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Sunday, May 29th, 2005, 10:23 AM
Soma among the Armenians

(Robert Bedrosian)

Soma was a god, a plant, and an intoxicating beverage. It is referenced in some 120 of 1028 verses of the Indian Rig Veda (mid second millenium B.C.). Haoma was its Iranian counterpart. Although the Iranian Avesta mentions haoma less frequently, there is little doubt that the substances were similar or identical. In both India and Iran, at some point the true identity of soma/haoma was forgotten, and substitutes for it were adopted. It has been suggested that abandonment of the divine entheogen and its replacement by
surrogates occurred because the original substance was no longer available or was difficult to obtain once the proto Indo-Iranians left their "original homeland" and emigrated.

During the past two hundred years, scholars have tried with varying degrees of success to identify this mysterious plant which was at the base of early Indo-Iranian worship. As early as 1794, Sir William Jones suggested that haoma was "a species of mountain rue", or Peganum harmala L. (Arm. spand). Other soma candidates in the 19th and early 20th centuries have included cannabis (Arm. kanep') and henbane (Arm. aghueshbank). All of these plants are native to the Armenian highlands, and all of them were used by the Armenians and their predecessors for medicinal and magico-religious purposes.
If the divine elixir really was a single substance, rather than a mixture, then in our view none of the above-mentioned nominees alone qualifies. The pharmacological effects of Peganum harmala, cannabis, or henbane, taken alone, simply do not match the Vedic and Iranian descriptions of the effects of soma/haoma. In the 1960s, R. Gordon Wasson proposed a new candidate, whose effects are more consistent with those mentioned in the Vedas. The present study will examine Wasson's thesis and look for supporting evidence in ancient Armenian legends and customs.

In Soma Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1968), Wasson argued that the intoxicating plant called soma in the Rig Veda should be identified with the red-capped psychoactive mushroom, Amanita muscaria. This mushroom, which contains the powerful hallucinogen, muscimol, can cause euphoria, elevated mood, auditory and visual hallucinations, as well as feelings of increased strength and stamina. Amanita muscaria (called fly-agaric in English) is perhaps the most widely depicted mushroom in children's books, often stylized as a red-capped mushroom with white polka dots. Wasson's arguments revolved around certain poetic and elliptical statements in the Rig Veda which seem to indicate that this magical plant lacked roots, branches, flowers, seeds, or leaves, a fitting description of a mushroom. The god Soma was associated with the color red, the god of fire (Agni), and the bellowing bull. The plant soma is like a "red bull" (RV IX.97.13), but with a "dress of sheep" (RV IX. 70.7). It "creeps like a serpent out of its old skin". (RV IX.86.44).

In nature, this mushroom begins fruiting as a white "egg" enclosed in the membranous material of the universal veil; the stalk pushes up as it grows, and the distinctive orange-to-red cap appears from behind the veil. White flecks of the veil remain on the cap in patches like the "hide of a bull" in a "dress of sheep", or like a "serpent creeping out of its old skin". Soma is the bolt (vajra) of Indra (RV III.43.7;IV.18.13; IX. 77.1) and the mainstay or pillar of the sky (RV IX.2.5;IX.72.7).

In the Vedas, soma was also an intoxicating liquid, pounded or pressed out of the plant using special pressing stones (RV IX.11.5-6;IX.109.17-18), filtered through wool, and presumably mixed with other ingredients. In folklore thoughout Eurasia, it was found high in the mountains and was associated with a magical bird, serpents and eggs; its sudden appearance after a storm, led to an association with thunder and lightning, since many early peoples believed that mushrooms appeared where lightning hit the ground. Curiously, the presence of urine in the myths Wasson examined was taken as one of
the "markers" of the Amanita cult. Unlike many other hallucinogens, the active ingredients in Amanita muscaria pass unmetabolized through the kidneys of the ingester. As a result, that person's urine is as potent as the mushroom itself, a circumstance which led to the recyling of urine in those cultures which used Amanita for magico-religious purposes, and perhaps to the sanctity of urine in Indo-Iranian tradition.

