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The Cannabis Soma/Haoma Theory: A Synopsis Based on the Latest Textual and Archeological Evidence

The Cannabis Soma/Haoma Theory: A Synopsis Based on the Latest Textual and Archeological Evidence

CANNABIS CULTURE – This is part 2 of a series on The Soma Haoma Question, exploring the identity of the ancient Vedic and Avestan entheogenic sacrament. Other articles released thus far in this series include:

  1. The Soma-Haoma Question, which gives the reader a backgrounder into the story behind this mystery and explains who the authors of the Vedas and Avesta were.

This article will summarize some of the most important points in identifying the suggested role for cannabis in the Vedic Soma and related Avestan Haoma traditions, based on the latest textual and archeological information. This synopsis is based on material from my 2010 book Cannabis and the Soma Solution, along with the most current discoveries and research.

This article is part of a series on the identity of the ancient plant behind these Vedic and Avestan mysteries. The Vedic tradition’s soma  and the Avestan’s haoma were plant based ritual drinks that inspired their imbibers. A Common origin is attributed to both. The texts describe the preparation of soma/haoma by means of extracting the juice from a plant, the identity of which is now unknown and debated among scholars. In both the ancient Vedasand the Avesta, the name of the drink and the plant are the same. Various plant candidates have been suggested for Soma/Haoma. This article is part of a series of Papers regarding the Soma-Haoma Solution, that also examines other candidates such as Syrian Rue, and various Psychedelic mushrooms as well.

In opening, I want to be clear, so I am not guilty of cultural appropriation, that the view that soma was likely cannabis, has been held by a variety of Indian scholars and much of my own research in this area is built upon their earlier contributions, particularly in regards to descriptions of the plant soma in the Vedic material, and in identifying descriptions of its preparation, as well as understanding the various texts that indicate the original plant’s prohibition and its later replacements. It should also be noted in this regard, The Mushroom Soma Theory, which will be discussed in a later article in this series, is the creation of Western researchers, and I know of no prominent Indian sources that agree with that identification.

Pointing out the wide spread religious use of hemp throughout the ancient Near East, amongst the Babylonians, Assyrians, Scythians and Hebrews, as well as the early spread of its cultic use from northern Europe, to Siberian Asia, China, India, Asia minor and Southeast Asia, the famed anthropologist Weston La Barre, suggested that “cannabis was part of a religio-shamanic complex of at least Mesolithic age, in parallel with an equally old shamanic use of Soma…” (La Barre, 1980). 

La Barre mentions soma, an ancient psychoactive beverage that was the source of the Vedic religion in India, and the Avestan religion of ancient Persia, where it was known as Haoma. This ancient sacrament was one of the most widely used entheogens of the ancient world. The identity of Soma-Haoma has been a long time matter of debate. La Barre, however, accepted R. Gordon Wasson’s identification of Soma, as the Amanita muscaria mushroom, which has remained the prevailing view since the early 1970s. As well, David Stophlet Flattery and Martin Schwartz have hypothesized that the Persian Haoma was Peganum harmala, or Syrian rue, and this identification of haoma is wifely held to be equally as strong as that of Wasson’s identity of soma. But what if one were be able to show that these identifications were incorrect, and that the ancient Soma-Haoma, was in fact cannabis? This would mean that Hemp was the most celebrated religious sacrament in the history of humanity, and that its use would be twice as widespread as La Barre has suggested for either cannabis or Soma alone!

As botanist Mark Merlin noted close to 50 years ago, in his short but commendable presentation on the subject:

…[W]hat was the famous Soma plant that played such an important part in the formation of the Vedic civilization? Was Soma really the hemp plant? There are many evidences to suggest such an identification…. [I]f it were possible to substantiate, beyond any doubt, that the plant source of Soma juice was Cannabis sativa, the diffusion of hemp into India would seem to be deeply significant. (Merlin, 1972)

Writing in the early seventies, when so little information on the matter was available in the West, Merlin lamented that “even with all the circumstantial evidence that I have collected and will list to support this identification, it would be extremely naive and in a real sense impetuous to dogmatically assert this theory” (Merlin, 1972). As for this author, let’s just say I am feeling slightly more impetuous close to 50 years later about the information laid out in this article, and I am confident the reader will fully understand why by the time they reach the closing paragraphs….

The Cannabis Soma Theory

I propose that the combined sacramental use of soma and haoma, grew out of the common Indo-European ancestry of both the Vedic and Avestan authors, and an earlier widespread cultural and cultic use of cannabis. It has been suggested that the root word for cannabis, is proto-Indo-European, and was around before the Indo-European language even developed, and split of with their different variations of the cannabis root word ‘kanap‘. It has been reported that in 1997, a hemp rope dating back to 26,900 BC was found in Czechoslovakia. and this gives us some idea of how far back its relationship goes with even proto-Indo-European cultures.

