The Sacred Drink and Other Links Between Indian, Iranian, Greek, Celtic and Norse Mythology

 Article by Maria Kvilhaug

In my work, “The Seed of Yggdrasill – Deciphering the Hidden Message of Old Norse Mythology”, I discussed the many metaphysical, philosophical speculations that are revealed through the poetical language of the Edda myths. Both the philosophical approach and the revelations themselves carry many similarities to Vedic thought. The inherent ideas of a great universal being of whom the gods and all creatures are a part, the ideas of a greater cosmic mould for all smaller manifestations are ideas which appear to belong to relatively similar traditions.

The Vedic god Indra is clearly related to the Norse god Thor. The most basic myth connected with Indra is about his battle with the serpent Vrtra, who obstructs the waters and the sky. This is a myth very similar to that of Thor and the Middle World Serpent. Indra is a heroic god who also wields a thunderbolt and is thought to be extremely strong and powerful, just like Thor. In Rig Veda 1.32.1-2 we read:

Indra´s heroic deeds let me proclaim
which he who wields the thunderbolt performed at first
he slew the snake, cult a channel for the waters
and split the entrails of the mountains
he slew the snake as it clung to the mountain
for him Tvastr fashioned the sounding thunderbolt
like lowing cows, the flowing waters
made their way downwards straight to the sea.[1]


Another important Vedic figure is the goddess Vac, whose name means “voice” and who is imagined as a great cow representing the voice of Brahman, the creator god. In Norse myths, a great cow called Audhumbla [Abundant Brew Ingredient] appears in the empty space of early cosmos. With her streams of milk, she nurtures the giant Ymir, whose name means “sound” (from ON ýmr – sound, murmur). The heat of her tongue also revives a being hidden within the ice of the Underworld, the grandparent of the Aesir.

There are many such striking similarities between Norse and Vedic thought. In this book, I am going to focus on a few particular trends as they appear in the context of initiation rituals. Thus I will only mention here a few obvious contact points.

The Sacred Mead and Soma/Haoma

As we shall see, the offering of precious mead usually takes a central part in the Edda initiation stories. The mead itself appears to be a source of inspiration, magical power and knowledge/wisdom to the poet, the sage and the king. It is always served by a female entity after trials in the realm of death, leading to transformation and resurrection.

The symbol of the drink-offering has a long prehistory in Germanic and Celtic societies. In his book Lady With a Mead Cup, Michael Enright shows how the offering of mead by a royal or noble lady was part of an ancient Germanic (and Celtic) ritual the purpose of which was to establish kingly authority and hierarchy within the king´s warband. The queen or lady would enter the hall in a prescribed manner, offering mead to the king with a formal greeting and giving of advice. Most significant would be her official naming of the lord and master of the hall during the mead-offering. She would then proceed to the other warriors in the hall, according to their status, offering the same mead. The ritual, according to Enright, would be a communal bonding rite between the warriors, but at the same time an expression of lordship, hierarchy and rank. Through her role in the ritual, the lady would also act as a delegate for the king, interrogating visitors or newcomers through her formal greeting, a greeting the visitor would be obliged to respond to, thus formally asserting his loyalty to the lord.[2]

Communal drinking had in itself some aspects of a cultic act. Liquor was the medium through which one achieved ecstacy and thus communion with the supernatural. The practice was widespread among the Indo-European peoples and seems to have been closely related to the earliest rites of royal inauguration. It was also closely connected to the sacred making of oaths. While this has been well-known among scholars, according to Enright the importance of the role of the lady in the ritual has been neglected. Through texts, Enright shows how she was perceived very much in connection with the rite. She was the bearer of the consecrated liquor and the incitor of oaths. Her function was quite like the diplomat who constructs bonds of allegiance between the outsider and a king and his court -she was the instrument that sanctified the lord´s status by naming him as such, by “serving him before all others and by causing each of his retainers to drink after him”.[3] She sanctified the status of each warrior, made them all into a band of brothers which was also a perfectly hierarchical family. Her presence was essential, because the “binding rite” that she performed was her particular duty. Her cheering words and gifts “make a harsh life full of conflict and rivalry more bearable”. At the same time she was a tool of her husband´s dominance, since it was his power that she symbolized and acted out as his representative. The queen, through the mead-offering ritual, was a stabilizing influence.

Enright uses the mead-ritual as a starting point for a discussion of the queen´s political role within the warband of Germanic warrior societies. Since we are dealing only with religion and mythology, Enright´s thesis moves beyound our purposes. It is however useful to note that the idea of an offering of mead by a “gold-adorned” lady had its powerful traditions within innumerable Germanic societies from the earliest times up to the Viking Age.

Enright proceeds to showing, through an archaeological survey, that the lady with the mead cup was indeed an important and central character in Germanic societies, and that she might have originated as a prophetess or a priestess. As we shall see in this study, the mead-offering women of the Poetic Edda are supernatural characters and the offering takes place somewhere apart from the world of humankind. Enright shows how the event had its counterpart in a common and ancient ritual in the “real world”. The rite, as Enright asserts, was, besides being a repeated ritual during important gatherings, essential in royal inauguration. In fact, the queen and her “prophetess” ancestor appear to have played an important political role in royal consecration.[4] As we shall discuss further in the Bronze Age chapter, the royal inauguration ritual in Old Norse society was also closely connected to a “sacred marriage rite”, whether real or symbolic. Thus, mead-offering rituals would in such cases be accompanied by sacred marriage.

