1. The Mushroom of Immortality
Chinese alchemists spent centuries formulating elixirs of life. They were frequently commissioned by the Emperor, and experimented with things like toxic mercury, gold, sulfur and plants. The formula for gunpowder, sulfur, saltpeter and carbon was originally an attempted elixir of immortality. Traditional Chinese medicine and early Chinese alchemy are closely related, and the use of plants, fungi and minerals in longevity formulas is still commonly practiced today.
As early as 475 BCE, Chinese texts reference the Mushroom of Immortality, a key ingredient in the elixir of life. The Lingzhi, literally translated as the “Supernatural Mushroom,” is the oldest known mushroom used medicinally. According to the 82nd century Book of Han, the “Masters of Esoterica; alchemists; magicians,” known as the Fangshi knew secret locations on Mount Penglai where the Lingzhi grew. Several Qin and Han Emperors sent large expeditions in search of a genuine mushroom of immortality, but none succeeded.
Though there are no historical accounts of someone actually achieving immortality from a Lingzhi mushroom, various species are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to this day. One species, the Ganoderma Lucidum, produces Ganoderic Acid. This substance is molecularly similar to steroid hormones. These could have a variety of medical applications, from balancing cholesterol to recovering from injuries.
2. Amrita, Ambrosia, Soma and Nectar
According to the Rigveda, a collection of ancient Vedic hymns that are a cornerstone of Hinduism, Amrita is a drink that bestows immortality. In Hinduism and other traditions, it is also referred to as Soma. Indra, the god of heaven, and Agni, the god of fire, drink Amrita to attain immortality. After drinking the mysterious substance, they state:
“We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered. Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man’s deception?” (Rigveda 8.48.3)
There are many other references to Amrita and Soma across Hindu, Zoroastrian, and Indo-European texts. Ambrosia, the food of immortality of the Greek gods, is analagous with Amrita. They come from the same Indo-European root, “n-mr-to,” roughly translated as “non-death.” Similarly, the Greek drink of the gods, Nectar (Néktar), literally translates to Death (Nek) Overcoming (Tar). According to some Yogic traditions, Amrita can be released from the pituitary gland during deep meditation.
While the consumption of Amrita by humans is common in traditional texts, the knowledge of where to obtain it has been lost. It is undoubtedly a plant or fungus. Instructions for preparation involve pounding parts of the plant into a paste or to release juices. It is sometimes filtered through wool and mixed with cow’s milk before consumption. Like the Mushroom of Immortality, it is often described as growing in the mountains. While such detailed accounts exist,the true identity of Amrita was lost. Today, some Indian rituals include prayers apologizing to the Gods for the lack of Amrita.
Scientists, historians and shamans have speculated on the identity of the Amrita plant. Because of the spiritual experiences associated with Soma consumption, it is usually assumed to be entheogenic, producing an altered state of consciousness. Many anthropologists point to Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria), a mildly hallucinogenic mushroom widely used by Siberian shamans.
Ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believes Amrita may be the Psilocybe Cubensis, a hallucinogenic mushroom that grows in cow dung. Cows are often referred to as the “embodiment of soma” in Vedic literature. Some, like McKenna, postulate that the P. Cubensis is responsible for the elevation of cows to sacred status in Hindu culture. McKenna and other hands-on ethnobotanists report little to no psychedelic effect from the Amanita Muscaria mushroom, concluding that the more potent P. Cubensis is a more probable candidate.
Others believe Amrita is derived from a plant in the Ephedra genus. These have been widely used in Zoroastrian communities of Iran, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and modern pharmaceuticals. The Ephedra plants contain Ephedrine and Pseudoephedrine, which are chemically similar to methamphetamine and act as stimulants and appetite suppressants. Ephedra plants are also traditionally used to treat low blood pressure.
In 2003, archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi claimed to have discovered vessels used for the preparation of Soma in a site in Bactria (present day Afghanistan). The claims were never verified by other academic sources, but according to Sarianidi, the vessels contained residue of Ephedra, Poppy, and Cannabis. These ingredients would undoubtedly create an altered state of consciousness if prepared properly, and are all native to the region where Soma is most sacred.