The late British archeologist Andrew Sherratt pointed to the use of tripod bowls which he suggested were used to burn cannabis in the Ukraine region. Sherratt also speculated that the wide spread evidence of corded wear culture, which spread throughout from the Rhine on the west to the Volga in the east, occupying parts of Northern Europe, Central Europe and Eastern Europe, was evidence of hemp cord pressed pottery jars that held a cannabis drink. As noted in my book Cannabis and the Soma Solution, which serves as the basis for this synopsis:

The authors of The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture note that “Hemp has not only been recovered from sites in Romania but also from a Yamma burial at Gurbanesti (Maldova) where traces were found in a ‘censer’ (a shallow footed bowl believed to have been used in the burning of some aromatic substance). It has been found in a similar context from an early bronze age burial in the north Caucasus…. Ceramics were more elaborate than those of the Yamma culture and included, especially in female burials, low footed vessels interpreted as ‘censers’, presumed to be used in rituals involving some narcotic substance such as hemp” (Mallory, et al., 1997). “It seems, therefore, that the practice of burning cannabis as a narcotic is a tradition which goes back in this area some five or six thousand years and was the focus of the social and religious rituals of the pastoral peoples of central Eurasia in prehistoric and early historic times” (Sherratt, 1995).

Sherratt suggested that the cannabis burning braziers eventually went to the way side, and were replaced by a beverage, although he believes that cannabis use continued through this cultural shift. The “disappearance of ceramic braziers in northern and western Europe” was followed “by the appearance… of prominent forms of pottery drinking vessels. Corded-ware beakers and early bell-beakers are ornamented with impressions of twisted cord: if these are hemp fibres, then the decoration may indicate that their contents were connected with cannabis” (Sherratt, 1995). A view shared by other researchers: “As cannabis can also be infused, i.e., served as a component in a drink, it has also been suggested that the spread of cord-(hemp?) decorated pottery from the steppe westward may also have been part of this same complex” (Mallory, et al., 1997).

More recently Russian researchers have been making similar suggestions, specifically about the Aryan ancestors of the Vedic Indians. In the article ‘Aryan settlements in the Urals: A precursor to Indian Civilisation?‘, Strong archaeological evidence which indicates that the Aryans lived in Arkaim, by the Urals, before they went to India via Central Asia. The article quotes the archeologist Sergei Malyutin:

Malyutin says that the Aryans came here from the west, probably from the Volga, and then moved to Central Asia and then India. He believes that their sacred drink included cannabis boiled in milk with an addition of ephedrine [i.e., ephedra].

“Why do you think they are the same Aryans that later came to India and Iran?” I ask Sergei Malyutin.

“The Rigveda and Avesta contain descriptions of the place where the Aryans came from – it has birch trees and climate looking like ours,” he says. “They had similar burials and the skeletons are of the Indo-European anthropological type… There is another, key feature, chariots, which were used only by the Aryans at that time.” (Konstantinov, 2012) [emphasis added]

It was this sort of high mobility that led to the spread of cannabis throughout the ancient world, and in fact the development of hemp rope has been attributed to the harnessing and domestication of the horse.  is unclear that archeologist Sergei Malyutin, was basing his research on the work of Prof. Victor Sarianidi at BMAC, which we will discuss later, or came to his theories about the drink of the Aryans, based on another group known for both burning and drinking cannabis preparations, that came out of the Russian steppes, and spread across much of the ancient world, Western Europe, Persian, Israel, Egypt, India and even deep into central China, a series of Indo European tribes, now known to us collectively as the Scythians. As we shall this group as well has its important part to play in understanding the mysterious identities of soma and haoma.

Cannabis was also part of the earliest trade routes we know of as well, as noted in ‘Cannabis in Eurasia: origin of human use and Bronze Age trans-continental connections’, indicating it would have been part and parcel of any “Aryan” migration. “A marked increase in cannabis achene records from East Asia between ca. 5,000 and 4,000 BP might be associated with the establishment of a trans-Eurasian exchange/migration network”. (Eurasia is the largest continent on Earth, comprising all of Europe and Asia).

The highly nomadic Scythians have been credited with spreading the use of cannabis along with the root word kana, throughout much of the ancient world, Herodotus, the 5th century BC historian, wrote of the Scythian funerary ritual that involved placing heated stones in bronze vessels, that were placed inside teepee like structures and had cannabis thrown on them to inhale the smoke captured in the tent “hot box” style. Archeologists in the last century, recovered such implements and the carbonized remains of burnt cannabis, at a number of Scythian sites, confirming  Herodotus account.

The highly mobile nomadic Scythians are credited by many scholars with the spread of cannabis around the ancient world.

In Cannabis and the Soma Solution I wrote about the various finds of well preserved ancient cannabis in central China,in the Tarim Basin and Tian Shan mountains involving the Indo European Jushi (also Gushi) culture, who inhabited the area from about 2,000 BC -400 BC when the indigenous Han Chinese are thought to have chased them out of the region. This cannabis was found in various tomb locations, and the caucasian mummies that were with them, have drastically changed what we thought we knew about the contact with these various cultures. this archeological discovery has also altered the dates of the Silk Road, and we know realize it was being used about a millennia before it was thought to have prior to this discovery.

A woven basket that contained over 2 pounds of cannabis leaves and flowers, a mortar used for grinding cannabis. Found in tomb with a Indo-European shaman in China.

In Xinjang, China, archaeologists found a basket of female THC rich cannabis flowers buried alongside the mummified remains of a middle age man, as well as a mortar and pestle that was used for grinding the plant matter, bringing to mind the mortar and pestle of the Haoma priests. Likewise The Rig Veda 8.4.4 reads “May the drops gladden thee, rich Indra, and obtain bounty for him who pours the juice.
Soma pressed in the mortar didst thou take and drink, and hence hast won surpassing might.”