Michael Enright looks to European archaeology when trying to trace the history of the Germanic “liquor ritual” with its “lady with a mead cup” at its center. Going back as far as the fifth century B.C, Enright traces burials of great, high ranking Germanic ladies buried with wine-strainer, spoon-sieves and ladles in hand. Close to these obvious liquor- serving devices are cauldrons, cups and drinking horns. Sometimes the cauldron contains remnants of a drink, either made of barley or honey and always with a wide variety of herbs and fruits. These ladies were buried in such a way “as to suggest both her respected functions as distrubutor of drink as well as her high social status”.

Males are also buried with drinking devices, but only the women are left with spoon-sieves and devices for serving the drink – in their hands. The devices are left in their hands and in their belt alongside the keys that conveys their status as lady of the household. It becomes obvious from the rich burials that the status of great ladies was symbolized by their serving of drink.

The evidences of “lady with a mead cup” and “liqour ritual” are trans-regional and pan-Germanic, reaching from southern Europe to Scandinavia and lasting for at least a millennium. The control and distribution of alcoholic drink was closely linked with high-born women. Enright sees a link between the lady, the drink and “fictive kinship”. This because the ladies are very often accompanied by a kind of drinking vessel called either Ringgefässe or Drillingsgefässe. The vessels are too elaborate to have ever been suitable for ordinary usage.From inscriptions, it is clear that these were ritual vessels used for the “creation of fictive brotherhood and sisterhood”.[5] The Ringgefässe design found in Germanic graves has its origin in the eastern Mediterranian, “where they have been connected with fertility cults and the idea of a mystic marriage with a goddess.” [6] The Drillingsgefässe are found among many cultures throughout the world and were already being crafted in the late Neolithic. The vessels were used for liquor that would run simultaneously through three different cups, and are connected to the Celto-Germanic triple mother goddesses through finds in shrines and temples dedicated to these “Mothers”. The Ringgefässe consist of three cups/vessels standing on one ring. All the cups are connected to each other so that the same liquor runs through the three vessels at the same time. I am certainly reminded of how Óðinn sought the mead of poetry in the halls of Suttungr, where the giant´s daughter Gunnlǫð ´s kept three vessels containing the same mead – that the god drank from after swearing a ring-oath.

The link between the vessels to women and a “mothers´ cult” continues into the migration period. Enright argues that the finds confirm later texts indicating that women among the Germans were regarded as “having a special responsibility for the public ritual creation of brotherhood.” [7] Scholars agree that the vessels possess a pronounced religious or magical significance. Enright draws a line from the women and the vessels to a goddess cult, more specifically a cult of a prophetic goddess which emphasizes reverence for a staff-bearing prophetic goddess.[8] Enright speaks of a “prophetic womens´ cult” which possessed the same attributes in all regions of Germania. The countours and subtleties of the cult are unclear, but the archaeological finds reveal that the connection with women and various peculiar looking staffs and containers have long traditions in southern Germany going back at least to the fifth century B.C. and perhaps into European pre-history. The “cult staffs” accompany the ladies of the mead and the ritual vessels, as well as spinning and weaving equipment which, as Enright shows, links the woman to fate and divining.

The staff, as well as the spoon-sieve and the vessel, “must (…) have had a symbolic association with leading women”.[9] The staffs are always found in womens´ or girls´ graves, together with other objects which could easily be interpreted as magical. The links between women, staffs and cultic drinking vessels are manifold and ancient. Enright argues that the association with prophecy and the magical arts and high ranking women was constant for more than a millennium in the Germanic world. “Neither the antiquity, continuity, intensity nor popularity of the woman/liquor/prophecy complex can now be seriously doubted”.[10]

In Germanic society, the concept of aristocratic femininity was strongly correlated to the distribution of liquor. The association of women and liquor and ritual drinking has its natural explanation in the fact that brewing ale and preparing mead were the peculiar tasks of women. But the archaeological evidence also demonstrates that prophecy was a crucial part of the mead-cup motif. The links to staffs and magical objects should also lead us to ask whether the distributor of liquor was also a prophetess. Enright argues that archaeological evidence demonstrates the answer as positive.

Enright´s approach is historical and sociological, trying to explain the archaeological evidence of the existence of “professional”, high-ranking ladies who serve mead and carry staff and spindle whorls by their function in society. Primarily, Enright argues that the lady had an important role within the warband where she established brotherhood and hierarchy through ritual offering of drink. The lady who stands out as a queen in late Migration period (such as the time of the Beowulf poem), has her equivalent in “prophetesses” who operated alongside kings in early Germanic society, priestesses who originated as “tribal matrons”. There is abundant evidence of important “mother cults” in the archaeological record of Central Europe during the Iron Ages and the Migration period.

Enright´s summary of archaeological finds is valuable because it shows the antiquity and popularity of the idea of a magical female ritually serving mead. Enright sticks to his sociological explanation, of which he has proof, yet he admits that there are subtleties within the religion of the staff-bearing womens´ cult (and thus, the mead-serving womens´) which are difficult to interpret. Enright emphasizes the continuity, the antiquity of this wide-spread cult. My own interpretation of the mead-serving maiden in the Poetic Edda leads me to assume that the imagery of the “Maiden with the Mead” in the myths somehow reflects at least some part of this ancient and widespreadcult. Since I have interpreted Maiden-mythology as centered around initiation rites, I cannot agree with Enright that the only main purpose of the Lady with mead was to establish brotherhood and hierarchy in the warband. It certainly was one of the purposes, while the teaching and initiation into sacred knowledge must have been another. The existence of ladies serving mead ritually in actual Germanic society would indicate that the Maiden with the Mead of the Norse myths had her human counterparts in Old Norse Paganism. The other objects found in the graves of these women, such as the cult staff, the spindle-whorl related to fate and divination, and the magical objects (probably kept in pouches) indicate that she was a religious professional. There is only one woman character in the Norse sources who is definitely connected to the carrying of staffs and the art of divination and sorcery, and that is the vǫlva.

