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Vol. 9 (2003)  Issue 1e (May 6)

(©) ISSN 1084-7561

Guest editor :   Jan E.M.  Houben, Leiden University



Note: The Soma-Haoma issue of the EJVS, of which this is the first part,
presents the direct and indirect outcome of a workshop on the Soma-Haoma
problem organized by the Research school CNWS, Leiden University, 3-4 July


(1a)	1. The Soma-Haoma problem: Introductory overview and
observations on the discussion (J.E.M. Houben)

(1b)	2. Report of the Workshop (J.E.M. Houben)

(1c)	3. Report concerning the contents of a ceramic vessel found in
the "white room" of the Gonur Temenos, Merv Oasis,
Turkmenistan (C.C. Bakels)

(1d)	4. Margiana and Soma-Haoma (Victor I. Sarianidi)

*	5. Soma and Ecstasy in the Rgveda (George Thompson)

(1f)	6. Contributors to this issue, Part I


Soma and Ecstasy in the Rgveda
George Thompson

-- For Frits Staal, gurudakSiNA

(Note: the author has represented Sanskrit according to the Harvard-Kyoto
table, well known to readers of EJVS.)
I took up the perennial and seemingly intractable problem of Soma more than
a year ago, after a desultory, richly stimulating conversation with Frits
Staal and Michael Witzel that ranged over many, many topics having to do
with the recent revelations about the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological
Complex (BMAC) [cf. Sarianidi 1998 and 1999]. We all agreed at that time
that Victor Sarianidi's claim that the BMAC was a proto-Zoroastrian culture
was certainly provocative and important, but perhaps quite a bit premature.
But there was less agreement among us, and much less certainty, concerning
the significance of Sarianidi's apparent discovery of traces of ephedra at
various BMAC sites. On the one hand, such traces seemed to confirm the
well-known and influential thesis of Harry Falk, which asserted that the
Vedic sacred drink Soma, and thus also Avestan Haoma, was an extract from
an ephedra. On the other hand, Sarianidi claims to have found at BMAC sites
traces of other pollens as well -- hemp, poppy, and cannabis among them --
and he repeatedly characterizes Soma/Haoma as a hallucinogenic beverage.
Such claims would seem to directly contradict Falk's view that "there is
nothing shamanistic or visionary either in early Vedic or in Old Iranian
texts" [Falk, 1989, p.79]. Furthermore, Sarianidi implicitly characterizes
this Soma/Haoma beverage as a "concoction" consisting of a probably
variable number of extractions. This characterization of course runs
directly against the grain of the current opinion among Vedicists that
there must have been one, and only one, soma-plant. It is puzzling
therefore that in spite of these rather glaring disagreements, the
consensus that was established by Falk's article seems not to have been
troubled at all, and it is even more puzzling that Sarianidi's work
continues to be cited in support of it.(1)

I will admit at the outset that I have no adequate alternative to the
ephedra-theory, at least when it comes to an identification of the ur-plant
from which the sacred drink Soma was extracted. I will admit also that in
my intrepid youth I was charmed, as I think many of us were at the time, by
the mushroom-theory of R. Gordon Wasson [Wasson 1968]. But I quickly became
an agnostic after reading Brough's very persuasive critique of that theory
[cf. also Kuiper 1970], and ever since then I have been more or less
agnostic about the identity of the sacred drink Soma [adopting a position
rather like those of Elizarenkova 1996 and Oberlies 1998] I also
acknowledge the influence of David Flattery and Martin Schwartz [Flattery &
Schwartz 1989], whose book identifying Soma/Haoma as peganum harmala, a
mountain rue, I have found illuminating, particularly in their insistence
on the importance of the Iranian evidence. In fact, it has taken me fifteen
years to come to terms with their rather counter-intuitive insistence [so
it seemed to me at the time] that the Vedic evidence was not as important
in this matter as the Avestan evidence. I have come to think that they may
have been right after all about the secondary value of the Vedic evidence.
But I have also come to the conclusion that the Avestan evidence may be
"secondary" as well. But that is the matter for another paper, so I won't
pursue it here.

My interest in examining the Soma-problem was re-kindled by Frits Staal's
insistence that the ephedra-theory was not at all persuasive. In a recently
published article he has presented a criticism of the ephedra-theory with
which I generally agree, and to which I will attempt to contribute a few
more arguments in this paper. I must acknowledge publically that when Staal
insisted that the matter must be reconsidered, and when Michael Witzel
suggested that it would be a good project for me to look into the matter, I
quickly backed away from it. I knew that it would be an enormous task, and
I knew that it would be a difficult one to complete. Nevertheless, the
importance of the matter eventually lured me into the task. As I have
observed elsewhere [in Festschrift Staal], one of Staal's great
contributions to Vedic studies has been his resolute determination to
question received opinion. It is in recognition of his remarkable
independence of thought that this paper is offered to him, as a

