Haoma and Harmaline: A Critical Analysis | Cannabis Culture


CANNABIS CULTURE – Just as the identification of the Fly agaric mushroom as Soma has been widely accepted, the Harmaline containing plant Syrian rue has come to be identified with the Persian Haoma, and this is largely due to the exhaustive work of David Stophlet Flattery and Martin Schwartz in their admirable book Haoma and Harmaline (1989). Noting that the modern plant used in the Haoma ritual Ephedra had none of the psychoactive properties alluded to in the Avestan texts, Flattery and Schwartz put forth the suggestion that the original brew also held the Harmaline containing plant Syrian rue.

This is Part 6 on a series about the identity of the ancient plant sacraments known as haoma and soma. Other articles in this series include:

1) The Soma-Haoma Question

2) The Cannabis Soma/Haoma Theory: A Synopsis Based on the Latest Textual and Archeological Evidence

3) The Mushroom Soma Theory: A Critical Analysis

4) A Rebuttal to Criticisms of The Cannabis Soma Theory in Secret Drugs of Buddhism by Mike Crowley

5) ‘Secret Drugs of Buddhism’, Soma, and the Sad State of Entheogenic Anthropology

Syrian rue was actually the first candidate suggested for Haoma by a western historian, in this case by Sir William Jones in 1798. Flattery and Schwartz have done a commendable job with the research they have put together in an attempt to resurrect this theory. In their view the “Vedic descriptions of soma are so general that they cannot be used to prove or disprove [Wasson’s] or any other hypothesis” (Flattery Schwartz, 1989).  The co-authors believed that “any probative evidence for the botanical identification of sauma must have its basis outside of this text” (Flattery Schwartz, 1989).

I don’t agree completely with this view, as descriptions listed in both the Avesta and Rig Veda, of the plant soma, listed and discussed, clearly describe it as a green plant with branches, that could also hold hues of gold, and ruddy brown, or yellow. This disavows any case for The Mushroom Soma Theory.

Haoma and Harmaline

Taking up much of their research with material excluded from Wasson’s study, Flattery and Schwartz focus their own investigation on the Avesta and other ancient Iranian literature, which indeed shares a common “Proto-Indo-Iranian” ancestry with the Rig Veda. Flattery and Schwartz saw the Avesta as a more reliable document as they felt there was “a scholarly consensus that in general the Avesta is the more conservative text, that is, it more faithfully reflects archaic reality than does the RgVeda, which is prone to extensive poetic elaboration” (Flattery & Schwartz, 1989). Wasson, on the other hand felt that “Religiously and linguistically the Avesta and RgVeda are siblings. The text of the Rgveda is, however, much purer owing to its marvellous preservation through the ages by the disciplined human memory” (Wasson, 1970).  In this regard it is the view of this author that the texts of both cultures have to be taken into account if the true identity of the original Soma/Haoma is to be deduced.

The duo convincingly identified the Persian references to Haoma (which is translated as sauma throughout Haoma and Harmaline) and bhang (also mang, which is the later Pahlavi form of the word) as identifying the same entheogenic preparation. But they both saw the Persian term bhangmang (identified as cannabis by numerous other researchers, and still in use in this context in both Persia and India to this day) as having a more general meaning such as narcotic or intoxicant, and particularly for Flattery’s purposes as identifying Syrian rue. However here the co-authors disagree, as Schwartz saw the term as more likely identifying Henbane or Datura, an etymological view that will be discussed later in this article.

Syrian Rue

Although Syrian rue can in fact become hallucinogenic by itself, it’s use is accompanied by nausea. In Tihkal, Alexander and Ann Shulgin report the following accounts of the ingestion of Syrian rue, seeds and extract; and the nausea sounds extreme even when following dietary precautions, a fact that would be hard to reconcile with the pleasant effects of Haoma and Soma as described in the Vedic and Avestan literature:

(with 2 g Peganum harmala seeds, ground, in capsules) “No effects.”

(with 5 g Peganum harmala seeds, ground, in capsules) “At about 1:45 tinnitus was obvious. At 2:00 precise movements were problematical and nystagmus was noticeable. Mild nausea and diarrhea, …. sensitive to light and sound…Hallucinations were intense, but only with the eyes closed. They consisted, initially, of a wide variety of geometrical patterns in dark colors, getting more intense as time went on. They disappeared when the eyes were opened… loose bowels and nausea were pretty constant through the… the trip.”

(with 7 g Peganum harmala seeds, ground, in capsules) “Very sick for 24 hours.”

(with 20 g Peganum harmala seeds, as extract) “This is equivalent, probably, to a gram or so of the harmala alkaloids. This was ground up material extracted with hot dilute lemon juice. Within a half hour, I found myself both trippy and sleepy. Then I became quite disorientated, nauseous, and with an accelerated heart beat. I had the strong sensation of moving backwards, drifting, with faint visuals under my eyelids. Restraining the vomiting urge was an ongoing problem. I could have gone out of body quite easily, except that I was completely anchored by the nausea. After about three hours, I knew that it had peaked, and I went to sleep and experienced intense and strange dreams. The entire experience was a conflict between tripping and being sick.” (Shulgin & Shulgin, 1997)

As David Flattery himself noted: “The effects actually experienced from a preparation of harmel were well known in Middle Eastern lore: as reported in early Islamic materia medica they are chiefly vomiting, sleep, intoxication, and an inclination toward coitus” (Flattery & Schwartz, 1989). Beyond indications of aphrodisiacal qualities, none of these effects are referred to in either the Avestan or Vedic literature. Moreover, in the Avestan accounts, Haoma is used in nocturnal rituals, where participants are wide awake, dancing and singing.

David Flattery

Because of its unpleasant effects, few modern psychonauts partake of Syrian rue as a hallucinogen by itself, but rather use Harmala in conjunction with other plants to increase the psychoactive effects contained in them. This brings us to some important points of criticism from entheobotanist Jonathan Ott.

Martin Schwartz lecturing about Haoma

Jonathan Ott, cited a number of problems with Haoma and Harmaline, such as Flattery’s failure to provide first hand evidence of Peganum harmala’s entheogenic capabilities, and little historical evidence.  Instead, Flattery bases his speculations on comparisons between the effects of the Near Eastern Syrian rue, and the ethnographic literature on the South American visionary vine, Banistteriopsis caapi, more popularly known as ayahuasca, but in both cases, the plants only become what is considered entheogenically active when mixed with other DMT containing plants such as  as Mimosa hostilis, Diplopterys cabrerana, and Psychotria viridis. (Without a MAOI, the body quickly metabolizes orally-administered DMT, and it therefore has no hallucinogenic effect).

Jonathan Ott

The reader of the Flattery/Schwartz book finishes with an empty feeling… where is evidence, from the authors’ own experimentation…, that Peganum harmala is even an entheogenic plant?  Why must the authors base their arguments on alleged correspondence with ayahuasca, an unrelated potion from another continent, which… owes its entheogenic effects primarily to additives containing dimethyltryptamine and other entheogenic compounds, and not harmel-type alkaloids (Ott 1993).

Even in smaller doses strict dietary observances must be met when using MAOIs. For psychoactive purposes, fasting is often a prerequisite for cultures that consume Ayahuasca, but none of this is indicated in the Avestan or Vedic texts, in fact just the opposite. For the add-mixture to Syrian rue in their hypothesized Persian counterpart of the Ayahuasca, Flattery and Schwartz instead of suggesting a potential DMT containing plant, speculate that the current plant used for Haoma, Ephedra, was used. Ephedra is the source of the medicines ephedrine and pseudoephedrine as well as the harmful street drug, methamphetamine. This again would seem to produce a state of being far from the blissful experience as described in the Vedas and Avestan literature.