Having seen that the mead and the woman who served it were important part of the social and religious lives of Iron Age Germanic and Celtic peoples, we may ask ourselves exactly why. Why? The answer may have been encoded in the myths themselves. In the Edda poems, we frequently find the drink described: It is the “drink of precious mead” (drykk hins dyra miaðar), “the ale of memory” (minnis aul), the drink of memory (minnisdrykkr) the “adored mead” (mæramiǫðr), the “bright power-drink” (skir veigr) “Poetry Stir” ðrerir) and so on.

It seems possible to decode where the drink comes from, mythically. We must look to the three wells beneath the three roots of the World Tree. According to Snorri, Óðinn obtained a drink from the Mímisbrunnr – “The Well of Memory” – a drink which contained all the knowledge and memories of all the worlds. In return for the gift, he sacrificed his eye, which in Vǫluspá is described as his wager, still hidden in the famous well, somehow thid is connected to Ragnarǫk – the Apocalypse. .

By hanging nine days on the World Tree, Óðinn achieved the runes, which were carved by the norns who dwell at Urð´s well. According to the poem Hrafnagalðr Óðins, stanza 2, the norn Urðr [“Origin”] is the guardian of Óðrerir – Poetry Stir, also known as the mead of poetry. Yet in the more famous Hávamál poem, as well as in Snorri´s version, the guardian of Poetry Stir is Gunnlǫð, daughter of the giant Suttungr. As we shall see, it hardly matters whether it is Urðr or Gunnlǫd who is the true guardian, since any female entity may assume the role of the guardian of the mead. The important thing is that there is a relationship between the mead of poetry and the well of the norns, which we saw in the chapter on shamanism was a lake that could transform anyone who bathed in it into transparent beings of light, and from which all the norns and valkyriur emerge.

In the Grímnismál st. 36, the valkyriur are named who give ale to the einherjar – the One-Harriers. In st. 25, we learn that the “fair mead” that never diminishes is milked (presumedly by the valkyriur) from a goat called Heiðrún [“Bright Open Space Symbol”]. As Else Mundal has pointed out, this goat has a sentral function in the continuation of life in Valhǫll and is thus very important for the safety of the divine cosmos, whose defenders the One-Harriers are supposed to be.[11] Standing on the roof of Valhǫll, Heiðrún eats of the leaves from the world-tree, here called Læráðr[“Wind Shield Counsel”= “Immortality Counsel”] while filling a whole vat of mead every day, enough to keep the One-Harriers eternally revived and feasting. Next to the goat stands a stag who also feeds on the leaves of the tree, and from its horns drops fall down into Hvergelmir[“Bellowing Cauldron”], Hel´s serpent-infested well. Since Hvergelmir is situated at the foot of the World Tree, it becomes obvious that the tree Læráðr is the World Tree itself, from which the goat Heiðrún also eats.

The same nourishment goes through different alchemical transformations in the stag and the she-goat: In the stag, the nourishment of “leaves” become drops that fall through his antlers into the well of death, whereas the she-goat produces the mead that resurrects the soul eternally. Indirectly, the mead of the she-goat is connected to the well of the norns, since this is situated within the heart of Ásgarðr, where we also find Valhǫll and the valkyriur, who are a kind of norns. Interestingly, Freyia, who in the Grímnismál is presented as the ultimate valkyria, is compared to Heiðrún when she offers mead in the poem Hyndlulióð. Freyia´s brother Freyr, who is associated with the elves and thus with the souls of the dead, is associated with an antler.[12] The “leaves” of the world tree could perhaps symbolize the souls of the dead, some of whom are chosen to receive the mead of resurrection.

From this information, we learn that the mead is connected to the three wells at the root of the World Tree; the Well of Hel, where souls are devoured by the powers of death, such as serpents who may symbolize transformation in death (the shedding of skin), the Well of Memory, where the recollections of all the experience of the entire universe is stored, and the Well of Origin, where souls are transformed into immortal light beings. The mead has a transformative effect and keeps the drinkers eternally alive. It is associated with “hidden knowledge”. It is associated with memory and knowledge, runes, spell-songs as well as poetry in general, magical powers and wisdom. It is offered by a dís[goddess or other female entity] to a man who is her lover and sometimes also her apprentice or protégée.

As Michael Enright has argued, ritual drinking has its origins in an Indo-European past. The soma of Old India, the haoma of Iran, and the “nectar”or “ambrosia” of Greek myths are met with again in the myth and culture of the Celts and of the Germans. According to Enright, the particulars of Germanic ritual drinking originated in the Celtic ones. Enright shows how the Celtic and Germanic traditions were connected during the Celtic Iron Age. The Celtic and Germanic sources show that ritual drinking was strongly associated with a woman and/or with a goddess,but this was also the case in many Old Indian myths.

Svava Jacobsdottir focuses on Gunnlǫð´s serving of mead to Óðinn in the Hávamál, drawing a connection between the magical drought of Gunnlǫð and those of Irish legends where a divine lady or goddess personifying the land offers a crystal cup of red mead to a young king or hero before they go to bed together. In the Irish sources, the goddess is seated on a crystal chair, and the drink is emphazised for its (red) color and intoxicating effect. It is ladled out with a golden ladle and served from a golden cup. The hero has to swear an oath to the goddess. All these elements are in fact present in the myth of Óðinn and Gunnlǫð, showing that the Norse and the Irish myths are based on the same concepts, and are connected to rituals concerning royal inauguration.[13]

Such a connection between Norse and Irish/Celtic traditions is also made by Michael Enright. The lady is either named after the drink itself, such as “Intoxication”, or after her function as ruler of the land: “Sovereignty”. Only when the young hero and king-to-be accepts the drink and her holy embrace is he fit to be king. His royal inaugurtion is granted through sacred marriage.

