The Brewing of Soma
by John Greenleaf Whittier
This poem is the source of the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind“.
“These libations mixed with milk have been prepared for Indra: offer Soma to the drinker of Soma.”–Vashista, translated by MAX MULLER.
The fagots blazed, the caldron’s smoke
Up through the green wood curled;
“Bring honey from the hollow oak,
Bring milky sap,” the brewers spoke,
In the childhood of the world.
And brewed they well or brewed they ill,
The priests thrust in their rods,
First tasted, and then drank their fill,
And shouted, with one voice and will,
“Behold the drink of gods!”
They drank, and lo! in heart and brain
A new, glad life began;
The gray of hair grew young again,
The sick man laughed away his pain,
The cripple leaped and ran.
“Drink, mortals, what the gods have sent,
Forget your long annoy.”
So sang the priests. From tent to tent
The Soma’s sacred madness went,
A storm of drunken joy.
Then knew each rapt inebriate
A winged and glorious birth,
Soared upward, with strange joy elate,
Beat, with dazed head, Varuna’s gate,
And, sobered, sank to earth.
The land with Soma’s praises rang;
On Gihon’s banks of shade
Its hymns the dusky maidens sang;
In joy of life or mortal pang
All men to Soma prayed.
The morning twilight of the race
Sends down these matin psalms;
And still with wondering eyes we trace
The simple prayers to Soma’s grace,
That Vedic verse embalms.
As in that child-world’s early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!
Some fever of the blood and brain,
Some self-exalting spell,
The scourger’s keen delight of pain,
The Dervish dance, the Orphic strain,
The wild-haired Bacchant’s yell,–
The desert’s hair-grown hermit sunk
The saner brute below;
The naked Santon, hashish-drunk,
The cloister madness of the monk,
The fakir’s torture-show!
And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfil;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.
O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!
With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!
“The Brewing of Soma” is the Whittier poem (1872) from which the hymn is taken. Soma was a sacred ritual drink in Vedic religion, going back to Proto-Indo-Iranian times (ca. 2000 BC), possibly with hallucinogenic properties.
The storyline is of Vedic priests brewing and drinking Soma in an attempt to experience divinity. It describes the whole population getting drunk on Soma. It compares this to some Christians’ use of “music, incense, vigils drear, and trance, to bring the skies more near, or lift men up to heaven!” But all in vain – it is mere intoxication.
Whittier ends by describing the true method for contact with the divine, as practised by Quakers: Sober lives dedicated to doing God’s will, seeking silence and selflessness in order to hear the “still, small voice”, described in I Kings 19:11-13 as the authentic voice of God, rather than earthquake, wind or fire.
These libations mixed with milk have been prepared for Indra:
offer Soma to the drinker of Soma. (Rv. vii. 32, trans. Max Müller).