11/27/16 Chris Bennett

Century of Lies

This week we speak with the scholar, researcher, and writer Chris Bennett about spirituality, mysticism, and the roles played by cannabis and other entheogens in human development.

Audio file


NOVEMBER 27, 2016


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

CHRIS BENNETT: Hello. Well, I'm Chris Bennett, I'm a cannabis activist up here in Canada. I've been writing about the role of cannabis in history, particularly in magic and religion, for, I don't know, over 25 years I guess. And also run an entheo-botanical shop up here, the Urban Shaman. And, yeah, that's kind of what I'm doing and who I am.

Well, you know, cannabis is, the use of cannabis for ritual purposes is older than any existing religion we know of, for at least, from archaeological evidence, just regarding burnt cannabis, let alone things like hemp fiber and things like that, but just on the evidence of the ritual using of burning cannabis, inhaling the fumes, that goes back about 5,500 years. So it's a very old thing. And it can be found in diverse cultures. We have evidence of cannabis in ancient China, particularly among Taoists.

We have evidence throughout the Mideast, Assyria, Babylon, and probably what I'm most well known for is this research into the Hebrew term Kannabosm, which was used in the incenses and annointing oils, and which I put a case forth that, to show that this was used in the Christian times, as well, cannabis through new archaeological evidence in the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex as well as finds in China among Indo-Europeans, and Scythian finds of cannabis, both burnt and used as a beverage, it's really looking like cannabis was the ancient Haoma of the Parsi or Zoroastrian religion, as well as the Soma of the Vedic religion.

And, there's no more -- no other plant or wine, or anything like that, that has been used so much in religion as cannabis has.

DOUG MCVAY: It's fascinating stuff, and it's -- some might argue that, well, if that had been going on for so long, wouldn't everybody just know that?

CHRIS BENNETT: You know, the Dark Ages came along, a lot of information was lost, but some people do know it, you know what I mean? Things like Assyrian references to cannabis, and Mesopotamian references to cannabis, are well established. It's not unknown in those fields of study. And the emerging archaeological evidence is really changing the way that we look at this, and look at cannabis.

There's just been so many interesting finds over the last few decades, of cannabis at different sites -- sorry, that's my parrot there, chirping in the background -- that it is becoming more well known, you know, but, things like the, you know, Kannabosm, for instance, that's based etymological evidence tracing the modern word cannabis back through history, and also taking a look at the similar term Kannabo that was used in Assyria. And the way that cannabis was used there was identical to the way the Hebrews would have been using it: anointing oils, incenses, ritual purposes in the Temple, as well as medicine.

So, yeah, it's becoming increasingly well known, and increasingly accepted, that cannabis was a major player in the ancient world.

DOUG MCVAY: And, I just -- could you speak for a moment about the idea of the mysteries? In various religions throughout, we've had the -- I know that they've had these sort of, people are initiated into the understandings and the learnings and the teachings, and these become known as the mysteries, it's not a puzzle to solve ...

CHRIS BENNETT: Well, I think that religion itself, you know, starts with the shamanic exploration of psychoactive plants, generally. This is pretty common throughout the world, still taking place in places like Africa and South America, where people are ingesting psychoactive substances and interpreting that experience as some sort of divine revelation. Same thing in the ancient world, you know, when people came across these plants, and they affected consciousness, this was seen as some sort of either spiritual possession or divine messenger of the gods.

And so, this isn't -- from an anthropological perspective, this is quite a normal development of human consciousness. So, the mysteries were basically, you know, taking people out of their everyday consciousness and, with set and setting oftentimes, you know, ritual intent, created by songs, music, setting of the temple atmosphere with statues that represented deities and things like that, and then the ingestion of these psychoactive substances combined with that threw people into deep mystical states where they felt they were getting into contact with something higher than just their own personal consciousness.

DOUG MCVAY: You have a new book.

CHRIS BENNETT: That's right.

DOUG MCVAY: In which you're talking about something that people might define as the supernatural.

CHRIS BENNETT: Well, definitely dealing with magic and the occult. The new book's called Liber 420: Cannabis Arcanum. And it's going to focus on the occult use of cannabis. Generally from, you know, the medieval period forward, although at the beginning of the book I lay a foundation of ancient use, because the ritual use of cannabis in the medieval time forward really is a development of that earlier use, a rediscovery of cannabis through the Crusades, actually.

