Early Christianity’s Drug Fuelled Magic Rituals

CANNABIS CULTURE – Did Jesus and his disciples use cannabis and other drugs in magical ceremonies? Author and cannabis historian Chris Bennett takes us through some of the startling ancient evidence of early Christianity’s drug-fuelled rituals.

In a recent article, we looked at the potential healing role of cannabis in Jesus’ use of the Holy oil in performing many of his “miracles” .  The use of this sacred ointment had been carried on from the early Jewish traditions based around the Hebrew plant known as  Kaneh Bosm, which an increasing amount of scholars have come to identify as cannabis.

The very term ‘Christ’ is derived from the Greek “Khristos” , and had the same meaning as the Hebrew word “Messiah”, and these translated literally into English, would refer to the “Anointed”, a term that makes reference to the Anointing oil of Exodus 30:23, which contained Kaneh Bosm.

It is worth noting in this context, that Jesus baptized no one in the New Testament account, but instead, in the oldest of the synoptic gospels, Jesus sent out the Apostles with this Holy Oil, “And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:13). This passage shows us two things, that Jesus was ignoring the rules about the anointing oil of previous times, that limited its use to priests, and then later kings (Exodus 30:33), and that the Holy oil was being used for medical purposes. Diseases like epilepsy, were considered demonic possession up until the medieval ages, and in our modern day, cannabis has been shown effective in treating sever forms of epilepsy, that even pharmaceutical drugs have been unable to remedy safely. Many of the other healing medical miracles, described in the New Testament, as well, seem to be ailments which have been effectively treated with medical marijuana, skin diseases, stiffened limbs, uterine problems, etc. both before the time of Jesus, and in our modern day.

As well, the New Testament, gives us some evidence that this same Holy oil, may have been used for enthoegenic purposes. “. . . you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. . . . the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him.” (1 John 2: 27). Through this open distribution the singular Christ, “the Anointed”, was extended to become the plural term “Christians”, that is, those who had been smeared or anointed.

Although there is some evidence of Jesus’ use of this Judaic cannabis oil in the traditional New Testament, we get a clearer picture of its importance when we also look at surviving Christian Gnostic documents. For the first four hundred years after Jesus’ birth, the term “Christian” was used to describe a wide variety of sects and a large volume of different documents. Through the acceptance of one of the more ascetic branches of Christianity by the Roman ruling class, Christianity eventually became the state religion of its former persecutors. In an effort to unify the faith into a controllable mass, the newly formed Roman Catholic Church held a number of councils. These councils prohibited not only pagans, but also differing Christian sects, and in the 4th century edited a wealth of Christian literature down to the few meager documents which have survived as the modern New Testament.

The term Gnostic, meaning “knowledge”, is a blanket term that refers to a variety of early Christian sects which had extremely different beliefs about both Jesus and his teachings than those which have come down to us through modern Christianity and the New Testament. From sect to sect, there was some variation to Gnostic belief, although there are some wider commonalities. Some of the more common themes in Gnosticism include the belief that, the ‘creator god’, Ialdabaoth, identified with the god of the Jews, Yahweh, is seen as a demonic entity responsible for the entrapment of Light into matter, through the creation of the material world. Gnostic theology concerns the redemption of this Light back to the original Kingdom of Light from which it first emanated. In the Gnostic view the King, or Kingdom of Light, existed in the place from where the created Universe began, which they located somewhere beyond the seven planetary spheres. Each of the planetary spheres was believed by the Gnostics to be the personification of one of seven evil archons, created by Ialdabaoth as helpers who aided him by contributing a seal that further entrapped light into matter. The final result of this entrapment, was the created world; i.e. — earth, and humanity. Through Gnosis, i.e. ‘knowledge’, the light entrapped in man, could be redeemed back to the original Kingdom of Light from whence it came. (The Gnostic 7 planetary archons, seem identical in many respects to the planetary sephiroth of the Jewish Kabbalah, and likely this later tradition, developed out of Jewish Gnostic cults). As a Mandean Gnostic prayer recorded of these beliefs:

From the place of light have I gone forth,
from the bright habitation…
An Uthra [angel]from the house of Life accompanied me.
The Uthra… held a staff of living water in his hand.
The staff which he held in his hand
was full of leaves of an excellent kind.
He offered me of its leaves,
and prayers and rituals sprang complete from it.
Again he offered me of them,
and my sick heart found healing
and my alien soul relief.
A third time he offered me of them, and he turned upwards the eyes in my head
so that I beheld my Father and knew him…
I asked him for smooth paths
to ascend and behold the place of light.
[As quoted in (Jonas, 1958)]

In an attempt to save their manuscripts from the editorial flames of the Roman Catholic Church, certain Christians, now considered Gnostic heretics, hid copies of their scrolls in caves. One of these ancient hiding places was rediscovered in upper Egypt in1945 and the large collection of early Christian documents was named the Nag Hammadi Library, after the Egyptian area where it was found. Prior to this discovery, what little was known of the Gnostics came from a few fragmentary texts that had made it down through the centuries in private hands, and the many polemics written against them by the founders of the Catholic Church.

There is no reason to consider these ancient Gnostic documents as less accurate portrayals of the life and teachings of Jesus than the New Testament accounts. In a sense, the rediscovery of the Nag Hammadi Library marks the resurrection of a more historical Jesus, an ecstatic rebel sage who preached enlightenment through rituals involving magical plants, and who is more analogous to the archetypal Magician, than the pious ascetic and crucified saviour that has come down to us through the Bible’s New Testament.

It should also be noted that the Gnostics themselves may have played some role history’s void of knowledge about their practices. The Gnostics were known for openly lying during the early Roman persecutions of Christians, often denying their faith and telling their persecutors exactly whatever they wanted to hear, and then going back to business as usual after the Romans had left. The practice of “intellectual reservation” (reservatio mentalis), meaning the concealment of their faith from persecutors was a well known technique of the secretive Gnostics, and a mean of survival, similar practices were later used by alchemists and occultists to conceal their own activities from the prying eyes of the Inquisition.

