[The Alchemists] have said that the fruit of their tree strives up to heaven, because out of the philosophic earth there arises a certain substance, like unto the branches of a loathsome sponge…The point about which the whole art turns lies in the living things of nature…From a likeness not altogether remote they have called this material virgin’s milk and blessed rose-colored blood…For in the blood of this stone is hidden its soul. — Elias Ashmole
In our previous treatments of this subject we demonstrated that the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend was in all probability a veiled allusion to Baphomet, the mysterious severed head allegedly venerated by the original Knights Templar. It was further demonstrated that Masonic Templary in turn incorporated this imagery into its own ritual in the form of an initiatory skull cup, the same of which fulfills the requirements of being both a severed head and a sacred cup. In the present paper we will tackle the problem of the contents of this cup and discover what it was exactly, aside from its composition and legendary history, that made this particular vessel so very special. To do this we will first need to turn again to the East and look as far back as 1500BCE. For, it is there that we will find the Vedas and, more importantly, Soma.
To this day Soma is surrounded by mystery. It is spoken of in the Vedas as being at once a plant, a libation, a drug, a bull, and even a deity. Known most commonly as the Red Bull and often described as having but a single leg and foot, Soma is not unlike the famed fruit of the tree of life in Judeo Christian lore or the legendary amrita or food of the gods of the Greeks. Like them, it was purported to confer upon its drinker the gift of immortality. However, Soma’s identification has eluded scholars for centuries, and it was not until the arrival on the scene of amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson that a reasonable proposal was set forth, the same of which satisfies most if not all of the requirements detailed in the Vedas.
Wasson identified Soma as the entheogenic and mycorrhizal Amanita muscaria mushroom, commonly known as fly agaric and still widely used today for ritualistic and religious purposes by numerous indigenous peoples including the shaman of Siberia. Without entering into the difficult question of whether or not Wasson was correct in his identification (which I believe he was), the reader is directed to his books Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality and Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion for a full treatment of the subject.
As stated above, A. muscaria mushrooms are entheogenic or psychedelic and contain within them a powerful visionary and intoxicating compound called muscimol. When properly prepared and ingested at a safe dosage by humans these mushrooms have the potential to induce visions of light and sensations of ascension and dissolution, as well as cause profound introspection and revelations of a personal as well as cosmic nature. On the flip side, they can also induce terrifying hallucinations, disorientation, distortions of time and space, flushing, extreme perspiration, and brutal nausea.
Clark Heinrich explains in his remarkable book Strange Fruit that the A. muscaria mushroom begins its life as a small, egg shaped mass before expanding on its stipe into a platter-like cap and finally into its matured chalice shape. Its ‘red with white spots’ appearance is familiar to us all as the so-called fairytale mushroom seen in popular children’s stories such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. The white spots are the remnants of the universal veil, the same of which serves two important purposes. Firstly, it protects the fruiting body before the mushroom has had time to expand its bright red cap. Secondly, with its numerous small points, like several tiny horns, the universal veil assists the fruiting body in reaching the sunlight by breaking up any soil which might cover it. Hence Soma’s being likened unto a ‘red bull’ in the Vedas. The epithet of single foot therefore refers of course to the lone stipe which supports the ruddy cap. This figurative bull had to be slain by the worshippers via pressing out its rich, intoxicating blood. Indeed, Soma even means pressed one. According to the Vedas, the juices of the Red Bull would be pressed out between two stones and mixed with cow’s milk before being ritually drunk by the congregation of worshippers.
It is believed that Soma eventually became exclusive to the Brahmin priesthood and its use by those of other castes was deemed taboo. One early Hindu law maker, Manu, even went so far as to declare that the consumption of mushrooms be outlawed completely. Soma did not disappear from view altogether, however. As many scholars have pointed out, it survived with the ancient Hindus’ Middle Eastern neighbors, the Zoroastrians, under the name of Haoma. Like Soma, Haoma is described at once as a plant and a libation, as well as a bull, and is even mentioned in the Zoroastrian holy book the Zend-Avesta.