Additional finds of bundles of Ephedra at similar sites of mummified Caucasian remains in the orient have caused more than a few researchers to view this discovery as evidence of the Bactria Margiana Haoma cult extending into China. NBC news reported on this find ‘World’s Oldest Marijuana Stash Totally Busted: Two pounds of still green weed found in a  2,700 year old Gobi Desert grave‘:

Nearly two pounds of still-green plant material found in a 2,700-year-old grave in the Gobi Desert has just been identified as the world’s oldest marijuana stash, according to a paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Botany.

A barrage of tests proves the marijuana possessed potent psychoactive properties and casts doubt on the theory that the ancients only grew the plant for hemp in order to make clothing, rope and other objects.

Still green after all those years, 2,700 year old cannabis and cannabis seed, found with a Indo-European shaman at a Chinese tomb.

The mummified remains found at these sites have caused a lot of controversy, as they were not those of the Oriental people generally assumed as the indigenous inhabitants of the area, but were rather of Caucasian descent. In a news story ‘Researchers find oldest-ever stash of marijuana’, Dr. Ethan Russo, arguably the leading authority on the history of cannabis medicines, is quoted in in regards to this amazing find, noting that other evidence of cannabis use from the area also exists:

The substance has been found in two of the 500 Gushi tombs excavated so far in northwestern China, indicating that cannabis was either restricted for use by a few individuals or was administered as a medicine to others through shamans, Russo said…. “It certainly does indicate that cannabis has been used by man for a variety of purposes for thousands of years.”… The region of China where the tomb is located, Xinjiang, is considered an original source of many cannabis strains worldwide. (The Canadian Press, 11/27/08).

More recently, a number of braziers for burning cannabis have been discovered that these Chinese sites and the belief is they were used in similar funerary rituals similar to those suggested for the Scythians. One difference being the Scythians used bronze braziers, whereas at the Tarim Basin sites, hard wood braziers made from Juniper were used. They also left processed or whole cannabis flowers with the person buried in some cases, and these, because of the dry cold conditions of the area, serve as the best preserved cannabis from the ancient world. Moreover, it was likely hybridized for its resin content.

Indo-European mummies found in Chinese tombs.

A Jushi mummy wearing a conical hat, a style attributed to the Scythians, as were other manners of the dress and culture.

The authors of the academic paper on this extraordinary find of cannabis braziers, ‘The origins of cannabis smoking: Chemical residue evidence from the first millennium BCE in the Pamirs’  offer some challenges to the cannabis soma theory, as well as dismiss much of the finding of previous researchers, although they do reference my own work in regards to Zoroastrian references to cannabis.

An important piece of evidence in regards to The Cannabis Soma Theory, is the discovery of a number of temple sites in the outer regions of Afghanistan known as the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex (BMAC) where the Russian archeologist Professor Victor Sarianidi found 3 temple sites that he believed were devoted to the preparation of the haoma/soma beverage, and claimed evidence of cannabis, ephedra, and poppy, in use in this context, preserved in fossilized gypsum and impressions in clay shards.

A Reconstruction of one of the Soma/Haoma Temples at the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex

Professor Victor Sarianidi on site at BMAC

Prof. Sarianidi  stated that these “excavations documentally proved that poppy, cannabis and ephedra were used for making the soma-haoma drinks, and thickets of these plants were found in excess in the vicinity of the excavated temples of Margiana” (Sarianidi, 2003). In his article Margiana and Soma-Haoma he writes:

In the Zoroastrian religion haoma had a triple image, that is haoma as the ritual narcotic drink, haoma as the plant used for making the intoxicating drink, and haoma as the diety or legendary priest: the personification of the plant and drink…. so far only in Margiana and Bactria there were found material proofs of the usage of the alkaloid plants (ephedra, cannabis and poppy) for the preparation of the intoxicating drink of the soma-haoma type. And finally, it should be mentioned that only in Margiana the local tribes built monumental temples in honour of the intoxicating drink soma-haoma (more precisely, in honour of the Soma-haoma god), which do not leave any doubts about its divine status.

Another proof of the divine character of Soma-haoma is the fact that three out of four Margianian monumental temples were dedicated to the cult of this drink. It is clear that the above-mentioned direct archaeological proofs make one believe that the soma-haoma cult in the Zoroastrian religion found its origin among the related cults that were spread in “Iranian paganism”, precisely in Margiana and in Bactria in particular. At the same time one should not concentrate only on these two historical regions. The area where this cult drink was spread includes the whole of “Outer Iran” from eastern Iran and up to the Indus valley. (Sarianidi 2003) [Emphasis added]

As I discussed in Cannabis and the Soma Solution, another group of European researchers were unable to reproduce the evidence of cannabis and ephedra that Sarianidi and his team recovered from the sediments in pots from the site (Bakels, 2003). A situation that Sarianidi claimed was due to old material that had been exposed to sunlight being used in the tests, but still others have agreed with the findings. As Professor Mark Merlin, who has also explored cannabis as a possible soma candidate (Merlin, 1972), pointed out in regards to these criticisms of Sarianidi’s findings in his paper Archeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World (2008):

According to Miller (2003), photographs of the Ephedra, Cannabis, and Papaver, and archaeological specimens presented in the Togolok-21 report by Meyer-Melikyan (1990), appear to be consistent with the respective species; however, the determination of the Papaver species needs further study to confirm that it is P. somniferum. (Merlin, 2008)

Implements found at BMAC that Sarianidi saw as related to soma/haoma and its peparation and consumption, such as strainers and drinking vessels.

Clay shards with fossilized sediments that Sarinaidi’s team at BMAC identified as cannabis seed impressions.