You know, there had been kind of a dry period in spirituality in the great Dark Ages, when the Catholic Church was dominating much of Europe, and there was no other sort of religious philosophy beyond reading the bible, and most people couldn't even read it, so they were just told about the bible through priests and bishops, and those sorts of people.

And through the Crusades -- so they were, this became quite a dry sort of religion, and people started wanting more. This led to a decision to go into the Holy Land, rediscover the Holy Land, and while in the Holy Land they rediscovered cannabis, through Islamic use. But you know, cannabis had played a role in ancient Europe as well, I should establish that, that we've, you know, found evidence of cannabis in Celtic and Druidic sites, all over Europe. And according to the Encyclopedia of Indo-European Studies, cannabis was very prevalent a number of times throughout ancient European history, both as a fiber and as a ritual substance.

But, this ritual use came back into Europe through magic, in a large way. Books like the Arabic book the Picatrix, which was an 11th century. It was called Picatrix in Europe, it's Ghayat al Hakim in the Islamic world. But this was an Islamic magical text from about the eleventh century, and it was translated into Latin and made its way into Europe around the 13th century. Very influential in the magical tradition, this Arabic grimoire, and it's a lot of, like, planetary magic, so it's like, you know, based on the magic of the stars and certain plants, and incenses, and colors, and minerals, were all associated with the different planets. And cannabis played a really important role, along with other drugs as well: opium and mandrake, and henbane, and other substances can be found in the Picatrix.

And it was generally used here in invocations. So they would burn cannabis with other substances, sometimes mixed with blood, because they felt that the blood gave the deities invoked a physical means of manifesting. And so, they would, you know, self-fumigate, that means create a really smoky atmosphere through burning of cannabis and other substances, and then in the smoke itself, they would start to see a vision. And this vision was the invoked deity that was called down through this means.

So this really inspired a lot of European magic. We have later grimoires, like the Sefer Raziel from the 16th century, or the Book of Oberon, and, as well as the Book of Magic and Invocation, these are all 16th century texts, that have cannabis in them. Usually the cannabis in these later texts seems to have been combined with magic mirrors, and these were either concave mirrors or a flat-black surface, and people would take cannabis, they often used an anointing oil, very similar to the way that I've suggested for the Hebrews and the Christians' use of cannabis, and sometimes burning it as well, and then after taking this substance they would stare into these mirrors until visions started to appear. And, you know, basically, like a projector for the unconscious mind, the subconscious mind.

And, it's interesting because this form of magic was very popular right into the 19th, early 20th century, and we have figures like Louis-Alphonse Cahagnet, and Paschal Beverly Randolph, and DuBotes, and other figures of 19th century occultism, using this same methods, centuries after the publication of -- not the publication but the passing around of manuscripts like the Sefer Raziel or the Book of Magic and Invocation or the Book of Oberon, all these various magical texts.

So, this carried on for some time. It also played a really big role in the development of what we know as spiritualism. That's like seances, table rapping, you know, that type of stuff. Cannabis was really big in the circles that started that trip in the 19th century, like Cahagnet, and Helena Blavatsky, and Paschal Randolph.

DOUG MCVAY: And this is -- and again, going back to the, when I was asking about mysteries, in a sense -- I mean, there's the Eleusinian Mysteries, where the, it was shut down by the Christians at the beginning of the, you know, 400s --


DOUG MCVAY: In the Dark Ages, exactly. But, you know, they had been celebrating the story of Demeter and Persephone, and at the end of it, people no longer feared death. They understood the cycle of life, you know, death and birth and --

CHRIS BENNETT: Yeah, you know, cannabis, since ancient times, like, you know, you've got to remember that people can't base this stuff on their own experience with cannabis. For one thing, these people weren't using cannabis -- what we know, for the most part, these people weren't using cannabis recreationally, it was just used in these types of ritual settings. And also, oftentimes, very powerful extracts of cannabis were used, so potent they'd knock you out for a day or two, you know what I mean.

