Pantagruelion is a plant and a plant product that was stowed in great abundance aboard the ships of King Pantagruel’s fleet. The giant king’s voyage is chronicled in The Third Book of Pantagruel, narrarated by François Rabelais. Rabelais published this episode of the story of Gargantua and Pantagruel in Paris in 1546, revised it in 1552, and died in 1553, around the age of 60 .
Rabelais devotes the final four chapters of The Third Book to a description of Pantagruelion’s botanical form and preparation and utility. He explains why it’s called Pantagruelion. He praises to the heavens a type of Pantagruelion that cannot be consumed by fire. He ends the book with a short poem heaping further praise on Pantagruelion and the happy realm of France that abounds in it.
Rabelais’s detailed description of the herb Pantagruelion reveals it to be very similar to hemp (Cannabis sativa L.), an important fibre crop that Rabelais’s father probably grew on his estate in the Loire valley.
Rabelais’s treatment of Pantagruelion mimics the treatment of flax given by the first century Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder. The essence of Pantagruelion is in its fibre, used in the production of cloth, paper, and rope (in particular the hangman’s rope). Pantagruelion has medicinal uses, and the Greeks ingested it in tarts, but it’s bad for the stomach and worse for the head. There is a peculiar type of Pantagruelion, Pantagruelion Carpasian Asbeston, that is not consumed by fire, but rather cleansed and invigorated. Pliny described a similar kind of incombustible flax, “vivum id vocant” (it’s called live [linen]). These are suspected to refer to the fibrous mineral asbestos, although Rabelais invests it with religious qualities.
Hemp, chanvre, is not once mentioned in Rabelais’s works, but Pantagruelion was identified with hemp by the editor Le Duchat in his 1711 edition of the works of Rabelais, and presumably earlier by sophisticated readers of the novel. Pantagruelion is revealed to be hemp not only for its botanical resemblance and usage, according to Le Duchat, but “In as much as it is of that Plant the Cord is made which is used for the strangling of those who are so unhappy to be Gibbeted” [Ozell’s translation of Le Duchat’s note]. Those so unhappy people were thousands of religious dissidents executed during the reign of François I, king of France at the time of The Third Book’s initial publication.
The qualities that Rabelais ascribes to Pantagruelion and the enigmatic character of the presentation have led to numerous interpretations.
Pantagruelion is mentioned twice in The Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of Good Pantagruel, the chronicle of the royal fleet’s voyage in search of the Oracle of the Bottle to settle a question bedevilling Panurge, a member of the royal household. The Fourth Book begins by recounting how the fleet was equipped and stashed with Pantagruelion. Later in the voyage, while the fleet lay becalmed, Panurge, “his tongue in a stem of Pantagruelion, blew bubbles and gurgled.”