In the Hávamál, Gunnlǫð is sitting on a golden chair, from where she ladles out the “precious mead” and serves it to Óðinn in a cup. The drink is called litr in st. 107, meaning “color”, a fact Jacobsdottir connects to the red color of the Irish mead. Óðinn has sworn a sacred ring-oath which Jacobsdottir interprets as an oath of marriage (which Óðinn breaks). The intoxicating effect of the drink is emphazised in the poem. According to Jacobsdottir, the drink here is not called poetry mead, only the “precious mead”. However, in st. 107, Óðrerir is mentioned, the “Poetry Stir” which Snorri gives as name for one of Gunnlǫð´s three cauldrons. After drinking it, Óðinn relates how he has obtained wisdom and become strengthened with the power of the Earth, bringing the mead up into the shrine of the Earth (st. 107-108). Jacobsdottir suggests that the Earth is Gunnlǫð herself, personifying the land which the new king has married. The shrine of Earth may have had its ritual counterpart in a cave or grave-mound.[14]

Jacobsdottir questions whether the Gunnlǫð story was a Norse imitation or adaption of an Irish original, but concludes that it was part of the Norse tradition. Hieros Gamos was known in Norse society, and the theme of the sacred drink is also to be found in older Indo-European material. In the Norse sources, the mead shows up in several places: The mead served by the valkyriur appears to have granted eternal life, and is in Sigrdrifumál also associated with “holy embraces”. The drink is also to be found in the name of the maiden Menglǫð, whose embrace is also sought in the Fjǫlsvinnsmál.  Instead of understanding her name as “men-glǫd”, “Necklace Pleased”, as is the usual understanding, Jacobsdottir claims that it could be derived from Old English mengan, to mix, and lǫd, drink (or “invitation”). The sacred drink would then be implicit in her name. Jacobsdottir further connects the giantesses Gunnlǫð, Gerðr, the valkyriur and the maiden Menglǫð through the wall of flame that surrounds them and their enchanted state.

Jacobsdottir completes her essay by showing how the mead or ale from Norse and Celtic sources has its counterpart in Old Indian religions where Soma plays an important role as a drink of knowledge and immortality. The herb which was used to make the drink and which gave it its intoxicating power was the soma. In Sanskrit, the name for the drink was madhu, a word cognate with mjǫdr and mead. [15] “Holy embraces” was a part of the soma ritual, and in one myth, Indra drinks Soma from the lips of Apala, daughter of the sun. In another myth, an eagle called Garuda (“soma-thief”) gives the sacred drink to the gods. Garuda is really Vac[“Cow”, “Speech”, “Voice”] goddess of divine speech and poetry, in disguise. The goddess in the shape of an eagle stealing the sacred drink is in fact really the voice of the great androgynous creator deity. The guardian of the Soma was sometimes said to be a serpent. The parallell to Snorri´s story of Óðinn´s theft of the mead of poetry while in the shape of a serpent and then an eagle is striking – the god is also a god of speech and poetry. Jacobsdottir compares Snorri´s version of the myth of Gunnlǫð with the Old Indian myths of Soma, the sacred drink of the Vedic religion and Garuda, the Soma thief in eagle shape, carrying the sacred drink to the gods.

Soma and the Soma ritual played an important a central role in the Vedic religion. The drink as “mead” was used in libation sacrifice, something which is seen in the Sanskrit word medha – “sacrifice”. Soma was both a drink and a deity. He was the god who came down and manifested himself in the rituals, a messenger between human beings and the gods. In a list of universal polarities, Soma is placed against Agni alongside with “moon”, “death” and the “female” as opposed to “sun”, “life” and the “male”.[16] Within the schools of Kundalini Yoga, Soma is placed in the topmost cakra, being the quintessence of the body, its “nectar of immortality”.[17] As a deity, Soma appears as a sage, a poet, a seer, one who stimulates thoughts and inspires hymns.

A whole book (the ninth) is dedicated to Soma in the Rigveda, and the hymns are many thousands of years old.[18] Several hundred hymns deal directly with Soma. Soma was shining brightly, he was reminiscent of the sun, the fire, the rays and the shine of the sun. Through Soma, the priests could know the ecstasy of the immortal state. In the Norse myths, the drink is also described as bright, shining and golden – and its guardians, the maidens, are always associated with rays of light and the Sun goddess.

According to Brockington, a belief in an intoxicating beverage of the gods, a kind of honey or mead, probably goes back to the Indo-European period. Brockington also draws a parallel between the Indian legends of the eagle and Soma, the nectar-bringing eagle of Zeus, and Óðinn in eagle´s shape fetching mead. As a deity, Soma is a sage, a poet, a seer, stimulating thoughts and inspiring hymns. As a drink, it invigorates the gods, and is conceived as conferring immortality on gods and men and is often called amrta, the “draught of immortality”.[19]

The drink also produced ecstacy and was used by ascetics for inspiration. The ecstacy it caused could soar into the atmosphere, into the company of gods, enable one to see everything and go anywhere.[20] One beautiful passage in the Rig Veda (8.48) reads:

“I have tasted the sweet drink of life, knowing that it inspires good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme, that all the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it honey.
When you penetrate inside, you will know no limits(…)
We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods.(…)
The glorious drops that I have drunk set me free in wide space.(…)
Weaknesses and diseases have gone; the forces of darkness have fled in terror. Soma has climbed up in us, expanding. We have come to the place where they stretch out our life-spans.
The drop that we have drunk has entered our hearts, an immortal inside mortals (…)”

The text quoted above convey some important concepts, namely that the drink will cause immortality and spiritual expansion, that it is sought by both men and gods, and that it will take the initiate to the place of fate. The fates are also closely connected to the drink in Norse mythology, the drink is sought by men and gods alike, and it causes spiritual growth and immortality, as well as inspiration.

