Symposium “Plants in Health and Culture”

Abstract of "Central Asian Ritual and Psychoactive Plants"

David S. Flattery, University of California, Berkeley


In this paper I propose that the identification of *sauma as ephedra implies that the *sauma ceremonies were based on the use of Peganum harmala (harmel), the most abundant intoxicant plant of central Asia.
I argue that the *sauma ceremony was a formalized procedure intended to show the integrity of priests based on their willingness to risk drinking a drug the effects of which could result in exposing deceitful intentions. In the ceremony a priest drank *sauma, to which, without his knowledge, such a drug might have been added. *Sauma designated a role in this ceremony and was not originally a plant name. *Sauma came to designate ephedra because ephedra was the plant most suited to this role, which was not that of a drug but of a constant to which a drug might be added.
The etymological meaning of *sauma refers to the process of extraction by mortar and pestle. That process may have characterized the preparation of the drug plant sometimes extracted with *sauma/ephedra. It is improbable that the process of mortar and pestle extraction could have referred originally to the extraction of ephedrine from ephedra because mortaring is an inefficient way of obtaining ephedrine. Extracts of ephedra so prepared contain sub threshold quantities of ephedra. However, in the presence of harmel alkaloids the action of ephedrine may be intensified as much as four fold and could significantly alter the effects of harmel.
The argument that the drug sometimes extracted with *sauma was harmel is based (1) on this intensifying action of harmel alkaloids upon ephedrine; (2) on the suitability of harmel effects for inducing behavior that could expose deceitful intentions; and (3) on the necessity of using mortar and pestle to prepare harmel as a drug. There is, however, little ethnographic evidence of the combination of harmel and ephedra in Iranian folkways and the published pharmacological evidence for their interaction is indirect. A clinical experiment might be designed that could falsify this aspect of the argument.
References to *sauma intoxication in the hymns accompanying the *sauma ceremony were to invoke benign effects should the *sauma contain the intoxicant. They refer to the intoxication of the added plant but are not descriptive of how its intoxication was actually experienced.
Some implications of my arguments are to refute (1) the claims of V. I. Sarianidi to have identified haoma temples in Central Asia; (2) the idea that *sauma was not originally Indo-Iranian but was borrowed from a substrate culture; (3) the theory that the soma plant of the Rigveda was an intoxicant plant, such as Amanita muscaria, that disappeared and was replaced by substitutes or by different ceremonies; and (4) the proposition that ephedra, although it was certainly *sauma and was *sauma by reason of the stimulant properties of the ephedrine it may contain, was consumed as *sauma in order to experience stimulation.