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Excerpts from
The Rastafarians

by leonard E. Barrett, Sr.
Beacon Press 1988.

from the introduction:

The [Rastafarian] movement does not have organized congregations, as do other religious cults; it does not have a paid clergy; it does not even have a cohesive doctrine in written form, yet young people from every walk of life and every race are drawn to the movement. Its steadfast beliefs -- that Haile Selassie is the living God, a God who is beyond death; that marijuana is sacred; its dedication to nature and mystical approach to the universe along with its strong opposition to oppression of any kind -- distinguish the movement as a revolutionary cult.

from Chapter 4: Beliefs, Rituals, and Symbols:

Prior to the emergence of the Rastafarians, ganja was used by native herbalists as a folk medicine, particularly in teas and as smoking mixtures with tobacco. But as the Rastafarians emerged, ganja took on a new role as a religious sacrament. Its use became a reactionary device to the society and an index of an authentic form of freedom from the establishment. Although the use of ganja was prohibited early in Jamaica, most of the peasants were unaware of it; the Rastafarians, who were mostly urban dwellers, knew of its illegality. It would therefore be right to assume that as a protest against society, ganja smoking was the first instrument of protest engaged in by the movement to show its freedom from the laws of "Babylon." But, like peyote among the Navaho Indians of North America, ganja has other sides to it; its use produces psycho-spiritual effects and has socio-religious functions especially for people under stress. It produces visions, heightens unity and communal feelings, dispels gloom and fear, and brings tranquillity to the mind of the dispossessed. So, ganja gradually became a dominant symbol among the cultists and has remained so to this day.

Among the Rastas, ganja is called by many names, such as *callie* and *Iley* which suggests the essence of the herb. Other names are "the herb," "the grass," "the weed," and so on. Sometimes called "the wisdom weed," it is said that the weed was first grown on the grave of King Solomon, the wisest man on the earth. When used in ritual contexts, the name became known as the "holy herb" as various scriptures are given as proof of its sanctity. The Rastafarians will say that God who created all things made the herb for human use and will cite Genesis 1:12 as their proof text:

And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And

  • ...thou shalt eat the herb of the field (Genesis 3:18).
  • every herb of the land (Exodus 10:12).
  • Better is a dinner of herb where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith (Proverbs 15:17).
  • He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man. ...(Psalm 104:14).
  • These biblical texts are only a few of the many used by the cultists in defense of their rituals.
They are also capable of quoting the history of the herb from antiquity to the present. In a recent interview with a leading Rastafarian, he had this to say of the weed:

Concerning ganja and the amount of publicity it has received of late, it becomes imperative that I should impart some knowledge on it regarding its history and usage among the Rastafarians. We know that in the wars of the Crusades, the Moslems were using a form of Hashish from which they get the name Assassin. This same Hashish was used religiously. In Jamaica, we do not make full use of Hashish in that form; what we use is ganja. The Rastafarian sees ganja as part of his religious observance. He sees ganja as the smoother of mental imbalances and as a meditatory influence. Ganja is really used to bring forth a peaceful and complacent aspect within man. We do not believe in the excessive use of ganja. It cannot be used to excess. In that case it would be bad for man. But in truth, ganja used moderately is not bad. We do not find ganja as a mental depressor, ganja sharpens your wit, and keeps you intellectually balanced. It is not a drug; it is not an aphrodisiac either. We smoke it, we drink it, we even eat it sometimes. We do not find it a poison. I have been smoking ganja since I was eighteen years of age. I am now fifty, and I have never been to a doctor for any ganja related ailments.

Even in Trinidad today, ganja is used by the East Indians in their Temples as a form of worship without any government interference or restrictions. If ganja was not available in Jamaica as a sedative to keep poor people calm, the island would have experienced anarchy already. [Taped interview with Ras Sam Brown, summer, 1975.]

A Montego Bay "dread" described his experience of ganja like this: "It gives I a good meditation; it is a door inside, when it is open, you see everything that is good." And yet another: "When I smoke the herb I man is able to see from Jamaica straight to Panama." There is no end to the praise of ganja among the brethren.

Ritual smoking follows the same pattern wherever it is observed. A package of herb is produced, generally wrapped in old newspaper or a brown bag. After carefully mincing it with a knife, it is made into a cigarette known as a "spliff" or packed into a chillum pipe. Just before lighting it, the following prayer is said by all:

Glory be to the Father and to the maker of creation As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be World without end: Jah Rastafari: Eternal God Selassie I.
[To appreciate this benediction one must hear it spoken -- the "i" in Rastafari rhymes with the "I" in Selassie I.]

