Flying to the cloud
Soma and the Axis Mundi
'He who is the pillar of the sky, the well-adorned support, the full stalk that encircles all around, he is the one who by tradition sacrifices to these two great world-halves.' 
This verse from the Rig Veda describes a plant: Soma, from which the gods of ancient India made their fiery elixir of immortality. Here, the stem of the plant is the pillar that supports the sky and separates it from the earth. Soma is also a god, as well as being identified with the moon (and also the sun!), where its juice is stored; it is characterised as a horse, or bull; and it is brought from the sky, though it is found on certain mountains, which may amount to the same thing. The dome of the sky is the bowl into which the juice of the Soma is poured.
Soma has been most plausibly identified as a hallucinogenic mushroom, specifically the Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, by R. Gordon Wasson . This certainly accords with the effects of Soma as noted in the Rig Veda - 'I am huge, huge! flying to the cloud. Have I not drunk Soma?'; 'The glorious drops that I have drunk set me free in wide space.'  - as well as an emphasis on the plant's stalk, and a recurring image of the Soma-bowl as an image of the sky. Indeed, a mushroom's shape makes it a good choice as a model of the cosmos: the upward-thrusting stalk is the axis mundi, its domed head is the vault of the sky.
The Rig Veda and other Hindu religious texts have preserved an enormous body of lore pertaining to Soma, the core of which was written down over three thousand years ago, and the traditions are certainly older than the earliest texts. Most of the references to Soma are concerned with its discovery or preparation, and with the effects of the liquid upon the imbiber. Others refer to the qualities of Soma, the god. Some, like the verse quoted above, are of a cosmological nature. While the mushroom is a striking image of the cosmos, why should the hallucinogenic variety be chosen above non-toxic fungi of similar shape? Obviously, the psychotropic properties of Fly Agaric would have ensured its reputation as a magical plant, but that alone would surely not have been enough to have prompted the ancient Indians to identity it with the axis mundi.
One possible reason that comes to mind is the Fly Agaric's habitat. It is most frequently found in the north of Europe and Asia, approaching the celestial pole, in woodland made up of birch or firs, often in mountainous areas. According to the Rig Veda, Soma is found on certain sacred mountains, reflexes of Meru at the centre of the world. The mountain and the tree are, of course, common images of the axis mundi, the central structure of the terrestrial disc. The axis mundi also separates earth from sky, while simultaneously providing a point of contact between the two. The mushroom's characteristic white spots can be likened to either the stars in the night sky, or to clouds, another pointer to its cosmological r le. The spots are another clue to the axial attributes of this particular mushroom.
Mircea Eliade, discussing the importance of the number seven among the shamans of Central Asia and Siberia, tells us that mushrooms with seven spots are consumed by Lapp and Ostyak shamans. This can be related to the frequent association of the cosmic axis with the number seven. The cosmic pillars of the Ostyak have seven notches; and the Vogul believe that the sky is reached by way of seven stairs . In the Gylfaginning section of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, we read that a man juggling seven axes stands at the entrance to Valhalla; and the Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwm tells us that 'only seven' return from Caer Sidi, the revolving castle that is one version of the Celtic axis mundi, in which we find an ox that has seven (or sevenscore, depending on the translation) studs in its collar.
The number seven is often a characteristic feature of the entrance to the celestial Otherworld, home of the gods. In Eurasian shamanic lore, the entrance is attained by ascending vertically, climbing the cosmic pillar or an equivalent representational structure. In Altaic tradition the underworld is structurally analogous to the celestial realm, and access can be gained through a similar entrance and method:
'The Altaians conceive the entrance to the underworld as a 'smoke hole' of the earth, located, of course, at the 'Centre' (situated, according to the myths of Central Asia, in the North, which corresponds to the Centre of the Sky; for, as we know, the 'North' is assimilated to the 'Centre' through the whole Asian area, from India to Siberia). By a sort of symmetry, the underworld has been imagined to have the same number of levels as the sky...the Altaic shaman successively passes through the seven underworld 'obstacles' . . . ' 
In these contexts, the heptadic structure that marks the axis mundi and the entrance to the Otherworld can only be the constellation Ursa Major. In northern Europe, and in Homeric Greece, this constellation was formerly conceived as a wagon - though more usually a bear in Greece - and associated variously with Odin/Woden and Thor; in the Rig Veda the number seven occurs often in connection with a number of things, including chariots and cattle, and in obscure cosmological contexts; and in ancient Rome, the stars of UrsaMajor were known as the Seven Oxen, hence the Latin term septentrio, denoting the north. In some Indo-European languages the word for north is derived from the root *nertro, meaning both 'below' and 'left (hand)', suggesting a one-time identification of the land of the gods with the destination of the spirits of the dead. In Finnish tradition, the land of the dead lies in the far north, as does Niflhel, the realm of the Norse goddess of death.
