Journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical
Classics of Cannabis Culture
Hakim Bey & Abel Zug (eds.), Orgies of the
Hemp Eaters: Cuisine, Slang, Literature and Ritual of Cannabis Culture. Brooklyn,
NY: Autonomedia (www.autonomedia.org), 2004. 694 pages, $24.95.
Review by Michael R. Aldrich, PhD
Despite its provocative title, this book focuses on the religious use of cannabis
in India (Vedic, Hindu, Buddhist and Tantric) and in the Muslim traditions
from Afghanistan across the Middle East to North Africa. Since most religious
use of cannabis historically has been with edibles and drinkables rather than
smokables, a chapter is devoted to ancient and modern recipes for bhang, majoun,
dawamesk, syrups, tinctures, extracts, and high-potency cuisine.
Rounding out the collection are scientific and literary commentaries, mostly
19th century, on the subject of hashish-eating, glossaries of slang for cannabis
products in a dozen cultures, an amazing set of illustrations, and perhaps
the best bibliography/netography of 2,000+ citations on religious cannabis
ever compiled. It’s a superb anthology!
“Orgies of the Hemp Eaters” was the headline of an 1895 news article about the
monthly hashish festival of an order of Turkish dervishes in Syria who had survived
since the 16th century. The sensationalist article— how shocking it was that
female dancers actually attended these monthly hash parties— disguises the depth
of religious cannabis use in the Middle East. The dervishes called hashish Homa,
suggesting a relationship with the mysterious Haoma of ancient Persia and Soma
of the Vedas— an explicit connection to the oldest religious texts in the world.
Indeed, the oldest religion on earth for which we have the complete texts —the
four Vedas of ancient India— was based on ritual ingestion of psychotropic
drugs. The major sacrifices of the Veda involved Soma, identified as Amanita
muscaria mushrooms by R. Gordon Wasson and Wendy O’Flaherty in 1968. But as
the Vedic worshippers moved down out of the Himalayas into the Indian plains,
the original Soma was lost and substitutes had to be sought. Chief among these
substitutes was Bhang, identified in the Atharva Veda (c. 1500 BC) as one of
five sacred plants used “for freedom from distress.”
Bhang is of course cannabis, usually in the form of a milkshake, used ubiquitously
by the wandering saddhus of India to this day.
Bey and Zug compile essays from the best sources— particularly the Indian Hemp
Drugs Commission report of 1894, including the hard-to-find Campbell appendix
on the religion of hemp— to show the progression of this historical tradition
in India. My own research on Tantric cannabis use in India (1977), and Patricia
Morningstar’s elegant “Thandai & Chilam: Traditional Hindu Beliefs About
the Proper Uses of Cannabis” (1985) are included along with European travellers’ tales
about cannabis in India.
There are also four interviews with Ganesh Baba, head of a Naga order of Shaivite
monks in India, Nepal and the U.S., who attracted enthusiastic disciples as “the
dope guru” in the 1970s. Some of Shri Ganesh’s pronouncements were remarkably
prescient, as in a 1982 interview in High Times: “Now is the time to revive
these things (religious cannabis use). Otherwise it will be a continuation
of Vietnam. It is continuing in Lebanon, and in Iraq. Every day in Pakistan
and India. It’s a worldwide trip. And once there is a mischance by these maniacs
who are ruling the roost, it will end up in a terrific holocaust.”
In the Islamic tradition, Bey and Zug start with the discovery of hashish by
Sheikh Haydar (a Sufi monk of the 12th century) and the legend of the Old Man
of The Mountain, Hasan-I-Sabbah, and the “Haschischin” (Assassin) cult of ancient
Persia and Syria. The development of the 19th-century literary “Club des Haschichins” in
Paris is presented by the poets themselves. Paul Bowles’ acerbic commentary
on Kif in Morocco in the 1950s, and excerpts from great 19th and early 20th
century literary giants who took hashish themselves and described their experiences
in the most florid terms, give a modern reader both a chuckle and a thought— a
hundred years ago these folks like Ludlow, Alcott, Baudelaire, Dumas, Sir Richard
Burton, Isabel Eberhardt, Henri Michaux, J.J. Moreau, and Aleister Crowley,
were taking huge doses of cannabis and having psychedelic illuminations!
In his brilliant introductory essay, “The Bhang Nama: Hemp as A Sacrament,” Hakim
Bey notes the connections between social, religious and medical use of cannabis
as it flourished since the time of the Vedas in India and since at least the
12th century in Muslim cultures, leading right up to modern times with the
Moorish Orthodox Church and other psychedelic religious groups.
Bey points up the historical divisions in cannabis
use between smokers and those who use oral preparations, potions
and edibles for ritual purposes.
Bey points up the historical divisions in cannabis use
between smokers and those who use oral preparations, potions and edibles
for ritual purposes. The latter tradition is more ancient and shows,
overall, that high-dose oral preparations have been commonly used for
psychedelic religious experiences, while low-dose products are used
primarily for medical reasons. In fact, in both the Hindu and Muslim
traditions, medical and religious use of cannabis are joined at the
Future prohibitionists may try to drive a wedge
between medical patients and ritual users.
This may prove to be a legal difficulty in the future
as medical use of marijuana continues on its way toward legalization,
while psychedelics and high-dose cannabis preparations are still demonized.
Future prohibitionists, clinging to straws, may try to drive a wedge
between medical patients and ritual users over the issues of dosage,
as well as the distinction between preparations that are smoked versus
those that are not. They may argue that although there may be medical
uses for low doses— and if you’ve ever smoked government pot, you know
that current government policy is to push schwag on the most seriously
ill patients— but we can’t legalize high doses because it would cause
some patients to freak out— have psychedelic experiences— “go insane.” And
high-dose religious use— forget it!
That would be a mistake. Who gets to define dosage levels, for either medical
or religious purposes? Patients often require high dose products taken daily,
especially for pain control and appetite stimulation, and to counter the disastrous
effects of cancer chemotherapy and AIDS “drug cocktails.” The government has
no business setting dose levels for medical practice— bureaucrats are not well
educated on cannabis therapy, and the patients are the best source for the
dosage level appropriate for them— and why on earth would any religion allow
governments to set their religious protocols for them?
Spiritual use of cannabis has survived for millenia, despite fanatical opposition
from governments and Christian cultists who would allow only alcohol as a sacrament.
Order this book from www.autonomedia.org,
eat a brownie, get in a hot bath, and immerse yourself in this fascinating
collection of the wisdom of religious cannabis use since the dawn of time.