In nature, this mushroom grows only in a mychorrizal relationship with certain trees: aspen, beech, birch, fir, larch, oak, pine and several others. It has thus far resisted attempts to grow it in a laboratory. Besides humans, two other animals, the deer and the raven, are known to relish this mushroom. The raven's love of Amanita muscaria was noted in antiquity: in ancient Egypt the Amanita muscaria mushroom was called "Raven's bread".

Wasson's identification of soma with the Amanita muscaria mushroom has not won universal acceptance. It was embraced by some, including the orientalist Harold Bailey, the linguist Roman Jakobson, and the mycologist Roger Heim, but others (including Wasson's co-author, the Sanskritist Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty) were not convinced. The latter remarked years later:

"My own work, however, was leading me toward another sort of hypothesis entirely: it did not really matter what Soma was, since it was lost so early in history; what actually played so important a part in Vedic civilization was the idea of Soma. Indeed, my more recent collaborations with Brian K. Smith on the subject of substitutions in the Vedic sacrifice have inclined me in the
direction of Smith's hypothesis that there may never have been an original Soma plant at all, and that all of Soma's "substitutes" (including, perhaps, the fly-agaric mushroom) were surrogates for a mythical plant that never existed save in the minds of the priests."

Wasson was challenged most recently by another collaborative work, Haoma and Harmaline, The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallucinogen "Soma" and its Legacy in Religion, Language, and Middle Eastern Folklore, by David S. Flattery and Martin Schwartz, Near Eastern Studies (volume 21) (Los Angeles, 1989). The authors described their study as a "vindication of Jones's original proposition" (of 1794) and argued that it was not a mushroom which was the Indian soma and the Iranian haoma but the plant Peganum harmala, especially the seeds, containing the hallucinogen harmaline. The work of Flattery and Schwartz is a fascinating, scholarly study
which, without a doubt, has raised the level of ethnobotanical research. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that either author actually experimented with Peganum harmala. Had they done so, they would have concluded that by itself Peganum harmala could not have merited the encomiums lavished on soma/haoma in the Vedas. It is, however, noteworthy that to this day, Peganum harmala is used as a "potentiator" for psychoactive mushrooms. It is quite likely that ancient Iranians had also discovered this quality of Peganum harmala, and that their haoma preparations exploited it.

Wasson's greatest contribution, in our view, was not his identification of soma with the Amanita muscaria mushroom. Rather, it was the attention he drew to the role of fungi in humankind's earliest history. In Wasson's view, religion had its birth in the awe-inspiring effects of first accidental then deliberate ingestion of these hallucinogens. Why was it that certain trees were revered by our early ancestors? Wasson suggested that in many cases the trees were sacred because of the hallucinogenic mushrooms that grew at
their bases, or the fungi which grew on their trunks. Such trunk fungi, known as polyphores, were used since remote antiquity for their medicinal qualities and as tinder ("spunk", "punk", Arm. abet').

Wasson is considered the father of a new discipline, ethnomycology, the study of humankind and mushrooms, in particular psychoactive mushrooms. A number of scholars, including the botanists William Emboden and Richard Schultes and the classicist Carl Ruck, independently and at Wasson's urging, began looking for mushroom lore in Greek and Eastern mythology. The chemist Albert Hoffman, (who synthesized LSD from psychoactive mushrooms found in Mexico) was another member of this group. During the 1970s and 1980s, several fascinating studies emerged as a result of their collaboration, including The Road to Eleusis (1978) and Persephone's Quest (1986). Emboden's Narcotic Plants (1980) and Schultes' and Hoffman's Plants of the Gods (Rochester,Vermont, 1992) are other important works on this subject.

While thus far there have been no studies of the ethnobotany of the
Armenian highlands, there are, nonetheless, some rich secondary materials for such a study. Among them are Ghevond Alishan's Haybusak [Armenian Botany] (1895), the same author's Hin hawatk' kam het'anosakan kronk' Hayots' [The Ancient Faith or Pagan Religion of the Armenians] (1910), Joseph Karst's Mythologie armeno-caucasienne et hetito-asianique (1948), Karapet Gabikian's Hay Busashxar (1912) and T. Awdalbegyan's Avandapatum (1969). Martiros Ananikian's article "Armenian Mythology" in vol 7 Mythology of All Races (1964; repr. of 1925 ed.), and James Russell's Zoroastrianism in Armenia (1987) also contain important material on sacred plants. While all
these works list the sacred plants revered among the Armenians, and provide valuable legends about them, none of them examines the possible reasons for these plants' original appeal. Similarly, recent works on early Armenian medicine do not focus on entheogens as such, but rather on the medicinal value of the plants. In any case, mushrooms and/or tree fungi do not appear in any of these lists.