In his book, Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), pivotal in the identification and reasons for suppression of the Gnostic sects, the early Church father and apologist Irenaeus, (130-200 AD) later named a Catholic Saint, discussed the Gnostic texts which referred to the anointing rite, and accused the Gnostics of initiating with “secret sacraments”, stating that they were written in an archaic manner “to baffle even more those who are being initiated”. The Naasenes particularly referred to the anointing oil as an “ineffable chrism”, meaning that it was so secret it was not to be fully expressed in words. This leaves little wonder why anointing fell by the wayside in Catholicism, and was replaced with water baptism. From information garnered by both their critics and the Gnostic texts themselves. we can see water baptism vs. the rite of anointing, was one of there main points of contention that divided early Christianity, in to what was to become The Catholic Church and the Gnostic sects.

Even prior to the final composition of The New Testament, claims were being made that Jesus was a Magician. “In the Clementine Recognitions, the charge is brought against Jesus that he did not perform his miracles as a Jewish prophet, but as a magician, an initiate of the heathen temples.”(Doane 1882) “An ‘early’ (but nameless) tradition in the Babylonian Talmud reports that…[Jesus] was ‘to be stoned{!} because he practiced magic and incited {Jews to worship alien gods} and {as a false prophet} led Israel astray'”(Smith 1978).

Likewise, Celsus explained that Jesus, born of illegitimate birth, after having “been brought up in obscurity… went as a hired laborer to Egypt and there acquired experience of some [magical]powers. Thence he returned proclaiming himself a god on account of these powers”. The “powers” referred to by Celsus, are the “miracles” attributed to Jesus, (in Greek the word means both the power itself and the miracles done by it). It was through performing such miracles that Jesus began to establish himself as the promised messiah in the minds of the people.

You Jews) have sent chosen men into every part of the empire as official representatives (of the High Priest and the Sanhedrin), proclaiming, ‘A godless and libertine heresy has arisen from a certain Jesus, a Galilean magician. We had him crucified, (but) his disciples stole him by night from the tomb where he had been put (when taken down from the cross), and they deceive people, saying he has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven.’ . (Justin Martyr [100-165 AD], Dialogue with Trypho)

In the first few centuries AD, Christian Gnostic groups such as the Archontics, Valentians and Sethians rejected water baptism as superfluous, referring to it as an “incomplete baptism”. In the Gnostic tractate, “the Testimony of Truth, water Baptism is rejected with a reference to the fact that Jesus baptized none of his disciples (Rudolph 1987). On the other hand, being “anointed with unutterable anointings” the so-called “sealings” recorded in Gnostic texts, can be seen as far more literal event, than the many metaphorical baptisms that are referred to. “There is water in water, there is fire in chrism.” (Gospel of Philip). “The anointing with oil was the introduction of the candidate into unfading bliss, thus becoming a Christ”(Mead 1900). “[T]he oil as a sign of the gift of the Spirit was quite natural within a Semitic framework, and therefore the ceremony is probably very early…. In time the biblical meaning became obscured: Ambrose explained it in his catechumens as like the anointing of an athlete before running a race”(Chadwick 1967). The surviving Gnostic descriptions of the effects of the anointing rite make it very clear that the holy oil had intense psycho-active properties that prepared the recipient for entrance into “unfading bliss”.

Indeed the Gnostic tractate the Gospel of Philip records that; “The anointing (chrisma) is superior to baptism. For from the anointing we were called ‘anointed ones’ (Christians), not because of the baptism. And Christ also was (so) named because of the anointing, for the Father anointed the son, and the son anointed the apostles, and the apostles anointed us. He (therefore) who has been anointed has the All. He has the resurrection, the light, the cross, the Holy Spirit…” Throughout the text “light” is “associated usually with chrism”(Isenberg 1978), and it is stated that if “one receives this unction…this person is no longer a Christian but a Christ”(Gospel of Philip). Similarly, The Gospel of Truth records that Jesus specifically came into their midst so that he “might anoint them with the ointment. The ointment is the mercy of the Father…those whom he has anointed are the ones who have become perfect”. As the respected German expert on Gnosticism, Kurt Rudolph has noted:

Anointing with oil has a greater representation than baptism in Gnosis and… is even regarded as more significant… This association… is linked up with the name of Christ, “the Anointed One”. Magical connotations also played an important role: anointing oil expelled demons and gave protection against them; correspondingly it cured and dispelled the “sickness” of the soul and body. Hence exorcism (driving out) was performed by means of anointing. The ancient magical texts provide abundant evidence for this application of oil. Often the anointing is taken as a “sealing”, the ointment as a “seal”, i.e. it is a protective act and declaration of property. The deity in this way assures the believers through the priests and they enjoy its protection… In the foreground however is the concept of redemption, the gift of immortality which is transmitted by anointing.(Rudolph 1987)

The importance of the Holy ointment amongst the early Christians, is also attested to in the apocryphal book, The Acts of Thomas, which has the rite of anointing clearly eclipse the significance and importance of the placebo water baptism. This, and the ointments entheogenic effects derived from a certain “plant”, is aptly demonstrated in the prayers and invocations which the apocryphal book recorded as accompanying the rite. “Holy oil, given us for sanctification, hidden mystery in which the cross was shown us, you are the unfolder of the hidden parts. You are the humiliator of stubborn deeds. You are the one who shows the hidden treasures. You are the plant of kindness. Let your power come… by this [unction]’”.

Interestingly, Gnostic texts give indications that cannabis was also burned as incense, and used by Jesus, along with the cannabis-enriched anointing oil and other entheogens, in complicated shamanic ceremonies. Summarizing a German translation of the “Second Book of Ieou”, which is believed to have been originally written down on papyrus sometime between the first and third century AD, Professor G.R.S. Mead described a Gnostic tractate which recorded the story of Jesus bidding his twelve male disciples along with some women disciples, to join him so that he can reveal to them the great mystery of the Treasure of Light. This involved a complicated system of passwords and initiations, which promised the successful candidate attainment of the keys of gnosis needed to pass through the planetary spheres with their corresponding zodiacal signs as well as past their various guardians, back to the kingdom of light. This tractate clearly depicts Christ in the role of the cosmic redeemer. In order to accomplish this the candidates have to be initiated by the three Baptisms; The Baptism of Water, the Baptism of Fire, and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, “and thereafter the Mystery of the Spiritual Chrism [i.e.-anointing]”(Mead 1900).