The preparation and the offering of somawas a feature of Indo-Iranian worship, known in Iran as haoma. Haoma was an important part of old Iranian rituals, rituals that survived into the religion of Zoroaster and also into the cult of Mithras. The ancient Zoroastrian text Zand Wahmand Yasht (III 6-12) explains that the drink was pure all-encompassing wisdom originating in the sacred spirit Ohrmazd (Ahura-Mazda):

“Ohrmazd the Sacred Spirit, creator of righteous physical existence, took the hand of Zoroaster and poured into it liquid all-encompassing wisdom and said: “drink it!” (…) and Zoroaster drank it, and all-encompassing wisdom was blended into Zoroaster (…)


Zoroaster was in the wisdom of the Sacred Spirit for seven days and nights (…) on the seventh day, all-encompassing wisdom was taken away from Zoroaster…”

In the Iranian text Avesta, Yasna, the Haoma is invoked in hymns, of which I present a few lines (9.17, 10.8, 11.10):

“Oh, you Golden One, I invoke your intoxication!
Certainly, all other intoxications bring the violence of the bloody club, but Haoma´s intoxication brings blessed justice,
Haoma´s intoxication is light.
To thee, Haoma, the righteous one, you who drive forth Truth.”

The way the sacred drink is being described in the Iranian and the Indian sources suggest that the mythology is closely connected to ritual and that the myths about it may have originated from rituals where an intoxicating drink was in fact used. The mystical experience it caused was the source of its power and its importance in these ancient religions. The fact that this mythology of Soma and Haoma is similar in many Indoeuropean cultures, with the mead of the Celts and the Germans and the ambrosia and nectar of the Greeks, points to a shared origin, and there is reason to believe that the origin was an actual drink.

What this drink was made of, however, is not known. The original Soma no longer exists in the surviving Vedic religion of contemporary India, and it appears to have vanished thousands of years ago. The Rig Veda often describes the plant called soma from which the drink Soma and the god it represented were made. It is either described as red, or as golden and bright. It grows in high mountains, and it has a juicy stem. Leaves and twigs are never described. It can be taken in two forms: It is either crushed and then the juice is drunk directly, or it could be mixed with water, milk and sweets such as fruits or honey. In some cases one might get the impression that even the urine of someone who had taken soma could be a part of the second form.

What Was In The Drink?

At an early historical stage, it seems that the priests had stopped using the original plant and began using substitutes. The soma that has been drunk into modern times is never made from the original soma-plant. It is common to use substitutes such as cannabis, ephedra, sacrostemma or peripolca, but the Vedic priesthood are very clear about the fact that these are substitutes and not the original plant. The transfer from the original soma to these substances was decided and ruled by the priesthood itself, and we do not know whty. The same is the case with Haoma in Iran. Thus we do not actually know what plant the original Soma was.

Gordon Wasson put forth a thesis that the original Soma was the fly agaric. In India, the fly agaric only grows in high mountains. One of the most important reasons why it was not used anymore, could be the fact that the Aryans simply did not control the areas in India where the fly agaric grew. In order to get fly agaric, they had to trade with tribes and people who were usually enemies to the Aryans, and whom they looked down at. In one case we have a description of such a purchase – a costly cow was the price of a small Soma plant.

The properties of the fly agaric seem to fit the way Soma is described – it is a small plant, it has no leaves, and the stem is juicy and meaty. It is red during day, but when it is squeezed, the joice is golden, and during night it shines white like the moon. It gives intoxication – an intoxication which provides great physical strength and stamina, a wish to sing and dance, peace of mind and powerful visions. It cannot be grown. It grows in mountains in India, further to the north it grows where there are birks and conifers. All these properties fit into the way Rig Veda describes Soma: a red plant growing in the mountains, associated with the moon, a bright, golden drink that gives a feeling of power, strength, peace, inspiration and great visions.

In order to further support his thesis, Wasson traces the Siberian prehistory ofhe Aryans. The Aryans and the Indo-Iranians came according to their own legends from the northwest of India. Before they wandered into the Indian and the Iranian areas, they lived in close contact with people who spoke Finno-Ugric languages, and in areas where the fly agaric grew and where it has been used for religious purposes even into modern times. In the entire northern part of Siberia, the fly agaric has been an important part of shamanistic rituals, especially among the Finno-Ugric groups. The fly agaric was used among the Ostyaks, the Ugrians, the Samoyeds, the Chuckchee, the Koryak, the Kamchadals and the Inari-Samis in Finland.[21]

In Siberia, the fly agaric was used by shamans. In the Indus Valley, it may have been used by an organized priesthood – at least if it was the soma plant. Wasson compares the use of the fly agaric and the way it is prepared by shamans, its psychological effects with the way Soma is described in the Rig Veda. The similarities may suggest close contact in the past – the Vedic priesthood itself may have a shamanistic past. An original shamanistic culture may have trandormed into a warlike, hierarchic and conquering culture which may have transformed the original shamanistic religion into one with a need for an organized priesthood. Shamans also had hymns and songs – and the collection of old hymns into a large text may have been the expression of a growing organized priesthood who began as shamans.[22]

David Flattery and Martin Schwartz have suggested a different thesis about the botanical origins of Soma and Haoma. They attempt to show tha harmaline, found in wild rye is the original intoxicating plant which is represented at least in the Iranian Haoma-tradition, buit also in Soma, since the words soma and haoma are etymologically the same. Both in the Vedic and in the Zoroastrian religion, the drink is the central and important ritual element. The traditional texts describe the drink as intoxicating, but the plants that are used in both religions now are often not. This suggests that modern ceremonies are based on earlier practices where one drank ecstracts from an intoxicating plant.

