François Rabelais (1484-April 9, 1553)

It isn't everyone who has an adjective named after him. "Rabelaisian" means 1) relating to or characteristic of Rabelais and his works or 2) marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of caricature, or bold naturalism (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1976).

A Franciscan monk, physician, botanist and author who was one of the first Europeans to read Greek, François Rabelais's books were banned by the Catholic Church, condemned by the Sorbonne and the Parliament, and mentioned as "dirty books" in the play The Music Man (1957). Naturally, they are enduringly popular.

The herb "pantagruelion" in Rabelais's epic Gargantua and Pantagruel was identified as marijuana as far back as 1854, by M. Leon Fay in his monograph "Rabelais, botaniste" (Angers, 1854). Fay pointed out that Rabelais's description of "pantagruelion" is not only botanically accurate [mostly], but "as full of life as the herb itself." (Source: Marijuana Papers, ed. David Solomon, p. 145.)

In the author's prologue to Gargantua, the first book in the series (about Pantagruel's father), Rabelais writes:

"Most noble drinkers and esteemed friends...when Alcibiades, in that dialogue of Plato's entitled The Symposium, praises his master Socrates, beyond all doubt the prince of philosophers, he compares him, amongst other things, to a Silenus. Now a Silenus, in ancient days, was a little box, of the kind we see today in apothecaries' shops, painted on the outside with such gay, comical figures as harpies, statyrs, bridled geese, horned hares, saddled ducks, flying goats, stags in harness, and other devices of that sort, light-heartedly invented for the purpose of mirth, as was Silenus himself the master god of Bacchus. But inside these boxes were kept rare drugs, such as balm, ambergris, cardamum, musk, civet, mineral essences, and other precious things. Just such an object, according to Plato, was Socrates...had you opened that box, you would have found inside a heavenly and priceless drug: a superhuman understanding, miraculous virtue, invincible courage, unrivalled sobriety, unfailing contentment, perfect confidence, and an incredible contempt for all those things men so watch for, pursue, work for, sail after, and struggle for....

"[Y]ou must open this book, and carefully weigh up its contents. You will discover then that the drug within is far more valuable than the box promised; that is to say, that the subjects here treated are not so foolish as the title on the cover suggested. But even suppose that in the literal meanings you find jolly enough nonsense, in perfect keeping with the title, you must still not be detered, as by the Sirens' song, but must interpret in a more sublime sense what you may possibly have thought, at first, was uttered in mere light-heartedness....

"[D]id you ever see a dog--which is, as Plato says, in the second book of his Republic, the most philosophical creature in the world--discover a marrow-bone? If you ever did, you will have noticed how devotedly he eyes it, how carefully he guards it, how fervently he holds it, how circumspectly he begins to gnaw it, how lovingly he breaks it, and how diligently he licks it. What induces him to do all this? What hope is there in his labour? What benefit does he expect? Nothing more than a little marrow. ...

"Now, you must follow this dog's example, and be wise in smelling out, sampling and relishing these fine and most juicy diligent reading and frequent meditation, you must break the bone and lick out the substantial marrow -- that is to say the meaning which I intend to convey by these Pythagorean symbols -- in the hope and assurance of becoming both wiser and more courageous by such reading. For here you will find an individual savour and abstruse teaching which will initiate you into certain very high sacraments and dread mysteries, concerning not only our religion, but also our public and private life."

Rabelais waits until the last chapters of his third book to reveal the book's marrow: the identity of Pantagruelion as the rare drug cannabis hemp.

Excerpts: Third Book of Pantagruel
Chapter 49
"The herb pantagruelion has a small root, tough, roundish, ending in a blunt point, white, with few filaments, and does not grow deeper than a cubit. From the root proceeds a single stem, round, cane-like, green outside, whitish within, hollow…full of fibres. Its height is from five to six feet. Sometimes it exceeds the length of a lance, which is when it encounters soil that is sweet, humid, light, moist without cold. . . it is an herb which each year perishes, and not a tree with roots, trunk, bark and branches that endure.

