Wicked Ecstasy: Altered States in The Name of the Rose


Scratch the surface, and it soon becomes evident that Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is much more than a murder mystery set in a Medieval abbey. The novel’s numerous characters, details and historical events lend the text a rhizome-like quality. In fact, it has been said of The Name of the Rose that every reader finds a novel within the novel. This I experienced myself when I discovered that the story has many references to altered states of consciousness and psychoactive herbs.

Would it be possible to classify The Name of the Rose as drug literature? To my knowledge, no critic has ever categorised the novel in such terms. But perhaps it is time to reconsider its content. After all, a text can be many things in its journey through time and space. For instance, we all know that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was written as a children’s book. However, when discovered by the LSD counterculture of the 1960s it became a work of psychedelic literature. As for The Name of the Rose, let us consider the following details:

The book’s protagonist, a Franciscan friar named William of Baskerville, is a recreational drug-user and drug geek interested in psychoactive and medicinal plants. At his side is the young Benedictine novice Adso of Melk. Adso, who is the book’s narrator, has several experiences where he enters altered states. For instance, when he secretly visits the abbey’s library he becomes exposed to a very strong hallucinogenic incense – possibly containing a mixture that includes henbane and cannabis – which transports him into other realms of consciousness. Moreover, his erotic encounter with a peasant girl leads to an unforgettable moment of “wicked ecstasy.” And of course there is Severinus, the abbey’s herbalist, who keeps the hallucinogenic deliriants Datura stramonium and Atropa belladonna in his laboratory, and has great knowledge of plants that induce visions. The transformative symbolism of the labyrinth, which is a key feature of the book, is also highly interesting since one could argue that it alludes to the psychedelic experience.


Reading as Mountaineering

About five years ago, I decided to plunge into The Name of the Rose by Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco (1932-2016). Earlier that year I had, with some difficulty, read a small-print paperback version of his peculiar yet entertaining tome Foucault’s Pendulum, and since I was fascinated by its content and writing style, it made sense to also explore Eco’s acclaimed debut novel. Of course little did I know then that The Name of the Rose would occupy my thoughts for such long stretches of time. In fact, since I first read the novel in 2014 I have returned to it on many occasions with the hope that I would eventually fully grasp its content. I now realise this will never happen. Because The Name of the Rose is clearly a complex and evasive work that one can interpret in many different ways.

Like many others who attempt to read Eco’s novel, I had already seen the 1986 film adaptation, and, naturally, there was a risk that this would spoil the reading experience. But I soon realised that having seen the film was not a problem since the novel is something else entirely. And of course I also discovered that the latter has several references to psychoactive herbs and many detailed descriptions of altered states, which, oddly enough, are almost completely removed from the screen adaptation. It did not take long before I started to contemplate the idea of writing a piece on altered states in Eco’s novel, and I, somewhat naively, thought that I might be able to write a piece on the subject that same year. Researching The Name of the Rose is no small matter, though, which I am sure any academic or critic interested in the book can attest to, and it would take me five years before I could sit down and actually write this essay.

Eco’s talk of “initiation” brings to mind ordeals that are typically found in shamanism.

Originally published in Italian in 1980, The Name of the Rose was one of the greatest – and certainly one of the most unlikely – bestsellers of the twentieth century. Despite being generally seen as a difficult book that, for instance, contains many phrases in Latin and a great number of historical references as well as a multilayered story, it is estimated that The Name of the Rose has sold an incredible 50 million copies.[1] However, it should be added that while The Name of the Rose was a huge commercial success, it has been speculated that due to its content only a small portion of those who bought a copy have actually read it from cover to cover.[2]

Semiotician and author Umberto Eco (photographer unknown).

Incredible as it may seem in today’s commercialised publishing market where content is often streamlined for the purpose of reaching maximum sales, Eco deliberately made the book’s first 100 pages especially difficult. Naturally, his publishers and friends objected to the idea and suggested that the beginning of the book was in need of editing. But Eco refused to make any changes, and the text was left intact. The author’s uncompromising attitude in these matters won him admiration among intellectuals, and, unsurprisingly, The Name of the Rose found its core audience among academics, arts and humanities students and literature professors.

So why did Eco set out to create a difficult beginning of his book? In his 1983 essay Postscript to The Name of the Rose, the author explains that the first 100 pages are “like a penance or an initiation.” Supposedly, most people who pick up a novel – especially if it is marketed as a murder mystery – probably expect to be entertained. Eco’s intention, however, was to put the reader through an ordeal. According to the author, “Entering a novel is like going on a climb in the mountains: you have to learn the rhythm of respiration, acquire the pace; otherwise you stop right away.”[3]

Eco’s talk of “initiation” – but also the fact that he compares the act of reading with mountaineering – brings to mind ordeals that are typically found in shamanism. On close inspection, it appears that Eco intends to take the reader on a transformative expedition of the soul, something which, given that he turns to the complex symbolism of the labyrinth, brings shamanic and psychedelic implications to the story. Add to that the overriding theme of apocalypse, several references to mind-altering drugs and the many descriptions of altered states (some of which sound like Erowid style trip reports), and suddenly The Name of the Rose comes across as a rather trippy book.