Rather than summarizing the ephedra-theory [which I trust will be
unnecessary for most of this journal's readers], I would like to respond in
detail to a few points in Falk's paper, which is in my opinion the best
articulation of the ephedra-theory, and one of the best summaries of the
Rgvedic material that we have. The first point is his insistence, rather
surprising to me, that there is no evidence of shamanic or visionary
experience in Vedic, and no evidence whatsoever also that the Soma-drink
was hallucinogenic, itself also surprising [not that I claim that Soma
*was* hallucinogenic; rather, I reject the suggestion that it could not
have been so]. Much of what Falk says in this article rings absolutely true
to me, but these two claims don't ring true at all, and it is the primary
goal of this paper to argue against them.
Of course, the ephedra-theory has been around for a long time(3), primarily
because of the well-known fact that Parsis have been using ephedra in their
rituals for many centuries, and they have been calling it something like
'um', 'oman', 'hum', 'huma', or 'hom', etc., in Iranian languages [all
obviously from 'haoma'], or in Indic 'som' or 'soma' or 'somalatA', etc.
[all obviously from 'soma'].(4) Flattery & Schwartz were the first to point
out the rather significant implication of this fact: "that ephedra was
called *sauma already in the common ancestral Indo-Iranian language" [p.
68]. Now, for Falk, the obvious conclusion to draw from this is that the
inherited term *sauma referred, as it still does among Parsis, to the juice
or extract of an ephedra plant, which in fact is readily found throughout
the relevant regions.(5) For Falk, then, there is no need to look elsewhere
for the ur-plant: it is straight-forwardly an ephedra [as was assumed much
earlier by Geldner in his still standard translation of the Rgveda]. But
Flattery & Schwartz resisted this conclusion, for one simple reason: in
their view, "ephedra is without suitable psychoactive potential" [p.73].
According to them, the juice that one extracts from ephedra is a rather
mild stimulant, ephedrine [similar in effect to adrenaline] which, besides
providing some relief for those with asthma, is, as Falk rather
dramatically says, "a reliable stimulant for warriors and a great
aphrodisiac" [p.87].(6) Flattery & Schwartz, on the other hand, emphasizing
the frequent association in both Vedic and Avestan between *sauma and *mada
["intoxication"], have insisted that the ur-plant must have contained
psychoactive or hallucinogenic properties. And so Flattery & Schwartz,
seeking a better-fitting candidate, turned to peganum harmala, a mountain
rue also well known in the relevant regions, and which, by the way, also
has names in Iranian languages that derive from *svanta [Avesten spEnta],
'numinous, sacred,' and which therefore has a suggestive linguistic
pedigree of its own.(7)
Falk [p.78-9] has usefully classified the various proposals for identifying
the original *sauma-plant into three general categories, according to the
pharmacological properties of the plant:
the 1st group, that it was hallucinogenic [e.g., hemp, cannabis sativa, the
mushroom amanita muscaria, or the wild mountain rue, peganum harmala; also
opium & mandrake];
the 2nd, that it was alcoholic, fermented from the likes of rhubarb, common
millets, rice, or barley, and even grape;(8)
the 3rd, that it was a stimulant of some sort [besides ephedra, ginseng has
been proposed by Windfuhr, 1986].
Falk has offered strong, largely persuasive, evidence that the Rgvedic Soma
must have been a stimulant [see his extensive discussion of the RV word
jA'gRvi, "alerting," etc, applied to Soma]. Soma was used, for example, at
the night-long atirAtra rites, to chase away sleep, to inspire poetic
thoughts [cf. Kavi Soma as janitA' matInA'm, as RsikR't, etc], as well as
inspiring battle-courage [particularly in the case of Indra] and even as an
aphrodisiac [perhaps especially among women: see RV 8.91.1 & 1.28, cited by
Falk]. Each of these uses can be identified in Avestan texts as well.(9) It
is or should be obvious that Falk has made a renewed, much-strengthened,
case for the old ephedra-theory. However, it seems to me that the evidence
for the claim that the Soma-plant was a stimulant needs to be examined more
This claim rests largely on the use of the term jA'gRvi as an epithet of
the god Soma. [cf Falk, pp. 79f]. The term is attested 23x in the RV: 3x it
is used to refer to the hymns that awaken, inspire, or stimulate Indra
[3.39.1 + 2; 8.89.1]; 9x it refers to the awakening, stimulating virtue of
Agni [1.31.9, 3.2.12, 3.3.7; 3.24.3; 3.26.3; 3.28.5; 5.11.1; 6.15.8;
8.44.29]; 11x it refers to the awakening, stimulating effects of Soma
[3.37.8; 8.92.23(10); 9.36.2; 9.44.3; 9.71.1; 9.97.2; 9.97.37; 9.106.4;
9.107.6; 9.107.12; 10.34.1]. Admittedly, such a distribution would seem to
confirm Falk's claim that this epithet suggests that the Soma-plant is a
But in fact this distribution raises interesting questions. First of all,
notice that there are no attestations of the word at all in three of the
family books [Books 2, 4, and 7], and it is attested only once in two of
them [Books 5 and 6]. Also noteworthy is the fact that jA'gRvi occurs only
once each in the two large later addenda to the RV, Books 1 and 10. This
suggests that there is no chronological significance to the distribution.
In light of the rareness of this word in the vast majority of the RV, it is
very striking indeed that it occurs as many times in Book 3 as it does in
Book 9 [8x each], especially when one considers that Book 9 is almost twice
as long as Book 3. In Book 3 the word occurs as an epithet of Agni 5x, of
