CANNABIS CULTURE – With Christmas just a day away and holiday television programing in heavy-rotation, it’s hard not to catch one of the many versions of that seasonal classic, A Christmas Carol.
This wintertime ghost story, with its elements of hallucinatory time-traveling, has rightly been compared to the otherworldly journeys of tribal shamans, who in death and rebirth ceremonies traveled to land of the Dead.
As Guy Reid-Brown noted of these themes in his article on Dickens’ classic, “The Victorian Shaman”,
The paradoxical core of all Initiation is the dying to oneself in order to be reborn, and Scrooge’s story occurs, entirely appropriately, at that ancient and emblematic time of death and rebirth, the Winter Solstice. His psychopomp, that escort and guide to the Underworld, the necessary Prime Initiator, is of course old Jacob Marley himself, Scrooge’s own dear departed.
The transcendence of time and space is likewise an intrinsic part of all transformative initiations, and Scrooge experiences not merely three nights in one, but all Christmases past, present and future, in a journey that takes him through all four Elements; his initial descent into the Underworld is also an ascent into an “air filled with phantoms, wondering hither and thither in restless haste”. (Reid-Brown, 2010)
It has often been the case amongst visionary shamans, that certain plants, fungi, and cacti have aided in these out-of-body journeys. In the story itself, that the visions were the product of ingesting something are even hinted at, as Scrooge writes off his initial encounter with the ghost of his former business partner, Marley, by suggesting that he may be the product of food poisoning: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Or perhaps some other item of ingestion was the cause?
Since ancient times, potent preparations of cannabis have been used for just such shamanic voyaging. Dr. Michael Aldrich, author of the first doctoral dissertation on cannabis in the United States, noted that
there is a myth that pot is a mild and minor drug. Usually in context of American usage it is, but it doesn’t have to be … cannabis being a potent hallucinogen … has certainly accounted for its vast popularity through these many centuries … knowing when and where to use cannabis at a dosage or strength suitable for real visions is … important … This use of cannabis has traditionally been confined, by rational custom in ancient societies, to rituals which help define and control, measure and magnify, the raw experience (Aldrich 1978).
Ancient Zoroastrian texts speak of ancient psychonauts who drank cannabis-infused wines and other mixtures in order to travel to Heaven and Hell, journeys to the afterlife that would break cultural boundaries and come to effect the cosmology of Christianity in a number of ways, such as the adaption of Heaven and Hell that was absent from their parent religion of Judaism.
Examples of this relationship might even be found in European literature. The respected Dante scholar, Barbara Reynolds has suggested that the otherworldly journey described in Dante’s Divine Comedy, may have been inspired by cannabis experimentation:
As to his unworthiness … he cites the example of Nebuchadnezzar, who was granted knowledge of divine truths by means of dreams, which he later could not recall – a somewhat puzzling example, since Nebuchadnezzar had periods of insanity, eating grass and believing himself to be an animal. Beside this may be set another strange example in the first canto of Paradiso, in which he compares himself to Glaucus, who through eating a herb was transformed into a sea-god, as he, Dante, was ‘transhumanized’ on ascending into heaven…
…like Glaucus, who a herb was said to taste
And so an ocean an ocean deity became.
Transhumanizing could not be expressed
In words, so let the example serve, the same
Who with the said experience was graced.
These two references to Nebuchadnezzar and to Glaucus, who both consumed herbs, may be oblique allusions to stimulants which produced effects comparable to what Dante claims to have experienced. He was familiar with the Latin version of the work of Dioscorides, the first-century Greek physician… (‘the Good collector of simples’), as he calls him when he sees him in Limbo. Knowledge of herbs and medicinal potions was passed from country people and herb-gatherers to apothecaries, and herb gardens were a common feature of monasteries. From the early fourteenth-century manuscript Tractus de Herbis it is evident that the plant Canapa (Cannabis Sativa) was known and available. So to was Aloe vera, from which a substance called aloes was obtained and used medically. Another plant was called ‘grains of Paradise’. If Dante partook of some such psychedelic substance, perhaps in the company of the Fedeli d’Amore, when they gathered to perform and discuss their poems, this might partly account for his (and their) experiences of heightened awareness, as described in La Vita Nouva… (Reynolds 2006)
It’s unlikely that Dickens drew the same conclusions from a reading of Dante’s work, though, in the 19th century in which Dickens lived, a number of other figures, from the fields of both the occult, such as Blavatsky, Crowley and Gurdjieff as well as literature, such as Hugo, Dumas, Balzac, Rimbaud and Yeats, also used potent preparations of cannabis for such purposes and wrote about it. Most of these were written after the time of the original composition of A Christmas Carol, so they cannot be a source of influence, though they can be seen to account for the identification of similar use and experience close to that time period.