"From the stem proceed large and strong branches. The leaves are three times longer than wide, always green…incised all round like a sickle and like betony, ending in points....The leaves are by rank in equal distance spaced around the stalk in rings, by number, in each order, of five or seven. So cherished is it by Nature that she has endowed it in its leaves with these two uneven numbers so divine and mysterious. The odor of these is strong and little pleasant to delicate noses.

"The seed issues towards the tip of the stalk and a little below. It is as numerous as that of any herb in existence, spherical, oblong, rhomboidal, clear black and tawny, hard, covered with a fragile husk, delicious to all song birds, like linnets, finches, larks, canaries, serins, tarins, and others...[I]n this herb there is a male, which bears no flowers but abounds in seed, and a female, which abounds in little whitish flowers, is useless, and bears no viable seed, and like others it resembles, has a leaf larger but less tough than the male's and does not grow to comparable height. [He confuses the two sexes.]

"One sows this pantagruelion at the return of the swallows. It is pulled from the soil when the grasshoppers begin to grow hoarse."

Chapter 50: How to prepare and use the celebrated Pantagruelion
"One prepares Pantagruelion during the autumnal equinox in diverse manners, according to the fancies of the people and diversity of the lands. The first instruction of Pantagruel was the stalk to divest of leaves and seeds, macerate it in water stagnant, not running, for five days, if the weather is dry and the water warm, for nine or twelve, if the weather is cold, then in the sun dry it, then in the shade decorticate it and separate the fibres (in which, as we have said, consist all its price and value) from the woody part, which is useless, except for making luminious torches, lighting the fire, and for the amusement of little children, inflating hog bladders. [for shakers]Of it use sometimes the friars in secret, as syphons, to suck with the breath to draw new wine by the bung. [This is a classic description of water retting, to separate the fibrous part from the inner woody cortex.]"

Chapter 51: Why it is called Pantagruelion, and of the admirable virtues of it.
Here Rabelais seems to be countering hemp's bad reputation as a hangman's noose. This came to fore under Francis I. (Variorum--from Solomon)

"Others we have heard, on the instant that Atropos cut the thread of their lives, grieviously complain and lament that Pantagruel held them by the throat; but (alas) it was not at all Pantagruel, he was never an executioner; it was Pantagruelion, doing the duty of a halter and serving them as cravat...I swear to you here, by the bon mots which are in this bottle which cools in the tub, that the noble Pantagruel never took anyone by the throat if not those who are negligent to prevent the imminent thirst. ...[I]n Pantagruelion I recognize so many virtues, such energy, such perfection, so many admirable effects, that, if it had been in its qualities recognized when the trees (according to the Prophet) held election of a king of the woods to reign and dominate them, it without doubt would have carried the plurality of the votes and suffrage. ...

"Without it would not carry the millers grain to the mill, nor bring back flour. Without it, how would be carried the pleadings of advocats to hearing? How would without it be carried the plaster to the workshop? Without it, how would be drawn water from the well? Without it, what would do notaires, copyists, secretaries and writers? Would not perish the toll rates and rent rolls? Would not perish the noble art of printing? On what would paintings be made? How would one ring the bells? With it are the priestesses of Isis adorned, the Pastophores clad, all human nature covered in first position. All the wool bearing trees of the Seres, the cotton trees of Tylos in the Persian sea, the swans of the Arabes, the vines of Malta do not clothe so many people as does this herb alone. Covers armies against the cold and the rain more certainly commodiously than ever did skins; covers theatres and ampitheatres against heat, surrounds the woods and copses at the pleasure of hunters, descends in water, as well sweet as marine, to the profit of fishers. By it are boots, buskins, high-lows, spatterdashes, brodkins, shoes, pumps, slippers, savattes put in form and usage. By it are the bows strung, the arbalestes bent, slings made. And, as if it was sacred herb, vervaine-like and revered by Manes and Lemures, the human body dead without it is not buried.