Despite that, and although Sarianidi and his team maintained his identification of cannabis, ephedra and in some cases poppy at BMAC, there remains a shadow of questionability surrounding this find. It should however be noted that historically, there have been indication of the use of cannabis in intoxicating beverages in this region. “The gelotophllis of Pliny… a plant drunk in wine among the Bactrians, which produced immoderate laughter, may very well be identical with hemp, which still grows willd in the country around the Caspian and Aral Seas” (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993).  Pliny (23-79 a.d.) quotes the following description from Democritus:

Taken in drink it produces delirium, which presents to the fancy visions of a most extraordinary nature. The theangelis, he says, grows upon Mount Libanus in Syria, upon the chain of mountains called Dicte in Crete, and at Babylon and Susa in Persia. An infusion of it imparts powers of divination to the Magi. The geolotophyllis, is a plant found in Bactriana [i.e. BMAC], and on the banks of the Borysthenes. Taken internally with myrhh and wine all sorts of visionary forms present themselves, excite the most immoderate laughter.

The authors of the Chinese brazier paper seem unaware of other finds and evidence that support Sarianidi’s views, such as the discovery of Scythian Golden cups, which contained residue of cannabis and poppy, two of the 3 plants listed by Sarianidi, it is unclear if they tested for ephedra. We also know the Scythians were active in the BMAC region, as shall be discussed.

As well, the team behind the Brazier paper, seemingly dismiss all earlier finds, on the basis of the rich THC content they were able to show for their cannabis, and the lack of this sort of analysis of previous finds, and on this basis it has been called the “first evidence” of cannabis smoking. However, many of the earlier find took place before that sort of technology for testing was around, and/or the material found was too decomposed for that sort of testing, or relies simply on ancient textual references. Moreover, I would suggest the very similar style of braziers used by the Scythians and Jushi, albeit the Jushi used wood and the Scythians  bronze, and the over all style and method of inhalation being the same, as well as the context – funerary rituals, all, identify an ancient and common means of spiritual ecstasy among the ancient Indo-European people. I will say however,  that these Chinese braziers are the best finds of ancient cannabis use yet though, and represent indisputable evidence of cannabis use in the ancient world.

depictions of items used for cannabis fumigation at Scythian tombs

A Scythian fumigation tent

The wood braziers of the Jushi, used in similar funerary rites as the Scythians

A number of researchers have seen a connection with the Haoma Cult of the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex (BMAC), with the Tarim Basin culture in China where these ancient finds of cannabis were located. As  Elizabeth Wayland Barber explains in her book on the subject, The Mummies of Urumchi:

 …[W]e know that early oasis hoppers were experimenting with hashish and opium… New cross-cultural archaeological data shows that the oasis settlers set up major ties to the south as they worked their way eastward. Thus the cult of the White room [BMAC] had ready avenues for a rapid southward spread across the Iranian plateau. (Barber, 1999)

This connection of course brings us to the Bactrian oasis hypothesis for the Tarim Basin  mummies. As noted in the paper (2004), ‘Horse-mounted invaders from the Russo-Kazakh steppe or agricultural colonists from Western Central Asia? A craniometric investigation of the Bronze Age settlement of Xinjiang‘ “Proponents of this model assert that settlement of this region of western China came not from nomadic pastoralists of the steppe, but from sedentary, agriculturally based populations of the… Bactrian-Margiana archaeological complex (BMAC)” (Hemphill & Mallory, 2004). The suggestion here is that the archaeological evidence indicates that the initial colonizers of the Tarim Basin were agriculturalists from the BMAC region, rather than nomadic pastoralists from the Russian steppe. The evidence for this theory “not only includes irrigation systems, evidence of western cultigens such as wheat, and bones of sheep and goats, but also evidence of carefully bundled bags containing Ephedra sp. found accompanying many Bronze Age Xinjiang burials” (Hemphill & Mallory, 2004):

Use of ephedra is well-known in… [BMAC] and Sarianidi… found evidence of specialized areas known as “white rooms” where it is believed a ritual drink, known as haoma in Iranian and soma in India, was consumed… Ephedra does not grow on the Russo-Kazakh steppe, nor is it associated with either Afanasievo or Andronovo cultures. (Hemphill & Mallory, 2004)

So here we have both cannabis and ephedra, used by an Indo-European culture, in China and thought to be connected with the BMAC site of Prof. Sarianidi. In relation to this Chinese connection with the pre-Zoroastrian cult of magi that prepared the sacred Haoma at the BMAC site, it is interesting to note the etymological sleuthing of Victor Mair, who has shown that the old Chinese word m ag, derives from the Persian magus, also source of English magic. The Chinese term m ag identified powerful individuals in the Chinese court, who Mair states, “were primarily responsible for divination, astrology, prayer, and healing with medicines,” all traits of the Persian Magi.

Prof. Victor Mair with one of the Tarim Basin mummies he is credited with first identifying the caucasian features of.

By the way, Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, who is largely credited with identifying the caucasian features of the Tarim Basin mummies, had this to say about my book on Soma: “If you are interested in the history of the Indo-Europeans, the history and identification of soma / haoma, or the history of cannabis as a hallucinogen, you owe it to yourself to read Chris Bennett’s substantial tome.”

One of the groups that travelled between these regions, is believed to have been the Scythians, who were also known by various names, such as Saka, in the Persian regions.

