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.), a crucial fibre crop that Rabelais’s father probably grew on his estate in the Loire valley. The essence of Pantagruelion, like the essence of hemp, 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 that doesn’t have an obvious connection with hemp. When cast into a fire, Pantagruelion Carpasian Asbestin is not consumed, but rather cleaned and invigorated.
The qualities that Rabelais ascribes to Pantagruelion and the enigmatic character of the presentation (hemp, chanvre, is not once mentioned in Rabelais’s works) have led to numerous interpretations. Pantagruelion was identified as hemp by Le Duchat in his 1711 edition of the works of Rabelais, not only for its botanical resemblance, 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]. The so unhappy people were religious dissidents executed during the reign of François I, king of France at the time of The Third Book’s initial publication.
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 an oracle 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.”