"Liber 420" Explores the Hidden History of Cannabis and the Occult
Author Chris Bennett discusses his dank deep dive into the legacy of the "magick" herb and its relationship to witchcraft, alchemy, the occult, and ancient religion.
Published on June 26, 2018

All photos courtesy of Chris Bennett and Trine Day Press 

The subject of history is a relative one. From details lost in a drunken game of scholarly telephone, to colonial atrocities downplayed by the textbooks of yesteryear, facts can be manipulated to support a particular argument, or omitted from the discussion entirely due to puritanical biases. In Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal Herbs and the Occult, Chris Bennett's exhaustive study of the role of cannabis and other psychoactive plants in the occult, we see that the history of dark spirituality — with its secret well of witches, "magick," and potions — is no exception.

Despite what mainstream historians will have you believe, humans have been tripping for thousands of years, with psychoactive experiences of yore shaping many of today's beliefs. Armed with Howard Zinn-esque candor, Bennett has set out to uncover an overlooked (or intentionally ignored) aspect of cannabis history that intersects with multiple topics considered taboo or fringe.

Hailed by peers as the "Holy Grail of historical cannabis books," and "a tremendous scholarly work," that is "ridiculously well-researched and referenced," Bennett explores cannabis's influence on the Bible, witchcraft, and alchemy, to name a few. Having spent the last 25 years researching the evolving role of cannabis in the spiritual life of humanity, Bennett applies the discerning eye of an academic to a discussion stunted by Christian values. Many of the texts referenced in Liber 420 have never been translated into English, or have been out of print for centuries.

In a truly awe-inspiring feat of research, Bennett tackles the history of cannabis through the Middle Ages, as well as its important role in magic and the occult. MERRY JANE caught up with Bennett to discuss sacred psychoactive herbs, academic prejudice in regards to studying drugs, and how he approached crafting this massive exploration of one of cannabis culture's more esoteric backstories. If the legitimacy of a history book is reliant solely on its narrator, you're in good hands with Liber 420.

MERRY JANE: While you're no stranger to writing about cannabis and its role in spirituality, what made you want to embark on this massive, extensively-researched project?
Chris Bennett:
It actually grew out of two chapters I had to pull from my last book Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010) due to space. When I was working on that book, I began to see that there was a clear Persian influence on the Grail Mythology, via the legends of their sacred beverage, haoma, and later use of potent cannabis-infused wines. As I demonstrate in Liber 420, there is evidence of continued use of such preparations among a 12th Century sect known as the Hashishin, or hashish eaters, and some have suggested the Knights Templars may have adopted such practices. As I began to research this area, I could see key overlaps into both alchemy and magic, and soon found confirming source material in various medieval and renaissance texts.

How did you begin your research for this book, and how long did it take to complete?
Besides the research material I salvaged from Cannabis and the Soma Solution, I had also visited the occult and alchemical use in my first co-authored book, Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995), so I had a few years of research behind me in preparation for this project, which took about 3 years to complete. Fortunately, we live in this fantastic era of information, and research has never been more accessible. Google Books has scanned in all sorts of rare medieval and Renaissance-era manuscripts, which are completely searchable, and as cannabis is often spelled the same way it is now, I was able to track down various forgotten alchemical recipes, and grimoire references that had been long forgotten.

What is your personal relationship with cannabis outside of your professional work?
I am a daily user of cannabis, mostly I vaporize it. The herb inspires both my writing and my research. I find the more I learn about the history of this amazing plant ally, the more it becomes cloaked in the myth, magic, and reverence of former times.

Can you talk about the academic prejudices that largely kept the discussion of drugs in the occult out of mainstream historical research?
Indeed, there is similar prejudice on this issue regarding the subject of such substances in the ancient world, as well. I think the issue is that many academic historians are subject to cultural bias against these substances, and having no experience with them, as well as fail to realize the relevance of when cannabis, opium, mandrake, or various other psychoactive substances appear in alchemical or magical recipes. Modern translations of grimoires — like the 13th Century Picatrix, which prescribes cannabis resin for a smoky invocation to invoke the Spirit of the Moon, or the 16th Century works like The Book of Oberon, where Sepher Raziel Liber Salmonis prescribes a cannabis ointment for seeing spirits in mirrors, along with opium, mandrake, henbane, and other plants in various recipes — rarely draw a comment from their modern translators and editors, who seem much more focused on the relation to the movement of the stars and other acts of magic.

Can you talk about Aleister Crowley's contributions to psychedelic research?
Many consider Crowley the pioneer of drugs in magic, however this is not the case, although he can take credit for bringing such substances back into vogue. Crowley experimented with many substances, like hashish, mescaline, ether, opium and its derivatives, cocaine, and others, sometimes with tragic results. His use of cannabis and mescaline, though, were particularly fruitful, and many of his 'channeled' texts were completed under their influence. He wrote an extensive essay The Psychology of Hashish (1909) in the journal of one of the secret societies he belonged to called The Equinox. He also wrote an esoteric essay on hashish, De Herba Sanctissima Arabica (1918), which was reprinted in The Book of Thoth (1944), demonstrating his lifelong interest in this plant. Cannabis in particular was a key aspect of his "magick" that is often overlooked.

Explain the role of tinctures and "sacred narcotic herbs" in the history of alchemy.
Cannabis has a fascinating and long history [regarding] alchemy. Zosimos, an important early figure of alchemy who lived in the 4th Century, referred to how infused "…wines can be made in a multitude of ways, as shown through many accounts, wines grown 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 [than 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." Seeds in those days often included the psychoactive calyxes that covered them on the buds. Darnel is another known psychoactive substance, too.

