Dante’s Divine Comedy (1321) is one of the pioneering classics of Western literature. The archetypes and symbolism of Dante’s narrated journey through heaven and Hell has lefts its mark even on those who have not read the book or are unaware of Dante. Interestingly, one of the foremost Dante scholars has suggested that Dante’s inspiration, may have come through the form of Islamic Hashish!
Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri (1265 – 1321) commonly known by his pen name Dante Alighieri or simply as Dante , was an Italian poet. Interestingly, many believed that the Divine Comedy, was not just an intriguing adventurous fiction about the afterlife, but that Dante incorporated various occult secrets into the tale.
Rosicrucianism was/is a spiritual and cultural movement which arose much later, in 17th century Europe, through the publication of several texts which purported to announce the existence of a hitherto unknown esoteric order to the world and made seeking its knowledge attractive to many. Tying Dante into this, who lived a few centuries prior, is based on the view that such information was transmitted down to what became the Rosicrucians, through various Alchemical guilds and secret societies.
The mysterious doctrine of the Rosicrucians is “built on esoteric truths of the ancient past”, which “concealed from the average man, provide insight into nature, the physical universe, and the spiritual realm.” The manifestos do not elaborate extensively on the matter, but clearly combine references to Kabbalah, Hermeticism, alchemy, and Christian mysticism
Others have suggested a strong influence from esoteric Islamic secret societies, and even further back, to ancient Zoroastrian influences, can be found in Dante’s conception of Paradiso and Inferno, as described in his famous otherworldly journey.
For over a century, a number of scholars, particularly Islamic ones, have suggested that Dante derived “his conception of the moral structure of Heaven and Hell from Muhammadan eschatology” (Gowen, 1924). As Gowen explained in his article ‘Dante and the Orient’, Islamic influences may have reached Dante in a number of ways. Dante’s mentor Brunetto Latini is known to have visited the Spanish kingdom of Alfonos X, at a time when Islamic influences were at a peak, and gave us the drug infused Islamic grimoire, Picatrix and likely the Grail legends as well. However, “the writer from whom Dante may have derived the most… is Ibn el’Arabi, a native of Spain who died in 1240…” (Gowen, 1924). Contemporary Islamic critic of Ibn el’ Arabi criticized the “disorderly visions and ravings” which he based his works and claimed they were “instilled in him by his addiction to hashish” (Knysh, 1999). Ibn el’ Arabi died a quarter of a century before Dante was born and he “wrote an account of his journey through the other world and is even said to have left behind him drawings and charts of Hell and Paradise” (Gowen, 1924). Dante’s favourable opinion of Islamic figures like Averroes and Avicenna (whose cannabis connections have been doscussed in another article) can be seen with his placement of them in the milder limbo, alongside Socrates and Plato.
The hadith literate of Islam contains so many parallels with passages in the Divina Comedia that it would be strange indeed had no knowledge filtered through from the one system to the other, especially if we bear in mind the many ways in which the westward tide of Islam influenced other than religious literature in Spain, Provence and Italy. (Gowen, 1924)
As Gowen notes in ‘Dante and the Orient’ these hadith accounts that are being compared to Dante’s tale, are all “based upon the one famous legend of the Night Ride of Muhammad to heaven… and if we are willing to allow… the influence of the Night Ride upon Dante, we must be prepared to go much farther and find our real Dantean sources in literature even more remote than that of Islam” (Gowen, 1924). This tale of the Night Ride, is also retold in the Dabistan, which we discussed for its apocryphal account of Muhammad’s own preparation and use of cannabis as bhang.
The shamanic event occurs for Muhammad, when he is “suspended between sleep and waking”, which does indicate an altered state of consciousness. This state was induced by “three cups of water from the sacred well of Zemzem”, which enabled him to ride the mythical “Seraph-beast Borak”. This drinking 3 cup is very reminiscent of what we have read in Zoroastrian accounts, where various figures drink a concoction infused with a potent cannabis extract, leaving their bodies comatose, but releasing their souls to travel. In Muhmmad’s case, after a stop over at a sacred temple, Muhammad rode Borak “up to the gates of Paradise and traversed the spheres, which correspond exactly to the Dantean heavens” (Gowen, 1924).
