Category Archives: Religion

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.

Museum Curios or Objects of Spiritual Healing?

Two days ago,  I suggested that the Vancouver Museum seriously consider repatriating a petroglyph-covered boulder in its collections to the tribal group in whose territory it was found.  The art on the boulder appears to be deteriorating badly in the museum courtyard as moss and water erode the stone,  obliterating figures that were clear as a bell in the 1930s.  I argued that repatriation would be a good solution to this problem,  for I believe that tribal group in question would have a much greater interest in taking care of the art.

But there’s also a moral argument to be made here.  I don’t think that national, provincial or city museums are the right places for objects of great spiritual importance to aboriginal peoples,  objects that still have a tremendous meaning today. These items, in my opinion,  really need to go back to the tribal group from which they came.   Imagine the outcry,  for example,  if an Egyptian museum held part of the manger of Christ in its collections and would not return it to the Vatican on request?

My views on this matter were strongly shaped by an experience I had while I was working for what is now the Royal Museum of Alberta back in the 1970s.  At the time, the museum held a collection of sacred medicine bundles once owned by healers and spiritual leaders in the Blackfoot Confederacy,  the Niitsitapi.

The museum bought the bundles back in a time when residential schools and other modern ills had badly eroded the traditional culture of the Niitsitapi.   But in the 1970s,  a few people in these tribes were actively reviving traditional spiritual practices.  They wanted their bundles back, because these sacred objects were absolutely essential to age-old spiritual practices.  The museum, however,  stubbornly refused to part with them.

Finally,  however,  four members of the Kainai Nation (part of the Niitsitapi) arrived at the museum one spring day and asked if they could take the Longtime Medicine Pipe Bundle  outdoors for prayer,  as was tradition.  As a young research assistant,  I watched them carry the bundle out past the security cameras and guards.  Outside, they walked in a procession around the museum,  with the museum director and a few other  staff members following.

As they passed the parking lot,   the  Kainai delegation broke into a run toward a waiting pickup truck.  They swiftly clambered in with the bundle  and drove away.  As I later learned,  one member of the delegation had dreamt a few weeks earlier that he could spirit away the bundle from the museum:  today the Kainai talk about how this man cast a charm over the curators.

Many of the Kainai have now returned to their traditional spiritual practices,  and I have heard that the bundle is a very cherished part of those practices.    Clearly, the museum should  have restored the bundle to the Kainai when they asked for it.

I have often heard aboriginal people talk about the sacredness of the rock art.  Isn’t it time that  museums think about giving it back to the people who rightfully own it?

P.S. In You interested in healing and ayahuasca retreats at www.spiritplantjourneys.com.

Grave Doubts on the Shroud of Turin

What exactly is the famous Shroud of Turin? Archaeologist Shimon Gibson,  a senior research fellow at the  W.P. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, recently conducted a major study on a radiocarbon-dated 1st century B.C. burial shroud he and his colleagues excavated in a Jerusalem tomb.  This funerary cloth was  made very differently  from the  Shroud of Turin,  casting yet more cold water on the authenticity of the famous relic.  For more on this,  see my blog post today at Archaeology magazine.

Guns, Spears, Inscriptions, and Magical Thinking

I wasn’t terribly surprised to read the Associated Press story this week about the biblical inscriptions that appear on certain American military weapons issued to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dismayed, yes. (Wasn’t the American government trying to distance itself from the notion that it was engaged in a modern Christian Crusade against the Infidels? ) But shocked, certainly not. As archaeologists and historians can attest,  such inscriptions are part of a very old tradition, one that goes back many hundreds of years in cultures across Eurasia.

For those of you who missed it, here’s the much boiled down version of the AP story.   For the past 30 years, a Michigan-based  military contractor known as Trijicon Inc.  has put scriptural citations in raised letters on the sides of its products,  which include combat rifle-sights. According to the AP article,  U.S special operations forces in the Middle East currently carry Trijicon’s Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight into battle:   it bears the inscription JN8:12,  a clear reference to the Gospel of  St. John,  Chapter 8, verse 12, which reads: “When Jesus spoke to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The folks at Trijicon clearly think that this verse will go a long way in assisting American soldiers in their hour of need.

But the idea of inscribing a weapon with a sacred text to protect  its owner is a very ancient one.   Indeed it dates back at least  2000 years,  to a time when metalsmiths closely guarded the secrets of forging iron weapons, creating an air of mystery and magic around them.  The inscriptions these ancient smiths forged on sword blades or along spear tips seemed to further enhance this power.

History is replete with wonderful examples.  Early Islamic warriors, for example, carried Damascus-steel swords inscribed with verses from the Qur’an.   Lord Egerton’s classic book, Indian and Oriental Arms and Armour,  describes one sword that possessed  several inscriptions from the Qur’an–some for good times (“In everything there is speedy victory from God”), others for more perilous encounters ( “God is the best of Protectors.”).   But the Moslem warriors were not alone.  Japanese samurai also brandished swords inscribed with inspiring phrases–in their cases,  from Buddhist or Shinto texts.

My favorite example of  inscribed weaponry, however,  is the Spear of Kowel,  shown in the photo above.   It was discovered one spring day in 1858 in Poland by a ploughman preparing his field for planting.  Made of iron and thought to date to the 3rd century A.D.,  the Spear of Kowel bears a simple but slightly ambiguous message.   Depending on who you read,  the inscription reads “brave, bold rider,” “going to the target,”  “goal runner,” or simply “attacker.”

If Trijicon had to inscribe some kind of message on its rifle sights,  why couldn’t it have chosen something simple and to the point  like that,  instead of dragging biblical texts into Middle Eastern wars that are already plagued by fundamentalism.

Angels, Demons, and the Shroud of Turin

It has all the ingredients of a classic Dan Brown novel:  a scholar from the Vatican’s secret archives,   centuries of mystery and intrigue, and a faint inscription on an ancient  Christian shroud. Yesterday,  in a Times online story, Barbara Frale, a staff historian at the Vatican archives, announced that she had deciphered the imprint of Greek, Hebrew and Latin writing on the famous Shroud of Turin.  According to Frale, the lettering is part of a death certificate glued to the shroud covering Jesus Christ immediately after the crucifixion.

Frale, who is about to publish a new book on the shroud, says that such certificates were often issued in the old Roman colony of Palestine, particularly in criminal cases.  The body of an executed criminal could only be returned to the grieving family after the individual was buried for a year in a common grave.   Christians,  of course, believe that Joseph of Arimathea took possession of  Christ’s body shortly after death, carrying  it to a tomb he had prepared for himself.  But Frale says that a death certificate could still have been attached to his shroud.

Frale has clearly studied the inscription, and she presents new evidence.  But I  find the archaeological evidence far more compelling. In 1988,  the Catholic Church gave the University of Arizona and two other institutions the task of dating the Shroud of Turin.  These institutions ran Accelerator Mass Spectrometry tests  with meticulous care on snippets from the shroud, revealing that the fabric was much younger than previously believed.  The tests showed that it dated between A.D. 1250 and 1390.

Critics of the dating tests charge that the researchers mistakenly took snippets from medieval repairs to the shroud.  But new fiber studies conducted on the University of Arizona sample reveal that its overall weave structure is  identical to that of the rest of the textile.

We certainly haven’t heard the end of the controversy over the famous shroud yet.  But right now,  I think the odds are stacked strongly  in favor of a medieval origin.

Heather Pringle