Zarathustra & Haoma
Zarathustra & Haoma | Artwork courtesy of Mansour Kheirkhah

The Mystery of the Dream-Inducing Plants of Ancient Iran

Meet the powerful psychoactive plants known as oneirogens

DoubleBlind Mag

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Published on
Updated January 11, 2024

DoubleBlind Mag is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here.

*This article is sponsored by Magi Ancestral Supplements

Psychoactive plants bridge, be it the spirit world or distant cultures. The plants and their effects aren’t limited by boundaries: Just as consuming them can blend one reality with another, the plants travel the world, crossing borders with the humans that carry them. Yet, the stories and meanings of these plants change from place to place, era to era. Sometimes, their history is nearly forgotten. Such is the case of espand (Syrian rue), whose rituals were lost through the cracks of time.

Fragments of old stories reveal that exclusive priests of the ancient Iranian religion, Zoroastrianism, drank an inebriating potion called haoma to see into the life after death. In ancient texts, haoma is known as “the” elixir of truth. Yet, exactly what haoma is remains a curiosity—scholars are still pondering which psychoactive plants could produce such a powerful potion. Still, some suggest the visions, dreams, and leaps of consciousness elicited by haoma helped shape one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions.

Zoroastrian priest
Zoroastrian priest in Persepolis sculpture (500 B.C.), Persepolis complex, Fars, Iran. He has holy medicine (prahaoma syrup) in his hands. Ancient Persian psychiatrists were selected from priests. | Photograph provided by Dr. Zargaran via The American Journal of Psychiatry

“[Haoma] was limited to a cast of elites,” says Shauheen Etminan, an Iranian Canadian chemical engineer, ethnopharmacology researcher, and biotech entrepreneur. Etminan is referring to the Zoroastrian Priests or “magi” of ancient Persia. Espand is a household plant in modern-day Iran, yet its psychoactive properties remain largely unknown to the public. Etminan and business partner Jonathan Lu, a Taiwanese American chemical engineer, believe Syrian rue was the primary hallucinogenic compound in haoma. Syrian rue has a longstanding presence in Iranian culture. It grows readily throughout the region, and the plant is rich in psychoactive alkaloids known as beta-carbolines, which may inspire a dream-like quality for the magis’ spiritual journeys.

Only a quarter of the original Zoroastrian texts remain. But Etminan believes that references to haoma in the Zoroastrian Book of Arda Viraz make the “world’s oldest trip report.” Historians date the written text to the 9th or 10th century AD, but the stories within the Book of Arda Viraz take place during the fall of the Achaemenid Empire, around 330 BC. These early references to haoma, coupled with the pervasiveness of beta-carboline-rich Syrian rue, were enough to inspire Etminan and Lu to dedicate their drug discovery and development research to start a line of supplements, Magi Ancestral Supplements.

“We were curious about what these compounds do to the body and couldn’t find much scientific research out there into their psychoactive properties,” says Lu of specific beta-carbolines extracted from Syrian rue, known as harmala alkaloids. Lu explains that harmaline can induce a dream-like state that hovers somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. This particular state of mind is known as a oneirophrenic state, or oneirophrenia.

What is Espand? (Syrian Rue, Peganum harmala, or Harmel)

Despite its association with occult Zorostorian knowledge, Syrian rue isn’t a secret. Quite the opposite: Syrian rue (Peganum harmala), also known as espand or spand in Iran, is part of everyday life and has a long history in medicine. The perennial shrub is native to the Mediterranean and parts of Asia. Hardy and drought-tolerant, Syrian rue has, in modern times, spread to Australia, South Western United States, and Mexico with such success it is now often considered a weed. Sometimes called “wild rue,” the shrub stands about two feet tall, with dense leaves and small, five-petaled white flowers supported by a woody stem. When the flowers fade, Syrian rue produces leathery and brownish-orange fruits, eventually drying out into seed capsules.

READ: Lucid Dreaming 101: What It Is and How to Go About It

Peganum harmala in Yerevan.
Peganum harmala in Yerevan | via Wikimedia Commons

Syrian rue is a traditional treatment for a long list of conditions throughout the Middle East and Asia. Researchers studied the plant’s antimicrobial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory effects, among other things. Other uses include treatment of nervous system disorders like Parkinson’s, diabetes, and hypotension. The seeds are the most commonly used, and they contain the highest concentrations of alkaloids. However, roots also contain significant concentrations, along with minor amounts in stems.

