Haoma is the Avestan name for a plant and its divinity, Mid. Pers. hōm, Sogd. xwm, Pers. and other living Iranian languages hōm, hūm and related forms, Skt. soma, living Indic languages som, soma (Flattery and Schwartz, p. 68 with Table 3; Steblin-Kamenskij, 1972, pp. 138 ff.; Idem, 1987, p. 377; Henning, “Mitteliranisch,” p. 85).
Attempts to identify the proto-Indo-Iranian *sauma- go back more than two centuries, when Western scholars became acquainted through texts with haoma-/soma-. The word denotes something like “that which is pressed, extract” (from Av. hu-, Skt. su-, “press, pound”), and could be applied only by metonymy to a plant yielding that extract. Nor in theory would it necessarily have referred to only one plant, but might have been used for several similar, or even wholly different, plants (cf. Av. pouru.sarəδa-, Y. 10.12). However, if (with Steblin-Kamenskij, 1987, p. 377; Falk, 1989, pp. 77 ff.) we reject the hypothesis that mythic characteristics of the divinity Haoma/Soma governed the choice of a representative plant (so Kuiper, 1970; Windfuhr, 1985), we can accept that striking correspondences in the technical terms and epithets used with reference to haoma/soma point to an extract from a specific plant having been ritually drunk by the common ancestors of the Old Iranian and Old Indian peoples. It is then the (psycho)pharmacological properties of that plant which must explain what is indicated of haoma/soma in the Avesta and Vedas.
The main Avestan source for such indications is the Hōm Yašt (Y. 9-11). Of the gifts prayed for there from Haoma by his worshippers, those which derive from pharmacological effects probably include healing (Y. 9.16, 17, 19; 10.8, 9) and sexual excitation (Y. 9.3-15, 22), and certainly physical strengthening (Y. 9:17, 22, 27), intellectual stimulation (Y. 9:17, 22) and “intoxication” (Y. 9:17; 10:8-cf. Y. 17.6, 14, 19; 11.10). The last word has regularly been used to render Av. maδa- which, with Skt. mada-, has been a keyword for investigations; but neither the Avestan texts nor their Pahlavi renderings (mʾdyšn, Y. 9:17; 10.18, 19, used elsewhere for “coition”; mnyšn “thinking, thought,”, Y. 10:14; omitted, Y. 10:10), yield sufficient evidence for a certain definition of the term. In the Hōm Yašt, the maδa of haoma is described as fraša- “brilliant, bright,” varəziiaŋhuua- “life-invigorating” (Hintze, pp. 134-35), raoxšna- “light,” and rənjiia- “swift” (Y. 10.14, 19). Moreover, Haoma is called “the best for the soul’s journey” (urunaēča pāθmainiiō.təma-, Y. 9:16), and is invoked for the “best existence” (vahišta- ahū-, Y. 9.19; 11.10). It is further said that “all other maδa- are accompanied by Wrath (Aēšma, q.v.) of the bloody club, but Haoma’s maδa- is accompanied by joyous Truth (Aṧa, q.v.)” (Y. 10.8, cf. Yt. 17.5 and, e.g., Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (Chowkamba, ed., 18.104.22.168; see Weber).
Yet since in Nērangestān 12:2 (ed. Kotwal and Kreyenbroek) Av. maδa- (occurring without reference to haoma) is rendered by Pahlavi md, that is, may, “wine,” and since wine and other alcoholic beverages have been widely used in religious rituals, during many researches (surveyed by O’Flaherty down to 1968) there was almost consensus that *sauma was alcoholic, and this interpretation was maintained still by Vasilii Abaev (1975) and Rausing (1987). But there is not enough time during the ritual preparation of haoma/soma for fermentation to take place (nor distillation, which would in any case be anachronistic), and there is no textual evidence for any such process. A case was then made, based on Rig Veda 10.119, for *sauma having been a hallucinogen (but on this as a wrong interpretation of the text, see Falk, 1989, pp. 78-79). In 1921 (see O’Flaherty, pp. 128-29) B. L. Mukherjee proposed hemp, Cannabis sativa/indica, as *sauma. Henrik Samuel Nyberg (pp. 177, 190, 290) independently gave support for this, but Walter Bruno Henning (1951, p. 30), rejecting his theory of Zoroaster’s use of hemp, voiced a modern Western aversion towards psychotropic substances as leading to “physical, mental and moral deterioration.” This, however, ignored the importance of dosage (cf. Taillieu, p. 191). In 1968 Wasson, who had worked on Meso-American psilocybine mushroom cults, proposed another hallucinogen, the fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria. John Brough (1972, p. 360), again ignoring dosage, argued that the stupor occasionally induced by flyagaric disqualified it from being *sauma, which stimulated warriors. This point was virtually conceded by Wasson (1972), whereas Ilya Greshevitch (1974, p. 50 ff.) pointed out that in moderation this mushroom is a stimulant, and added some ingenious arguments in favor of the identification. Other proposals were for mandrake, Mandragora turcomanica (Khlopin) and ginseng, Panax ginseng (Windfuhr), but these rightly gained little if any support.