These highland populations may include those who later became known as the Saka and who may have served as ‘middlemen’ facilitating contacts between East (Tarim Basin, China) and West (Bactria, [BMAC], Uzbekistan) along what later became known as the Great Silk Road. (Hemphill & Mallory, 2004)

Now as the Scythians, here referred to by their persian name, the Saka, also were known by other names, one of these is the Haomavarga, the haomo-gatherers, and it was recorded that they burnt haoma as well as drank it, just as they did with cannabis! Numbers of scholars have suggested that it was this group which transported goods between the Tarim Basin in China, and soma/haoma temples postulated by Sarianidi in BMAC. In Cannabis and the Soma Solution I noted a Scythian leather wine flask the contained residues of cannabis, and a bone cup were discovered in a Paryzyk tomb, which botanist Robert C. Clarke describes as “8 inches tall, crafted from neatly sewn plates of steamed and bent horn – contained ceremonial drink *includes cannabis, -light, -portable, unbreakable” (Clarke, 1998). Making this connection more clear, and adding support to Sarianid’s claims, as noted, more recently elaborate gold cups that contained chemical residues of cannabis and opium, were found at a Scythian burial site. Both of these plants were recorded at BMAC, it is unclear of the researchers tested for ephedra. At least one of the archeologists involved Anton Gas, has claimed they vessels were for drinking haoma…. And again the Scythian Haomavarga, were believed to have exported and imported goods, between the Chinese Tarim Basin, and BMAC in present day Afghanistan.

Image of one of the Scythian gold cups that contained residue of both cannabis and opium. Some researchers have suggested these vessels were for drinking haoma, and the some scythians were known as the Haomavarga, the haoma-gatherers,

The Scythian Haomavarga, from a relief in Persepolis

Now, this takes us to a core part of the cannabis-soma/haoma theory as I laid it out in Cannabis and the Soma Solution, how different variations of Chinese words for cannabis, such as hu ma (Iranian hemp) became the Avestan term, Haoma, and later as the Aryans entered India, through further dialectic changes, to soma.

Lets look at the Chinese names for cannabis which have been connected to the Scythians and the Iranians where the haoma cult that grew out of BMAC dominated. Mia Touw, in her essay The Religious and Medicinal Uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet (1981) that “it was hu-ma, or fiery hemp (as the meaning has been construed by some etymologists), which also meant Scythian hemp (Stuart1911) and this latter kind was held to be especially potent” (Touw, 1981).  Professor Mark Merlin as well notes “It is interesting that the Chinese character hu, which refers to barbarians or foreigners of the West, can be connected to the character for hemp (hu-ma) to indicate western or foreign hemp and the potent female hemp plant” (Merlin, 1972).

With the recent discoveries in China in the Tarim Basin and surrounding area, of cannabis amongst the Indo-European Jushi, with their ties to the cannabis using Scythian ‘Haomovarga‘ and trade into the BMAC soma/haoma cult, I think we can star to imagine where these Chinese names for the sort of potent cannabis found at these sites most likely originated.

As Alan Piper noted in his insightful unpublished 2004 essay ‘Chinese Hu ma as cannabis, the Iranian Huma plant, the Vedic Huma Fire Ceremony of Tantric Buddhism and the Huma bird of Iranian folklore,’:

…[T]he clearly homophonic results of these attempts at phonetic renderings of these various words, suggest the possibility, given the shared characteristics of the subjects to which they refer, that some of these could be loan words from one Asian culture to another. (Piper, 2004)

It would seem that it was here, at this meeting place of cultures in China, that the Haoma/Soma cult may have first originated under the name hu-ma, or other Chinese variations. Cannabis has its own Indo-European name kanna, and this is derived from the proto-Indo-European language, Finno-Ugric, kannap, and eventually becoming sana in Sanskrit as it went through its various changes in other Indo-European languages cannabis names, or at least this is what many Linguists and Etymologist claim.  As we shall show, the name Haoma, may have been developed from the Chinese term.  As has been noted, there are Chinese words indicating an Indo-European origin, it would not be surprising if the “linguistic may… have been two-way… European words for silk… are related to the oldest reconstructable Chinese words for silk, *s’e(g)-” (Barber, 1999) thus the same situation could give us hu ma to haoma.

In relation, it should be noted that along with the finds of hemp already discussed, bundles of ephedra twigs found on the bodies of the mummies found in the Tarim Basin, this is may be another important piece of evidence when trying to understand the identity of the ancient soma/haoma plant, as epehdera is used to this day as haoma and soma, in rites in both Persia and India, and were part of Sarianidi’s finding in BMAC. Like the Haoma beverage which contained both Ephedra and cannabis, allied forms of the Chinese term “huang-ma” and other variations such as “ho-ma” can and have been applied to both plants. As S. Mandihassan, who has given this etymology a lot of thought and study, has noted:

In Rgveda soma is primarily a plant. But its juice, being the more important, soma usually signifies its content and the drink. Then as actually known the plant, as container, would have priority over its content, the juice. This would be the reasoning according to common sense. But here comes he specialized reasoning of the philologist who assumes that the word soma is a Sanskrit word which then must have a Sanskrit root. H could not find this better than the root Su=to press. This delivered the word soma merely signifying that what has been “pressed out”. Then it is neither the the juice, nor the plant, but merely the procedure to which the plant was subjected that has given the name soma. Moreover, the juice was named before the plant, the content before the container. Whatever may be the justification of such etymology it is imperative to know who it was that named the plant and what led to its discovery. it must be pointed out that no one seems to have taken the word soma to that early stage when the plant came to be used on account of which the plant and its juice became so popular that the plant was finally deified as the God Soma in charge of all vegetation. people seem to have ignored the earliest use of soma and it is this feature that is being emphasized here.