Most of these ingredients are brought into play already in those difficult 100 pages that was mentioned earlier. Due to this “visionary” element of the text, and that, in my view, reading The Name of the Rose is in itself akin to the psychedelic experience, one could argue that Eco’s novel belongs to the canon of literature on drug-induced altered states.


William’s Herb

Early on in the novel, the reader learns that William of Baskerville, the protagonist of the story, is occasionally ingesting a psychoactive herb. Since Adso, the book’s humble narrator, does not know which plant his master is taking, it is not revealed to the reader either. Still, Adso does give a few clues as to the herb’s place of growth and its effects. For instance, he explains that during their journey William found the herb “at the edge of a meadow, at the entrance to a forest.” The friar would then chew it with an “absorbed look.”[4] Moreover, one time after having ingested it in the abbey he was “lost in thought, staring into the air, as if he saw nothing.”[5]

Is it merely a coincidence that William’s herb is growing next to the forest? Seeing that he was a professor of semiotics, it seems unlikely that Eco would not take into account the symbolism of the forest, especially when it is juxtaposed with a psychoactive herb. In her classic 1978 work An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J.C. Cooper writes that the forest can symbolise the realm of the psyche. The woods can also be “a place for testing and initiation, of unknown perils and darkness.” Moreover, retreat into the forest is a symbol of “death before initiatory rebirth,” and in shamanic cultures the forest can be the dwelling place of the spirits.[6]

It appears that William takes the herb recreationally, and that he can sometimes spend hours inebriated by the drug. During these sessions, Adso, knowingly or not, is acting as a “trip sitter.” Interestingly, there are no negative connotations attached to the psychoactive herb that William is using. On the contrary, the plant is portrayed as a valuable aid during moments of introspection and problem-solving.

It is interesting to note that the protagonist in one of the best-selling novels of the twentieth century is not only a brilliant intellectual, but also a responsible drug-user.

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that the protagonist in one of the best-selling novels of the twentieth century is not only a brilliant intellectual capable of advance thinking, but also a responsible drug-user. Yet since very few, if any, reviewers took notice of the novel’s many references to psychoactive drugs and altered states, William of Baskerville was never described in such terms. Ironically, one of the countries where the book was a great success was the United States, where the War On Drugs was in full swing at the time of its release. In fact, the “Just Say No” campaign was launched in 1982, i.e. only a year before The Name of the Rose came out in English.

It has been suggested that the drug William is ingesting is “probably hashish.”[7] While this at first may sound like a fairly good guess, one should take into account that hashish is made from the resin of the marijuana plant. And since William ingests the drug without preparing it beforehand, it cannot be this specific variety of cannabis. Furthermore, it is believed that hashish did not come to Europe until the eighteenth century. But what about ergot infested rye? On first thought, this appears to be a worthy candidate. However, when considering the nasty effects of ergot poisoning, it seems far-fetched that ergot is causing the friars altered state. Thus, the drug William is consuming appears to be a completely fictional plant invented by Eco.

When creating the character William of Baskerville, Umberto Eco clearly took inspiration from the fictional nineteenth century private detective Sherlock Holmes, which was created by British author Arthur Conan Doyle. Eco derived William’s name from Doyle’s crime novel The Hound of the Baskerville. Of course both William and Sherlock Holmes are occasionally using drugs. But whereas the former turns to a fictional herb, Holmes is injecting cocaine. Moreover, the character Adso in Eco’s novel comes across as a Medieval version of Sherlock Holmes’s friend and assistant Dr. Watson.

But the Doyle influence does not stop there. In fact, Eco even went so far as to borrow whole phrases from the former’s prose.[8] In the 1887 detective story A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson says the following of Holmes:

“On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.”[9]

Now, consider the following phrase uttered by William’s assistant Adso of Melk:

“On those occasions a vacant, absent expression appeared in his eyes, and I would have suspected he was in the power of some vegetable substance capable of producing visions if the obvious temperance of his life had not led me to reject this thought.”[10]

If this may sound like an obvious example of literary theft, one should keep in mind that Eco, who clearly was an intertextual writer, probably wanted his readers to discover that he took the phrase from Doyle. In fact, Eco, much like an early sampling electronic musician, filled his debut novel with a great many references to texts written by various authors, philosophers, alchemists, visionaries and other thinkers.

“Angel of the Revelation” (cirka 1803-1805) by William Blake.


