Hemp, Cannabis, and Hashish

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Only hemp is explicitly represented as an aphrodisiac in art. Its significance as an aphrodisiac is justified by a Hindu myth.
In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo passed down an erotically tinged legend from the Islamic Orient that has continued to inspire the literary and artistic imagination of both the Orient and the Occident. This is the take of the "Old Man of the Mountain," the legendary leader of a secret society of assassins in Persia. High on a mountain, surrounded by impenetrable walls, he built a fabulous magical garden in which artificial streams carried pure water as well as milk, wine, and honey. There, women of extraordinary beauty played music and danced and served a select group of young men. The men awoke in this earthly paradise from the effects of an inebriating beverage that had been given them at the behest of the "prophet." The Old Man promised the young men that they could dwell in this place of erotic wonders if they could return successfully from their task to kill a particular person. If they themselves were killed, then these same enticements, spoken of in the Koran, would await them in paradise. The fanatic followers of this leader came to be known as the hashishin ("users of hashish"), from which is derived both the French and English word assassins

Hashish was repeatedly listed as an essential ingredient of the inebriating brew that turned the followers of the legendary sect leader into fanatic assassins, even though a variety of sources have stated that "no captured assassin [ever revealed anything] about the use of hashish or other drugs" (Gelpke `975, 101B).

The first scholars who attempted to reconstruct the history of the hashishins and assassins lacked an adequate knowledge of entheogens. This can be seen in a quotation from the Vienese Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, who wrote a history of assassins in 1818: "The Great Master of Great Prior invited the young man, whos power and determination had led him to be deemed worthy to be initiated into the assassin's trade, to table (...) inebriated him with an opiatte (sic!) made of hyoscyamus (hashish); and had him carried into the garden where, when he awoke, he would joyously believe that he was in paradise, which the surroundings, and especially the Huris [the female servants[ would confirm for him both verbally and tangible' (cited in Gelpe 1975, 103B). Rudolf Gelpke (1928-1972),, the great Swiss Orientalist who translated numerous Persian love poems and who cited Von Hammer-Purgstall's words, pointedly commented on his very unscientific mishmash of botanical terms: "It is apparent that [the scholar] regarded hashish and opium as interchangeable terms for one and the same drug, and that he also associated both with henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)."

At first glance, this discussion may not appear to have much relevance to art history. Yet the strange blend of botanical data found in his exemplary quotation is linked to references to assassinations and huris (=whores)-- in other words, to crime and sex-- which, in combination with hashish, have been fuelling the artistic imagination since at least the nineteenth century. This mix continues to dominate in the press, which never tires of reporting about sudden outbursts of aggression and occasionally even of erotic orgies. Referring to the erotic experiences of hashish aficionados, Rudolf Gelpke added "that its 'erotic' effects are due to the fact that it stimulates the imagination. The more imaginative a person is, and the more his imagination and his sense of the erotic permeate and accentuate one another, the more likely it is that his hashish inebriation will also take on erotic overtones." (Gelpe 1975, 95B)

Carried on the wings of such eroticized and idealized Oriental fantasies, by the nineteenth century hemp was beginning to appear in French Orientalist paintings depicting the customs and manners of their subjects. For example, both Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres's (1780-1867) lasciviously erotic harem scene, Grande Odalisque from 1814 (Louvre, Paris), and Thomas Seddons's (1821-1856) painting Dromedary and Arabs at the City of the Dead, Cairo, with the Tomb of Sultan El Barkook in the Backround from 1854 include images of the hookah, or water pipe, that was used to consume hashish.

One person who actually became acquainted with and studied hashish use in the Orient was the French physician Jacques Joseph Moreau de Tours (1804-1884).* It was he who, in 1843, introduced the green paste to the Parisian "Club de Hashischins.: Both Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855) and Charles Baudelaire wrote about its stimulating effects on the imagination and on eroticism. In Baudelaire's words, "Hashish can awaken tender memories in an imagination that is accustomed to occupying itself often with the affairs of love." Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), the hero of Romantic painters everywhere, was an occasional guest at the hashish meetings. However it would be presumptuous to assert that the vital fire of his colours and his orgiastic compositions were a result of his hashish use.

Since the mid-twentieth century, hemp has been used as a psychedelic and aphrodisiac in the alternative scenes of North America and Europe. In a painting that recalls its Hindu origins, the artist Alex Grey depicted the hemp plant as a green goddess for a poster created for the 1995 High Times Cannabis cup in Amsterdam..

Although hemp use is associated with sensual pleasures and female beauty, the relatively few examples of images from India's past and modern Western art demonstrate that such words have primarily emphasized the mythological aspects of the plant.

Text: The Encyclopaedia of Aphrodisiacs Psychoactive Substances For Use In Sexual Practices. Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Ebeling, 2003.
Image: http://alexgrey.com/art/paintings/soul/cannabia/

Alex Grey, Cannabis Cup