephedra, Sarcostemma, Periploca!” (Wasson, 1970)

First off, it is difficult to understand how Wasson ever came to the conclusion that the Fly-agaric mushroom is purely a Mountain species. This author has witnessed first-hand wild Fly-agarics growing in coastal sand dunes and valley forests, so his exclusions should have ruled that out along with other candidates. In regards to cannabis, Wasson’s view is based on the situation contemporary with his own time, after thousands of years of cannabis cultivation, not at the composition of the Vedas. Indeed cannabis spread “everywhere” quickly but numbers of sources have seen the Hindu Kush Mountains and Tien Shan Mountains as possible places of Hemp’s origin, both of which have also been suggested as the Aryan’s secondary homeland. Although more recent research has indicated that Cannabis plant evolved super high (on the Tibetan Plateau). “The plant is… reported at altitudes of 10,000 ft. in the Himalays” (Swamy, 1976).

Geographical references in the Rg Veda also indicate that the Soma plant eventually diffused to locations along the banks of the Saravati and Arjikiya rivers. The fertile alluvial soils adjacent to these other rivers that have their headwaters in the Himalayas ‘… are exactly the situations of the wild growth of Bhanga (hemp).’ (Merlin, 1972)

Mountain grown cannabis in China

As Witzel has also noted of Soma’s association with water sources, “ the hymn RV 10.75 has the following stream: The Su_omå ‘the one having good Soma’ …. the modern Sohån/Suwan…” (Witzel, 1999). The widespread distribution of Haoma is referred to in the Avestan tradition as well.

Y.10.11

Thus the life-giving birds launched there

carried you out in various directions:

to Ishkata Upairi.saêna,

to Staêra Starô.sâra,

to Kusrâdha Kusrô.patâdha,

to Pavrâna along the path of the birds,

to the two *White-color Mountains.

Moreover, Wasson ignores comments from the Avestan literature that indicates widespread growth of the plant early on:

    Y.10.17

I praise all the haomas,

even when on the heights of the mountains,

even when in the depths of the streams,

even those in the narrow passes of ravines.

A problem concerning the identity of the A. muscaria with soma, is the rarity of a seasonal mushroom in comparison with the abundance of soma in the original home of the Aryans as described in the Vedas. As Harri Nyberg has noted “the mushroom must have been rare in any proposed Indo-Iranian homelands. In contrast, when the use of soma/haoma began, the Aryans seem to have been inhabiting a region where the to-date unidentified plant was abundant” (Nyberg, 1995).

The Fragrance of Soma

As Dieter Taillieu has commented “haoma and soma are accorded fragrance (Av. hubaoiδi-, Y. 10.4, cf. Skt. surabhintara-) and a mountainous location; the additional reference to river valleys in Y.10.17 is probably… way of saying ‘all haomas, wherever they may be’” (Taillieu, 2002). Taillieu makes a good point in reference to the fragrance of Haoma, something attested to in a variety of passages in both the Vedic and Avestan literature, and which could hardly designate a mushroom:

RV.9.113

O king Soma, O Soma which the priest carefully prepares. High with power that is real, its flowing blends together, together blend the fragrances of the fragrant,
purifying you by the formula, O wild god. Flow, O elixir, for Indra all around!

Y.10.4

I praise the earths, where, O Haoma, you grow,

fragrant, fleetly-moving.

Y.10.4 also has the added description of “fleetly moving”, a description likely identifying a plant that is blown around in the wind, which again would hardly describe a mushroom. To explain inconsistencies with his theory Wasson put forth that the RV.10.85 gave indications of a substitute; “One thinks one drinks Soma because a plant is crushed. The Soma the Brahmans know – that no one drinks”. Because of this Wasson decided to disallow all following passages from the 10th Mandala regarding the identity of Soma in the Vedas. An examination of the verses in Rig Veda 10.85 offers a different interpretation.

10.85.3. – One thinks, when they have brayed the plant, that he hath drunk the Soma’s juice;
Of him whom Brahmans truly know as Soma no one ever tastes.

10.85.4. -Soma, secured by sheltering rules, guarded by hymns in Brhati,
Thou standest listening to the stones none tastes of thee who dwells on earth.

10.85. 5. -When they begin to drink thee then, O God, thou swellest out again.
Vayu is Soma’s guardian God. The Moon is that which shapes the years.

What this situation describes, is a comparison between the earthly soma and the heavenly Soma drunk by the Gods, from the celestial cup of the moon. This is a pervasive theme with soma throughout the Vedas, and as Indologists critical of Wasson’s theory have noted, he often uses these moon references as evidence for a mushroom, which is out of context when searching to identify the ‘plant’ soma. We see this sort of thing taken to an extreme in the works of Clark Heinrich, when he makes statements about the Vedas with out citing the passages concerned  like “common Rig Veda names for Soma are ‘mainstay of the sky,’ ‘navel,’ ‘single eye’ ‘pillar of the sky’…all of which can easily be understood by looking at various photographs of the mushroom” (Heinrich, 2002). Perhaps one has to be on mushrooms to make the connection?  As the reader can see, such references make more metaphoric sense when aligned with the moon, as the context of such passages, has long been accepted. Heinrich particularly of the various writers on mushrooms, takes such symbolism to extremes to make his case throughout his books, although his colleague Mike Crowley deserves some of that credit as well.

Dried Fly-agarics, courtesy of Tom Hatsis.

Dried fly-agaris.

In regards to the reference to the “Soma the Brahmans know”, this may have had to do with the belief of the Brahmans that their preparation of the Soma was magically imbued with powers through the rites of preparation only known to the elite priest class. As well, conceivably the RV.10.85 reference could have been an ancient differentiation between the more common Cannabis sativa and the more potent Cannabis indica which grew on the sides of mountains. Another possibility is that this is a reference to sinsimllia, and perhaps one of the secrets of the Soma cult was holding back the males from pollinating the females?

