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The Rediscovery of Cannabis in the West: Bengal and Cairo

Cannabis use in antiquity

There is abundant evidence for the use of cannabis in Europe for fibre, rope and textiles that dates back several millennia (Clarke and Merlin 2013:64–65); there is also archeological evidence from Eastern Europe (in Bulgaria) and Central Asia dating from the 5th millennium BCE which has revealed that in antiquity cannabis was smoked for inebriation. Buds would be placed on hot stones or a brazier inside a simple, tent-like structure made of felt, which then became filled with smoke (Sherratt 1991; 1995; Parpola 2015:53).

How People Used And Abused Drugs In Ancient Greece And Rome ...
People using cannabis in Ancient Greece And Rome –
Image from HistoryExtra

Amongst other similar discoveries, cannabis material, almost certainly used for inebriation, has been found at sites in Xinjiang Province in western China (Jiang et al. 2006; Ren et al. 2019), dated to the mid-first millennium BCE, and in Israel at the Judahite shrine at Arad, dated to the 8th century BCE (Arie et al. 2020).

The earliest, extant report in the West of the effects of cannabis, which is well known, is by the Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories (1968:265–266), who around 450 BCE described militant, wild, horse-riding Scythians in a region near the Black Sea inhaling cannabis smoke in felt tents and “howling with laughter.”

Despite the report of the psychoactive properties of cannabis by Herodotus and later accounts from the world of radical Sūfīs from the 12th century onwards (as recounted in a previous blog, ‘Radical Sūfīs’), and although known as a medicine in the classical Greco-Roman world, the psychoactive effects of cannabis were hardly known about in Europe until the mid-nineteenth century.

Cannabis medicine in the Greco-Roman world

Medicinal uses of the cannabis plant were well known to the Greeks and Romans. Pliny (the Elder) (23–79 CE), the Roman naturalist and military commander, knew cannabis (Natural History 20.97), but not as an inebriant. He observed that it grew in the woods (i.e. uncultivated) and is a medicine. Its seeds are said to cause impotence; it kills parasites, numbs the pain of cramped joints, and settles the stomach of domestic animals.

Dioscorides (40–90 CE), the Greek physician and pharmacist, also knew cannabis. In his five-volume work on herbal medicine (De Materia Medica), he lists two kinds of cannabis, Kannabis agria and Kannabis emeros (Book 3, 165 and 166; pp. 534–535). He observes that Kannabis agria and Kannabis emeros are useful for making ropes, earache, “quenching conception,” inflammation, and aching joints.

Galen (Aelius Galenus) (129–c.210 CE), the great medical author and physician to several Roman emperors, briefly discusses cannabis in his De Facultatibus Alimentorum (100.49). He notes that it is useful for anti-flatulence and analgesia, and that a cannabis-seed desert eaten by Romans caused a warm and pleasurable sensation. However, overindulgence is said to lead to dehydration and impotence (Abel 1982:33).

Cannabis medicine in Britain

Cannabis continued to be known in Europe as a medical remedy throughout the medieval period (Abel 1982:109). Robert Burton, an English clergyman, recommended cannabis for depression in his Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621. Nicholas Culpepper writes in his widely-read Complete Herbal (1653:91) that, “[Hemp] is so widely known to every good housewife in the country, that I shall not need to write any description of it.” Similarly to other earlier physicians, he records its usefulness for jaundice, earache, swelling, cough, worms, and other ailments; but he makes no mention of its inebriating properties. The New London Dispensary, published in 1682, also includes hempseed decoctions for various ailments

(Lee 2012:22).

The discovery of cannabis by Europeans

One of the first reports in any European language about the psychoactive effects of cannabis was by François Rabelais (1490–1553), who had translated the Histories of Herodotus before writing the novel Gargantua and Pantagruel (Jay 2011:77), in which he enthuses about the usefulness of the fibre of cannabis (which he refers to as ‘Pantagruelion’); he also notes the “perfect jollity” induced by cannabis and some of its medical applications.

The first substantial notice in a European language of the medical and psychoactive properties of the plant comes from two doctors stationed on the west coast of India. Cristoval Acosta, from Burgos in Spain, wrote a treatise on medicine and drugs in 1578; Garcia d’Orta, from Portugal, was the first European to compile a materia medica for India, in 1563, entitled Coloquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da India, which became a major source of information for Linnaeus, the ‘father’ of modern, botanical classification. d’Orta observes how his servants are reluctant to work, get hungry and laugh after eating cannabis, and how women are particularly prone to its aphrodisiac effects(Wujastyk 2002).