the hymn 2x, and of Soma 1x. In Book 8 meanwhile its three attestations are
distributed equally to Agni, to the hymn, and to Soma (though transferred
to Indra) [1x each]. Now, it is conceivable that the Soma hymns that have
been extracted from the family books and collected into Book 9 could have
been drawn from any of those books, and this might explain why the word
jA'gRvi is so poorly attested in them. If this is the case, then this
remarkable distribution would be more or less insignificant, and the high
frequency in Book 9 would simply confirm Falk's view that the term is as
appropriate to Soma as it is to Agni, the two gods who accompany and keep
awake the priests as they perform their atirAtra rites. But this fails to
take into consideration the relatively much, much higher frequency of the
word in Book 3. A better alternative, it seems to me, would be to grant
more weight to the evidence of the older family book, Book 3. There it
would appear indisputable that Agni is the primary recipient of the epithet
jA'gRvi, whereas it is a transferred epithet when applied to Soma and the
hymn [mati']. This is not to say that the term is applied inappropriately
to Soma. No, Falk has convincingly demonstrated its appropriateness.
Rather, it is to suggest that the word might be better understood as an
element within traditional Vedic formulaics. Interpreting jA'gRvi in this
way is consistent with the fact that the other terms cited by Falk in this
context [vi'pra, kavi', RsikR't, etc.] are more frequently attributed to
Agni than to Soma. Furthermore, since it is clear that there was a marked
preference for this divine epithet jA'gRvi(11) among the vizvAmitra clan,
it might be reasonable to suppose that this is the clan to whom we should
attribute the best authority.(12) The attestations of jA'gRvi in Book 9
seem to me to be a secondary extension of a formula that is more
appropriate to formulaics of the Agni-cycle. For this reason, I am not
entirely persuaded that the word refers to the soma-extract as having a
specific psycho-pharmacological effect.
As for RV 5.44.14-15, which Falk [p. 80] cites as perhaps "the most
convincing example" of a passage showing that Soma is a stimulant, the
theme of staying awake and alert through the night is certainly central
there [cf. the extensive repetition of the verb jAgAra in both stanzas].
But the reference there is not to the Soma-plant, but rather to the god
Soma, who asserts that "It is I who am at home in your friendship"
[ta'vAha'm asmi sakhye' ni'okAH], and in fact the one to whom the god Soma
asserts this is the god Agni, as is evident in stanza 15. I have argued
extensively in Thompson 1997a [pp.32ff.] that this pair of stanzas is a
variation on the Vedic brahmodya pattern, and that, in a highly indirect
and riddling way, the poet here [the author of what Geldner considered to
be the most difficult hymn in the RV!] has identified himself with the god
Soma, and his "alert, awake" audience with the god Agni [see the discussion
of stanza 13, which in fact initiates the theme of wakeful alertness, but
in that stanza it refers to a human patron, not a god, and his name appears
to be Sutambhara, "the one who bears the Soma-juice"(13)]. In short, the
many obscurities of this hymn make very problematic the interpretation of
this passage. To use it as secure evidence that the Soma-plant had to have
been a psycho-pharmological stimulant seems to me to be premature.
I think that Falk has also studiously avoided the enormous evidence, in
both Vedic and Avestan, that links *sauma with *mada, "intoxication."
Instead of delving into the interesting question of the very broad semantic
range of the term *mada [and related forms] -- e.g., whether it would cover
all three of the types of soma-theories that have been proposed:(1)
hallucinogenic? (2) alcoholic? (3) stimulant?-- as, in fact, it certainly
does(14)-- instead I will simply point out that in the RV the vast majority
of attestations of ma'da [and related terms] occurs clearly in
Soma-contexts, so it is Soma-mada in particular that we should be concerned
with. As far as I can see, these attestations strongly suggest something
like the sense 'ecstasy', rather than an alcoholic inebriation, or a
general stimulant effect like that of an ephedra-extract. As Brough has
also suggested of ma'da and related terms: "It is difficult to give an
adequate equivalent, but the tenor of the hymns indicates something like
'possession by the divinity', in some way comparable to Greek µ" [Brough,
p. 374; cf. similarly Staal, pp.752, 759, where he glosses the verbal root
mad- as suggesting "rapture or bliss"]. In other words, the physiological
effects of *sauma-intoxication in early Indo-Iranian, as far as I can tell,
cannot easily be reduced to the effects resulting from a rather mild
stimulant, or of an aphrodisiac even of the strongest sort, as ephedrine
seems to be.(15)
Instead of defending in any detail the truth of these claims for the
connotations of so'masya ma'da and related terms in the RV [which I will
attempt in a forthcoming article(16)], I'd like to take a close look at one
hymn from the RV, 10.119, a very well-known and much discussed hymn, the
so-called laba-sUkta, 'song of the lapwing.' And, in doing so, I'd like to
return to Falk's claim that there is no evidence of visionary or shamanic
experience in Vedic, and his view that the Soma-extract was therefore not
likely to have been a drug that induced ecstasy.(17) Here is Falk in his
own rather remarkable words: "The only half-serious reason to expect
hallucination as an effect of Soma-drinking in an Indian context is the
