Syrian rue (Peganum harmala) is a desert plant that grows from the Eastern Mediterranean, throughout the Middle East and up to India, Mongolia and Manchuria. The seeds have a long history of ritual and medicinal use.
Syrian rue has been known since ancient times. Around 60 CE it’s described by Dioscorides in his botanical De materia medica. According to him: ‘wild rue mixed with honey, wine, chicken gall, saffron and fennel juice is useful for weak vision.’ Dioscorides equates Syrian rue with ‘moly’, the mythic herb that Hermes brought to Odysseus. It protected him from the spell of Circe, a witch who had transformed his comrades into swine.
Peganum harmala is also mentioned by the Greek-Roman physician Galen (2nd century A.D.) who classifies the herb as ‘warm and dry in the 3rd degree’. Medieval Arab herbalists used it as an aphrodisiac and to treat epilepsy. Syrian rue was further known to relieve pain, to induce the flow of urine and menstruation, and to cause intoxication and sleep.
In the Quran Syrian rue is mentioned as a sacred plant: ‘Every root, every leaf of harmel, is watched over by an angel who waits for a person to come in search of healing.’ Avicenna, the famous 11th-century Persian physician, describes harmel as ‘hazaian’. This is an archaic word meaning ‘drunken or hallucinogenic, like the Sufi drunkenness’. The dervishes of Buchara were known to ritually use harmel seeds for their inebriating effects.
Harmaline was first isolated in 1841 and harmine in 1847 by German chemists. Later it was discovered that the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi contains identical alkaloids, namely: harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine (before the main alkaloid in B. caapi was coined ‘telepathine’.)
In the mid-60s Claudio Naranja tested the therapeutic effects of harmine and harmaline. Intravenous insertion led to physical relaxation. Participants tended to withdraw from their environment and preferred a minimum of stimuli. Half of the subjects experienced nausea or vomiting. Some described visions similar to those under influence of ayahuasca.
In the 80s Syrian rue was discovered by western psychonauts that are mainly interested in its MAO-inhibiting effect. One of the earliest records this type of use is a publication by Gracie & Zarkov. They made a decoction from the seeds in order to orally activate synthetic DMT (Gracie & Zarkov, 1986). Likewise, the seeds are known to potentiate psilocybin, 5-MeO-DMT and other tryptamines.
When the MAO-enzyme is blocked, endogenous tryptamines are prevented from breaking down. Depending on the dosage this can lead to psychedelic effects like auditory and visionary hallucinations and mystical experiences. The working is similar to that of Banisteriopsis caapi, sometimes also taken on its own for therapeutical reasons.
When taken in order to potentiate the second substance, the experience of this substance is not only intensified and lengthened, but also qualitatively altered. For mushrooms, it’s been observed that the trip is more intense, more ‘other’ and more ‘lethargic’ (an increased tendency to lie down). Gracie and Zarkov describe meeting the Syrian Rue spirit. According to them: ‘the plant teacher had a definite personality which was strongly male, very friendly, humorous, with an interest in story-telling bordering on the garrulous’.
Syrian rue has both stimulant and sedating characteristics. The seeds are mildly antidepressant. Other common effects are nausea, dizziness and vomiting. Furthermore, harmala seeds are uterotonic: they contract the muscles of the uterus and are applied to induce labour or abortion. They have further been classified as diuretic, lactagogue and emmenagogue, which means they stimulate the flow of urine, milk and menstrual blood. They also have been used as painkiller and narcotic and to induce sleep.
The seeds of Peganum harmala contain several alkaloids, mainly the harmala alkaloids harmine and harmaline. Other beta-carbolines are harmalol, harmane, harmidine, dihydro harmaline, isoharmine, tetrahydroharmine, tetrahydroharmaline, tetrahydroharmol, and norharmine.
Harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine also occur in the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi. The concentration is slightly higher in Syrian rue: approximately 2-7% of the dry weight of mature seeds.
The harmala alkaloids are psychoactive and function as short-acting reversible inhibitors of MAO-A. This means they suppress the excretion of the endogenous enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO). This enzyme normally metabolizes certain endogenous neurotransmitters like serotonin, as well as foreign toxins (like tyramines in food) and tryptamines. When the enzyme is blocked, substances like N, N-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT become orally effective. The effect of others substances like mescaline, LSD and psilocybin is potentiated.