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Other well-known applications are to induce vomit or sleep. The plant is abortifacient, meaning it can cause miscarriage, one of the reasons animals don’t eat its flowers. Excessive use can be dangerous for the heart, liver, kidneys, and nervous system, with the potential to be fatal. But, most people with rue in their homes don’t consume it; espand is integrated into Iranian culture in other ways, instead.

Espand Meaning: What is Espand in Persian Culture?

“Almost every Iranian holds the seeds of espand at home. Burning espand is deeply rooted in the culture and is ubiquitous amongst different ethnicities and religions in Iran,” says Etminan. “They traditionally burn these seeds on various occasions to ward off special dangers or malign influences and energies. These occasions include weddings, births, sicknesses, or whenever there is suspicion of the evil eye (cheshm zakhm) or jealousy.”

Iranians burn Espand
Iranians burn Espand in many occasions to ward off malign energies

Etminan says the global Iranian diaspora maintains a relationship with espand, being popular enough to find packaged wild rue seeds at Whole Foods. Still, Syrian rue isn’t often thought of as a psychoactive plant. The herb’s connection to altered states is largely unknown by laypeople. “There hasn’t been a continuous connection, I guess, to this realm of dreams or the archetypal unconscious that we could tap into,” says Etminan. Thousands of years of change in Iran have lost or hidden the meaning of espand, casting confusion on its role in Zoroastrian ritual. Now, ethnobotanical research into beta-carbolines—and the plants that contain them—explores the roles they may have played in the human experience. 

espand
Burning Espand at YOUniversal Persian Teahouse, Burning Man 2022 | Photo courtesy of Shauheen Etminan

Beta-Carbolines and Harmala Alkaloids 

Dennis McKenna, a renowned ethnobotanist and scientific advisor to Magi, has been tracking beta-carbolines for over 40 years, the topic of his first published paper in 1981. He studied beta-carbolines’ effects via a different plant—the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), also rich in harmala alkaloids. In the Western world, ayahuasca tea is famous for its powerful visual-inducing trip, which comes from the plants mixed with the ayahuasca vine—not the ayahuasca vine itself. Researchers—Etminan included—are still exploring the ways B. caapi’s harmala alkaloids impact the ayahuasca experience.  

“Beta-carbolines are not exactly psychedelic, you know,” says McKenna, but recalls over Zoom first experiencing the effects during experiments involving taking large amounts of psilocybin mushrooms for days alongside his brother Terence McKenna in the Amazon. “We found that if we smoked the shavings of Banisteriopsis bark, that it could synergize the visions of the hallucinations for about 20 or 30 minutes,” a phenomenon he and his brother called “vegetable television.”

“It’s the three main beta-carbolines, and they’re all MAO inhibitors,” explains McKenna, referring to harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine in the ayahuasca vine. MAO stands for monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, or noradrenaline. MAO also breaks down psychedelics like psilocybin and DMT. Blocking or inhibiting MAO allows the body to experience the psychoactive effects of these substances.

READ: The Ayahuasca Experience: A Pilgrimage to the Spirit

 Chemical structures of the main ayahuasca alkaloids.
 Chemical structures of the main ayahuasca alkaloids | Rebello Lourenço, F., Novak Rossi, G., Hallak, J. E., & Yonamine, M. (2020). Stability Evaluation of DMT and Harmala Alkaloids in Ayahuasca Tea Samples. Molecules, 25(9), via2072.

The ayahuasca brew works by combining the MAO-inhibiting ayahuasca vine with DMT-containing plants, like the chacruna plant. The use case is well known, but McKenna says there is a lot more to harmala alkaloids than potentiating other psychedelics. McKenna believes that harmala may have antidepressant activity as well—but there’s still plenty more to study.  

“On the acute level, I would think that microdosing with Banisteriopsis would be an effective antidepressant, because of tetrahydroharmine in that preparation, it’s effectively a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, so you would expect some degree of, you know, antidepressant activity.” He adds that “it has this ability to—over the long term—upregulate the serotonin transporters.” 