well-known laba-sUkta, RV 10.119" [Falk p.78]. I must say this is an
astonishing remark. First of all, this hymn is not at all "the only reason"
for such a view - whether half-serious or full-serious or not serious at
all. There are many other hymns in the RV which also seem clearly to
indicate visionary experience, or ecstatic experience, whether induced by
Soma or by other means. One obvious example is RV 8.48, which Falk [p.80]
cites only to refer to nidrA', 'sleep,' in stanza 14, while ignoring all of
the evidence in this remarkable hymn for ecstatic and visionary experience.
Another is 10.136, which portrays the kezi'n in ecstatic experience [of
shamanic flight, as I would suggest] induced by the consumption of some
unidentified poison, viSa'. Furthermore, it is likely that visionary
experience may have been induced by entirely non-intoxicant,
non-pharmacological, ritual means, such as the Atmastutis, to be discussed
in what follows. In any case, I do not insist that Soma must have been an
hallucinogen. But I do insist that visionary and ecstatic experience is
well-attested in the Rgveda, and that it is frequently attributed by the
poets themselves to the consumption of Soma. Shouldn't we take the poets at
their word in this matter, since it involves, as I will try to show, their
own personal, very real, experience?
As for 10.119 itself, Falk's argument against its depicting visionary or
ecstatic experience is based on the claim that the hymn describes the
experience of Indra, or at least of Indra in the guise of a bird [laba'],
probably a lapwing - rather than the experience of a human being who is "in
the intoxication of Soma" [cf. so'masya of the hymn's refrain in light of
the formula so'masya ma'de, as well as its variants]. In particular, Falk
calls attention to stanza 11, where, after consuming Soma, "some winged
creature", he says, touches both the earth and the sky with its wing, and
stanza 8, where the bird's body expands beyond the extent of earth and sky.
Falk concludes: "nowhere is it said that human Soma-drinkers feel that they
are growing. To fill the whole cosmos is a feature of several gods [e.g.,
Agni, USas, SUrya, as well as Soma]..." [Falk, p. 78 - parenthesis added].
Therefore, in Falk's view, the hymn does not offer even half-serious
evidence that Soma was hallucinogenic, or that the experience described in
the hymn was ecstatic or visionary. Here, again, I must disagree: there are
good reasons to reject Falk's too-rigid interpretation of the hymn as a
strictly mythological narrative. Let us look at the hymn in detail.
i'ti vA' i'ti me ma'no           Yes, yes, this is my intention.
gA'm a'zvaM sanuyAm i'ti    I will win the cow, the horse. Yes!
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti    Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
pra' vA'tA iva do'dhatA    Forth like raging winds
u'n mA pItA' ayaMsata    The drinks have lifted me up.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti    Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
u'n mA pItA' ayaMsata    The drinks have lifted me up,
ra'tham a'zvA ivAza'vaH   as swift horses lift up the chariot.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti    Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
u'pa mA mati'r asthita        Inspiration has come to me,
vAzrA' putra'm iva priya'm   like a bellowing cow to her precious son.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti     Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
aha'M ta'STeva vandhu'ram   I, as a craftsman the chariot seat,
pa'ry acAmi hRdA' mati'm     I bend around in my heart this inspiration.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti        Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
nahi' me akSipa'c cana'-        Not even a blink of the eye
achAntsuH pa'Jca kRSTa'yaH   have the five tribes seemed to me.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti        Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
nahi' me ro'dasI ubhe'          Neither of these two worlds to me
anya'm pakSa'M cana' pra'ti   seems equal to one of my two wings.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti       Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
abhi' dyA'm mahinA' bhuvam  I have overwhelmed heaven with my greatness,
abhI'mA'm pRthivI'm mahI'm   I have overwhelmed this great earth.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti         Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
ha'ntAha'm pRthivI'm imA'M   I myself, I myself will set down this
ni' dadhAnIha' veha' vA          earth, perhaps here, perhaps there.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti          Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
oSa'm i't pRthivI'm aha'm      Heatedly will I smash the earth,
jaGgha'nAnIha' veha' vA      I will smash it, perhaps here, perhaps there.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti        Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
divi' me anya'H pakSo'-       In heaven is the one of my two wings.
adho' anya'm acIkRSam      The other I have dragged down here below.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti       Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
aha'm asmi mahAmaho'-        I myself, I am become great, great,
abhinabhya'm u'dISitaH         impelled upward to the clouds.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti        Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!
gRho' yAmy a'raMkRto        I go forth a home(18) that is well made,
deve'bhyo havyavA'hanaH     a vehicle of oblations to the gods.
kuvi't so'masyA'pAm i'ti         Have I drunk of the soma? Yes!