The word sauma, which is the original name for both soma and haoma simply means “squeezed out of a plant”. This makes it difficult to determine exactly what plant we are talking about. Sauma may well have referred to both intoxicating and non-intoxicating plants as long as we are speaking of a plant-ecstract. According to Scwartz and Flattery the Vedic descriptions of Soma are so general that they cannot be used to neither confirm nor disprove Wasson´s thesis. Because of this observations, they have chosen to discredit the Rig Veda as a source and look elsewhere. Even if we knew whether the poets had personal experience with the intoxicating effects of the plant there is little reason, they argue, to believe that these effects are described accurately. The descriptions may be a purely poetical tradition. If the main purpose of the ceremonial use of the plant was ecstasy, the natural reaction to the fact that the plant was no longer available would have caused the ceremonies to cease. It is obvious, Scwartz and Flattery argue, that it was the ceremony itself that was important, since it continued for millennia after the original plant was no longer used.

The Proto-Indo-Iranians, ancestors of the Aryans and the Iranians, lived somewhere to the northwest of India (Scwartz and Flattery thus follows the “Indoeuropean invasion thesis”). They spread into central and west-Asia, to that which is today India and Iran. There is all reason to believe that these ancestors developed the use of sauma while still dwelling somewhere in the area of central Asia. Even if the Rig Veda is ancient, this does not mean that it reflects the earlier Proto-Indo-Iranian situation to any greater degree than the younger, Iranian text Avesta. In fact, Avesta appears far more conservative and archaic than the more poetical and inspired Rig Veda. Both texts are the products of the original Proto-Indo-Iranian oral transmission which has to do with sauma-rites. It is only when the oral tradition began to weaken that the hymns were written down. That the Vedas were written down earlier may indicate that the original tradition was weakened in India a lot earlier than it was in Iran. With this basic standpoint, Schwartz and Flatty choose to use the texts of the Avesta and the Ardâ Wîraz Nâmag as their basis for examining the botanical identity of sauma.[23]

In these texts, Haoma is compared to wine, and the differences between the two forms of intoxication are described. The religious purpose of drinking Haoma is to find clarity, justice, righteousness and the ability to look into the menog – a form of spiritual, immortal existence. Ordinary mortals may not perceive menog before they are dead, unless they have taken Haoma in the proper, ritual fashion. Haoma´s (and sauma´s) great effect is the ability to perceive the spiritual truth, an ability which at some point in history is demanded of all priests and of the shamans who existed before them in the Proto-Indo-Iranian society.[24]

From the way that Haoma-intoxication is described in the Iranian sources, Scwartz and Flattery arrive at the conclusion that the original sauma must have been harmaline. Both sauma-haoma and harmaline produces a state of apparent sleep, a total immobility where the “sleeper” experiences powerful hallucinations and usually a deep sense of peace. Harmaline grew freely in the central-Asian homeland of the Indo-Iranians. Harmaline has a nearly identical effect to the hallucinogenic plants yagé and ayahuasca in the Amazonas-jungle, where they are primarily used by shamans. Also there it is believed by the users of these plants that they allow the user to experience ultimate truth about all the worlds and that they experience contact with the highest heavens. Fully initiated shamans take yagé in order to cure, initiate others, supervise rituals, divine and make important decisions. The intoxication is described as violently intense experiences of light and shine both in the case of Haoma, harmaline, ayahuasca and yagé.

In northern Europe, the sacred mead is described in similar ways to the Soma and the Haoma and produces a similar effect of inspiration, divine visions and immortality. But we do not know what it actually contained. It is entirely possible that the original plants were forgotten or substituted, as happened in India and Iran. Most finds of drinking equipment, such as those of the priestess graves, offer nothing more than evidence for an alcoholic drink made out of fruits, grains and honey. An exception I can think of is the Viking Age Oseberg priestess burial, where there was equipment for making drinks, and a vessel filled with dried blueberries as well as a pouch filled with cannabis seeds. In art, however, we see evidence of the importance of hallucinogenic plants. In the same burial at Oseberg, Norway, was found a tapestry showing nine men hanging in a grove full of serpents, above which three females hover, one carrying a sword, the second a small weave, spinning equipment or perhaps a burial shround, and the third seems to carry a staff made out of three serpents. Beneath their feet is a large mushroom which could very well be the fly agaric. As we shall see, the hanging may be more than human sacrifice – it may be a ritual of initiation following the path staked out by Odin.

The importance of hallucinogenic mushrooms in prehistoric Europe should probably be taken seriously. In the Mystery temple of Eleusis, the goddess Demeter, who appears to represent the first initiate, in whose footsteps all initiates must walk in order to know the great Mystery, there are many depictions of such mushrooms. We know that a sacred drink, the Kykeion, was given to the initiates, and it may well have contained mushrooms. It could also have contained juice of the poppy, which produce an opiate, since many poppy flowers are also depicted. The connection between the poppy and the goddesses of the great initiation mysteries was important in southern Europe and in Crete. In general, it is known that the use of cannabis, poppy juice and mushrooms were extremely important ingredients of early intoxicating drinks before alcohol gradually came to take precedence. I believe it is likely that whatever the origin of the sacred drink of the Indoeuropeans and their neighbours, people would have made use of various available substances, perhaps mixing them, in order to produce ceremonial drinks.

