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Hashish’s History Through The Literary Tradition: Oldest Mentions & Relics to Modern Day

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Hashish and Cannabis have enjoyed a long and stable relationship with humankind, despite our brief one-hundred-year blunder of Prohibition and a (Drug) War against the people. Meanwhile sugar, coffee, tobacco, and alcohol serve as main objects of trade; All of which are far more addictive and destructive. Our willingness to accept, control, and dominate all these other trades, yet the distinct refusal to accept cannabis, will be remembered as racially motivated and power-hungry. There is no other adequate excuse for the senseless abandonment and criminalization of the plant or anyone who chooses to consume it at the dawn of the 19th or 20th century.

Cannabis has existed and been consumed for as long as we know, with its earliest recorded literary references coming from the classic, 1001 Arabian Nights. What is clear to me is the prominent usage of hashish, actualized by our literary giants and explored by generations after. It is through the work of writer’s, philosophers, scientists and poets, that hashish and other pharmacological wonders have made lasting marks. While its use is common enough to be included in contemporary literature, the material presents a narrow glimpse into the realities of hashish.

Let’s dig in.

First Recorded Medical Use

It is around 2,700 B.C.E. that we have the first recorded medicinal application of cannabis written by Emperor Shen Neng of China. Another form of hashish, Bhang, is dated from 2,000 BCE until 800 BCE, having been mentioned in ancient Hindu texts. Hashish was used among Napoleonic campaigns, said to “bolster exhausted armies” in Egypt. A look at hash history in literature however, begins with a true classic in the literary realm: 1001 Arabian Nights.

1001 Arabian Nights

Some of the earliest known mentions of hashish appearing in 1001 Arabian Nights, leads the reader to deduct very different ideas about the effects of hashish. Our oldest recorded reference, the work consists of “folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age,” says Wikipedia. Sometime between the 7th century AD and the 14th century, the tales were likely an oral tradition, until finally gathered into One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, with two chapters pertaining to hashish.

The Tale of the Hashish Eater

While many are quick to dismiss The Tale of the Hashish Eater included in Arabian Nights, as a warning against the use of hash, they may have missed the point. A frequent and continued problem, our hashish mentions are often reduced to good or bad, moral, or immoral, without considering both the positive and negative aspects of consumption. The tale begins by stating a normal, working, fisherman takes his hashish three times daily and lives a regular honest life. It isn’t until he swallows a “larger dose of his favorite drug than usual,” that his night-time fishing excursions land him a dog (thinking the dog is a fish) on his hook. Hashish is called “that hilarious herb,” in humorous tone, while depicting the hashish eater’s follies. Let this be a lesson in the responsible use of hashish.

Agriculture & Hemp

We know that hashish played prominent roles throughout early Arab Empires, spreading across central Asia, with traces of cannabis, cannabis seed, and hemp spread throughout our ancient timelines. The monumental and world-changing practice of agriculture was discovered about ten-thousand years ago. Hemp is the oldest known and dated crop, developing around 8,000 BCE. This has led scholars such as Carl Sagan, to believe that cannabis may have been among the first agricultural crops to sustain modern civilizations. Agriculture would allow civilizations to flourish, as the population rapidly increased. Cannabis may have been central to the evolution of mankind.

Hashish Literature in the New World

We have a brief mention of how hashish was first seen through exotic and eastern influence, causing great interest to Americans, but great concern. In his 1854 Putnam's Monthly article "The Vision of Hasheesh," Bayard Taylor recounts his time spent in Damascus. Taylor’s interest was piqued at the “remarkable drug which supplies the lusurious Syrian with dreams more alluring and more gorgeous than the Chinese extracts from his darling opium pipe." The places of origin and similarities in the methods of consumption, would link the two drugs through histories bylines, despite very different results. This often-cited New World account should be prefaced by Taylor’s own cautioning that, "they be content to take the portion of hasheesh which is considered sufficient for one man, and not, like me, swallow enough for six." Taking a dose for six, we have one of the earliest accounts of the hashish experience:

“"I was double, not 'swan and swallow,' but rather, Sphinx-like, human and beast. A true Sphinx, I was a riddle and a mystery to myself."

Introspection is the one common theme in all historical accounts, despite some outlandish descriptions, otherwise.


