It is with pleasure that we welcome our Author of the Month for May, Chris Bennett, who explores the role of cannabis in consciousness and history in a groundbreaking and original work.
“Bennett has done it again. Going right to the primary sources, he has produced an extraordinary volume outlining the history and occult secrets of cannabis… Should you be interested in knowing how and why cannabis found employment in the occult arts throughout history, take heart in knowing that you hold in your hands the definitive work written by a brilliant historian.”
—Tom Hatsis, author of The Witches’ Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic (2015).
Although not widely recognised, cannabis and other psychoactive plants have played a role in magic since ancient times; for who is the primitive shaman but the ancient counterpart of the medieval and renaissance era magician? In the case of cannabis, we know from archeological records that its ritual relationship with humanity goes back at least 5,500 years when remnants of evidence in a forgotten cave in Ukraine revealed its use for ritual fumigation in the Stone Age. Although such ancient archeological finds are covered in the first two chapters of Liber 420, the book is focused on 10th-19th century Europe and the occult Hermetic traditions.
Few books on the history of magic detail the role of psychoactive substances, and the editors of and commentators on modern translations of medieval and renaissance era grimoires seldom discuss the relevance of entries that contain recipes containing cannabis, opium, various nightshades and other psychoactive preparations. Notable in this category are grimoires like the 13th century Picatrix, along with the 16th century works, Sepher Raziel: Liber Salomonis (1564) and the Book of Magic, With Instructions for Invoking Spirits, etc. (ca. 1577-1583).
Cannabis in high magick
Picatrix is considered one of the founding documents of the Western magical tradition. Originally translated into Latin in the 13th century from the 10th century Arabic magical grimoire The Ghayat al Hakim, on the bequest of the Spanish King Alfonso X, Picatrix is a testament to the pivotal role of drugs in magic. The astrological magic of Picatrix is loaded with references to opium, henbane, mandrake, datura and other potent psychoactive plants. It also contains a recipe for incense to invoke a “servant of the moon” that included stag blood, amber, camphor and over a pound of cannabis resin!
Such ritual suffumigations often culminated in the magician seeing the invoked deity within the smoke of the offering itself. Blood and other ingredients that helped to create a thick smoke were considered food and material for the invoked parties to take a temporary, more material form in. The addition of cannabis resin and/or other potent plants undoubtedly served as a source of inspiration for both parties; at least the magicians, who may well have been accessing the deeper regions of their subconscious, and seeing the demons or angels in the smoke through Pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists (i.e. seeing an angel or demon in the smoke, or a face in tree bark).
Regarding the 16th century grimoires Sepher Raziel:Liber Salomonis and Book of Magic—a variation of a cannabis recipe used for mirror skrying appear in both texts, along with other narcotic substances used for various invocations and other purposes. The use of cannabis with magic mirrors was considerably popular and continued well on into the 19th century when recipes and instructions including cannabis were written by occult figures like the African American mystic Dr. Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875) and Louis Alphonse Cahagnet (1809-1885).
Both Sepher Raziel:Liber Salomonis and Book of Magic contain recipes for a cannabis ointment. In Liber Salomonis it appears in conjunction with wormwood (which contains the psychoactive thujone) and in Book of Magic the less identifiable “archangel” is combined, which may indicate Angel’s Trumpet, i.e. brugmansia, also known as Devil’s Breath, or possibly datura, which was also referred to by this name, although various other candidates have been suggested. These preparations were used before a steel mirror, so that the magician “shalt haue might of binding & of loosing deuills [devils] & other things”, or as in Book of Magic, “before a mirrour of steele call spirits, & thoue shalt see them & have power to binde & to loose them”. (Book of Magic, 1577-1583).
Mirror skrying was often practiced with a blackened mirror or crystal ball; those who stared fixedly into these could perceive images and visions in the shadows in shapes created in their reflection. It is worth noting that Sepher Raziel and Book of Magic were in circulation in England during the era of the English mirror skrying duo Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelly. Interestingly, evidence suggests that drugs were used on some occasions by them.