Jesus tells his followers that the master-mysteries of the Treasure of Light, are the Seven Voices, (perhaps the correct passwords to make it through the planetary spheres), the Great Name of all names, (likely the secret name of the “hidden God”), and the mystery of the Five Trees, which in this case, likely means having knowledge of certain magical plants that were used as a shamanistic catalyst in the ceremony. These same five trees, were referred to in what is possibly the oldest Christian text in existence, The Gospel of Thomas: “…there are five trees for you in Paradise… Whoever becomes acquainted with them will not experience death”. In the Gnostic view, “not experiencing death” meant reaching a certain state of interior purification or enlightenment, at which point the initiate would “rise from the dead”, meaning ignorance and blindness, and “never grew old and became immortal,” that is to say, he gained possession of the unbroken consciousness of his spiritual core, and as such realized that he was a part of the larger Cosmic whole that continued on long after the disappearance of the material body. Second Book of Ieou, gives us a profound description of the shamanistic ceremony that led to this higher state, in part through the ingestion of the “five trees”:

All of these mysteries Jesus promises to give to His disciples, that they may be called “Children of the Fullness (Pleroma) perfected in all mysteries.” The Master then gathers His disciples, men and women, round him with the words: “Come all of you and receive the three Baptisms ere I tell you the mystery of the Rulers!”

…They do so, and the Master sets forth a place of offering,… placing one wine-jar on the right and on the left, and strews certain berries and spices round the vessels; He then makes the disciples clothe themselves in white linen robes, puts a certain plant in their mouths, and the number of the Seven Voices and also another plant in their hands, and ranges them in order round the sacrifice.(Mead 1900)

Continuing with the ritual, Jesus spreads a linen cloth, and gives the disciples cups, and other articles, and seals their foreheads with a magical diagram. Then, as in shamanistic and magical ceremonies throughout the world, he turns his disciples to the four corners of the world, with their feet together in an attitude of prayer. “He then offers a prayer which is prefixed with an invocation in the mystery-language, interspersed with triple Amens, and continues as follows”(Mead 1900):

“Hear Me, My Father, Father of all fatherhood, Boundless Light, who art in the Treasure of light! May the Supporters… come, who serve the Seven Virgins of Light who preside over the baptism of Life. [The mystery-names of the Supporters are here given.] May they come and baptize my disciples with the Water of Life of the Seven Virgins of Light, and wash away their sins and purify their iniquities, and number them among the heirs of the Kingdom of Light, and if Thou hast forgiven their sins and blotted out their iniquities, then may a wonder be done, and Zorokothora come and bring the Water of the Baptism of Life into one of these wine-jars.”

The wonder takes place, and the wine in the right-hand jar becomes water; and Jesus baptizes them and gives them of the sacrifice, and seals them with the seal… to their great joy. This is the Baptism of Water; we are next given a description of the Baptism of Fire. In this rite… vine-branches are used; they are strewn with various materials of incense. The Eucharist is prepared, and… the number of the Seven Voices is again used, but the seal is different.

The prayer… [this time, is to]the Virgin of Life, herself, the judge; she it is who gives the Water of the Baptism of Fire. A wonder is asked for in “the fire of this fragrant incense”, and it is brought about by the agency of Zorokothora… What the nature of the wonder was, is not stated. Jesus baptizes the disciples, gives them of the Eucharist sacrifice, and seals their foreheads with the seal of the Virgin of Light.

Next follows the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. In this rite both the wine-jars and vine-branches are used… A wonder again takes place, but is not further specified…. After this we have the Mystery of Withdrawing the Evil of the Rulers… and consists of an elaborate incense-offering… At the end of it the disciples… have now become immortal and can follow Jesus into all spaces whither they would go. (Mead, 1900)

The “wonder” contained in the incense used by Jesus in the ceremony, and which so perplexed Mead as to what this implied, was presumably a reference to its indescribable entheogenic effects; As likely did the other undefined “wonder”, indicate the magical properties of the different plants used in the ceremony and which were identified to the participants as the Mystery of the Five Trees.

What the other plants were that were used in the “Mystery of the five trees”, we can only speculate. The account of mandrake in Genesis and in Solomon’s Song of Songs clearly document the long-term interest the Hebrews had with these seemingly magical plant angels. That certain heretical branches of the faith, such as the Gnostics passed down the use and knowledge of such plants, is self-evident. Mandrake had been used magically throughout the ancient world, and in “Roman times that magic began extensively to be associated with the psychoactive properties of the plant”(Schultes & Hofman 1979\1992), In the first century the Jewish historian Josephus wrote of a plant which grew in the Dead Sea area and was used for its magical properties, from the description and magical acts which had to be performed for its harvest, Professors Schultes and Hofman have speculated that it may have been Mandrake. “Early Christians believed that the Mandrake root [which like ginseng sometimes appears in a humanoid form]was originally created by God as an experiment before he created man in the Garden of Eden”(Schultes & Hofman 1979\1992). William Menzies Alexander, in his Demonic Possession in the New Testament: Its Historical, Medical, and Theological Asepct, also refers to the use of mandrake in the early Christian period, commenting that “The sole value of the plant depended on its anti-demonic properties”(Alexander 1902\1980). A statement that indicates mandrake use could be seen in line with the sacraments that helped to overcome the demonic-like planetary archons.

The addition of a powerful hallucinatory drug such as mandrake, (and or Datura, or belladonna which were also popular in the Middle East at that time), would help to explain some of the more extreme experiences related to the holy anointings and different baptisms described above. Some recipes for the later witches ointments, do contain both cannabis and mandrake in them, and the out of body experiences attributed to the Gnostic’s, as well as aspects of their cosmology, can be compared to the Witches Sabath (the different visions attained being attributed to cultural set and setting of the ingestors).

