Author, ‘Cannabis Chassidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs’
Of the folk mysteries lo these past 20 years or so has been: Why is Cannabis smoking identified with the secret number 420?
Once, when I was young, I invested time looking for answers in the Hebrew Bible and mystical tradition. Because I was promised there’d be all kinds of stuff in there.
There was a lot of buzz that year about Gematria, the ancient Hebrew numerological science that allowed the true nature of a thing to be known from the letters of its name transposed into corresponding numbers.
It’s strange and often embarrassing the role and history of numerology in mysticsms. Where gnostic or platonic concepts, speculations and experiences will describe some inherent nature of meaning in signs, patterns and other cyphers, the idea that numbers are inherent and meaningful is extended to the letters of the words that we use as people. Even as far back in the Greek tradition as Pythagoras, this method would extrapolate from the numeric value of a letter — Alpha being 1, Beta as 2 — an expression of logical rational calculation for the sake of prophesy and soothsaying. It’s not clear how much the early Greek thinkers took from the early Hebrew models, or vice versa, although the sacramentalization of the letters does seem more Phoenician/Semetic — if not downright Solomonic.
It’s stupid, but it’s fun. Try it! Take a word and turn it into its numeric transpose, like this: If “A” is 1 and “B” is 2, then “J” would be 10, “K” is 20, “L” is 30, etc. Let’s say: P = 70, I = 9, G = 7, so “Pig” = 86. Cute right? Probably meaningless, but it could be fun, just for novelty’s sake, to look at what else is 86.
Many theories have emerged about the origins of 420: Victor Cypert’s identification of an early 4:20 reference in H.P. Lovecraft’s short horror story “The Walls of Erix” about a mirage plant that affects the senses in a visionary fashion, but only within a moment’s time, so that when narrator looks back at the clock, he sees that it’s STILL just 4:20 — an experience very familiar to many cannabis users. This trumps the reigning theory, the High Times-endorsed claim of “The Waldos” a band in the ’60s who used to sneak out from school at 4:15, arriving at the rendezvous toke spot at 4:20.
But both of these theories ignore how much the early versions of the meme aren’t “4:20” like the time of day or year (Happy April 20! Cough!), but “420” as one whole august body. What’s the oldest source we have for “420”? I used to like the idea that it was connected to that Bob Dylan song, “Rainy Day Woman 12 & 35,” where it was proclaimed that everyone MUST get stoned. But surely there’s something older and deeper, no?
Naturally, the Hebrew word for “smoke” — AShaN (עשן) — equals 420 in the Gematria system: ע=70, ש= 300, נ=50. This goes back to the earliest Canaanite uses of the word, at least 5,000 years. Four-twenty also corresponds to Mitzrayim (מצרים), “Out from Egypt/Constriction,” which led old mystics to speculate on the nature of smoke itself as a tool toward liberation, something that breaks solid, trapped objects out of their constrictions and limitations, to dissolve into the sky. This is an eloquent description, coincidentally or not, of exactly the virtue and concern with cannabis: it breaks down walls.