Watt  felt that by… [1000-800 BCE]  the sexual dimorphism of cannabis was already evident to its cultivators, as well as the superiority of bhanga (mistakenly assigned as female) for cordage, and bhang (mistaken as male) for medical and mystical application. It was also likely about this time that the preparation of ganja (labeled sinsemilla in contemporary North America) was developed by isolating female cannabis plants to prevent fertilization, and increase resin production. (Russo, 2006)

The Moon Plant

The god Soma was often personified as the moon in the sky, which was also the cup of celestial soma which they gods drank from, causing it to empty as the moon became darker through the month, before being magically refilled.

Wasson’s logic is similarly askew when he tries to pass off Vedic verses referring to the ‘Moon’ as the ‘Mainstay of the Sky,’ as references to the Amanita muscaria (RV.9.2.5; 9.72.7; 9.74.2; 9.86.35; 9.86.46; 9.87.2; 9.89.6; 9.108.16; 9.109.6). As noted, in the symbolism of the Vedas, the Moon was the celestial vessel of Soma, which was continually drunk by the gods and replenished by the Sun. This is a clear example of Wasson turning to Vedic references regarding Soma that are clearly not a reference to a plant, to make his case. It was for such twisting of the scriptural meaning that Wasson’s work has been highly criticized by other researchers who are familiar with the Rig Veda.

This has been an issue for sometime in the various descriptions of the plant, as the Indian researcher Joges Chandra Ray noted in his 1939 essay about cannabis The Soma Plant, “The word ‘Soma’ primarily denoted the moon, and secondarily the plant. But the Vedic scholars of the West took it to mean the plant only and descriptions which are appropriate for the moon were wrongly applied to the plant. This confusion gave the wrong lead to the botanists” (Ray, 1939). I suppose it is this particular type of out-of-context twisting of the Vedic texts for interpretation of symbolic imagery indicating the different stages of the life span of the Amanita muscaria which irks me most about Wasson and other proponents of the Fly agaric-Soma theory.

The Single Eye

Likewise for references to the “Single Eye” (RV.1.87.5; 9.9.4; 9.10.8; 9.10.9; 9.97.46), which Wasson ludicrously compares with a photo of a newly forming Amanita rising from the ground, but which actually make reference to the psychological state caused by the sacred beverage. Just as the God Soma entered the beverage soma, so too did Soma enter the devoted imbiber, enabling devotee and God to see with a “Single Eye”. Moreover, this identification is almost identical to Zoroastrian references to the use of Haoma preparations for opening the “eye of the soul”. Gherardo Gnoli recorded of the Persian tradition that: “bang was… an ingredient of the ‘illuminating drink’ (rōšngar xwarišn) that allowed Wištāsp to see the ‘great xwarrah’ and the ‘great mystery.’ This mang ī wištāspān (Pahlavi Vd. 15.14…) was … an integral part of the ecstatic practice aimed at opening the ‘eye of the soul’ (gyān čašm….)” (Gnoli, 1979). This situation occurs after the prohibitions of haoma by Zoroaster, which were thought to have resulted in an altered recipe that has given us the ephedra preparation of today, and in this case cannabis, according to Gnoli was sometimes mixed with the ephedra based haoma, and at others wine. (A situation I will explain in a later article in this series, and which is examined at length in my book Cannabis and the Soma Solution)

A similar reference to the “eye” is found in the Indian Aitareya Brahmanam, “When.. the Adhvaryu hands over … the Soma cup to drink… to the Hotar, he receives it with the… mantra… (By the words): ‘This is a good which has knowledge; here is a good which has knowledge; in me is a good which has knowledge; ruler of the eye, protect my eye’ the Hotar drinks Soma from the Maitravaruna graha. (Then he repeats): ‘The eye with the mind is called hither.’” Martin Haug in his translation of this passage, noted “This formula resembles very much one of the most sacred prayers of the Parsis… which is particularly repeated when the Zotar priest (the Hotar of the Brahmans) is drinking the Homa (Soma) juice…” (Haug, 1863). In relation, in India the drinking of bhang by devotees is still believed to open up the “eye” of Shiva, i.e the “third-eye.”

The Red Soma? 

Also questioned by many scholars are the Vedic references that have been interpreted by the Wasson camp as identifying the colour of the Soma as “red”. The Vedic term for ‘red’ ‘aruna’ is only applied to Soma when he is referred to as a bull, “the bull is ‘red’” (Wasson, 1970).  The colour generally applied to Soma in the Vedas is “hari” and this is usually interpreted as referring to colours ranging anywhere from golden to yellow and  green; “there are numerous non-Soma hymns in the texts where hari means only one shade, that is greenish or greenish-yellow” (Swamy, 1976). Wasson tries to work this Vedic term for shades of green and yellow in his favour with the comment that:

Hari is not only a color word: the intensity of the color is also expressed by it. It is dazzling, brilliant, lustrous resplendent, flaming…. The mythological horses of the sun-god were hari: in this context the word is usually rendered by ‘bay’ or ‘chestnut’, but one doubts whether any mundane color such as ‘bay’ would describe the steeds of the sun. They are flaming and full of brio. (Wasson, 1970)

Thus we can see to what lengths Wasson will go to make his point, unable to find a Vedic translation that suits his view he resorts to a novel interpretation of a text that has nothing to do with Soma! Wasson tries to disregard the accepted interpretation in a footnote with the comment that: “Occasionally in later times hari came to include ‘green’ among its meanings, but this usage seems not to be Rg Vedic, except possibly in the late hymns that we exclude from consideration” (Wasson, 1970). I suppose an argument for any plant candidate could be made, based on the exclusion of the Vedic texts as one saw fit! Mike Crowley, more recently, offering no verifications outside of Wasson, also weakly goes with, hari identifying “colors from bright red to tawny brown” (Crowley, 2019) offering no sources of this translation but Wasson.

In Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction (2007) we read “hari- ‘green/yellow’”; In A Comparative Grammar of Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, Volume 1, (1869) “Skr. hari (green) ; In A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (1872) “hari, hiri, hirana), green, of a green colour; greenish yellow”. Note this last source, is often used by Crowley, saving when it disagrees with his position, which he just leaves without citation lacking support for red and purple outside Wasson for hari. Reddish brown, does occur in some examples, but never as the first designation for the colour associated for the word, and never as “bright red”.