…before proceeding further we may consider two criticisms already offered against the name soma. Bailey clearly writes that “the plant has no reasonable name if it is traced to hau, press-out-juice that is pressed out stuff or (actually to) the (mere) act of pressing juice.” Hau would be the root in Avesta were the word is hauma or haoma, corresponding to the Sanskrit root su and its derivative soma. Then if soma had been a Sanskrit word some allied form should have been found in some other Indo-Germanic language. But Keith critically observed commenting that “Soma is derived from the root su, and merely means pressed drink, and there is no parallel word in other Indo-European languages.” Others must have realized all this but the problem was to find the best root assignable to haoma or soma.

The solution lies in taking it to Chinese which gives the meaningful name haoma in Avesta and Soma in Sanskrit…. (Mandihassan, 1989)

As S. Mandihassan explaind in ‘The Seven Theories Identifying the Soma Plant’,

…[T]his much may be said that the name soma is really SauMa, ad its original is Chinese as HauMa, which means fire– ed-Hemp. The plant which was first discovered in china had yellow stalks which resembled the fibres of hemp in shape and in colour. It may be boted that the hemp fibres are yellowish or orange coloured and there was no word for orange hence it was compared to the colour of fire. Thus soma or better sau-Ma would suggest a herb like hemp-fibres. It has therefore been mistaken for the hemp plant itself, which is also the Bhang plant. (Mandihassan, 1989)

One thing that comes to mind in this is that Mandihassan, assumes fire-hemp, identifies the color of the plant, and on that makes a connection to ephedra.  However we know the Jushi were burning it, as were the Scythians and this could well identify that, and this has been the view of other researchers on the term hu-ma. We also know in this same time period Taoist adepts were burning cannabis in incense censers and travelling to the Land of the Immortals, likely influenced by the use they were witnessing among the Jushi. Moreover the name Huang-ma favours this interpretation as in Chinese, Ephedra is actually a reversal of this Ma Huang (a situation that may address the ying yang like relationship between the two plants varying effects!). “Ephedra… has been recognized for many centuries as a medicine” (Flattery and Schwartz, 1989). And indeed species of ephedra are also native to this region, and are still harvested and exported as ma-huang or ‘yellow hemp,’ which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Mandihassan tries to address this situation in his article with its long explanatory title ‘Ephedra as Soma  Meaning Hemp Fibres With Soma Later Misidentified As The Hemp Plant Itself‘ (1989)

The two medicinal plants, Cannabis and Ephedra, are give very allied names in Chinese; Cannabis = Huang-Ma and Ephedra=Ma Huang. These names are mirror images of each other and as such next to being identical. The similarity of these names assumes that Ephedra, Ma-Huang, was discovered later than Hemp, Huang-Ma, and that Ephedra was given the name of Hemp itself. This is so because at that early stage Ephedra had no name of its own so that the designation of Hemp was transferred onto Ephedra…. (Mandihassan, 1982)

Mandihassan notes that in later times cannabis became known under the more generally used name of Ho-Ma. Writing sometime prior to the discovery of the archeological find of remnants from both cannabis and Ephedra at the Haoma temple in Margiana, as well as amongst the Jushi in the Tarim basin, and recognizing the modern use of Ephedra in Haoma preparations, Mandihassan concludes;

Aryan ascetics must have… come into contact with those of China with the results that the Chinese name, Ho-ma, for Ephedra, as also its energizing properties, were communicated to their Aryan compatriots. As a result, Ho-Ma, as Hao-Ma is found in Avesta while Ho-ma became So-Ma in Sanskrit; it is known that ‘H’ mutates into ‘S’. This in brief is the etymology of the names Homa and Soma. It is natural to expect that the plant would be known first… and later the name of the plant Soma would be transferred on to the juice which is also called Soma. (Mandihassan 1982)

Mandihassan was very close, but contrarily, the later Margiana find “shows that Homa’s preparation was a temple activity, along with extracting of juices from poppy, hemp and ephedra. It is clear that the whole consumable was called ‘hom’ and that the word did not correspond to the name of a specific ingredient. Among the effects of the ephedra itself was to speed up the metabolism and raise the blood pressure” (Mirfendereski, 2005). (Mixed with cannabis it must have created quite a mix with the more sedative and mind bending effects of that plant.)

According to Mary Boyce a major authority on Zoroastrianism,  Homa was “prepared from milk, the leaves of one plant and the juice obtained from pounding the stems of another. The pounded plant was called ‘soma’ in Sanskrit in the Vedic scriptures and in Avestan ‘homa’, a  name which is widely agreed to mean simply ‘that which is pressed’. The identity of the original plant used by the proto-Indo-Iranians is uncertain, but it may well have been a species of ephedra as is the ‘hom’ used by Zoroastrians today” (Boyce, 2001). Note here Boyce’s statement that the homa sacrament was a mixture of one plant and another. This could account for the combination of Cannabis = Huang-Ma and Ephedra=Ma Huang Indicated in this as well as account for linguistic conundrum that Mandihassan tried to account for.  Unfortunately Boyce’s personal prejudice against cannabis has caused her to never consider it as the other plant in question.