"I will say more. By means of this herb, substances invisible visibly are arrested, held, detained and as if put in prison; by their capture and arrest are the great and heavy millstones turned easily to the significant profit of human life. And I marvel how the invention of this usage was for so many centuries concealed from the ancient Philosophers, seeing the inestimable utility which it provides, seeing the labor intolerable which without it they underwent in their mills. By its means, by the retention of the tides of the air are the huge transports, the ample yachts, the mighty gallions, the ships thousand-manned and myriad-manned from their stations are lifted and propelled at the discretion of their commanders. By its means, are the nations which nature seemed to have held absconded, impermeable and unknown to us come, us to them: things which couldn't do the birds, however light of wing that they are and whatever liberty of swimming in the air that they are given by Nature."

Chapter 52: How a certain kind of Pantagruelion is not destroyed by fire
"What I have told you is grand and admirable; but, if you would hazard to believe in some other divinity of this sacred Pantagruelion, I will tell you it. Believe it or not, it's all to me one; it suffices for me to have told you truth. ...

"If you lived in the time of Sylla, Marius, Caesar, and other Roman emperors, or in the time of our ancient Druids, who used to burn the dead bodies of their parents and nobles, and the ashes of your wives or fathers to drink in infusion of some good white wine, as did Artemisia the ashes of Mausolus her husband, or otherwise preserve them entire in some urn and reliquary, how would you save their ashes apart and separated from the ashes of the pyre and funeral fire? Answer. By my fig, you would be well hindered, I will unburden you. And tell you that taking of this celestial Pantagruelion as much as is needed to cover the body of the deceased, and the said corpse having been carefully enclosed within, bound and laced with the same material, throw it on the fire however grand, however ardent that you will; the fire through the Pantagruelion will burn and reduce to ashes the body and the bones; the Pantagruelion not only will not be consumed or burnt and will not spill a single atom of the ashes enclosed within, will not let in a single atom of the ashes of the pyre, but will at the end of the fire come out more fine, more white and more clean than when thrown in. That's why it's called Asbeston. You find it plentiful in Carpasia and in the climate of Dia Cyenes, at a good price.

"O noble thing, admirable thing! The fire. which devours all, all digests and consumes, cleans, purges and bleaches this sole Pantagruelion Carpasian Asbeston. You find it Asbeston. If of this you defy and demand of it assertion and the usual sign like Jews and unbelievers, take a fresh egg and wrap it around with this divine Pantagruelion. Thus wrapped, put it within the brazier however large and hot that wou wish. Leave it there how long time you will. Finally you will take the egg cooked, hard and burnt, without alteration, mutation, or warming of the sacred Pantagruelion. ...

"Don't compare here that tree which Alexander Cornelius called eonem, and said it was similar to the oak which carries mistletoe and cannot be by water nor by fire consumed or damaged, any more than the mistletoe of the oak, and of it was made and built the so celebrated ship Argos. Look for who will believe it, I excuse myself. Do not compare also, however miraculous it be, that kind of tree which is seen among the mountains of Briancon and Ambrun, which from its roots is produced for us the good agaric, from its body we render the resin so excellent which Galen dares compare to the turpentine; from its delicate leaves retains for us the fine honey of heaven, that is manna, and, no matter how gummy and oily it be, is incombustible by fire....

"Indes cease, Arabes, Sabiens,
So to laud your myrrh, incense, ebony;
Come here acknowledge our worth,
And take of our herb the seed.
Then, if among you it may grow, in good strain,
Thanks render to heaven a million:
And affirm of France happy the kingdom
Wherever grows Pantagruelion."

Image: Rabelais by Eugene Delacroix

Also see: Did French Renaissance Man Rabelais Smoke Weed?

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