Several strong pulls of smoke are taken and deeply inhaled. The smoker then seems to go into a deep trance-like state, exhales, repeating the process two or three times, then the pipe is passed to another person. If it is in individual spliffs, [a spliff is the Jamaican name for the American "joint"] the same kind of smoking technique is used. Smoking is done on all safe occasions; but it is required at all called meetings and at Nyabingi services. I saw at least three kinds of pipes: first, a straight hollow piece of wood or iron tube called a "cutchie" which is used by placing a piece of cloth over the mouth end -- this is called a "sappie." The second type is the regular chillum made out of a cow's horn into which a cutchie is placed. The smoking end is a rubber tube attached to the small end of the horn. The horn is filled with water, while the herb is placed in the cutchie. The third type is made of bamboo and varies in shapes and sizes, but the parts described above are the same. addition, some pipes are so large that they are used only on rare occasions.

There are many taboos among the Rastafarians; some of the strongest are those against consuming rum and all liquors and the smoking of cigarettes, particularly at a Nyabingi service. The brethren insist that drinkers of Jamaican rum have created more serious social problems on the island than all the ganja smokers together. Furthermore, the cultists declare that while rum makes one violent, ganja smoking makes one calm. The Rastafarian poet puts the whole philosophy this way:

What is ganja? We know it's a plant
Created by God to fulfill men's want
The powers that be, say man should not use
They use it in secret, yet show its abuse.

There is no comparison between ganja and rum
The former keeps you "cool" the latter makes you glum
Rum as we know is an agent of death
With the using of ganja you draw new breath.

The taking of rum has eaten out our head
They who continue to take it will wind up dead
Remember, one is created, the other manufactures
On the evils of men we have always lectured.

So cast not your verdict before making a test
True conscience in you will show you the best
For rum as we know will pronounce your doom
All hail to great ganja, the solvent of gloom.

[taken from taped interview as read by the author Sam Brown.]

The controversy surrounding the use of ganja or marijuana continues unabated... One personal observation may, however, be in order. The author has observed that, after years of studying the groups most familiar to him, there appear to be no physical, mental, or psychic effects on the Rastafarians from the use of ganja. Most older brethren have been smoking for twenty years and are still as witty, hard working, and creative as any other citizens of Jamaica. This observation was recently collaborated by the Official Report of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. On Jamaican's use of the herb they reported:

In the Jamaican study, no significant physical or mental abnormalities could be attributed to marijuana use, according to an evaluation of mental history, complete physical examination, chest X-ray, electro-cardiogram, blood cell and chemistry tests, lung, liver or kidney function tests, selected hormone evaluation, brain waves, psychiatric evaluation and psychological testing. There was no evidence to indicate that the drug as commonly used was responsible for producing birth defects in offspring of users.

[*Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, the Official Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse* {New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1972}.]

from Chapter 8: Where Go the Rastafarians?

If it is agreed that the God-figure Haile Selassie may not be the most dominant force in the movement's ideology, what then is the real center? The real center of the movement's religiosity is the revelatory dimensions brought about by the impact of the "holy herb." Under this influence the person of Haile Selassie is transformed into that supernatural reality or a cosmic significance befitting a racial redeemer. To the Rastafarians the average Jamaican is so brainwashed by colonialism that his entire system is programmed in the wrong way. He is thus unable to perceive of himself as a Black man; his response to the world is conditioned by unseen forces due to European acculturation. To rid his mind of these psychic forces his head must be "loosened up," sometimes done only through the use of the herb. The herb enables one to see one's true self. A true revelation of Black consciousness brings about the proper love for the Black race; it rids the mind of social and psychological "hang ups" by altering one's state of consciousness, revealing the true nature of the world to the inner consciousness. This done, one's true identity can be experienced, including the revelation that Haile Selassie is god and that Ethiopia is the home of the Blacks.

According to the Rastafarians, the structure of the Jamaican society is inhuman and cannot provide the psychic nutrients demanded by the Blacks who originated in the satisfying cultures of Africa. They see Jamaica as death oriented; redeeming values for human life are absent; success in the society is defined largely in terms of having money and a certain standard of living. to them the work roles which yield this money and standard of living are spiritually demeaning and unsatisfying; so, rather than strive for this kind of upward mobility, they have opted for the simple life. This poverty, however, is voluntary, free from the pressures and dictates of a dying culture. By withdrawing from the acquisitive society into a counterculture, they believe that they will be able to redefine themselves and restructure their values with new norms and goals.

The herb is key to new understanding of the self, the universe, and God. It is the vehicle to cosmic consciousness; it introduces one to levels of reality not ordinarily perceived by the non-Rastafarians, and it develops a certain sense of fusion with all living beings. According to a leading Rastafarian:

Man basically is God but this insight can come to man only with the use of the herb. When you use the herb, you experience yourself as God. With the use of the herb you can exist in this dismal state of reality that now exists in Jamaica. You cannot change man, but you can change yourself by the use of the herb. When you are God you deal or relate to people like a God. In this way you let your light shine, and when each of us lets his light shine we are creating a God-like culture and this is the cosmic unity that we try to achieve in the Rastafarian community. [Interview with Ras Sam Clayton, Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, summer, 1975.]