Significantly, in the case of the Second Book of Ieou, the “fragrant-incense” is offered to the Virgin of Light, and this would seem to be reminiscent of the offering of kaneh-bosm incense to the Queen of Heaven that we was carried on from Polytheistic Hebrew times. Also, of interest concerning the incense, and further evidence of syncretism, is that the wonder of the incense is brought about by a figure known as Zorokothora.

Zorokothora, does have strong indications of the name Zoroaster, the Persian sage who played psychopomp initiator to his disciples, in a similar way to that attributed to Jesus in the Second Book of Ieou. Another Gnostic tractate, The Apocryphon of John, has Jesus make mention of Zoroaster’s teachings himself, declaring to John the son of Zebedee: “if you wish to know them, it is written in the book of Zoroaster”. Jesus may have not been here referring directly to the Zoroastrian Holy Books, the Gathas or Zend Avesta, but instead to a tractate that was popular with early Gnostic groups entitled Zostrianos. This figure is said by some to represent a person in “the lineage of the famous Persian magus Zoroaster” (Sieber 1988), and by others the Persian shaman Zoroaster himself; “[I]n the Nag Hammadi document Zostrianos,…the ancient Iranian prophet is [Zoroaster] portrayed, in accordance with the ideas of late antiquity, as the proclaimer of secret doctrines. His wisdom he obtains in the course of a heavenly journey which he experiences in the desert”(Rudolph 1987) The narrator of the tractate travels through the 7 spheres of the evil archons, in an attempt to reach the “place of repentance’. “But he can enter these only when he has subjected himself to various baptisms which…admit him into the heavenly mysteries. The baptisms are thus in nature of an initiation (where progress from one stage to the next is also an advance in spiritual insight)” (Rudolph 1987).

Zoroastrian traditions maintain that Zoroaster used a preparation of hemp to achieve the type of shamanistic flight that is described in the Gnostic tractate Zostrianos, and that the ancient Persian sage initiated others into its use. In reference to Zoroastrian expeditions into the world of the afterlife, Shaul Shaked noted that “The preparation of this journey was done… by administering to the officiant a dose of mang (hemp), mixed with wine” (Shaked, 1999). “Zoroaster is commonly said to have spiked the haoma with mang, which was probably hashish. It would have prolonged the intoxication and further stimulated the imagination of the drugged man. Of such are the wonders of Heaven” (Oliver, 1994). In the Zoroastrian tale “…the Artak Viraz Namak… Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, the rewards bestowed on the good, and the punishment awaiting the  sinner are here described in a vision induced by hashish” (Campbell, 2000). Referring to this same account, van Baaren and Hartman also noted the hero “imbibes an intoxicant composed of wine and hashish and after this his body sleeps for seven days and nights while his soul undertakes the journey” (van Baaren & Hartman,1980). 19thcentury author James Francis Katherinus Hewitt also refers to the “enlightening prophet drug Bangha (Cannabis Indica), the Hashish by which the Zoroastrian priests were inspired” (Hewitt, 1901).

Interestingly, and pointedly, the sadly fragmented Gnostic tractate Zostrianos has some obvious references to a drink which acted as a catalyst for the author’s voyage: “After I parted from the somatic darkness in me and the psychic chaos in mind and the feminine desire…I did not use it again…” And again later, tying in the effects of the drink with references to “baptism”; “And I said, I have asked about the mixture [….] it is perfect and gives […] there is power which [has…those] in which we receive baptism…” The experiences of the ancient Gnostic psychonaut recorded in Zostrianos, with its Baptism to the different levels or realms of heaven, closely parallels the experiences had by the Zoroastrian hero Ardu Viraf, who was transported in soul to heaven after drinking a preparation of bangha (hemp, bhang). The similarities between Viraf’s ascent and those attributed to the later Gnostic groups have been noted,(Hinnels 1973). In fact it is from the Zoroastrian tradition that the supposedly Christian concept of Heaven and Hell originated.

In relation to this it is important to note that in The Book of Ieou, a rite is described in which “wine-jars and vine-branches are used” , considering what we have already seen in regards to both earlier Zoroastrian accounts and Ezra’s “fiery cup”, this does open up the speculation to cannabis, or possibly other substances being infused into wine. This brings us to Salverte’s 19th century example of the Gnostic Marcus as evidence for ancient use of drugs in rituals.

We know what accusations had been raised against some of the early sects of Christianity, charges which were unjustly reflected upon all christian assemblies.
They would scarcely be considered as unfounded, had many heresiarchs adopted the criminal practices imputed by popular rumour to the high-priests of the Markesians
It is said that in their religious ceremonies aphrodisiac beverages were administered to women. Without judging in this particular case, we believe that powerful aphrodisiacs were occasionally used in the mysterious orgies of polytheism (Salverte, 1829/1846)

Salverte’s English editor A. T. Thompson adds:

The Markesians were a sect named from their chief, the heresiarch Mark, who was guilty of so many superstitions and impostures. Among others, St. Irenseus informs us, that in consecrating chalices filled with water and wine, according to the Christian rite, he filled the chalices with a certain red liquor which he called blood. He also permitted women to consecrate the holy mysteries. (Thompson, 1846)

Marcus’ infused wine also caught the eye of Lynn Thorndike, in his A History of Magic and Experimental Science. Thorndike traced this sort of drug infused magical practice by the Gnostics to Simon Magus, who he sees from references in Irenaenus, as having used “love-philtres” in magical sex rites, with “incantations… enchantments, familiar spirits and ‘dream-senders’” (Thorndike, 1923). Or more simply put, “the proto-orthodox believed that Simon was drugging his converts in an effort to draw them to become his followers” (Hatsis, 2015). Love philtres also known as a “poculum amatory (literally ‘love-cup’) was both a stupefacient and an exciter that ‘impair[ed]the senses and stirs within… apparitions and frenzied loves’*… Concocted of various plants, herbs, and roots… [and]had been employed for centuries to ‘lull all pain and anger, and bring forgetfulness to every sorrow,’ as Helen of Troy famously lamented in Homer’s Odyssey” (Hatsis, 2015).
*Hatsis cites Johann Weyer (1515-1581) (Weyer, 1991)

Next to Simon Magus, Marcus was the Gnostic and heretic most notorious as a practitioner of the magical arts… In performing the Eucharist he would change white wine placed in three wine cups into three different colors… an alteration Marcus himself regarded as a manifestation of divine grace. Epiphanius attributes the change to an incantation muttered by Marcus while pretending to perform the Eucharist. Hippolytus, who ascribes to Marcus’s feats partly to sleight-of-hand and partly to demons, in this case charges that he furtively dropped some drug into the wine….