And this goes back to the Zoroastrian use, where figures like Arda Viraf and Vishtaspa. We know this because there's written records of this that refer to Bhanga, which is the name of cannabis back in the ancient Parsi language, used for this particular purpose, often mixed with wine, which was a common way of ingesting throughout the period. And they would take such strong doses that they would be knocked out, and they'd have visions while they were knocked out, dreams, and they interpreted these visions and dreams as the body leaving -- I mean, the soul leaving the body, and going off and, you know, seeing the wonders of heaven and the horrors of hell, and things like that.

And when the people woke up, they would relate what they had seen. And this was, like, a major source of divine knowledge. So, this separation of what they thought of the soul and the body through these visionary substances, and other substances besides cannabis were obviously used as well, were kind of like a mini-death. You know? And since the soul was able to travel free from the body in these states, and see these things, then obviously at death, this was what happened, they believed.

And this gave rise to a lot of the beliefs we have about an afterlife.

DOUG MCVAY: And, people might -- there are probably people who could be forgiven in this modern day who might think, well, you know, that's just these cultures, they were simple, but you know, we have, you know, our bible, by gosh, we can all just read this and understand, except that many years ago, before people were allowed to have a translation of the bible into -- many years ago, it was only a few centuries that the bible could only be in Latin, and Latin was a language that was only understood by a certain class of people, and largely the priests, so you had that priest class as a, you know, standing between, and then it was opened up, and suddenly the mysteries, what I was, you know, are revealed in part to the public. I mean, is it really any -- is there any difference, really, between the sacred mystical texts of that sort, or the Latin bible back hundreds of years ago before people were allowed to read Latin? I mean, is there really, is there a difference, really?

CHRIS BENNETT: Well, you know, the big difference is the intermediaries, of the priests and bishops and Pope and that type of stuff, placed between the people and that spiritual access, you know, to partake of psychoactive substances and claim a religious experience would have been heresy, would have gotten you burned at the stake, much like the witches and others were burned at the stake throughout the period, medieval period. Right? So, it's, like, about direct access to the divine versus being told about it. You know what I mean?

It was, like, the bible almost in a sense represents fossilized spirituality. A memory of it, you know? And, but, you know, even in the bible, like the Book of Revelations, John takes a scroll, he puts it in his mouth, it turns bitter in his stomach and then he begins to prophecy, so, he ingested something, a similar thing takes place in the Book of Ezekiel, where he eats something and then begins to prophecy from ingesting it. So, it's pretty clear that they were using these types of methods. But it was not something that the layperson, or even the priests grasped, they kind of had been suppressed for so long that they literally forgot about these avenues of spirituality. Direct spirituality.

DOUG MCVAY: You are listening to Century Of Lies, we're a production of the Drug Truth Network fr the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. We're speaking with Chris Bennett, a scholar, researcher, and writer based up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, discussing the history of marijuana and spirituality.

Basically, the ideas that we accept as perfectly natural and given when we're looking at some society that's not mainstream western Europe, when we think of, you know, those, oh well that was them. When we start looking at our own, the idea of some kind of mysticism or different layers of meaning, or, you know, hidden meanings for an initiate, maybe it's just the people that I run into but I think there's a degree of resistance. And what your research is basically showing is, no, that western culture, western European culture, and even our religions, are no different than any of the others that have developed over the centuries. We have these mysteries, we have these traditions and these rituals, and sometimes information gets lost, but, I mean, that's basically what you're doing, is looking --

CHRIS BENNETT: I think it's the perennial religion, this is the natural way things go, you know? Ancient man wanders around and checks out his environment, and samples different things, and then some things have a potent effect, and these things were imbued with spirit, particularly imbued with spirit. And this is just the way it is in the world, you know, it's like, there's very, you know, the only cultures that haven't used entheogens of some sort I think are like the Eskimos, where there wasn't any really growing up there, but they had other methods of, like, breathing exercises, and things like that, ritual breathing and things that threw them into mystic states. You know what I mean?

These types of states, you know, it's not just the ingested plants, you could go sit in the dark in a cave for a few days and not eat, you know, and have a mystical experience. Sometimes, a fever, like in the case of Black Elk's great vision, he had a huge fever and he was thrown into these states. But, certain plants effect certain receptors in the brain, and the experiences that we got as a result of this were deeply influential on our spirituality, if not the very core origins of them.

DOUG MCVAY: And, you mentioned a word that I want to make sure people hear again, and understand, because this is -- the word "entheogen."