Armenian primary sources also say little about mushrooms (Armenian sunk). The 5th century Eznik, who mentions cannabis, mandrake, hemlock, and spurge and was well aware of their effects uses the word mushroom only once, without commentary. The 13th century Kirk' Vastakats' [Book of Labors] has a short chapter (#272) on growing mushrooms, which indicates that the Armenians were familiar with mushroom cultivation. Alishan's entries in Haybusak for agaric are T'npi (#796, p. 191) , K'ujulay/K'uch'ula (#3216, p. 648) and Gharicon (#1813, p. 392). T'npi and K'ujulay he regards as Amanita.
Gharicon was perhaps Fomitopsis officinalis, the agaric tree fungus mentioned by Pliny and used in numerous medicinal preparations. Agaric and Amanita were familiar to the Armenian physicians Mxit'ar Herats'i (12th century) and Amirdovlet (15th century) who mentioned them in remedies for a variety of ailments. Agaric is also mentioned as a valuable commodity of trade in the 13th century Law Code of Mxit'ar Gosh.

Though the Armenian literary histories say little about mushrooms, there is, nonetheless, evidence about the importance of certain trees that are known hosts to Amanita muscaria, and other medicinal fungi. For example, the Urartian king Rusa (8th cent. B.C.) planted a grove of white poplars, and divination by the rustling of the poplars' leaves was a feature of later pre-Christian Armenia. The cypress, juniper, oak, pine, and fir were other venerated trees. The Orontid king Eruand in the fourth century B.C. planted a forest of firs near the city of Bagaran. The Arsacid king Xosrov II Kotak (A.D.
330-38) planted a grove of oaks called the "Palace Grove (Tachar mayri) and a grove of firs called Xosrovakert. A fourth century Syrian monk, Mar Aha, commented on tree-worship among the Armenians. The 12th century Catholicos, Nerses Shnorhali, railed against reverence paid to the aspen, poplar, and willow by the Arewordik' ("Children of the Sun"), an ancient group which also worshipped certain heliotropic plants. Indeed, as late as 1915 in central and eastern Asia Minor, the Armenian population held certain trees in
great esteem, especially those near a spring, and they decorated their branches with written prayers.

But what of much earlier times, the mid-second millenium before our era, when the Vedas were being composed? Archaeology, a major potential source, must await more propitious times. Currently, our only sources are fragments of early myths incorporated into much later Armenian writings. We shall now examine several such myths in the light of the ethnobotanical studies of Wasson and his colleagues.


The Armenian god Vahagn has a number of the markers of soma identified by Wasson and his associates. Vahagn became the preeminent weather god: a god of thunder, and lightning. He is associated with the Vedic god of fire, Agni, and the Greek gods Prometheus and Haephestus. Prometheus' gift of "fire" to humanity, delivered through a stalk of fennel has much in common with Vahagn's remarkable birth. Carl Ruck was to equate Prometheus' "fire" with the fly-agaric mushroom. In our opinion, the legend of the birth of Vahagn, which Ananikian calls "an independent tradition from the original
homeland of the Indo-Iranians" presents an even clearer image: Vahagn's red head with suns for eyes is a poetic reflection of the red Amanita mushroom's cap, dotted with white flecks of the universal veil:

"The sky was in labour, the earth was in labour,
The purple sea also was in labour.
In the sea was a red reed, also in labour.
Out of the stalk of the reed smoke emerged.
Out of the stalk of the reed flame emerged,
And running out of the flame was a xarteash ("fair, light, flaxen")
He had hair of fire.
He had a beard of flame
And his eyes were suns."