Altered States of Adso

Already on his first day at the abbey, Adso of Melk enters an altered state of consciousness that profoundly affects him. The experience occurs when he is looking at a number of sculptures at the door of the church. Judging by his description, the sculptures could easily pass for twenty-first century visionary art. Adso, who is an old man when he narrates the story, says that watching the sculptures “plunged me into a vision that even today my tongue can hardly describe.”[11] He then goes on to devote several pages of particularly detailed visionary prose adorned with biblical imagery. In his description of his experience, Adso even paraphrases John of Patmos’s cryptic text the Book of Revelation, the final text of the New Testament: “[I]n the delirium of my weak and weakened senses I heard a voice mighty as a trumpet that said, ‘Write in a book what you now see (and this is what I am doing).”[12]

Those who are familiar with the Book of Revelation will soon discover that Eco’s novel has many references to this biblical text. As noted in the postscript to the 1999 book The Key to “The Name of the Rose” by Adele J. Haft, Jane G. White and Robert J. White, the Book of Revelation “permeates The Name of the Rose as seductively as the aroma of hallucinogenic herbs pervades the library after dark.”[13] Their postscript – which by the way is one of the very few texts that actually discuss the visionary element of Eco’s novel – is focusing on the theme of apocalypse, especially in relation to the Book of Revelation. The latter is described by the authors as “possibly the most exquisite of all Christian, Jewish, Greek and Roman works of ‘vision’ literature.”[14]

The theme of apocalypse is a recurring thread in psychedelia. The most obvious example is the 2012 phenomenon, which was linked to the psychedelic movement through the late ethnobotanist and bard Terence McKenna and his Timewave Zero theory. Among people interested in the phenomenon, there was a belief that transformative, even cataclysmic, events would occur on the date 21 December 2012.

Generally speaking, when users of psychedelics express apocalyptic ideas, they tend to focus more on transformation and cultural shifts than visions of a final destruction of the world like, for instance, the one that is described in the Book of Revelation. That said, there are a few troubling exceptions, the most striking being the psychedelic doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. Known to the world for the deadly Tokyo gas attack in 1995, the cult anticipated a third world war that would culminate in a nuclear “Armageddon.”

In addition to the Book of Revelation, Eco included lines from another biblical text, namely the Song of Songs. This Old Testament poem celebrates sexual love, and could therefore be seen as a very early example of erotic literature. Eco quotes the biblical text in the passage where Adso and the peasant girl make love in the abbey’s kitchen. Seeing that Adso breaks his vows as a result of this erotic encounter, the novice has mixed feelings about the event, and at one point he refers to his experience as a “wicked ecstasy.”[15] This is an interesting choice of phrase. Not least if one considers the etymology of “wicked.” The word is derived from “wicca” (or “wicce”), an Old English word for witch.[16] Of course, later in the novel an inquisitor falsely accuses the girl, who remains unnamed throughout the book, of practising witchcraft.

At the centre of it all is our narrator, Adso of Melk, who clearly is a budding Medieval psychonaut.

On the sixth day at the abbey, Adso visits the church to pray for Malachi, the librarian, who has been found dead during the morning. The attending monks start to sing the thirteenth century Latin hymn Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”), and despite feeling very tired, Adso joins the chorus. Here the young Benedictine enters what appears to be a hypnagogic altered state; Adso himself describes his experience as “a vision, or dream, if you prefer to call it that.” The chanting affects him “like a narcotic” and he soon falls into “an exhausted, agitated dose.”[17] Then follows a report that stretches over several pages. When writing this passage of the novel, Eco took inspiration from the anonymous Latin prose work Coena Cypriani (“Feast of Cyprian”). Adso remembers the experience with “amazing clarity,”[18] something which is reflected in the very detailed account of his vision. Interestingly, some of the phrases could almost be mistaken for humorous descriptions of psychedelic experiences, as exemplified by the following quote: “I had no time to wonder where I was, because in rushed a swarm of little men, dwarfs with huge pot-shaped heads; sweeping me away, they thrust me to the threshold of the refectory, forcing me to enter.”[19]

The Benedictine’s report also contains a surreal passage of eroto-psychedelic prose, where, just like in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, dimensions and perspectives are completely distorted: “And she displayed to me, God have mercy on me, her vulva, into which I entered, and I found myself in a beautiful cave, which seemed the happy valley of the golden age, dewy with waters and fruits and trees that bore cheeses in batter.”[20]


Severinus’s Laboratory

In the beginning of the book, Adso explains that William could spend a whole day examining the plants in the vegetable garden “as if they were chrysoprases or emeralds.” And when in fact he did look at real chrysoprases and emeralds in the treasure crypt, he looked at them as if they were “a clump of thorn apple.”[21] Here it is indicated that William was just not fascinated by plants in general, but even more interested in medicinal and psychoactive herbs. For thorn apple is another name for the previously mentioned hallucinogenic deliriant Datura stramonium. The herb is also known as Jimson Weed, and if you happen to be interested in art, chances are you are familiar with Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1936 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1. Incidentally, in 2014, the painting was sold for over $44 million, which is the highest selling price for an artwork by a female artist.[22]

A botanical illustration of the fruits and seeds of Datura stramonium, also called thorn apple (image via Wikipedia).

