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Mind-Altering Substances In Literature


Mind-altering substances have captivated artists, musicians and writers along with their audiences even before such works began to be recorded and archived. From Van Gogh’s love affair with absinthe to the Grateful Dead’s LSD-tinged jam sessions, many incredible works have been aided by altered states of consciousness. Certainly not every artist, writer or entertainer desires to alter his or her consciousness to find inspiration, but it has helped many throughout history.


British author John Grigsby contends that the presence of the substance ergot in the stomach is indicative of its use in ritual drinks in prehistoric fertility cults. In his book Beowulf and Grendel, Grigsby argues that the poem Beowulf is based on a memory of the end of such cults. He writes that Beowulf translates as barley-wolf, suggesting a connection to ergot. In German, ergot was known as the ‘tooth of the wolf’.

J.R.R. Tolkien

A staggering work that would likely flop by today’s fiction standards, Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings spawned a generation of fantasy writers. Dedicating most of his life to depicting the fictional land of Middle Earth, Tolkien painstakingly left no stone unturned when it came to describing the history and backstory of his characters. In his works The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and almost everything else he wrote, Tolkien was dedicated to his craft of storytelling and character development. One of the recurring activities of his characters was their consumption of pipe weed. From hobbit to wizard, from dwarf to elf and all those in between, few inhabitants of Middle Earth seemed able to turn down the ‘halfling’s leaf’ – described as ‘the finest weed in the South Farthing’. Tolkien was a tobacco pipe smoker himself and said that pipe weed didn’t refer to cannabis. While the term weed didn’t mean cannabis back then, anyone who’s a fan of Tolkien’s work knows that smoking tobacco likely wouldn’t “slow down the brain” of a demigod wizard such as Gandalf. Feel free to draw your own conclusions and interpretations.

Aldous Huxley

Arguably one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Huxley was never shy about his interest in psychedelics, most notably that of peyote. Classic rock band The Doors allegedly got their name from Huxley’s non-fiction work The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. However, Huxley is perhaps most famous for his works of fiction such as Brave New World. With the use of the fictional substance ‘Soma’, workers in Huxley’s fictional dystopian society remained docile, pacified. Many parallels to this trope continue to be drawn to this day.

Carl Sagan

One of the most incredible scientific minds of our time, Carl Sagan introduced many to the wonders of space in the show The Cosmos. Sagan routinely used cannabis and advocated for legalization in his essay Mr. X. While he is best known for the show, he also wrote a novel called Contact. The novel explores the possible events of humans making contact with space aliens and includes musings of legal cannabis – decades before states like Colorado made recreational weed a reality.

Of course, we are just scratching a small part of the surface here. What is your favorite reference to mind-altering substances in literature or any other creative work? Let us know in the comments.