There is a curious epithet of this god, vishapakagh ("vishap" -reaper or "vishap"-gatherer/harvester). Although this epithet had come to mean "vishap" ("dragon") killer/slayer in medieval Armenian literature, even as late as the 5th century, "vishap" meant more than a "dragon". One derivation of "vishap" is from Persian "having poisonous saliva". Could the vishaps and
possibly the enigmatic vishap-stones found in various places on the Armenian highlands originally have been mushroom-related? The peculiar method of "harvesting" the vishaps is suggestive: Vahagn is said to wait until the small ones have grown and are ready--more like a farmer gathering a crop than someone killing "dragons". The peculiar explanation of "vishap hanel" ("to remove a vishap") also seems connected with a harvest: the "vishap" is "drawn up" or "pulled up" out of a wet place very much like a mushroom. Ananikian observes: "this process was always accompanied by thunder, lightning, and heavy showers". Certain Hurrian and Phyrgian myths have similar unusual features, perhaps reminiscent of a mushroom harvest.

The god Mithra and the heroes of David of Sasun

Mithra was another Indo-Iranian deity once popular among the Armenians. In the Rig Veda (IX.108.16), Mitra is "pleased by soma". In the Avesta, haoma is offered to Mithra (Yasht X.6). Mithra's weapon is the mace or thunderbolt (vazra), similar to Indra's bolt (vajra). The raven, an Amanita marker, was sacred to Mithra as it was to Verethragna, Vahagn's Iranian cousin. According to Greek legend, Mithra was born in Armenia by the banks of the Arax river where, presumably, his killing of the bull of plenty took place.
Ethnobotanists see several features of the soma cult in this god's attributes. Called the "Capped One", he is said to have been born from a rock or egg already wearing a cap, often painted red. His secret cult, which had strong astrological/alchemical/eschatological components, involved a sacred meal and meetings in caves and/or subterranean chambers. Apparently, Mithra originally was a weather god in Armenia, although this attribute was later acquired by his triumphant competitor, Vahagn. According to Strabo, in
Achaemenid times, the satrap of Armenia "used to send to the Persian king twenty thousand foals every year at the time of the Mithracina". This latter was a festival to Mithra when "it was the privilege of the Great King of Persia to become drunk" (with haoma?). According to Pliny the Elder, in 66 A.D., when the Armenian king Trdat I travelled to Rome to receive coronation from the emperor Nero, he may have initiated Nero into certain "Magian" (?Mithraic)
rites, involving a secret sacrament.

The medieval Armenian epic, David of Sasun, which is full of Mithraic imagery, contains several interesting allusions and references to soma-drinking, and mushrooms. In the First Cycle, Dzovinar ("Sea-born", "Bolt of lightning") drinks from a Milk Fountain of Immortality on Ascension Day, a day sacred to plants. She conceived from this and bore the twins Sanasar and Baghdasar, one large, one small, who are called "sea-born" and "fiery beings". When grown,
the twins resolve to build their fortress, Sasun, at the source of magic water, since:

"The man who drinks at its source
Will become invincible;
No one will be able to down him."

Later, Sanasar descends into an enchanted underwater kingdom, while his brother Baghdasar falls into a trance by the shore of the lake. Sanasar himself sleeps and has a prophetic dream telling him the location of the Lightning Sword and the magic, flying, marine horse, Kourkig. The dream also foretold:

"You will bathe in the palace pool;
And you will grow, gather strengh and courage.
Your strength will grow sevenfold,
And seven will grow sevenfold;
You will attain your heart's desire."

Sanasar found and donned the battle gear. Then he:

"Went to the palace pool and bathed,
Drank the water of the fountain and fell asleep.
He slept for a short while; attained the grace of God;
He grew, gathered strength, courage,
And became a fiery being."

Like a mushroom, Sanasar had grown so large so fast that his brother did not recognize him, when he emerged from the magic lake. In a number of Sanasar's subsequent travels, he is drinking, harvesting, or pressing soma: he had to pass a test of strength involving drinking huge amounts of "milk", he retrieved a fiery golden "apple", snatched a "gem" from the mouth of a dragon, and, using special stones, slew a dragon blocking a spring of water. Brother Baghdasar is described by his mother as "dzurh" ("bent", "crooked") a term also used to describe the hero of the Third Cycle, David, after he has eaten wild mushrooms (see below), and several other of the epic's heroes when they demonstrate "insane" behavior.