Flattery and Schwartz concluded that it was “therefore neither likely that Ephedra was a substitute for sauma nor that it was sauma itself” (Flattery & Schwartz, 1989). Instead the coauthors suggested that the ephedrine and psuedoephedrine only achieved the effects needed through their combination with Harmel. Flattery considered Harmel to be the real Haoma, with Ephedra only being the secondary ingredient in the mixture, directed at keeping the devotee awake during the experience, a use ephedra, as a powerful stimulant, would be well suited for.

Although the suggestion that Haoma may have been a mixture of more than one plant does pan out to have historical accuracy – as discussed in The Cannabis Soma Theory. However, the idea that one of the ingredients was Syrian rue does not. Harmala is clearly far too toxic, and the effects of deliriousness, nausea, diarrhea, sensitivity to light and sound can in no way be reconciled with the pleasant and blissful effects of Soma and Haoma as described in the ancient hymns dedicated to the plant.

In The Problem of the Aryans and the Soma: the botanical evidence, Harri Nyberg noted other aspects of “Peganum harmala which do not fit very well with the general picture of soma/haoma…”

1) if the use of P. harmala were an ancient Indo-Iranian custom, the areas where the plant commonly occurs seem to disagree with the proposed original or secondary homeland of the Indo-Aryans… 2) P. harmala is fairly common in India, and it is odd that knowledge of the original soma/haoma should have been lost there…3) the harmaline alkaloid is the highest in the ripe seeds of Peganum harmala (2-7%), but there is no textual connection (Rgvedic or Avesta) between soma/haoma and plant seeds. Instead, it is repeatedly stated in the Rgveda that stems are identical to soma… 4) the alkaloids of P. harmala have a sedative, not stimulating effect. Therefore, in my opinion, the evidence of Flattery is inconclusive and P. harmala cannot be identified with the original soma/haoma. (Nyberg, 1995)

Nyberg makes a good pint about the potency of P. harmala being in the seed, not the stalk, and this not being identified in the Vedic or Avestan accounts. We saw a similar issue with the ‘stalks’  referred to in the Vedas, in regards to The Soma Mushroom Theory, and the issue with the potency being in the caps of the mushrooms.

The case is just not made for Syrian Rue, based on the Avestan and Rig Vedic descriptions of both the plant and its preparation in Haoma and Harmaline, and I direct the reader to the extensive descriptions given of this from the source material, in the other articles in this series.

Bhang, Mang, Henbane and Harmaline

Part of the reason for the confusion regarding Zoroaster’s relationship with Haoma has to do with the fact that another plant name begins to take precedent in the Magi literature at the time of Zoroaster’s prohibitions, banga, a term that is still in use to this day in both Persia and India (bhang), and is generally used to describe cannabis and its products, although this has not always been the case. As with the identification of Haoma and Soma, there is indeed controversy surrounding the identity of the plant designated by banga, and its Pahlavi counterpart mang. As Gnoli explains of the situation in Encylopedia Iranica:

BANG (Middle and New Persian; in Book Pahlavi also mang, Arabicized banj), a kind of narcotic plant. In older Arabic and Persian sources banj is applied to three different plants: hemp (Cannabis sativa or indica), henbane (Hyoseyamus niger, etc.), and jimsonweed (Datura stramonium). The effects of these three narcotic plants vary something which may explain the widely differing descriptions of bang in the Middle Persian texts. In modern Persian bang is hashish.

In the Middle Persian texts bang (mang) is described sometimes as a lethal and sometimes as a hallucinogenic drug. Thus, when Ahriman attacked the creation, Ohrmazd gave the primordial bull a “medicinal” mang (mang bēšaz) to lessen its injury. The bull immediately became feeble and sick and passed away (Bundahišn , tr. chap. 4.20). However, bang was also an ingredient of the “illuminating drink” (rōšngar xwarišn) that allowed Wištāsp to see the “great xwarrah” and the “great mystery.” This mang ī wištāspān (Pahlavi Vd. 15.14; Ardā Wirāz-nāmag 2.15) was mixed with hōm (Dēnkard 7.4.85) or wine (Pahlavi Rivayat 47.27). It was an integral part of the ecstatic practice aimed at opening the “eye of the soul” (gyān čašm; Gnoli, pp. 414ff., 435ff.) and was therefore drunk by Ardā Wirāz (Ardā Wirāz-nāmag 1.20, 2.9, 15, 16) before his journey into the other world (Gignoux, p. 152 n. 4; cf. Vahman, p. 14 n. 9). (Gnoli, 1979)

The Bhang, Mang Debate

As Gnoli’s comments indicate, there is considerable confusion regarding bhang and mang, regarding both its use and identity. In 1938 the renowned Swedish Orientalist and historian of religion, Henrik Samuel Nyberg wrote the following regarding the role of bhanga in the Zoroastrian religion, which he identified with cannabis, as had a number of other historians:

Now hemp (bangha, banha) really appears in the Avesta. In the Gathas it is not found, but in the Fravasi-yast, that contains long lists of the members of the Zoroastrian ancient congregations, a man emerges with the meaningful name Pouru-bangha ‘possessing much hemp.’ (Nyberg, 1938)

As shall be discussed, Nyberg went on to describe the use of cannabis by a variety of Zoroastrian heroes, as well as detailing the later rejection of the ritual use of cannabis by the Parsi, as indicated in the surviving Zoroastrian documents. Considering that cannabis is known both in Indian and Persia under the name bhang, banj, bang, and various related names, and this interpretation of the Avestan texts seems clear upon a first reading, as time went on, the matter has become considerably confused. Finnish researcher Peenti Aalto has summarized some of the international debate and controversy regarding the Zoroastrian references to bhanga and its later Pahlavi counterpart mang:

In the opinion of Henning… the derivative of Indian hemp called bang became known in Iran only in the eleventh century of our era as a result of the Muslim conquest and its name is also a loan from India. There had, however, been an indigenous word bang ‘henbane’, while the Avestan word banha is very unlikely to be connected with Pahlavi mang and Persian bang.  Mayrhofer… states that the relationship between these Indian and Iranian words cannot be considered settled. The confusion is increased by the German word Bangenkraut (=Cicuta virosa ‘cowbane’ or Conium maculatum ‘hemlock’?), a poisonous plant with an etymologically obscure name. Interestingly enough, in the Rig Veda IX 61,13 bhanga is used when speaking of Soma, though the translators seem to render it by “breaker”, originating from the verb bhanj-, bhanakto ‘to break’. In the Bundahisn mang ~ bang is a lethal poison: IV 20… (God wanted to save the Cow from the painful death which the Evil Spirit was preparing for her) ‘before he (the Evil Spirit) came to the Cow, Ohrmazd, gave medical (Anklerasia translated “healing”) mang, to the Cow to consume… (and) she passed away.’

Even McKenzie,… bang and… mang, translates both as ‘henbane’. Lewin… explains ganja as the blossoms of the unfertilized female Cannabis Indica, bhang the pulverized leaves of resinous female plant, majun sweets from hemp with opium or datura, etc. Munkacsi… connects bhanga… with FU Mordvinian pango, [mushroom]etc. Setala repeated this in 1914…

Nyberg explained (Mannual II) banjak ‘hemp’ and a mang ‘a narcotic’. Banga was not mentioned in the oldest part of the Avesta, but in the Frawasi Yast (13, 124) a personal name occurs, Pourubhanga, ‘possessing much hemp ~ henbane’. In the Yast 19,20 it is stated that Ahura Mazdais ‘without dreams and without hemp’: a-hwafna abi a banha, or, according to Henning [1951]… ‘not subject to sleep, not liable to perish’… In the Videvdat 16,14 banha is mentioned as a demoniac plant since it was used to provoke abortion. Mayrhofer [1956-1980] seems to leave it undecided whether bangha is derived from cannabis through a metathesis or not… In any case, Vasmer… derives Russ. pen’ka ‘Cannabis’ from bangha. (Aalto, 1998)

