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Ploughing the Clouds — The Search for Irish Soma
by Peter Lamborn Wilson
City Lights Books 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Justin Case, 10/2/2006

From the beginning of the Vedic religion—what we today call Hinduism—a sacred substance called Soma lay at the heart of ritual life. The Ŗg Veda, one of the world’s oldest pieces of sacred literature, contains many verses concerning soma, which was at once the sacrifice and the deity receiving the sacrifice. Soma was also clearly a living, growing, material thing, a substance that could transform the consciousness of the worshipper. But though it seems clear that soma was some entheogenic plant, its actual identity had long been lost in the mists of time. Today Vedic priests use symbolic substitutes that are either non-psychoactive or only mildly psychoactive—the non-psychedelic stimulant ephedra being one common stand-in for soma today.

In the area of Iran, the ancient people of the Zoroastrian religion had their own sacrament called Haoma. It fulfilled the same function as the Vedic soma and its identity too has been lost. For a thousand years, ancient Greece also hosted the Eleusian mystery rites, where seekers underwent a secret but profoundly life-changing experience. A sacramental drink called Kykeon was given at Eleusis, and this drink, along with the guided experience orchestrated by the keepers of the mysteries, would give the seeker a glimpse of the divine. Some of the most influential thinkers of Greek culture were inspired by their experiences at Eleusis. Once again, the materials in the sacrament remain unknown today, though in this case they were deliberately kept secret from the beginning.

Psychedelic researchers like Albert Hofmann, R. Gordon Wasson and Carl Ruck have speculated about the identity of soma, hoama, and kykeon, but the jury is still out. One important clue is that all three entheogenic sacramental traditions share a common Indo-European origin. The Indo-Europeans once occupied a wide area of Eurasia. At different times, large groups would depart from the steppes and move into new areas, conquering indigenous people and both subduing and merging with their culture and religions. It seems likely that these Indo-Europeans already used an entheogenic sacrament and brought it with them when they migrated to other parts of the world, or at least replaced their sacrament with other entheogens. It is known that the Indo-Europeans who moved into the Nordic and Siberian areas used Amanita muscaria as their sacrament.

But what of the Celts, the Indo-European tribes who moved into North-Western Europe? Their folktales and myths all suggest the influence of entheogens. We have tales of elves and gnomes; of people being abducted to the land of the faeries; of red berries and other red fruit that seemed to give magical powers or perception; enchanted nuts and potions; and so on. But we have no direct references to identifiable entheogens or hard evidence of entheogen use among the Celts. In fact, although Terence McKenna had made casual suggestions about the possible use of psilocybian mushrooms among the Celts, the question of Celtic entheogen use has never been given serious scholarly consideration.

This is where Peter Lamborn Wilson comes in. Ploughing the Clouds: the Search for Irish Soma is a provocative and necessary look at the possibility that the Celts of the British Isles, particularly those of Ireland, used entheogens. Wilson is a literary genius who possesses both an extensive knowledge of the literature of folklore, myth, and religion—unorthodox Islam being his specialty—and an original, unconventional, and penetrating intellect. His ideas and hypotheses are both reasonable and wild; as an author he displays a thorough knowledge of classic literature but puts forth revolutionary thoughts. His presentation is intelligent, sophisticated and at times his prose swells into poetic reverie. Often it seems that Wilson could elaborate on numerous juicy topics but is forced to merely mention these tangents and move on so as to not overwhelm the reader. Thankfully he does offer leads—bibliographic, branches of philosophy, and so on—for readers to pursue the various subjects he touches upon.

Here Wilson draws upon a variety of disciplines to tease the “Soma” out the Irish Celtic past. Anthropology, mythology, entheogen studies, comparative religion, linguistics and etymology, and other approaches are employed. Wilson’s particular focus in this book is the analysis and comparison of the Vedic literature of India and the folklore, sagas, poetry, and legends of Ireland. For that reason, the reader must have an appetite for Vedic verse, Irish folklore, and the minutiae of etymology in order to enjoy the greater bulk of this book. Some may find Wilson’s hypothesis itself to be more interesting than the actual examination of the evidence. However, to come to any reasonable conclusion the reader will need to patiently follow along with Wilson’s multitude of details because it is in these minutiae where the strength of Wilson’s argument lies. The devil, or at least the drug, is in the details.

