Wildly popular across Europe, Asia, and North Africa for thousands of years, Peganum harmala is a perennial plant that has a lot in common with the psychoactive vine from Amazonia, ayahuasca. The two entheogens share a similar molecule profile, and both have been associated with many types of healing and spirituality in different cultures. While ayahuasca is more well-known on the internet today, its “sister,” Peganum harmala, deserves more attention than it gets. This article explores the plant’s fascinating history, array of uses, and medicinal potential.
Peganum harmala is known as Syrian rue or wild rue in English, harmel or harmal in Arabic, besasa (“plant of Bes”) in Egypt, and in Morocco it is called mejnenna, which means “what makes you crazy, possessed,” referring to its intoxicating properties. It belongs to the Zygophyllaceae botanical family.
Archaeology has shown a human relationship with this plant for at least 7,000 years. The most ancient documents are from the Caucasus, the Near East, and Egypt. From an iconographic point of view, with a symbolic value of “tree of life,” the harmel plant seems to be drawn on some chlorite cups of the Jiroft Mesopotamian culture, dated to the 3rd millennium BC. As far as written documents are concerned, harmel has been identified in the ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform texts, where it corresponds to the Assyrian term šibburatu, which gave rise to the modern Syrian word šabbârâ. With the name allânum, harmel has been identified in some Cappadocian tablets dated to 2000 BC.
It spread from the Eastern Mediterranean to Sahelian Africa, from Syria to northern India, and from China to Mongolia. During the first millennium of our era, the Arabs then spread it in Spain and southern Italy. In recent times this plant has been introduced and naturalized in some regions of the United States, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, and Australia.
The Bes’ Plant
Several literary documents testify in the Middle East to a religious use of harmel since pre-Islamic times. The seeds and other parts of the plant were burned during Zoroastrian rituals to produce dense intoxicating smoke, and this use survives today. Fumigation practices with harmel are present in the ancient Iranian sources of the Gathas, and we know that an extract of the vegetable was also drunk. The identification of this plant with the Haoma (the drink of immortality of Iranian mythology) of Avesta has been proposed. Harmel seems to have been used in Coptic Egyptian rituals. An initiatory invocation dated to the 2nd-3rd century AD refers to a noub tree, identified with harmel, which would have played the symbolic role of Tree of Life that holds the universe and under which Osiris resides.
Named in Egypt bésa or besasa, this term poses harmel in direct association with the god Bes, a deity of the Pharaonic Pantheon. Bes was mainly a good fortune deity of the domestic environment and protector of women giving birth, newborns, infants, and people sleeping. He was also the divinity of music and dance and was associated with sexual pleasures, libertine love, and, later, with wine. As protector of dreams, he carried out important oracular functions held during the Roman period at Abydos. In Ptolemaic times incubation rooms sprang up, called “rooms of Bes,” used for rituals of cure through dreams. Its association with wine is late, and we know a reference of the 3rd century BC about the existence of wine vessels called besiakon, on which this deity was depicted. We do not know what kind of drink was poured from these vases, but the suspicion arises that it was a particular drink, in which some intoxicant ingredient was added, perhaps the “plant of Bes,” harmel. Bes’ association with this plant, with dreams, with sexual pleasures, and with Hathor, goddess of love and intoxication, would justify this supposition.
The Modern, Traditional Use of Syrian Rue
Drawing from more modern times, the father of botany, Linnaeus, reported that in Turkey the seeds of harmel were marketed to achieve “a state of exhilarating euphoria and great joy,” and nowadays in Turkey a decoction of harmel seeds is drunk together with cannabis, and this “makes sight blind, increases the power of imagination,” and is believed to reinforce the effect of other intoxicating sources—a fact confirmed by modern pharmacology. In Ladak, India, the seeds are roasted and pulverized to obtain a fine powder called techepakchìatzen, which is ingested or smoked with tobacco to obtain intoxicating effects. The Hunza shamans of northern Pakistan inhale the vapors of harmel, which they call supándur, for the purpose of “calling the spirits” during their trance.
In the Arab markets, the oil extracted from the seeds (zit-el-harmel) is marketed as an aphrodisiac, and in the Tunis herbal market I have personally observed extensive trade in these seeds. Curiously, in a documentary recently broadcast on Italian television, it was reported that harmel pollen was found in the Holy Shroud.
As a medicinal plant, harmel is considered a real panacea, used for a myriad of physical and mental conditions. It is widely used as an abortive and, at lower doses, as an oxytocic to facilitate delivery; it is this property that probably associated it in ancient times with the Egyptian divinity protector of childbirth, Bes. The oral intake of harmel seeds is also used to increase menstrual flow and lactation. In many Eurasian countries, it is used as an anti-cancer agent.
In Casablanca, Morocco, the seeds are used against male impotence in the following way: some seeds are introduced inside a lemon, which is left overnight on the warm ashes of the hearth; the next day the lemon is squeezed and the juice is taken with a teaspoon for three consecutive days.
X-huasca and the Harmel Globalization
Parallel to the global expansion of ayahuasca, in the last 20 years harmel seeds have spread around the world. Its seeds are consumed in combination to increase the potency of other psychoactive materials. In particular, the MAO-inhibition caused by the seeds is being used to activate or increase the potency of tryptamine, visionary substances.