Ludlow's Contemporary Classic

It is through our literary giants, such as the Beat Authors, that hashish and other mind-expanding substances were introduced to the public. None was more influential to hash in the New World than Fitz Hugh Ludlow. It would be misinformed however, to discuss the contents of Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s The Hashish Eater, without understanding the context it was written and more about Ludlow’s life. While his work helped popularize hashish several times over the last two hundred years with reprints of the classic, the content is startling, and a far-cry from the realities of smoking hashish.

book cover The Hashish Eater
1857 Publication by Fritz Hugh Ludlow (Written while withdrawing from opium).

Ludlow’s work continued the literary tradition started in 1001 Arabian Nights, naming his book after the chapter called A Tale of the Hashish Eaters, but Ludlow mixes ideas and imagery that seem to come straight from Confessions of An English Opium Addict, by Thomas De Quincy. The influence of De Quincy can be seen throughout Ludlow’s work, along with Bayard Taylor's The Vision of Hasheesh and W.B. O'Shaugnessy's, On the Preparations of the Indian Hemp, or Gunjah. Ludlow relied heavily on these texts while documenting his own hashish experiences, but he was clearly gripped with opioid addiction.

De Quincy published Confessions of an Opium Addict in 1821 about his addiction to laudanum, an opioid mixed with alcohol. Like De Quincey, we know Ludlow was given morphine to treat tuberculosis and that “Ludlow struggled with opiate addiction throughout his life.” Most of Ludlow’s writing on hashish, should have been directed at morphine, as almost all his later writings were. Despite his harrowing tales of addiction, obsession, and withdrawal, Ludlow’s work was enough to launch hashish forever into the New World lexicon.

Substitution Therapies

Ludlow’s later publication John Heathburn’s Title, “concerns an opium and alcohol addict who is cured by a substitution therapy using a cannabis extract.” The plot was another reference to De Quincey in his life and work. Too bad it would take over two hundred years before the scientific and medical community revisited the possibility of using hashish or other substitution methods for the current opioid epidemic. Similar replacement therapies are finally saving tens of thousands of lives today. What a disgrace that two hundred-or-so years have gone by, and our scientists and doctors know little more today about addiction, recovery, or cannabis than Ludlow wondered way-back then. This literary movement would be a springboard to the 1950s and 1960s, when the tradition of pharmacological experimentation in literature would reemerge.

Hashish Parlors & Headlines

Despite some wondrous scenes and powerful warning lines against the use of hashish, Ludlow’s work, almost simultaneously popularized hashish. By 1870 Ludlow’s work brought hashish into the spotlight, with “hashish candy and hashish clubs popping up around the U.S.” These were some common bullet-points from the era:

· In 1876, America hosted a huge Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, at which fair goers flocked through the Turkish Hashish Exposition

· By 1883, hashish smoking parlors had spread across the United States, and were legally open in every major American City, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans,

Over 500 hash parlors were operating within New York City in this decade, and even 40 years later, during the times of alcohol prohibition, hash parlors still outnumbered the infamous speak-easy's that the era was known for. Be sure to read this article written in reference, The Future of Hashish.

Wow, the history lessons they skip over in school are crazy. You would think someone would have mentioned that we had more “hash parlors” than speak-easy's during alcohol Prohibition.

Ludlow's Classic Reappears

It would be nearly a hundred years before the legendary City Lights Book Store in San Francisco republished Ludlow’s work. This helped inspire a whole new generation to indulge in self-exploration. Ludlow would influence generations of writers, most notably the Beat authors and counter-cultural icons in the United States. William S. Burroughs famous book Junky and follow-up, In Search of Yagé are like an encore. Hooked on heroin and thoroughly determined to kick, In Search of Yagè follows Burroughs to South America. Hearing about psychedelic Yagè, otherwise known as Ayahuasca (and decades later determined to be DMT), his attempt to rid himself of a powerful opioid addiction was to no avail, but spurred the idea of psychedelic's in recovery. Burroughs was a lifelong Heroin addict, whose experimentation with drugs and his desire to find relief from opioid addiction would influence his writing and generations to come.

Ginsburg's Demand

An absolutely fascinating read from another beat author, Allen Ginsburg, is recapped in my article titled, "The Great Marijuana Hoax 1966 & 2021: Second Manifesto to End The (Federal) Bring Down." As an artist, poet, and activist, I was surprised to find Ginsburg writing so wholeheartedly about Federal cannabis legalization or that I hadn't heard of it before. From Ginsburg to Kerouac and everything in between, a generation of baby-boomers helped plant cannabis and hashish firmly in the minds of Americans. From there modern authors, researchers, and pioneers helped cannabis find a home in Humboldt County California, ushering in a new age of super-chronic.

To be continued...



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