In relation to the Russian term for cannabis, pen’ka, and the Mordvinian pango (mushroom), it should be noted that even R. Gordon Wasson took part in this etymological cunundrum, coming into it through the etymology of the Ostyak term ‘panx’ meaning ‘mushroom, Fly agaric’:

In the name panx of this narcotic we recognize the Old Persian word banha-, whose meaning, according to Bartholomae… is the following ‘1. Name of a plant (and its juice) which was also used for producing abortions; 2. Name of a narcotic made from that plant and also a designation of the state of narcosis produced thereby.’ Other instances of the word are: Sanskrit: bhanga-, … meaning ‘hemp; a narcotic prepared from hemp seeds’; modern Persian: bang, ‘hyoscyamus’; Afghan: bang, ‘hemp’… From all this we conclude that the… word panx, …[originally meant]‘intoxicating,’ ‘narcotic’, and that the knowledge of this cultural product… comes from the Aryans… (Wasson, 1970)

R. Gordon Wasson

Wasson was far from alone in this view, as Mircea Eliade (who wrote about the Zoroastrian use of cannabis) also noted in reference to the term bangha:

The importance of the intoxication sought from hemp is further confirmed by the extremely wide dissemination of the Iranian term through Central Asia. In a number of Ugrian languages the Iranian word for hemp, bangha, has come to designate both the pre-eminently shamanic mushroom, Agaricus muscarius… and intoxication; compare, for example, the Vogul pankh, “mushroom” (Agaricus muscarius), Mordvinian panga, pango, and Cheremis pongo, “mushroom.” The hymns to the divinities refer to ecstasy induced by intoxication by mushrooms. These facts prove that by the magico-religous value of intoxication for achieving ecstasy is of Iranian origin. Added to the other Iranian influences on Central Asia,… bangha illustrates the high degree of religious prestige attained by Iran. It is possible that, among the Ugrians, the technique of shamanic intoxication is of Iranian origin. (Eliade, 1964)

Mircea Eliade

Fortunately, as Wasson makes no claims that the term bhanga originally meant mushroom, and seems to accept Eliade’s explanation that it was later adopted and applied to the mushroom, we need not go into details regarding any alleged original connection to the term with the mushroom, as we were forced to do with the Soma/Haoma references, as well as those to vijaya in the works of Mike Crowley. Interestingly though, this adoption of the term bhanga for the hallucinogenic mushroom, does make a case for how the name could also have come to be applied and adopted to henbane and other plants as well, as shall be explained shortly.

So now we are dealing with at least 4 different potential botanical candidates for these terms as well, henbane, datura, mushrooms and cannabis… But wait, there is more, added to this is Flattery’s suggestion of Syrian rue as mang, which he also identified with Haoma, as discussed. A very confusing situation indeed! We will now try to unravel some of the linguistics and opinions at hand in regard to this.

In many ways, just as the work of R. Gordon Wasson have become a confounding factor in the research of Soma, the work of David Stophet Flattery and Martin Schwartz have become the confusing factor in the discussion around the Zoroastrian references to mang and bhang.

In Haoma and Harmaline, Flattery suggests that both the Haoma, and bhang, in the Zoroastrian references, can be identified with the harmaline producing plant Syrian rue, Peganum harmala. Although it seems likely that Syrian rue, or Harmaline as this duo prefers to have it called, was an additive to incense braziers and other concoctions in the ancient world, the identification of it with bhang is wholly hypothetical and unsubstantiated by any historical reference what so ever.

As noted earlier, harmaline has very unpleasant side effects when used in amounts large enough to produce hallucinogenic states, As David Flattery himself noted: “The effects actually experienced from a preparation of harmel were well known in Middle Eastern lore: as reported in early Islamic materia medica they are chiefly vomiting, sleep, intoxication, and an inclination toward coitus” (Flattery & Schwartz, 1989). Beyond the effect of a deep sleep, none of these other indications are referred to in either the Avestan or Pahlavian accounts of bhanga/mang, (although cannabis is a well known aphrodisiac).

These days Harmala is seldom used as an intoxicant on its own and Syrian rue is usually used in conjunction with other psychedelic substances in order to become active. Harmaline is amongst a few plants that work as MAOIs (Monoamine oxidase inhibitors). MAOIs are particularly used in modern times as a powerful source of anti depression drugs, but due to potentially lethal dietary interactions, they are generally used as a last resort after other medications have been tried and failed.

As pointed out earlier, Flattery was unable to provide evidence for the role of Syrian rue as an entheogen, and instead pointed to the role of another MAOI in the entheobotanical literature of South America, where the MAOI containing Ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi is mixed with DMT containing plants such as  as Mimosa hostilis, Diplopterys cabrerana, and Psychotria viridis. (Without a MAOI, the body quickly metabolizes orally-administered DMT, and it therefore has no hallucinogenic effect). For this reason, as noted,  Haoma and Harmaline was highly criticized by the extremely knowledgeable Jonathan Ott (1993), for not offering evidence of personal experience with Syria Rue, or adequate evidentiary material.

It should also be noted that even in smaller doses strict dietary observances must be met when using MAOI’s such as harmaline. Fasting is often a prerequisite for cultures that consume Ayahuasca. Both wine and Cheese in this regard can become quite probalmatic, and ancient references, that shall be discussed, report that the mang was drank with wine in both the accounts of Vishtaspa and Ardu Viraf. Moreover, Viraf is described as consuming the mang with 3 glasses of wine and a large meal! No mention was made of omitting cheese, so considering the role of cheese amongst the cattle loving Zoroastrians, we can only assume it was included in the feast as well. This combination could have had drastic and potentially gut wrenching results if Syrian rue were taken in the amounts suggested by Flattery.

The Magi would have been very experienced herbalists by this point, and considering the level of their culture we can safely assume that they would have been at least as familiar with the effective use of their plants. As are the tribesman of South America were in the aformentioned use of Ayahahusca, which is genrally consumed with all sorts of dietary taboos directed at lessening the effects of nausea and diareha associated with its use. Niether the nausea associated with high does of Syrian rue, nor the dietary precautions needed to ensure its safe use is indicated in the Avesta or Pahvali references to mang, bhang or Haoma.

In respect to this, even Flattery’s own co-author Martin Schwartz disputed Flattery’s identification of mang and bhang with Syrian rue. In Schwartz’s view mangbhang likely had a more generic meaning, “psychotropic substance,” but alternatively, one “which could give specific senses ‘henbane, datura’…” (Flattery  & Schwartz 1989). Schwartz also suggested that the term mang, had indications of deception; “It may be assumed that Iranian inherited to homophonous words, *manga –‘deceit, trickery’ and *manga…* ‘magic potion, hallucinogen’” (Flattery  & Schwartz 1989).

As we shall see the more logical and general view is that ‘banga’, ‘banha’ and ‘mang’, all with “an” in them, follow in league with other terms for cannabis in languages which originated from Indo-European dialects; English, cannabis; French, chanvre; German hanf; Indian sana and bhang, Avestic bha etc..

Beyond the etymological argument, the suggestions of Henbane and Datura, as mang, I would argue, are far too toxic to have been the plant ingested in such quantities in the ancient texts. This is especially true of the Avestan and Vedic descriptions of Haoma and Soma which depict a drink that was joyful, healing and taken quite liberally.

The dose-response curve for the combination of alkaloids in Datura is very steep, so people who consume the plant can easily take a potentially fatal overdose, thus its use as a lethal poison. In recent times there have been media stories of adolescents and young adults dying or becoming seriously ill from intentionally ingesting datura for recreational purposes Even when taken in non-toxic amounts, the effects can last for up to 2 days and include such symptoms as intense thirst, headaches, nausea, fever, high blood pressure, dry mucous membranes, difficulty swallowing and speaking, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, confusion, agitation, combative behaviour, and vivid visual and auditory hallucinations.