First, some general comments and observations: This remarkable hymn has
received a great deal of attention(19), not only because of what it may or
may not teach us about Soma, but also because of the many difficulties
which it has presented to interpretation. There is considerable
disagreement, for example, about the identity of the assumed speaker,
whether it is Indra, or Agni, or the lapwing itself, the laba to whom the
hymn is attributed by the native tradition, or whether it is Indra in the
guise of a lapwing, or perhaps finally a human poet expressing the
exhilaration induced by the soma that he has consumed. Here is Falk's
summary of his own interpretation of the hymn:
"The traditional explanation of the Laba-sUkta is the only credible one: a
bird, assumed to be Indra in disguise, has drunk from the Soma offered and
is thought to feel the same as the god in his usual, non-material form.
Because all the proponents of Soma as a hallucinogenic drug make their
claim on the basis of a wrong interpretation of the Laba-sUkta, their
candidates must be regarded as unsuitable" [Falk, p.79].
Perhaps an adequate response can be summoned here to this rather peremptory
dismissal of some of the best Vedicists of the past 100 or more years.
One crucial fact about this hymn, it seems to me, has been under-valued by
everyone who has dealt with it, and that fact is that it is an Atmastuti,
that is, a 'hymn of self-praise.' The fact has been noticed, of course [in
particular by Hauschild in his admirable article, and also by Geldner in
his introductory comments on the hymn], but until fairly recently the
Atmastuti, as a significant genre of RV poetry, has been more or less
ignored. The fact that this hymn is an Atmastuti, in my view, makes
superfluous all of the discussion, including Falk's, concerning the
hypothetical identity of the speaker of this hymn. As Toporov [1981] and
Elizarenkova [1995] have pointed out, the RV Atmastutis are marked by the
emphatic use of forms of the first person pronoun, as well as first person
verbal forms. But such formal features also mark clear pragmatic features
of the genre, two in fact, as I've tried to show in Thompson 1997b. One of
these, rather self-evident in fact but to my knowledge never fully
appreciated, is the act of self-assertion which such hymns express, and in
fact which they enact. As is well-known, Vedic poets often find themselves
in a position where boastful self-assertion is more or less obligatory [as
in the case of the respondent in a brahmodya dialogue: cf. Thompson 1997a].
An interesting instance in the RV of direct self-assertion [independent of
verbal contests] is RV 10.159, in Geldner's words a "Triumphlied einer
Frau." This hymn dramatically conveys the "Selbstverherrlichung" of a wife
over her rivals -- i.e., her rival-wives.(20) But in fact the Atmastuti is
not a simple matter of self-assertion, and therefore it should be
distinguished from a direct, straight-forward act of self-assertion such as
in 10.159 [to mark this important distinction, I have adopted the
traditional term ahaMkAra to refer to the strictly human act of self
assertion, in contrast with the Atmastuti]. The Atmastuti is, in my view, a
psychologically much more complicated matter of impersonation, of
self-conscious role-playing, as in the well-known case of RV 10,125, where
the poet, known traditionally by the name of vAc AmbhRNI, actually
impersonates, i.e., adopts the persona of, the goddess VAc, who is herself
the mythological embodiment of the Vedic poetic tradition.(21) In brief,
all Rgvedic Atmastutis are performances wherein a human performer
impersonates, and speaks both for and as, a divine agent.(22)
Here, at RV 10.119, the poet, who is known by the traditional but
uninformative name of Laba Aindra(23), has clearly adopted a role,
apparently a traditional role. Admittedly, it is hard to determine
precisely which role he has adopted in this hymn [is he impersonating
Indra? Agni? some mythological bird?]. But a proper view of the pragmatics
of Vedic speech-acts, and in particular the pragmatics of Atmastutis(24),
suggests that the particular role that is being played in this hymn is far
less important than the fact itself that a poet, a human being and not a
god, is indeed playing a role, like an actor in a Greek tragedy, perhaps,
or perhaps rather like a Central Asian shaman, which in my view is a much
more appropriate comparison.(25) In other words, from the point of view of
pragmatics it does not matter who is *supposed* [or *imagined*] to be
speaking in this hymn. The fact remains that it is *actually* the poet
himself who utters these words, and through whom these words pass, just
like the streams of Soma [as the poets of the RV themselves are prone to
say]. The refrain of this poem, then, is to be attributed not to this or
that god or to some other mythological creature. No, it belongs, strictly
speaking, to the poet who formulated it, whose emphatic repetition of the
personal pronoun places him pragmatically at the very center of the hymn,
as the person through whom the performance passes, and through whom the
impersonated being - in my view, most likely, Agni(26) - becomes manifest,
palpable, or satya', 'true,' for his audience. It is therefore legitimate,
in my view [pace Falk], to interpret the experiences evoked in RV 10.119 as
genuinely human experiences, whether directly felt as the result of
drinking Soma, or theatrically enacted [or perhaps re-enacted], that have
been experienced by the poet himself. In other words, behind the mask of
the performance of RV 10.119, genuine human experience is undeniably evoked
and enacted in it.
Consider the great prominence of first person forms. First of all, the
refrain, conveying the hymn's central motif, is conspicuously marked by the
first person root aorist a'pAm, "I have drunk [of the Soma]." But in every
stanza of the hymn the refrain is accompanied by at least one other first
person form, whether an enclitic variant of the first person pronoun [e.g.,
mA in stanzas 2 and 4, me in stanzas 6 and 7, etc.], or by a first person
verbal form [e.g., bhuvam in stanza 8 and yAmi in stanza 13]. But far more
frequently one finds a combination of both pronominal and verbal forms
[e.g., me and sanuyAm in stanza 1, etc.]. This slowly acccelerating but
highly dramatic accumulation of first person forms culminates in stanzas
where the first person pronoun aha'm emphatically [and in fact redundantly]
accompanies a first person verbal form [stanzas 5, 9, 10, 12]. This
emphasis is reinforced in stanzas 5 and 12, where aha'm takes the highly
marked stanza-initial position; in stanza 9 where it takes second position
