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Cannabis in Symbolism & Metaphysics

When a cannabis-user is criticized for their choice of substance, it has become oft-cited and incredibly valid to retort with the use of cannabis among the ancient Chinese, right alongside opium. The oldest recorded documentation of cannabis being prescribed to patients dates back to an ancient Chinese medical compendium, with a description of uses that everyone can agree with today.

Beyond this, however, very little is known to the average individual about the ancient historical, religious, and social uses of cannabis (Hindu Kush, anyone?), and especially hashish. It has been well-established in the scientific community that cannabis and is components have highly effective psychosomatically rehabilitative properties that literally cannot be found in any other plant on earth. Science has even demonstrated that the human physiology has been incorporating endogenous cannabinoid receptors in the brain and intestinal lining for somewhere around 500 million years or so. It could hardly be argued that this adaptation principle could have begun or sustained its growth without a consistent incorporation of the cannabis plant into the diet of the human being for at least the last 500 million years. (keep in mind that this is not exactly a promotion of Darwinian theory, which is a very limited consideration of a much greater universal adaptation principle.)

With at least this much admitted by the mainstream scientific community, it does not take a genius to see that the only thing that has changed about the use of cannabis throughout history is, more or less, the War on Drugs—and in a more over-arching sense, propaganda as a whole. Aside from stepping-stones along this skewed path (like, for example, Reefer Madness) that have created stigmas in certain parts of the world, there has, more or less, been no change in the use of cannabis and the social outlook of the plant throughout the history of human culture.

To elaborate, consider what tobacco has represented throughout history. There is a reason that some people feel that “cigarettes make you look cool.” Really, an argument that anything can “make you look cool” could be made, but for some reason, this connotation has always stuck with tobacco in specific, and there’s a good reason. Due to the neurochemical stimulation of the acetylcholine receptors in the brain caused by nicotine consumption, there are releases of norepinephrine, epinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, and even endorphins. What this means on a sociological level, in layman’s terms, is that tobacco smoke will give a person a neurochemical sense of reward, and an aroused state that can lend a hand towards motivation.

Beyond making a person “feel cool,” the idea is that the traditional tobacco smoker was a “man’s man” who needed no real rewards and was ready to get work done at any time: the soldier, the cowboy, the general laborer or construction worker, the detective, the business mogul, the writer, the chiefs and their peace pipes, et cetera. This mention of tobacco is important because in a certain sense, this has always been the traditional perception of cannabis as well.

From a standpoint of ancient esoteric symbolism, tobacco was considered of Mars of the zodiac, meaning war, aggression, fire, red, et cetera. Cannabis was traditionally related to Saturn and Capricorn by proxy, making it symbolic of the Earth. Saturn is associated with trance-states, visionary experiences, reoccurring cycles (think “rings” of Saturn), culminations, harvest and natural law. Saturn was also considered a symbol for lead by alchemists—lead representing the material necessary for transmutation or the highest form of adaptation. As Tool said, “Saturn ascends, choose 1 or 10, hang on or be humbled again.”

cannabisWhereas tobacco was for times of hard work, cannabis was the resolution; the culmination of all the hard work (all generally speaking, of course). Tobacco was for the Chief of the tribe, and cannabis was for the shaman, or more specifically: the alchemist. Indeed, straying from the roots of alchemy is where the disservice has been made to the cannabis culture today. Few people remember that the garden was the first laboratory, and that the gardener was the first scientist—but he was also much more than a scientist, he was an alchemist. A brief reminder for the new initiates out there: the metallurgy of alchemy was its symbolic, exoteric proponents that hinted to greater hidden truths of a universal adaptation principle (transmutation). Read here for more details, but to make things clear, alchemy is an overarching metaphysical philosophy of life that follows wherever history finds religion, whether it be Asia, India, Egypt, Europe, Persia, et cetera.

True to its Saturnian symbolism, the history of cannabis and alchemy can hardly be separated, and perhaps, may not be able to stand separate at all. The alchemist seems to be the entire reason that cannabis was known to man socially, as well as the reason for its cultivation throughout time, and the reason for it was not, “to get high,” and not even necessarily for medical remedies. This is not very far-fetched, since a variety of alcoholic fermentations and psychedelic concoctions known today are almost entirely from the annals of ancient alchemy.