Sarianidi’s archaeological finds in Margiana helps answer this riddle. The addition of the mildly stimulating plant ephedra to such a preparation, likely accounts for the reputation of soma to keep one awake, and was probably done in the same spirit as medieval Sufis, who would eat hashish and drink lots of strong stimulating coffee, a beverage that was a Sufi creation, then stay up all night praying and playing religious music. It also accounts for the survival of Ephedra in the modern haoma sacrifice.

It seems very probable that both Soma and Haoma were always prepared with a variety of plants, with cannabis being one of the premier constituents, along with the ephedra still used in haoma, and this mixture became haoma/soma through the ritual of preparation. This is in agreement with the  Satapatha Brahmana , 3.4.3.13, where it explains the plant usana (cannabis) is pressed and then made “into Soma by means of consecration.” Such a description left Soma wide open to a variety of substitutions.

In RV X.89.5 we read: Soma is all shrubs and trees. This agrees with his name vanaspati and virudham pati, king of trees and plants…. Residues of Ephedra, poppy, and cannabis have been found recently in vessels and mortars in the Zoroastrian temples in Bactria, but this does not mean that the Soma-plant was identical with one of these plants. It seems more likely that these are only herbs, with which the Soma was flavoured. (Richter-Ushanas, 1997)

There are even indications of this possibility indicated in both the Vedic and Avestan literature, which seem to refer to different types of  Haoma and Soma.

Y.10.12

And on those mountains

you grow in many varieties,

as the milky, golden-colored haoma.

Your remedies have been mixed

by the creative magic of Good Thought.

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,

in the clutches of women.

Y.10.21

We sacrifice to tall, golden Haoma.

We sacrifice to ruddy Haoma, furtherer of living beings.

We sacrifice to death-averting Haoma.

We sacrifice to all the Haomas.

RV.10.97

Of all the many Plants whose King is, Soma, Plants of hundred forms,

Thou art the Plant most excellent, prompt to the wish, sweet to the heart.

O all ye various Herbs whose King is Soma, that o’erspread the earth,

Urged onward by Brhaspati, combine your virtue in this Plant.

With its references to “Twins”, “Pair” and “Parents”, in the preparation of the Soma and birth like description of the prepared beverage in RV.9.93, it could be inferred that through the bringing together of the two plants Soma was “born”:

RV.9.93

The drops of Soma juice like cows who yield their milk have flowed forth, rich in meath, unto the Shining One… He bellows with a roar around the highest twigs: the Tawny One is sweetened as he breaks them up. Then passing through the sieve into the ample room, the God throws off the dregs according to his wish. The gladdening drink that measured out the meeting Twins fills full with milk the Eternal Ever-waxing Pair… Wandering through, the Parents, strengthening the floods, the Sage makes his place swell with his own native might. The stalk is mixed with grain: he comes led by the men together with the sisters, and preserves the Head. With energetic intellect the Sage is born, deposited as germ of Law, far from the Twins. They being young at first showed visibly distinct the Creature that is half-concealed and half-exposed.

The combined etymological connection through cognate pronunciations combined with the shared characteristics of the subjects ‘Ho-Ma’ and ‘Homa’, along with archaeological and historical information, do indeed make a strong case that these could be loan words from one culture to another.  In this regard Prof. Littleton also notes “the strong probability that at least some, if not all of the folks who settled in Xinjiang and left us their mummified remains were North Iranians and passed cannabis to their Han neighbours… along with the label ‘ma’ (which may well connect with Soma and Haoma), seems highly probable” (Littleton, 2008).

According to H.H. Dubs, in The Beginings of Alchemy, the idea of an elixir of immortality came into China via the myths about the Indo-Iranian Soma and Haoma plants. Dubs believed knowledge of the plant came from the Iranian culture area into China around the 4th century B.C. or possibly even earlier (Dubs, 1947). Many researchers dismissed this claim outright, as at the time there was little in the way of evidence pointing to such early contact between the Han Chinese and Indo-European influences. However, the discovery of the Tarim Basin Mummies proves that such early avenues of contact did in fact exist, and moreover, dates back centuries prior than the date in question.  Dubs’ view was followed later by Pierre Huard and Ming Wong, who, in regard to Taoist references to immortality elixirs, also noted that “Traces of Indo-European immortality potions can be seen here: The Iranian Haoma… and the Indo-Aryan Soma… For centuries Taoists and alchemists were to seek the elixir of life in plants and pills…” (Huard & Wong, 1959: 1968). “…[T]he elixir-of-life concept came to China by way of the ancient Vedic soma tradition of the divine plant of immortality” (Philosophers, 1972).  In the article Beliefs about Aging and Longevity in Ancient China, Alain Corcos refers to some of these earlier researches, adding that Haoma and Soma, like certain Chinese immortality elixirs, contained hemp:

The idea of imbibing plant potions to gain immortality did not originate with the Chinese. Apparently, the idea came from the Aryan tradition… The sacred intoxicating drink, named Haoma by the Iranians and Soma by the Aryans in India was believed to cure disease and to confer immortality. Hemp was an active ingredient of both drinks. The Aryan belief in a miracle drug conferring immortality and curing diseases reached China in the fourth century B.C. (Dubs,1947), giving rise to the idea that there was a place where longevity could readily be achieved. (Corcos, 1981)

The ancient Shen Nung Pharmacopoeia listed cannabis as being among the ‘superior ‘immortality elixirs’” (Aero, 1980). Hemp’s association with immortality in China, was apparently quite widespread. In the Chen Kao, “Yang Hsi describes… his own experience using the Chhu Shen Wan (Pill of Commencing Immortals) which contains much hemp” (Needham, 1974). In Myths of China and Japan, MacKenzie refers to a “Rip Van Winkle story that two men who wandered among the mountains met two pretty girls. They were entertained by them and fed on a concoction prepared from hemp. Seven generations went past while they enjoyed the company of the girls” (Mackenzie, 1923).