Upregulating means more serotonin receptors are available to cells, leading to an increase in sensitivity to serotonin, a neurotransmitter connected to mood, sleep, and many other functions. The insight followed research with J.C. Callaway, who McKenna says performed self-experimentation with tetrahydroharmine. Callaway was able to determine the compound increases the number of serotonin receptors on cells. In a MAPS talk on the subject, McKenna suggests that ailments like certain kinds of alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, and binge eating may be linked to a deficit in serotonin transporters. “And interestingly enough,” he says, “the fact that ayahuasca kind of reverses this may be part of its therapeutic efficacy.” The correlation may offer fodder for the continued study of the therapeutic potential of harmala alkaloids.

And changes to serotonin are only one example. McKenna lists off effects on gene expression, photosensitivity, and its effects on an understudied receptor called imidazoline. In his MAPS talk, McKenna quipped that beta-carbolines and related topics are a rich area for “legions of graduate students to spend the rest of their lives on.”

Were Zoroastrian Magi Journeying with Harmala Compounds?

McKenna’s insights shed light on the potential of harmala alkaloids, but if they aren’t psychedelic on their own, it begs the question of precisely what Persian magi consumed during rituals.

“A whole book is about a man that was selected to take a potion called Mang to journey to life after death,” says Etminan, recounting the third-century tale of Arda Viraz’s journey. Viraz was a righteous man selected by Zorostorian priests to give haoma and henbane (known as Mang-e-Wishtasp) to dispel any doubt about the priest’s religious knowledge. The result was a seven-day journey during which Viraz saw life after death: One can assume doubts were dispelled. But thousands of years later, Etminan and his team are researching the role that harmala alkaloids in Syrian rue may have had in creating Viraz’s subjective experience.

Arda Viraz in Farrbag fire temple, surrounded by his seven sisters, after drinking three cups of the potion. | Image source: Source: A scene in paradise. Rylands Persian MS 41, f.26r. Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester

“The main beta carbolines in Banisteriopsis are identical to the ones in Peganum harmala, which is why they are all called harmal,” remarks Mckenna. “The unanswered part is okay—wait, is there another admixture plant in there somewhere?” He mentions some have speculated there could have been a source of DMT, potentially creating ayahuasca analogs, with plants like Giant Reed (Arundo donax) or even Acacia. “We don’t know for sure, meaning also we’re free to speculate,” says McKenna.

According to Etminan, “It’s funny because there’s 200 years of speculation about the botanical identity of haoma… People think that there is a plant called haoma. However, haoma literally means ‘to press out,’ meaning it was an extract obtained by pressing twigs and leaves of plants in a mortar and pestle.” The Zorostorian texts also reference haoma being of “many kinds,” bringing to mind the wide-ranging preparations of ayahuasqueros in the Amazon. “Those priests knew exactly what they were mixing in different settings,” says Etminan.

The list of plants possibly added to haoma is long, particularly when considering some scholars believe haoma to be soma. Soma is an unspecified plant mentioned in the Rig Veda, an archaic Sanskrit text from India. An entire chapter praises the benefits of preparing some kind of psychoactive plant. Unraveling the soma mystery has led to an entire book by R. Gordon Wasson, who speculated soma is Amanita muscaria, a psychoactive mushroom. Yet, not all scholars are convinced, suggesting instead that other available psychoactive plants in the Middle East and Asia might be the real soma. 

What led Etminan to Syrian rue and beta-carbolines is the book Haoma and Harmaline by David Flattery and Martin Schwartz, which outlines the case for Syrian rue as the botanical identity of ancient Haoma. Schwartz is an expert in the ancient Zoroastrian languages. Flattery, an Iranian studies scholar who lived and traveled in Iran in the ’60s, is a friend to McKenna and Etminan. Their book details the shamanic and pharmacological similarities of Amazonian brew ayahuasca with the hallucinogenic effect of haoma and elaborates on the use of haoma in different Zoroastrian priestly rituals in the past. It also provides ethnobotanical and Iranian folk evidence on the use of Syrian rue in the ancient era versus later times in Iran. 