CHRIS BENNETT: Yeah, that means "created from within," and this is a term that Professor Carl Ruck and Jonathan Ott and others have placed on psychoactive substances used in some sort of ritual way, in order to get in contact with the spiritual world. And so that's a modern term, instead of using the terms like "psychedelic" or "hallucinogen" that are more loaded. This is directly in reference to those same sorts of substances used for spiritual or religious purposes.

Here, let me give you an example of how people themselves have kind of interpreted this. These examples here are from a book written in the 1840s in France, it's called Sanctuary of Spiritualism: Study of the Human Soul, by this guy Louis-Alphonse Cahagnet. And, Cahagnet was a very important figure in 19th century occultism as well as spiritualism, and he gave three grams of hashish mixed into strong coffee to about fifteen participants, and then they recorded their experiences. And these people reported, you know, seeing people, long lost dead relatives, traveling into huge geometrically formed cathedrals which are of light, which are kind of like the DMT-type visions people are seeing now, and other things.

And as Cahagnet explained of these visions, he said, "These phenomena demonstrate to me that these hallucinations, so-called by all those who have taken this beverage, and on whom similar affects have been produced, were intended to establish sacred truths, especially by directing towards them a series of observations of all studious men. I conclude that this state is the spiritual state we shall enter on quitting the material state, and that we may establish by the propagation of this state the most sublime doctrine that ever existed. It is my conviction that hashish develops in us the spiritual state in which each may find disclosures answering to his inclinations. There is not one of these ecstatics, who, after emerging from this state, has not felt a desire to thank god for such an initiation, and each has found himself penetrated with these truths."

So these are really powerful experiences that really leave an impression on people after they've had them, you know. And, I'll give you another example, from, like, the Book of Oberon, where, as I mentioned, you know, cannabis was mixed with archangel, which I believe is Angel's Trumpet, and was a very, very powerful hallucination, and this was used as a means of invoking spirits into the magic mirror, you know. So, this is like a common way of doing it, same with the ancient Zoroastrians, or the ancient Jews. They ingested these substances.

Moses goes into the tent of the meeting, and he takes this holy anointing oil, which, according to the recipe had about nine pounds of Kannabosm. This is this term that Sula Bennet first suggested was a reference to cannabis, and was mistranslated as Calamus when the Hebrew texts were translated into Latin, mixed with myrrh and cinnamon, and other substances, into about a gallon and a half of olive oil. Every time that Moses speaks to the lord, he covers himself with this oil, and THC's fatty soluble and would pass through the skin, which is a big organ. As well, he would take some of this oil and he would place it on the altar of incense, and the whole time he's doing this, he's inside a little enclosed space called the Tent of the Meeting, and he would actually speak to the lord in the pillar of smoke over the incense altar. This is capnomancy, scrying in smoke, seeing a vision in smoke.

And, he would ponder on a question, and then an answer would kind of start flowing back into his subconscious, and he would take those as literal sayings from god. And so this is like the very common type of experience that humanity used to have.

DOUG MCVAY: And that is -- and that, I suppose, is part of the point. These, people think of, you know, some of these experiences as very much "out there" and oh so strange, and well, people in ancient times might take a plant substance and go on a trip, and maybe they'd be given a plant substance.

CHRIS BENNETT: Well, they didn't have any idea about, you know, THC molecules attaching themselves to the endocannabinoid system in the body, or anything like that, there wasn't any sort of science behind it. There was just the plant, and the effect, and, you know, that effect was not -- was obviously coming through some sort of spiritual means, in their minds, you know, so it wasn't all explained away with science.

But even our own consciousness is really just a, you know, has to do with receptors and molecules and chemicals in our bodies, and stuff like that, our consciousness itself. And the only reason that these psychoactive substances affect us is because they're similar to some of those naturally occurring things. In the case of cannabis, to the endocannabinoids, naturally -- endogenous cannabinoids of the human body, the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant are able to attach themselves to those same receptors. And that's why they affect us.

So, there's some sort of co-relation between us and these plants, you know, it's like we've co-evolved in order to be able to use them.

DOUG MCVAY: And although there weren't -- we didn't have the scientific knowledge, there would have been people, all throughout history there have been some people who have understood these things, that information gets passed along, someone learns it because of experience.