Similar hashish infused voyages were also attributed to the Persian Islamic heretics, the Hashishin. “…[T]he nickname, and with it, the drug’s extended use, appear to have surfaced during the late eleventh century, and both may have been promoted by the real or alleged use of cannabis by sectarians who were engaged in spreading a vast network of open and secret influence over the Muslim world…”(Rosenthal, 1971). As the legendary and sensationalized 13th century account of the Assassins by Marco Polo recorded, prior to their fall, novices being initiated into the sect were alleged to have been tricked through the being secretly given a potion of hashish and then taken to unconscious to a hidden garden within the Mountain top castle of the Assassins in Alamut. Through this they were said to have been tricked into believing they had received a foretaste of the afterlife Paradise described in the Koran.
It should also be noted that the hashish was used as an initiatory substance directed at invoking a mystical experience rather than inducing a frenzied state of murderous rage for assassination as has been suggested through the etymology that connects assassin with Hashishin, and the sects notorious reputation for dealing with their political foes.;
The drug employed for initiation into the cult was used to obtain a vision of paradise. It did not nerve them up for slaughter, was not used during their missions and did not make them crazy. Quite the contrary, it… gave them at least a fleeting glimpse of an altogether higher order of existence. If anything, political and religious intrigue, not hashish, caused assassination. (Aldrich, 1978)
Noting the similarities to earlier Persian accounts, Gowen, suggested “borrowings from Zoroastrianism”. Alongside such mythological borrowings from the earlier Persian mystics by later figures of esoteric Islam, was the use of cannabis for such purposes as those described. “Islam [also]became subsequently the channel through which were carried to the West many fruitful themes, possibly, even the story of Jamshid’s cup to be the basis for the Holy Grail…” (Gowen, 1924). The connections to the Grail mythos have been discussed, and these accounts were themselves inspired by the earlier use of visionary cannabis infused wines of various Zoroastrian figures, such as Zoroaster, his wife Hvovi, King Vishtaspa, and Ardu Viraf.
In regards to Dante’s tale and Zoroastrianism, this can be seen in the “idea of the Bridge of Judgement, known in Zoroastrian as the Chinvad Pul, and the the Muhammadan as Al-Sirat…” (Gowen, 1924). Gowen saw “plain evidence of borrowing” of this imagery in one Zoroastrian document particularly. “the Pahalwu document known as the Book of Arda Viraf” and he felt this similarity to Dante’a account was so profound that the author might “fittingly be entitled ‘the Pahlawi Dante’”. We have already discussed this particular book for its account of the hero Arda Viraf’s consumption of a potent cannabis elixir before setting out on his influential astral voyage. As Gowen describes:
It is… sufficient here to state the the Book of Arda Viraf considerably antedates the earliest literature of Islam. It opens with the lament of the sages over the scepticism of the land since the religion of the pius Zardusht has been destroyed by the “accursed Alexander of Rome.” Then in order to revive the faith of men, it is suggested that a man be chosen who, divesting himself of his body, shall traverse the unseen world and bring back to men a true report as to Heaven and Hell. Out of forty thousand virtuous men Arda Viraf was chosen for this momentous embassy, and on a certain day was given a cup of ‘hallowed wine’, or hashish, according to the prescribed method. Then he lay down on the couch where on his body was to repose…, while the freed spirit, under the guidance of the angel Srosh, journeyed the the Persian Paradiso and Inferno. On awakening, the sage related to the assembled Dasturs… the adventures… He had crossed the Bridge of Judgment hand in hand with the angel… (Gowen, 1924)
Gowen goes onto explain further profound similarities between this account and Dante’s, and concludes that those who look into it will find that the “general resemblance of the scheme of Arda Viraf to that of the Divinia Commedia will be at once apparent, and as there can be no count that it was borrowed by Islam and accommodated to the legend of the Night Ride, so there need be no doubt on the connection between the Persian and the Florentine work” (Gowen, 1924).