In Dee’s own accounts of his invocations, or “Actions” as he referred to them, there are suggestions of his using some sort of elixir that induced a drowsy state in the recipient:
“taste of this potion yay the savour onely of the vessel worketh most extremely agaynst the maymed drowsines of ignorance. Yf the hand be heavy, how weight and ponderous shall the whole world be? What will Ye?” (Dee/Peterson, 2003).
In one account from John Dee’s Actions With Spirits (1581-1583) there is a lament about the lack of drugs for an operation, and the use of ointments in their place:
“I haue forgotten all my drvggs [drugs] behind me. But since I know that some of you are well stored with sufficient oyntments, I do entend to viset you onely with theyr help. you see, all my boxes are empty?—EK [Edward Kelly] he sheweth a great bundell of empty poticharie [apothecary] boxes”. (Whitby, 2012)
This brings a response from the figure invoked: “How cometh it, that you pretend to come for a favorable diuine powre and all your boxes ar empty” (Whitby, 2012). Since Kelly was known by many to be a con man and swindler, one wonders whether the concern about a lack of drugs was the Spirit’s or his own! These telling passages also indicate that drugs had been in use in earlier “Actions”. Given they were prescribed in contemporary grimoires for such purposes, this is not all that surprising.
However, both Kelly and Dee held deep interests in alchemy, and Kelly had worked as an apothecarist; this is a just as likely an avenue from which they became familiar with such substances. In reality, it was hard to distinguish between alchemy and magic in this period, and references to cannabis in alchemy go back to at least the early Christian period.
Were the philosophers stoned? Cannabis in alchemy
A pivotal figure in Alchemy from this era is Zosimos who lived on either side of 300 AD. Interestingly, a surviving translation of Zosimos’ work has the ancient sage identify references to cannabis infused wines and beers:
“…wines can be made in a multitude of ways, [as shown] through many accounts that authors have left to us, and nature, and art such things, that is, grown wines from the vineyard and medicinal, or by adding various spices like palm, cannabis seed, etc.…”
“Certainly brewers of Egyptian beer [‘zythi’], which is more powerful [then our beers] are not lacking in the false and wicked arts, and might be better used for intoxication. This [concoction] includes: borage, cannabis seeds and leaves, helenium, ivy leaves, strychnine, and darnel.” (Gruner, 1814).
Darnel is a known psychoactive and appears in later preparations with cannabis. As Tom Hatsis, author of The Witches’ Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelic Magic who translated this passage for Liber 420, has noted: “He is openly recognising the use of cannabis and darnel in potions by magicians!”
Later, Islamic alchemists also made references to cannabis; European Alchemy came about via Islamic influences. Islamic figures recognised as important in European alchemy like Geber (Jabir ibn Hayyan); Attar (Abū Ḥamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm), also known as ‘the chemist’; Ibn ‘Arabi (Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī ibn Muḥammad ibnʿArabī al-Ḥātimī aṭ-Ṭāʾī); and Avicenna (Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sīnā) referred to cannabis products in their influential writings. Arab alchemists are widely credited with the development of techniques like distillation, sublimation, and crystallisation, and some Islamic recipes and accounts from this time period refer to cannabis infused wines, used for both medical and mystical purposes.
A 1595 edition of Avicennae Arabum Medicorum Principis Canon Medicinae ex Gerardi Cremonensis versione, etc., (Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, by the Prince of Arab Physicians, according to Gerard of Cremona’s Version, etc.), holds a number of entries under cannabis, including cannabis and other pulverised herbs infused in wine. It also includes an elaborate sounding combination of herbs, including cannabis, poppy and harmaline-containing Syrian rue seeds under the elaborate sounding name Confectio Cognominata Imperialis (Confection Named Imperial).