These mythical aspects shared between soma/haoma and the various immortality elixirs, pills and incenses, which often contained cannabis and were used by Taoist mystics, are explored in the paper by Zhang He of William Paterson University ‘Is Shuma the Chinese Analog of Soma/Haoma? A Study of Early Contacts between Indo-Iranians and Chinese‘(2011):

This study is an investigation of the Chinese term shuma 疏麻, as used in a poem by Qu Yuan 屈 原 (342–278 BCE), and its relationship to the Indo-Iranian term soma or haoma. It also considers the possibility that as early as the Western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 BCE) and at least by the time of Qu Yuan (fourth–third century BCE), the Indo-Iranian rituals and beliefs associated with the term soma/haoma already had spread to northwest, central, and even southern China. Although there is no known written evidence for the term shuma in the early Zhou period, archaeological discoveries show evidence of the knowledge and use of special plants by people in the north and northwest of China, and much literature of the late Zhou dynasty (771–221 BCE) includes descriptions of active interactions between this people and the Chinese of the Central Plain. And finally, it is noteworthy that Qu Yuan’s poem uses this term to suggest a connection between the southern Chinese Chu culture and northwestern non-Chinese cultures…..

Interestingly, like the meaning of soma/haoma, the botanical identity of shuma is also vague. The very first commentary on the Nine Songs, by Wang Yi of the second century CE, annotates the term to the effect that is a “mythical hemp”; and later commentators either copy Wang’s interpretation or interpret it literally as “sparse hemp,” as if to express the feeling of people separated by a distance. Wang Yi also interpreted sun as a fragrant grass and a metaphor for Siming, Lord of Life,10 but again without a true botanical identity. The yaohua that is offered together with shuma is also an unidentified plant, interpreted by Wang Yi as a mythical “jade flower.” Later, yaohua is explained by Hong Xingzu (1090–1155) as “the hemp flower, white in color, … [that]makes one a long life if one takes it.” (He, 2011)

The connection between cannabis, Haoma, the Chinese Hu-Ma, the mountain home of the Immortals, and the mountainous origins of the Haoma/Soma Cult becomes even clearer when one looks at evidence that points to the nearby “the heavenly mountain of Tien Shan, the paradise of the Taoist immortals” and land of the Haumavarga, as the homeland of all these elements at play. In The problem of the Aryans and the Soma: Textual-linguistic and archaeological  evidence, Asko Parpola suggests that the use of “Soma might have started… in the Ferghana or Zeravshan mountains, the area of the later Saka Hauamavarga… or in fact anywhere in the vast Andronovo territory, including the Tian Shan mountains on the borders of China…” (Parpola, 1995). Indeed, just the region we have been looking at…

In line, with the theory that the names soma and haoma were imported  I noted in Cannabis and the Soma Solution,  the general consensus is that cannabis came to India, via the Indo-Europeans. “By ca. 3000 BP, Cannabis had most likely migrated west and south over the Himalayas and into India, probably coming with nomads and traders over the trade routes that crossed the region” (Clarke & Fleming, 1998). This of course is the people who brought Soma with them.

The original Aryan tribes probably introduced the hemp plant into India sometime in the second millennium B.C. These migrating invaders most likely entered the Indian sub-continent via accessible passes in the high mountainous regions bordering the area… Thus, in the early phases of Indian history, hemp probably was a relatively obscure plant for the mass of population centered on the lowland doabs (interfluves) and in the riverine valleys. (Merlin, 1972)

Vedic and Avestan Descriptions of Soma/Haoma

Vedic and Avestan texts contain a number of  descriptions that help to identify soma/haoma, and these are often discounted by proponents of The Mushroom Soma Theory  with the sort of intellectual mental gymnastics needed to maintain it. Even the stones used for grinding the soma, were invoked as a deity, the clacking of their work likened to speaking.  Note the references to the rocks pressing the soma as being turned green in the process and also the reference to soma as “the purple tree” in what seems to be a clear description of the colour of ripened Cannabis indica:

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]

Green and Purple ripe cannabis of the indica variety.

In relation to the smashing of the stones above, it is interesting to note again that a Vedic reference that uses Bhang directly as an epithet of Soma (IX.61.13) has been interpreted as indicating the term in its original connotation of “smashing, breaking through” (Flattery & Schwartz, 1989). “…[I]n the Rig Veda IX 61,13 bhanga is used when speaking of Soma, though the translators seem to render it by ‘breaker’, originating from the verb bhanj-, bhanakti ‘to break’” (Aalto, 1998).

Others see bhang as an extension of an earlier Indo-European word for cannabis. As Alphonse de Candolle noted in Origin of Cultivated Plants, “It has Sanskrit names, bhanga and gangika. The root of the word ang or an, recurs in all the Indo-European and modern Semitic languages: bang in Hindu and Persian, ganga in Bengali, hanf in German, hemp in English, chanvre in French, kanas in Keltic and modern Breton, cannabis in Greek and Latin,  cannab in Arabic” (de Candolle, 1886). As noted in