also how history is remembered. How people felt about what happened according to their lives and experiences. Thus it is easy to see why cannabis can be found referenced more than two millennia ago.


It should come as no surprise that cannabis has had a presence in literature. Near any medium of art and story-telling has been influenced by or featured cannabis. It is true for movies and television. It is very true for music. And it is certainly true for literature.


In this article we will discuss the place cannabis has had in literature. Its depictions and eventually its roots in modern American counterculture.


Cannabis Literature

Pre-Modern Literature

As early as 440 BC the historian Heroditus was talking about cannabis. His work The Histories of Heroditus is widely regarded as one of the foundations of historical academia. It has given countless later historians a look into the ancient past rivaled by few if any other texts save archaeological evidence. In his Histories Heroditus talks about the Scythians.


The Scythians were a long ago nomadic people who roamed the Scythia region of Eurasia between approximately the 7th and 3rd centuries BC. They have also been called the Scyth, Askuzai, Saka, Iskuzai, and Sakae and were part of a much larger Scythian culture that had spread across the Iron Age Eurasian steppes.


In part of his account on the Scythians Heroditus recounts a certain plant that grows in their lands and how it featured in a Scythian funeral:


“In this country a sort of hemp grows, very like to flax; only longer and thicker; and much more excellent than ours, whether sowed or produced by Nature. The Thracians cloth themselves with garments made of the hemp; so well resembling Flax, that a man must have great experience in those materials to distinguish one from the other: And he who had never seen this hemp, would think their their Cloths were wrought out of Flax. The Scythians put the Seeds of this hemp under the bags, upon the burning stones; and immediately a more agreeable vapor is emitted than from the incense burnt in Greece. The Company extremely transported with the scent, howl aloud; and this Manner of purification serves instead of washing…”

The Histories of Heroditus, trans. by Isaac Littlebury, 1737



While in this excerpt Heroditus does not give a clear sentiment on what he thinks of cannabis it is still a look into the past. A look that tells us even 2000 years ago people knew about the value and effects of cannabis. Moreso the section the above excerpt was pulled from is about how the Scythians purify themselves to conduct and participate in funerals. Thus we can see how cannabis was incorporated into something as important, spiritual, and emotionally heavy as a funeral.



Early Modern Literature

Jumping forward a couple millennia- giver or take a few centuries- to arrive at one of the most famous names in classic literature William Shakespeare. Peering between the lines of some of his Sonnets we can see inferences to cannabis or a similar drug by the acclaimed playwright and poet.


“Weary with toil I haste me to my bed,

The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;

But then begins a journey in my head,

To work my mind when body’s work’s expired.

  • Sonnet 27, Lines 1-4


Here in the above lines from Sonnet 27 we can read what sounds like the beginnings of a psychotropic trip. A simultaneous relaxation and stimulation of the mind while the body is weary.



“Why is my verse so barren of new pride,

So far from variation or quick change?

Why with the time do I not glance aside

To new-found methods and to compounds strange?

Why write I still all one, ever the same,

And keep invention in a noted weed,

That every word doth almost tell my name,

Showing their birth and where they did proceed?”

  • Sonnet 76, Lines 1-8


‘Compound’ in the context of 1530 England refers to any substance the result of a chemical union including two or more components. Then there is of course the line referring to “a noted weed.” Nash Jenkins wrote in a 2015 article for the Times about a study that discovered traces of cannabis in piping fragments identified as having come from Shakespeare’s residence. Alongside the traces of cannabis were traces of cocaine as well.


Also this…


“Like as, to make our appetites more keen,

With eager compounds we our palate urge.

  • Sonnet 118, Lines 1-2


… certainly sounds like an old school, classy way to describe ‘having the munchies.’


It should be noted at the time that by 1533 the farmers of Britain were required to grow hemp in specific amounts according to laws issued by King Henry VIII. Amounts that would only increase over the next thirty years due to higher demand for hemp and limited space. So we know cannabis was in 16th century Britain and evidence suggests William Shakespeare both consumed and wrote about it.



Late Modern Literature

We will next jump by a few centuries and across the English Channel to France in the 1840s.


This time and place is more generally remembered for some of the biggest names and contributions to all of modern literature. Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo to name the most famous of his many works. Honoré de Balzac most remembered for his magnum opus series La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy). Victor Hugo, who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame and what many  have recognized as the greatest novel of the 19th century Les Misérables. Then there is Charles Baudelaire who we will get back to soon. Other than being literary giants and living in France what else did these authors have in common?


For one they were also all members of the Club des Hasshischins (the Hashish Club). This club was founded by Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau and Théophile Gautier in 1840. Together these two invited the top and most forefront artists and authors in Paris to join together. The purpose of this meeting of minds was the shared exploration of cannabis. In particular they sought to understand the range of physical effects, the psychoactive effects of consuming cannabis, and the interplay of those effects with the euphoria, inspiration, coherence, as well as stream of thought. One of the works an above authors produced around this time seems inspired by or at least significantly correlates with that author’s experiences with that club.