Dr. M. Aldrich has commented that “skilled alchemists with pretty classy lab equipment experimented with all kinds of potions; if Geber and others could distill alcohol, they could have made hashish (or even hash oil) and, indeed, Geber included banj among his powerful prescriptions” (Aldrich, 1978). The Islamic theologist and polymath al-Taftazani suggested that the mystical and alchemical writings of Ibn ‘Arabi were “disorderly visions and ravings… instilled in him by his addiction to hashish” and that he, “apart from being an infidel was also a hashish-eater” (Knysh, 1999). He goes on:
“By way of ad hominem criticism, al-Taftazani made capital of the theme of Ibn Arabi’s drug addiction… he cited the introduction to the Fusus [Fusus al-Hakim, (The Seal of Wisdom)] in which… Ibn ‘Arabi claimed to have written this controversial book on the Prophet’s orders. For al-Taftazani, this story was a typical product of Ibn ‘Arabi’s drug addiction and concomitant inability to separate fantasy from reality” (Knysh, 1999).
Zosimos also described the infusion of psychoactive plants into alcoholic beverages, the technique for which developed into a prominent branch of alchemy known as Spagyrics from Ancient Greek σπάω spao “I collect” and ἀγείρω ageiro “I extract”. ‘Spagyrics’ is thought to have been coined by the European alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541). In alchemical terms, the essence of the plant was extracted into the alcoholic medium, which of course is now the common practice of tincturing. These preparations became known in alchemy as a quintessence or arcanum.
We can be sure that such preparations included cannabis, because Paraclesus and other alchemists made reference to its use. Paracelsus left a few recipes that included cannabis; I was able track down the following recipe, from an Old Dutch translation, for the Arcanum Compofitum, the “secret composition”, in the Fasciculus. Oft Lust-Hof der Chimescher Medecijnen, uyt allen Boecken ende Schriften Doctoris Theophrasti Paracelsi van Hogenheym vergadert (1614). This contained cannabis and other ingredients infused in wine and was also used to treat epilepsy.
Alchemical texts that were attributed to Raymond Lull also contained references to cannabis for use in arcana and quintessences. The alchemist Gerolamo Cardano referred to a preparation of alcohol as aqua ardens, and describes an intoxicating alcoholic infusion that contained cannabis, as well as what was likely hashish under the name ‘asseral’. In De secretis libri XVII (1613), the alchemist and physician Johann Jakob Wecker reproduced Cardano’s recipe under the name aquae inebriates, or ‘inebriating water’.
Alchemists like magicians were deeply influenced by astrological relationships that were prescribed in grimoires like Picatrix. Every identifiable plant, animal, metal and mineral was viewed as being under the dominion of one of the planets. Cannabis appears with other psychoactive plants in a number of alchemically influenced herbals, under the dominion of Saturn. From an alchemical perspective, Saturn is of great importance as it stands at the border between the personal, transpersonal, or cosmic powers.
Nicholas Culpepper’s 1652 book Herbal refers to cannabis in stating that “it is a plant of Saturn”. This planetary dominion is also given in William Lilly’s Christian Astrology, (1647) which also includes known hallucinogens such as “Woolf-bane… Hellebore the white and black, Henbane… Mandrake, Poppy, Nightshade” and other plants. We see this planetary association still in use centuries later, in a list of “Planetary Correspondences used by Cagliostro and his Contemporaries” that included “hemlock… nightshade, [and] hemp” (Faulks & Cooper, 2016).
Cagliostro is an interesting figure, as he bridges the gap between alchemy and secret societies of the Masonic persuasion. As P. D. Newman has recently noted, there are indications of psychoactive elixirs in Cagliostro’s branch of Egyptian Masonry, and these may have included various preparations for different purposes. There are surviving references to an “elixir of Saturn”, but unfortunately the recipe is lost.
A 1922 edition of du Journal des Débats noted a firsthand account from “an apothecary who… was initiated into the Egyptian Masonic Rites of Cagliostro”, who had some experience with various drugs and described how devotees were given a “philtre” and told “after a reasonable time they will reappear transformed”. The enquiry into the matter concluded, despairingly, that “the philtre of Cagliostro was a mix of hashish and of Imagination”. Eliphas Levi indicated that cannabis may have been used as a fumigant by Cagliostro:
“The Magus… must say to the material body, “Sleep!” and to the sidereal body, “Dream!” Thereupon, the aspect of visible things changes, as in hashish-visions. Cagliostro is thought to have possessed this power, and he increased its action by means of fumigations and perfumes.” (Levi, 1856: 1910).