As you may recall, Datura stramonium is one of the herbs stored by Severinus of Sankt Wendel, the abbey’s knowledgeable herbalist. But instead of using the name thorn apple – like Adso does – the herbalist calls it stramonium.[23] Was it historically accurate of Eco to include the species in the novel? Yes and no. Already in the 12th Century, the German Benedictine mystic and visionary Hildegard of Bingen described a plant – “the lily” – that has been equated with the species Datura stramonium.[24] Some 600 years later Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus gave the plant its botanical name. However, it has been questioned if the herb that Hildegard of Bingen called “the lily” was the same as Datura stramonium. For today it is often said that the plant is native to the New World, and some researchers claim it did not come to Europe until the sixteenth century.[25] If that would be the case, there could be no datura plant in a European abbey in 1327, which is when Eco’s novel takes place. That said, descriptions of datura in Greek, Arabic and Indian texts indicate that it might have been found in the Old World in pre-Colombian times. And most psychedelic literature claims that Datura stramonium was used in the Old World during the Middle Ages. For instance, in their book Plants of the Gods, Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann write that datura has a long history as both a medicinal and psychoactive herb in the Old World.[26] And writing in his book Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna says that datura was used in European Witchcraft.[27] The same goes for Wolf-Dieter Storl in the book Witchcraft Medicine.[28]

One who actually acknowledges that datura came to Europe from the New World, though, is Paul Deveraux. In his book The Long Trip, Deveraux says the herb was introduced “in time to establish itself and become included in witches’ brews.”[29] Hence, all these writers believe datura was used in the Old World in Medieval times. In all likelihood the plant’s history and origin will continue to be discussed, and it seems the final word on the matter is still to be said.

The plant Datura stramonium belongs to the genus Datura, which, for example, also include Datura innoxia and Datura metel. Like the other hexing herbs, all the daturas contain the tropane alkaloids scopolamine, hyoscyamine and atropine. Due to the obvious risks involved, the daturas have never been widely used recreationally. Still, every year there are people who are poisoned by plants such as Jimson Weed. For example, in the mid 2000s, poison centres in the United States recorded approximately 1,000 incidents per year.[30] Those who ingest datura may completely lose the ability to separate reality from fantasy, and the intoxication is often described as extremely disturbing. Users may also experience almost total amnesia. These features make the daturas very different from the “classical hallucinogens.”

Descriptions of drug-induced altered states, like those featured in The Name of the Rose, are scarcely seen in best-selling literature, especially when it comes to experiences caused by tropane alkaloids. A rare example besides Eco’s novel is the writings of Carlos Castaneda. In his controversial 1968 debut book The Teachings of don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Castaneda describes the preparation and ingestion of Datura innoxia. As indicated by the title, the author was (or so he claimed) trained by a Yaqui shaman named don Juan. Originally written as a master’s thesis in anthropology at UCLA, the book became a huge success in the New Age movement and beyond.[31] It is likely that many, if not most, of its readers were previously unaware of the shamanic use of datura among indigenous peoples. Interestingly, even don Juan himself did not like the “devil’s weed,”[32] as he called the Datura innoxia plant, and towards the end of the book Castaneda talks of his own experiences with the herb as “dangerous.”[33]

In addition to Datura stramonium, Severinus also has access to the hallucinogenic herb belladonna (“Bella donna” is Italian for “beautiful lady”). The plant is also known as deadly nightshade, a name which reflects its severe toxicity. In 1753, Linnaeus included the herb in his work Species Plantarum (“The Species of Plants”). There, it was given its official Latin name Atropa belladonna. Linnaeus derived the word “Atropa” from the Greek goddess Atropos, which in Greek mythology was one of the three Fates (Atropos was the one who cut the thread of life). As noted by anthropologist Christian Rätsch in Witchcraft Medicine, belladonna has been used medicinally as an analgesic since antiquity. However, given that belladonna poisoning can easily result in death, the herb has never been extensively used as a magical plant. When used as a hallucinogenic drug, it has been said that ingesting belladonna may result in a dark, demonic and profoundly scary “Hieronymus Bosch trip.”[34]

In his position as the herbalist of the abbey, Severinus stores a variety of plants, some of which are highly toxic if used in the wrong way. Besides tropane-containing herbs, the herbalist keeps the plant hemlock in his laboratory. Although it is extremely poisonous, hemlock, or Conium maculatum as it is called in Latin, was used as a medicine in the Middle Ages. For instance, it was believed to be a cure for the bite of “a mad dog.”[35] The juice of the plant has also been used to poison criminals. When taken in poisonous doses victims get completely paralysed, lose the ability to speak, and eventually die from asphyxia. In 399 BC, the Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to die by drinking a beverage containing hemlock.

Hemlock was, oddly enough, also an ingredient in some of the flying ointments that were used by medieval witches in their practice of witchcraft. Other ingredients in the salves included plants of the nightshade family such as henbane, mandrake and the previously discussed belladonna. Plants in the nightshade family contain several hallucinogenic alkaloids. One of them is atropine, which can be absorbed through the skin.

Judging by Eco’s novel, the Middle Ages were certainly not without its psychoactive, medicinal or for that matter poisonous plants. Besides those previously mentioned, the reader also finds a passage where Adso and one of the monks discuss the herb “satirion.” During their conversation, the former learns that it is used to increase the potency of bishops. Here, Eco makes a reference to an aphrodisiac known as Satyrion that was used in ancient Greece, which, supposedly, was made from the plant ragwort. (Intentionally or not, Eco altered the spelling of the aphrodisiac.)

