It’s Not All about the Drugs, People – But Sometimes It Is: Some Thoughts on Bennett’s Liber 420

Yes, I’m going to talk about drugs and occultism. Look out, everyone!

The immediate prompt for this is the release of Chris Bennett’s Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal Herbs, and the Occult, which quotes a couple of my own works, namely Oberon and Experimentum. This book is nearly eight hundred pages, so I’m making these judgments on only a few segments of the book: the chapter on the Picatrix, the chapter on ritual magic, and part of the section on fairies.

From what I’ve seen, Bennett’s work must be approached with some care. He tends to toss in all sorts of material, regardless of origin. You’ll get one section consisting of quotes from outdated, sensationalistic potboiler authors, and another in which he extensively quotes David Attrell, one of the translators of the upcoming PSU Press scholarly edition of the Picatrix. He’s thorough enough that he catches a lot of good material, but that thoroughness sometimes compels him to use sources that he should really be tossing out. Is he seeking to impress readers with sheer volume? I don’t know, but if he cut out a good amount of material, he would have a much better book that would make a stronger case and that I’d have an easier time recommending to people.

With that caveat… once you wade through most of this stuff, Bennett makes points that are well-researched and documented, such as:

  • The Picatrix, on several occasions, recommends the use of psychotropic substances, and this book had considerable influence on Trithemius, Agrippa, and other early modern authors.
  • Psychotropic substances show up in the literature of ritual magic in the early modern period.
  • Many practitioners of magic in the 19th century occult revival made use of such substances in conjunction with catoptromancy, or mirror divination.

Bennett does a good job of documenting all of these. There are some odd errors – he refers to Hockley writing a book after the date of his death, and one of the quotes attributed to me comes from a book’s marketing material – but on the whole we have a compelling argument for all of these.

What I chiefly disagree with is the argument derived from the second point. Let’s take the main passage quoted in Liber 420 from Oberon:

Cannabis [hemp;]. Anoint thee with the juice of cannabis and the juice of archangel [“white nettle”] and before a mirror of steel call spirits, and thou shalt see them and have power to bind and to loose them.

Coriander. Coriander gathereth spirits together. A fume being made thereof with Apio167 nisquio [jusquianus, or “henbane”] and lazias168 cictuta [cicuta, or “water hemlock”] urgeth spirits and therefore, it is said, herba spirituum.

Both of these constitute only a few lines. Should we dismiss them because of their brevity? Certainly not. Yet Oberon runs over five hundred pages of text, with many operations for dealing with various spirits, and none of the others call for the use of cannabis. This is reflected in many of the other manuscripts I’ve seen.

(It would also be useful to have some pharmacological insight into some of these procedures. What strains of marijuana were available at the time, and do they reflect the dosages that modern ones contain? An educated opinion on the dosage of THC necessary for hallucinations if applied topically to the face (and, I assume, the mucus membranes) would have been welcome, for instance. It is possible for a substance with pharmaceutical properties to be used for a symbolic value without it being used in sufficient quantities or in an ineffectual manner, and Bennett’s argument would be stronger if he had addressed this point.)

The presence of these substances in some references, and their absence in the vast majority, are both necessary to understanding how these substances fit into ritual magic of the period. Emphasizing one or the other says more about our contemporary debates about psychotropic substances than anything else.

But what about the visions and scenes that accompanied scrying sessions?

Bennet quotes Giovanni Caputo’s “Archetypal-Imaging and Mirror-Gazing” (read here), and a few lines in particular stands out:

Recently, empirical research found that gazing at one’s own face in the mirror for a few minutes, at a low illumination level, produces the perception of bodily dysmorphic illusions of strange-faces. Healthy observers usually describe huge distortions of their own faces, monstrous beings, prototypical faces, faces of relatives and deceased, and faces of animals. (Bennett p. 381)

(Sidebar: In line with what I said about thoroughness, this particular chapter of Bennett also compiles a great deal of information about magical uses of mirrors, if you like that sort of thing.)

Bennett never returns to discuss the implications of this passage, but its importance needs to be underscored. Although we tend to focus on altered states of consciousness caused by pharmaceutical means, scientists have found a wide range of other causes that might also induce these effects. Understanding the grimoires as a whole means recognizing all of these possibilities.

This is where Bennett runs into difficulties. For example he complains that Stephen Skinner “seems to disregard the role of psychoactive substances in magic altogether, even in regards to fumigation, which he suggests was really based on good and bad smells.” With the exceptions noted above, I would agree with Skinner’s assessment of suffumigation as a whole.

Where the book really goes off the rails, however, is in Aaron Leitch’s foreword. As we’ve discussed before, Aaron spent some time in his Secrets of the Magickal Grimoires unsuccessfully arguing for the role of psychotropics in magic. Now he admits that, “The only thing I couldn’t do – at the time I was writing – was point to a specific spell in the European texts that directly included the use of such hallucinogens.”

