Blue Tide by Mike Jay
Originally published in 1999 ‘Blue Tide – The Search for Soma’ by Mike Jay is the story of the author’s search for the potentially psychedelic plant soma. In attempting to unravel its mysteries, Jay is tackling, what is felt by many, as one of the most important, unanswered historical questions in psychedelic studies. A blend of travel and adventure, research and experiment, the book displays the classic motifs of a psychedelic text and utilises a broad range of approaches to great effect.
Soma is first mentioned in the Rig Veda, a vast collection of hymns that began life as oral poetry and were then written down in Sanskrit; the earliest extant texts are thought to date to the fifth century AD. The Vedic peoples, travelled from some unknown place in the West and settled in North India and Jay describes the Rig Veda as “the great surviving text of the lost civilisation before civilisation” (Jay 2). Soma is a God, representing a great many things in opposition to Agni, water and sun respectively for example, but whilst Agni is incarnated on Earth as fire, Soma becomes a plant: the “Plant of the Gods”.
How then, has soma become a central historical problem for psychedelic studies? Jay unpicks this relationship by looking at the two lights under which soma, the plant, is highlighted in the Rig Veda. Firstly its preparation as a drink, though still highly poetic, is described in some detail as being part of a sacred ritual. Soma is sacramental. Secondly, there are detailed, poetic descriptions of the soma experience, which doesn’t exactly take a huge leap of faith to recognise similar imagery in say LSD entheogenic descriptions. It would appear then, that the soma model is the earliest, literary reference to the sacramental use of psychedelics. It also means, Jay has two entry points in his search for soma; the phenomenological and the ethnobotanical.
Several botanical identifications had already been made. Cannabis, for example, but this is associated with Vishnu in Hindu traditions and is thought to have derived from the Vedic visha, which is described separately in the Rig Veda. Jay’s critique of the Gordon Wasson theory, found in his book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, that soma was in fact the mushroom Amanita Muscaria is clinical. (Many of Jay’s arguments are reiterated by Andy Letcher, in Shroom.) Primarily however, Wasson’s contribution, though shaky in itself, raised the bar in the soma debate and brought together specialists from many fields; in doing so a more robust approach developed. In many respects, Blue Tide is a child of this approach with its plethora of multi-disciplinarily research methods.
In light of these previous propositions, Jay looked for a wholly new approach to the problem and he found it in haoma and the work of David Flattery and Martin Schwartz: Haoma and Harmaline. Haoma comes from the Iranian tradition, which up until about 2000 BC was the same tradition as the Vedic – known as the Indo-Iranian. Though the traditions began to split, many similarities remained, and haoma is identified with the Iranian soma. Interestingly, there exists more information in the Avestas (the Zoroastrian sacred books) about haoma than in the Rig Veda about soma but “crucially, their story has a very different ending” (Jay 58). Essentially, the distinction is, whilst the knowledge of soma was lost, haoma was banned in the shift toward monotheism instigated by Zoroaster, founder of Zoroastrianism. Although the haoma rights were later reintroduced, it was a “non-intoxicating substitute, usually ephedra or pomegranate” (Jay 61).
More pertinent for Jay’s search is that the Zoroastrian tradition offers more clues to the botanical identity of haoma. Whilst several had been suggested, harmal, first suggested in the nineteenth century becomes the primary object of investigation for Jay. Notably, harmaline is used in ayahuasca brews, and if harmal was taken in conjunction with the MAOI containing ephedra and pomegranate, then its psychedelic effects are amplified. From this discovery onwards Blue Tide begins to take on the elements of a great adventure story; it describes Jay’s experimentation with both harmal and ayahuasca, and takes him on travels to the high Indus Valley in an ethnobotanical search.
It gets dark, and we light candles. Immediately, the sensations become more intense. Glancing across the beam of a candle produces an intense flash of blue ‘lightening’ across the corner of my eye. We stare at one candle, closing our eyes, absorbing its flickering blue after-image through our eyelids. We read sections of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The words spool through my mind like a movie. I close my eyes, and see the walls of Uruk (Jay 71)
His search is often framed by ayahuasca and the possibility that what soma/haoma represented was a forgotten, Old World psychedelic brew. In many respects, this is a neat answer to the problem and certainly takes it leave from New World shamanism. Discussions on DMT, the pineal gland, modern Zoroastrian scholarship and the evolution of religion pepper the text, as Jay also records the phenomenological effects in light of ancient descriptions. Underlying the book, is also an examination of the relationship between organised religion and psychedelic sacraments, who both, in many respects, purport to deliver the same sacred space. Although this relationship is often uneasy, the development of the Native American Church and Santo Daime, who both utilise psychedelic sacraments, demonstrate how close the relationship can be.
In noting that Psilocybin mushrooms grow in Nepal, Jay concludes: “The combination of these mushrooms with harmal is effectively an Old World ayahuasca, a close chemical analogue with the same pineal interaction of tryptamines and beta-carbolines” (Jay 172). However, Jay doesn’t see this as definitive proof and ultimately his evaluation lies in how these cultural histories have impinged on and driven contemporary psychedelic use – the tribal, ritualistic and religious models that are found in both countercultural groups and sacramental religions. Blue Tide is an excellent book, which delineates the evidence with great skill, with a prose that is both riveting and enlightening. To find out more about Mike Jay, please visit his website: http://www.mikejay.net