English translations of the Rig Veda list the colour of Soma as golden, purple, yellow and green. Likewise with English translations of the Yasnas, where the colour of Haoma is referred to green and gold throughout the texts, all of which suit quite well the colours of ripe hemp.

The Vedic description for the color of Soma include the word hari, which may be interpreted as meaning ‘green or greenish yellow’. At Indore in Madra Pradesh the male (or more correctly the female) form of the hemp plant is called hari. In addition MacDonell and Keith also designated babbru (brown) and aruna (ruddy) as possible color of the Soma plant. These color interpretations also could fit the hemp plant. (Merlin, 1972)

Pissing Soma? Urine for a real treat!

The pivotal point of Wasson’s identification of the Fly agaric as Soma were Vedic references that Wasson viewed as referring to the practice of drinking a priest’s urine after he had consumed Soma, Wasson’s so-called “second form”. To Wasson this indicated the use of the Fly agaric, for its hallucinogenic effects would still be present and accounts of Siberian Shamans record the ritual ingestion of such mushroom-infused urine up until modern times. Other drugs as well, can be recycled this way, and it has been reported in the news that Some Meth Addicts Turn to Urine to Get High, one can only imagine the weird shit going on in that scene…. But i digress.

Its actually another bodily fluid depicted in this image of ‘the birth of Skanda’ as can be seen by the arrangement of Shiva’s lingam, but I could not resist the visual.

In regards to what Wasson saw as the two types of Soma, Swamy explained:

Wasson sees the mention of the dual forms of Soma … he observes the Vedic commentators not knowing that the fly-agaric was the Vedic Soma reached unsatisfactory  interpretations. Therefore he does not agree that the first form is “the simple juice of the Soma plant, and the second form is the juice after it has been mixed with water and milk or curds.” Because the fly-agaric is not used this way and because Wasson himself is convinced the fly-agaric is the Rg-vedic Soma…” (Swamy, 1976).

This view of alleged Vedic urine drinking as the “second form” has been shared by a variety of other researchers. The following excerpt is typical of those quoted by Wasson in this respect, and this particular passage was considered crucial by him regarding references to psychoactive urine in the Vedas:

Rig Veda 9.74.4

Butter and milk are drawn from animated cloud; thence Amrta is produced, centre of sacrifice.
Hini the Most Bounteous Ones, ever united, love; him as our Friend the Men who make all swell rain down.

Wasson’s translation of the same verse:

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 honour to Soma. The swollen men piss the flowing [Soma].

The next verse, 9.74.5, is left out by Wasson, “The Soma-stalk hath roared, following with the wave: he swells with sap for man the skin which Gods enjoy”, which is a reference to the banging of the stones, for making soma, which themselves were deified, and the release of the ‘sap’ from the ‘skin’ of soma in making the drink of the Gods.

It should be noted in regard to the different translations of the same verse, that in order to accept Wasson’s theory on the Soma, you also have to accept his novel translations of the Vedic texts! In this particular passage, which he felt offered compelling evidence of his case, he even had to add the term ‘Soma’ to the end of it himself to make the point he wanted to express. Wasson stated that; “If the final clause of this verse bears the meaning that I suggest for it, then it alone suffices to prove my case” (Wasson, 1970). Wasson clearly makes an enormous intellectual stretch when he interprets the reference to ‘rain’ as a reference to Soma infused ‘piss’. As Swamy notes, earlier Vedic commentators, such as Sayana, identifies rain. Swamy, who pointed to some of the creativity involved in Wasson’s translations of Vedic texts, explained “I am inclined to understand the context in the traditional commentator’s sense not for the sake of following tradition but because I see in it the least degree of scope for reconciliation” (Swamy, 1976). As Waradpande also noted in The Rgvedic Soma:

Wasson alleges that the Vedic Rishis, like the Siberian tribes, used to drink urine of the Sage who had drunk Soma. This meaning is culled out by him from 9.74.4. But there is no warrant for Wasson’s rendering avamehanti as urinates. Even if mehanti is taken as urinates, avanehanti would mean urinates down. This is redundant as nobody urinates upwards. Further, Wasson has shown no reference that this urine was drunk.

The hymn in fact is clearly intelligible as applying to the moon as well as the plant thus. (Waradpande, 1995)

For the sake of discussion, R.V.9.74.4 if interpreted and translated in Wasson’s favour, could also be a symbolic magical gesture aimed at bestowing the Soma plant with the rains which helped it to grow and which was believed to have been divinely sent, i.e., when they drank the Soma, through imitative magic the Gods drank with them in Heaven, and when they passed it back out again, so did the Gods as well, resulting in the rains from heaven, causing the Soma to grow. Rain, was a crucial element for the authors of the Vedas, as ancient people started settling down they found that the two elements of nature that were crucial for cultivation were the rain and the sun. This is still true in India today where beliefs about the coming of the Monsoons are ripe with religious fertility symbolism. Thus for the Soma farming people the rain-god Indra gained in prominence and became the king of the gods. Often rain was accompanied by storms, which personified became the Maruts, the followers of Indra. As Stausberg has also noted:

…one effect of Indra’s inordinate consumption of soma on his bladder, which he needs to empty, thereby releasing thundering streams of fertilizing liquid all over the world in the form of rain…Rigveda 8.4.9-10 (to Indra)…’drink the soma according to wish! Pissing it down day after day’”…. In the Vendidad, a… Avestan text on ritual cleansing, we are told that one of the places where the earth is most happy is where people and animals urinate the most and where it is cultivated, which shows there is a link between urine and fertility…. Vedividad 3.6 ‘Where… of this earth is it happiest? Then Ahura mazda said: wherever animals, small and large, piss the most.(Stausberg, 2004)

It should be noted that other translations are less favourable for piss than the one Stausberg chose though. 

8.4.9  Indra, thy friend is fair of form and rich in horses, cars, and kine.
He evermore hath food accompanied by wealth, and radiant joins the company.
8.4.10  Come like a thirsty antelope to the drinking-place: drink Soma to thy heart’s desire.
Raining it down, O Maghavan, day after day, thou gainest thy surpassing might.