Remarkably, according to 6th century chronographer John Malalas, ancient Greek legend holds that, after decapitating the Gorgon, Perseus used Medusa’s head as a “skull-cup” to “teach the rite of Zoroaster to the Persians, who took the name of Medes in honor of the Medusa.” Medea is of course where Zoroaster, the founder of the Zoroastrian religion, is said to have been born. As Carl A.P. Ruck, the professor of Classics at Boston University, has observed, it is no coincidence that most scholars agree; the sound which the Gorgon sisterhood made was a mooing. That is, “the lowing of cattle was their sound.” As with Soma and Haoma, the Gorgon from which the skull cup came is implicitly associated with cattle. It is also notable that here we have our first example of the contents of the cup as being consubstantial with its vessel, i.e., both the skull cup and its contents allude to the mushroom. Indeed, for ‘skull cap’ is even a name commonly applied by laymen to mushrooms of various species.
It was during their travels in the Middle East that scholars believe Roman soldiers first encountered the Haoma rite which they then established in their own homeland in the form of the Mithraic Mysteries. Known as Mithra to the Zoroastrians, Mithras also appears in the Vedas as Mitra, an epithet of Soma which means a friend of man. Conveniently, Mithras is also known as the ‘lord of cattle pastures,’ keeping with our peculiar but prevalent bovine theme. Mithra’s role in the Zoroastrian religion was as divine mediator. However, the role he played in the Roman manifestation of his cult was considerably more complex.
The Roman cult of Mithras was for all practical purposes a secret society composed almost wholly of Roman soldiers. Specifically, they were holy warriors. Similar to Freemasonry, the Mithraic Mysteries consisted of a hierarchical structure of initiatory degrees or levels of attainment wherein the mysteries of the cult were progressively imparted to the initiate as he made his advancement through the grades. The final grade, that of Pater or Father, was symbolized by what appears to be a bowl and staff, suggestive of the cap and stipe of a mushroom, depicted next to a ruddy and spotted Phrygian cap, also known as a skull cap — and equally indicative of the mushroom — and next to that, a pruning hook, not unlike the one used by Perseus to decapitate Medusa before using the cap of her skull to teach the Haoma rite to the Persians. The members of the Mithraic cult met in small, subterranean chambers called Mithraea that were cave-like in appearance. Similar to a Masonic Lodge, the floors of the Mithraea were consistently designed as a rectangle or oblong square. Quite unlike a Masonic Lodge, on the other hand, is the fact that the eastern wall of every Mithraeum included a depiction of the Tauroctony, a fresco or relief which featured a Mithras clad in red with white spots, supported on one leg like the ‘single-footed’ Soma and donning a Phrygian cap (also known as a ‘liberty cap’), and triumphing over a sacred bull. Here, as with the A. muscaria consuming shaman of Siberia, Mithras has made himself consubstantial with the mushroom, taking on the appearance of the object of sacrifice. Furthermore, the shape of the single leg on which Mithras supports himself, paired with the suggestive folds of his clothing and armour in that region, very much itself resembles the cap and stipe of a fruiting body.
The Phrygian cap worn by Mithras is no doubt familiar to members of the Southern Jurisdiction of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite where, in the Knights Kadosh degree (the Knights Kadosh naturally being the Knights Templar), one encounters the fungally suggestive Liberty Pole in the form of a Phrygian cap placed atop a shepherd’s crook. Note that in addition to the fact that the liberty pole and liberty cap are both common euphemisms for various mushrooms, the Knights Kadosh degree, just like the Templar ceremony in the York Rite, is the degree wherein the candidate drinks from a skull cup.
Rosicrucian scholar Hargrave Jennings tells us in his book The Rosicrucians: Their Rites and Mysteries that “the real meaning of the…’cap of liberty’ has been involved from time immemorial in deep obscurity, notwithstanding that it has always been regarded as a most important hieroglyph…. It signifies the supernatural simultaneous ‘sacrifice’ and ‘triumph.’ …The whole is a sign of ‘initiation,’ and of baptism of a peculiar kind.” [italics mine]
It is here that we come full circle back to that other secret society of holy warriors with whom we first began: the Knights Templar. As was explained in our previous treatments, in his epic poem Perzival knight Wolfram von Eschenbach identified the Grail Knights of Arthurian legend as the Knights Templar. During their fateful trial we know that many of the Templars confessed to the veneration a mysterious severed head, named by some as Baphomet. It is quite possible that the Templars, like their Roman predecessors in the Mithraic Mysteries, employed the A. muscaria mushroom in an initiatory context, and that this mysterious severed head was actually no more than the symbolic vessel, consubstantial with its contents, with which the Soma or Haoma was ritually drunk. After all, as Von Hammer demonstrated, Baphomet is not the name of an elusive deity. Rather, it is the description of a sacred and secret ritual act employed by the Templars in an initiatory context: Baphe Metis, the ‘Baptism of Wisdom.’ A “baptism of a peculiar kind” indeed.