In Ronald K. Siegle’s excellent book Intoxication, he describes accounts in France very close to the time of A Christmas Carol’s composition, where Frenchmen were using doses of three grams of potent hashish stirred into coffee in order
to follow the soul’s ecstatic journey out of the body into the spiritual world. Under the tutelage of psychopharmacologist Louis-Alphonse Cahagnet, these subjects documented visions of death and the afterlife, experiences identical to those known as ‘near-death experience.’ The prototypical experience started with the user being pulled out of time into sacred stillness. A feeling of peace and well-being captured the soul as it separated from the body, then flung it into a bright moment of supreme happiness. Some subjects find it impossible to describe all that happens; others describe a panoramic review of their lives, encounters with departed spirits, celestial music, and profound visions and thoughts. Geometrically sculpted images introduce themes of cosmic importance. The forms parade across the mind’s eye so fast that the cherubs melt into gargoyles, then a crypt of one’s own body. The blue geometric forms become towering cathedrals filled with the white light of the Universal Being. The visions evaporated. (Siegel, 1989)
Even in our modern time there have been cases of people ingesting more cannabis than they can handle, and then believing they are dying or even dead, as can be seen in this humorous video of a cop who called 911 after over-indulging in confiscated marijuana.
On a personal note, I know of one occasion where a friend’s aging father unknowingly ate some cannabis-infused Christmas cookies some years ago, and, not knowing he was high, believed he was suffering a brain aneurism, going so far as to check himself in the hospital with the claim he was dying! When my friend figured out what had happened and rushed to the hospital to explain, his father, who was being calmed by a nurse in the emergency room, still believed he was dying. Having had time to dwell on life’s twilight moment, his dad, realizing what is important in life, desperately wanted to tell him how much he loved him, and when my friend said “Dad, dad, you are not dying, those cookies you ate, they had marijuana in them”, his Dad said “what, what? You mean I’m not going to die?” At that point of realization he was, what my friend described at the time, “Like Scrooge on Christmas Day!” and filled with a new vigor and lust for life. Unfortunately when the twilight-hour of sobriety came into play the next day, his dad was not quite as happy about things.
As an avid reader himself, it is unlikely that Dickens would have missed the medical accounts of his time, and in later life we can be sure he had some knowledge of cannabis and its effects, as accounts of this magical herb appear in his journal All the Year Round, a Victorian weekly periodical, founded, owned and edited by Dickens and published between 1859 and 1895 throughout the UK.
Dickens took his title, “All the Year Round”, from a line in Shakespeare’s works, and the Bard himself is another British literary figure who has been tied with cannabis.
An 1862 article in All the Year Round, “What Wine Does For Us” contained a passage which states
the Jewish and Armenian dealers ministering to that fondness for narcotics which tend so greatly to enervate the East, by mixing myrrh, incense, and the juice of the Indian hemp with the finest growth.
Even more intriguing is the 1869 account of a Hashish preparation, under the name ‘hatchis’, in psychic experiments found in the Dickens’ publication of the story “M.E. Volt, The Alchemist”, regarding “the true’hatchis’… made of many ingredients, but Indian hemp, and a peculiarly volatile preparation of opium, are two of its active principles”:
“This is the hatchis,” said Mark, bringing me the box again. “Shall he try it, Mr. Volt?”
“Yes, if he will: though its effect, alone, without previous preparation of the body and without the violet vapour, can only be feeble.”
I deprecated any trial of the sort.
“Try it,” Mark insisted; “I give you my word as a medical man, and as your friend, that I have taken it myself, and that you shall feel no ill-effects from it. …
I consented. Mr. Volt brought a tiny thin spoon, and with it took out a portion of the hatchis, about as big as a hazel nut.
“Now,” said he, “during the time you are under the influence of this paste, you will have certain experiences. Decide whether they shall be real or ideal. Real, in the sense of a succession of persistently coherent ideas independent of your own will (for I think I can so far project my mind upon yours as to insure that) or ideal, in the sense of a succession of ideas directed by your own will.” (All the Year Round, 1869).
It’s an interesting statement that does bring to mind the story of Scrooge and the way he questioned the reality of his experiences throughout the tale.
Probably the most interesting bit of information in this regard comes from the 2004 edition of The Annotated Christmas Carol, which references the 19th century writer’s artistic influence:
Perhaps the most bizarre of all was the rumor in Harper’s Bazaar (November 30) that Dickens “eats ‘hasheesh,’ and that some of his finest compositions have been formed under its influences” (p. 67). (Hearn and Leech, 2004)
Considering the information here, perhaps it is not as bizarre as it sounds, and of all his compositions, it would have to clearly be A Christmas Carol which would hold the most similarity to the extreme hashish ingestion which was taking place amongst some of the greatest authors of Dickens’ own time. Now all I want for Christmas is a copy of that Harper Bazaar’s article so I can find out more about this claim…
Siegel, Ronald K.; Ph.D., Intoxication, (Pocket Books 1989).
A Christmas Carol, 1843
Aldrich as quoted in Novak, William; High Culture, (New York 1978).
The Victorian Shaman by Guy Reid-Brown , December 2010, Fortean Times
Barbara Reynolds, Dante; The Poet, the political Thinker, the Man, 2006
Dickens, Charles, All the Year Round, 1862, 1869
The Annotated Christmas Carol: a Christmas Carol in Prose, Charles Dickens, Michael Patrick Hearn, John Leech, 2004