In reference to 9.74.4 Wasson pointed to the work of Renou, a French scholar who spent a lifetime immersed in the Vedas, stating that Renou “discerned that the ‘swollen’ men had full bladders and that they were urinating Soma. But to give meaning to the sentence he introduced the gods of rain, the Maruts” (Wasson, 1970). Renou’s interpretation is similar to the one both Stausberg and I myself have suggested; Wasson agreed with the first part of Renou’s interpretation, but not the second. Wasson argued that Gods are not referred to, but rather “men” are, whom Wasson identifies as the Soma Priests, bringing his interpretation “swollen men piss the flowing [Soma]” although as noted he had to add ‘Soma” to the sentence to establish his point!

Let us pause for a moment and dwell on a rather odd figure of speech. The blessings of the fertilizing rain are likened to a shower of urine. The storm-clouds fecundate the earth with their urine. Vedic scholars have lived so long with their recalcitrant text, and so close to it, that they remark no longer on an analogy that calls for explanation. Urine is normally something to cast away and turn from, second in this respect only to excrement. In the Vedic poets the values are reversed and urine is an ennobling metaphor to describe the rain. The values are reversed, I suggest, because the poets in Vedic India were thinking of urine as the carrier of the Divine inebriant, the bearer of amrta. This would explain the role that urine – human and bovine – has played through the centuries as the medico-religious disinfectant of the Indo-Iranian world, the Holy Water of the East. (Wasson, 1970)

In reference to Wasson’s interpretation of Rig Veda 9.74.4 Flattery and Schwartz contended that “even interpreting this literally (and supposing the ‘men’ to refer to priests, which is not at all certain), there is still nothing to suggest the drinking of such urine…[N]one of the data presented by Wasson on the subject of urine drinking has any relevance for soma” (1989). Another important point in this regard is made by one early reviewer of Wasson’s book:

Where Wasson errs is in supposing that the Vedic soma was drunk in the same way [as the Siberian urine]. To justify such a thesis he is forced to suppose that Vedic priests impersonated their gods: that when the text says, “I offer soma to you, Indra; drink of the good soma,” someone was offering amanita juice to a priest.

Actually, there is no shred of evidence for priestly impersonations in the Rigveda. Where priests do act in persona dei (as they do in some forms of Hinduism and Buddhism) the procedure is clearly revealed by the language of the ritual and litany. Wasson finds one out of the 35,000 lines of the Rigveda that seems to say the priests are micturating diluted soma. I interpret the line [RV.9.86.2]…to mean that bearers of the soma pots are pouring the fluid down into the filter-covered trough. One cannot hang the explanation of a major cult on a single image, which may be metaphorical, taken out of context. (Ingalls, 1971)

Wasson explained that a Hindu reference to urine drinking occured in the much later text, written about a millennia or more after the Vedas, the Mahabharata, when the god Indra, disguised as an outcaste, gives the hero Uttanka, amrta (ambrosia), to drink in the form of urine, which is duly rejected.

In the… Mahabharata… there occurs one episode – an isolated episode of unknown lineage – that bears with startling clarity on our Second Form [i.e. Fly agaric enriched urine]. It was introduced into the text perhaps a thousand years after the fly-agaric had ceased to be used in the Soma sacrifice, and perhaps the editor did not know its meaning… (Wasson, 1970)

Indra offering Uttanka a drink from his pee pot.

Take note here how Wasson rejected the whole 10th Mandala, and much of the Avesta, with the claim that by then the ‘real’ soma had been lost. Now here, to make a case for the ritual consumption of urine, he jumps forward centuries after those texts were written! As Swamy noted of this reference:

The secret practice of consuming one’s own urine in certain forms of yoga cult has been known in India for a long period. In this context also the ingested fluid is called amrta in the belief it rendered the body resistant to physical deterioration. Wasson cites an anecdote from the Mahabharata …where Krsna asks Uttanka to drink the urine of Indra. Of Course Uttanka first refuses. Whether this refusal is because of the undrinkable nature of the liquid or because it was offered by a candala is difficult to say. In any case it is hard to see how this story can be fitted into the ritual of Vedic sacrifice. The moral of the story could as well be that Uttanka… being a follower of the Vedic tradition refused to accept a Yogic potent (urine as a drink) which was opposed to his religion and secondly to receive it from a man of low-birth. The story itself is incoherent and seems to be an interpolation from a later period. It should not be forgotten that the Vedic and yogic tradition have had independent beginnings and development and that the cross-connections between the two appeared much later in history. (Swamy, 1976).

Rather than relating the psychedelic effects of Fly agaric enriched piss, the Mahabharata story may indicate that Indra was so holy, even his piss was sacred.  Alternatively, urine-drinking has a number of applications in Eastern medicine and is thought to be beneficial, which could also just as easily explain this account. Also, as Prof. Scott Littleton has noted, bull urine was “also used as a form of ‘holy water’ to purify persons and objects, especially those that have been in contact with death” (Littleton, 2008). Zoroastrian priests use unconsecrated cattle urine, gomez, as a disinfectant, and consecrated and properly aged Bull’s urine, Nirang, for internal use.

Certain Indian Tantric sects and the Aghori ascetics of Benares have also been known to ritually consume urine. “Although these examples from India and Iran show that the drinking of urine for its alleged therapeutic and spiritual effects is far from rare in traditional beliefs and practices, there is no reason to connect them with the fly-agaric mushroom” (Rudgley, 1993). Moreover, there is no reason to connect this with the Soma rite, although there may be reason to discount such an association.

