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Sunday, 11 August 2013

On the trail of the assassin

Tradition has it that assassins were originally drug-crazed murderous types who took hashish to prepare themselves for murder. And not just any murder, either — these were fanatics sent forth by their Sheikh to murder the good Christian leaders of the crusades.

Well, if we are dabbling in myths where the crusaders were good Christians, then perhaps their Sheikh, sometimes called the Old Man of the Mountains is believable.

In Arabic, the name for the eaters of hashish, who fed on cannabis resin, was hashshashin. This is one of those rare Arabic words that has come through into English in the Arabic plural, like Bedouin, or the fellaheen, who were, and are, peasants — or muhajideen, but we get 'assassin', not directly from Arabic, but by way of Italian, where an assassin was an assassino.

Marijuana, in one form or another, was certainly an old tradition in the Middle East, though not necessarily to inspire one to kill. Almost two and a half millennia ago, Herodotus wrote about the Scythians in his Histories:
On a framework of three sticks, meeting at the top, they stretch pieces of woollen cloth, taking care to get the joins as perfect as they can, and inside this little tent they put a dish with red-hot stones in it. Then they take some hemp seed, creep into the tent, and throw the seed onto the hot stones. At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapour unsurpassed by any vapour-bath one could find in Greece. The Scythians enjoy it so much that they howl with pleasure. This is their substitute for an ordinary bath in water, which they never use.
Cannabis, or hemp, has a number of non-drug uses, as any hangman knows, or any sailor, because hangmen and sailors once used hempen rope and sails made of canvas, which got its name from a corruption of cannabis, although canvas was made also from flax.

Sailors wore clothes made of canvas, or else tarpaulin, which was canvas covered with tar. Originally, this tar was probably tree resin, though not cannabis resin, and the name probably derives from an Old Teutonic root for 'tree'. Later, 'tar' meant stuff made by the destructive distillation of wood.

Mixed with water to make tar water, the wood tar was a sovereign remedy, according to Bishop Berkeley (he was the one who had a bit of a thing about trees falling in forests and nobody hearing them). He seems to have adopted the idea while in Rhode Island, supposedly planning a college in the Bermudas, and where he had time to state an early version of "go west, young man", which is why Berkeley California carries his name. He said of the tar water:
It is good not only in the fevers, diseases of the lung, cancers, scrofula, throat diseases, apoplexies, chronic disorders of all kinds but also as a general drink for infants.
Back to the tarpaulin, though, this word was a contraction of tar-palling, with the second part coming to us from the Old English pæll, or maybe even the Latin pallium, which was a cloak or cloth, and which also gives us the type of care we call 'palliative', care for the dying where the illness is cloaked by the care. In Australia, incidentally, the sick or others in need of charity may be the subject of a tarpaulin muster, where coins are collected in a canvas sheet or 'tarp'.

The smoke in the small Scythian tents might also be seen as a pall, but it probably would not be good for your health, any more than being canvased or canvassed, which was rather like being tossed in a blanket, or knocked about and beaten. In Henry IV, Part 2, we read
FALSTAFF.  A rascally slave! I will toss the rogue in a blanket.
DOLL TEARSHEET.  Do, an thou dar'st for thy heart. An thou dost, I'll canvass thee between a pair of sheets.
None of which sounds very palliative at all — any more than being canvassed for a vote, which may come from an old hawking usage, where a bird caught in a net was said to be canvassed. Oddly enough, people are now proposing that cannabis be used in palliative care, which probably puts a new meaning on 'stoning to death', also a tradition in the Middle East.

Canvassers of a political kind, take note in this election time in Australia.  I have rocks a-plenty, after my recent travels.

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