Interestingly, Dante has also been connected with both secret esoteric Islamic circles and the use of cannabis. “Recent research has shown that Sufi materials were sources of Dante’s work. His Sufic affiliations must have been known to the alchemists of the time” (Shah, 1964). ”Others have gone further and suggested that that Dante had knowledge of esoteric doctrines — perhaps those of the Knights Templar — which went back outside the particular doctrines of exoteric religion to a Gnostic source” (Cocking, 2005). “Claims of Dante’s connections with the Templars first surfaced in the seventeenth century. They were investigated and defended especially by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82)… Certainly the Commedia contains considerable symbolism connected with the Templars and the Temple …[T]he Templars were exterminated in 1307-12 (about the time Dante was writing the Inferno) on grounds of heresy… secrecy and obscurity were necessary afterwards, since any defence of the Templars or their ideas could be interpreted as heresy” (MacLennan, 2001). “Many of the most obscure allegorical passages [in Commedia]receive their most coherent explanation when related to the crisis of the Templar order” (Anderson, 1980). Rudolph Stiener, Julius Evola, Gabriel Rossetti, and others, have suggested that Beatrice, in Dante’ s Divine Comedy, was in reality the Gnostic Goddess, Sophia, whose worship had been picked up by the Knights Templar, in their sojourn in the East.
Claims that the Templars had a cannabis infused wine known as the ‘elixir of Jerusalem’ have been made in a number of books, but remain unverified. However as discussed in ‘Cannabis, the Holy Grail, and the Secrets of the Templars?‘ source material from the time of the Templars shows they had Saracens growing cannabis from them in Spain, and considerable amounts of cannabis were seized in two separate raids on Templar compounds, so it seems there may be something to the various claims of Templar cannabis use.
As rock star turned occult historian Gary Lachman has noted:
There are clear links between the Templars and Dante. Dante uses the seal of the Templar Grandmaster, and eagle and a cross, as a symbol in The Divine Comedy. He also has especially vile places in hell set aside for [Templar enemies] Philip the Fair and Pope Clement V. Some like Rene Guenon have argued that Dante was a member of an auxiliary branch of the Templars, La Fede Santa (“The Sacred Faith”), an idea first presented by Gabriele Rossetti. Others have suggested that Brunetto Latini (1210-1294), Dante’s teacher, was a Templar, or at least a member of La Fede Santa, and that he initiated Dante. The descriptions of hell in The Divine Comedy are supposed to be literal accounts of Dante’s initiation experience in an underground cave. Perhaps most suggestive is the fact that Dante’s last guide in Paradiso, who leads him to his mystical vision, is Bernard of Clairvaux, who gave the Templars his blessing and who wrote their rules. Dante is also said to have taken a mysterious journey to Paris while the immolation of Jacques de Molay (the Templar Grandmaster) took place. (Lachman, 2015)
In relation to this study, and what has been suggested about the Templars esoteric use of hashish, and a continuation of such use through alchemy and other esoteric avenues, it is interesting to note that Dante can be included in such speculation as well. In Dante: The Poet, the Thinker, the Man, the respected Dante scholar, Barbara Reynolds has suggested Dante may have been inspired by cannabis experimentation, beginning with a reference to a notorious Babylonian king who was known for eating “grass”:
As to his unworthiness… he cites the example of Nebuchadnezzar, who was granted knowledge of divine truths by means of dreams, which he later could not recall – a somewhat puzzling example, since Nebuchadnezzar had periods of insanity, eating grass and believing himself to be an animal. Beside this may be set another strange example in the first canto of Paradiso, in which he compares himself to Glaucus, who through eating a herb was transformed into a sea-god, as he, Dante, was ‘transhumanized’ on ascending into heaven…
…like Glaucus, who a herb was said to taste
And so an ocean an ocean deity became.
Transhumanizing could not be expressed
In words, so let the example serve, the same
Who with the said experience was graced.