Mike Crowley, a proponent of the mushroom theory,preposterously preposed the continuation of the soma mushroom, as urine based amrita, in his essay, ‘When the Gods Drank Urine: A Tibetan myth may help solve the riddle of soma, sacred drug of ancient India‘. Crowley of course basis his whole hypothesis of Wasson’s unique translation, done just for his book

The Rig Veda contains one passage in which urine and soma are mentioned together. Wasson seized upon this to support his hypothesis:

‘Acting in concert, those charged with the office, richly gifted, do full homage to Soma. The swollen men piss the flowing (soma)’. [Rig Veda 9.74.4]

Crowley’s case assumes a survival of the actual Soma in the vajrayana (“thunderbolt-” or “diamond-vehicle”) movement of Buddhism, and an unproven use of mushrooms, based on the loosest sort of speculation, a theory he is still unconvincingly touting in his more recent Secret Drugs of Buddhism. It should be noted here, that a number of Indian authors have seen the rise of Buddhism, at the core of the loss of soma’s identity and the prohibition of alcohol and other in intoxicants. Waradpande feels that the loss of the knowledge of Soma’s identity came through the decline of the Vedic ritual, the Yajna, which came occurred through the influence and development of Buddhism, as we shall see. Sacrifices continued in the Vedic mode, but this was far different from the Yajna being in common practice (Waradpande, 1995). This is a view that has been shared by other scholars as well. Buddhist prohibitions, and the suppression of the Soma cult was also noted by Badrul Hassan, some decades earlier, in his 1922 edition of The Drink and Drug Evil in India. This situation is addressed more thoroughly in The Cannabis Soma Theory.

As well, when drugs do enter later Tibetan and Tantric Buddhist texts, they were referred to in a number of Tantras that were passed around by the more esoteric members of those sects in the medieval period, in that regard: For researchers interested in flushing out more about the actual use of drugs in the Tibetan and Buddhist traditions check out ‘The Use of Entheogens in the Vajrayana Tradition: a brief summary of preliminary findings together with a partial bibliography‘ (2007) by R. C. Parker, which will give you a better idea of the actual references to psychoactive substances in this tradition than you will find in all of Crowley’s Secret Drugs of Buddhism.  As Parker explains of his considerable bibliography of texts: “When these sources are taken together, their combined weight leaves little room for doubt that Vajrayana has had a well-documented tradition of making use of entheogenic plants (especially datura and cannabis) for magico-religious and psychospiritual purposes. While this use may never have been particularly widespread, it is certainly significant” (Parker, 2008). Curiously, Parker lists no references to mushrooms or psychoactive urine in this context, which is odd considering the subtile to Crowley’s book is ‘Psychedelic Sacraments and the Origins of the Vajrayana‘!

The Sacred Laws of the Aryas, (450 BC) records that “the sacrificial cup (kamasa) is declared to be pure on account of its contact with the Soma juice.”  This purity was ruined by contact with urine, “at all soma-sacrifices (the cups must be) cleaned with water only… If these same (cups are defiled) by urine, ordure, blood, semen and the like (they must be) thrown away.” A situation that would be hard to reconcile with Wasson’s concept of divine Soma enriched piss. This brings us to another point of prohibition, which in facts ironically makes one of the better cases for the mushroom.

The Mushroom Bans of The Laws of Manu and The Sacred Laws of the Aryas

A mushroom ban appears in the texts The Sacred Laws of the Âryas which has an estimated date of 450 BC and The Laws of Manu (a.k.a. The Book of Manu) thought to have been composed sometime around 200 B.C., although both texts are believed to have been compiled out of much more ancient laws and codes.

The Laws of Manu record that a Brahmin should “avoid honey and meat and mushrooms coming from the ground” (Manu 6:14). and again “On eating dry flesh, mushrooms that grow on the ground, and (anything) belonging to a slaughter-house, even if (the source was) unknown, one should practise the same observance [the moon-course (penance)]” (Manu 6.156). The Sacred Laws of the Aryas, whose prohibitions around urine and other bodily fluids in regards to the soma cup,  referred to above, commands “For eating garlic, onions, mushrooms turnips, Sleshmentaka, exudation from trees, the red sap flowing from incisions (in trees or plants), food pecked at by crows or worried by dogs, or the leavings of a Sudra, an Atikrikkhra, penance must be performed.” In regards to these prohibitions, they, like the urine prohibition, appear on a longer list with other items, so to specifically point them out as prohibited due to their psychoactive content, and use for such, seems like a bit of a stretch, that would need to be substantiated by a lot of corroborative evidence to make the case. 

Bourke, who as noted earlier was the actual originator of the Vedic mushroom theory, wrote about these mushroom prohibitions in his Compilation of Notes and Memoranda Bearing Upon the Use of Human Ordure and Human Urine in Rites of a Religious Or Semi-religious Character Among Various Nations (1888) cites earlier researches in reference to this: “The ancient Hindus held the fungus in such detestation that Yama, a legislator, supposed now to be the judge of departed spirits, declares : ‘Those who eat mushrooms, whether springing from the ground or growing on a tree, fully equal in guilt to the slayers of Brahmins and the most despicable of all deadly sinners.’” – (Asiatic Researches, Calcutta, 1795, vol. iv. P. 311).

As Bourke noted,  Jean Antoine Dubois, refers to the same subject. “The Brahmins,” he says, “have also retrenched from their vegetable food, which is the great fund of their subsistence, all roots which form a head or bulb in the ground, such as onions, and all those that assume the same shape above ground, like mushrooms and some others…”

Are we to suppose that they had discovered something unwholesome in the one species and proscribed the other on account of its fetid smell… all the information ever obtained from those among whom I have consulted on the reasons for their abstinence from them being that it is customary to avoid such articles, together with all those that have had the germ of the living principle. This is what is called in India, to eat becomingly. Such as use the prohibited articles cannot boast of their bodies being pure, according to the estimate of the Brahmans. I am aware that, amongst these also, some secret infractions of the rule have occurred; but the secrecy with which it is violated proves that it is generally observed; and it may be fairly assumed that the great body of the Brahmans rigidly abstain from all sorts of animal food, as well as from whatever has had the principle of vitality. ” – (Abbe Dubois, People of India, London, 1817, p.117.)