Irenaeus… states that Marcus had a familiar demon by whose aid he was able to prophesy , and that he pretended to confer this gift upon others. He also accuses Marcus of seducing women by means of philtres and love potions which he compounded….

Other heretics with Gnostic views who were accused of magic… were the followers of Carpicrates, who employed incantations and spells, philtres and potions, who attracted spirits to themselves and made light of the cosmic angels and who pretended to have great power over things… by magic… (Thorndike, 1923)

These comments are particularly interesting to this author, as independently more than a decade and a half before reading these comments from Salverte and Thompson, and more than 70 years after Thorndike, I had drawn similar conclusions about the Gnostics, and particularly by Marcus and his followers, (Bennett & McQueen, 2001). More recently, Marcus’ Gnostic sex rites have been explored by Tom Hatsis, who notes that “we can be assured that he… knew about the properties of some powerful hallucinogens” and despite Irenaeus’ condemnation of such practice as merely a means of drugging women for seduction, in relation to the Gnostic quest for “direct experience…he might have interpreted the ingestion of his potions as providing visionary or otherwise psyche-magical experience” (Hatsis, 2015).

We may get some idea as to what took place in such initiatory rituals from the description in the second century Church father Irenaeus’ condemnations of the sex and drug antics of the Gnostic teacher Marcus. Even in it’s derogatory form, Irenaeus’ account of the rite performed by Marcus “affords a remarkable and very singular insight into the Gnostic celebration of the Eucharist”, which they believed “effects a realization of the original oneness of the Pleroma” (Rudolph 1987). “The Church father said Marcus was a self-proclaimed prophet and magician who would pray over a cup of purple liquid mixed with wine, a concoction Marcus said was the blood of Grace, the aeon also known as Silence in the Valentian Pleroma”(Dart 1976). An alchemical recipe for making a cannabis elixir of this colour, has been noted; “I have made the lavender elixir of Cannabis many times and have given it freely to seriously ill people. It never fails to provide astonishingly quick relief” (Osburn, 1995).

A Irenaeus wrote of the Gnostic Marcus’ use of this preparation:

Pretending to consecrate cups mixed with wine, and protracting to great length the word of invocation, he contrives to give them a purple and reddish color, so that Charis who is one of those that are superior to all things, should be thought to drop her own blood into that cup through means of his invocation, and that thus those who are present should be led to rejoice to taste of that cup, in order that, by so doing, the Charis, who is set forth by this magician, may also flow into them… When this has been done, he…. pronounces these words: “May that Chaffs who is before all things, and who transcends all knowledge and speech, fill thine inner man, and multiply in thee her own knowledge, by sowing the grain of mustard seed in thee as in good soil”….

It appears probable enough that this man possesses a demon as his familiar spirit, by means of whom he seems able to prophesy, and also enables as many as he counts worthy to be partakers of his Charis themselves to prophesy. He devotes himself especially to women, and those such as are well-bred, and elegantly attired, and of great wealth, whom he frequently seeks to draw after him, by addressing them in such seductive words as these: “I am eager to make thee a partaker of my Charis, since the Father of all doth continually behold thy angel before His face. Now the place of thy angel is among us: it behoves us to become one. Receive first from me and by me [the gift of]Chaffs. Adorn thyself as a bride who is expecting her bridegroom, that thou mayest be what I am, and I what thou art. Establish the germ of light in thy nuptial chamber. Receive from me a spouse, and become receptive of him, while thou art received by him. Behold Charis has descended upon thee; open thy mouth and prophesy.” On the woman replying,” I have never at any time prophesied, nor do I know how to prophesy;” then engaging, for the second time, in certain invocations, so as to astound his deluded victim, he says to her,” Open thy mouth, speak whatsoever occurs to thee, and thou shalt prophesy.” She then, vainly puffed up and elated by these words, and greatly excited in soul by the expectation that it is herself who is to prophesy, her heart beating violently [from emotion], reaches the requisite pitch of audacity, and idly as well as impudently utters some nonsense as it happens. to occur to her, such as might be expected from one heated by an empty spirit…. Henceforth she reckons herself a prophetess, and expresses her thanks to Marcus for having imparted to her of his own Chaffs. She then makes the effort to reward him, not only by the gift of her possessions (in which way he has collected a very large fortune), but also by yielding up to him her person, desiring in every way to be united to him, that she may become altogether one with him….

Some of his disciples, too, addicting themselves to the same practices, have deceived many silly women, and defiled them. They proclaim themselves as being “perfect,” so that no one can be compared to them with respect to the immensity of their knowledge, nor even were you to mention Paul or Peter, or any other of the apostles. They assert that they themselves know more than all others, and that they alone have imbibed the greatness of the knowledge of that power which is unspeakable. They also maintain that they have attained to a height above all power, and that therefore they are free in every respect to act as they please, having no one to fear in anything. For they affirm, that because of the “Redemption” it has come to pass that they can neither be apprehended, nor even seen by the judge. (Irenaeus, 2nd century AD)