The toxicity of the plant is even more of an issue with Henbane, the name of which has been said to literally mean “murder-death.” In Henbane – The Insane Seed that Breedeth Madness, Rowan explains that henbane “has a similar effect on the body to that of belladonna which also contains hyoscyamine, although the higher proportion of this alkaloid in henbane produces less of an excitory effect. It also has generally sedative effects on the central nervous system. The results of overdose include dry mouth, dilation of the pupils, restlessness, then hallucinations and delirium leading to coma and ultimately death” (Rowan, 1998). Hardly pleasant! Moreover, henbane would be potentially deadly if taken in the amounts described in both the Avestan and Pahlavian bhang/mang and Haoma references. It was for this reason that Iranist Mary Boyce disagreed with Henning’s assertion about henbane as mang, as it would have killed Ardu Wiraz who drank three cups of mang mixed with wine or Haoma in the Pahlavi texts (Boyce, 1982). Henbane is so potentially toxic when taken internally that later European witches developed Flying ointments applied topically for shamanic purposes, to avoid the risk of taking it orally.

Walter Bruno Henning

The Iranist and linguist Walter Bruno Henning in his virulent rejection of H.S. Nyberg’s view, put forward that the Avestic baŋha- and the Middle Persian mang did not mean “hemp,” and that they instead referred to “henbane”. Henning’s view was that New Persian bang did not acquire the meaning “hemp” before the 12th century (Henning, 1951). And of the role of cannabis in the Avestan literature? “There is nothing here to show that Zoroaster so much as knew of the existence of hemp” (Henning, 1951). Further, Henning asserted that it “is very far from certain that the Avestan word banha is connected at all with Pahlavi, mang, Persian bang” (Henning, 1951). There is little support for this view, as Gnoli points out in regards to this term:

The word must be etymologically related to Avestan baṇha/bangha (AirWb., col. 925, in compounds: abaŋha, Pouru, baŋha, vībaŋha, see AirWb., cols. 87, 901, 1447) and further to OInd. (Atharvavedic) bhaṅga. This etymological connection was challenged by Henning (pp. 33f.), but unconvincingly (see Widengren, 1955, pp. 66ff.; Boyce, Zoroastrianism I, pp. 231 n. 11, 280 with n. 14; Belardi, p. 117). (Gnoli, 1979)

Gnoli refers to the respected German Iranist, Geo Widengren, who disagreed with Henning on a number of points, and agreed with the earlier identification of bhanga/mang with hemp, as put forth earlier by Nyberg in 1938.

The… usage of bang (alternatively mang) obviously proceeds the Avestan terminology. Indeed it is disputed that bangha > bang (mang) means (Indian) hemp but this objection is not well-founded in any respect. In actual fact, it can be maintained that the same name, in Iran as well as in Central Asia, can describe various intoxicating substances, where it has spread. It is important to note that in Central Asia the magic-religious meaning of intoxication with ecstatic intentions is after all of Iranian origin. (Widengren, 1965)

Geo Widengren

The main reasons for Henning’s rejection of bang, banha, mang, as hemp, has less to do with linguistics and much more to do with Henning’s view that cannabis was not toxic enough!

To come now to the Pahlavi literature, we read in the Bundahahishn that Ahura Mazda gave a dose of mang to the Primordial Bull to kill him painlessly, so he should escape the slow death that Ahriman had planned for him. Then there is the story of Arda Viraf… selected as messenger to heaven hell to discover the fate of the sole after death.  To speed him on the long and dangerous journey he is to be given a drink of wine mixed with mang. At first he refuses the poisonous cup; for he does not wish to die. His seven sisters, whose support he is, implore him to persist in his refusal; for they know that mang is a deadly poison. But it is hoped that God will not accept his sacrifice and will allow his soul to return to the Living. So in the end he allows himself to be persuaded, makes his last will and testament, and performs the last rites as a dying man would do: he drinks the poison and is dead for seven days and nights, then comes to, miraculously, and tells his anxiously waiting friends what he has seen.

In this story I find no trace of any ecstatic practice. The point is that mang was a deadly poison: Arda Viraf returned to life in spite of having taken a poison that ordinarily brought certain death; that he survived was a miracle. The view is confirmed by the story in the Bundahishn: The primordial Bull died after swallowing mang; he did not gambol and frisk about in ecstasy. Zoroaster would have been ill-advised, had he tried to make a habit of taking mang; after the first attempt he would have been no longer in a position to compose any Gaths. Incidentally, the two Pahlavi passages show clear enough that mang, whatever it was, was not hemp ; for even a large overdose of the worst derivative of hemp does not kill. (Henning, 1951).

In reference to the non-toxicity of cannabis, and Nyberg’s assertion that Zoroaster used the plant, Henning states that in order to understand “how deeply this suggestion must shock those who call themselves Zoroastrians, one has to understand the effects which habitual indulging in hemp produces on the human organism” (Henning, 1951). In reference to this Henning refers to a Dr. Schlimmer, a 19th century Austrian Physician, who described how he spent three days attempting to awaken a man “drugged with Indian hemp oil”:

In spite of these terrible effects, I have never heard a strictly mortal case; but the repulsive habit of taking the oil of the tops of Indian hemp and various electuaries made from it, in order to secure a moral calmness which lets one envisage all vicissitudes and miseries of human life in an agreeable light, induces in habitual takers a state of remarkable dullness and indolence, which makes them renounce all human decency and delicacy. (Shlimmer, 1874)

After ruling out cannabis due to its non-toxicity, Henning goes on to state that the intoxicating properties of cannabis were unknown at the time of Zoroaster and the Iranian term ‘bang’ actually means ‘henbane’ in the Avesta accounts.

In Persian books bang never means anything but ‘henbane’, at least until the twelfth century…  This meaning, of course, is appropriate also to Pahlavi word mang, which as we have seen was a deadly poison. (Henning, 1951)

Referring to the early Iranian term which is the basis for ‘mang,’ banha, Henning stated that it “is mentioned in the Avesta with disapproval throughout. The use of banha, as a drug employed in producing miscarriage, is prohibited” (Henning, 1951). Here Henning is referring to Vendidad, 15.14, where ‘Banga’ appears on a list with some other herbs for inducing abortion:

And the damsel goes to the old woman and applies to her for one of her drugs, that she may procure her miscarriage; and the old woman brings her some Banga, or Shalta, or Ghnana, or Fraspata or some other drug that produces miscarriage… (Vendidad, 15.14)

This reference occurs in conjunction with three other plants, the identity of which are unknown, and it seems the ‘banga’ in this passage, was used in conjunction with these. The Vendidad gives no clear indication that the banga is the poisonous abortive ancient itself, but rather it may have been used with an abortive ancient to help with the abortion, as in this context cannabis would fit, as it conceivably could have been used as a uterine sedative. Cannabis has been used as an aid in childbirth in ancient times, and as a uterine sedative in up to near modern times.

Interestingly, according to some sources the Pahlavi version of this text refers more specifically to the “mang ī wištāspān (Pahlavi Vd. 15.14),” ‘wištāspān’ being a reference to Vishtaspa, who, as shall be discussed shortly, became Zoroaster’s first powerful convert after drinking ‘mang’. Alternatively, Darmester, whose translation is used above elsewhere in reference to this same verse, here translating from the Avestan, refers  to the “Bang of  Zoroaster, Vendidad XV, 14” ( Darmesteter, 1883). So clearly even here, where the act of abortion is condemned, it is this particular use that is condemned, not cannabis itself.