In reference to this, Bourke reasonably suggested that “This inhibition, under such dire penalties, can have but one meaning. In primitive times the people of India must have been so addicted to this debauchery induced by potions into the composition of which entered poisonous fungi… and the effects of such debauchery must have been found so debasing and pernicious, that the priest-rulers were compelled to employ the same maledictions which Moses proved the efficacy in withdrawing the children of Israel from the worship of idols” (Bourke, 1891).

Although Bourke can take credit for the suggestion that the ancient Vedists were ingesting psychedelic mushrooms, and he does identify the Siberian use of recycled urine from the fly-agaric,  he does not suggest that they were recycling this in the way of Wasson’s ‘second form’ urine theory in the Veads, in either his Scatalogic [sic] Rites of All Nations (1891) or Compilation of Notes and Memoranda Bearing Upon the Use of Human Ordure and Human Urine in Rites of a Religious Or Semi-religious Character Among Various Nations (1888) so Wasson can lay claim to that aspect of the theory.

Interestingly, The Laws of Manu contains references regarding the prohibition of Soma to certain castes of Vedic society so one would think Wasson would have made more of the connection regarding the prohibition of mushrooms. However, Wasson felt that that it was “impossible to say whether this prohibition was related to a sacred use of the Fly agaric; probably not” (Wasson, 1970). Moreover, this was Wasson’s sole reference to The Laws of Manu, an ancient text that is pivotal in understanding the eventual prohibitions surrounding the original Soma and its later substitution with a non-psychoactive placebo, and which is more fully discussed in The Cannabis Soma Theory.

Mike Crowley, makes more of these mushroom prohibitions than Wasson. Crowley claims that Sanskrit “has a vast vocabulary but, surprisingly has no word for ‘mushroom’” (Crowley, 2019). Certainly Monier Williams’ A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (1872) has a number of entrees for mushrooms. Such as “chatrra” ; uc-chilandra ; kavaka ; dilira ; golasa etc. More modern sources list a variety of Sanskrit names as well. And The Laws of Manu which prohibition of mushrooms Crowley refers to, is written in Sanskrit, though later than the Vedas, and variously dated to be from the 2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE. Ignoring the other foods prohibited alongside mushrooms, Crowley states:

In both the Laws of Manu and its commentary those who transgress in regards to the mushroom are compared to those who kill or injure a Brahmin priest. perhaps this overly severe edict and the linguistic omission [?] indicate a taboo, which had its origin in a monopoly of mushrooms by the priestly caste.

It is perhaps significant that only the “untouchable” castes of hindu society were allowed to gather an eat the mushroom. Could this be why the lowest castes…. Were the mushroom dealers, and despised “soma-sellers” spoken of in the commentaries of the Vedas? But why would the Brahmins impose a total ban, regardless of species? My guess is that they considered only a certain species special, but that a blanket, all-mushroom taboo arose from a “better safe than sorry” attitude. And also, to indicate exactly which species was forbidden might invite unauthorized experimentation.

Of all the myriad species of mushroom, which would the Brahmins have considered special, or even sacred? One clue may come from the word silindhraka… Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary explains that it means “a mushroom (especially one growing on cow-dung).” Now, I’m not sure how many other species of mushrooms grow on cow dung in India, but Psilocybe cubensis certainly fits that description and there is an excellent reason why Brahmins might have considered it sacred –it contains the classically psychedelic compounds psilocin and psilocybin. (Crowley, 2019)

I cited  The Laws of Manu above and quoted directly the references to mushrooms, and I am not sure where Crowley connects the prohibition, to “to those who kill or injure a Brahmin priest”, asthe excerpts identify the “the moon-course (penance)”  as the penalty. Crowley offers no passage to back up his claim, which is not untypical of his work. The Sacred Laws of the Aryas does make a comparison to mushroom eating and one who threatens or injures a priest, but not to murdering.   As the “the moon-course (penance)” is not particularly severe, it seems the connection to severity that he  makes is rather unlikely. “When one diminishes (his food by) one mouthful (a day) in the dark (half of the month), and increases (it) in the bright (half in the same way), bathing three times a day* this is called a moon-course (penance)” (The Laws of Manu  6.217).

The Sacred Laws of the Aryas commands that an Atikrikkhra penance must be performed, and this is also used for threatening, or harming or injuring a priest, but not for killing him, and it is not particularly severe, but harsher than the moon-course pennane. The Laws of Manu describes the Atikrikkhra as calling for a fast of only one mouthful of food at each meal for three days and a fast of three days following that.

Now, as the Laws of the The Sacred Laws of the Aryas, commands that the soma cup not be defiled from urine and other bodily fluids, one could speculate, that said prohibition in relation to Crowley’s hypothesis arrived from concerns about purity and cleanliness and thus not eating things that grew out of shit, like mushrooms. However, this alleged connection to mushrooms and shit in regards to this prohibition, was not in the ancient texts, but was the speculation of Monier-Williams in the Sanskrit-English Dictionary. 

Moreover, with no attempt at seeking any source to make a case, he boldly asserts that the Brahmins handed over their most sacred sacrament, to the “untouchable” lower caste! Sadly, Crowley’s alleged ‘soma sellers” and mushroom eaters, the “untouchables” seem to have lost this suggested traditional connection to psilocybin soma and psychedelic mushrooms as well….. Did they have their own later set of prohibitions like The Laws of Manu? Only a mycophile like Crowley can give you an answer to that, but he does not.

In regards to this suggested prohibition of  psilocybin mushrooms growing in cow-dung, Crowley simply leaves it to he is “not sure how many species grow on cow dung in India” and leaves it alone so that his conclusion of Psilocybe cubensis is the only one left standing!

However, when it comes to mushrooms and manure, the two have long been connected through a variety of species, and if Crowley had taken the time to look, he would know that there are at least 135 types of Coprophilous fungi (dung-loving fungi) that grow on dung in India alone. But of course any potential reference to a mushroom, becomes a psychedelic one, to researchers of this ilk.

Now, here, not only has Crowley now excluded all Vedic and Avestan descriptions of Soma, and its mountainous home, he has also ditched Wasson’s Fly-Agaric theory for Terrence McKenna’s Psilocybin one! Which he is all to willing to re-embrace if the subject of piss comes up! Crowley explains this conundrum with the claim that the Arayns left their colder climate home that hosted the Fly-agaric, they switched to P. cubensis! Which does in fact, unlike the Fly-agaric, grow on dung.