According to Irenaeus, the Bridal Chamber rite as performed by Marcus and his followers took place at a banquet, and the candidate was determined by lot. The rite is obviously reminiscent of the Sacred Wedding of the Songs, and fertility rites of the Canaanites, where it was believed that the physical union of the participants acted as imitative magic for the union of God and Goddess. As for the Gnostics, they apparently related their own sex rite in the Bridal Chamber ceremony, and its union of two souls, as representing the heavenly conjunction of the earth-bound spark of light’s entrance back into the One, or Pleroma (Kingdom of Light). This Tantric like gnostic ceremony is also referred to in in the Gnostic tract The Ode to Sophia, which describes how “immortal food (ambrosia) nourisheth them” as well as the ritual chamber where the rite was held “Her chamber is bright with light and breatheth forth the odor of balsam and all spices, and giveth out a sweet smell of myrrh and Indian leaf, and within are myrtles strown on the floor, and of all manner of odorous flowers…” . Again like Tantrism where wine, cannabis and a variety of other intoxicants are used, we can see from the references to wine, ambrosial food, and especially “Indian Leaf”, (which seems a likely reference to cannabis), that similar if not identical substances were used. The reference to “Indian leaf” in a Gnostic text, opens up the possibility that the references to ‘charis’ in the references to Marcus, may have been in reference to an Indian name of hashish ‘charas’, given to who “ he counts worthy to be partakers of his Charis”.

Through such use of ritual sex and drugs, in the Tantric view, the: “phenomenal world is transcended, dualities abolished, egoness lost, and the two polar opposites fuse into a state of intimate and blissful oneness. It is an experience of the soul’s extinction in God, and a foretaste of the divine”(Walker 1982). “[O]rgasm is the most religious moment of our lives, of which all other mystical kicks are a mere translation.”(Comfort 1972). Texts such as the Kularnava Tantra, go as far as to state that sexual union is the only means by which the supreme union can be fully accomplished on the material plane.

The experience of absolute light…. when attained through maithuna, or sexual union, is capable of penetrating right to the heart of organic life, and so discovering there, too, in the very essence of the semen virile, the divine light, that primordial brilliance which created the world… The light experienced in maithuna is the Clear Light of Gnosis, and of Nirvanic consciousness.”(Eliade 1965)

The early Gnostic Christians who performed this sexual ceremony, saw nothing at all heretical in their actions, but considered the rite a spiritually imbued religious act. Further, as indicated by surviving Gnostic documents, they believed that in this erotic rite they continued on with a tradition taught by the saviour himself, and passed down to them through the apostles. Furthermore, it seems these Gnostic sex rites, likely influenced later practices in the Alchemical tradition, and certainly played a influential role in the Sex Magick of later occultists, particularly Aliester Crowley and the Gnostic Mass, and the eucharistic like role placed on sexual fluids, which was a common trait of ancient Gnostic sex rites, which I have explored in seamy detail, elsewhere, as well as the use of drugs in conjunction with such rites, (Bennett & McQueen, 2001).

In regards to cannabis infused wines, it is also worth noting that this same healing plant may have eased Jesus’ own pain as well. In the 19th century “Some high Biblical commentaries maintain that the gall and vinegar or myrrhed wine offered to our Saviour immediately before his crucifixion was a preparation, in all probability, of hemp, which was in these, as well as in later times, occasionally given to criminals before punishment or execution” (Simpson, et al., 1856). In relation to these comments it is worth noting that Dr. David Hillman, who holds combined degrees in Classics and Bacteriology, has suggested that ancient myrrh was often doctored with cannabis resins. (Hillman, 2015)

The subject of wines brings us to the Eucharist, and it is important to mention, that many have suggested the concept of the Christian sacraments were borrowed from an earlier originally Persian tradition involving Mithras. As I have discussed the many connections between Christianity and Mithraism, elsewhere,* I will only touch on these connections here.
*see Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010).

Mithras was born in a cave and watched over by shepherds on December 25th, and it wouldn’t be until over three hundred years after the life of Jesus, that this date became Christmas. After his death and resurrection, Mithras celebrated a last supper with his elect before ascending to heaven, telling them in a voice almost indistinguishable from that of the later Jesus: “He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation” (Goodwin, 1981).

Professor Morton Smith has commented that the scene of the Last Supper, and particularly the Eucharist, have strong elements of. Mystery Cult practices in general.  “The rite is a familiar type of magical ceremony in which the magician identifies himself with a deity, and identifies wine and/or food with the blood and/or body of this deity and of himself.  The wine and/or food is then given to a recipient who by consuming it is united with him and filled with love for him.  This rite is attributed to Jesus by the earliest and most reliable sources”(Smith 1978).

The fathers of Christianity, explained the many similarities between Jesus and the earlier Mithras, by suggesting that Satan had found out about God’s plans for his divine son, and “had plagiarized their most sacred rites by anticipation” instilling their own candidate and Eucharist rituals before Christ’s divine birth. “It is clear that Christianity when making its invasion of Indo-Germanic peoples would find itself not the first interpreter of mystic Sacraments” (Harris, 1927). The popularity of this cult throughout the ancient world proceeded that of Christianity.

From Persia the worship of Mithra and the Mysteries, were carried into Syria, Lydia, Judea, Egypt, Greece, Northern, Central and Western Europe. His devotees were not suppressed in Rome until virtually superseded by the teachings of Jesus — really Mithras under a different name, — A.D. 378.

….a survival of the haoma worship… appearing as the ‘Lord’s Supper,’ the ‘body and blood’of the divine master, under another alias. (Brown, 1890)

Besides having the same birth date of Jesus, many scholars, such as Brown above, have noted the startlingly strong similarities between the Christian Eucharist and the Mithraic sacraments. “It is in the ancient religion of Persia-the religion of Mithra, the Mediator, the Redeemer, and the Savior-that we find the nearest resemblance to the sacrament of the Christians, and from which it was evidently borrowed” (Doane 1882). As Dr. Rendel Harris explained in Eucharistic Origins:

…. Jesus was speaking of the Indian, Avestan, Indo-Germanic Soma, when His disciples thought He was speaking of His body. That single conjecture explains the mystery and shows us how the parallel with the pagan Mysteries was invited from the start. It is not necessary to assume, though it seems probable, that Jesus had travelled Eastward at some time in His early life. The conjecture may find support without the added speculation. Let us leave that for further enquiry. (Harris, 1927)


Gnostic scriptures indicate that it was not just powerful visionary hallucinations, and promises of an afterlife that were sought in the initiations performed by Jesus, (and other later Gnostics), but in fact, a profound psychological change in the participant that offered them a new perspective on the world and their role in it. This was accomplished through the secret teachings known as “the keys of the kingdom of heaven”, which the New Testament Jesus secretly gave his disciples, and which are represented by the Gnostic initiations and tractates. One was not truly “saved” until they had attained to the heightened state of gnosis that their practice and study offered the dedicated devotee, as Jesus explains in the Pistis Sophia:

But Amen, Amen, I say unto you, even though a righteous man may have not committed any sin at all, it is impossible to take him into the Kingdom of Light, because the sign of the Kingdom of the Mysteries is not with him.(Pistis Sophia).