The various medicinal and psychoactive herbs that were used in the Middle Ages appear to have been highly potent, and the risk of overdose must have been a constant problem. During a conversation between William and Severinus, the latter points out that the line between poison and medicine is subtle. “The Greeks used the word ‘pharmacon’ for both,” says the herbalist. But when asked by Adso which of his herbs that can “induce visions” he declines to answer.[36]


The Labyrinth

Although The Name of the Rose is generally considered to be historically accurate, the huge library at the top floor of the abbey’s tower building is completely fictitious. For no monastic library in the Middle Ages contained such large numbers of books. Actually, it would be hard to find a library in the fourteenth century that contained even a few hundred titles. From a narrative perspective, though, Eco’s idea of placing a huge library in the tower building – or the Aedificium as it is called in the novel – makes perfect sense when one considers that the library is constructed as a labyrinth.

The presence of a labyrinth facilitates a more psychedelic reading of the novel.

The concept of the labyrinth is an essential ingredient of the story, not least symbolically. In her book An Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J.C. Cooper says that the labyrinth is a highly complex symbol that can stand for a number of things such as the return to the centre, paradise regained, and attaining realisation after ordeals. Also, according to Cooper, “Going into a labyrinth symbolizes death, coming out is rebirth.”[37] Given these meanings, it is fair to say the labyrinth is an effective symbol for the psychedelic experience with its elements of “ego death” and – if the trip is successful – renewal. Obviously, the presence of a labyrinth in The Name of the Rose facilitates a more psychedelic reading of the novel.

While other motifs are much more common, the symbol of the labyrinth is sometimes seen in psychedelic imagery. For instance, the psychedelic conference Breaking Convention, the largest of its kind in Europe, uses the labyrinth as its logo. Occasionally, it is also used as a metaphor by psychedelic writers. Aldous Huxley included it in his seminal 1954 trip report The Doors of Perception, where he wrote: “Those folds in the trousers – what a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity!”[38] And in his 1992 book Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna wrote that under the influence of DMT “the world becomes an Arabian labyrinth.”[39]

Malachi of Hildesheim, the abbey’s librarian, forbids William and Adso to access the library. Disregarding this, they of course find a way to get inside. Due to the confusing architecture of the library’s many similar looking rooms, William and Adso lose their way. Not long after, Adso enters a room where he finds a brightly coloured book with an image of a beast, which catches his attention. Placed next to the book is a thurible containing a powerful hallucinogenic incense. As Adso is looking at the image he is exposed to the smoke and soon he enters an altered state:

“Suddenly I saw the dragon multiply, and the scales of his hide become a kind of forest of glittering shards that came off the page and took to circling around my head.”

Then the young novice has an encounter with a female spirit entity:

“I flung my head back and I saw the ceiling of the room bend and press down toward me, then I heard something like the hiss of a thousand serpents, but not frightening, almost seductive, and a woman appeared, bathed in light, and put her face to mine, breathing on me.”

After this encounter the trip accelerates further. “I no longer realised where I was, where the earth was, and where the sky,” Adso writes. Moments later he is plunged into “infinite darkness,” and passes out. He then remains asleep until William wakes him up by slapping him on the cheeks.[40]

Here it is clear that Eco had done research on the tropane-containing hallucinogenic plants that were used in Europe during the Middle Ages. The psychoactive incense, which can cause both visions and a sleep phase, is accurately portrayed in the novel. This is not to say that there are no inconsistencies – duration of effects being one them – but the portrayal is good enough to come across as believable.

While there are several psychoactive plants to choose from, it is most likely that the main ingredient in the incense is henbane, or Hyoscyamus niger as it is known by its botanical name. This tropane-containing plant has a long history of human use. According to Christian Rätsch, the smoke from the herb was inhaled by people such as the Pythians, sibyls, prophets as well as Germanic Alrunas. In addition to being psychoactive, the plant was also considered to be an aphrodisiac. These characteristics were well known during the Inquisition. In the book Witchcraft Medicine, Rätsch writes that, “The burning of henbane as an incense or fumigation probably has a long tradition in Europe.”[41] This claim is supported by other sources. For instance, in their book Plants of the Gods, Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann write that, “In the thirteenth century, Bishop Albertus the Great reported that Henbane was employed by necromancers to conjure up demons.”[42]

A 1901 illustration of Hyoscyamus niger, also called henbane (illustrator unknown).

Although taking henbane and other hexing herbs involve considerable risks, some researchers have explored their psychoactive effects. In 1955, the German toxicologist Gustav Schenk inhaled the smoke of henbane seeds. As is often the case when people experiment with plants containing tropane alkaloids, Schenk’s memory was obliterated; the toxicologist only recalled disconnected images. These, however, were powerful and sinister. “The sky was filled with whole herds of animals. Fluid, formless creatures emerged from the darkness,” Schenk wrote of the experience.[43]

Besides memory loss, a common effect of taking hexing herbs is falling asleep. In an experiment involving these plants, folklorist Dr. Will-Erich Peuckert and a number of his colleagues rubbed a hallucinogenic ointment on their foreheads and armpits. Based on a seventeenth century formula, the ointment consisted of the tropaine-containing herbs belladonna, henbane and datura. Everyone who took part of the experiment fell into a sleep that lasted 24 hours, which included “wild dreams.” Peuckert himself reported that he had the sensation of “flying for miles through the air.”[44]

When Adso “wakes up” from his intoxication, William tells him that he has been exposed to “substances capable of inducing visions.” The friar then shares his thoughts on what may be included in the incense: “I recognized the smell: it is an Arab stuff, perhaps the same that the Old Man of the Mountain gave his assassins to breathe before sending them off on their missions.”[45]

The “Arab stuff” that William is talking about is of course cannabis.