In noting this reference, Henning omits many other accounts of the term, such as the Den Yasht, 16.14-15, account which refers to it as ‘Zoroaster’s good narcotic”. As De Jong explains, “hemp (Av ba gha– Phl. mang), which although not spoken of favorably in the Vendidad, is consumed of by some of the holiest men of the Zoroastrian tradition (Vistaspa and Arda Wiraz) and can therefore not have been wholly evil” (De Jong, 1997). Henning’s comments below, which clearly detail his prejudice against cannabis, also lead us into some interesting points about the mang use by the Zoroastrian figures just mentioned:

It is well known that in Persia hemp, with all its derivatives, bang, cars, or hasis, has a particularly bad reputation. A man who is addicted to them is held in universal contempt. I need scarcely remind readers of the story of the Hasisyyin, the Assassins of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, one becomes inclined to reject Nyberg’s suggestion without further consideration. (Henning, 1951)

Interestingly, Henning mentions the assassins, who also are reputed to have used strong preparations of cannabis to induce devotees into a death-like stupor in which they received phantastical visions of the afterlife as did the aforementioned Arda Viraf and other figures after drinking mang! In relation it is interesting to point out that it has long been suggested that the “hymns of Zoroaster,… particularly the Haoma Yasht,…might supply a source… of the hasheesh… of the Assassins…” (Carus, 1918). I discuss this connection at length in Hashish and other psychoactive substances in the Islamic World, and in the cases of both the Assassins’ use of hashish and the Zoroastrian’s of mang, the safety of the psychonauts who took it is attested to. Indeed shortly we will discuss the use of mang by a variety of Zoroastrian figures, including the prophet and his good wife, and there are no references to any sort of lethal or toxic effects, as suggested by Henning.

Not surprisingly, a variety of other Iranists disagreed with Henning’s designation of mang, bhang as a “deadly narcotic” or “henbane” (Widengren, 1955; Belardi,1979, Boyce, 1982). As Mary Boyce noted of the Bundalishin account referred to by Henning in which Ahura Mazda administered mang to the first created ox to ease its pain after it had been put in the throws of death by the evil Ahriman:

It has been argued that this ‘mang’ was not a sleep inducing narcotic, but a deadly poison [referring to (Henning, 1951)]; but apart from the contrary Pahlavi occurrences of the word [where it is used safely by devotees]… this interpretation appears impossible on theological grounds. Death is an evil that belongs to Ahriman and it is he who brings it upon the creatures of Ohrmazd. (Boyce, 1982)

According to Harri Nyberg the verse in question refers more specifically to “‘Medical mang’ (mang besaz)…Bundahisin 4:20” (Nyberg,1995), which like its counterpart in the Avestan texts anklerasia ‘healing’, would hardly be a good term for a deadly poison. Not surprisingly, many scholars have clearly seen the Bundalishin account as indicating cannabis. In Persian Mythology John Hinnels, translates mang as cannabis in the Zoroastrian creation myth account where (G Bd. 4.20) Ahura-Mazda (God) gave the first created ox “cannabis [mang] to ease her discomforts in the throes of death.” Likewise the authors of The Cambridge History of Iran record of the reference in this same verse as “bang, identified with mang (hemp) [used for]inducing unconsciousness” (Fisher, et al., 1993).

Most preposterous of Henning claims is the statement that: “The derivatives of Indian hemp known as bang, hasis and so on, were not known in Iran anywhere before the eleventh century of our era at the earliest. Aquaintance with Indian hemp is ultimately due to the Muslim conquest of India in the first years of that century” (Henning, 1951).

The Persian word bang, in so far as it means ‘Indian hemp’, is a loan-word from the Indian term bhanga. In Persian – unfortunately – the loan-word collided with an indigenous word bang which also designated a plant, namely, ‘henbane.’ (Henning, 1951)

A similar view is held by Flattery and Schwartz, who held that:

With regard to ‘hemp’ called bhanga– (and sana) in Sanskrit there is no evidence for its [cannabis]use as an intoxicant in either India or Persia before well within  the Islamic era. It is true the Scythians were exceptional in this regard, for their inhalation (!) of hemp is noted by Herodotus and confirmed by the Scythian tomb artifacts from Pazyryk. But il is clear also from Herodotus and other sources that the Scythian religion was different from that of other (Indo-) Iranians, and that the nomadism of the Scythians involved them in a different cultural complex, including particular shamanistic practices… (Flattery & Schwartz, 1989)

There are numbers of issues with this statement. As noted in The Cannabis Soma/Haoma Theory, the Scythians, who only get the briefest mentions in Haoma and Harmaline, not only burned cannabis, but also drank infusions of it. Recently golden cups that tested positive for both cannabis and opium have been found at a Scythian tomb, and one of the Russian archeologists involved, described these vessels as for drinking haoma. As well a name applied to some Scythians, was Haomavarga, the Haoma gatherers. We know that Scythians acted as intermediary between  the cannabis and ephedra ingesting Indo-European Jushi culture in China, and the alleged soma/haoma temples discovered by Professor Victor Sarianidi in the Bactria Archeological Complex, where finds of cannabis and ephedra, along with poppies in some cases, were located indicating their use in soma/haoma beverages. In China, the intoxicating varieties of cannabis produced by the Jushi, was known as hu-ma, or huo-ma, various translated as “Iranian hemp” of “fire hemp”, the similarity phonetically to “haoma” has caused some etymologists and linguists to suggest a connection.

In Yasna 32:14 Zoroaster condemns those “who ‘purifies’ the haoma by burning”. “What Zoroaster actually condemns is not the Haoma ritual as such but some peculiar combination in which the plant appears to have been burnt” (Zaehner, 1961).

This view has been shared by other sources as well, “Zoroaster… condemns certain barbarian heretics who ‘burn’ the Haoma rather than drink it” (Bey, 2004). In Incense and Poison Ordeals in the Ancient Orient Allen Godbey expands on this theme, giving even clearer indications as to what was being burnt:

Zarathustra… was protesting without avail against the ancient Aryan intoxicant haoma or soma. The Sanskrit literature makes this religious narcotic all but omnipotent, and invokes it as a god, a great warrior conquering all enemies of man, a cure for every ill. Among the Iranic peoples this haoma seems to have been bhang, or Indian hemp, for Herodotus (iv. 75) tells us that the Iranic Scythians… burned Indian hemp in their religious exercises, until bystanders were intoxicated with their fumes. In India the soma was the juice of a certain milkweed in some districts, but others insist that the bruised green leaves of hemp provide the orthodox soma. (Godbey, 1930)

So it was the burning of Haoma that was at issue, which if it were cannabis, as has been suggested by literary, archeological and other historical evidence, would make much more sense. Likewise Gérald Messadié and Marc Romano in reference to “sacrifices and the ritual consumption of haoma” have noted that as this was the long standing practice to which Zoroaster would have been exposed to from the early stages of his life onwards. “In his youth Zoroaster may have participated in the ecstatic hemp ceremonies of Scythian shamans” (Messadie & Romano, 1996). In a rejection of these cultic activities the “Zoroastrian cult banned the use of intoxicants and haoma (soma), probably the old Persian name for hashish” (Bowles, 1977).

The Scythians, burned cannabis and inhaled its fumes as well as prepared the Haoma beverage from it. From the descriptions of their religious practices it is clear they were practicing the older pre-Zoroastrian form of Persian polytheistic nature worship. As Victor Sarianidi notes: “In the Avesta one finds numerous references to the fact the settled Zoroastrians had constant contacts with the nomadic Scythians who are mentioned under the name of Saka in the ancient Persian inscriptions…. The Scythian element played an important role in Zoroastrianism and… it… emerged in direct contact with the Scythian environment” (Sarianidi, 1998).

It seems clear that it was this older practice of burning Haoma, as had been done by the Scythians and their ancestors for millennia. Godbey’s comments about the Scythian’s burning hemp/Haoma in relation to those of Zaehner’s and Y.32.14 give clear indications that this was the core issue for Zoroaster’s reforms. Further identification of cannabis is given in Y.32.14 reference to its fibrous qualities “The ‘glutton’ and the ‘poets’ deposit their guiding thoughts here in this cord work.”