following the exhortative particle ha'nta; and in stanza 10, where it
stands in line-final position, followed immediately by the first person
subjunctive of the intensive form of the verb han-, jaGgha'nAni [which
itself (along with iha' veha' vA) echoes the first person subjunctive ni'
dadhAni (iha' veha' vA), etc., of the preceding stanza]. This highly
elaborate, skillfully managed, network of first person forms is further
strengthened by an extraordinary sequence of word and phrase repetitions,
rhymes, rhythmic syncopations, puns, etc, which itself could sustain an
extensive analysis. Even without going into such an analyis here, it is
readily evident that this hymn is a poetic tour-de-force, even when judged
against the very high standards of Rgvedic poetic tradition at its best.
There should be no ambiguity about the function of all of these first
person forms [called 'shifters' by certain linguists and semiologists of
discourse]: they are designed to call attention to the speaker as speaker
-- not only within the pretended mythological context which has preoccupied
the interpreters of this hymn, but also outside of that context, i.e., the
context of the performance itself.
Recall that in his interpretation of RV 10.119 [quoted above], Falk refers
to the supposed "usual, non-material form" of the god Indra. Well, let us
assume for the sake of the argument that this hymn is about Indra. In my
view, the assumption that the "usual form" of the god Indra was
"non-material" for a Vedic audience needs to be seriously re-examined. I'm
not so sure that a Vedic audience would have recognized a "non-material"
form of Indra, or of any other Vedic god for that matter. In any case,
there is good evidence that Indra did in fact manifest himself on occasion
in very material form. Of course, there is better, more obvious, evidence
that a god like Agni was constantly present to his Vedic devotees in
clearly material, visible, if not quite tangible, form, in the ritual
fires, for instance. And Soma is clearly manifest in material, quite
tangible, form both in the Soma-plant itself [in my view called aMzu'] and
in the Soma-juice. As for Indra, one place where one finds him manifest in
material form is the RV Atmastutis [most of which in fact are dedicated to
him]. In RV 10.119, if indeed it is Indra who is represented in it, he is
given the form of a bird, a lapwing [this is the mythological,
non-material, form that Falk rightly emphasizes]. But the god is manifest
also in quite material form, that is, in linguistic [i.e., audible] form,
in the sequence of first person forms that dominates and in fact gives
structure to the entire hymn. Furthermore, I think that it is legitimate to
say that the impersonation that is clearly performed in this hymn shows the
god in a palpably material form, embodied literally in the performer of the
hymn. For the audience of RV 10.119, Indra can be seen there standing
before them. For the duration of this performance, the R'Si's body is
Indra's body. The R'Si's words are Indra's words. The ecstatic flight of
the R'Si, induced by the drinking of Soma, is also the ecstatic flight of
Indra. The members of this Vedic audience, I trust, would have been capable
of asserting, without delusion or deceit, that they had indeed seen Indra.
Such certainty, it seems to me, would have been the product of shamanic
performance, that is, a highly theatrical and physical performance, and not
of mythological fancy alone. The flight that is clearly alluded to in the
hymn is not mere mythological flight. It is the shamanic flight of a R'Si,
who seems to me to be experiencing genuine ecstasy which, as the refrain
emphatically tells us, has been induced by the drinking of the Soma-juice.
A god has entered into this R'Si and speaks through him.
As far as I can see, what is described and enacted in this hymn is entirely
consistent with the performances of shamanic flight that one encounters in
the literature [besides the classical account of Eliade 1951, see the
essays collected in Diogenes 158, 1992].(27) Besides the basic theme of
magical flight made notorious by Eliade's treatment of it, there are many
features in the hymn that strike me as shamanic. The boasting which has
struck some scholars as bordering on megalomania or simply a crude joke
["Scherzspiel", thus von Schroeder] is frequently encountered in shamanic
performance. Shamanic dance is probably attested here at RV 10.119.8-10
[shamanic dance certainly is attested at RV 10.97]. The suggestion that the
hymn is a parody, which goes back to von Schroeder and which re-surfaces on
a regular basis, needs to be mentioned here too. I am willing to entertain
the notion that RV 10.119 might well be a parody in some sense. The heavy
repetition of the quotative particle i'ti may in fact mark some sort of
parodic intent.(28) But again, parody is a phenomenon well-known to
students of shamanism. As for "visionary" experience of a shamanic kind,
admittedly there is no straight-forward, explicit evidence of it in this
particular hymn, but it is certainly evident at RV 8.48.3 [et passim], with
which I will rest my case:
a'pAma so'mam amR'tA abhUma-  We have drunk the Soma. We have become immortal
-aganma jyo'tir a'vidAma devA'n      We have gone to the light. We have
found [i.e.,
the gods.
ki'M nUna'm asmA'n kRNavad a'rAtiH        O immortal one, what can the
ki'm u dhUrti'r amRta ma'rtyasya     the malice, of a mortal man, do to us
In spite of the many difficulties which this remarkably energetic and
finely-crafted hymn(29), RV 10.119, presents to interpretation, in my view
it nevertheless offers us good evidence for both ecstatic and indeed
shamanic experience in the RV, experience which is directly and explicitly
linked by the poet himself with the drinking of Soma. Falk's claims to the
contrary seem to me to stand, in the end, on surprisingly weak foundations.
Considering the fact that several of the major claims in his article are
subject to serious objections [ranging from the claim that Soma must have
been a stimulant, tout court; the claim that it could not have been
psychotropic; the claim that there is no evidence of shamanic experience in
the RV; and finally to Falk's abrupt interpretation of RV 10.119 as a
strictly mythological narrative which reveals nothing whatsoever about the
effects of Soma consumption on real human participants in the Vedic Soma
cult], it seems to me now, as it seemed to Frits Staal well over a year
ago, that it is time to re-open the question of the specific
psycho-pharmocological properties of Soma, and to explore with renewed
seriousness the possibility of a Vedic shamanism that is intimately related
to Soma.