Thankfully, Wilson makes no unfounded claims. He doesn’t push his hypothesis by simply declaring that it is true. Rather he presents his theme as a reasonable suspicion, one that may lead to further evidence if experts in various fields should be inspired by his research. It may well be that Wilson’s major motive for writing this book was to stimulate others to look further. When Wilson earlier ran an early article concerning his research in Psychedelic Illuminations #8 (Winter 1995/96), he humbly asked for support, refutation and other feedback. He also indicated that he had specific questions for specialists of different fields. He must have received a good amount of feedback because Ploughing the Clouds gives thanks to a number of researchers, including Allen Ginsberg, Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna, Gracie and Zarkov, Dale Pendell, and Albert Hofmann.

Wilson considers the sacred function of Soma to be more important than its actual botanical identity. He does, however, consider specific entheogens as candidates for Irish Soma. For the most part, Amanita muscaria seems to be the leader, but psilocybian mushrooms—particularly Psilocybe semilanceata, also known in the region by the suggestive folk name “elf’s cap”—henbane, nightshade and others are considered. Wilson also suggests the possibility that a variety of entheogenic plants and fungus may have served as Soma.

Writing on a more mythopoetic level, Wilson gives us a fascinating perspective on Soma as a tertium quid, a third dimension or reconciliation of a number of dichotomies: between feminine and masculine, between the dreamtime before history and history itself, between tribes of hunter-gatherers and agricultural civilization, between our subconscious animal past and our identity as users of tools and language. Like Terence McKenna, Wilson entertains the possibility that Soma may have been the cause of the evolutionary leap from one side of the dichotomy to the other, inspiring technology, art, and culture. Yet, once humanity moved into this phase, Soma also served as a reconnection to the older strata of our being.

Soma is also considered as the axis mundi, the axis of the worlds. This concept is found in almost every culture in different guises. It is the universal idea that there is a vertical axis – the world tree, the pillar of cosmos, the chakras of the spine, the magic tent-pole of the shaman, etc. – that holds together the many worlds and provides a means by which the shaman can access the underworld of the ancestors or the upper worlds of the gods. This axis mundi is the tertium quid that connects the polarity of sky and earth, or the human world and the world of the gods. In this sense, it is easy to see Soma as this axis mundi. Insightful explorations like these give Wilson’s writings an extra dimension.

Ultimately this marvelous book is about poetry in the deepest sense—poetry as Soma, Soma as poetry. In other words, poetry is to language what Soma is to matter. Language has pulled our abstract minds out of the eternal dreamtime into the literal human consciousness of linear time and history, which both empowers us and limits us. Poetry is language that transcends the limitations of language and induces the unspeakable in the minds of those who grasp the essence of the poem. Soma is matter, a growing thing of mass and weight that is of the earth, yet it can induce the divine in the minds of those that are receptive. The most subtle and transcendent of realms penetrates and permeates the most crude and dense, opening up a way between these opposites so that the receptive person can move about the axis mundi.

No one can deny that entheogenic plants are made of matter. Yet entheogens are potentially the antithesis of matter, because when combined with the nervous system of the seeker, the poet at heart, the two (the entheogen and the mind of the seeker) become a third, they become one, the tertium quid. And this synthesis transcends matter itself in a reconciliation of heaven and earth, an amalgamation of body and soul. If this reviewer understands the essence of Wilson’s message, this is the poetic heart of the book, the spirit that animates his wealth of literal details and astute scholarship.

1 Comment »

  1. An excellent review of what sounds like a compelling book. The role of entheogens in the history of spirituality, culture, and art is understated indeed. Relating Soma as a means for the seeker to access the axis mundi is conceptually intriguing, perhaps even metaphysically so.

    Comment by Nathan Hebert — 10/3/2006 @ 1:43 pm

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