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Yet, are modern consumers having the same experience as the Zoroastrian elites? Etminan points out that “everybody comes with their own explanation of what their experience is, and nobody can truly explain somebody else’s subjective experience.” He does, however, offer some correlation to what beta-carbolines do by recounting his own journey to Amazon to learn about ayahuasca. “The language is always the same,” he says, “seeing to life after death,” and “accessing instantaneous insight and awareness, like the path to receiving knowledge through revelations and epiphanies.”

Espand for Lucid Dreaming and Oneirophrenic States

Similar language appears in some of the only research into harmaline’s subjective effects conducted in the 60s. Psychotherapist Claudio Naranjo gave people harmaline during therapy and produced detailed reports of his patients’ experiences. In his book Healing Journey, Naranjo suggests that the altered state evokes a transpersonal experience rich in archetypes, patterns of symbols theorized by psychoanalyst Carl Jung. In Jung’s model, archetypes are embedded in the collective unconscious shared by all people. These symbols are assumed to hold collective meaning across cultures—from the United States to the Amazon to Iran.

Etminan also thinks beta carbolines help tap into this realm of the collective unconscious, through wakeful and lucid dreaming. “That’s where the mythology of different nations also comes from, where a residue of thoughts and dreams and linguistic wording that are maybe extinct, are stored. Beta-carbolines seem to help us access this cloud of information when we are in a hypnotic or dreamlike state.”

peganum harmala
Peganum harmala | via Wikimedia Commons

Using plants to induce dream states is also fairly common—the African iboga experience is considered oneirophrenic, and so is Amanita muscaria of Siberian traditions; Egyptians are known for consuming blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea) for lucid dreams; in the Amazon, taking the ayahuasca vine without DMT-containing plants is an established practice. History hints Zoroastrian Magi knew the states well, even having specific words for the effects like stard, which Etminan explains is “where your mind sprawls out or spreads out to broader consciousness.”

The expansive sensation of stard is also helpful for meditation, says Lu. “The practice of meditation is training mindfulness—whether fixed attention or open awareness—along with staying present and not succumbing to distractions. The stard sensation is beneficial in helping to shut down mental drifts and wandering.” Lu recalls that Zorostorians meditated together in front of the sacred fire, a communal tradition that elicits parallels to shamanic rituals of other cultures that practiced plant medicine. 

Lu recalls meditation was his “gateway drug” to exploring dreams. His ten years of experience as an oneironaut has taught him that “our conscious mind interacts with our unconscious and changes the relationship that we have with our selves. We refine our subconscious emotions and triggers that refine how we view our whole selves.” Inspired by the expansive nature of espand, Lu and Etminan developed a nootropic meditation supplement to help achieve a deeper state of mindful attention and conscious self-awareness; named Stard in reverence to the herb’s ancient roots.

Lu shares that “Lucid dreaming takes us a step further by allowing us to interact with these emotions and their triggering environments in the first person rather than as an observer.” Etminan adds, “Lucid dreaming at night or in wakefulness is an ancient mind transformation technique and self-realization practice that allows us to consciously get in touch with our personal and collective unconscious… The only way we can go beyond our ego, and toward embracing our whole self.”

From Lost Knowledge to Legal Psychedelics

With the growing interest in psychedelic plants, herbs like Syrian rue are increasingly in demand. But, their cultural significance and meaning aren’t always appreciated. Lu says he still struggles with the tension between sharing ancestral practices that have relevance today and, on the other hand, losing respect for what was once sacred. “Is it possible to expand access while maintaining cultural reverence?” he asks. 

“We want for there to be greater knowledge of these ancestral plant medicine practices so that they do not become forgotten, and we believe that they are not the exclusive domain of anyone,” says Lu. “Yet, with availability and education, we also do not want for them to become so widespread that their origins are forgotten, taken for granted, or culturally appropriated.” 

“Mind transformation techniques, either chemically or non-chemically induced, are rooted in ancient mystic and shamanic traditions around the world. Learning from them and integrating them to our daily life is like accessing a powerful mindfulness and resilience technology. However, this wisdom revival or extraction can only be sustained through authentic reverence and acts of reciprocity,” Etminan adds.

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DoubleBlind Mag is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here.

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DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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