The “Arab stuff” that William is talking about is of course cannabis. Clearly, the friar was familiar with Marco Polo’s story of an 11th century Persian sect led by Hassan-i Sabbah (or al-Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah), aka the Old Man of the Mountain. According the story, which is a well-known myth in the history of cannabis, the leader of the sect used hashish to enlist young men into his army, known under the name assassins. It has been claimed that the Arabian word for hashish user, “haschishin,” comes from “assassin.”[46] The supposed use of cannabis among the assassins has been questioned many times. For instance, in his book Cannabis – A History, Martin Booth calls the myth – which links cannabis to brutal violence – “grossly erroneous.”[47] Hassan-i Sabbah may actually have been a cannabis prohibitionist. Still, the myth about the hashish-eating assassins lives on in our current era, and given its mysterious pull it had on writers such as, for instance, William S. Burroughs, it will probably continue to be shared among new generations. Eco seems to have been quite fond of the myth, so much so that he returned to it in his second novel Foucault’s Pendulum. But instead of a brief mention, the narrator of that book discusses the assassins over several pages.

While its plausible that the incense in the library contains material from the buds and leaves of Cannabis sativa (n.b. hashish had not yet come to Europe), it is not likely that it is primarily this plant alone that is causing Adso’s altered state. During his intoxication, Adso gets an acid taste in his mouth, and later vomits. These are hardly typical effects of inhaling the smoke of cannabis. Instead, as previously discussed, his experience must have been induced by one or several very potent hallucinogenic drugs, and since the novel takes place in 1327 in what is today Northern Italy, tropane-containing herbs are likely among the ingredients in the incense.

After inhaling the hallucinogenic incense in the library, Adso refers to his altered state as “delirious,” a well-chosen word given that his altered state results from the smoke of a deliriant. Observant readers may have noticed that I am not using the word “psychedelic” when discussing the effects of plants belonging to the nightshade family (aka the hexing herbs). These drugs are clearly very different compared to psychedelics (aka classical hallucinogens) such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, and for that reason it is important to use correct terminology. However, although The Name of the Rose contains references to deliriants and their effects, the novel also takes inspiration from what is generally known as “the psychedelic experience.” This is evident in Eco’s choice of prose, imagery and symbols. Thus, despite the absence of authentic psychedelics, it is in my view legitimate to label The Name of the Rose a work of psychedelic literature. So why did not Eco include psychedelics in the narrative? The simple answer is that the story would have been much less credible. For instance, as many psychedelic researchers and historians have noted, there are no convincing evidence of the use of psilocybin mushrooms in Europe in Medieval times, and it would take another 600 years before the discovery of LSD. Due to the time in history and the location of the abbey, other psychedelics are also ruled out. Therefore, the drugs that Eco could weave into his story were the hexing herbs and cannabis.

Besides a hallucinogenic incense, the library also contains a distorting mirror placed on a door. The mirror in Eco’s novel is a possible reference to Lewis Carroll’s 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. It may also be a nod to the work of the Argentinian writer Jorge Louis Borges, whom Eco greatly admired. According to the authors of The Key to “The Name of the Rose”, both Eco and Borges “consider the mirror to be a door, a passage between two worlds or two images of reality.” In Eco’s novel, the mirrored door leads to the forbidden works of the infidels. The door therefore represents the passage between Christianity and Paganism. [48]

Clearly, the things that happen in the labyrinth have many similarities with the psychedelic experience. When William and Adso enter the labyrinth, they do so without permission, i.e. they transgress into a forbidden zone. Similarly, drug-induced altered states involve an element of transgression; this can be on a psychological, physiological or cultural (taboo-breaking) level. Moreover, being in a labyrinth means one is on a journey (possibly to a centre), which is also the case during a psychedelic trip. The concept of going on a journey involves coming back to the starting point, and when one returns one may be a partly different person. In Witchcraft Medicine, Wolf-Dieter Storl writes that, “The shamanic art is, at best, the ability of the soul to find its way back to the body.”[49] Some people may of course lose their way, which, as mentioned earlier, is what happens to William and Adso. The term for losing one’s way during a psychedelic experience is known as having a “bad trip” (or a “difficult experience”).

When the friar and his novice finally find a way out of the labyrinth (and the latter comes down from his trip), they experience a great sense of relief. Relief is commonly felt after a psychedelic experience, especially if it has been particularly demanding. Adso’s gratitude of having returned from the labyrinth and his psychoactive trip is captured in the following exchange between Adso and William:

“How beautiful the world is, and how ugly labyrinths are,” I said, relieved.