It seems the alchemist’s fascination with cannabis was two-part: First, (and likely most important to the truest of alchemists) there was the growing and cultivation process. The specificity of their methods is a bit harder to come by, but suffice it to say that the entire concept of horticulture has stemmed from alchemy by its very nature. The definition of horticulture reads in a basic dictionary as, “the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers, or ornamental plants,” and the definition of alchemy is essentially, “the science and art of living and growing.”

Second, yet still very essential, there were the flowers of the cannabis plant used for its trance-inducing properties, and the entire host of medical benefits that we know about today. For these reasons, the cannabis plant was considered extraordinary, and many religious cultures considered it as a gift from the gods, the “high” being a state of mind that made man more receptive to the gods, also known as “Saturn,” which is a symbol of the alchemist in specific (conversely, tobacco was believed to help man transmit his thoughts to the metaphysical, etheric realm). In this Saturnian sense, cannabis was seen as the end of the cycle—it represented the state of affairs after the hard work, when it was time to contemplate, recuperate, deduce, and strategize, or as Hawaiians would say, “pau hana.” Adding to this sense of completion was the exclusivity of cannabis oftentimes in the ancient world, and even though it was widely known, it could surely only be grown in certain places, and thus, in some places, cannabis could only be acquired after hard work or lots of money had been expended (which has hardly seemed to change in today’s day and age, for that matter).

While this is getting a bit too comprehensive to explain in great detail, the alchemist’s belief in the “Microcosm” and “Macrocosm” of experience and existence, laid the foundation for this mentality. It was largely considered over time that the cannabis plant was a sort of natural, symbolic mimic of the alchemist and his quest for transmutation—an old “tip of the hat” from Mother Nature. It was this line of thinking, specifically, that seems to have espoused cannabis horticulture today, although the parallels hardly remain aside from within the somewhat scarce intuitive cannabis grower.

Elaborating on this history a bit, researcher and author, Chris Bennett, seems to be the foremost pioneer on the subject of cannabis within anthropology and ancient symbolism. Throughout his career, Bennett makes the case based on his presented evidence for cannabis use within the traditions of ancient Greece, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, and Judaism, Paganism/Druidism, and Egyptian Hermeticism. While Judaism, Hermeticism, and Zoroastrianism may be slightly controversial claims to some, it seems that cannabis’ prevalence throughout ancient Eastern and European metaphysics can been seen all throughout. Excerpts taken from Chris Bennett’s book, Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic & Religion, (published in 1995 and already out of print, selling for upwards of one hundred dollars from second-hand stores):

“Hemp has played a prominent role in the development of the religions and civilizations of Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa… The sacramental use of marijuana predates written history and this tradition continues with diverse tribes in Africa, certain Hindu sects, Moslem fakirs and Rastafarians, as well as modern Occultists and Pagans. Indeed, marijuana has been employed for insights and ecstasy by members of virtually every major religion in history…

“Knowledge and use of the sacred cannabis Tree of Life predates the oldest deciphered written records. The Hindus of India took this knowledge with them when they left the Hindu Kush mountains. The traditions continued with the ancient Egyptians, the Zoroastrians (Persia revered cannabis, the white Haoma, along with the Tree of All Seed. The Scythians, enigmatic Magi of the North, and their trading partners the Thracians, spread this information throughout Europe and the Mediterranean… Perhaps, as Dr. Aldrich seems to suggest, our quest to partake in the cannabis Tree of Life unmolested, is the same story that has been told since Gilgamesh found and lost the flower of eternity over five thousand years ago. Perhaps it is the same story depicted on the Scythian carpet found with two censers containing burnt cannabis residues, which has the repeated design of a horseman approaching the Great goddess who holds the Tree of Life in one hand. Perhaps it is the same story as that of Parzifal’s Quest for the Holy Grail… The collective desire to obtain the Tree of Life is an expression of our deepest yearnings to know the Great Mystery beyond beginnings and endings, compounded with the desire to escape the endless cycle of titillations and antagonisms of the senses teasing us in the Great Mysterious Cosmos of Existence.”

