Soma and hoama are among the earliest recorded plants that produce religious ecstasy. Mentioned in the sacred texts of the Brahmans, the Vedas, and in the Zoroastrian Avesta respectively, the mystery of their identity has long been contested.
In Botanical Ecstasies: Psychoactive Plant Formulas in India and Beyond, Dr Matthew Clark proposes that soma/hoama is an ayahuasca-like plant complex made from many different species.
In this interview we discuss Dr Matthew Clark's new book, how he first became interested in the question of soma's identity, plant experimentation, and the role of ethnobotany in understanding history.
Hi Matthew, thanks you so much for agreeing to answer some our questions about your new publication. You’ve written several works about soma – how did you first become interested in this botanical question?
When I was doing an MA on Indian religions at SOAS in 1999, I was occasionally dipping into the Vedas, where soma is clearly very important. I had read Wasson’s soma (fly-agaric mushroom) book a long time previously, but hadn’t thought much about the topic since. But I got curious again about soma. At the time, in 1999, I was drinking ayahuasca regularly (I stopped twenty years ago) and in one session I realised that this yellow/brown, bitter purgative drink seems just like the drink of a Vedic soma session….priests, ritual, prayers, chants, vomiting, visions, rebirth etc. That was really the start of it.
Then I started coming across references to soma in various religious and medical texts. So, I read about all the botanical theories. None seemed to work as a candidate. I then became convinced that in ancient Asia they were making ayahuasca analogues. At first the theory was entirely speculative, but as time went on the evidence started mounting up significantly. Every problem related to previous botanical theories could be accounted for by a multi-plant ayahuasca analogue concoction.
Narratively speaking, soma takes on several guises in the Vedic literature, not simply a plant-of-unknown-origin. Could you say a little bit about this please? And also, by the time soma passages were written down from the oral traditions, were its rites still widely practised?
In both the Vedas and the Avesta (the sacred books of the Zoroastrians), soma/haoma is recorded as both an extraction of plants (from the root “su”) and as a deity. The Avesta was first written down in perhaps the 9th century; and the Vedas in the eleventh century. Soma/haoma is revered in the highest terms in these texts: for wisdom, insight, poetic inspiration and healing; and just as in ayahusca cults in South America, also occasionally for black magic and warfare.
The central elements of early Vedic religion were the cult of sacred fires and of the sacred soma drink. Both Vedic and Zoroastrian ritualists still occasionally perform soma/haoma rites, but for many centuries have been using plants that are not psychoactive, though Zoroastrians used to use ephedra, a stimulant. The Vedic priests have known for many centuries that they are using substitutes. However, I have discovered small-scale use of psychoactive soma/haoma concoctions in both Iran and India; and these are properly psychedelic concoctions.
One of the fascinating points you make in your work is how an ayahuasca analogue may have been in use over quite a large area of Asia – not least in India, but also as hoama in the Persian traditions. How useful do you think ethnobotanical studies are to understanding and writing history?
It was a great surprise for the great botanist Richard Shultes when he realised the extent of the botanical knowledge of local people in Central and South America. Many people could identify all (or nearly all) of the plants growing in the area, and specify their uses. I have also observed this myself in rural India. I believe that knowledge of various formulas for making soma (the sense of which could be roughly translated as “psychedelic”) from a variety of plants was widespread in ancient Asia. I note in the book that psychedelic formulas were also probably the basis of the kykeōn of Greco-Roman mystery rites and also consumed in the cult of Mithra. I have recently been discussing with a few colleagues the observation that lurking in the background of yoga and also Tantric rites are psychoactive plant formulas. “Psychoactive plants” (oṣadhi) are in plain view in some yoga texts, as are plant formulas in some Tantras. But this issue has never before been properly investigated; probably because the direct connection between psychedelics and “mystical” experience has not until recently been fully taken into account when trying to understand some ancient texts.
Ethnobotanical studies of texts, particularly Tantras, will, I believe, reveal much more about the use of certain plants and formulas in ancient and contemporary Asia. I believe that further ethnobotanical studies of Asian texts and ritual practices will reveal a significant (and largely “occult”) aspect of human religious history.
Your last work on soma was The Tawny One – a very thorough and excellent discussion of the past scholarship, with lots of new research, and your proposal that it may have in fact been a combination of plants. How does your new book add to this topic?
In The Tawny One there is quite a lot of material that is related to the theory, such as the chapters on altered states and Greek religion, which is not essential to the main argument. I wanted to present the main argument in as compact a form as feasible, but also include quite a lot of new material, which I’ve only come across in the last four years. Since The Tawny One was first published in 2017, I’ve been contacted by quite a few researchers and academics interested in the soma/haoma topic, and some have been very helpful putting me on to new leads and publications. What I’ve added in Botanical Ecstasies is all the latest research on ayahuasca analogues; there is also a more comprehensive account of the global use of multi-plant formulas in traditional medicine systems, as I have come to realize that this is more of a central issue than I had previously thought; also, in the final section is a summary of the fascinating research (not yet published) by Ian Baker on a living soma cult in Bengal.
The growth of interest in ayahuasca analogues over the last few years has been a fascinating development. So far as your aware, are there qualitative differences between concoctions, perhaps due to different plant synergies? And are these useful in trying to identify historical descriptions?
There are now numerous kinds of ayahusca analogue concoctions being made. The “ayahuasca” that I drank in 1997, in the first few sessions I had, was made with Syrian rue and Mimosa hostilis. Only later did I drink South American concoctions, made with the caapi vine and chakruna. The concoctions had slightly different effects, but for me it would be very difficult to be sure exactly which plants I had consumed, partly because there are so many factors that determine the experience in every session. And ayahusca concoctions vary enormously, in terms of strength, effects and “smoothness”. However, plant medicine experts are able to make concoctions for very specific effects. They may, for example, choose a particular variety of a vine and mix other specific plants. It is a remarkable science; dosage and specific combinations determine a range of effects. Though I think that without any botanical identifications, it would be difficult to determine exactly which plants might have been used in antiquity solely based on imagery and the usually poetic effects described in texts.
Finally, what areas of future investigation should we keep an eye on as the story of ayahuasca analogues in Asia continues to unfold?
People are as curious as ever about non-ordinary states of consciousness. Bio-assays of novel combinations of plants are almost certainly underway somewhere on earth as we now speak. These experiments continue to reveal the psychoactive properties of plants. I think that there are also, as mentioned earlier, probably many clues in Tantras. But that will take time to explore. One of the main problems is the exact botanical identity of plants in texts, as they sometimes have numerous names and identities in both Sanskrit and vernacular languages.