Known as Syrian Rue, Peganum Harmala is a powerful medicine plant that has a lot in common with the Amazonian shamanic vine Ayahuasca.
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
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.