Unfortunately, excerpts of this fascinating research-novel are not in excess online, and there does not appear to be any floating PDF copies on the internet, so this one remains veiled from the eyes of those who do not have a copy on their bookshelf. For brevity, suffice it to say that the evidence is clear and was discussed for all these ancient origins of cannabis, and while the details may need some development, the facts are there. As convenient as it may seem to some people, the idea of traditional trade routes in this scenario is entirely plausible and heavily indicated in the data. After all, the trading of goods and general commerce was a primary factor in the flourishing of civilization to begin with.

(Chris Bennett lecture)

From here, the discussion leaves us with one final point to consider: the effects of cannabis, and the comparisons between ancient and modern thought on the matter. For an introduction, the “Most Wicked Man in the World,” the one and only, Aleister Crowley. Before anyone gasps and thinks they’ve been reading an article about cannabis and Satanism this entire time—settle down. Crowley was undoubtedly a little sociopathic (some would argue psychopathic towards the latter half of his life) but the man was clearly effective in what he did (metaphysics) so much so that it caused his ruination and likely led to his deepening state of pathology. Strange men—even evil men—can be geniuses, and this article maintains that Crowley did quite a bit of good along with the bad.

In his essay entitled, The Psychology of Hashish, Crowley discusses some of the ancient symbolism of the plant as an ancillary note, and overall attempts to scientifically examine the traditional/metaphysical/magickal/shamanic (take your pick) uses of cannabis.

Crowley’s hypothesis is simple enough:

Perhaps hashish is the drug which ‘loosens the girders of the soul,’ but is in itself neither good nor bad. Perhaps, as Baudelaire thinks, it merely exaggerates and distorts the natural man and his mood of the moment.”

The other specifically interesting piece of the essay is Crowley’s examination of the side effects of cannabis and hashish.

“1. The volatile aromatic effect (A)

This, the first evanescent symptom, gives the “thrill” described by Ludlow, as of a new pulse of power pervading one. Psychologically, the result is that one is thrown into an absolutely perfect state of introspection. One perceives one’s thoughts and nothing but one’s thoughts, and it is as thoughts that one perceives them. Material objects are only perceived as thoughts; in other words, in this respect, one possesses the direct consciousness of Berkeleyan idealism. The Ego and the Will are not involved; there is introspection of an almost if not quite purely impersonal type; that, and nothing more.

I am not to be understood as asserting that the results of this introspection are psychologically valid.

2. The toxic hallucinative effect (B)

With a sufficiently large dose — for it is possible to get effect (A) only as a transient phenomenon — the images of thought pass more rapidly through the brain, at last vertiginously fast. They are no longer recognized as thoughts, but imagined as exterior. The Will and the Ego become alarmed, and may be attacked and overwhelmed. This constitutes the main horror of the drug; it is to be combated by a highly — may I say magically? — trained will.

I trust my readers will concede that the practice of ceremonial magic and meditation, all occult theories apart, do lead the mind to immense power over its own imaginations.

The fear of being swept away in the tide of relentless images is a terrible experience. Woe to who yields!

3. The narcotic effect (C)

One simply goes off to sleep. This is not necessarily due to the brain-fatigue induced by (A) and (B); for with one sample of Cannabis, I found it to occur independently.

Simple impressions in normal consciousness are resolved by hashish into a concatenation of hieroglyphs of a purely symbolic type.”

This is a fairly straightforward and rational explanation of the effects of cannabis. Of course, it is somewhat debatable since Crowley’s work is the first to explain that this is an experiment where each human is a slightly different control-method, but Crowley’s explanations bear enough accuracy to consider as being generally correct, and extremely insightful. 

