Is Cannabis the Original ‘Soma’?

‘Homa’ or ‘haoma’ is the name used in the Avesta for the plant or substance the Vedas know as ‘Soma’. The most widely accepted candidate for this mysterious ancient Iranian and Indo-Iranian ritual intoxicant – if that’s even what it was – is Ephedra. But, no surprise, Cannabis is also among the many plants it’s argued might be ‘the real Homa / Soma’.

One recent argument popular among cannabis aficionados goes like this: ‘Hu ma‘ (胡麻) is a Chinese name for potent Scythian Cannabis and from this comes the Avestan name ‘Homa’.

There’s at least one serious problem with this idea:

The Rig Veda and the Avesta – ancient scriptures of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism (Mazdaism), respectively – are something like 1000 years older than the Chinese name hu ma, at very least.

The Rig Veda and early Avesta originate from the Bronze Age, very approximately c. 1300 BCE. Hu ma is a name dating to the opening of the ‘Silk Road’ during the Han Dynasty (c. 200 BCE), when the Han Chinese began exploring westward into Central Asia, a good millennium or so later.

Hu‘ (胡) was a name used by the early Chinese for peoples to their west such as the Scythians, Sogdians, Xiongnu, and perhaps even Indians. There’s quite a strong negative connotation to ‘hu‘, similar to ‘barbarian’, though the meaning can simply be ‘foreigner from the west / north’, such as a nomad or urban oasis dweller from Central Asia or the Eurasian Steppe. The Hu proper were the Sogdians.

Hu ma – meaning roughly ‘Scythian hemp’ or ‘Sogdian hemp’ – could denote a range of western oilseed and fibre crops such as flax (linseed), and these days mostly refers to sesame (胡麻), all of which the Han Chinese began to encounter as they ventured westward into the valleys and deserts of Central Asia.

In fact, it seems quite unclear whether hu ma ever did refer to high-THC Cannabis (i.e., subsp. indica), even though this was certainly used ritually by the Scythians around what’s now Xinjiang and far to the west in what are now southern Russia and Ukraine – for more on which, see Berthold Laufer’s discussion in Sino-Iranica.

To this uncertainty add that, for the hu ma > Homa idea, there’s a fundamental problem with how 胡麻 would have been pronounced in ancient Chinese, plus the fact that Homa would be pronounced ‘hōm’.

The name ‘Soma / Haoma / Homa’ in reality denotes something like “that which is pressed, extract” (from Av. hu-, Skt. su-, “press, pound”). These ritual drinks were probably common to the shared ancestors of the Old Iranian and Old Indian peoples, far back into prehistory, long before the Axial Age and the era of Chinese adventure into the Western Regions (西域).

For authoritative Scythian chat, check out this excellent lecture by ace archaeologist, Barry Cunliffe:

The image shows Ephedra gerardiana with cone-bearing branchlet and seed cones at maturity by Liu Chunrong, redrawn by Li Aili (Fu et al. 1999).