DOUG MCVAY: And they pass it along, and that's that initiation into the mysteries. Which is where this -- I mean, in a sense, when people use the words mystery or mysticism and magic, there are going to be some people who suddenly decide, ah, never mind, whereas really, you're just describing the way that people experienced the things that they, just the way that people experienced things and how they interpret them.

I mean, if you eat some bread, and you go on this amazing psychedelic journey, it's because there was rye ergot fungus, and it's the natural -- ergot, from which we get LSD, so, yep, that's what happened, but if you're just a person with -- if you're a person living hundreds of years ago without, you know, you can't read or write and you know -- all that you know is what you were told by your parents, who are similarly uneducated, or the priest, who is the one who controls access to all the knowledge. And if, you know, then, it was probably a miracle, it was god speaking to you. No, it was just this mushroom that you ate, or this bread that you ate, that made you think.

CHRIS BENNETT: A large part, you know, a big point here is how the substance is introduced, too. You can't underplay the role of set and setting in these situations. You know, when cannabis was a major medicine, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in all sorts of different extracts and things, people would take these substances and they would just feel better, because they'd taken their medicine. You know what I mean?

And the effects were thought, oh, that's the medicine working, you know. There's very few, you know, there are some, but there are very few accounts of people having powerful experiences from a Lilly pharmaceutical extract of cannabis, or Tilden's extract of cannabis, or whatever one they took. Although there are some, for the most part, people just felt better because that was the mindset. And I think this is particularly true of cannabis. I think it was Andrew Weil who termed it as an active placebo, because it is active, but it's also, like, what you think about it is how it affects you, it's your intent.

And so, when, you know, you're sitting and you're smoking herb for playing some video games on the TV, you're not necessarily going to have the same sort of experience as say a Sadu in Indian who bangs it off his third eye in honor of the god Shiva, and then sits down to his Asanas, and starts doing his yogic postures, you know, they're going to have two different affects, simply because of the mindset of the ingesters.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, again, I'm speaking with Chris Bennett, scholar, researcher, writer, and a friend, and really -- this is really just really fascinating stuff, and we don't have enough time so I'm going to have to have you back on soon, but tell me now again, your new book and also some closing thoughts, and if you have a twitter account that people can follow you on, and a blog where people can find out more of what you're writing, and that kind of stuff, and, gosh, I haven't been up to Vancouver in a long time, but I'm -- Urban Shaman, you've got a shop there in Vancouver, right?

CHRIS BENNETT: That's right, yeah. You can find me on CannabisCulture.com, I have a blog on there, I post a lot of historical stuff on the blog. Texts and whatnot. As well, add me on Facebook if you're on Facebook, I'm always posting stuff on there. And my shop, the Urban Shaman, is, I specialize in plants like peyote, ayahuasca, kratom, things like that, a variety of psychoactive substances. I believe humanity has a natural right to plants of the earth and I try to celebrate that natural right to the plants of the earth as much as possible.

And when we're talking about that natural right, which is like our right to air and water, we're talking about a plant like cannabis, we're talking about a plant that humanity has had a relationship with, not for thousands of years, but for tens of thousands of years, and it's a fundamental human right that we have access to cannabis and other medicines of the earth.

And, my new book is Liber 420: Cannabis Arcanum. My last book, which you can find on Amazon, is Cannabis and the Soma Solution. It covers a lot of ground about the role of cannabis in the ancient world. Check it out. I've also got some really good videos on Youtube, if you search for my name, Chris Bennett, and cannabis, you'll find a variety of videos. I've got interviews with people like Professor Carl Ruck, Dr. Ethan Russo, Dr. David Hillman, Mike Aldrich, and others on the history of cannabis, and go into a lot of detail in those videos.

DOUG MCVAY: Fantastic. Folks, do check out Chris's stuff, it's fascinating, it's eye-opening, and it's important. It's, as I say, to know where you're going, you have to know where you are and how you got there. And, you know, that whole question of how we got here is a thing that -- it's like an onion, pealing back layers and finally understanding, oh, that's why this all happened.

You've been listening to Century Of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give it a like and share it with friends. You can follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

We'll be back next week with thirty minutes of news and information about the drug war and this Century Of Lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.