“How beautiful the world would be if there were a procedure for moving through labyrinths,” my master replied.[50]

Towards the end of the novel, the library is devoured by flames, i.e. Eco juxtaposes the symbol of the labyrinth with that of fire. For the monks it is of course a tragedy that the greatest library in Christendom burns down. Yet one should keep in mind that fire does not only symbolise destruction, but can also stand for transformation and purification.[51]

Throughout history countless libraries have been destroyed by fire. One that was lost this way was the private collection of Terence McKenna. In 2007, seven years after he passed away, his library, which consisted of titles collected since the early seventies, was lost in a fire. Incredible as it may seem, his first collection of books was also destroyed in just the same way in 1970.[52] Incidentally, one of the titles that was lost in the 2007 fire was his copy of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.[53] From what I gather, it is not known if the book had any significant meaning to McKenna. However, since the psychedelic bard admired the work of Jorge Louis Borges – whose writing was an important influence on Eco and his debut novel – one can at least assume McKenna and Eco shared some common ground.


A Gesamtkunstwerk

Over the years since it was first published in Italy almost 40 years ago, The Name of the Rose has been analysed and scrutinised in countless essays, reviews, academic papers, talks, videos and podcasts. There have also been published several books completely dedicated to the content of The Name of the Rose. Two of these appeared only eight years after Eco’s novel originally came out in Italian, and a mere five years after the release of William Weaver’s remarkable English translation. Thus, it is quite likely that The Name of the Rose is one of the most discussed novels of the twentieth century. With this in mind, I found it strange that so little has been said of the novel’s many references to mind-altering drugs and altered states of consciousness. Of all the essays, articles and reviews that I have read over the last five years, only a few of them have mentioned that The Name of the Rose contains references to psychoactive drugs and altered states. And if it so happens that these things are observed, it is usually done so in passing.

So why have critics and other writers avoided to discuss the psychoactive herbs that so often influence the events in the abbey? There are several possible reasons why this is the case. It is quite likely that many critics and other writers who take interest in the novel lack knowledge of altered states, which, in all fairness, is something of a niche topic that few people specialise in. Another aspect worth addressing is that these things are still considered controversial. Some critics may very well have decided to focus on the novel’s “whodunnit” element or its intertextuality rather than discuss why the novel contains references to psychoactives and descriptions of drug-induced altered states. Moreover, since The Name of the Rose is in many ways a complex work of literature, a lot of readers may have failed to recognise the more mind-altering aspects of the book.

Evidently, there is no “right” way to read The Name of the Rose.

In his afterword to the first Swedish edition of The Name of the Rose, the author Lars Gustafsson aptly describes Eco’s novel as a Gesamtkunstwerk in which each and everyone finds their own novel within the novel.[54] And clearly there are many different narratives and themes one could focus on: a detective story, an elaborate comment on medieval politics in Europe, or perhaps a lesson in the Latin language, just to name a few examples. Evidently, there is no “right” way to read The Name of the Rose. Eco actually welcomed different readings of his novel, and saw fiction literature as “a machine for generating interpretations.”[55] This seems to be especially true of Eco’s novel. Because the more time one spends with the book, the more one discovers about it, and it would be no exaggeration to say that The Name of the Rose is an incredibly detailed and well-thought-out literary work. Interesting fact: Eco started working on it in 1978; two years later it was published in Italy. While this might sound like a fairly short time for such a well-packed novel, Eco once stated that in reality it took him 35 years to write.[56]


When I did my “psychedelic reading” of The Name of the Rose, I realised that much of the narrative that otherwise would be brought to the fore, had I focused on the murder mystery, became instead a sort of background hum. In fact, by concentrating on the topic of altered states, the novel becomes a work that takes the reader in a rather fascinating direction – one that makes the reader ponder things such as the role of psychoactives in the Middle Ages, the meaning of the labyrinth from a psychedelic perspective, the prevalence of ecstatic experience among Medieval monks, and much more besides. And at the centre of it all is our narrator, Adso of Melk, who clearly is a budding Medieval psychonaut and explorer of altered states, whether they are induced by drugs or by other means. In the course of the story, Adso experiences the effects of hallucinogens, enters visionary states, and has an erotic encounter which leads to sexual ecstasy. One experience, however, evades him: sampling William’s herb. Not that Adso did not want to though. Apparently, the friar, who one may assume is knowledgeable of a Medieval variety of set and setting, thinks the young novice is not yet ready to experience the plant’s effects:

“Once, when I asked him what it was, he said laughing that a good Christian can sometimes learn also from the infidels, and when I asked him to let me taste it, he replied that herbs that are good for an old Franciscan are not good for a young Benedictine.”[57]

By Henrik Dahl

Posted on March 27, 2019

Henrik Dahl is a journalist and critic specialising in psychedelic culture and art.

Featured image: In addition to the smoke of incense, the image contains an illustration of the thirteenth century labyrinth at the Reims cathedral. Eco took inspiration from this labyrinth when conceiving the library in his novel.