In the Second Cycle, Sanasar's son, Medz (Big) Mher also grew prodigiously:

"At seven years of age
Mher grew to be seven stories tall"

Before acquiring the magic horse and the other enchanted symbols of power and civilization, Mher was a wildman who chased and caught game on foot, often killing his prey by hand. He killed an ox with his Lightning Sword, as the god Mithra had killed the bull. Medz Mher is the only hero of Sasun to conclude a treaty (Iran. mithra "treaty") with his enemy, and dies because of a broken oath.

In the Third Cycle, Mher's son, David, actually eats wild mushrooms and becomes disoriented:

"What was David doing?
He was eating leaves that he gathered,
Roots that he dug up in the fields, and
Mushrooms that he picked from the hillside."


"On his way to Sassoun, to satisfy his hunger,
David had eaten grass and anything he had found.
Because of this he had become a bit foolhardy.
His mind was in a daze."

By the time he reached Sasun, "He did not know where he was; He was bewildered..Kept walking in a daze". After this, David is able to communicate with animals. He does not recognize the difference between livestock and wild animals, and continues to have lapses when he "does not understand" the ways of civilized folk. Like his forebears, David, too, drank the magic potion. At the insistence of his horse, Kourkig, he drank from Mher's Milk Fountain:

"He heard Kourkig's voice saying:
--This is your father's Gatnaghbiur [Milk Fountain].
Dismount, drink its water
And put a little of it on my ribs.
David dismounted, kissed Kourkig on the forehead,
Put a little water on his ribs,
And let him free to graze in the grass.
Then he drank the water of the spring,
Lay down, slept, and had a rest
While the horse stood against the sun and shaded him."


"David awoke. He found that he had gained strength.
His father's garments would hardly fit him."

As mushroom cultivators know, direct sunlight destroys the potency of mushrooms, inhibits fruiting, and accelerates decay. Keeping the sun off Pokr (Small) Mher (David's son), the last of the line, is a curious concern in the epic's Fourth Cycle. His uncles, to protect him, "had taken Mher behind seven doors, Keeping him under guard". His bride-to-be, Kohar, has a similar concern:

"The following morning
Kohar Khanom looked out of her window
And saw Mher asleep in a tent
With his legs stretched out uncovered.
Kohar pitied him and thought to herself:
--Mher will get sunstroke.
She put on a crimson suit, girded her weapons,
Mounted her chestnut stallion, rode out to Mher's tent,
And said:
--Mher, the sun is striking you.
--What can I do? said Mher, the tent is too small.
--The tent is not small, said Kohar, it is big,
But you are an Aznahour.
Mher said:--Let me sleep..."

After testing Mher's strength in combat, Kohar said:

"--Mher, you are worthy to become Kohar's husband,
But I say again, be careful,
Don't let the sun strike you.
She went, sent another tent with a servant;
--Pitch it to cover Mher's feet, she had said."

This epic ends on an eschatological note. Mher knew that his time on earth was ending when the ground, literally, cannot support his weight. He and his horse start to sink into the earth. He visits his parents' tombs and each of them in turn tells him:

"You have roamed the world enough.
You have roamed the world enough...
Akravou Kar [Raven's Rock] is your haven,
Go to Akravou Kar."

Mher went to Raven's Rock near lake Van, split the rock with his Lightning Sword, and he and his horse went into the cave. The rock came together and closed behind them. Twice a year, on the magic days of Transfiguration (Vardavarh) and Ascension Day (Hambartzoum) the cave door opens and Mher, holding the Wheel of the Zodiac and attended by the faithful Raven emerges to test the ground. Villagers claimed that the water dripping from the rock was the urine of Mher's magic horse, Kourkig.