The first substantial report in English of the psychoactive effects of cannabis were by the traveller Captain Thomas Bowery, who drank bhāṅg in Bengal and published a detailed account of his and others’ experience of it around 1680 in a Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal. Interestingly—and as discussed in a previous blog, ‘Cannabis Chemistry’—Bowery notes how bhāṅg, “operates accordinge to the thoughts or fancy of the Partie that drinketh thereof”(Abel 1982:116).

Cannabis research in Bengal

Although it seems possible that William Shakespeare (1564–1616) knew of the effects of smoking cannabis (Thompson 2015), knowledge in modern Europe of the psychoactive effects of cannabis was primarily due to research by French investigators and the Irish doctor and pioneer cannabis researcher, William O’Shaughnessy, who first reported his research findings in 1839 (Aldrich 2006:26). He observed in Bengal first-hand the well-known effects of cannabis intoxication

William Brooke O'Shaughnessy - Wikipedia
William O’Shaughnessy – Wikipedia

(O’Shaughnessy 1843) and wrote detailed reports of its various medical applications. He brought cannabis back to England and had a cannabis tincture manufactured by Peter Squire, a well-known pharmacist of Oxford Street in London (Regardie 1968:69), who produced ‘Squire’s extract.’

From the mid-19th century until prohibition began in 1924, medical preparations that included ‘Indian hemp’ were widely prescribed by western doctors for a range of ailments (Mikuriya 2007:xv–xix). Between 1840 and 1900, around a hundred articles on the therapeutic applications of cannabis were published in medical journals (Grinspoon and Bakalar 1997:4).

Hashish in Paris: The Cairo connection

The French invasion of Egypt, led by Napoleon Bonaparte between 1798–1801, introduced his soldiers to hashish for the first time; Napoleon did not approve. Some of the soldiers returned to France with hashish (Lee 2013:27). Alerted to this drug, Jean-Jacques Moreau de Tours, a psychiatrist who worked at a hospital in Paris, infiltrated the world of the hasishin in Cairo and brought back from Egypt a green, paste preparation, dawamesc, which contained a mixture of hashish and spices. Moreau de Tours conducted many experiments on himself and his colleagues (Moreau de Tours 1845). He was particularly interested in monomania, ‘mental fixation,’ a condition exhibited by some of the patients in the hospital where he worked, and thought that there are parallels between high-dose hashish inebriation and this mental affliction.

Moreau de Tours subsequently introduced dawamesc to several littérateurs of Paris in the Club des Hashischins, which between 1845 and 1849 convened every month at the Hôtel Pimodan on the Île Sainte-Louis in the centre of Paris. Frequenters of the club included Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre de Dumas, Honoré Daumier, Paul Chenavard, Gérard de Nerval, Jean-Jacques Pradier and his wife, Ferdinand Boissard de Boisdenier, Gustav Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier. Large doses of several grammes of hashish were consumed in sumptuous surroundings, inducing extravagant fantasies in the participants, several of whom, including Baudelaire (1969 [1860]) and Gautier (1969 [1846], wrote vivid accounts of their ‘hallucinatory’ experiences.

In a letter to Baudelaire, Flaubert mentions (1982 [1860]:21) that he has, “some excellent hashish, prepared by Gastinel, the pharmacist.” J. B. Gastinel was a professor of pharmacology in Cairo and an author of works on hashish and opium (p. 22n.4). The introduction of hashish from Egypt to the world of writers and intellectuals in Paris influenced not only Parisians but also, as we will see, other curious visitors from Britain and elsewhere.

The discovery of cannabis in the USA

Cannabis in the USA

Even though cannabis had been widely farmed in the USA for rope, paper, and textiles since the 17th century (Conrad 1993:24–36), its psychoactive properties were hardly known. However, around the same time that the effects of cannabis were first being properly explored by Europeans in the mid-19th century, the first report in the USA of the effects of cannabis was published. Bernard Taylor, a poet, and journalist, recounted his experiences in Antonio’s Hotel in Damascus in ‘The Vision of Hashish,’ an article that appeared in Putnam’s Weekly in 1854, and subsequently in his travel book, Land of the Saracen. Chemistry of Common Life by James Johnson, published in New York 1855, contained a whole chapter on Indian hemp and hashish  (Jay 2011:97). Shortly after this publication, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who was nineteen years old at the time, curious about the wonders of the East, purchased cannabis tincture from his local pharmacy. He wrote about his intense experiences, which he published in 1857, in what became a classic treatise on the psychoactive effects of cannabis (Ludlow 2015).

