5) Decoctions / Fermented Drinks

The Indian and Persian sacred texts describe precisely the making of some ancient intoxicating beverages which were consumed during very specific religious rites to make contact with the otherworld. For instance, the Atharva Veda, a collection of sacred Indian texts dating from around 1500-1300 BC, celebrates the mystic virtues of the ‘Bhang’, a beverage based on milk and spices, blended with a paste of cannabis leaves, which allowed the sacerdotal class to embrace the divine world.2291 Similarly, one hundred and twenty hymns of the Rig Veda are devoted to the rituals accompanying the fastidious preparation of the Soma (‘jus’ in Sanskrit), a divine fermented beverage drawn from the honey of a plant called ‘soma’ or ‘ray of light’,2292 which the Brahmins drank in Vedic times, for it led to ecstatic experiment and bestowed eternity of the soul.2293 In the mythology of Ancient India, the divine beverage is personified as Soma, a polymorphic god who reigns on the realm of the plants, cures illnesses and symbolizes the link between men and the divine world.2294 In ancient Persia, the counterpart of the Soma was called the ‘Haoma’, a trance-inducing drink obtained by the distillation and fermentation of some plant or sacred herb, which was used in religious rites, for it fired spirituality and conveyed access to the otherworld.2295 A god bearing its name, Haoma, who was the intermediary between earth and heaven in Persian mythology, also embodied the intoxicating beverage.2296

If other ancient civilisations had their own specific fermented beverage giving access to the divine world, spirituality, wisdom and eternity, it is likely that the Celts had their own sacred intoxicating drink. As there are no written sources in Gaul, and as Irish literature does not seem to record such a custom, the ultimate question which comes to mind is: what was the intoxicating beverage consumed in Celtic times to reach the divine world?


Retaillaud-Bajac, 2002, pp. 14-15.


The nature of this plant is still unknown: hemp, asclepias vincetoxicum or wild rhubarb? In the journal L’Homme (1970), the American ethnologist R. G. Wasson tended to demonstrate that the plant in question was a mushroom called ‘Amanita muscaria’ or ‘fly agaric’; a theory approved by C. Lévi-Strauss. The Amanita muscaria, which could be eaten raw, boiled or dried or absorbed in decoction, was also traditionally consumed by ethnic groups of Siberia, who practiced shamanism like the peoples of North and South America. For more details, see Weil & Rosen, 2000, pp. 188-190.


Also called Indou (‘liquor’), the Soma is the counterpart of the Amrita. While the term Amrita only appears in mythology and is drunk by the gods, the Soma was prepared by human beings as a sacrificial offering to the gods. The Soma was also believed to stimulate the mind, assure fecundity, ward off illnesses and evil spells, and improve the force of the warriors. Lenoir & Tardan-Masquelier, 2000, pp. 892-893, 1447 ; Eliade, 1986, pp. 222-225 quotes a famous hymn of the Rig-Veda (VIII, 48, verse 3): “we have drunk the Soma, we have become immortal, arrived to the light, we have found the gods, who can henceforth harm us, which danger can reach us, ô immortal Soma!”


Guirand & Schmidt, 2006, pp. 413-414.


Guirand & Schmidt, 2006, p. 387. The Avesta was originally composed of 21 nasks or ‘parts’. The only surviving texts are the Vendidad, the Yaçna, the Vispered and the Khordaitvesta. They have a purely liturgical character and describe the ancient religious legislation and rite of mazdeism. For the Haoma, see the text of the Yaçna (X, I), which reveals that, during the rites of the Haoma, incantations were recited to repel the evil spells and to open the reign of the Good. The Haoma was probably drawn from a flower called ‘Harmala Perganum’, which still grows on the Iranian plateau.


Cotterell, 1997, p. 29.