Entheogenic initiations and secret societies
The use of various psychoactive substances, as both a fumigant and elixir in quasi Masonic rituals and rites, can also be found in Cagliostro’s contemporary Johann Georg Schröpfer (1730-1774). Since Schröpfer owned a coffee house and imported coffee, it is reasonable to assume that he would also have had access to hashish, as the two delicacies were known to travel together. Both Cagliostro and Schröpfer claimed to be in possession of rituals that had been passed down by the Templar Knights. Interestingly, various authors have claimed that the Templars used a cannabis infused wine known as “The Elixir of Jerusalem”. Going back to source documents, I was unable to find reference to this. However, records do reveal that the Templars had Saracens growing cannabis along with other rare spices like saffron in Spain, and cannabis was on a list of items seized at two Templar raids. Its form was not identified, but in this same era, we see cannabis infused wine recommended with a recipe by a pope who was friendly with the Templars. What is more, in the Masonic log book of Villard de Honncourt, who also spent time in the Holy Land, there is a recipe for cannabis infused wine.
Interestingly, there are indications and records of cannabis use by certain esoteric societies dating back to the 19th century, with groups such as the well known Club des Haschischins and the less well known Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, along with certain branches of Rosicrucians. At least 12 editions of the Martinsit/Masonic journal, L’Initiation, of which the noted figure known as “Papus” [Gérard Anaclet Vincent Encausse (1865 – 1916)] was the director, contained articles on the use of hashish, a subject on which Papus himself had also written:
“This substance… acts on force reserves of the nervous centres, emptying them in an instant of any reserve, and throws one in masse into the intellectual sphere” (Papus, 1893).
A 1889 edition of L’Initiation included an essay entitled ‘Testament d’un Haschischeen’ by the regular contributor and pharmacist, theosophist and founder of ‘Cannabinology’ Jules Giraud, also known as Numa Pandorac. Giraud wrote about the ability of hashish to “see through the veil of lsis,” and referred to it as the “the guardian angels in jam, the Patriotism in marmalade, and Providence in compote!”
As preposterous as the idea that cannabis and/or possibly other psychoactive preparations were used in esoteric secret societies may seem, even the respected academic Masonic historian Dr. David Harrison, who has written 9 books detailing the history of the craft, and looked into the activities of figures like Cagliostro along with some of the more esoteric branches of freemasonry in his most recent book Lost Rites and Rituals of Freemasonry has acknowledged that Liber 420 “explores some interesting themes… regarding the use of liquid concoctions in certain lost Masonic rites and occult orders”.
In particular, Liber 420 looks at the origins of the various forms of ritual libations under names such as, the “cup of brotherly love”, the “cup of memory”, the “Fifth Libation” and even the “cup of double damnation” by its detractors. This Libation was sipped from a skull cup in some forms of the Scottish Rite, and Rose-Croix degrees of the craft, that by tradition were claimed to have descended from the Knights Templar.
Jules Doinel (1842-1903), who had for many years allied himself with Papus and other occultists until later converting to Catholicism and renouncing his former comrades, wrote of these secretive degrees of masonry:
Cannabis, a doorway to the unconscious mind
Of relevance to cannabis’ role in alchemy, magic and initiatory societies is the relationship between cannabis, dreaming, and what has been coined the “subconscious” by Freud and “unconscious” by Jung. Freud discusses the concept of the “subconscious” mind as a storehouse of repressed desires and memories, while Jung, who had started out as Freud’s student, held his “unconscious” as being akin to a doorway to the Akashic records, a treasure trove of symbols, archetypes and memories of the human species and beyond. In both the “subconscious” and unconscious” models, it was through dreams and imagination that this basement of the psyche revealed itself to the conscious mind. Indeed, the early study of “…drugs provided the infrastructure to the rise of concepts pertaining to fantasy such as ‘the unconscious,’ ‘dreams,’ ‘phantasmagoria’ and ‘collective dreams’” (Bjelic, 2017).