This globalization has been promoted by the Western psychonautic culture, which, since the 90s, uses the harmel seeds as an ingredient of those particular visionary combinations that mimic the effect of ayahuasca, known as anahuasca (“ayahuasca analogues”), which are made up of pairs of vegetable sources, one containing beta-carbolines, the other the DMT.
The use of harmel was gradually extended to those combinations to which I gave the generic name of X-huasca, where the term huasca indicates a MAO-inhibitory source, almost always constituted by harmel and sometimes from the vine of Banisteriopsis caapi. One of the best-known X-huasca in Europe is psilohuasca (psilocybin mushrooms + harmel seeds). In other words, people have been taking the seeds with psychedelic mushrooms to increase the effects of the mushrooms. In Brazil and other Latin American countries, the juremhuasca (or mimohuasca) has spread, consisting of the combination of Mimosa tenuiflora bark, known as jurema (which includes the potent psychedelic molecule, DMT), and the seeds of harmel or the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. Other X-huasca are: lysehuasca (LSD + harmel), argyhuasca (seeds of baby Hawaiian woodrose + harmel seeds), harmahuasca (seeds of harmel + ayahuasca brew), epenahuasca (bark of Virola + harmel).
The effect of harmel in these combinations is not only to enhance the psychoactive source X, since in several cases, as in the coupling with psilocybin mushrooms, a qualitative change of the effect of the source X is observed. Pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic mechanisms of these combinations are not yet known.
The plant of Bes (harmel) and the jurema (Mimosa tenuiflora) are the most powerful plant sources of MAO-inhibitors and DMT, respectively, in the world. One species grows in the Old World, the other in the Americas, but globalization is not limited by these geographical trifles, and it is obvious, “it comes to itself,” to think of a combination of both. Harmel, for about 20 years, has actually landed in Brazil, entering synergistically in that experiential magma that are Brazil and Latin America today, which unite, amalgamate, hybridize everything that the global and the traditional worlds are making available. There are those who speak of “religious psychonautism” (Grünewald), others of “carioca enteogenism” (Albuquerque), and a common slogan in the new Brazilian search for knowledge is that of “experimentalism.”
Nowadays in Brazil, but also in Mexico, Europe, and Australia, there are groups that use the jurema alone for their religious and therapeutic works, or the JuDaime (jurema + daime, i.e., Mimosa tenuiflora + daime/ayahuasca), or the juremhuasca (jurema + harmel).
Between Biochemistry and Toxicology
Harmel is a real melting pot of active ingredients, in particular beta-carboline and quinazoline alkaloids. In large quantities in the roots (1-3.7%), and even higher concentrations in the seeds (1.2-10%), the main beta-carboline alkaloids, cumulatively referred to as the harmala alkaloids, are harmine and harmaline. It is well known that these same compounds are among the ingredients of ayahuasca, where they play the role of MAO-inhibitors allowing the absorption of the second group of alkaloids present in the drink, specifically the dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
The 10% concentration of beta-carboline alkaloids in the seeds of harmel recently found in wild plants in the Toledo area, in Spain, is a huge amount and makes this plant the most powerful plant source MAO-reversible inhibitor. According to average estimates, the seeds of harmel are 10 times more powerful than the ayahuasca vine.
A second important group of compounds are quinazoline alkaloids, the most abundant of which is vasicine and which are responsible for the uterotonic effect that justifies the traditional use as a facilitator of childbirth and as an abortifacient.
Sometimes cases of poisoning with harmel happen in the traditional context, due to over-dosage or inappropriate assumptions. Fatal cases are rare and occur especially among children, because of the habit of intensely fumigating the air in the room where the newborns dwell, in order to protect them from evil spirits. Other frequent poisonings are due to attempts at abortion. A curious fact concerns the main type of visual hallucination that accompanies the intoxications induced by over-dosage, which consists in seeing flames in the visual field. This has been reported many times by the intoxicated people, who saw doctors and walls of first-aid centers shrouded in flames.
Anti-Cancer Properties of Harmel
For several decades, beta-carboline alkaloids, especially the harmala alkaloids, have been studied as promising anti-cancer agents. Harmine appears to be one of the most interesting molecules in this regard. Its properties of inducing apoptosis (“suicide”) in malignant cells have been ascertained in laboratory studies and as such give credibility to the highly acclaimed anti-cancer properties of both ayahuasca and harmel.
Two interesting case reports on the treatment of cancer with Peganum harmala seed extracts have recently been described by an Israeli research team directed by Ephraim Lansky. The first case involved a young 29-year-old man suffering from a highly malignant brain tumor (oligoastrocytome). After numerous surgical excisions without success, the young man decided to switch to alternative therapies with medicinal herbs (including cannabis oil), a ketogenic diet, and harmel seeds. After four years of these therapies and two years of continuous administration of harmel seeds, the patient achieved complete remission from the tumor.
In the second case, an ovarian carcinoma in a 53-year-old woman was treated in a very original way—that is by spreading the harmel seed oil on the skin at the height of the tumor and where the transdermal migration of the active ingredient harmine toward the cancer had been facilitated by infrared light. Once the cancer was reached, harmine induced apoptosis of the malignant cells.
There is no easy cure for cancer, and we shouldn’t expect Peganum harmala to necessarily be one. But given its wide history of use and its fascinating association with healing and spiritual life, we certainly have more to learn from the Bes’ “good fortune” plant.