The choice of mushrooms with seven spots is therefore another variation on the mushroom as an image of the axis mundi. Specifically, it marks - like the septenary labyrinth - the means of entry to other worlds. In the case of the hallucinogenic Fly Agaric, the Otherworld that is accessed is an altered state of consciousness.
Traditional accounts of the Otherworld closely resemble the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. The traveller to the Otherworld experiences distortions in the perceived flow of time, so that his stay there seems to last only a short time, but when he leaves he discovers that many years have passed; or those in the Otherworld live far beyond their natural span. This phenomenon occurs in, for example, the medieval Irish Voyage of Bran; in the Welsh tale Branwen Daughter of Llyr; and in the Grail romances. These exhibit other traces characteristic of the effects of psychotropic substances: in the Voyage of Bran, beautiful and unearthly music fills the air, and the Otherworld is bright and supernally fresh - a luminosity that may go some way toward explaining why Soma is identified with the sun, which is also held to separate the earth from the sky - its colours are enhanced, and it is filled with jewels and flowers, inhabited by beautiful women. The Grail Castle is the scene of a procession of candelabra, a Grail studded with gems and pearls, brilliant light and colour, and beautiful women.
The pattern is fairly consistent. Entry is gained by a journey - flight, a voyage, climbing, descending - a 'trip' in modern slang. Once there, time is distorted, jewelled objects and gleaming precious metals abound, strange and beautiful music is heard, beautiful women appear. Colours are brighter and more varied, the light is intense. Food and drink taste marvellous and different (although in some versions of the underworld the food is wretched, and the dead go hungry). But all is not as it seems. Fairy gold turns into dried leaves when the traveller returns to the human realm. When the adventure ends, he awakes from sleep, or as if from a waking dream, to find himself alone - no trace remains of the wonders he has witnessed.
There is a great deal of difference between the experience of a shaman and that of an unwitting intruder. The shaman's journey to the Otherworld, and his experiences there, are determined by an expectation of the conditions that apply there, and structured by ritual and preparation. He already has a map of the Otherworld in his head, a map that also shows how to get there in the first place. It is a map based on myth and traditional cosmology. The person who stumbles by accident into the Otherworld has no such guidance. Unaware of the rules that govern this strange place, that person is constantly on the brink of disaster.
The place of the axis mundi, whether in myth or as a local representation or analogue of the cosmic centre, is expected to have the same nature as the Otherworld experienced by the shaman. It is structured according to the same cosmology. As the centre of the world, it is the source of all riches and all sustenance. Hence it is associated with the Grail, the cosmic mills of Finnish and Scandinavian myth, with kingship and cosmic regulation or renewal, and with the mythical well or spring that is the source of the world's waters. Because it is homologous with the axial point of the year, it is perceived as being exempt from the usual temporal cycles and their effects: it is 'outside' time. In Celtic and Germanic cosmology it is the abode of the goddess Sovereignty, the Fates, and the goddess of death. In terms of its attributes and associated mythology, it is much the same as the more generalised Otherworlds.
The myths and traditions that describe the axis mundi make it clear that the structure itself possesses the same attributes as the Otherworlds to which it gives access. These, in turn, are described in terms that indicate a close resemblance to the effects of the hallucinogenic mushroom favoured by Eurasian shamans and the gods of the Rig Veda, the Fly Agaric. As the intoxicating Soma, this mushroom is identified with the 'pillar of the sky', an embodiment of the axis mundi.
It is difficult to determine which concept came first. The ritual use of hallucinogenic fungi is extremely ancient, as the Vedic sources alone demonstrate. The recent discovery, in the mountains of the Austrian-Italian border, of the frozen body of a man who died sometime in the late neolithic period may push the known date back further still, if the mushroom found among his possessions proves to be a specimen of Amanita muscaria, or a similar species. It has already been suggested that this man was possibly a shaman, whose ritual journey to the mountains was interrupted by his untimely death, but the mushroom does not seem to have been cited as evidence for this theory.
The conceptualisation of the axis mundi seems to be more or less consistent throughout the Indo-European/Uralic/Altaic sphere, which argues not so much for mutual influence and constant reiteration through repeated contact, as for a basic unity of concept. The one thing these three cultural-linguistic complexes have in common - other than a common linguistic ancestry in the very distant past - is a former location in the circumpolar region, where the seven stars of Ursa Major and the celestial pole are at their most dramatic. As it happens, it is in the birch and fir forests of the north that Fly Agaric has its natural habitat. It seems likely that cosmological considerations antedate the use of this hallucinogenic mushroom - but there is more than a suspicion that the mushroom experience may have played a considerable part in moulding beliefs concerning the nature of the Otherworld.
1: Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (1981), The Rig Veda: An Anthology, p. 122.
2: R. Gordon Wasson (1968), Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality.
Some bits still have some scaffolding about.
3: Rig Veda, pp. 132, 135.
4: Mircea Eliade (1964), Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, pp. 274-279.
5: Ibid., pp. 278-279.
Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.13 November 1992.
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