Book Review - Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal Herbs and the Occult

Chris Bennett’s latest book Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal Herbs and the Occult, is easily the most comprehensive analysis regarding the use of cannabis in magic and occult praxes. Covering a span of nearly thirty thousand years, Bennett’s presentation expertly takes the reader through a wide expanse of human history. From the Scythians along the Steppes of Russia to the Hashishin of Islam and finally to the occult magicians of 19th century Europe, cannabis enthusiasts are sure to find a plethora of fascinating information regardless of their prior experience level or interest in history. As stated by Chris in the introduction to Liber 420:

Modern readers, who are familiar with cannabis’ effects may at first find this relationship between cannabis and the occult hard to accept, based on their own personal experiences of recreational use, and assume the use of more ‘potent’ narcotics and psychedelics are being identified. However, it is important to remember, that ancient magicians and initiates and their later counterparts in the occult scene, were not recreational users of cannabis. Set and setting played a key role in fermenting the right state of mind to elicit these ‘spiritual’ experiences, and we can be sure that magical ceremonies more often than not accompanied their use. Also, dosage levels and means of ingestion provided users with a much more powerful experience than that of the typical smoked joint or bowl of hashish, albeit, that even in mild doses, cannabis, introduced in the right mood and place, can have an entheogenic effect. (Bennett, 2018.)

In one particularly interesting section, Bennett highlights the hilarious yet courageous exploits of one Francious Rabelais (1494-1553), an ex-monk turned herbalist for whom Liber 420 is cleverly dedicated. In his most famous work Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelais not only managed to weave a satirically long-winded fantasy of mysticism and social commentary but also cryptographically made allusions to his cannabis inspired creations right under his reader's nose. Rabelais' literary ventures were so outrageous at the time that apparently his works once earned him the title ‘one who gives the pope the finger.' For those unfamiliar with the incredible influence Francious Rabelais had on Western mysticism, readers of Liber 420 are guaranteed to find a new cannabis folk-hero.

Another chapter, provocatively titled The Cabaret of the Phantasmagoria, has all the makings of an 18th century Scooby-Doo mystery. Using a combination of early projectors, smoke, and angled mirrors, a couple of creepy old white men (Johann Georg Schröpfer and Karl von Eckartshausen) dupe a large number of incredulous Parisians out of their money by pretending to conjure demons and spirits of the recently deceased. Drugged punch and salads, followed by subsequent fumigation of hashish within a confined theater were at last revealed to be the hypnotic agents which ensured the success of those psychedelically-fueled initiations. Unfortunately, this mystery ends in suicide or potential murder by Masons rather than a swinging dance party with Scooby the gang. Nonetheless, the magical, cannabis-based origins of modern cinema will no doubt prove engaging to just about anyone.

All too often in the field of psychedelic history, authors stretch credulity in order to validate single-answer solutions or a specific psychedelic substance. However, thankfully such is not the cast with Liber 420. The information Bennett has painstakingly compiled academically reinforces the intimate relationship between magic and cannabis while at the same time acknowledging and appreciating other intoxicating plants such as opium, mushrooms, acacia or the nightshades. Excellently sourced so as to dispel any accusations of over-speculation, Bennett objectively and passionately puts forward a virtual heap of unambiguous references to the medicinal, intoxicating, and entheogenic application of cannabis.

One 19th century author said of Francious Rabelais, “His large book is a giant-jest uttered by a giant-intellect,” a sentiment which rings just as true for Chris Bennett and the massive tome that is Liber 420. Bennett beautifully contextualizes and summarizes the long-standing history of cannabis as a medicine and entheogen within Western magical traditions, while pulling off several well-executed fart jokes. With the current political climate in America, Liber 420 is a welcome glimmer of hope among what is a stormy horizon for rational drug policy. Sadly, it is unlikely that anyone in the current administration has the fortitude or ability to read it. However, cannabis advocates now have another invaluable resource in Liber 420 for initiating desperately needed change, thanks once again to the work of Chris Bennet.


By: Cody Noconi

*Picture at the top found in Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal Herbs and the Occult by Chris Bennett