In the turbulent 1840s, several French aristocratic intellectuals rebelled against the bourgeois moral code and formed Club Des Hashischins, or the Hashish Eaters Club. Members included authors, painters, poets, writers, medical researchers and other brilliant minds who met once a month at Hôtel Pimodan on Île Saint-Louis in the heart of Paris, France. The participants, who often wore costumes, started by eating a North African hashish edible and proceeded to engage in music, feasting, socializing and enlightened discussion. The Hashish Eaters Club, which met from 1844 to 1849, ultimately helped inspire important artistic works, cannabis-related studies and the Decadent Movement writers in England.
The French Army Gets High in Egypt
The seeds of the Hashish Eaters Club were planted in 1798 when Napoléon Bonaparte—a general at the time—took the French army to Egypt and attempted to disrupt British trade with India. Egyptians preferred hash to alcohol, and the French soldiers wanted to know why. Napoléon banned soldiers from consuming hash in 1800, but like most prohibition, it only served to spur more use. Ironically, the general brought three French scientists to study Egyptian culture, and they also indulged in hash. Many of the French soldiers developed an affinity for hash, and when the colonization attempt failed, interest in hash came back to France with the soldiers. In the decades that followed, both hash and opium became fashionable indulgences in intellectual circles. Despite the Club’s fame (or infamy), widespread cannabis and opium use did not occur in France until the 1960s when a new set of soldiers brought it back from French Indochina, later renamed Vietnam.
The Origin of the Hashish Eaters
While traveling the Middle East in the 1830s, famed French psychiatrist Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau was surprised by the dominance of hash over alcohol in Egypt. After experimenting with it, Moreau considered hash a valuable tool to experience madness (or revelation) without becoming irrational.
“There are two modes of existence… given to man,” he said. “The first one results from our communication with the external world, with the universe. The second one is but the reflection of the self and is fed from its own distinct internal sources. The dream is an in-between land where the external life ends and the internal life begins."
Moreau believed cannabis could help people enter this in-between land, and he proceeded to study cannabis and hash as potential treatments for mental health. His hash-related studies led him to conclude that a change in neurobiology, not brain damage, motivated insanity, an important conclusion at odds with the general medical consensus of the day. Back in Paris in the early 1840s, Moreau sought to enlist volunteers to consume hashish and observe their responses. Circa 1844, he partnered with author and poet Théophile Gautier to form the Hashish Eaters Club to do just that.
The name of the club was likely inspired by Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 book Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and it met once at month at the Hôtel Pimodan (now called the Hôtel de Lauzun) on Île Saint-Louis in Paris.
Hashish Eaters Club Members
Participants in the Hashish Eaters Club included creative minds that are still famous today.
Novelist Alexandre Dumas penned such literary classics as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and the later book channeled the club directly when the character Sinbad the Sailor gives an aristocrat a green hashish paste to take him “into paradise.” Author Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and Notre-Dame Cathedral coincidentally sits mere minutes away from where the club members met. Other hashish eaters included La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy) scribe Honoré de Balzac, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) poet Charles Baudelaire, Les Filles du Feu (The Daughters of Fire) poet Gérard de Nerval and French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix, who painted the iconic Liberty Leading the People (image above). Club members also published works that directly dealt with hashish and cannabis. C
lub founder Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau wrote Du Hachisch Et de L'Alienation Mentale: Etudes Psychologiques (Hashish and Mental Illness: Psychological Studies), club co-founder Théophile Gautier penned Le Club des Hashischins, and Baudelaire wrote Les Paradis Artificiels (Artificial Paradises). In a twisted side note, occultist Aleister Crowley (of Ozzy Osbourne “Mr. Crowley” fame) translated Artificial Paradises into English.
What Exactly Did the Hashish Eaters Eat?
Each month, the hashish eaters met in a rented section of the 17th-century Hôtel Pimodan. Dr. Moreau, often adorned in Turkish garb, meet the participants at the top of the stairs and handed them a morsel of green paste from a crystal vase. As he provided the mixture, he said, “This will be deducted from your share in Paradise.” What exactly was this green paste? The concoction, a North African spread called dawamesk, reportedly contained pistachios, orange peel, butter, cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg, cloves and hashish. After consuming the edible, the participants sat down for dinner accompanied by music and merrymaking. Club co-founder Théophile Gautier described his first hashish experience as “an emerald which gave off millions of tiny sparkles.” Louis Le Vau, the famed architect who designed the Palace of Versailles, also designed the building that became Hôtel Pimodan, which exists today as Hôtel de Lauzun. At present, individuals can only visit the hotel on small group tours.
Photo credit: Assassin's Creed.