Soma, Ephedra and Journeys to the Next World

For the last few days  I have been reading a superb book  about a harrowing journey that 26 undocumented Mexican migrants took  in May 2001 across the Sonora Desert in hopes of reaching Arizona,  and last night it got me thinking, strangely enough,  about soma,  an ancient intoxicating ritual drink mentioned frequently in the Vedas and other sacred texts in Iran.  What’s the connection?  Well,  bear with me.  I think you’ll find this interesting.

The book in question is Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway,  and it’s a riveting account of the perils that this ill-prepared group of Mexican men and boys faced on their lethal trek through the Arizona desert.  As Urrea points out, many of the guides who accompany such parties into the desert insist that their charges pop fistfuls of ephedra-based diet pills.  The pills,  says Urrea are  a “chemical prod to speed up their walkers….A dose of eight pills at a time really gets them hustling. ”

The mention of ephedra really caught my attention.  There are several species in the genus Ephedra,  but they are all unprepossessing, shrubby,  desert-loving plants and several species contain an important stimulant– ephedrine–that produces an adrenaline-like rush in strong doses, and,  in some reported cases, a state of hallucination.

I have been reading a lot in recent weeks about ephedra,  for these plants are found in lavish quantities in the 4000-year-old  graves of Bronze-Age mummies  in the deserts of China’s remote Tarim Basin. As some of you will know,  the Tarim Basin mummies are very famous and controversial,  largely because they are  European in appearance and in the technology they possessed.  (Think plaid woolen clothes.)  As such,  they clearly indicate contact between East and West far earlier than previously believed.

Now here’s the thing.  The fact that archaeologists have uncovered so much ephedra in these graves suggests that it served a very important ritual purpose,  most likely to spur on the spirit of the deceased as it took the long,  dangerous  journey to the next world.

Could the Bronze-Age inhabitants of the Tarim Basin have brought knowledge of ephedra from lands to the west,  such as Iran?  And could ephedra have been one of the plants used to brew soma,  the sacred drink that ancient priests and others imbibed in order to journey to the other world?

Two American researchers,  David Stophlet Flattery and Martin Schwarz,  lay out in minute detail the available scientific evidence for soma in their 1989 book,  Haoma and Harmaline:  The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallocinogen.  Researchers have long debated possible  ingredients.   But after detailed study,  Flattery and Schwarz concluded that ephedra was one of the key ingredients in the fabled drink.

There are dissenters and doubters of course.   But I think there is something very poignant here.  Illegal Mexican migrants swallow ephedrine pills by the handful today in order to get to a place they think of as the promised land.   But the ephedrine does them no good at all.

Each year, the American border patrol finds hundreds of their bodies lying out in desert.


  1. atomico

    My theory about the ingredients of soma is that i also believe in some ephedra strain as main ingredient. i wonder to read here that ephedrine could have hallucinogenic effects because i think soma can’t include a typical potent hallucinogenic ingredient because it would be very difficult to make big long rituals or ceremonies using hallucinogens. i have never used ephedrine but amphetamine which may be called a “modern” ephedrine or otherwise ephedrine may can be called the “speed” of our ancestors because of the strong similarities. a main effect of both is a strong of state euphoria. in that state of mind or consciousness i think it would better fit to the culture which used the holy ambrosia called soma. furthermore i think a second main ingredient could be cannabis oil. this mixture definitely would give the mysterious drink a special spiced kick by increasing the euphoric state in pushing it to some higher and a more light psychedelic way and i imagine it would fit perfect for some more longer rituals of a great culture. the effects of this mixture is much more suitable for daily use and having the feet more on the ground instead of using amanita muscaria for example. Somehow by some intuition i am nearly sure that this combination must be very effective and fitting. For me, those two are the main ingredients of Soma.


    (i am not sure what is more precisely meant in the reported cases you mentioned about the hallucinogenic states but by the way let me mention that the word hallucinogen for psychoactive substances is a wrong one because it’s a specific pathological term for a state of disease or psychological disorder and because of that unworthy meaning for substances or the characteristic effect of special plants which where holy in specific cultures a special commission of scientists gave these substances 1970 a new definition called ENTHEOGEN)

  2. atomico

    …a strong argument for hashish oil in the soma is that cannabis was a confirmed and common integrated part for a relatively very long time in the old indian culture.

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