The late Terrence McKenna

In my opinion, Mckenna, presented an even weaker and much less cited case than Wasson’s, based on the rather un-ecstatic effects of the fly-agaric, verses the ecstatic psilocybin varieties along which grow in cow dung and the sacred status of the cow in India! As well as Krishna’s friendly encounter with cows in the 11th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, interpreted here as a psychedelic experience, and which was written centuries after the Vedas.

P. cubensis growing in cow dung.

Wasson himself would speculate some years after writing his book on Soma “Is Stropharia cubensis responsible for the elevation of the cow to a sacred status?”. McKenna also refers to a letter he received from Wasson in 1977:

Your question about Str[opharia]cubensis has also bothered me. When Roger Heim and I went to India in 1967, in the Simlipal Hills of Orissa, I was given an account of a mushroom growing in cow’s dung that tallied perfectly with Str. cubensis even to its psychoactive powers. My informant said that everyone avoided it. He seemed not to be withholding anything. He said he would deliver the mushroom to us, but though we stayed there a couple more days, I saw no more of him. Our purpose in going to India was altogether different. It will be necessary to pursue Str. cubensis further not only in India but elsewhere in the world. Of course Str. cubensis must flourish in India. Did it play a part in the abandonment of Soma? Inebriation from Str. cubensis and the other psilocybin species is clearly, in my opinion, superior to A[manita]muscaria. I may develop this as one of several ideas that I propose to include in my next book after this one, which I am now drawing to a close.

This seems to indicate that Wasson himself was unsure of fly-agaric at this point, even early on he was considering some of these same aspects in a 1962 letter to Robert Graves, Wasson wrote:

[T]he Aryan composers of the Rig-Veda hymns, especially Book IX, composed them in their original homeland in the mountains, c. 3000 B.C., where soma grew. Later, down in the Indian plains, they did not find soma there and various substitutes were used. In the time of the Zend-Avesta haoma had become a mere cliche, like nectar or ambrosia in our conversation today, its identity being wholly unknown. The original soma of the highlands remains to be discovered. It may have been the fly-amanita, or perhaps a convolvulus (morning-glory in the USA), or a mint, or something else, whose leaves and stems and seed carried the sacred indole. The Brahmans in India discovered the virtue of Str. cubensis and made use of it instead of the original soma, and called it by the same name.

Str. cubensis grows only in hot countries. I understand that there have been good mycologists studying the fungal life of india. Why have they never reported Str. cubensis? With its restricted habitat, its prevalence all year round, its large size and beauty, this failure to be mentioned in the mycological literature calls for an explanation. I once asked Professor Heim how the spores found the cowpad,–whether a stage in the alimentary canal of the cow was necessary. He thought the spores traveled on the breezes until they found their home, but he did not know. If they must pass through the digestive system of the cow, then the supply of soma might become the monopoly of Brahman priests, who could control the cows having access to the spores. Like the ginko [sic]tree in China and that other tree of the Indians of the upper Amazon, it would be a species owing its survival to cultivation by a priestly caste.

Surely the Sacred Cow of India has a different inspiration and origin from the sacred Bulls of the Near East and Eagean [sic]. In the case of the Bull it was the massive brute strength of the creature, I should think, as manifested in the fights depicted on the Cretan pottery. If we are on the right track, we solve in part the question of the sacred cows of India. They did not come from the highlands, with the Aryans. The first sacred cows must have been in India. Whether the Aryans discovered the properties of the mushrooms and thus originated the holy quality of the cow, or whether the native Indians knew the property of Str. cubensis, would remain a question. (Wasson, 1962)

This situation conflicted with Wasson’s theory about the “second form” as the active chemicals of  Str. cubensis do not pass through urine as with the fly-agaric. As noted by Thomas Riedlinger,in his 1993 essay ‘Wasson’s Alternative Candidates for Soma‘:

Wasson appears to have abandoned further efforts to investigate Psilocybe (Strophaia) cubensis or other psilocybin mushrooms as candidates for soma. He may have concluded that human “voracious demand” for S. cubensis, however intense, would not have been sufficient to explain its complete disappearance from India. More certain is that Wasson was increasingly convinced that “second form” psychoactivity in urine was a requisite for any soma candidate, thereby ruling out S. cubensis. (Riedlinger, 1993)

Others have suggested that this prohibition of mushrooms has nothing to do with intoxication, or growing in dung, but rather the development of vegetarianism in India. “Brahmins never ate this food, supposedly because it tastes and is prepared like meat. It is the writer’s opinion that the smell of mushrooms, and their association with decay, may account for them being considered impure. They have been viewed with distrust since the time of Manu” (Robson, 1980).

Another factor that would stand against the prohibition of the mushroom having to do with potential intoxicating effects and its subsequent use in the Vedic Soma beverage is that the references in The Sacred Laws of the Aryas, come from the supposed authorship of Yama. Yama is central in the history of both the Indian Soma and the Persian Haoma, where he is known as Yima, and this combined recognition indicates his primordial involvement in the original Aryan rites surrounding the sacred beverage that led to the later tradition in both India and Persia. In the Persian tradition, Yima’s father was the first to press Haoma, and Yima himself is credited with spreading the cultic use of Haoma. In the Indian accounts, a funeral hymn from the Atharva Veda records that “For Yama Soma juice flows clear, to Yama oblation is paid” (A.V.18.2) and the Rig Veda commands To Yama pour the Soma (R.V. 10.14.13). “Every competent scholar recognizes a close affinity between the Iranian Yima and the Hindu Yama, between the soma-cult and the haoma-cult…” (Hopkins, 2007). Any future hope of resurrecting the Soma mushroom theory that would make reference to these Vedic era prohibitions of the mushroom, needs to address the fact that they are said to come through Yama, the traditional ancestor of the Soma-Haoma cult.

