History and use of Syrian rue seeds


Syrian rue (Peganum harmala) Throughout the deserts of the Middle East and up into India, Mongolia and Manchuria, the Syrian Rue grows. Syrian Rue is one of the bitterest of all herbs on earth. This desert plant has also long been used for exorcism, to ward off evil and as a protection against the evil eye. The plant is a potent MAO-I (MAO inhibitor) and has been used ritually, as an incense, a medicine as well as for visionary purposes.

The magic behind Syrian Rue is related to the harmala alkaloids. Harmala is a potent MAO inhibitor and may be mood boosting. Syrian rue and harmaline were popularized in the Western Psychonautic tradition by William S. Burroughs, the Beatnik author, whose travels into exotic locales and experiments with Ayahuasca and other entheogenic plants presaged the psychedelic revolution of the 60’s.

Syrian Rue, or Peganum harmala, is known colloquially as harmel, harmal, aspand, esfand and peganon. The active portion of the plant is in the black and brownish seeds, which can also be used as a dye.Syrian Rue should not be confused with common Rue (Ruta graveolens) though they are both bitter plants with very similarly shaped leaves. Syrian Rue is also related to the aphrodisiac and testosterone building Tribulus terrestris, also from the Caltrop family.



The history of Syrian rue goes back at least to the first century AD. Dioscorides describes a preparation in his Syrian rue has been known since ancient times. Around 60 CE it’s described by Dioscorides in his De materia medica  that utilized wild rue, honey, wine, chicken gall, saffron and fennel juice that he advised for those with weak vision. Dioscorides also claimed that Syrian rue was one and the same as the “moly” that Hermes brought to Odysseus, allowing he and his men to escape the island of Circe, the witch who had already transformed some of his crew into pigs.

Galen, one of the greatest of the fathers of Classical Medicine, mentions Syrian rue. In the middle ages it was used as an aphrodisiac as well as to treat epilepsy. Syrian rue was occasionally referred to as Besasa, or the plant of Bes. Bes, an ancient Egyptian dwarf-god protects against the evil eye. To this day in some areas in the Near East and North Africa where Syrian rue grows it is still burned to ward off evil spirits, the evil eye and misfortune.

peganum harmala syrian rue


The Quran mentions Syrian rue by name, claiming that: ”Every root, every leaf of harmel, is watched over by an angel who waits for a person to come in search of healing.” The Persian philosopher, alchemist and physician Avicenna calls  harmel “hazaian” meaning, “inebriated, or visionary” relating it to the Sufis who would use harmel seeds to influence their mystic trance states. The Himalayan Hunza shamans from what is now Pakistan also utilized the Syrian rue seeds in their rites. Music, dancing, goat’s blood drinking and Syrian rue seeds burned alongside juniper supposedly allowed them to enter a visionary or clairvoyant state.


The ethnobotanists Schultes, Hoffman and Ratsch believed that the plant was an important plant within the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism (the worship of Zarathustra) but some argue that the plant referred to as “Haoma” may actually refer to Ephedra gerardiana. It is quite possible that haoma and the Vedic “Soma” were both entheogenic plants or combinations of plants.

In addition to its use as a ritual intoxicant, mood lifter (via MAO-I activity), a dye, an incense and means to ward off evil, Syrian rue has some reputation as an aphrodisiac. Pregnant women, however, should never attempt to take due to its abortifacient effects. The seeds induce contraction and are still used to induce abortions, to induce labor and to promote menstruation in some areas where its folk use is still common.

In addition to as an incense, a ritual tool, an aphrodisiac, a mood lifter and folk medicine, Syrian rue has been used to treat topical issues such as skin rashes, asthma, gas pains and even to make a fluorescent yellow dye via water extraction or a red dye with an alcohol extraction. The stems, roots and seeds of the plant can be used to make inks that were used for both writing and tattoos.

Harmaline was isolated in 1841, harmine in 1847, both by German chemists. It was found that Banisteriopsis caapi (the Ayahuasca plant or “vine of the souls”) contained some identical alkaloids  to Syrian rue. The seeds gained popularity in some psychonautic circles due to their ability to potentiate psychedelic tryptamines.

Syrian rue has been used by chewing the bitter seeds, but for many that is considered nearly unpalatable. The “quid” method involves chewing continuously allowing the enzymes in your mouth to break down compounds that are then absorbed through the cheeks (buccally) and under the tongue (sublingually) before being swallowed (orally absorbed). Infusions, extracts and tinctures involving lemon juice or alcohol have also been used. Hot water infusion and burning of the seeds or extract material is said to induce less nausea than other methods.

Bear in mind, the traditional usage information we’re offering here is purely for informational and historical purposes. Ethnobotanicals and entheogens like Syrian rue are not recommended for internal ingestion for multiple reasons. Powerful MAOI’s can cause a dangerous condition related to tyramine build-up if you’re not on a restricted diet. Over-absorption of tyramine can lead to a dangerous, even potentially lethal hypertensive crisis so don’t ever attempt MAO-I supplementation without strictly adhering to the MAO diet.