Yet he can’t let the point go – “Why wouldn’t the grimoire authors routinely mention [drugs]?”, he asks. To me, the answer is pretty clear, but Aaron wants to pursue it further. He does also mention that “listing belladonna as an ingredient in an incense won’t likely be the crime that gets you lynched in a text that tells you how to conjure demons to cure your enemies.” It’s questionable how often anyone would have been the victim of mob violence because someone read his or her book of magic – a quick search turns up one example from the fifth century – but this is otherwise correct.

Yet he’s not done. Aaron makes a supposition and leaps straight to a conclusion: it’s about cultural norms!

And this is the same reason why the hallucinogenic drugs are rarely mentioned in the grimoires, and never appear directly as ingredients in any summoning of divination ritual. Their absence is just more of the author’s insistence that his magick isn’t like those people’s – those vile worshipers of devils who take strange drugs and dance naked in the moonlight! Never! (p. ix.)

So, let’s summarize Aaron’s argument. For early modern practitioners, summoning demons or calling upon the devil to harm others, compel women into sex, and destroy property was perfectly fine, but they didn’t write about drugs because people might think poorly of them.

I’d like to suggest my own standard for evaluating such material. Explicit references to psychotropic substances should be recognized, especially when the method of administration is consistent with what we know about their effects. Otherwise, let’s not add them in. I think that Bennet has demonstrated how much material this still gives us for conversation.

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Published in: on December 2, 2018 at 8:27 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Sorry about getting that info wrong in that quote about your work, and pisser that I got that date wrong on Hockley’s book. I did include some potboiler type stuff, but I think I clarified it when so, and sometimes in order to dispel it, as with a lot of nonsense about masons and the illuminati etc. The overflow of info, is probably more due to my OCD than anything else, lol. (self diagnosed)
    In regards to transdermal absorption see page 32 – Health Canada has done scientific tests that show transdermal absorption of THC can take place. The skin is the biggest organ of the body, so of course considerably more cannabis is needed to be effective in this way, much more than when ingested or smoked. The people who used the Holy Oil literally drenched themselves in it. Based upon a 25mg/g oil Health Canada found skin penetration of THC (33%). “The high concentration of THC outside the skin encourages penetration, which is a function of the difference between outside and inside (where the concentration is essentially zero).” Health Canada, who was concerned about people getting high off of hemp body products, concluded that, even with THC content limited to 10 ppm, “inadequate margins of safety exist between potential exposure and adverse effect levels for cannabinoids in cos- metics, food, and nutraceutical products made from industrial hemp” (Health Canada, 2001).1 I talked to Dr. James Geiwitz personally at a conference shortly after this study was published, and he told me that he felt this offered strong evidence for the potential psychoactive effects of the Holy Oil.

    in regards to purely symbolic effects and non-psychoactive use, see page 390-Likely, as in other ancient references, “hempseede” included the chaff around the seed, which contain the psychoactive resins of cannabis, otherwise it would have no psychoactive effect and signifies a source of “contagious magic,” i.e. the powers of cannabis experienced in more powerful formulas, was seen as a spiritual force in the plant, that could be summoned and used in other ways, including magnetizing objects, as in the rings, discs, and mirrors discussed above.

    page 447 – Although I am unclear as to the effect of mushrooms in a topical application, and I am doubtful of such, this may indicate some folk or mag- ical awareness of mushrooms that Nynauld picked up on and worked into his account; or a case of ‘contagious’ or sympathetic’ magic,” i.e., whereby things known in magic, in this case its effects, and assuming that somehow any association with the substance brings some of that spirit in.

    452, – There is an element of symbolic or associative magic associated with hemp in many cases in the medieval period, where its use appears to be purely symbolic, and not for its psychoactive effects. However this itself, seems likely to have developed out of some awareness of cannabis’ reputation for more entheogenic or magical purposes, and was a form of “contagious magic.”

    I probably was a little cocky in my reference to Stephen Skinner there though, and I do not claim to be the sort of expert on magical grimoires that both you and he are. However I do think that psychoactive substances have a time honoured tradition of use in these areas, due to their effectiveness and there is certainly more than the Picatrix and Oberon, or SRLS in regards to these sort of references.

    On a different note, have you ever looked into the role of hashish in Lovecraftian lore and the scene around him? I touch on a bit of this in these two articles – https://medium.com/penumbra-livros/penumbra-interviews-chris-bennett-about-his-book-liber-420-cannabis-magical-herbs-and-the-occult-d45119768fda

    https://www.cannabisculture.com/content/2018/04/17/420-lovecraft-crowley-and-hashish-connections/

    All the best and thanks for your learned feedback.


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