On est cependant en droit de se demander si l’écrivain n’a pas été poussé par une circonstance speciale à composer ces chapitres célèbres.

— Abel Lefranc

Pantagruelion is a plant and a plant product that the narrator of The Third Book of Pantagruel notices being loaded in great abundance aboard Pantagruel’s fleet in preparation for a voyage.

The narrator is the book’s author, François Rabelais, who published the third book of the chronicles of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel in Paris in 1546. He revised it in 1552, a year before his death. Rabelais devotes the final four chapters of The Third Book to a description of Pantagruelion’s botanical form and resemblances, noting that its smell is offensive to delicate noses; Pantagruelion’s preparation, usage, and utility; and Pantagruelion’s etymology in the general context of the naming of plants. The book concludes with a chapter devoted to a type of Pantagruelion, Pantagruelion Carpasian Asbestin, that cannot be consumed by fire.

The description suggests that Pantagruelion is Cannabis sativa — hemp, cannabis, marijuana — which Rabelais’s father grew on his estate in Chinon in the Loire valley. Pantagruelion, like hemp, is valuable primarily for its fibre, which is 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.

The qualities that Rabelais ascribes to Pantagruelion and the enigmatic character of the presentation have led to numerous interpretations. Le Duchat in his 1711 edition of the works of Rabelais identified Pantagruelion as hemp, “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].” Those unhappy few, tens of thousands only, were Lutherans and Calvanists massacred during the reigns of François I and his son Henry II, kings of France during Rabelais’s lifetime.

Rabelais terminates The Third Book with a short poem praising Pantagruelion and the happy realm of France that abounds in it. Pantagruelion is mentioned twice in The Fourth Book of the Heroic Deeds and Words of Good Pantagruel, a chronicle of the royal fleet’s voyage to “l’oracle de la dive Bouteille Bacbuc.” The Fourth Book begins by recounting the equipping of the fleet and the abundance of Pantagruelion stowed aboard. Later in the book, chapter 63, the fleet becalmed, Panurge, “his tongue in a stem of of Pantagruelion, blew bubbles and gurgled.”