Symposium “Plants in Health and Culture”

The Ritual of the Soma juice: the Physiological and Conceptual Construction of Transformative Experience -- Jan E.M. Houben, Paris/Leiden


In discussions of the identity of the Soma plant, it is usually the results that psychoactive substances have on their own that have been taken into account while the contribution of other factors in the ritual that influence the physiology and the conceptual state of the performers have been largely neglected.

The oldest sources on the ancient Vedic Soma sacrifice present it as a procedure that transforms the persons for whom it is intended, namely the sacrificer and his wife, who invite and pay the priests to perform the prescribed ritual acts for their sake. At the moment of their consecration for the Soma sacrifice, the sacrificer and his wife clench their fists and keep them clenched until the concluding bath several days later. The ancient texts explicitly associate the clenched fists with the embryonic state in which the sacrificer and his wife have now entered, while the concluding bath is compared with the embryonal waters from which new born babies arise. In the experience of transformation which the Soma sacrifice is apparently supposed to bring about or to facilitate, what is the function that can be attributed to the juice of the Soma plant which as deified substance plays a central role in the ritual? and what is the function of procedures before and during the performance for the sacrificer and his wife, which imply a considerable deprivation of sleep and let them have only very restricted food? are there other aspects in the performance – the presence of powerful symbols, myths referred to in recitations, the rhythmic chanting – which may be expected to have an effect on the transformative experience which the sacrificer and his wife are supposed to have?

If the Soma consumption is thus placed in its immediate and wider ritual context our conclusions about the properties of the so far still unidentified sacred Soma juice of Vedic rituals must be significantly modified. Its identification as a strong hallucinogen, for instance Amanita muscaria, seems unwarranted, whereas Soma as a stimulant, for instance in the form of Ephedra, suits the evidence well.

For basic information about the ancient Indian Soma ritual cf.:

For a historical overview of the discussion on the identity of Soma and Haoma see the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, 9 (