This archeological evidence, along with literary sources such as the account of Democritus indicate that infusions, believed to contain hemp, under the names “thalassaegle,” “potammaugis” and “gelotophyllis” were recorded by Democritus (c.a. 460 b.c.) and were well known in the region Zoroastrianism originated from “Democritus’s famous recipe for a hemp wine is suitable for internal use: Macerate 1 teaspoon of myrrh… and a handful of hemp flowers in 1 litre of retsina or dry Greek white wine… strain before drinking.”(Ratsch, 2005) “The gelotophllis of Pliny… a plant drunk in wine among the Bactrians, which produced immoderate laughter, may very well be identical with hemp, which still grows wild in the country around the Caspian and Aral Seas” (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993).  Pliny (23-79 a.d.) quotes the following description from Democritus:

Taken in drink it produces delirium, which presents to the fancy visions of a most extraordinary nature. The theangelis, he says, grows upon Mount Libanus in Syria, upon the chain of mountains called Dicte in Crete, and at Babylon and Susa in Persia. An infusion of it imparts powers of divination to the Magi. The geolotophyllis, is a plant found in Bactriana [i.e. BMAC], and on the banks of the Borysthenes. Taken internally with myrhh and wine all sorts of visionary forms present themselves, excite the most immoderate laughter.

The claim of Flattery and Schwartz that there was no cannabis “use as an intoxicant in either India or Persia before well within  the Islamic era” is the gaping hole in the hull of Haoma and Harmaline, which is otherwise a very tight ship. It is hard to understand how their colleagues who proof read the work, would not have cautioned on that thesis.

After going through Henning’s sources, it seems he was only able to find references supporting his view as far back as the Islamic period; the rest of his claim is based on his mistaken assumption that mang/bang was a potentially toxic substance.  Henbane’s designations as “bang” is clearly the later, and not original situation. Prof. Franz Rosenthal, who was a well known expert in medieval and ancient Middle Eastern cultures and languages, explained: “As is well known, banj, in its pre-Islamic history, represented, in fact, ‘hemp’” (Rosenthal, 1971). In later times, “Among the Persians the Indian name in the form bang became the general term for narcotic and was given to the henbane” (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993). Thus the Persian term for cannabis was later borrowed and applied to henbane, but this happened, in the opinion of Rosenthal and others, after the conquest of Islam.

… But in the usage of [banj in] Muslim times, it was commonly the scientific word for “henbane,” … Physicians and scientists appear to have been by and large consistent in their usage of banj for henbane. Ali b. Rabban at-Tabari in the middle of the ninth century, speaks of three kinds of banj… The three kinds seem to be characteristic of banj in the meaning of henbane. (Rosenthal 1971)

Rosenthal’s comment on the “three kinds of banj” as “characteristic of banj in the meaning of henbane”, which Dymock (1881), also noted, helps us to identify how the miss-designation of banj as henbane came to take place after the rise of Islam.

Diosocrides’ Materia Medica, Contains a description of henbane (hyoscycamus) identifying three kinds, white, black and brown, and all the later Persian descriptions of banj, are merely copies of Dioscorides’ description, with the older Persian term bang mistakenly applied to it. Any interpretation taking the designation of banj as henbane, beyond the early Islamic period is purely unfounded speculation. As is explained of the situation in E.J. Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936:

BANDJ, A Persian word, originally from the Sanskrit, meaning a narcotic drug, more exactly the henbane (hyoscycamus). The meaning of the Sanskrit bhanga is really “hemp” (Cannabis sativa L.), i.e. the variety which grows in southern climes which contains in the tip of its leaves an intoxicating resinous substance (Arabic hashish), whence the Zend banha “drunkenness”. In Persian the loan word bang… was applied to the henbane and Hunain b. Ishak in his Arabic translation of the Materia medica of Dioscurides (c. …850) equated it with the Greek… [hyoscycamus~henbane] With this meaning the word bandj is found in the early Persian medical writers who as a rule write in Arabic… and in more modern Persian medicine… (…Xth century) while it appears to be unknown in the old Arabic poetry as al-Biruni in his pharmacology in the article Bandj (MS. In the Brussa library) gives no quotations from the poets, and he would not have omitted to do so. The early physicians of western Islam… also identified bandj with henbane… which however Ahamad al-Ghafiki (a Spanish Moorish physician of the (…XIIth century) in his pharmacology considers wrong… In modern times the word bandj (in the popular dialect of Egypt bing) is used for every kind of narcotic and the verb bannadja, ‘to narcotize’, infinitive tabnidj, “narcosis” etc. derived from it. (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993)

Thus, an early Islamic period miss-identification of henbane, as bang, occurred in a popular translation of Diosorides’ Materia Medica, and this mistake was copied and passed on by later Islamic, and then Western authors. From the above references, it even appears some contemporary sources acknowledged some sort of mistake had been made, as the Moorish physician al-Ghafiki, considered this identification wrong, and earlier poets made no reference to this term. A similar situation happened with Dioscorides’ description of hemp:

…All Arab and Persian authors have simply reproduced what Dioscurides says and give hemp, especially the seed, the Greek Syriac loan-name kinnab or the arabicized Persian name shah-danadj “royal-seed.” Not till the… (VIIIth) century was Ibn al Baitar… the first physician to describe the intoxicating effects of cannabis indica… which grew in Egypt and there known as al-hashisha (the herb). The mendicant dervishes… were particularly given to the use of this drug…. The use of narcotic drugs by dervishes and fakirs was widely disseminated… (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993)

Although some of the Islamic sources are in agreement with Henning regarding the late introduction of cannabis into the mid-East, like the designation of banj as henbane, there was also dispute about this as well. Even Henning was forced to acknowledge there was confusion on the matter in the early Islamic period. As the authors of E.J. Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936, explain of the situation:

…according to a Persian authority, the use of hashish was introduced into eastern Persia in the… (XII) century by an Ismaili Shaik Haidar, while another authority says that the use of the intoxicating drugs was already known in pre-Muhammadan times under Khusraw Parwez, [ruled 590-623 A.D.]  having been brought from India to Persia and the Irak and even the Yaman. This is really much more probable, as the intoxicating effect of a preparation of hemp was apparently well known in India in ancient time. (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993)

The 19th century botanist William Dymock also referred to the Persian tradition regarding the introduction of cannabis during the reign of the Sassanian king, Khusraw, but held the view that the use of cannabis in the area was much more ancient:“According to tradition, the use of hemp as an intoxicant was first made known in Persia by Birarslan, an Indian pilgrim, in the reign of Khusru [sic.] the First… but… its injurious properties appear to have been known long before that date” (Dymock, 1893).

Khusraw Parwez was a Sassanian King who ruled from 590-628 A.D.. “Mazdean tradition… condemns him as an unjust tyrant, responsible for the decline of the religion and the empire” (Yarshater, 1983). Thus even in the end period of the Zoroastrian empire, it seems likely that the ancient use of cannabis had continued, and that this was recognized by certain Islamic sources. Moreover we are not alone in the opinion that the use of cannabis for its psychoactive purposes in the Arabic word, was a carryover from an older Persian tradition. “Hemp… as an intoxicant… was passed on via Persians, to the Arabs” (Sherratt, 1997).