Soma-like ceremonies continued to be enacted by the Armenian population of Asia Minor until the genocide of 1915-1923. On Ascension Day, the holiday of the Mother of Flowers, and sometimes on the Feast of the Transfiguration the people would eat a pudding containing milk, called kat'napur. On an evening preceding the festival itself, village maidens would spend the evening collecting various plants:

"...at an unknown and mystic hour of the night which precedes Ascension silence envelops all nature. Heaven comes nearer. All the springs and streams cease to flow. Then the flowers and shrubs, the hills and stones, begin to salute and address one another, and each one declares its specific virtue. The King Serpent who lives in his own tail learns that night the language of the flowers. If anyone is aware of that hour, he can change everything into gold by dipping it into water and expressing his wish in the name of God. Some report also that the springs and rivers flow with gold, which can be secured only at the right moment. On Ascension Day the people try to find out what kind of luck is awaiting them during the years, by means of books that tell fortune, or objects deposited on the previous day in a basin of water along with herbs and flowers. A veil covers these things which have been exposed to the gaze of the stars during the mystic night, and a young virgin draws them out one by one while verses divining the future are being recited. "

The image of the Serpent "who lives in his own tail" suggests the presence of the Amanita muscaria mushroom; however, there is no mention of the water with herbs and flowers being consumed. Ancient Armenian soma ceremonies may have been similar to the old Indian and Iranian ceremonies (whose characteristics are unknown), but the sacred entheogens probably differed, based on their availablity.


The material presented in this study suggests that in remote antiquity the populations of the Armenian highlands, like the proto-Iranians and proto-Indians, used the Amanita muscaria mushroom for religious intoxication. The Iranians and Indians, at some point in the distant past, discontinued the practise. Ethnobotanists have suggested that the replacement of the original soma by surrogatesamong the Iranians and Indians was due to the difficulty of obtaining the entheogen, or its complete unavailability in their new
settlements. Such was not the case in eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus. The presence there of virtually all known arboreal hosts of Amanita muscaria has guaranteed its continued availability to the resident populations from earliest times to the present. While the proto-Armenian shaman-priests, like their Iranian and Indian cousins, may have discontinued soma use in their "official" religious practises, this may not have been the case among the common folk. The myths, tales, and customs reviewed above strongly suggest this.

The myth of the birth of the god Vahagn, Armenia's remembrance of the birth of the god Soma, seems to belong to the second-early first millenium B.C., perhaps an "independent tradition from the original homeland of the Indo-Aryans" as Ananikian put it. Neither Indian nor Iranian sources has preserved a birth legend for the god Soma, though the Armenian tradition has. The birth legends and gestes of the god Mithra are also replete with Amanita imagery. The presence of a popular Mithra cult on the Armenian highlands through the early centuries of our era, with secret rites and a mysterious "sacrament"
suggests that the imagery is not simply evocative archaising.

Yet by the 5th century A.D. the meaning of the story of Vahagn's birth and of the vishap-harvest was no longer understood by Armenia's clerical writers. One suspects that members of the numerous pagan and Christian cults and sects which thrived across the highlands may have understood things differently and may have made use of the abundant ethnobotanicals readily available to them, including the Amanita muscaria mushroom, for magico-religious and sexual purposes. A surviving Armenian magical text also suggests this.

The 9-10th century epic, David of Sasun, not only contains the classical markers of Amanita also found in the descriptions of Vahagn and Mithra, but has at least one figure, David, the central hero, ingesting wild mushrooms, and feeling their effects. Mushroom and soma imagery is striking and systematic in all cycles of the epic. The society which produced this masterpiece knew about the Amanita mushroom firsthand.

Unlike the Iranian and Indian societies which abandoned Amanita, Armenian societies, apparently, held it dear; though it is in folk culture rather than in the world of the priests and literary histories that this is reflected. Elements of the soma ceremony itself survived among the Armenian population of central and eastern Asia Minor until the second decade of the twentieth century. The continuing availability of the red-capped mushroom across the
Armenian highlands and in the Caucasus suggests that modern residents there also may have some tales to tell, if anthropologists will listen.

Sunday, May 29th, 2005, 10:46 AM
Soma among the Armenians

(Robert Bedrosian)

Soma was a god, a plant, and an intoxicating beverage. I guess it is no coincidence that Aldous Huxley has used this name for his ideal drug in Brave New World? ;)

Monday, May 30th, 2005, 05:57 PM
I guess it is no coincidence that Aldous Huxley has used this name for his ideal drug in Brave New World? ;)

No it wasnt. :P But I think he referred to India probably...