The Tawny One: Soma, Hoama and Ayahuasca by Matthew Clark

For 250 years the botanical identity of soma has been a scholarly point of contention. The four Vedas collectively refer to soma in three aspects; as a god, a plant, and the juice of a plant. This collection of mantras and hymns give tantalising descriptions of soma’s preparation and, revealingly (if even only poetically), the ecstasy it produces in those who consume it. This has led some researchers to conclude that soma was in fact an entheogen—which is to say a substance with hallucinogenic properties employed in ritual practice. As a result, this also provides the opportunity to apply a phenomenological, as well textual and cultural, analysis.

I would like to suggest—perhaps obviously and somewhat tautologically—that a ‘properly’ entheogenic experience might perhaps be defined, albeit in one of several ways, as being in a state in which the experiencer is aware of being in a universe that appears to function according to a different set of overriding principles (Clark 2017: 98)

In The Tawny One, Matthew Clark argues that the body of evidence most likely points towards an ayahuasca-like vine or grass concoction that includes multiple ingredients. Not only does the array of potential candidates appear to point toward this thesis, but the practicalities of running such a ritual appear to find their best modern correlates in certain ayahuasca traditions. Before looking at this, however, it is first necessary to return to the evolving story of the search for soma, and how it has begun to inform a geographical history of entheogenic ritual. It is by placing his thesis within the wider context of the movement of Bronze Age people’s that Clark really grounds his position in relation to other apparently entheogen-based religious activity emerging 4000BP.

The soma of the Indo-European Vedic traditions became tied to hoama from the Zoroastrian sacred book the Avesta in the late nineteenth century when the two were shown to have the same etymological root—indicating their emergence from the same source. Indeed, Clark argues that a Bronze Age culture in Central Asia, with ‘sufficient and extensive botanical knowledge […] to manufacture potent entheogenic libations from a wide variety of plants’ migrated out due to some crisis, carrying their knowledge to the Near East, Central and South Asia (Clark 2017: 203). This, he believes, led to the foundation of a variety of religious practices and mystery cults, including the Rites of Eleusis which he discusses in some detail at the end of the book.

Following the hoama line of enquiry, David Flattery and Martin Schwartz famously argued for Syrian Rue, and its constituent MAOI harmaline, as the plant in question, in an article published in 1989. Syrian rue on its own, however, has limited efficacy for producing the type of divine experience described in the literature, although it does indicate the idea that in combination with a high DMT containing plant, an entheogenic brew could provide an answer. More recently, Mike Jay’s excellent Blue Tide (1999) followed a similar research path, and he proposed that the huge number of plant candidates might also indicate that soma refers to a body of plants rather than a single one. And with ayahuasca finding such a prominent cultural identity currently, it seems a very appropriate time for Clark’s thesis.

Aside from the various indications of the plant identity, the working thesis that soma/hoama was hallucinogenic provides a phenomenological and practical method of assessment, alongside the historical-textual. Clarke compares descriptions and necessities with the practices of the syncretic, ayahuasca using Santo Daime church. While comparing a modern tradition with the descriptions of ritual from several thousand years ago might seem disingenuous, there are striking similarities between them. And, moreover, the ability for a group of humans to manage an entheogenic experience is, technically, likely to involve very similar practices across ages and cultures—if only to ascertain that it is indeed possible (and necessary).

Clark is very thorough in going through all the secondary literature in order to outline the problems with competing theories. Most obviously, this includes looking at the sometimes controversial banker and ethnomycologist R Gordon Wasson and his book Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1968). Wasson had already made a name for himself in helping to establish the field of ethnomycology, particularly through his investigation of the use of Psilocybe varieties in South America. In Soma, however, he proposed that it was Amanita muscaria to which the ancient literature referred. Due to a lack of consistent efficacy in the fungi, and some dodgy textual translation/interpretation, it seems very unlikely however.

The Tawny One, while putting forward its thesis that soma/hoama refers to an ayahuasca-like brew, gives a scholarly historiography of soma. As such it is an invaluable tool for anyone interested in both the soma question itself, and how one might methodologically approach the question of magical / psychedelic / entheogenic plants in ancient literature. So far as this particular mystery is concerned however, and while Clark’s work is necessarily speculative, it is very convincing overall. And in getting several local candidates (albeit unsuccessfully) tested for DMT and alkaloid content, Clark also does point the way to how the search for soma can fruitfully continue in the future. Overall, an excellent and informative read.

Title / Year: The Tawny One: Soma, Hoama and Ayahuasca (2017)

Author: Dr Matthew Clark

ISBN: 9781908995223 – Price: £17.95

Publisher: Muswell Hill Press

This review was originally published in the Psychedelic Press journal (Issue XXII).

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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