4/20: Do its origins appear in Lovecraft’s writings?

H.P. Lovecraft wrote these words in 1936, describing a psychoactive plant that may sound familiar to some readers:

“I had encountered at last one of those curious mirage-plants about which so many of our men told stories. Anderson had warned me of them, and described their appearance very closely – the shaggy stalk, the spiky leaves, and the mottled blossoms whose gaseous, dream-breeding exhalations penetrate every existing make of mask.”

“In The Walls of Eryx” was published in Weird Tales Magazine in 1939, and includes a scene that some Lovecraft fans believe to be the true origin story of 4/20. In the story, the main character has a somewhat psychedelic experience while navigating a maze on the planet Venus, and it all goes down at a strangely specific time of day:

“Although everything was spinning perilously, I tried to start in the right direction and hack my way ahead. My route must have been far from straight, for it seemed hours before I was free of the mirage-plant’s pervasive influence. Gradually the dancing lights began to disappear, and the shimmering spectral scenery began to assume the aspect of solidity. When I did get wholly clear, I looked at my watch and was astonished to find the time was only 4:20. Though eternities had seemed to pass, the whole experience could have consumed little more than a half-hour.”

While there are many theories as to the origin of the 4/20 as a symbol for cannabis, this one may certainly be the oldest written version, and that’s not the only mention of cannabis in Lovecraft’s work. In the well-known story “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926), Lovecraft reveals that Abdul Alhazred, who wrote the Necronomicon, (known as Al Azif in Arabic), was actually an avid user of hashish and opium. In the Necronomicon, Lovecraft refers to a “strange grass,” or “that grass that gives the mind great power to travel tremendous distances into the heavens, as also into the hells.” Even Lovecraft’s god-like Ancient Ones were known to partake: “And they burn unlawful grasses and herbs, and raise tremendous Evils, and their Words are never written down, it is said.”

Writers, artists and scientists have used cannabis to enhance creativity and cultivate new ideas for centuries, and the so-called “Lovecraft Circle” was no exception. Fellow writers and friends of Lovecraft, including Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard, also wrote about hashish. 

In some of his writings, Lovecraft appears quite anti-intoxication, citing his fear of disturbing the delicate balance that fueled his imagination. But even though he likely avoided intoxicating substances himself, he definitely seemed curious about the experience of those who didn’t.