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to Heaven of VasiSTha (RV 7.88) and the mahAvrata-Ritual." Nagoya Studies
in Indian Culture and Buddhism. SambhASA 14 (1993) 95-144.
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(ed. par N. Balbir et G.-J. Pinault). Paris. 1996. 13-31.
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Agni (Rgveda X.119). Asiatica (Festschrift F. Weller). Leipzig. 247-288.
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1. I have unfortunately not had the opportunity to see the papers that have
developed out of the 1999 conference in Leiden on the Soma/Haoma cult, with
which, I am pleased to say, the present paper is now included. I look
forward with great anticipation to the publication of the proceedings of
this conference, which will surely move us forward on the Soma-question,
interest in which among Vedicists is, as far as I can tell, gaining a great
deal of momentum at the moment.
2. It should be noted that Staal's paper and this one were written entirely
independently of each other. I did not learn of Staal's until I had sent
him an early version of this one based on a paper presented at the 2001 AOS
conference in Toronto. At that time his paper was already in press.
3. On the history of the ephedra theory, see O'Flaherty in Wasson, 1968,
pp. 95-147. Cf also Falk's brief but illuminating summary.
4. For details, see Flattery and Schwartz, pp.68-72. They cite also certain
Dardic forms that indicate that *sauma was not exclusively a Sanskritic or
Sanskritizing form.
5. Recent reports indicate that ephedra has been found also among the
mummified bodies discovered in the Tarim Basin; cf. Mallory & Mair, pp.
138, 186, 200, etc.
6. For a more technical discussion of the psychopharmacology of ephedras,
see Spinella 2001, pp.114-117.
7. See the discussion of Flattery and Schwartz, pp.45ff. Without going into
detail, the main objections to the identifcation of *sauma as peganum
harmala have been proposed already by Falk and Staal: first, that harmala
is burned for fumigation, not pounded and pressed, as in our
early-Indo-Iranian texts; second, that it is a rather commonplace weed, not
a rare and difficult-to-find mountain plant, as the early evidence clearly
shows *sauma to have been. Furthermore, in contrast with the much later
Arabic evidence offered by Flattery &Schwartz [pp.32f.], there is no
mention of seeds in the early Indo-Iranian evidence. Also, there is no
evidence in these later texts of the pressing of harmala and the mixing of
its juice with milk and honey, as in the early texts. Of course, it should
be added that if the second objection [its easy availability] is valid in
the case of peganum harmala, it may also be a valid objection to the
8. Besides Falk, pp.78ff., see also the broad survey of O'Flaherty, in
Wasson, pp. 95-147.
9. Cf. Y. 9-11 [Hom Yasht] passim.
10. Strictly speaking, it is Indra who is addressed here as jAgRve, but
clearly, as Falk, p. 80, has pointed out, he is addressed so because he has
consumed Soma. It is a transferred epithet here.
11. The use of jA'gRvi as a divine epithet must go back to an old, common
Indo-Iranian tradition, since it is attested in exactly the same usage in
the Avestan cognate jiGAuruuah, applied to Mithra, as well as to a
divinized ha~m.varEiti, "Manly Valor."
12. Note also that 29 of the 62 hymns of Book 3 are devoted to Agni [vs. 24
to Indra].
13. A small cycle of Agni-hymns is attributed to Sutambhara at RV 5.11-14.
In this cycle there are two references to the theme of awakening: at 5.11.1
[jA'gRvi, of Agni] and 5.14.1 [the impv. bodhaya, taking the direct object
14. See KEWA 2.568 for the relevant literature. It is puzzling to see that
in his magnum opus on Soma T. Oberlies has completely ignored this
question, even in the 57 page chapter on "Der Soma-Rausch und Seine
Interpretation" [Vol. I, pp.449-506].
15. Again, see Spinella 2001, already cited. Of course, it may well be that
ephedrine may be potent enough in some cases to induce visionary or
ecstatic experience. -- such as that extracted from the mountain varieties
of ephedra mentioned by Falk, p. 83 [also Nyberg, 1995]. If so, then I will
give up my objections to the identification of ephedra as the
ur-Soma-plant. But so too, it seems to me, Falk will have to give up the
claim that Soma could not have induced visionary, ecstatic, or even
shamanic experiences.
16. ma'da is attested 279x in the RV. If we include compounds and variant
forms like madira', etc., the total amounts to roughly 400x. There are also
roughly 200 attestations of verbal forms of mad-. Clearly, this material
points to a major preoccupation of the Vedic poets. Much work remains to be
17. In response to the oral version of this paper presented at the AOS
annual meeting in Toronto, March 2001, objections were raised against the
admittedly indiscriminate use of such terms as 'visionary,' 'ecstatic,' and
'shamanic.' But I should point out that all of these terms were introduced
by Falk. Of course, these terms are not synonymous, but they do cover a
semantic territory that should be recognized as continuous and related. In
any case, I feel no obligation to defend in this brief paper my use of
these terms. More will be forthcoming on the notion of a Vedic shamanism,
and on the precise semantics of so'masya ma'da in the RV.
18. As Hauschild has argued at length [1954, pp. 276f.; cf. also Rau 19xx],
a gRha' in early Vedic was likely to have been a domestic wagon. This sense
seems to be confirmed in this passage by the collocation with
havyavA'hanaH, "vehicle of oblation," in the following line.
19. Besides the standard translations and commentaries of Geldner, Renou