Dr. J. J. Moreau (1804-1884), a founding member of le Club des Hashchischins, is also remembered for writing Du Hachisch et de L’aliénation Mentale (1845), which was later translated into English as Hashish and Mental Illness; a very influential work in its day:
“…[I]t seems that two modes of mental life are known to man. The first results from our relationship with the external world, with that great whole known as the universe; we share it with the creatures that resemble us. The second one is but the reflection of the first, and feeds only, in a sense, on materials supplied it by the first, while remaining completely separate.”
“Sleep is like a barrier raised between these two lives: the physiological point where external life ceases and internal life begins”.
“So long as this situation exists, mental health prevails”. (Moreau, 1845/1973)
However, Moreau felt that should the internal and external become confused by mental and physical factors, “an imperfect fusion occurs”, and the individual is caught between the dream and reality. In Moreau’s view, hashish enabled one to cross the threshold and enter this same state, temporarily and at will. Through this, it also became clear that the source of madness was also the source of imagination, creativity and the muse. This Moreau to share the exotic green paste from the Orient, hashish, with a collection of the brightest minds of his day; literary giants that included Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval, and Honoré de Balzac; authors whose works are still being published more than a century and half after being composed.
“…Moreau… tried to further the understanding of dreams by studying the dream state induced by hashish… In the hashish dream state, he said, ‘I had to admit for delirium in general a psychological nature not only analogous but absolutely identical with dream-states.’ On at least one occasion, Nerval and other writers were invited to experiment with hashish at a private salon, and without warning found themselves exhibited in their drug-induced state to a group of doctors… ” (Stephenson, 2015).
In The Orphic Vision: Seer Poets from Novalis to Rimbaud (1965) the late Professor of French literature, Gwendolyn Bays (1917-2013), suggested that the explorations of hashish and drug ingesting 19th century French poets like de Nerval and others were in many ways the forerunners of the discovery of the subconscious mind, proceeding science by close to a century:
“Psychological data of this sort are particularly relevant here because many of the French Romantics… Nodier, Nerval, Gautier, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud — made free use of the drug hashish to “penetrate the unknown,” as Rimbaud expressed it. Les Paradise artificiels of Baudelaire, Nerval’s Aurélia, and Rimbaud’s Voyant letters, as well as… Les Illuminations… contain much valuable information about the unconscious, anticipating the discoveries of science by some fifty to a hundred years. These poets not only succeeded in revolutionizing French poetry but also discovered a whole new area of the human psyche. Only partially aware of the original nature of their discoveries, they took hashish not so much to shock and scandalize, as many critics in the past have thought, but in order to explore this unknown world.” (Bays, 1965).
I would add to Bays’ observation that alchemists and magicians tapped into this ‘exploration into the unknown’ centuries before the French poets did, by the use of cannabis and other drugs. Just as our dreams are woven and told to us by this area of unconsciousness, it is also this area of our consciousness, our shadow self, that speaks to us from the mirrors and smoke plumes of ritual fumigation. Alchemists were deeply aware of and interacted with this same aspect of the unconscious. For what is the chemical marriage of the Sun and Moon but the merging of our daily state of awareness with its shadow counterpart of the night, our truest of soul mates, without the unification of which we can never attain “completeness”? It is my sincere hope that the history of cannabis in these traditions might inform a restoration of these techniques for accessing the deeper realms of human consciousness. Likewise, the return of entheogenic substances into our culture that is currently taking place might benefit from the structured format of these ancient technologies that accompanied their use in earlier times.
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About the author
Chris Bennett has been researching the historical role of cannabis in the spiritual life of humanity for more than a quarter of a century. He is co-author of Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995); Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible (2001); and author of Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010); and Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal herbs and the Occult (2018) . He has also contributed chapters on the the historical role of cannabis in spiritual practices in books such as The Pot Book (2010), Entheogens and the Development of Culture (2013), Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances (2014), One Toke Closer to God (2017), Cannabis and Spirituality (2016) and Psychedelics Reimagined (1999). Bennett’s research has received international attention from the BBC , Guardian, Sunday Times, Washington Post, Vice and other media sources. He currently resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.