In the Gnostic view, both salvation, and the attainment of the “kingdom of heaven” on the material plane were accomplished through self-analyzing reflection, and a series of entheogenic initiations. These rituals were believed by the Gnostics, to restore the soul back to its original purity as it was before its entrapment in matter. In Gnostic belief, the sparks of light which descended from the Kingdom of Light were continually clothed in faults and passions acquired from each of the seven planetary spheres as they descended to earth and it was these attributes which prevented the initiate from achieving enlightenment. It is from this model we find the origins of the Christian “Seven Deadly Sins” “As the souls descend, they draw with them the torpor of Saturn, the wrathfulness of Mars, the concupiscence of Venus, the greed of gain for Mercury, the lust for power of Jupiter; which things effect a confusion in the souls, so that they can no longer make use of their own power and proper faculties” (Jonas 1963).

Like the seven layers of clothing and jewelry that Ishtar removed in her ancient descent mythology and on which the ascension of the planetary spheres likely originated from, the Gnostic initiations provided the means to strip away these burdensome seven layers of mental faculties, and emotional attributes. Poimandres, writing around 150 A.D. gives us some idea of what this seven stage initiation hoped to accomplish, as well as a further explanation of Gnostic cosmology which exemplifies its relation to both Jewish Kabalism with its sephiroth, and Indian yoga with its chakras, as well as other similar ancient systems.

To the first zone he gives the capacity to grow or to diminish, to the second (zone) his evil machinations, an (henceforth) ineffectual cunning, to the third (zone) the deceit of (henceforth) ineffectual lust, to the fourth (zone) ineffectual greedy love of power, to the fifth (zone) unholy boldness and rash audacity, to the sixth (zone) ineffectual evil strivings after riches, and to the seventh (zone) the lurking lie… [T]hen stripped of all the activities of the harmony (of the spheres), he reaches the nature of the Ogdoad… (now) with his own power, and with those who are there he praises the Father…. Then in order they go up to the Father, change themselves into powers, and having become powers they (themselves) come to be in God. (Poimandres, 2nd century)

An almost identical system can be found in the Mithraic rites that originated from Zoroastrian influences (and by which the Gnostics were obviously so strongly influenced), as the soul ascended through these “different zones, it rid itself, as one would of garments, of the passions and faculties that it had received in its descent to the earth. it abandoned to the Moon its vital and nutritive energy, to Mercury its desires, to Venus its wicked appetites, to the Sun its intellectual capacities, to Mars its love of war, to Jupiter its ambitious dreams, to Saturn its inclinations. It was naked, stripped of every vice and every sensibility, when it penetrated the eighth heaven…”(Cumont 1956).

Joseph Campbell compared the seven stage Mithraic ascension to the Indian technique of Kundalini Yoga, where the “aim was to bring the… spiritual force of the yogi, from its lowest seat at the base of the spine, up an interior path to the crown of the head, completing seven stages, at each of which the psychological limitations of the lower planes of commitment are surpassed”(Campbell 1964) The Yogic scholar Alain Danielou, who would later make a similar comparison between Tantric and Mithraic techniques, wrote that “[W]ithout the appropriate technique, it is impossible for the human being to escape from his physical envelope and leave behind the circle of individual and collective instincts which assure the continuity of physical life”(Danielou 1949\1991) By providing a formalized program for this spiritual ascension, the Mithraic cult aimed “to bring about… a psychological transformation in the candidate for knowledge, as a result of which his mind should come to rest in the realization that duality is secondary”(Campbell 1964). An identical goal beyond the obscuring veil of duality was sought in the Gnostic initiations, which obviously grew out of the Mithraic.

Alain Danielou felt that the descriptions found in Indian texts, “may be useful interpreting the various references made to… Mithraic initiation rites, as well as those of… later traditions, such as the Gnostics…”(Danielou 1992). A hypothesis, which as shall be demonstrated in this volume, that is wholly plausible. In the still practiced Shaivite Yogic method, the spiritual force known as the kundalini energy, was imagined as a fiery serpent that ascended up the spine of the initiate, and this same chthonic imagery is invoked with the snake that can be seen coiling around numerous Mithraic statues,(with pictures). As we have compared both the Mithraic and Yogic methods to the Gnostic, it is interesting to see that this identical symbolism carries over into it as well.

Interestingly, a number of modern scholars have suggested that cannabis and other plants were used in Mithraic initiations. As noted by Dr. David Hillman, who holds the combined degrees of a Ph.D. in Classics and a M.S. in Bacteriology, and has written extensively about the role of drugs in Ancient Greece and Rome. “I would have to say that yes cannabis was very widespread in the cult of Mithras” (Hillman, 2014). Professor of Classics, Carl Ruck explains “Mithraism was the form of the haoma cult… [from]the Zoroastrian religion, as it passed into Europe… it was on of the 3 great religions of the Roman Empire, finally supplanted by Christianity. They had a sevenfold sequence of initiations, in which a variety of different sacred drugs would have been employed… they gathered in a small, confined underground space, and the space was always fumigated. So entering the sacred space, would have given a sense of holiness, and no doubt cannabis was one of the ingredients in the incense”(Ruck, 2014). Writing the end of the 19th century George W. Brown, felt that the Mithraic cult continued on with the age old practice of drinking a cannabis infused form of Haoma:

