It's not too often that a mystical sect from the Middle Ages snags the attention of modern audiences, but when you're group's name is said to translate to “hash eaters,” you can expect to turn a few heads.
The Hashashin, a highly secretive military sect of ecstatic Nizari mystics based in Persia (modern-day Iran), were known for political intrigue and assassination. In fact, the term “assassin” derives from their name, which was synonymous with murder and blackmail.
The Assassins were not nice people. Their sect, which broke off of Isma'ili Shi'i Islam, is often considered the first terrorist group in history. To ensure power and influence, the Assassins infamously used the threat of death at knifepoint and bribery to control political leaders in the area. When asked why he'd ceased his angry sermons against the group, Sunni scholar Fakhr ad-Din al-Razi famously told a student that he'd reconsidered his stance once he'd heard the Assassins' “pointed and weighty” arguments.
But operating with nefarious intent while hiding in the shadows was only one aspect of this complex and baffling group. The Assassins were also known for a bizarre streak of Sufi mysticism and an undying love of hashish—which they are often said to have smoked and consumed ceaselessly.
Hash was also reportedly used by the Assassins for trickery. In The Templars and the Assassins: The Militia of Heaven, author James Wasserman tells the legend of a group of devotees who were shown the decapitated head of one of their colleagues as it rested on a plate. He had successfully completed an assassination mission and this was his reward. The group's leader asked the decapitated head to describe paradise, and it answered, telling the devotees about the amazing sights and pleasures that would be experienced if they sacrificed themselves for the order. Once the witnesses had gone, the Assassins' leader freed the “head”—a man standing in a pit that had been dug out of the floor and ranting after ingesting too much hashish—before striking him down dead.
According to another famous legend about the order, an Assassin leader claimed he was able to send his followers to paradise while they were still alive. To “prove” it, he allegedly used hashish to drug targeted dupes, who would then wake up in a walled garden full of delicious delicacies served by beautiful men and women. After blissing out in “paradise” for a while, the mark would once again be drugged and then awaken back in their room. The walled garden's actual location was said to be within the confines of the assassin fortress, of course.
But these stories are largely considered myths, and some scholars have even questioned the legitimacy of accounts that claim the group used cannabis at all. It's been suggested that while the word “hashashin,” derives from either the derogatory term for “hashish eater” or “outcast,” it was used by foreigners in place of “Asasiyun”—which denotes followers who are faithful to the foundation of faith—as a way to demonize the Nizari.
What's curious is that whether the Assassins used cannabis or not, it's their association with the drug that brought them to the attention of pot-loving Western anarchist philosophers in the 20th century. Much of their popularity in modern pop consciousness can be attributed to beat writer William S. Burroughs and his partner in crime, artist Brion Gysin.
Burroughs and Gysin were fond of the supposed last words of Hassan-i-Sabbah: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted”—attributed to him by Betty Bouthoul in her 1936 book, The Master of the Assassins. They would both go on to repeat the phrase and other passages from the book during interviews and incorporate the story into their own works of art. The idea of a sect of drug-addled mystics who ruled the world from their mountain fortress clearly appealed to both men (for obvious reasons).
In the '80s, scholar Peter Lamborn Wilson's essay, “Secrets of the Assassins,” cemented the sect as Anarchist heroes. The essay describes how Hassan-i-Sabbah II, son of the founder of the Assassins, declared the Qiyamat on Aug. 8, 1164. The Qiyamat—or Resurrection—is a complex theological doctrine that has to do with an apocalypse. According to Wilson, the Assassins' Qiyamat was an “abrogation of the law” that overturned the rules of orthodox Islam and initiated a kind of paradise on earth in which the faithful could reward themselves with “communal as well as individual participation in the mystic's great adventure, perfect freedom.”
This philosophy of freedom and openness was directly associated with cannabis by Wilson and his contemporaries—
Wilson's essay pushed the story's signal out into the creative ether, inspiring a number of artists to latch onto the legend. It would eventually make its way into pop culture through the popular Assassin's Creed video game franchise.
Today, the Assassins are regarded as folk heroes by many. Their supposed creed—fictitious or not—is seen by many as a beacon of independent thought that was centuries ahead of its time. If researchers are correct, and the sect's association with cannabis is purely the result of a defamation campaign waged hundreds of years ago, then that campaign failed miserably.