The Rig Veda speaks highly of Soma – a drink that held ritual importance in Vedic India. The drink was considered holy and was offered to the Vedic King of Gods Indra and the all-powerful Agni. It was also a necessary part of the important rituals.
The third verse of the 48th hymn in the eight chapter of Rig Veda, which is dedicated to Soma, reads:
अपाम सोममम्र्ता अभूमागन्म जयोतिरविदाम देवान |
किं नूनमस्मान कर्णवदरातिः किमु धूर्तिरम्र्त मर्त्यस्य ||
(We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered. Now what may a foe’s malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man’s deception?)
Soma was given an equal pedestal in Zoroastrian faith which had similar gods as in Vedic Hinduism. The Iranians, where Zoroastrianism flourished before the Islamic invasion, called Soma, Hoama because of the absence of the letter ‘S’ in the language.
Like Rig Veda, the Zoroastrians, too, mentioned it in their holy book, Avesta.
Yet thousands of years down the line, no one was able to know the name of the plant or edible that was used to make Soma. Speculations ranged from opium to cannabis but nothing was conclusive.
The secret appears to have been unearthed and it is thanks to a carpet. Yes, a carpet!
Russian archaeologists discovered a 2000-year-old carpet in 2009 from a burial chamber in Mongolia. The carpet, in a good condition, revealed that it reached Mongolia from Syria or Palestine, where it was spun. But before reaching Mongolia, it passed through north-western India.
It was in north-western India where the carpet underwent embroidery. It is this embroidery which appears to reveal the secret of Soma.
The embroidery shows an Iranian ritualistic high figure – a king of priest – holding a mushroom in his hands. There is another man looking intently at it.
According to Natalia V. Polosmak, Chief Researcher: “The ‘divine mushroom’ embroidered on the carpet resembles well-known psychoactive species Psilocybe cubensis.”
“The weight of evidence suggests that soma, the ancient ritual drink, has been prepared from the mushrooms of family strophariaceae which contains the unique nervous system stimulator psilocybin,” she wrote in 2010.
She added: “The mushroom depicted on the Xiongnu carpet can belong to family Strophariaceae. Its external appearance has similarities with species Psilocybe cubensis. Many species of family Strophariaceae, especially genus Psilocybe, contain psilocybin, a unique psychoactive substance and a nervous system stimulator.”
The carpet depicts the two men standing face-to-face. The mushroom is being held just above a fire altar. The flame of the fire is shaped like an ‘S’. That the men are Iranians is confirmed from their dress and the region where the carpet was embroidered.
“The north-western India of that time, where, in all the likelihood, the ritual is taking place, was the meeting place of three ethnos, three cultures – Indian, Iranian, and Greek,” she writes.
The depiction of bees on the carpet points to the fact that the men are holding a mushroom. Honey is associated with bees. The Atharva Veda tells about the use of honey in preserving certain foodstuffs, especially mushrooms.
“The butterflies and bees depicted in the background of the canvas may have symbolised the kingdom of souls – the Other World – the world of ancestors, where the warriors got to after having consumed sacred mushrooms,” says Polosmak.
So after drinking Soma, they “came to light” and “found Gods”, as is written in Rig Veda. As Indologist and Rig Veda translator Tatiana Yelizarenkova wrote in 1999, “Soma was not only a stimulating but a hallucinating drink.”
As the Russian team continues with the project, they maintain that the mushroom is most probably the stuff that was used to make Soma.
“In their psychoactive properties, psilocybin mushrooms are much more befitting as vegetative equivalents of Soma, or Hoama, than fly agaric, which was identified with Soma in the Rigveda by R.G. Wasson in his well-known book,” the team writes.