Dhisanâ and the Disir

In some Vedic hymns, we learn that soma was in possession of the dhisanas, which would certainly link Indian myth to Norse myth, where the mead is always in possession of the dísir. Dísir is the plural form of the word dís, which in the Old Norse language referred to all female entities and could in poetry even be used to describe human women. Mostly, however, the word is used to describe a female supernatural entity and may roughly be translated as “goddess”. More wil be said about the word and the concept of the dísir, but it is important to bear in mind that the word itself has has its etymylogical origin from the Old Indian word dhisanâ. The word is the name of a goddess called Dhisanâ, a goddess who could take multiple shapes, then called dhisanas. They were goddesses of wealth and happiness, and they took care of the sacred drink, Soma, the drink of immortality.[25]

Else Mundal has put forth the question of why the majority of Norse goddesses known from Snorri and the poets appear invisible in myth and cult. One common explanation has been that most of the goddess-names were poetic inventions. The poets supposedly needed goddess-names to use in their poetic metaphors for women. It is true that poets used the names of goddesses to describe women, but, as Mundal argues, “names of goddesses could not function as a basic word in kenningar if they did not give associations to goddesses people knew beforehand.”[26]

The poetic metaphors worked because they alluded to already known mythology. Mundal´s explanation of the numerous named, but faded goddesses, is that female deities would mostly be worshipped as a collective. This “fact may partly explains why the individual goddess –with the exception of Freyia – disappears as an individual…”[27] Another, complementing explanation is that the multitude of single, non-married goddesses, who far outnumber the male gods, did not fit into the patriarchal family structure that Snorri and his contemporaries tried to impose on the Pagan gods. Thirdly, Mundal argues that “concepts of one individual goddess and the female collective merge into one another. There is no sharp division between the dís (sg.) and the dísir (pl.).”[28] Mundal draws the line between the dís-dísir and the norns, the valkyriur, and the fylgjur, concluding that where the female deities are concerned, the conceptions of the indivudal and the collective merge together. To talk about “lower female deities” when talking about the collectives of norns, valkyriur, fylgjur and dísir is useless seen in this light: they are as important in the cult as the individual deity, and are not separable from them. Even the division between human and divine becomes blurred in the case of females: the valkyriur may be described almost as humanbeings, the vǫlur exist both as real women and as mythical beings, and even the word gydja means both “priestess” and “goddess”. Mundal suggests that what we are seeing in the collective of female deities are hypostases of the greater, individual goddesses, such as Freyia and Frigg. And, she argues, “if we have hypostases, we will get more goddesses out of one, and the last one will be as “real” as the first one.”[29]

Britt Mari Näsström defines a Great Goddess as the counterpart of a male high God; she takes a dominating position, she is independent, rules over fate, and is worshipped by both men and women. She often appears with many names and shapes, her character is ambivalent, a feature which often splits her into several beings. She is connected to the earth, but may also be a goddess of heaven. Her cult is widespread and official. [30]

The idea of “Mother Earth” as the Great Goddess may be limiting. As Jacobsdottir intervenes, the goddess may be equally connected to heaven and sun, not the least in Norse mythology, where the connection of sunlight, brightness and the goddess is very common.[31] I wish to add that the sun in the Norse language is feminine, and in the myths, the sun is continually referred to as a woman or a goddess, sister of the (male) moon. This is a fact which appears to have been ignored by many scholars, who sometimes speak of a Norse Sun God, supposedly Freyr, although there is no reference to a male sun anywhere in the sources.[32] As we shall see, the Maiden, who on some level may represent the land to whom the king must marry, is also associated with brightness and shine, and as a valkyria, her sphere is air and sea. As a giantess, however, she emerges from the depths of the earth as do Gunnlǫð, Gerðr, Fenja and Menja.

Folke Ström[33] and Näsström have both in their own ways expressed the idea of a Great Goddess behind the many shapes and names of female characters that appear in Norse mythology. Ström presents the dísir as the designation given to a collective of female deities without known individual names. As Mundal showed (above), these names may be the ones reflected in poetry. The dísir were the objects of widespread cults of ancient origin, and they were closely connected to Freyia, the Vanadís. The idea of one Great Dís becomes clear from the name of the central hall of the dísablot (the sacrifice to the dísir); the Disarsalinn. Dísar here is a genitive sg. which means that we are dealing with the hall of the one (great) Dís rather than the hall of the many dísir who received sacrifice at this important celebration. Ström suggests that it must be Freyia who hides behind the title, and is supported by Näsström, who points out that from the nameless collective of dísir, one great dís, one Great Goddess, emerges.[34]

In Norse mythology, the lines between the dísir, the valkyrior, the fylgjur, and the nornir, are blurred; much points to a common origin, or that the different designations just specify the kind of dís that we are dealing with. Dísir were, in general, the guardian spirits of the clans, and appear to have been particularly close to the head of the clan. The dísir called valkyrior were the poetical expressions of the warrior ideal of the Viking ages, with their warlike apparence. Sometimes, the dísir of the clan were called fylgjur, which means “followers”.[35] It has been discussed whether woman-fylgja could represent the soul of a person (see ch. 3.1). A person could have a woman fylgja or an animal fylgja, a form of soul that could travel independently of the body, as could the húgr (“will”, “thought”, “soul”) and the hamingja (fate, fortune).[36]  In their function as fate-deciding powers, the dísir were called nornir, who were thought to be present at a child`s birth to give it a name and decide its fate.[37]