[besides EVP 14.39 &110, cf. also Renou 1956] and Elizarenkova [1999], see
also the very detailed study of Hauschild; also Schmeja; Mylius; Stuhrmann,
et al. The remarks of Gonda, "The So-Called Secular, Humorous and Satirical
Hymns of the Rgveda," Seleced Studies 3.379f., remain pertinent. On the
other hand, it is also important to note that this hymn has been
surprisingly ignored by Wasson, as well as by Flattery & Schwartz. It is
also neglected by Oberlies, already cited, in note 11.
20. For a full translation and commentary on this hymn, see Thompson 1997b.
21. For a full translation and commentary, see again Thompson 1997b.
22.  To my knowledge it has not been noticed before, but as a matter of
fact there are traces of both the ahaMkAra and the Atmastuti motives in
Avestan as well: see in particular the azEm sequence in the Hom Yasht: Y
10.15-18 [ the poet's ahaMkAra, in fact, a kind of pledge of allegiance to
the god Haoma]. Y 9.2 is a brief Atmastuti attributed to Haoma; Yt 8.25 is
a brief Ahura MazdA Atmastuti; Yt 14.3f., etc. Perhaps the best examples
are Yt 1.7-8 attributed to Ahura MazdA, and the very intertesting "I am"
sequence immediately following at stanzas 12-15. A brief Atmastuti is also
attested at Yt.10.54-56 [Mithra Yasht].
23. This name is uninformative because it is merely inferred from the text
of the hymn. In fact, neither element of the name is attested in the hymn,
nor is the name of any other deity [the term so'ma clearly refers to the
juice that has been drunk, and not to the god Soma]. In my view, neither
the traditional name of the poet nor the traditional interpretation of the
hymn can be accepted [pace Falk].
24. Thompson 1997b has already been cited, but it seems necessary to stress
the point here. Stuhrmann [1985, p.91] has made the following remark, which
has been affirmed by Oberlies [Vol. 1, p. 496]: "Die Somalieder sind...
wesentlich Wir-Dichtung und Preisliedern auf Soma; individuelle
Rauschprotokolle können wir nicht erwarten." In general, this is probably a
valid remark, but RV 10.119 shows that in fact there are exceptions, as
Atmastutis in general also show. In fact there is a clear record of
individual experience of ecstasy in the RV, as a direct result of Soma
consumption. Furthermore, a brief look at the concordances of Bloomfield or
Lubotsky will show that there is a good amount of evidence for an
Ich-Dichtung genre, both in the RV in general, and among Soma hymns in
particular. Oberlies in fact appears to contradict himself at Vol. 2, p.39,
when he notes the "I am" sequence at the beginning of RV 4.26 as the
utterance of an "ekstatisch erregten Seher" [the hymn is cited several
times in Thompson 1997b, where more evidence and a more detailed analysis
can be found].
25. In his notes to stanza 1, Geldner compares RV 10.97.4, the words of a
"Medizinmann." This passage will be treated in a forthcoming paper on the
particle i'ti. Cf. more recently Meissig 1995 [on RV 10.108, which, by the
way, displays Atmastuti features] and Deeg 1993 on Vedic shamanism [I have
not had access to these articles, which are cited by Oberlies, vol.1,
p.311]. Frederick Smith is presently working on the notion of a Vedic
shamanism; I eagerly look forward to his discussion. As for older
literature, see Gonda, Oldenberg, Hauer, et al. Note that Flattery &
Schwartz, pp.24f., briefly allude to Amazonian shamanism.
26. If stanza 13, the hymn's finale, is not a later addition to the hymn
[as has been suggested by S. Jamison, personal communication], then the
phrase deve'bhyo havyavA'hanaH would strongly suggest that Agni is the god
impersonated in this hymn. Of course, Agni is often represented as a bird
in the RV [a motif culminating in the bird-shaped altar of the agnicayana].
I see this hymn as an expression of a kind of Soma-and-Agni fire mysticism,
although this is not the place to go into the matter. Cf. also the largely
unpersuasive interpretation of gRha' as gra'ha, and of yAmi as a passive
"was filled," proposed by Hillebrandt [I.277].
27. On early interpretations of the hymn that suggest its shamanic
features, see Gonda, pp. 379f, cited above.
28. A very lengthy discussion of the quotative particle i'ti, and a defense
of my translation of it here, has been deleted from this paper, which even
without it is overly long. This discussion, and some observations on the
evolution of its syntax, will be presented in a forthcoming paper.
29. It is frequently suggested [e.g., Brough, p.376; several members of the
audience in Toronto who responded to an oral version of this paper] that
such craftsmanship could not have been achieved by a poet "in the
intoxication of Soma." This has been rebutted already by Staal, p.761 [note
his remarks re the fallacy of the excluded third possibility: that the poet
could nevertheless have been familiar with Soma-ecstasy, even if not
intoxicated while composing the hymn]. I would add this point, taken
unchanged from an earlier version of this paper:"Second, the famous example
of the German Romantic poet Hölderlin demonstrates that the poetic function
is [or can be] autonomous from the proper functioning of the other
intellectual and social functions of the mind. If Hölderlin was capable of
composing exquisitely crafted, metrically perfect poems, while suffering
the debilitating symptoms of severe schizophrenia, it seems to me that this
anonymous but very fine RV poet likewise might well have been capable of
composing an extraordinary hymn like RV 10.119, consciously impersonating
this or that god for his willing and susceptible audience, while undergoing
whatever strange symptoms, any whatsoever, that that potent Vedic god Soma,
whatever He was, was able to induce in him."