Mithra is presented in the Zoroastrian system as an intermediate between Ormazd and Ahriman, and was known as a mediator. He taught mankind to make vows and offerings, and introduced animal sacrifices. It was he who introduced the Haoma worship. This was an intoxicating beverage, prepared from the green stalks of the moon-plant, otherwise Cannabis Indica, or Indian hemp… It was tasted by the priests on sacrificial occasions, whilst hymns were sung in its praise. Its action was that of hashish. It produced intoxication and stimulation of the senses, which were taken for inspiration. (Brown, 1890)

Like their Mithraic counterparts, the Gnostic baptisms, or initiations were intended to distinguish and separate the different components of intellect and emotion that make up the personal “ego”, and through this unveiling, come into contact with the very core of consciousness itself. In this context the planetary spheres became associated with these mental and emotional faculties and were seen as subtle centres within the body of the individual, which at the same time, on a larger and collective level, was the body of the Heavenly Man, Anthropos, (just as the Indian yogi’s body represented the body of Shiva). The enlightened Gnostic initiate knew how to distinguish these aspects of consciousness, and thereby unveil them individually, thus making a further ascension through the planetary spheres of the androgynous Heavenly Man with the aid of the serpent energy. A cosmology that is clearly analogous to that of the Indian system’s ascension of the kundalini energy up through the different chakras, to the top of the head where it causes “a radical switch in consciousness obliterating the sense of individuation”, thus awakening the Shiva aspect of the individual.

In Gnostic scriptures, the initiates who had attained to this undivided state of consciousness, were seen as those who had entered “the kingdom of heaven”, a frame of mind identical to that of the Yogic “Samadhi”. As with the similar goal of yoga, the “kingdom of heaven” state, although attained instantaneously, required years of vigorous training in preparation. The secret teachings used to accomplish this task were “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” that Jesus promised to his disciples.

In relation to our hypothesis that the earlier Christians, like certain yogis in the East, used cannabis to attain this enlightened state, it is interesting to note a reference that appears in Hooper and Teresi’s stellar book on the human brain, The Three Pound Universe;

“One can look at some religious aphorisms as a form of psychological noise reduction,” says Charles (“Chuck”) Honorton who directs the Princeton Psychophysical Research Laboratories in New Jersey. Purity, poverty, contemplation, and so on aren’t just for the sake of piety. These are methods of removing sensory distraction and increasing mental concentration. A good example is Patanjalis Yogasutras, composed in the second century B.C. in India. All the practices can be seen as systematic noise reduction, which eventually culminates in samahdi, a transcendental state in which normal boundaries between the self and others disappears. It may not be dissimilar to what people experience on marijuana when they find themselves staring at the wallpaper for twenty minutes.”(Hooper & Teresi 1986).

Again like older branches of Yoga, where a variety of drug plants are used to attain this goal, the different sacraments described in the Gnostic texts, such as the “five trees”, may well have been different entheogens that enhanced certain areas of consciousness, and suppressed others, making the distinction between these mental coverings, related to the seals of the seven archons, more obvious and therefore easier to bypass.

Likewise in Indian Tantrism the chakras can be awakened through “rituals [and]… plant extracts…. The flow of energy that they produce can help a person attain enlightenment. In Tantrism, many aphrodisiacs [cannabis, mandrake, etc.] are viewed as foods for the kundalini serpent and are thought to affect both the serpent, which reposes in the body, and the chakras.”(Ratsch 1997)

These elements are very important in understanding the role of cannabis and other substances in later medieval magic, where the relationships of certain plants, colours, and other elements, were all chose for their relationship with the celestial bodies, for magical rites, and can be seen in Grimoires like the 13th century Picatrix, where hashish was burnt as an incense, and the 16th century Sepher Raziel: Liber Salomonis, where cannabis ointments are used along with other substances, in this sort of context. This tradition continued  with the later Kabbalistic rituals of the 19th and early 20th century practitioners of Magick.

Christianity and the Occult

Gnostic reversals, such as the turning of Yahweh into a demonic force, and the deification of the Serpent, which was at times equated with Jesus, also brings to mind the secret rites the later witches were accused of, such as the Black Sabbath, and the use of ointments. And if not in the origins of these rites, then at least in the origins of the accusations from the Church in regards to them. Accusations of Gnostic heresy have also have been directed at the Cathars of Southern France (1200-1400 AD) and this resulted in one of the greatest mass executions of Church history.

However, in regards to the cannabis infused Holy oils, incenses and elixirs of Judaism, Christianity and Gnosticism, they continued on under the cloak of the occult.   “…[O]nce we admit the use of holy oils, holy incense, and holy food and drink in ancient religion, we have to admit it for magic as well… The magus adapted for his own purposes techniques that had worked for the priests for a very long time” (Luck, 1985/2006). Evidence of cannabis incenses and topical preparations in later medieval magic, indicates their continued use in this same spirit.

Edith Starr Miller, aka Lady Queenborough, a early 20th century New York socialite and wife of the 1st Baron of Queenborough, treasurer of the League of Nations, condemned Gnostic magical practices, which she linked with the use of cannabis and other drugs, in her The Occult Theocracy:

When the Gnostics practiced magic, they evoked the spirits of the dead exactly as do the occultists of today. Dawning Christianity was prolific in miracles so, in order to fight it, the disciples of Gnosticism had recourse to diabolical marvels. In this respect, are not contemporaneous spiritists, with their rapping tables and apparitions, Gnostics under another name?
Secret Gnostic meetings lead to depravity, as the adepts indulge in every kind of turpitude and obscenity, often under the influence of drugs such as Indian Hemp (Cannabis Indica) or Opium, the medicinal properties of which, when administered under certain conditions, are provocative of mediumistic phenomena. (Miller, 1933)

Interestingly, as we shall discuss in a future article, a cannabis extract of some sort, may have played a role in Jesus final and most impressive act of magic, his Resurrection after ‘death’ on the Cross.



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Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett

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.