In the Islamic period, alchemical figures like Avicenna utilized the whole cannabis plant as a medicine, and there are references to the use of seeds, roots, and leaves for various treatments taken both topically and internally in his work. "Juice of cannabis leaves" is specifically mentioned, as well as roots, seeds, and the "woody [cortex] part of cannabis," which could refer to everything from stems, to the calyxes around the seed and other vegetable matter.

Paracelsus, an important figure in European alchemy, included cannabis in an alchemical tincture known as an arcanum, that in this case was used to treat epilepsy. Cannabis also appears in other alchemical texts, and in recipes for quintessences, where plants were tinctured to increase their potency per dose, at 20 times or more, compared to raw plant matter.

Talk about the use of cannabis/psychedelics in witchcraft, and how these rituals and ointments shaped the public's negative perception.
In regards to Medieval and Renaissance-era witchcraft, and the use of cannabis in witches’ ointments, as I show in Liber 420 there has been a lot of erroneous claims and misinformation in this history. Even the idea that witches used hallucinogenic ointments is still challenged by many scholars. Michael Bailey, Professor of History at Iowa State University, has written extensively on the subject, and stated in correspondence to me, “In general the idea that such ‘fantastic’ elements of witchcraft (flight, nighttime gatherings, etc.) was caused by chemical effects from various ‘witches’ potions’ has been questioned and increasingly debunked…. To the best of my knowledge, cannabis in particular was not associated with witchcraft.” In contrast to this view, stands Tom Hatsis, and his groundbreaking book The Witches Ointment: The Secret History of Psychedelics (2015), with its well-documented and convincing study of “historical origins of the ‘witches’ ointment’ and medieval hallucinogenic drug practices based on the earliest sources.”

In his extensive study of source material, Thomas Hatsis felt he was unable to find any evidence that identified the use of cannabis in ‘witches ointments.’ In this respect, it should be noted that if European cannabis was used topically, any effect beyond a mild medical CBD [effect] is doubtful. Moreover, considering some of the other ingredients used in such preparations, even if quality cannabis was used, it is unlikely that it would be felt much against things like henbane, datura, and mandrake etc. Topical preparations of cannabis are by no means the best delivery system for its psychoactive properties. Although, cannabis could conceivably have played a medicinal role of sorts in such preparations, perhaps acting against the neurotoxicity and toxicity of some of the other plants involved.

Why do many historians believe cannabis played a large role in the Bible?
The idea that the Old Testament prophets may have been using psychoactive substances in order to attain a shamanic trance in which the revelations of Yahweh could be received is as troubling for modern day believers as Darwin's theory of evolution was to their 19th century counterparts. Just as Darwin's theory of evolution challenged the myths of creation from the Books of Genesis, this entheogenic origin for the Jewish religion indicates a scientifically and anthropologically-based theory on the origins of the Bible itself through shamanism and psychoactive plants.

As Professor Georg Luck has noted, "The idea that Moses himself and the priests who succeeded him relied on 'chemical aids' in order to touch with the Lord must be disturbing or repugnant to many. It seems to degrade religion — any religion — when one associates it with shamanic practices…" Luck experienced these reactions himself when his decades of research into magic rites in the ancient world drew him to such a hypothesis.

Where else does cannabis appear in ancient religious texts?
Although there have been a variety of suggestions regarding references to cannabis in scripture, which I have explored elsewhere, the most convincing evidence for cannabis in the Bible comes via the Polish Anthropologist Sula Benet's etymological investigations into the Hebrew word Kaneh Bosm. In her essays Tracing One Word Through Different Languages (1936) and Early Diffusions and Folk Uses of Hemp (1975), Benet demonstrated that the Hebrew terms 'kaneh' and 'kaneh bosm' (also translated 'qaneh' and 'qaneh bosm') identified cannabis by tracing the modern term back through history, noting the similarities with the later Mishna term for cannabis, kanabos, as well as comparing it to the ancient Assyrian word kunubu (also translated qunubu), which has long been regarded as identifying cannabis, and which was used in an almost an identical ritual context as kaneh bosm was by the ancient Jews. The root "kaneh" in this construction means "cane-reed" or "hemp," while "bosm" means "aromatic." This word appeared in Exodus 30:23, whereas in the Song of Songs 4:14, Isaiah 43:24, Jeremiah 6:20, and Ezekiel 27:19 the term keneh (or q'aneh) is used without the adjunct bosem. As Sula Benet has explained, the Hebrew word kaneh-bosm was later mistranslated as calamus, a common marsh plant with little monetary value that does not have the qualities or value ascribed to kaneh-bosm. This error occurred in the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew texts, the Septuagint in the third century BC, and then repeated in following translations.

Noted cannabinoid researcher and historian Dr. Ethan Russo also states, "I think it is absolutely clear that cannabis was in the Holy Land. We have archeological proof dated to the 4th Century [AD] there was this carbonized fragment of cannabis that was found in a cave at Bet Shemesh in Israel. Additionally, I firmly believe that kaneh bosm in the Hebrew was cannabis, so I am absolutely convinced it was there… it's mentioned in Exodus that kaneh-bosm was part of the Holy Anointing Oil, also used as an incense, and it really makes sense." Those interested in understanding more about this controversial identification can check out my documentary on the subject Kaneh Bosm: The Hidden Story of Cannabis in the Old Testament.

"Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal Herbs and the Occult" is out now. Order a copy here through publisher Trine Day

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Lindsay MaHarry
Lindsay MaHarry is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Observer, Bullett, Gawker, Fanzine, and others. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
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