These two references to Nebuchadnezzar and to Glaucus, who both consumed herbs, may be oblique allusions to stimulants which produced effects comparable to what Dante claims to have experienced. He was familiar with the Latin version of the work of Dioscorides, the first-century Greek physician… (‘the Good collector of simples’), as he calls him when he sees him in Limbo. Knowledge of herbs and medicinal potions was passed from country people and herb-gatherers to apothecaries, and herb gardens were a common feature of monasteries. From the early fourteenth-century manuscript Tractus de Herbis it is evident that the plant Canapa (Cannabis Sativa) was known and available. So to was Aloe vera, from which a substance called aloes was obtained and used medically. Another plant was called ‘grains of Paradise’. If Dante partook of some such psychedelic substance, perhaps in the company of the Fedeli d’Amore, when they gathered to perform and discuss their poems, this might partly account for his (and their) experiences of heightened awareness, as described in La Vita Nouva… (Reynolds 2006)
As Reynolds explains, Dante stated he could not say more about the details of the invocation which led to the otherworldly flight, stating at the end of his oration “Anxiety as to my domestic circumstances presses upon me so heavily that I am obliged to defer this and other tasks of public utility.” Interestingly, the later high ranking Freemason, Arturo Reghini, likely inspired by Dante’s passages, also made reference to Glaucus magical herb in reference to cannabis. “…Hashish, the grass par excellence in Arabic… can make wonderful changes in the state of consciousness; it certainly has some affinity to the grass that made Glauco a God, the vivax gramen of which is Ovid” (Reghini, 1922). I say likely in this context, as Reghini wrote an essay on Dante and a group he was closely associated with ‘The Secret Language of the Fedeli D’Amore’*. “The Fedeli d’Amore (The Faithful of Love) were a group of poets practicing an erotic spirituality, which can be seen as an application of chivalric ideas (including courtly love) to the regeneration of society” (MacLennan, 2001)
Reghini’s essay on the Dante and the Fedeli D’Amore originally appeared in Julius Evola’s Introduzione alla magia (1927-1929: English translation, 1971). Evola, wrote on the mystical use of drugs, and belonged to the Ur Group, which used such substances in alchemical styled initiations.
Reghini flowed with other researchers who held the view of sufi, Templar and alchemical influences, on the Fedeli D’Amore, and pointed to their use of the sort of “green language” that was known to have been used by such groups. He also suggested that the lustful love poems of Dante and the Fedeli D’Amore, were veiled hymns to the Goddess of Wisdom, Sophia, using the names of various women to conceal her identity. It has been suggested that “the poetry of the Fedeli contains heresies, which were disguised to hide them from the Inquisition. Many terms can be interpreted in two or more ways, but it is not so clear whether this was deliberate secrecy or a symbolic language automatically understandable to initiates. Certainly secrecy is advocated in the works of Dante and his contemporaries…” (MacLennan, 2001).
There are many similarities of style and content between Sufi poetry and the poetry of the Fedeli, especially in their idealization of the Beloved as Holy Wisdom or Intelligence. This has led some of Valli’s followers to propose that the Fedeli were a… secret order of Sufi dervishes. However, there were many other sources for Islamic influence… The Templars may have brought the Fedeli some of these ideas, as well as the tradition of Solomon’s Temple as the dwelling place of Wisdom (Sapientia). Indeed, there may have been an alliance between the Fedeli and the Templars. (MacLennan, 2001)
Again like the Templars, the Fedeli D’Amore, are thought to have, in the occult view, embraced an erotic form of spirituality, that ran counter to the asceticism preached by the church, this has also been claimed by some writers of both alchemy, and Rosicrucianism. As such, to avoid the inevitable suppression and persecution, all such groups were compelled into secrecy.
Jung noted that there was an “allusion to the flower which so often represented the mystery in the Middle Ages, in Dante’s ‘Paradiso’” (Jung, 1941). The noted 19th century American Freemason, Albert Pike suggested that the “Divina Commedia” contained elements such as “initiation into independence of spirit, a satire on all contemporary institutions, and the allegorical formula of the great Secrets of the Society of the Roses-Croix” (Pike, 1871). As Pike noted Dante’s “Heaven is composed of a series of Kabalistic circles, divided by a cross, like the Pantacle of Ezekiel. In the centre of this cross blooms a rose, and we see the symbol of the Adepts of the Rose-Croix for the first time publicly expounded and almost categorically explained” (Pike, 1871). Pike indicated that the ritual of the 18th degree of the Scottish Rite, the ‘Knight, or Sovereign Prince of Rose Croix, of Heredon’ was coloured with imagery from the Inferno: “The third chamber represents Hell. All the punishments and tortures described by Dante are seen there, in the midst of fire, painted on a transparency that covers all the walls; besides which there is no light. On each side of the door, on the inside, is a human skeleton, holding an arrow in its right hand” (Pike, 1857). The reference to the “transparency” and other props can be explained by the effects of the phantasmagoria that crept into Masonry under Schröpfer and other later Masonic magicians, as will be discussed in ‘The Psychedelic Phantasmagoria Shows of the 18th century!‘.