In his essay, Crowley further asserts that Stage 1 is the effect necessary for trance-induction, visionary meditative states, and overall traditional magickal purposes. He furthermore asserts that very few people actively seek out cannabis for the effects of Stage 1, and that general majority of “stoners” (not Crowley’s word-choice) seek cannabis out for the effects of Stage 2 and 3. Additionally, in an incredibly wordy and round-about way, he describes the mental faculties of what Carl Jung termed, “mental projection” and theorizes that the effects of cannabis are a variable of increasing and less-controllable mental projection faculties of the human brain(which makes quite a bit of sense with what is known about psychedelics today, coupled with the fact that cannabis is generally considered a mild psychedelic anyhow). Consequently, once it is understood that Crowley was grasping at the idea of psychotherapy through mental projection without having a term for it, the intermediary of scientific study that can be used to test his hypothesis is hypnosis. In this case, auto(self)-hypnosis is more relevant than traditional hypnosis, but both remain valid avenues of investigation.

Luckily, a bit of research has already been done into the matter, albeit a minimal amount. In 1978, a joint venture between Boston University and Beth Israel Hospital (also in Boston) was conducted, entitled, Effects of cannabis intoxication on primary suggestibility–“primary suggestibility” being a technical term for a hypnotic trance. While the study is not readily available in its entirety to the public, the abstract is quite provocative, and reads as follows:

“Thirty-five subjects of known hypnotizability were tested for primary suggestibility in the waking state with and without marijuana intoxication. The drug caused an increase in suggestibility similar to that produced by the induction of hypnosis. The effect did not persist when subjects were retested one week later in their normal waking state.”

Realistically, this is all that a person needs in order to empirically test and attempt to verify Crowley’s hypothesis as to the psychological nature of cannabis in metaphysics and spirituality. It is surprising that more public scientific research has not been done into the matter (or perhaps not quite as surprising as it is disappointing, and intentional). It furthermore seems there is even an ever-so-faint ring of truth in the traditional conservative stance that cannabis “makes people dumb”—for it is certainly not a state of IQ or intelligence that is hindered by cannabis, but it is a person’s state of suggestibility that can make them psychologically vulnerable while using cannabis to some degree. Of course, this is in no way meant to dissuade anyone from cannabis use, but merely to educate. It should already be clear enough that transformative results can come from cannabis if used properly, and in moderation. Anything in excess can be harmful, even natural and inherently safe substances such as cannabis.

Merely as a final passing note, it is also interesting to note Crowley’s decision to use the phrase “loosens the girder of the soul,” since THC, CB1 and CB2 are now known for their ability to powerfully modulate neurological signal transduction.

Surely, there is plenty more that could be said on this subject, and the further elaboration of these ideas seems enough for a career’s worth of research, but the points have hopefully been presented clear enough to supply a proper informational palette on the subject, for those who would care to research it further in their own time. Regardless of the minute details yet to surface, it is inarguable that cannabis has played an intensely prominent role in human biophysiological adaptation throughout history and will continue to do so, despite “wars” against it.

Ironically, the efficacy of cannabis has really never been more of a secret than it is today, and it would perhaps surprise too many people to realize that this is the case with many, many other truths of the world. Overall, postmodern man would be wise to consider the thoughts of his ancient counterpart a bit more astutely, when concerning cannabis or anything else.

Related Reading: The Top Ten Marijuana Myths That No One Should Believe


Anthony Tyler
A journalist and author from Anchorage, Alaska, Anthony Tyler aims to twist the knife in both phony new-age ideals and scientific materialism by drawing attention to the rich heritage of esoteric science throughout history. Far from being “satanist,” the esoteric (i.e. occultism or comparative religion) marks the beginning of mathematics, astronomy, psychology, medicine, and even politics. Esoteric science represents a cache of little-known knowledge detailing how to decipher the human's unconscious mind--and the unconscious mind is essentially everything that the human mind is not considering at any given moment.

2 Replies to “Cannabis in Symbolism & Metaphysics

  1. Great article, my book Cannabis and the Soma Solution which covers all the cultures mentioned, is easy to find. I am currently working on a book about the role of cannabis in the occult that includes chapters on alchemical references as well as cannabis recipes from medieval and renaissance grimoires.

    1. Wow, thanks for the comment, it is greatly appreciated. Count me in heavy anticipation for the release of that book, and I will add a link to Cannabis and the Soma Solution at the bottom of the article. cheers!

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