In the same year, John Bell, a medical doctor, also published two reports of his experiences with high-dose cannabis. He reports (1857:212) that, “All ideas of time and space were especially bewildered…the whole physical nature surrendered itself, without further struggle, to the fullest and most complete belief in the actual existence of a thousand hallucinations.” Bell believed that cannabis could be a useful tool to understand insanity.

In an article in Harper’s Monthly of November 1883, H. H. Kane recounts visiting a hashish den by the Hudson River, and estimates that there were around six hundred occasional hashish users in New York. He attributed the spread of the habit to the Greek immigrant community (Jay 2011:102).  

Hashish used by esotericists in the USA

It is interesting to note that hashish was used by some of the most important, early figures in Western esotericism. The American, Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–1875), a spiritualist, occultist and self-proclaimed master of ‘sex-magic,’ discovered hashish in France in 1855. He became the largest importer of it to the USA and founded the first branch of the Rosicrucian order in North America. During his lecture tours he hawked his homemade cannabis elixirs as ‘invigorants’ and as sex tonics. It was largely due to Randolph that hashish entered spiritualist circles in the USA (Lee 2012:34). Randolph was also the first author clearly to incorporate sexual practices into a system of esoteric ‘magic’ (Pasi 2019:211).

The flamboyant Russian immigrant Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), together with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907) and others, founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. Blavatsky regularly smoked hashish mixed with tobacco, which she probably discovered during her travels in Egypt in the 1850s (Jay 2011:102). A system of metaphysical spirituality developed primarily by Blavatsky, Theosophy was very influential in India in the early 20th century. In 1907, Annie Besant (1847–1933) became president of the Theosophical Society; she subsequently became president in 1917 of the Indian National Congress, which successfully campaigned for the independence of India. Several prominent leaders of the Indian independence movement, including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarharlal Nehru, who became independent India’s first Prime Minister, from 1947 to 1964, were Theosophists (see Lubelsky 2012).

Hashish used by esotericists in Britain

Aleister Crowley (1875–1847), the arch occultist and esotericist of the 20th century, who became known in the popular British press as “the wickedest man in the world” owing to his promiscuous sexuality and his use of drugs, enjoyed hashish (and other drugs), which he probably first used in Cairo in 1904 (Booth 2000:183). He had read Ludlow’s account of his experiments with cannabis tincture and wrote about the general effects of the drug (Regardie 1968:93–152). He also translated Baudelaire’s extraordinary description of his experiences and wrote an introduction to that essay (Regardie 1968:153–210). These deliberations, entitled The Psychology of Hashish, became a seminal account of cannabis effects well into the 1960s (Booth 2000:241).

William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), the Irish poet who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, was also interested in Theosophy and the occult. He first tried hashish in Paris. Yeats became a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization that explored the occult and esotericism, and in 1890, together with Ernest Rhys, founded a poetry club, the Rhymers’ Club, which periodically met in London at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in Fleet Street and at the Café Royale.

The poet and novelist Ernest Dowson (1867–1900), a member of the Rhymers’ Club, used hashish until his early demise, as did the writer and broadcaster Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951), another member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, whose hashish experience he wove into a newspaper article and a short story, The Psychical Invasion (Jay 2011:102).


Although, as we have outlined, cannabis was explored recreationally in a limited way by various groups in Paris, London and New York, beginning in the mid-19th century, it was only in the 1960s that the psychoactive effects of cannabis became more widely known.


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Matthew Clark

Since 2004, Dr. Matthew Clark has been a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), where he taught courses on Hinduism between 1999 and 2004. He has spent many years in India, which he first visited in 1977, visiting nearly all important (several hundred) pilgrimage sites and trekking around 2,000 miles in the Himalayas. He first engaged with yoga in the mid-1970s and began regularly practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1990. Since 2006 has been lecturing worldwide on yoga, philosophy, and psychedelics. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Yoga Studies and is one of the administrators of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. His publications include The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (2006), which is a study of a sect of sādhus; an exploration of the use of psychedelic plant concoctions in ancient Asia and Greece, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma, and Ayahuasca (2017); and a short book on yoga, The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition) (2018).