1. Prensario Internacional, “TM International: major deals for The Name of The Rose at MIPCOM”, https://prensario.tv/novedades/1990-tm-international-major-deals-for-the-name-of-the-rose-at-mipcom

2. Coletti, Theresa, Naming the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs, and Modern Theory (New York: Cornell University Press, 1988) p. 1

3. Eco, Umberto, The Name of the Rose (New York: Mariner Books, 2014), p. 559

4. Ibid., p. 16

5. Ibid., p. 228

6. Cooper, J.C., An Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979) p. 71

7. Horn, Pierre L., “The Detective Novel and the Defense of Humanism,” published in Inge, M. Thomas (Ed.), Naming the Rose: Essays on Eco’s The Name of the Rose (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1988) p. 90

8. Cohen, Michael, “The Hounding of Baskerville: Allusion and Apocalypse in Eco’s The Name of the Rose,” published in Inge, M. Thomas (Ed.), Naming the Rose: Essays on Eco’s The Name of the Rose (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1988) p. 20

9. Doyle, Arthur Conan, Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Stories (Ware: Wordsworth Editions) p. 14

10. Eco, Umberto, op.cit., p. 16

11. Ibid., p. 45

12. Ibid., p. 49

13. Haft, Adele J., Jane G. White and Robert J. White, The Key to “The Name of the Rose” (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999) pp. 177-178

14. Ibid., p. 177

15. Eco, Umberto, op.cit. p. 265

16. Online Etymology Dictionary, “wicked (adj.)”, https://www.etymonline.com/word/wicked

17. Eco, Umberto, op.cit. p. 456

18. Ibid., p. 466

19. Ibid., p. 456

20. Ibid., p. 464

21. Ibid., pp. 16-17

22. JSTOR Daily, “Georgia O’Keeffe and the $44 Million Jimson Weed,” https://daily.jstor.org/georgia-okeeffe-and-the-44-million-jimson-weed/

23. This applies to the English translation by William Weaver. In the Italian original both Adso and Severinus use the word “stramonio.”

24. Keizer, Gerrit J., “Hildegard of Bingen: Unveiling the Secrets of a Medieval High Priestess and Visionary,” published in Rush, John A., Entheogens and the Development of Culture: The Anthropology and Neurobiology of Ecstatic Experience (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2013) p. 147

25. Heimdahl, Jens, “Spikklubba” (2016), https://arkeologerna.com/bloggar/tradgardsarkeologi/spikklubba/

26. Schultes, Richard Evans and Albert Hofmann, Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers (Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1992) p. 107

27. McKenna, Terence, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) p. 90

28. Storl, Wolf Dieter, “The Witch as Shaman,” published in Müller-Ebeling, Claudia, Christian Rätsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl, Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2003) p. 51

29. Devereux, Paul, The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (New York: Penguin Arkana, 1997) p. 102

30. USA Today, “Jimson weed users chase high all the way to hospital” (2006), https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-11-01-jimson_x.htm

31. Although Castaneda’s book was marketed as nonfiction, it is generally believed that at least parts of its content are false. The Yaqi shaman don Juan may actually be a fictional or semi-fictional character.

32. Castaneda, Carlos, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 56

33. Ibid., p. 204

34. Rätsch, Christian, “Witchcraft Medicine: The Legacy of Hecate,” published in Müller-Ebeling, Claudia, Christian Rätsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl, Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2003) p. 109

35. Botanical .com, “Hemlock,” http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/h/hemloc18.html

36. Eco, Umberto, op.cit., p. 117

37. Cooper, op.cit., p. 92-94

38. Huxley, Aldous, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (London: Flamingo, 1994) p. 17

39. McKenna, Terence, op.cit., p. 258

40. Eco, Umberto, op.cit., p. 186-187

41. Rätsch, Christian, “Witchcraft Medicine: The Legacy of Hecate,” published in Müller-Ebeling, Claudia, Christian Rätsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl, Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2003) p. 96

42. Schultes, Richard Evans and Albert Hofmann, op.cit., p. 86

43. Devereaux, Paul, op.cit., p. 86-87

44. Ibid., p. 102-103

45. Eco, Umberto, op.cit., p. 187

46. Erowid, “Myth of the ‘Hashish’ / ‘Assassin’ Connection,” https://erowid.org/plants/cannabis/cannabis_info4.shtml

47. Booth, Martin, Cannabis – A History (New York: Picador, 2004) p. 68

48. Haft, Adele J. et al., op.cit., p. 181

49. Storl, Wolf Dieter, “The Witch as Shaman,” published in Müller-Ebeling, Claudia, Christian Rätsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl, Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2003) p. 51

50. Eco, Umberto, op.cit., p. 190

51. Cooper, J.C., op.cit., p. 66

52. Lin, Tao, “One Version of ‘One Version of Terence McKenna’s Life’” (2014), https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3bkm93/one-version-of-one-version-of-terence-mckennas-life

53. TerenceKempMcKenna’s books, LibraryThing, http://www.librarything.com/catalog/TerenceKempMcKenna&deepsearch=umberto+eco

54. Eco, Umberto, Rosens namn (Stockholm: Brombergs, 1983) p. 534

55. Eco, Umberto, op.cit., p. 541

56. BBC World Book Club, “Umberto Eco” (2007), https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02r7y10

57. Eco, Umberto, op.cit., p. 16