It should be noted that even during periods of the Zoroastrian use of cannabis, this was not at all a common practice and was far from wide spread. Unlike the use of the pre-Zoroastrian Haoma, and its de-natured counterpart after Zoroaster’s reforms, which were open to much of the community, the use of bang/mang in the Zoroastrian period was strictly prohibited from anyone but the most elite members of that society. The secrecy surrounding the use of bang/mang is likely largely responsible for much of the confusion surrounding the terms mang and bang. In ‘Quests and Visionary Journeys in Sassanian Iran, Shaul Shaked notes that the use of mang (which he saw as hemp) for visionary quests, “was not a way open to all”:

It was confined to select individuals, who would have regarded themselves as representative of the community, and who would then reveal to the others what they had been privileged to witness. Even for those people this was not a trivial experience that could be undertaken casually or easily repeated. Such journeys were rare occasions, surrounded by grave risks. The danger lay in the very fact that this was the path trodden by the dead, and would have to be brought back to life. Certain encounters along the way may put the power of endurance of the traveler to the test. (Shaked, et al., 1999)

Clearly, such limited and secretive use as this, would have created a situation where few were even aware of the closely guarded secret of the source of Iranian revelation. The secretiveness with which bang/mang would have been used throughout the Zoroastrian period was likely further compounded through initial Muslim prohibitions against intoxicants. Further confusion may have arisen to bhanga’s identity may have occurred in times of shortage, and through its association with other plants used in its steed (as with Soma/Haoma) the term bhanga came to be applied to a variety of intoxicating plants.


Datura flowers

Undoubtedly, Datura and Henbane were, and still are, sometimes added by unscrupulous venders to preparations of bhang, to increase the effects of weaker concoctions when good cannabis is not available, and this may have generated confusion at some point. In later Persian times the “fedayeen were always described as using beng, or hemp, and henbane, mixed” (Burman, 1987). There were definitely distinguishing factors between unadulterated hemp products and preparations made with henbane, as the use of cannabis could be associated “with fits of rage… especially if there is an admixture of any preparation of henbane” (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993).  In reference to the use of hashish in early 20th century Islam it has been noted that “sometimes to increase its intoxicating effect it is mixed with the seeds of the henbane (hyocyamus muticus, sekaran) or stramonium (datura)” (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993). Likewise in India, “Datura… seeds are sometimes mixed with Sidhi (Bhang)…to induce delirous intoxication, and with other narcotics to intensify their actions” (Gerloczy, 1897). In regard to cannabis in India “the question of adulterants, especially datura must always be borne in mind” (Smith & Taylor, 1920).

Conceivably, the name Henbane itself, may have originated as a means of distinguishing this supplemental use from the true ‘bang’ cannabis, via ‘hen-bang’, becoming “henbane”, ‘hen- here meaning “death” , which would be a distinguishing factor indeed! (although in this linguistical interpretation we would clearly be going against the accepted etymology of ‘-bane’ in this regard). In the Indian world this differentiation is recorded as Kohi-bhang. As Sir Richard Burton described:

Kohi (or Jabali) Bhang; a kind of henbane, smoked and drunk, after being prepared like bhang. It is usually taken by Fakirs and religious mendicants, as it is supposed to produce aberration of intellect. Novices find the contractions of the nerves of the throat caused by it peculiarly painful. (Burton, 1851)

The use of bhang to designate intoxicating plants in general seems to be much more identifiable in the Persian language than the Indian, and as the term in both languages is now generally assumed as designating cannabis, it seems unlikely that bhang originated as a generic term, and this use of the word developed in later times, otherwise these multiple meanings would have carried over into the Indian language. This linguistic situation has never been adequately explained by any of the researchers who see the term as originating as a generic name for psychoactive plants in general.

Proponents of the ‘henbane’ theory offer no reasonable examples opposing the more generally accepted view that mang, bang were references to cannabis, nor do they adequately explain why if this were the case in the ancient world, how the designation of cannabis as bhanga came about in both the ancient Persian and Indian dialects. On the other hand a reasonable explanation has been given on how the designation of the Persian term bang, meaning ‘hemp’, came to be borrowed and corrupted as banj, meaning ‘henbane’.

Bhang” as “cannabis” has clearly been the long standing view; As James Samuelson noted in the 19th century in The History of Drink: “A… very deleterious drink called “banga” is mentioned in the Zend-Avesta… Like the modern bang, referred to… in India, it is believed to have been extracted from the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa)” (Samuelson,1880). In the Avesta, Bleek and von Spiegel recorded, “Bana is the Cannabis sativa, Skr. Bhanga” (Bleek & Spiegel, 1864).  As Darmesteter also noted in his translation of The Zend-Avesta; “Banga, is bang or mang, a narcotic made from hemp…” (Darmesteter, 1880).

This designation of mang, bhang as identifying cannabis has also been accepted by a variety of Zoroastrian scholars, such as Dr. Jahanian Daryoush, who refers to bhang in his essay Medicine in Avesta and Ancient Iran: Bangha (Avesta: bhangh, Sanskrit: bhanga, Persian: Bang, hashish) – It is extracted from the seeds of Canabis Indica (hempseed or Per: shahdaneh) has hallucinating effects.  In ancient Iran it was mixed with wine to deliver anesthesia” (Daryoush, 2005).  As Parvaneh Pourshariati has also noted more recently in the Decline and Fall of the Sassanian Empire, “mang – a mixture of hemp and wine, with intoxicating properties” (Pourshariati, 2008).  Referring to the variation of the ‘b-’ in the Avestan, to the ‘m-’ in the Pahlavian, the  authors of the Annual of Armenian Linguistics used the following examples, which also identify hemp with the terms in question,  “Zoroastrian Pahl. mang, bang ‘hemp’. Old Indian bhanga-; mag-, bag– ‘to intoxicate’” (Cleveland State University, 1987). As also noted by other Zoroastrian scholars; “Bhanga… or mang, a narcotic made from hempseed… the dried leaves and small stalks of Cannabis indica” (Dubash, 1903); “hemp (Av ba gha– Phl. mang)” (De Jong, 1997). Although it should be noted, many of these scholars do not realize that the active resin, is found in the buds, not the seeds, but buds were often seeded, so this was for a time a source of confusion.

As a site dedicated to the Avesta translates Bundahisin 4:20, Ahura-Mazda “gave the healing Cannabis, which is what one calls ‘banj’, to the’ Gav’ [Ox] to eat, and rubbed it before her eyes, so that her discomfort, owing to smiting, [sin]and injury, might decrease.”

E.J. Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam 1913-1936, records; BENG, (Sanskr. bhanga, Avest. Banha, Pahl. bang, mang, hemp), strictly the name of various kinds of hemp” (Houtsma, et al., 1987). In reference to Zoroastrian expeditions into the world of the afterlife, Shaul Shaked noted that “The preparation of this journey was done… by administering to the officiant a dose of mang (hemp), mixed with wine” (Shaked, 1999). “Zoroaster is commonly said to have spiked the haoma with mang, which was probably hashish. It would have prolonged the intoxication and further stimulated the imagination of the drugged man. Of such are the wonders of Heaven” (Oliver, 1994). In the Zoroastrian tale “…the Artak Viraz Namak… Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, the rewards bestowed on the good, and the punishment awaiting the  sinner are here described in a vision induced by hashish” (Campbell, 2000). Referring to this same account, van Baaren and Hartman also noted the hero “imbibes an intoxicant composed of wine and hashish and after this his body sleeps for seven days and nights while his soul undertakes the journey” (van Baaren & Hartman,1980). 19th century author James Francis Katherinus also refers to the “enlightening prophet drug Bangha (Cannabis Indica), the Hashish by which the Zoroastrian priests were inspired” (Hewitt, 1901) This was also the view of H. S. Nyberg Irans forntida religioner, tr. Hans Heinrich Schaeder as Die Religionen des Alten Iran, Mitteilungen der Vorderasiatisch-aegyptischen Gesellschaft 43 (1938), and the German Iranist, Geo Widengren (1965), as well as more recent researchers:

The Zend-Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism, which survives in fragments, dating from around 600 BCE in Persia, alludes to the use of Banga in a medical context, identified as hemp. (Russo, 2005)

As well, in regard to the claim there was no awareness of hemp’s intoxicating properties till the 11th century, this is discounted by the works of the 5th century north Armenian monk Eznik, who lived amongst the Zoroastrians (and preached against their religion). Eznik was clearly familiar with cannabis, referring to its medicinal value, as well as a treatment for “wantonless” (Eznik , Book I. 68).