That author and work being Charles Baudelaire and his 1860 The Artificial Paradise. This collection of writings is considered Baudelaire’s most famous work. In it he collected his experiences getting high and his observations of others at the time.


“…The brain and the organism upon which hashish operates will only give their ordinary and individual phenomena, magnified, it is true, both in quantity and quality, but always faithful to their origin. Man cannot escape the fatality of his moral and physical temperament. Hashish will be, indeed, for the impressions and familiar thoughts of the man, a mirror which magnifies, yet no more than a mirror… “


Here Baudelaire seems to go into the contemplative effects of a cannabis induced high (depending on the strain).


“Here is the drug before your eyes: a little green sweetmeat, about as big as a nut, with a strange smell… There! There is happiness; heaven in a teaspoon; happiness, with all its intoxication, all its folly, all its childishness.”


In the above section it sounds like Baudelaire is describing a cannabis bud or some kind of edible, with an emphasis on the whimsy that can accompany a high.


“You can swallow it without fear; it is not fatal; it will in nowise injure your physical organs. Perhaps (later on) too frequent an employment of the sorcery will diminish the strength of your will; perhaps you will be less a man than you are today; but retribution is so far off, and the nature of the eventual disaster so difficult to define! What is it that you risk? A little nervous fatigue to-morrow—no more. Do you not every day risk greater punishments for less reward?”


Baudelaire acknowledges how limited the dangers are when it comes to controlled cannabis consumption.


According to others- Gautier and Moreau- Charles Baudelaire had a mixed relationship with cannabis outside of his writing. Nonetheless that writing was influential. Baudelaire and his writing are considered part of the Hedonist artistic movement, a transitional period between Traditionalism and Modernism. But at the same time Baudelaire’s writing would be a major influence on the Symbolist movement, which was one of the leading elements of modernism.



American Counterculture Literature

Cannabis came to the United States following the 1910 Mexico Revolution. It was brought as a relaxant by Mexican workers. In the US it was embraced by American Counterculture.


European Counterculture at the time was centered around a refusal of tradition. A breaking from rules and norms like James Joyce did by breaking seemingly all literary writing rules in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. American Counterculture on the other hand originated out of a want for things mainstream or ‘polite’ society labelled as taboo. As marijuana was heavily conflated with foreigners coming into the USA it is easy to see why it was so embraced by counterculture artists.


As marijuana became popular within the ghettos so too did it become more intrinsically tied to racial minorities. This was incorporated into ongoing racist campaigns of attacks on minorities.


Marijuana especially became popular among the Blues and Jazz subcultures, which were in and of themselves regarded as musical countercultures (which of course was also included in the racist attacks targeting those groups). The chaos and messiness inherent to both styles went against many musical rules upheld by mainstream music society. This leads us into literature as Jazz Culture gets appropriated into beatnik culture.



Beatnik or Beat Generation Culture- as they preferred to be called- identified mainstream society as an emotionless establishment that demanded and imposed conformity. The Beat Generation were opposed to that conformity and saw in Jazz an escape from it.


One of the lead inspirations of Beat culture was Mezz Mezzrow. He was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants as Milton Mesirow. As Mezz Mezzrow he was the major supplier of cannabis to Harlem’s cannabis consumers. Through his cannabis deals Mezzrow interacted greatly with minority groups and the musicians who came out of those groups. He was even friends with Louis Armstrong to whom he dealt cannabis. Mezzrow was arrested in 1940 for his cannabis dealing. Three years after the Marijuana Tax Act was enacted.


Other than his role as the premier dealer to Harlem’s Jazz and Blues musicians Mezz Mezzrow was also a writer. His chief literary contribution was Really the Blues, an autobiography which he co-wrote with Bernard Wolfe. In his autobiography Mezzrow shared his life’s journey playing music, as well as smoking and dealing cannabis. Mezzrow seemed to be of the impression that his cannabis-transactional experiences with minorities translated into his writing. He believed he’d “captured” what it meant to live in the ghetto when in fact it was only an idea of what minority groups had to struggle with.


Despite being only a small picture of an entire culture with its own history, Really the Blues still went on to be the blueprint for the eventual Beatnik lifestyle and identity. This Beat Generation would go on to produce notable writers and their works including William S. Burroughs and his Naked Lunch as well as Allen Ginsburg and his seminal work Howl.


Both works feature cannabis and other drugs at their most mind-bending and most mind-expanding while at the same time speaking for the American counterculture.


Cannabis in Literature


In Conclusion

The journey of cannabis in literature reflects the growth and division of cultures into contradicting categories within themselves. You can see it in how it grows from something fascinating and novel in outsider cultures, to part of the advancement of cultural arts, and eventually to something embraced by those who are outside of mainstream culture. Cannabis’ relationship with literature is representative of the increasing complexities of Western cultural identity.




What do you think the different depictions of marijuana in literature mean? What have been your literary experiences with marijuana?


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