As Ström and Näsström suggested, the goddess Freyia may be the head of all the different dísir, indeed, she may be the one Great Dís hiding behind the dís of the Disarsalinn. Ström believes, for example, that the giantess Skaði – ǫndurdís - is the winter-aspect of Freyia the goddess – vanadís.[38]In her work on the Great Goddess of the North, Näsström identifies Freyia in the same manner, and sees Freyia, as meaning only “Lady”, hiding behind most of the feminine deities in the mythology, whose names only denote the functions she plays in the myth, or refer to a local name for the Lady. Many of the goddesses in the myth may be identified with Freyia through their character and their functions, and Freyia may also be recognized as the Great Valkyria, the Great Dís, and even the great old norn, Urðr.[39] The only female character whom Näsström does notidentify Freyia with are the giantesses. They are seen as something completely different. Näsström even states that the giants are “only evil” (“bare ondskapsfulle”).[40] She also believes that the after-death realm of Freyia is completely separated from that of the giantess Hel.[41] However, without hesitating, both Ström and Näsström include the giantesses Gerðr and Skaði among the goddesses, showing how Freyia may hide behind even these figures.[42]


[1]Brockington, 1996 p.11

[2] Enright, 1996, p. 1-18

[3] Ibid, p. 22

[4] Ibid, p. 24

[5] Enright, p. 107

[6] Ibid, p. 107

[7] Ibid, p. 108

[8] Ibid, p. 113

[9] Ibid, p. 114

[10] Ibid, p. 125

[11] Mundal, 1992, p. 241

[12] Snorri, Gylfaginning, Prose Edda

[13] Jacobsdottir, 2002, p. 30-53

[14] Ibid, p. 40.  Symbolic death and re-birth was part of king´s consecration in many such societies, and was associated with the Great Goddess. It was connected to the idea of immortality, which may be found also in the Norse material.

[15] Ibid, p. 48.  This connection is also made by Näsström, 2001, p. 131, who speaks of a Norse Soma-tradition, and by Brockington, 1996, p. 16- Mead was used in libation sacrifice, something which is seen in the Sanskrit word medha; “sacrifice”.

[16] Ibid, p. 129

[17] Ibid, p. 156

[18] Brockington, 1996, p. 7

[19] Ibid, p. 16-17

[20] Ibid, p. 75

[21] Wasson, 1971, p.3-71

[22] Ibid, p.68

[23] Schwartz, Flattery, p. 1-11

[24] Ibid, 19-20

[25] Näsström, 1998, p. 146, Ström, p. 192

[26] Mundal, 1990, p. 305

[27] Ibid p. 300

[28] Ibid, p. 312

[29] Ibid, p. 304

[30] Näsström, 1998, p. 79

[31] Jacobsdottir, 2002, p. 43

[32] For example Dronke, 1997, p. 396-397, Turville-Petre, 1975, p.174

[33] Ström, 1985, and 1954

[34] Ström, 1997, p. 192-193, Näsström, 1998, p. 156

[35] Ström, 1997, p. 194-196

[36] Ibid, p. 206

[37] Ibid, p. 201

[38] Ström, 1954, p. 6

[39]Näsström, 1998, p. 177, p.154-178

[40]Näsström, 2001, p. 13

[41]Näsström, 1998, p. 176-177

[42]Näsström, 1998, p. 85, 112, 114, 122, 139-141, Ström, 1954, p. 6

6 Responses to The Sacred Drink and Other Links Between Indian, Iranian, Greek, Celtic and Norse Mythology

  1. Wow! This can be one particular of the most beneficial blogs We’ve ever arrive across on this subject. Basically Wonderful. I’m also a specialist in this topic therefore I can understand your effort.

  2. John Nelson says:

    Brilliant , this is the best researched writing I have yet read on this topic, thanks Maria .If Amanitas were the plant in question , the people who prepared Soma must have known what they were doing as experiment has shown the effects to be somewhat soporific and generally depressant , from the imbibers point of view , from the witnesses viewpoint however , the imbiber can seem excited , manic and seem to hold conversations with another party , of whose presence , only they are aware (ancestors?) . Unfortunately the imbiber has usually little or no recall of this.
    Persistent use over a short period of days , can lead to a stupor accompanied by vivid dreams in technicolour , however this state also feels very toxic and leaden , in no way ecstatic , in fact rather unpleasant.
    Only once in an extended experiment , did anyone recall an ecstatic or high feeling , here the dosage was very small , almost homeopathic , yet the experience was overwhelming , so I assume that to use this mushroom effectively , a great deal of skill and knowledge is required .
    Some years ago I saw a documentary in which two men performed various warrior tasks , such as throwing javelins at a shield , chopping with an axe , running and wrestling , then they imbibed fly agaric and some time later , they repeated their feats , not performing half as well as before the fungus , the goal was to determine what fuelled berserkers in their rage , the conclusion was , probably not fly agaric. Myself I wonder why we don’t just ask the Saami , surely there is some history or folklore on this topic. All those hemp seed finds are interesting too!

  3. Marylene says:

    I really enjoyed this article. Thank you so very much for this wonderful blog

    Just one small remark: It’s not wild rye that contains harmaline but wild rue, also called syrian rue – latin: Peganum harmala, – which is not a grass but a bush.

  4. karnisz says:

    obviously like your website but you have to test the spelling on quite a few of your
    posts. Several of them are rife with spelling problems and I to
    find it very troublesome to inform the truth then again I will definitely come again again.

  5. Patti says:

    Great source of information! Thank you!

  6. Ernest Carlsson says:

    This is the most in depth, complete picture of the subject I have ever had the honor to take part of, this is highly potent raw material for the reemerging “pre-christian” understanding of the old norse culture.

    The sacred ritual drinking of entheogenic brews as a way to free oneself of fears (die the ego death, enter valhalla) and connect with ones personal fate, the hamingja to become an author, an Odin is something that strongly resonates with me.

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