However, unlike our previous subjects, neither the Knights Templar nor the Grail Knights are associated with any sort of bovine symbolism. Still, as Heinrich ably demonstrates, there is no better candidate for the Holy Grail than the Amanita muscaria mushroom. Indeed, for the Grail is found precisely where one would expect to find A. muscaria mushrooms, in the forest. For, as stated above, A. muscaria is a mycorrhizal mushroom, meaning that it can only be found growing within and upon the root systems of host trees. It is quite literally the fruit of the roots of the trees whereon it is found. And, like A. muscaria, depending on the version of the story, the Grail is described variously as a stone, a platter, and a cup. Recall that the life cycle of A. muscaria progresses from its egg or ‘stone’ shape to that of a flat platter on a stipe, and thence to that of a chalice.
Has symbolism pointing to Amanita muscaria mushrooms been preserved in the three degrees of Craft Freemasonry? It is hard to say. he only evidence of bovine symbolism which remains in the Craft is the spurious account of Pythagoras’ curious hecatomb episode wherein he is said to have sacrificed one hundred oxen. However, considering the fact that Pythagoras not only eschewed and condemned the sacrifice of animals of any kind, for ritual purposes or otherwise, and that he was a devout vegetarian, interpreted in anything other than a cryptic and symbolic light, Pythagoras’ actions appear both barbaric and bizarre. As I argued in my paper Pythagoras: Sacred Bull Slayer, whatever type of bulls Pythagoras allegedly slaughtered, they were not of flesh and blood.
Before closing, it should be noted that A. muscaria has been used by at least one Masonic order. According to Rene Le Forestier, the incense blend used by Martinez de Pasqually and his order Elus Cohens included “spore of agaric.” While the spores of A. muscaria are not psychoactive, the fact that the mushroom is referenced at all is worthy of mention. Even Rev. William Alexander Ayton, the famed Alchemist of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, purported to have received and drank the “true Soma” upon his initiation into the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Soma is spoken of too by the infamous H.P. Blavatsky in her book The Secret Doctrine: “But the real property of the true Soma was (and is) to make a new man of the Initiate, after he is reborn, namely once that he begins to live in his astral body …The partaker of Soma finds himself both linked to his external body, and yet away from it in his spiritual form. The latter, freed from the former, soars for the time being in the ethereal higher regions, becoming virtually ‘as one of the gods,’ and yet preserving in his physical brain the memory of what he sees and learns. Plainly speaking, Soma is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge forbidden by the jealous Elohim to Adam and Eve or Yah-ve, ‘lest Man should become as one of us.'”
I close with a quote from Freemason and Sufi Rene Guenon.
“[Concerning Lost Words and Substituted Words, an] example…can be found notably in the Mazdean tradition, and in this connection we should add that what was lost is represented not only by the sacred cup, that is, by the Grail or various of its equivalents, but also by what it contains. This is readily enough understood, for the content, however designated, is actually nothing other than the ‘draught of immortality,’ the possession of which essentially constitutes one of the privilages of the primordial state. Thus it is said that after the Vedic soma became unknown in a certain epoch, it was necessary to substitute another draught that only represented it; and although not positively indicated anywhere, it even seems that this substitute was later lost in turn. …And while on this subject it bears recalling that in other traditions wine also substitutes for the ‘draught of immortality,’ moreover, this is why it is generally taken as a symbol of the hidden or guarded doctrine, namely, esoteric and initiatic knowledge…”
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Image by Tatiana Bulyonkova, courtesy of Creative Commons license.