Peter Lamborn Wilson,
Ploughing the Clouds:
The Search for Irish Soma

(City Lights, 1999)

Do not be fooled by the title, the shamrocks or the knotwork on the cover. There is a certain amount of content that pertains to Irish religious history, but this book deals more with Vedic India than with Celtic Ireland.

Peter Lamborn Wilson sets out to illustrate how entheogenic (mind-altering) substances were used in what he calls Irish (Celtic, actually) religious culture in the pre-Christian era. He calls all entheogens "soma," a substance whose properties, myths, legends and uses are described in detail in the ancient Indian Rig Veda. He accepts the Indo-European theory of religious and cultural evolution, and figures that the Irish Celts must have brought soma culture with them as they traveled across Europe.

He bases his research on the elements and symbols found in the ancient text of the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda, which Wilson claims was written from oral tradition 3500 years ago, refers over and over to a substance called "soma." Because the actual identification of this substance is veiled in symbolic language and clever disguises, many scholars have claimed that, whatever it was, it is now either extinct or that no one will ever decipher its true identity. In the late 1960s, however, based on the writings of Gordon Wasson, many came to accept his identification of soma as the "magic mushroom," Amanita muscaria, more commonly known as fly-agaric or the toadstool mushroom.

In Ploughing the Clouds, Wilson takes Wassons theory and runs with it. He agrees that the Vedic soma probably was A. muscaria, and gives examples in Irish legend of red fruit, berries, apples and other objects that look like A. muscaria, and are obtained and prepared in ways similar to soma in the Rig Veda.

This goes on for 137 pages in a very small font. Wilson compares every animal, object, personage, deity, plant, liquid and action that relates to soma in the Rig Veda to a very small number of Irish texts and folktales, most collected in the last two centuries. His far-out theories and assertions may have some validity, however he does not argue his points convincingly. The structure of most of his arguments is this: "Figure X in this myth IS figure Z in that myth." He tosses in Greek, Russian, Native American and other cultures' parallels for good measure, as examples of other Indo-European cultures. (He argues that Native Americans are Indo-European by way of the Russian steppes.) While I don't deny the parallels between some Native American cultures and certain Western European cultures, I find this connection less likely than others.

Despite an excellent bibliography of Irish subjects, Wilson's interests and knowledge base are clearly founded in Vedic scholarship and his own experimentation with psychedelics. Towards the end of the book, we learn that he indeed has his "own tantric guru" who uses a cannabis derivative as "soma-function" in ritual. His personal Irish connections are actually dear friends of mine, and while they are wonderful and amazing people living in Ireland, they are not, nor do they claim to be, experts on Irish mythology or religious history, though they are wise in the ways of alternative religions.

As I was not really interested in Vedic Indian culture, and had been hoping for some real innovations in interpreting Celtic mythology, I found this book very tiresome. However, if you are interested in a detailed analysis of soma in the Rig Veda or poetic descriptions and religious uses of psychedelic drugs, then perhaps you will get more from this book than I.

[ by Kelly Taylor ]

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