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.