Possibly, having followed up on Henning’s research regarding mang, Flattery and Schwartz saw that the references Henning cited didn’t really take the identification of banj as henbane any earlier than the Islamic period.  Thus in order to make their case, the co-authors decided to take it a step further, and included ancient India, with a claim that the intoxicating properties of hemp were unknown until the early medieval period there as well!: “With regards to ‘hemp’ called bhanga and sana in Sanskrit, there is no evidence for its use as an intoxicant in either India or Persia before well within the Islamic era” (Flattery  & Schwartz, 1989).

In the case of the Indian references to bhang, Flattery and Schwartz decided against identifying this with henbane, as there seems to be no evidence for the use of henbane in ancient India:

Henbane, though a native of the Himalayas, was probably unknown as a medicine to the ancient Hindu physicians. “Parasika-yamani” and “khorasam-yamani,” the names which it bears in some recent Hindu books, indicate its foreign source. Mahometan writers call it “banj,” an Arabic corruption of the Persian “bang.” (Dymock, 1881)

Instead, in regard to the Indian references, Flattery and Schwartz claim all early Indian mentions of the term only refer to the fibre of the cannabis plant. The Duo even take this view regarding the Atharvaveda, reference to bhang as being amongst herbs that release one from anxiety and under the dominion of the God Soma, stating that this identifies the hemp plant’s fibrous qualities and are “due to its use as a traditional means of binding… it is also a means of fastening amulets,” which would seem to have little reference to the plant’s use as a medicine against anxiety as described in the Atharvaveda. Indeed the authors offer little in way of evidence for their novel interpretation that the passage makes reference to fibre.

The dismissal of hemp, as being purely used for fiber or “binding” and not burning, would seem to contradict the meticulous research of Flattery… That a culture obsessed with psychoactive plants and fire rituals would be ignorant of Cannabis as either a fuel or entheogen would seem patently absurd, especially as it is mentioned explicitly in the Atharva-Veda in the context of Soma, and has an ancient use in the region… (Dannaway, 2009)

Flattery and Schwartz then refer to a Vedic passage that makes direct reference to bhang as an epithet of Soma, with etymology suggesting that bhang originally meant “smashing, breaking through,” but then continue with the statement that this “numinous epithet with its victorious resonances, could have been another factor in the naming of the hemp ‘bhanga’, although the fact that bhanga occurs with regard to soma only in a single, contextually conditioned passage makes a connection questionable. In any event, it can be concluded that bhanga, as either as a name of hemp or an epithet of soma, is independent of psychotropic reference” ( Flattery  & Schwartz, 1989).  As discussed in The Cannabis Soma Theory, the references to bhang as ‘smashing, breaking’ likely came about through the preparation of cannabis as the Soma, and the method of banging the stalks of the Soma plant with rocks in order to break it apart in preparation of the sacred beverage, as described in the Vedas.

Flattery and Schwartz claim that in the Indian literature, “there is no evidence for its [cannabis’] use as an intoxicant… before well within the Islamic era” (Flattery & Schwartz, 1989). But, as other researchers have noted: “Historically, the consumption of…  hemp drugs is reported to be in use up to the 8th or 9th century A.D., i.e., prior to the advent of Muslims in the country” (Hasan, 1975). Moreover, if the use of cannabis were unknown prior to the advent of Islamic influences, there would have been considerable Indian historical material from the time period detailing the discovery of this ‘new use’ of cannabs, and there are certainly no historical accounts that can be pointed to in Indian literature from the Islamic period detailing what would have been the discovery of a new and phenomenal healing and medical plant, as occurred in Europe with the medieval and 19th century re-introduction of cannabis. In fact the term bhang just carried on as it had always been used, as a designation of cannabis. To suggest that there was no knowledge of its medical or narcotic properties goes against the collected knowledge on the matter, and the views of numerous historians.

The Atharva Veda of India dates to between 1400 and 2000 BCE and mentions a sacred grass, bhang, which remains a modern term of usage for cannabis. Medical references to cannabis date to Susruta in the 6th to 7th centuries BCE. (Weiner, 2002)

As noted by other researchers: “In India and Iran, it [cannabis]was used as an intoxicant known as bhang as early as 1000 BC.”(Goldfrank, 2002); “The narcotic properties of C. Sativa were recognized in India by 1000 BC.” (Zohary & Hopf, 2000); “The narcotic and euphoric properties of cannabis were known to the Aryans who migrated to India thousands of years ago and there is little doubt they made use of these properties” (Chopra & Chopra, 1965); Cannabis’ “narcotic properties were known in India by (1000 BCE)” (Southworth, 2005); “The use of hemp for medicinal purposes has been known in India from ancient times when it is highly probable that it was also used in a restrictive way, as an intoxicating drug” (Hassan, 1922). Dr. Ethan Russo, an expert on all things cannabis, including ancient world references, notes:

The earliest written reference to cannabis in India may occur in the Atharvaveda, dating to about 1500 BCE… Grierson [(1894)] suggested this to be part of an offering, and ingestion or burning would both be typical of ancient practices for this purpose. In the Sushruta Samhita… dating from the third to the eighth centuries BCE, cannabis was recommended for phlegm, catarrh and diarrhea… Similarly, Dwarakanath has maintained that cannabis was employed in Indian folk medicine in aphrodisiacs and treatments for pain in the same era, while Sanyal observed that “They also used the fumes of burning Indian Hemp (Canabis Indica) [sic] as an anaesthetic from ancient times…” (Russo, 2005)

And finally, as Dr. R. J. Bouquet explained of the role of cannabis in ancient India and Persia:

The… Zend Avesta, composed in Northern Iran some six centuries before the Christian era, is the first to mention hemp (Cadaneh) and its inebriating resin. The Fourth Book of the Vedas refers to it sometimes under the name of Vijahia (source of happiness) and sometimes under that of Ananda (laughter-provoker). It was not, therefore, for its textile properties that hemp was used in India to start with; at the beginning of the Christian era the use of its fibre was still unknown there.

It is solely to its inebriating properties that hemp owes the signal honour of being sung in the Vedas, and it was probably the peoples of Northern Iran who discovered those properties, for they were already using the leaves (Cheng) and the resin (Cers) as inebriants and narcotics before the Hindus.

It was thus through the Iranian tribes that the priestly class in India – the only educated class at that time – learned of the properties of Cannabis, at a period which we cannot, at present, determine exactly. (Bouquet, 1950)

Despite some excellent etymological and historical research, at best Schwartz’s explanation in regards to bhanga/Soma/Homa/cannabis/harmaline adds to the linguistical confusion on the matter, and few scholars agree with his assessment on the subject. As Schwartz tries to explain away the reality of the ancient connection between cannabis, mang, bhanga and Haoma, he only digs a deeper hole.

Considering my own knowledge of the data collected in the composition of books and articles over a 30 year period, to suggest that cannabis was unknown in this area of the world is a curious statement indeed. These authors are suggesting that both in Persia and India, cultures which had extensive herbal knowledge, which were making hempen ropes and clothes, and which came into contact with other cultures who used cannabis as an intoxicant, had somehow let the resinous properties of its flowers escape them!

For those interested in learning more about the Zoroastrian references to bhanga, check out The Herb of the Magi: Zoroaster’s Good Narcotic.

Still, despite the assertion that the Peganum harmala was Haoma and bhang, I liked Flattery and  Schwartz’s book immensely; it put together a great deal of information regarding the connections between Haoma and bhang/mang in the Persian literature that I otherwise was unfamiliar with at the time when I first read it, and for that I am greatly in debt to them. It is a considerably more worthy academic study on the subject than that of Wasson’s.

In the next article in this series, I will explain What happened with haoma, and discuss how cannabis was cut from the recipe, leaving us with today’s ephedra based hom.