The high ranking Freemason, Rosicrucian and convert to Islam Dr. Jean-Henri Probst-Biraben (1875-1957) also felt that this same symbolism may have indicated a formative Rosicrucian influence. “The rather frequent presence of the Rose in the Poem makes it possible to think of proto-Rosicrucian allusions” (Probst-Biraben, 1935). Probst-Biraben also referred to what he saw as the Masonic symbolism present in Dante’s work, in Dante et le Symbolisme Maçonnique (1929). As he explained in Symbolisme Cohérent de Dante:
…[T]he poem is not a simple imaginary journey in the three regions, of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, but a symbolic, graduated narrative of Initiation. It is not only that, The veiled teaching of the Metaphysics of the Old World is summarized in the Work, with allusions to applications: alchemical, astrological ones, for example. There are generally political interpretations, bitter criticisms direct or hidden under the mantle of allegory, Of the historical events of medieval times in which Dante lived…
…It was believed that the expressions found in the Masonic rituals and in the Divine Comedy proved an identity of sources, that is, a literary derivation on the one hand, and ceremonial derivations on the other, Teachings and symbolisms which are their traditional language, stemming from esoteric fraternities of which the great Tuscan was a part….
…As there are 3 worlds hierarchized, 3 countries: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, there are 3 groups of lodges: blue, red, black. Many details resemble those which characterize the successive stages of the Initiatory Societies, mark important points of instruction
….The rather frequent presence of the Rose in the Poem makes it possible to think of proto-Rosicrucian allusions. It is admitted that the doctrines of the Rose + Croix are the development, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of teachings spread in Christian hermetic circles after the destruction of the Order of the Temple [Templars], probably harmonies of Near Eastern and Western Science and religion, transmitted symbolically. (Probst-Biraben, 1935)
That cannabis and other drugs could have been part of these same historical esoteric streams which have been suggested here, going back through various secret societies, alchemists, Templars, and back into the Islamic counterparts of this, is clearly plausible. In The Esoterism of Dante, Guenon, who himself for a time was a user of hashish with mystic intent, explained that in regards to the “history of esoteric doctrines… several important manifestations of these doctrines coincided, within just a few years, with the destruction of the Order of the Temple [Templars]. There is an unquestionable connection between these events…” (Guenon, 1925/2005).
In the early years of the fourteenth century, and doubtless already in the course of the preceding century, there was… in France as well as in Italy, a secret tradition…, the very one that later was to bear the name of Rosicrucianism. The denomination Fraternitas Rosae-Crucis appears for the first time in 1374, or… 1413… [but]was perhaps fully formed only in the sixteenth century; but we have… seen that the Rose-Cross Symbol is certainly much earlier. (Guenon, 1925/2005).
As I have shown in Liber 420: Cannabis, magickal Herbs and the Occult, the Rosicrucian stream, often involved figures associated with the occult use of drugs, and we have discussed notable renaissance initiates such as Boyle, Hooke and Ashmole, the 18th century Magicians such as Cagliostro, as well as as Schropher, Eckartshausen and later Rosicrucians such as P.B. Randolph in this blog series as well. As the The Quarterly Journal of Prophecy, (1852) recorded:
“I have been assured that there are many priests in France who are also Rosicrucians, and still more who are Templars…. These men were expert alchemists and able magicians. By the fumes of drugs burnt as incense, they could wrap the spirit in delight, and throw the body into a state of coma, in which mesmeric clairvoyance might easily be induced, and the party believe himself to converse with the invisible world… By hasheesh they could wrap them in ravishing enjoyment almost beyond human power to support, unfitting them for the duties of life for ever afterwards…. All these experiments are performed every Sunday in Paris by parties who avow that they derive their sciences and their religion from the ancient mysteries.”
Thus we can see that the sort of cannabis infused shamanic flight attributed to Dante, and the Hashishin before him, continued on in Europe some centuries after the time of il Sommo Poeta (“the Supreme Poet”)!
Excerpted from Liber 420: Cannabis, magickal Herbs and the Occult