Effects of Soma

Interestingly, before his death in 1986, R. Gordon Wasson referred to the fallacy of David Flattery’s identification of Haoma as the Peganum harmala as Soma on the basis that ingestion of the “plant does not lead to a blissful state”. In response to this statement, R. Gordon Wasson had it pointed out to him by interviewer Robert Forte, that “the Amanita does not lead to a blissful state either.”  Wasson, with a slightly dumbfounded explanation replied, “Well, I know.  That troubles me too.  I can not explain it, but there must be some explanation.  No white man enjoys a blissful experience that I know of from the Amanita.  Now there are occasions” [As quoted in (Forte, Ed. 1997)]. Wasson goes on to weakly describe an occasion when a Japanese associate received a state which as an outside observer he perceived as being “blissful”.

Wasson sampling the pressed juice of amanita muscaria in Japan. One wonders if he experimented directly with his second form?

Unfortunately for Wasson, Soma use was not recorded amongst the Japanese of the ancient world, so the comparison is somewhat unsatisfactory example, not to mention unscientific. As well, as we have seen, not a lot of support for Wasson’s mushroom theory, so he seems to fall short in examples of blissful Indian use as well, in his rather curious racial theory on intoxication.

Alternatively, such blissful states have long been attributed to another candidate for the sacred drink, Cannabis, which has been acknowledged for the feeling of “bliss” it instils in its users the world over and has been celebrated for such in some of humanity’s earliest written records. On this particular note I challenge anybody to produce as much as one half of the literature referring to the blissful state produced by any of the other plant candidates for Soma, as I could for hemp (especially in Persian and Indian literature) – an impossible task.  Indeed researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam discoverer of both THC and the Brain’s cannabis receptor, dubbed the indigenous molecule that attaches to the receptor (the human body’s natural THC) anandamide, from “ananda”, the Sanskrit word for ‘bliss’.

in this regard the effects of cannabis have been celebrated in songs and verse the world over, and I am not just referring to Hip Hop, Rock and Roll and Jazz, clearly praises of this plant have long been expressed for centuries in a variety of traditions, of India, Islam, China and Persia to name a few. Indeed, It was this same botanical source of poetic inspiration which inspired the Vedic poets who wrote the Vedas in the fits place! As Professor B.G.L. Swamy has rightly concluded, about the soma mystery, “The one strong clue however… lies in the type of exhilaration experienced by the Soma drinker”.

In Conclusion…

Although Wasson’s sensational claims helped to ferment new and inspired research into the origins of the Haoma/Soma, many have seen his contributions to the matter as a muddling factor. “The [Soma] question has been confused by the enthusiastic advocacy of R. Gordon Wasson for the implausible view that soma was prepared from mushrooms” (Sherratt, 1995). I have chosen only a few of Wasson’s own key passages to show the error of his hypothesis, but let it be known similar inaccuracies can be found throughout Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality.  As Harri Nyberg notes Wasson’s work has rightly been criticized “on the grounds that some of the translations he used were misleading and that he seemed to arbitrarily connect Rgvedic phrases and verses which do not properly belong together” (Nyberg, 1995).

As the Indian botanist Professor B. G. L. Swamy rightly held, the “view that the Rg-vedic Soma plant is an Agaric is negated by the interpretation of the Rg-vedic text itself…. There is no evidence whatsoever in the Rg-veda to point out… that it [Soma] was leafless or that it was a mushroom” (Swamy, 1976) Swamy justifiably concluded: “It is … obvious that Wasson first determined the fly-agaric identity of Rig-vedic Soma and then proceeded to discover ‘suitable’ epithets and metaphors… [T]he specific clues available from the Rig-veda… are meagre… Unwarrantedly imaginative and highly biased or preconceived approaches have resulted…” (Swamy, 1976).

Indeed, after a thorough review of Wasson’s material it is hard to understand how it has been so willingly accepted by so many researchers more than five decades after Wasson proposed it. The mushroom theory of Soma is not worth the manure that mushrooms grow in. But at the same time, Wasson’s book reinvigorated 20th century study into the origins of the Soma more than any other publication before or since.

Despite a lifetime of effort Wasson failed to prove his case for the Fly agaric being the Soma. Even Vedist Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, who contributed a chapter to Wasson’s Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, failed to agree with his identification of the Fly agaric as Soma, the best support she could muster being; “Wasson’s novel solution of this old question revivifies a body of speculation” (Doniger O’Flaherty, 1968). After Wasson’s death Doniger revealed that Wasson never did convince her of the identification of Soma with the Amanita muscaria (Doniger, 1990). Wasson’s Soma theory may have been the downfall of his otherwise notable research into psycho-active plants and the origins of religion.

In this respect it should be noted that R. Gordon Wasson hypothesized that the genesis of religion could be found in humanity’s relationship to the hallucinogens.  For this, and his lifelong research into entheogenic history, Jonathon Ott compared Wasson to Charles Darwin. For Darwin’s hypothesis of natural selection helped to document the reality of Evolution, in the same way “Wasson’s theory suggested a natural mechanism to explain the historical fact that strikingly similar religious concepts arose independently in diverse parts of the… globe in protohistory, having certain pangaen motifs relating to ecstatic communion with the entheogens, the use of which has likewise been shown to be common virtually to all cultures studied… of the Axis Mundi or ‘World Tree’ (‘Tree of Life,’ ‘Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,’ etc.) with its sacred fruit… of communion with sacrament… of the souls seperability from the body… of the Otherworld…” (Ott 1995)  Ott further contends that just as the fundamentalists are being overwhelmed by the gaining world acceptance of Evolution over the belief in Biblical Creationism, so too as data accumulates will the world come to see the Wasson theory of the origins of religion vastly more believable than the theologies put forth by any of the modern day followers of today’s orthodox religions. May that day come.

I would also like to note, no disrespect for the mushroom, which I have found to be a wonderful Gaian teacher, and it does have its own actual history and traditions outside of these fanciful projections on the Vedic soma.

Next in this series, I will address the criticisms of The Cannabis Soma Theory as laid out in Mike Crowley’s Secret Drugs of Buddhism (2019)

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