As for the plant yielding the extract in modern times, the Brahmans regularly used one of the Sarcostemmas (Asclepiads), which are evidently a substitute for ancient *sauma, since they are plants of warm climates. From the late 19th century it has been known (cf. O’Flaherty, pp. 118, 122) that the Zoroastrians of Yazd use a variety of ephedra which they call huma, hum and which they supply to their coreligionists in India, where ephedras do not grow. The plants flourish, however, in Inner Asia, the Indo-Iranian borderlands and Persia. Gradually it was discovered that in a number of living Iranian languages and dialects ephedras are known as hōm or some similar term, and that in the Indic languages of Gilgit and Kāferestān (Nurestān) they are called som, soma. Together linguistic and ritual evidence seemed decisive.
In 1989 it was partially questioned, however, in a fully documented study by the botanist David S. Flattery, with linguistic support from Martin Schwartz. Flattery still held *sauma to have been an hallucinogen, and argued (p. 75) that the effects attributed to haoma/soma in the texts did not correspond to those provoked by ephedrine alkaloids extracted from ephedra. Therefore, ephedra must have been mixed with another psychotropic agent, one inducing visions. In Vd. 14.4 (cf. Y. 68.1) it is indicated that haoma was pressed together with a plant called haδānaēpātā- (q.v.), a word of disputed meaning. In the known Zoroastrian rite a pomegranate twig is used, but this must be a substitute for the original plant, which Flattery proposed to identify as harmel (mountain/wild rue), Peganum harmala. This is known in Iranian languages as sepand, esfand, sven, forms all derived from Av. spənta- “holy.” It yields the β-carboline alkaloids harmaline and harmine, whose reported sleep-inducing (side) effect might, combined with ephedrine, have “facilitated the experience of visions”; and because of the holiness of harmel, he saw this as the essential haoma, that called dūraoša (q.v.; Flattery and Schwartz, pp. 63-64 and n. 28), with ephedra as the less effective ingredient. This hypothesis was open to strong objections, notably that no convincing reason can be found for an abandoning of the easily available harmel. Moreover, although Iranian Zoroastrians make much use of rue (now more often in the form of garden rue, Rue graveolens) they do not crush it or associate it in any way with haoma rituals.
In the same year (1989) Harry Falk in an important article argued that the essential effect sought from soma/haoma was not hallucinatory, but precisely that produced by ephedrine, namely inducing alertness and awareness. He cited as evidence the previously overlooked use of soma in the highly esteemed night-time Atirātra ritual as both a sleep-preventing drink for the priests and a stimulating offering to Vṛtra-fighting Indra. The alkaloid ephedrine is somewhat milder yet more prolonged in action than adrenaline, and may be changed to metamphetamin or an analeptic amine by elimination of the hydroxyl group (OH) on the side chain (Ito, 1995, n. 1). The basic alkaloid is water-soluble and, because of climactic conditions, its full effect could be enjoyed only in situ, i.e., in the mountainous borderlands between India and Greater Iran, where the ephedrine-yielding species of ephedra (Ephedra gerardiana, procera, and intermedia) grow. This limited distribution of potent ephedra would explain the post-Vedic question put to the soma vendor, whether his merchandise was harvested on mount Mūjavat (cf. Falk, 1989, p. 87). Interestingly, a side-effect of ephedrine, the hindering of urination, coincides with the priestly fear to die of urine-retention (ámeha, cf. Falk, 1989, p. 83, n. 27).
There seems no doubt that the haoma depicted in the Hōm Yašt is a normal, chlorofyll-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. varəšajīš, frasparəγə̄, frauuāxšə̄, cf. Pahl. ēwan, spēg, tāg, Y. 10.5). Haoma is further called “having tender/pliant ąsu(s)” (Av. nąmyąsu-, Y. 9.16) or “having tasty ąsu(s)” (Gershevitch, 1974, p. 48; pure soma, however, is not “sweet,” Skt. mádhu-, but “sharp, astringent,” Skt. tīvrá-, cf. Falk, 1989, p. 83). This ąsu- (cf. Skt. aṃśu-) is exclusively accorded to haoma/soma and has therefore been taken for the actual name of the *sauma-yielding plant (Brough, 1972, p. 337), but more probably it denotes a “twig” (cf. Pahl. tāg in Y. 10.2). In favor of the fly-agaric theory “stalk” (Wasson, 1968, pp. 44 f.) and “fibre"/“flesh” (Gershevitch, 1974, p. 48, 74-75; Windfuhr, p. 701) were proposed, but this ignores the expressed necessity of pounding the ąsu/aṃśu (see Brough, 1972, p. 338), which seems relevant only in the case of fibrous or hard plant material (twigs, roots, seed). Both 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 only a poetic way of saying “all haomas, wherever they may be” (Brough, 1972, p. 343; cf. also Rig Veda 9.6.28, and the river Aṃśumatī-, RV. 8.96.13-15). Reality has been sought in haoma’s epithet “tall” (Av. bərəzant-, Y. 10.21, Vd., 19.19; cf. Falk, 1989, p. 86, who relates it to the tree-like Ephedra procera) and in the anthropomorphic appearance of the plant (Windfuhr, pp. 704, 712). Such speculations and the overall unscientific character of the scriptural descriptions confine the contribution of descriptive features in a botanical identification of *saoma to that of mere touchstones.
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Originally Published: December 15, 2003
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